Trans Women are Women // Kendall Betts, MA

We as feminists have failed our trans sisters in many ways. As transgender issues have been receiving more attention in the media, pop culture, and even anti-discriminatory legislature, transgender women have had their legitimacy as women called into question, often by women who call themselves feminists. Let me assure you that calling the legitimacy of someone’s gender into question is not feminism, that is oppression.

Society is obsessed with trans women in particular. The media sensationalizes and hypersexualizes trans women at every given opportunity, with television shows exposing every gory detail of sex reassignment surgery as if it is some horrific bedtime ghost story and scenes of trans women putting on makeup and heels. In her book Whipping Girl, trans activist Julia Serano discusses how this phenomenon is inherently misogynistic, as we all gawk in disbelief at the idea that a man would voluntarily forfeit his penis in the service of becoming a woman. Second, these depictions of trans women perpetuate negative stereotypes of females. Trans women have been led to believe what many of us have come to believe, which is that we must be frilly, pink, flirty, and globally feminine to be a woman. These stereotypes equate femininity to femaleness, which is an inherent flaw as all women run the gamut of femininity, and yet are still very much women.

Futhermore, we are hurting the feminist cause when we call into question the authenticity of someone’s gender identity. When we watch a documentary or television show on transgender women, the images often display women as they put on lipstick or slip into a dress and heels. These images attempt to portray an unnatural or contrived external process of “becoming female”, which undermines the authenticity of the trans woman’s identity as female. We do not allow trans women into many women’s conferences, based on the accusation that they are not “natural women”. Regardless of whether someone identifies internally as female, is perceived and treated by society as female, and biologically checks all of the boxes as hormonally and physically female, we as women maintain that we may exclude them because their sex assigned at birth was male. Despite being in every way female, trans women are treated as if their “true inner maleness” will come out. We deprive someone of being able to tell us about their own gender identity and gender experience.

After Caitlyn Jenner was honored as Glamour’s 2015 Woman of the Year, actress Rose McGowan wrote on her facebook wall, “Caitlyn Jenner you do not know what being a woman is all about…” and raised the issue of Caitlyn Jenner’s life of male privilege. McGowan wrote, “we are more than deciding what to wear,” in response to Caitlyn stating that she has been asked many questions about what her style will look like. First, Caitlyn’s experience of being bombarded with questions about her style seems more representative of society’s perception of where being a woman starts and ends than representative of Caitlyn’s history of male privilege. Second, this was a major subversion of Caitlyn’s gender identity. This raises the question of what allows someone to truly “know what being a woman is all about.” What makes us “true” women and what allows us to invalidate someone else’s femaleness? If being self and other-identified as a woman for 30 years is the only thing that truly makes you female, then how should a 6-year-old girl identify? If having a functional reproductive uterus makes you a female, then what of women with hysterectomies or women who are post-menopausal? If you must be a “biological woman” to understand what being a woman is all about, then why would trans women who have had hormone therapy not fit that category?

Trans women are women. When we start drawing lines in the sand about what makes someone’s gender legitimate or natural, we have lost sight of our own cause. On a personal level, being a feminist means that my gender identity and gender expression should not dictate my abilities, my values, or my rights. This does not stop and end with the sex that we are assigned at birth. Creating arbitrary criteria for gender does not make me feel like more of a natural woman, it simply creates rules around what my gender identity can mean. If your goal is to expand your sense of what it means to be a woman, then do not reinforce a restrictive stereotype of what it can mean. If your goal is to support your sisters, then support all of your sisters. 

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