Tag Archives: Women born Women

An act of conscience

There’s nothing like a guilty conscience to motivate you into activism. My decision, years before I came out as transgender, to “do something” about the ignorance and prejudice from lesbians and feminists towards the trans community in general, and trans women in particular, was largely motivated by a realisation of my own ignorance and prejudice.

A few years back, I lost a trans woman friend, a very good friend. She’s the one, if you’ve been following my blog for a while, that I met at my very first lesbian event, the one who quickly discovered the event had a “women born women only” policy, something neither she nor I had ever heard of or could quite comprehend.

I was totally on her side – too timid back then to protest very loudly but certainly confident enough to say in discussions “I don’t agree with this”. But some “older and wiser” lesbians took me to one side and painstakingly explained all the politics and issues that I had been unaware of, trying to convince me that my attitudes were naïve and problematic and unfeminist. They inferred I was “junior” in this space and should defer to them. I slowly lapsed into a long silence, in which I listened a lot and said very little on the subject.

What I was failing to tell anyone was that my seeking out lesbian spaces had come about as a result not of my sexual orientation (I had been out as bi for many years) but my need for a community where it was acceptable to be gender variant, where I could live outside of the prescribed gender roles of heteronormative society. All that prejudiced stuff people said about trans women – about male gaze, male energy, male behaviours, male socialisation – was uncomfortable to hear when I had long known my trans women friends showed far more typically female socialisation patterns than I. It was me that had that male gaze, male energy, male attitudes, male socialisation, and it shamed me, forced me deeper into the closet about my gender identity.

My friend never protested the trans exclusionary policy; like many trans women she was too busy surviving constant street harassment, stones thrown at her windows and the inherent unsafety of being a visible trans woman to be confident enough to argue with unaccepting and prejudiced people. But their lack of acceptance, the discovery that she was barred from yet another potentially supportive space and community, hurt her deeply.

We remained friends for a long time, and I watched her crumble, watched her PTSD worsen, watched her emotional wellbeing deteriorate. I started to question whether she had done the right thing – surely, if transition was right for her, she should be happy? I blamed her mental health on her transition, and refused to see the truth, which was that her mental health was a direct result of the oppressive and abusive way she was treated by the people around her. The lesbian feminist community, me included, had a hand in that oppression, and a shared responsibility for her poor mental health.

As a therapist, I understand there is a very clear correlation between mental wellbeing and social support, which is why on average LGBT folks have poorer mental health than cis/het folks, and why over time the mental health of LGB folks (with the B lagging sadly behind) has improved significantly alongside changes in societal attitudes.

How much easier, though, to place the illness as a symptom of the person themselves rather than place some responsibility on their social situation. How much easier to infantilise and pathologise trans women instead of standing in awe of their courage to be themselves in a hostile world.

The crunch came when I could no longer bear to hear her sorrow that she was so unaccepted, so unloved for who she was. I remembered, some time before, a prejudiced lesbian I knew saying “trans women are socialised as men, and like all men they expect us to look after their emotional needs”. These words started to influence my thinking. It was the ultimate get-out; I didn’t have to care about this human being because her neediness was not, after all, because society was being shit to her but because of her male sense of entitlement, her expectation, nay, demand, that I listen to her problems as if it was my job. As a good feminist it was my responsibility to be less caring.

I can honestly say without a shadow of doubt that my problem in this instance was not “caring too much” but understanding too little, but it’s a neat excuse for people with little empathy to lower their already low standards.

I pulled away from her, and we eventually lost touch. Despite my buying into a “tragic trans” narrative for her, the next time I saw her she was supremely happy – she had found love and built herself a more reliable community. She deserved love – now I look back, I see that she had looked after my emotional needs far better than I had looked after hers – she had been a good friend, she had cooked for me, given me a spare room to escape to through bad times, cuddled me when I was low, listened to my fears and worries and never once called me on my prejudices and mistaken beliefs about transgender people. In fact, I was the male-typical “what about me?” person in that relationship. She deserved a whole lot better.

