A series of liberal newspapers have printed op-eds by prominent feminists declaring cisgender womanhood to be the real womanhood. What they all miss is how the language declaring “real womanhood” has been a racial and patriarchal oppressive dehumanizing tactic for centuries. It leads me to wonder, why is there a need to declare one thing, one experience, one human life to be “real” at the detriment to all others?
“'Real womanhood' has been a racial and patriarchal oppressive dehumanizing tactic for centuries.”
The great advertising age of the late fifties and early sixties, featured prominently in AMC’s show Mad Men brought into the mainstream the concept of what a “real woman” is. Real women wore the right pantyhose, real women cooked the right food, real women had a certain shape. Male advertising executives took an idealized version of femininity and repurposed it on behalf of capitalism before blasting it out into newspapers, and radio and TV ads. The patriarchy shifted into hyperdrive. Anyone studying ads from that time period couldn’t help but notice how often the “real women” in the ads were married, straight, cisgender, and… very white.
“Real women” back then were described with an impossible set of expectations that very few women could accurately be said to meet. Capitalism thrived on the rat race, the keeping up with the Joneses of womanhood. Capitalism has always been set up to manipulate systemic oppressive systems against the bodies of “others” in search of profits.
“Capitalism has always been set up to manipulate systemic oppressive systems against the bodies of “others” in search of profits.”
It makes me stop and ask, what’s the real benefit of being a “real woman”?
What’s really being said when someone comes out and declares one woman to be real and another woman to be fake is set the one considered “real” as superior and a goal to be strived for by those who are “fake.” This is a false binary that ignores the very real differences between all women.
As a transgender woman, my womanhood is constantly questioned. Not only in newspapers, but in comedy specials, by my government, by my elected officials, even by my family. I guess I don’t see the fuss. My womanhood is only one part of me. I’m a parent, a writer, I fall in love too easily and cry at the drop of a hat. I like paperbacks because I like the way the pages feel. I spend way too much time on Twitter. I’d like to go on hikes this summer. My love life sucks like every other single person out there. Being a woman is just a small part of who I am.
I freely admit that I am not the same as a cisgender woman. I wouldn’t presume to know exactly what they’ve been through, just as I wouldn’t presume to know what it’s like to be a person of color or someone who didn’t grow up Catholic.
But I also know that cis women don’t know what it’s like to be me. They don’t know that I am a COCSA survivor or that I was threatened with rape in a school bathroom when I was ten. I don’t think I ever thought I felt like a woman because I’m not sure there’s a single experience that defines how a woman is supposed to feel. I liked GI Joes when I was a kid but when I was playing with them as a kid, I called myself a girl’s name because I thought it fit me better.
I spent 34 years of my life playing a role, constantly adjusting myself to fit others’ perceptions of me just to remain safe. The few times I let the mask slip, I was punished for it. A bully constantly hitting at perceived femininity turns into a rape threat. Telling a girlfriend of my soft spot for wearing girl’s clothes turns into a locker broken into and property damage. Telling a future spouse the same turning into a promise to never ever speak of it again, I loved her so much, I made it 15 years.
The sheer toll of gender dysphoria is hard to completely feel until you’re mostly free of it. Having transitioned and lived now as a person more closely resembling my inner self, I look back now with horror over how I let dysphoria rule over me.
I was not a good person before I transitioned. I mean that. I never broke the law or anything. I didn’t have a substance abuse problem, I never did drugs, I only had one sexual partner in my life. By all appearances I did everything right. But truth is I was empty. If you knew beyond initial appearances, you’d have thought I was lazy and inattentive. Guilty as charged.
You know… it’s impossible to describe gender dysphoria in a descriptive way and I think that’s part of the issue at play here. Those who want to exclude trans women from “real” womanhood like to equate dysphoria with feelings, but is this accurate? I think dysphoria *provokes* feelings but isn’t necessarily a feeling unto itself. My own dysphoria felt like a constant buzzing in my head, like a swarm of bees. You know that sense you get that a situation isn’t quite what it seems? It’s a bit like that but it’s constant and rises and falls in intensity.
The feelings provoked by my dysphoria include disgust, shame, and guilt mostly. Shame that my body has betrayed me in such a basic way. I’m not stupid or delusional, I knew from a very early age that I wasn’t supposed to be this way. I tried very hard not to succumb to what I really wanted. When I would day dream about being assigned female at birth, being free of my body’s prison, I’d feel guilt afterwards. “Boys aren’t supposed to dream about being a girl, you gross fuck.” Disgust was a constant. Disgust at my body hair, at my receding hairline, at my flat chest, at my height, at my dick. I’m a woman with a dick and that’s exactly as embarrassing as it sounds, trust me.
“The feelings provoked by my dysphoria include disgust, shame, and guilt mostly. Shame that my body has betrayed me in such a basic way.”
But transitioning has helped. It’s helped in ways that I wasn’t expecting. It could very well have been a placebo but I’ve been much more productive as a person since my brain began running on Estrogen. I don’t know why, I’m not a scientist. I further became more useful as a human when I began living full time. Suddenly all the effort I had to put in every day to fight off the invading emotions that dysphoria would send my way was able to be devoted to other things. All the thoughts about my gender suddenly disappeared. Transitioning worked!
But transitioning has presented its own issues. Men speak over me now and don’t trust my authority or qualifications. I get catcalled on the street and groped in bars. A normal customer service interaction turned into a Craigslist missed connection where the man claimed I gave him “a smoky-eyed, come-hither look.” I had no idea who it could possibly have been. It seems pretty clear that misogyny doesn’t care who is a “real” woman or not. Trans women like me are just as at risk to be victims of rape and domestic violence as cis women, but the fact that we aren’t considered “real” women means that we don’t have the same access to resources as cis women do.
“The fact that we aren’t considered “real” women means that we don’t have the same access to resources as cis women do.”
I genuinely wonder at those who make it their own personal mission to declare trans women as not “real” women. I guess I just don’t understand the point. They say I experienced male privilege when I was in the closet and that may be true but does that mean that closeted LGB person experience straight privilege? Even if they do, does that mean they’re not really gay when they come out? I’m not gay, I’m not the one to deny others such an essential portion of themselves. I guess I just don’t see why it’s so important to some people that some women be “real” while other women aren’t.
Originally published under Athena Talks on Medium.