Like many people, I have been very interested to see the various responses to Bruce Jenner’s transition into Caitlyn, especially the almost blanket support for her. It is rare to see both such an open minded (“open imaginationed”, if there could be such a term) and largely shared, reaction. People all seemed to agree for once, what she was doing was brave, as were others who transition, even the president chipped in with a few nice words of support. Those that opposed her were positioned as old-fashioned, out of touch.
As would appear to be becoming my mantra, we are living in exciting times for gender identity. It is hard to imagine that only a few years ago transgender people were largely considered mere peripheral oddities in society’s self image, people whom no one really thought about, outliers. Of course, as someone who was studying a PhD in the subject I was well aware of the debates going on behind the feminist curtain, a space where one’s minority status does not automatically render you invisible so much, but even there, transgender studies is a relatively understudied area of gender studies (correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t know of anywhere that teaches a whole university course on the subject). That is until very recently when a split between different feminists on the subject has become more apparent.
We now have a name for those feminists who do not support the likes of Jenner’s use of the identity “woman” for herself, the transgender community have named them “Terfs”, or “transgender exclusionary radical feminists”. I think it is fair they get to name those not the same as themselves, like they have also done with non-transgender people whom are referred to as “cissexuals”. In doing this they get to avoid the term “normal” (for cissexual men and women) which implicates them as “abnormal”. Fair enough. Terfs are a valid term to refer to those – usually radical – feminists who refuse their female identity but what about those who have mixed feelings about the transgender woman ‘issue’? It is easy to come out in broad support for those like Jenner who are outcast for their identities but the debate around transgender women within feminism shows that ramifications on others occur when claims for identities are made; ramifications that may not have been intended but are nevertheless a logical result of the new claims by minorities.
Such issues were vocalised this week in a New York Times article by Elinor Burkett a journalist and former professor of women’s studies who took issue with transgender people’s use of the word “woman”, not necessarily for the way they use it themselves – she professes support for those who transition – but for how transgender people are making claims for cissexual women’s use of the term.
In an article that outlines several problematic areas, she notes that abortion providers have been accused of being anti transgender because they advertise their services for women, when in fact some transgender men have wombs still and can need their services.
On this point I would argue we probably do have to rethink the use of the word “woman” in such a context, even though 99% of the service users will be female. I say this because I believe that these little building blocks that shape our realities – words – do need attention and it is through such diligence that we change the way we can think about our world. The physical body is increasingly becoming an unreliable descriptor of gender in many ways other than for the transgendered. Plenty ciswomen are better described as ‘masculine’ than ‘feminine’ because of the unconscious and conscious choices they make in their lives, so we should be revisiting and reconceptualising our vocabularies constantly, seeing them as a transitioning tool themselves.
But Burkett does make some good points about the body, specifically the female body and it’s historical meaning in the world. Brenner as Bruce did experience some male privilege, simply because of his appearance as male, albeit incorrectly, he also did not experience the issues of growing up with a female body. Periods, pregnancy scares, fear of rape, etc. are real things in this world that cisgender women experience that Jenner did not. This should of course be weighed up against her fears and disadvantages felt as a transgender woman which ciswomen do not (transgender people have horrendously high levels of suicide in comparison to their cis counterparts). It should also be weighed up against the experience of transgender men who appear female for much of their lives and therefore experience some of the same bodily truths as ciswomen do. Gender is paradoxical and nothing highlights this more than exploring transgender identities in relation to cisgender ones.
Overall, I understand some of Burkett’s points, there are things about being a woman that cannot be reduced to the performance of femininity, we do have bodies and they cannot be denied. However, I do not think that this is a useful framework to encapsulate the times we are living in where gender is becoming more fluid. I have real issues with the Terf idea that transgender women aren’t ‘real women’. They are, and they will face the same sort of sexism that ciswomen face once transitioned, as Jon Stewart so aptly pointed out. They belong wholeheartedly in the debate on gender equality especially, both because they are consciously gendered, more so than most of “us” but also because they personify the paradox around gender.
This is the rub; this is what Burkett does not like. Transgender people insist that the body does matter whilst simultaneously being the personification of gender as a social construct, in that they knew themselves to be shoehorned into the wrong gender roles, historically. Terfs aren’t just upset about ‘intruders’ into their largely cisgender female terrain of feminism, (a rare, almost exclusively female environment that holds some power) but because they represent the opposite of what feminism argues, that women are a social construct and therefore the body should not stand in a woman’s way. If that were completely the case, then why the need for trans people to swap? This second point is not articulated as frequently as it should be on this Terf debate.
Overall, one has to embrace the fluidity of the times and not cling on to historic terms, either that of “woman/man/female/male’ or indeed, “feminist”. We need to see the transgender area as an important step in the right direction for all of us and not become too attached to ideas of ourselves, which we see as immutable. Trans women like Jenner’s claim for womanhood, does not “undermine almost a century of hard-fought arguments that the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us [cissexual women]” as Burkett argues. Why should their fight for the label ‘woman’ have to make such a huge change for the rest of us? That only makes sense if there can only be one type of woman, but there aren’t there are at least two, “cissexual women” and “transsexual women” (the same is true for men). This definition allows for the differences in either’s history.
There are many battles being fought on the gender front simultaneously by different factions, and both types of women differ and yet are equally valid rendering them equally valuable to the debate. More importantly, both add to the idea that gender, as with sex, is a work in progress, something we are collectively both consciously and unconsciously deciding upon and this should always be the main message. It is our variety that unites us. Like I said, interesting times…