The Blog

Who Decides What Makes a Woman?

Accepting a transgender woman as female doesn't devalue the institution of womanhood any more that accepting gay spouses devalues the institution of marriage.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

When I read a recent New York Times article by Elinor Burkett titled, "What Makes a Woman?" I found that I agreed with her on one point. I too thought that small minority of transgender people objecting to the "Vagina Monologues" was needless and reactionary. I have friends who have been part of all transgender productions of the 'Monologues'; these productions have been happening for over a decade, and Eve Ensler has been a supporter of the transgender community.

However, unlike Dr. Burkett, I recognized that this minority was just that: the minority.

Throughout the article, transgender people are represented as some monolithic entity. Additionally, she makes sweeping generalizations that can be disproven by both science and simple anecdotes. Let's look at some of the issues with the article.

1. The article falsely claims that gender is entirely a social construct.

This is falsifiable in several ways. First, take the sad case of David Reimer, born male, but raised female after a botched circumcision as a baby. Reimer never identified as female, and eventually transitioned back to male in his teens and killed himself in his early 30s. Then there are many, many other studies linking gender identity and biology, as well as a recent meta-study that all concluded there are biological elements to gender identity.

While social conditioning plays a role in gender, there's little debate anymore that biological reasons play a significant role in gender identity as well. Poor, dead David Reimer showed us that even an entire childhood of conditioning was insufficient to define him.

2. Male privilege is not monolithic and universal

Privilege is a multilayered and intersectional phenomenon. While Dr. Burkett says she does not want to play the oppression Olympics, it is also a gross oversimplification to use Caitlyn Jenner to imply that all men have more privilege than all women. There's race, religion, wealth, ability, region, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and many more factors at play. Men have more privilege than women on average, but there are clearly some women who have more than some men because of these other factors.

3. The female experience is not universal... or limited to non-transgender (cisgender) women

I know gold-star lesbians who have never woken up in the morning worried that they're pregnant. The girl next door to me growing up needed a hysterectomy at 12 and never had a period. I know women who have been told that unless they have had kids, they don't really know what it's like to be a woman.

Conversely, transgender women also definitely have to worry about being beaten or raped. We can have our breasts stared at, or suddenly become the "coffee wench" for men at meetings. My last job paid me a fraction of what the male programmers who theoretically worked under me made.

If being female is a checklist of experiences, then a lot of cisgender people would be left off of it, too.

4. Caitlyn Jenner is an outlier within the transgender community

Caitlyn Jenner is representative of all transgender women in the way the Kardashians are representative of all cisgender women.

Which is to say, not at all.

Many transgender women have very little safety, money or privilege pre-transition, especially as people perceived as effeminate men. After transition, transgender women are highly susceptible to extreme poverty, violence, incarceration, HIV infection, homelessness and unemployment. To imply that transgender women usually carry over a large portion of prior male privilege post-transition flies in the face of every demographic statistic we have. Not to mention common sense.

5. Sex hormones do affect us

Let's be real here: hormones do affect our emotional state. This one is common sense, to an extent. We almost don't need doctors to tell us that sex hormones are one reason why teenagers are moody, many women experience ups and downs during their cycle, testosterone is correlated with aggression (why you get your pets fixed) and changes in emotional response are often a sign of the onset of menopause.

So, why should it come as any surprise that when transgender people begin taking Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), many see some changes in how they experience events around them? Or more importantly, why should they be shamed for expressing how they experience these changes?

6. Judging an entire class of people based on anecdotes is stereotyping

Dr. Burkett's article takes great umbrage at a few transgender academics and activists who got into online squabbles over language. I have no problem with the word vagina, or "The Vagina Monologues," and neither do the vast majority of transgender people. But based on these interactions with a small but vocal portion of the transgender community online, she has decided that the entire transgender community is a threat to all women.

Ascribing a universal set of beliefs to transgender people based on a small subset of that community is a form of stereotyping. Using those stereotypes to condemn an entire community is bigotry.

7. Human dignity is not a zero-sum game

Accepting transgender women as women does not fundamentally detract from the rights, dignity, or value of cisgender women. The argument that calling transgender people women or men dilutes or pollutes the meaning of these words is effectively the same argument used by those opposed to marriage equality. They claimed that adding same sex unions to the definition of marriage will destroy it, or devalue the worth of straight people's marriages.

Accepting a transgender woman as female doesn't devalue the institution of womanhood any more that accepting gay spouses devalues the institution of marriage.

