So, I’m in a Facebook discussion about the Indigo Girls’ decision to speak out against Michfest’s “Womyn born Womyn only” policy, and somebody says something that makes me think “aha, now I get where all this stupidity towards trans women comes from”. One commenter, in support of IG’s non-transphobic position, pointed out that once upon a time lesbians were excluded from women’s space because they were not seen as “proper women” either – they were seen as “too much like men”.
Is there an “it’s either them or us” thing going on here? Because many lesbians show visible differences from straight women that we generally associate with gender. If we acknowledge gender is significant, some lesbians can then be marginalised by cis/het women for their gender difference.
So, is the only real option to make gender irrelevant, and count only “biological sex”? And of course pretend biological sex is some essential and binary thing that is not in itself partly socially constructed.
But in doing this many gender variant lesbians are forced by their own community into an uncomfortable closet. I know, because I was one of them, but I’m not alone. Since I started my blog, many lesbians have approached me and admitted they have differences that are not to do with their sexuality, but their gender. My partner felt this so strongly he decided to transition, but many more of us occupy the complicated borderlands, experiencing a difference that goes unnamed and unacknowledged, or just gets lumped in with our sexuality as if it’s the same thing.
So when Julie Bindel confidently claims that her gender non-conformity as a child turned out to mean she was a lesbian and oh, horror, if she was young today someone might “mistake” it for a gender issue and allow a child to transition, I think that whole construction needs a bit of unpicking. Her assumptions are numerous:
Assumption #1: It is preferable to be a lesbian than trans.
Assumption #2: There is no difference between a female-assigned child who says “I want to marry a princess” or who says “I want to be a prince” – gender identity is not allowed to be a thing in its own right.
Assumption #3: Kids are not self-aware and we should dismiss what they think about themselves and control their choices about their identities and bodies. We should coercively maintain the sex binary by insisting they adhere to the label they were assigned at birth, even if the child themselves persistently voices a different wish.
Assumption #4: All gender non-conforming children are the same and therefore if one child expresses a need to transition that is validated, this will be imposed on all GNC kids
Assumption #5: something in the biology of being a lesbian makes some lesbians inexplicably immune to the usually pervasive childhood gender messages (but we’re not allowed to call it a gender difference).
Of course, these are all just ways of making meaning and there is no perfect truth, much as we want there to be some objective reality we can measure the world by. We want there to be this consistent, essential category called “woman” and more to the point, given our history of extra marginalisation and oppression as lesbians, we don’t want it defined in a way that excludes us. Perhaps in the back of many lesbian minds is the lurking notion – “We have no choice but to marginalise trans people, it is an act of self-preservation”. So what if we are carving up our own identities in order to make ourselves fit this equally constructed notion of womanhood?
An alternative? Simple – no matter how “masculine” those with female bodies are, they still experience oppression based on any perception of their female sex or gender, plus additional marginalisation for their transgression of gender norms and therefore, they should be allowed under the protective umbrella of feminism, however they identify. And no matter what the history of trans women, they still experience oppression based on any perception of their female sex or gender, plus additional marginalisation for their transgression of gender norms, and therefore, they should be allowed under the protective umbrella of feminism. And while both of these groups should be self-aware of any male or masculine power or privilege they may have possessed or co-opted, this should not be used as an excuse by others to marginalise them further than they are already marginalised.