If you have not read Michelle Goldberg's article in The New Yorker (August 4), "What is a Woman?", you missed a front-ring seat to a gender-themed dustup within the feminist world.
I will not repeat the gender or identity theory therein, but, reduced to a few sentences, the issue is that a militant minority, called Trans Exculsionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) refuse to acknowledge transgendered woman as women. They will not call these women "she" or admit them to all-female gatherings.
In the view of TERFs, "a person born with male
privilege can no more shed it through surgery than a white person can
claim an African-American identity simply by darkening his or her skin."
They claim there is a unique, unattainable experience of womanhood accessible only to "womyn-born-womyn." The article is frustratingly sketchy on what that might be, but no one mentioned the reproductive process. The women quoted imply the defining experience is social, the pain and suffering inherent in oppression and inequality.
Because of a history of abuse by men, various women cited by Goldberg
say they feel wholly safe only in all-female settings where trans women
are banned. I wanted to ask them, What would it take to trust trans
women, a group who themselves report experiencing high levels of violence?
For most of us, the sex identified at birth (genotype), combined with the observable sex characteristics, among other attributes (phenotype) pretty much seal the gender deal. But for certain individuals, because of chromosomal variation, lack of characteristic phenotypical attributes, or the more subjective but deeply-held sense of self, things get complicated. Goldberg says, "Trans women say they are
women because they feel female—that as some put it, they have women's
brains in men's bodies."
TERFs' bigotry aside, we live in an ever more gender-fluid world.
And, speaking of the world, some species totally smoke ours with the sex thing. There are swimming Arctic sea snails (Limacina antarctica) that begin life male. As they approach sexual maturity, males mate with males and exchange sperm. Then they become female and use the stored sperm to fertilize their eggs.
This is a style/culture blog, so I shall segue from zoology to cosmetology, to ask the Big Question:
How feminine does a woman have to look to get invited to Girls' Night Out?
I've met several trans women over 40 who have adopted typically femmy attire, makeup and gait. A great deal of time, money and sheer grit is devoted to fitting in.
But among younger trans women, some of whom live in my neighbourhood, there is a rising trend to eschew surgery; Goldberg reports that only 25% have it. Prolonged high doses of hormones are dangerous. Trans women are beginning to think, Why conform to a stereotype of femininity, especially when it threatens our health?
Get ready, I told myself, for the stubbly, big-biceped person next to me at the lunch counter to one day introduce herself as Sandra. I carry a lot of old conditioning, so a trans woman in a sundress is easier for me to think of as "sister" than a person with a flannel shirt, five o'clock shadow and hands big as a Carolina ham.
But, as the old song goes, "a change is gonna come." In the past 20 years we have already seen an easing of the narrow image of external femininity in the media.
Ellen DeGeneres, not a trans woman but an exemplar of elegant androgeny, has a popular show and got a CoverGirl gig. I do not think Ellen would have been given either job two generations ago.
The marvelous Laverne Cox (transgendered) in "Orange is the New Black", a hotter-looking woman than I ever was, is raising awareness while representing the glam end of the female-looks continuum. Next step will be a starring role for the trans woman who looks more like your average woman in line at the bank than Angelina Jolie.
When someone originally labeled male feels that she is a woman—a situation so fraught that 41% of trans women say they have attempted suicide according to Goldberg's article—why would I want to impede her transition?
If Sandra has determined she is a woman, I will call her "she", and share the bathroom with the
little skirt on the door. She might be invited to my women's gatherings,
and if she were willing to talk about her experience of living as a man, and
then being who she is—a woman—I could learn more about our own baffling and quite odd
In the meantime, I found an illuminating four-minute video by Fred McConnell, "There is No Such Thing as a Sex Change", in which he outlines ways to talk to someone transgendered.
PS. On a related subject, do click the link and read this Slate article by Mary Elizabeth Williams, "Yes, Men, You Can Be Feminists".