TERFs, trans women, and swimming snails

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 species. 

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".



20 comments

une femme said...

So much to delve into here, and I'm on my morning rush. But yes, there are a small minority of feminists who believe either/and that a) gender is a social construct, not a physical one or that b) only those born into women's bodies can be "real" women. I think both are hogwash. I'll come back and re-join the discussion later today.

Patricia said...

Thank you for the link to the video, very interesting and useful.

materfamilias said...

Hear hear! I've increasingly had young trans women (and men, for that matter) in my classes over the years. Their vulnerability and courage always strikes me, but I also appreciate their smashing through some of our notions of what gender has to be (even as they appear to validate others). I'm up on a fair bit of the theory around the issue, but I think that, more than theory, simply relying on the "best practice" of affording other individuals the dignity we want for ourselves works. Good Old Golden Rule.
The whole issue of elective surgery and of a reliance on a potentially dangerous regime of hormones and medications is a separate one, in some ways. It troubles me, particularly when taken on by adolescents (a student last year missed several weeks due to a crisis in regulating meds). That said, compared to emotional/mental anguish, with the attendant risk of suicice. . . . And perhaps as we loosen up the gender cages we have constructed, more individuals might be happy with gender-border-crossing through clothes and behaviour only. Meanwhile, kindness and respect, not judgment. . . What if it were our child?

LauraH said...

A firecracker of a topic, that's for sure. Whenever I read about the kind of parsing of the female identity that you describe, I can't help but think of the millions just trying to get through the day in circumstances I can't really imagine. This kind of debate feels like a luxury made possible by our Western way of life. Does it really help to spend the time and energy or are we navel gazing again? I'm not explaining this very well, can't seem to find the right words.

LauraH said...

Reading my comments, I realize that I haven't been clear. I was reacting to the exclusionary tactics you described. Like materfamilias, I prefer kindness and respect as the basis for how we treat others.

Duchesse said...

unefemme: "Hogwash"! What a great old-timey word. Look forward to hearing more.

Patricia: Thanks, I found it useful too.

materfamilias: You last question is one I've often asked myself. Not condescending, just a realization that's someone's child and I hope, loved.

LauraH: To me, it is worth the debate when trans women are excluded from all-women events, or an attempt is made to so. But, as a 66 yr old second-wave femninst I sure do see your point- have spent endless hours debating and theorizing, not enough practical "let's try this". Been there!

The Western world is not the only place where trans or intersex persons face discrimination, marginalization and violence.

Anonymous said...

Materfamilias got the words right: "vulnerability and courage." To be female, whether one is born in that form or chooses the long, painful route to transformation, is to be vulnerable, and requires courage. In some parts of the world it requires greater courage than it does for most of us, as Laura points out. The refusal to support and include any woman, however she arrived at that identity, seems indefensible to me.

C.

materfamilias said...

Seems worth noting though, to me anyway, that the radical feminists described in Goldberg's article (which I only just skimmed after reading your post) are such a small, marginalized group as almost to constitute a straw (whoops! wo)man. And perhaps they hold their position so tightly out of their own experience of trauma. . .

Duchesse said...

materfamilias: My own sense is it's the trauma that gave rise to the position. The New Yorker article mentions events for which confirmed performers or speakers have cancelled appearances as a result of their influence, so though a small group, they have had an effect. Goldberg also describes the reciprocal action of opposing groups turning up at TERF meetings, or demanding TERFs move their meeting to another site- so they have attracted attention even though a small group. (I did not see actual numbers for affiliated members.)

LPC said...

I can't for the life of me make intellectual sense of gender studies and the parsing of terms. But I can make emotional sense of human experience, usually, and if trans women want to be called "she" I'll do it. With an open heart.

lagatta à montréal said...

I liked both of your links; the Guardian piece is a great primer.

An old and dear friend of mine who is a gay man now says he is "emotionally transgender" but doesn't want to go through any physical transition with the attendant hormone horrors. This always comes as a bit of a shock, especially as G is very "male"; he is a Québec farm boy with big hands and shoulders.

I do know a female to male transgender person who has done so, and he is very unwell physically and deeply distressed due to the effects of the high and lifelong hormone doses - I'm glad younger transpeople now are accepting less harmful ways of addressing their sexual and bodily identity issues.

Hell, I'm in no way intersex or transgender; rather too female actually, but if I didn't depilate and pluck, I'd have Frida Kahlo's brunette's moustache, and both black and grey stray hairs.

Laura said...

I apologise for the long links but the Ryerson Image gallery had a excellent exhibition on transgender. The order of things, video clips, was very moving and informative.


http://www.ryerson.ca/content/ryerson/ric/exhibitions/FemaleToMale.html
http://www.ryerson.ca/content/ryerson/ric/exhibitions/TheOrderofThings.html

Duchesse said...

lagatta: You've reminded us via both your friend and your own experience of the wide range of expression of the phenotype.

Laura: Thanks for the links. Neilly's work reminds me of the Australian person (Norrie) who recently won the right to be gender neutral- though they are not adopting that stance as an art form.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/australia/10738405/Australias-top-court-recognises-gender-neutral-sex-category.html

LPC: I'm glad you'd do that, and it is consistent with posts you've written, too.

Mardel said...

I agree with one femme -- hogwash. If a person self-identifies a particular way, accept them and let them be. Living and being human brings enough suffering without heaping more upon people out of narrow-minded self interest. I wish we could all just accept each other with open hearts. That said I feel a certain degree of sadness for those who are so imprisoned in their own self-defensive claims.

Anonymous said...

Yes Ellen Degeneres, it's an insult to older women, now we become butch as we age. Covergirl would never use a non-feminine younger woman to sell products but all "old broads" look like men anyway with the short on the sides hair and the uniform of comfy pants they all wear. We may as well have a man-woman sell us beauty products.

I actually complained to Covergirl about their stereotyping of older women.

Duchesse said...

Mardel: Perhaps, if they got to know more of the persons they wish to exclude, they would open up, Trans women have (according to the article) invited them to do so on some occasions.

Anon@3:25 pm. I relate more to the Ellen than to Taylor Swift; however, a brand's choice of spokesmodel does not influence me to buy, at least not consciously.

Eleanorjane said...

It's a mighty tricky one, this one.

It reminds me a bit of issues in New Zealand of some people with either a tiny percentage of Maori heritage or none at all claiming to be Maori. I can see the outrage of people who've experienced lifelong discrimination, but then I can see people needing to be true to themselves too.

I can't say I've ever been at a women only event as such, but I don't feel comfy with males in women's changing rooms or toilets (unless they're preschoolers with their mums).

I dunno. Too tricky to generalise about for me, I guess.

Duchesse said...

Eleanorjane: Yes, fraught issue. Here (as I imagine there) there are precise criterion for officially holding aboriginal status. Which is not to say people with a smaller percentage than that identify with the culture.

But gender is far less defined, because it is a social construct as well as genotype. As one of my friends said, "All kinds of humans decide they want to be a woman for all kinds of reasons."


rubiatonta said...

Kindness and respect, love and acceptance, are what I intend and wish for. Here's a beautiful example from a place I'd never have expected: http://youtu.be/wu6karR-uYM

Duchesse said...

rubi: Well worth the 15 minutes! Thank you.