8. Dr. Burkett's anti-trans arguments are the same as those used by right-wing misogynists

Stella Morabito is a writer over at The Federalist, and comes from the Phyllis Schlafly school of thought. She opposes abortion under any circumstances, no-fault divorce, sex before marriage, women working outside the home after they have children, same sex marriage, supports abstinence-only education, thinks feminism is a form of communism and that feminists are waging the "real war on women".

But Dr. Burkett and Ms. Morabito agree on one thing: they both get really, really angry about transgender people calling themselves men or women. In fact, Morabito wrote an article titled "How the Trans-Agenda Seeks to Redefine Everyone," that makes almost the exact same points as "What Makes a Woman?"

Rather interesting intellectual company for a feminist to keep.

9. Transgender women are held to an impossible standard for gender expression

It's hard to believe Dr. Burkett's claims that she has nothing against transgender people when she finds Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair photo so offensive, but hasn't also written 2,000 words in the New York Times decrying all the other similarly clad (and Photoshopped) women who have graced the cover in the past. Therein lies the rub.

Transgender women are accused of not being "real" if they don't express themselves in a way that is stereotypically feminine enough, and also accused of being fake or caricatures if they present in a stereotypically feminine way. This leaves a narrow to nonexistent window of "acceptable expression."

For example (true story) both I and a co-worker at my last job coincidentally owned identical business suits. However, it was been hinted to me that the suit was both too masculine (because of how it is cut), or too feminine (because it comes with a skirt, and is beige in color). My co-worker who owned the same suit did not have her gender questioned in the same way.

10. Gender confirmation surgery isn't about gender stereotypes

Dr. Burkett's article states that transgender women have GCS more often than transgender men because of gender stereotyping. This seems highly unlikely, given that trans women outnumber trans men by about 3:2 to start with, and that GCS for transgender men is far more complicated, expensive and produces a less functional result than GCS for transgender women. In short, if gender stereotypes play any role in the statistic she cites, it is a small one.

11. Feminism isn't just for the "right" kinds of women

Past acceptability politics in feminism included the National Organization for Women (NOW) disowning its lesbian members in the 1960s because Betty Friedan feared that outspoken lesbians were a threat to the feminist movement. Setting up lesbians as a "Lavender Menace" created a rift that ultimately weakened the movement for women's rights, and hurt queer women in particular. Even today, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women suffer the most from economic disparities.

Now, transgender people are told by Dr. Burkett and others that they are only welcome in the movement if they give up their claims of being men and women, and to only express their gender in ways that people like Dr. Burkett find acceptable.

Can there be any serious expectation that anyone would find such terms for inclusion acceptable?

12. Language evolves over time

Language evolves as culture changes. Our cultural understandings of marriage, gender, sex and basically anything LGBT are in flux. Additionally, as I have written before, the English language has a very hard time with non-binary gender concepts. How does our language include people who identify as men who are pregnant? How do we have language that doesn't "other" people who identify as women, but transitioned to get there?

Many self-identity words are the site of a struggle with how to define them. We should regard the meanings of those words more poetically and be open to others using them differently.

13. People don't choose to be transgender

Dr. Burkett hints that she thinks being transgender is a choice, when she writes, "What we do with those genders -- the roles we assign ourselves, and each other, based on them -- is almost entirely mutable." Ummm... no.

No one chooses this life because they think it will be fun or easy. Every statistic, survey and study we have says this is a hard road, and we know it. We transition not because we think it is easy or fun, but because it is easier than continuing to live a lie.

14. Labeling transgender people as not real men or women is part of the problem

In our binary society, when transgender people are labeled not "real" men or women, it implies they are things, "its," or simply not human. The results of being seen as fake, or as non-human are devastating.

From Gwen Araujo, to Brandon Teena, to Angie Zapata, to Jennifer Laude, to Cemia Dove, our lack of ownership of our bodies and identities has meant being forcibly stripped, groped, raped, strangled, stabbed, drowned, burned and bludgeoned. It means that transgender panic defenses live on in court, and sometimes even win. After Brandon McInerney shot Larry King twice in the back of the head in the middle of a crowded classroom, the jury deadlocked on the case. Some even sympathized with the murderer. "[Brandon] was just solving a problem," one juror said.

While Dr. Burkett claims she abhors violence against transgender people, she is part of the problem when she tries to deny them the right to self-identify as men or women.