I’ve never spoken about how much I let her down. It’s only now that I can see some people responding in similar ways to me that I fully understand the impact of my prejudice. I now also understand that I couldn’t bear to hear her sorrow because it was a foreshadowing of my own.

It’s a simple equation – trans people’s wellbeing depends on the full acceptance of wider society – non-acceptance is in and of itself the source of transgender oppression.

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Them and us – the pitting of lesbians against transwomen by the gender normative majority

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.

Being trans* in the lesbian community

Since coming out as genderqueer, I can’t tell you how many of my friends have told me that they, too have gender issues, issues that are entirely separate from their sexuality. Lesbian friends, not all of them remotely butch, have admitted they never felt like a woman. Straight but “gay-looking” friends have opened my closed mind to the fact that it was a gender issue, not a sexuality issue, I was picking up in them.

Fellow dykes, when you walk down the street and see a straight woman who “doesn’t know she’s a dyke” what you’re seeing may be their gender, not their sexuality. Time to open our minds – gender and sexuality are two entirely different things; that’s why femmes exist.

So why does the lesbian community lock gender issues so firmly in the closet?

For me, the message came through at my first ever lesbian event; I made good friends with a trans* woman and then we found out she wasn’t welcome; the event had a “women born women only” policy. I soon learned that many women’s spaces are trans* excluding. Even when they’re nominally inclusive, the amount of hostility to trans* women from a vocal minority in the community makes them feel completely unwelcome.

My friend wasn’t an activist. She was quiet and shy, like most of my trans* friends. She didn’t know about the policy, because it wasn’t advertised. She was a woman who liked women; she thought the event was for her. When she found out, she didn’t kick up a fuss, she just left, devastated and bewildered. Most of the people there didn’t agree with the policy, but they didn’t fight it either. Everyone just carried on enjoying themselves in a trans* free space, like white South Africans who didn’t really agree with apartheid but were still more comfortable sunning themselves on white-only beaches and not having to deal with people who are different.

There’s this whole bullshit, garbled theory to justify trans* exclusion, based on “if we say it’s not real, we’re right and all these people with all this complex, unique experience – well, they’re wrong.” Oh, and science is wrong too. And if we never talk to those people or allow them into our events or conversations, then we never have to examine whether our ideas really hold water (hint: they don’t).

If you want to get really technical, the “trans-critical” theories are a bizarre mash-up of a) the post-modern ideas of Judith Butler (who is trans* accepting, intersectional and inclusive, as it happens) and b) some essentialist ideas about sex and biology being destiny. So far, so not very radical. A simplistic and essentialist model of binary, biological sex trumping all other considerations becomes the clumsy crayon with which we’re expected to draw our identities, (and police other people’s).

But I understand their fear, because I feel it too. Opening your mind to trans* issues shakes the foundations of everything we believe about sex and gender; however radical we may think we are, really wrapping our head around the multiverse of trans* identities is one giant leap beyond anything non-intersectional feminism has to say. But as Judith Butler puts it:

“the feminist framework that takes the structural domination of women as the starting point from which all other analyses of gender must proceed imperils its own viability by refusing to countenance the various ways that gender emerges as a political issue, bearing a specific set of social and physical risks.   . . .That feminism has always countered violence against women, sexual and nonsexual, ought to serve as a basis for alliance with those other movements since phobic violence against bodies is part of what joins anti-homophobic, antiracist, feminist, trans, and intersex activism.” Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, p.9

In simpler words, (because Butler’s words are never simple) ignoring gender variance as a real thing and ignoring the inherent risks and oppressions connected to any kind of gender variance, is likely to undermine feminism (and reinforce patriarchy). So Trans* exclusion is brilliantly doing patriarchy’s work for it, assisting in the oppression and marginalisation of gender non-conforming individuals.

For me, I quickly learned to keep my own gender issues under wraps, but I’m fed up now of cutting off bits of myself in order to conform to one group or another. I hereby resign from the binary and the either/or in all its manifestations. And I still belong here.