This article in a feminist zine, Ism, with some changes, under another pseudonym of mine, Amber Lamps.
Like most polyamorous couples, my partner and I realized the spark died long ago. Now we’re content to simply exchange pleasantries on the rare occasion we pass each other in the hall, on the way to our many dates with people attractive enough to maintain our attention, yet vapid enough to secure our inevitable disinterest. Exciting as this was, we felt something was missing in our relationship of convenience.
But what? I googled furiously for answers, for anyone who could understand our deviant, empty lifestyle of simmering resentment and sex.
When I first found the MeetUp.com page of a support group for polyamorous relationships, it seemed perfect. Not only was it tailored to our style, the description explicitly said that it welcomed all women, including “self-identified women.” For two trans-identified people, this sounded perfect, even too good to be true.
After sending the organizer pictures she had requested so she could recognize us at the door, we learned my partner’s self-identification as a woman was trumped by her body. Though she had no problem with a transmasculine female-bodied person entering the group, when the organizer saw my partner’s face, she balked and my partner was informed that she was not welcome. “Self-identified woman” turned out to be “post-operative, hormonally modified, culturally-identified women.” In short, she had better pass as a ciswoman. The organizer defended her decision to bar my partner from the group by arguing that she was making sure people in the group felt ‘safe.’ The crux of this issue is what it means to be a woman and what women-only spaces look like.
As people, we are marked by two things: our sex (the kind of body we have) and our gender (what we do with that body). Both are a spectrum with few people fitting perfectly. Sex isn’t as simple as XY and XX nor is gender as simple as aftershave and lipstick.
Some individuals with XY chromosomes develop as women, because of androgen insensitivity disorder. Their body does not respond to testosterone, so that testosterone is instead converted to estrogen by an enzyme called aromatase.
Men who take testosterone to build muscle, without also taking aromatase inhibitors, will grow breasts, because their bodies will convert some of the excess testosterone into estrogen. People with Turner’s Syndrome have XO chromosomes, and develop so slowly that they appear to be children well into adulthood. One in every thousand men has Klinefelter’s syndrome, meaning they have XXY chromosomes.
Gender is equally murky despite the fact that it is often determined years before puberty morphs a child into a sexed adult. Many transgendered people, myself included, identified as the opposite gender in early childhood. Over and over I would repeat to my parents that I was not like other girls. If they objected to my behavior, I would snap back with a threat: “Do you want me to sit in a corner and quietly play with dolls?!”
The important thing to remember is that, as a transgender person, I am not trying to be anything I am not: I’m just not what they said I was.
Not everyone who is female is a woman and not everyone who is male is a man, yet we are disciplined from an early age to believe the correlation is that simple. What surprised me was that this training would echo into allegedly feminist spaces like the polyamory support group. I've encountered transphobia in other feminist spaces since then; when first writing this article, I received several comments on it to the effect that by suggesting that I had a masculine identity, I was saying masculinity existed and was associated with maleness and was therefore going against feminism. I was not invited back to write for the next issue.
We should not bar women who happen to be male from our community – especially if I, a transmasculine person who happens to be female, am welcomed with open arms. As someone with a vagina, it’s taken for granted that I suffer from institutional and interpersonal sexism. It’s less obvious, but no less true, that my partner suffers as well. Certainly there is class-based violence against women. But there is violence against trans-women, too. And the notion that a male-bodied person is inherently unsafe or dangerous to women contributes to that violence and suspicion and undermines the real feminist project: social, political and economic equality regardless of the shape of your body.
This woman imposed her assumptions about my partner’s gender based on the unjustifiable, bigoted linkage of sex and gender. We should recognize sexism in all forms, and judging a person on their genitals can’t be anything but sexist.
Ironically, or perhaps predictably, I was the real threat to the group’s safety. I don’t play nice in groups: I talk over others, dismiss opposing points of view and eviscerate deeply held beliefs with none of the ladylike conciliatory crap my dear partner has mastered. If the group was truly afraid of men they should have banned me instead.
Men are dangerous, says the culture. Above all else, ye who are called women, fear them.