About crossing gender lines – transgender, non-binary and queer issues
January 24, 2017
No, trans women are not men and trans men are not women
You meet them online, you meet them in various social settings: The people who think that gender is so simple that it is only a matter of what’s between your legs. Here is my response to one such individual.
“Transwomen are male, Transmen are female, there is nothing wrong with that fact at all.”
I hear this argument over and over again: "Men are men, and women are women. It is simple!"
No, this is not simple.
In this context I normally hear one of three explanations for what male and female are:
1. It is about genitalia -- taken as a sign of biological sex.
(The reality is much more complex, by the way. Many are born with ambiguous genitalia)
2.. It is about chromosomes -- XX is female, XY is male.
(This is not true either, there are intersex XX males and XY females who live as -- and identify with -- their assigned gender).
Transgender feelings are real, regardless of what is causing them
In spite of genitalia, chromosomes and upbringing. In spite of a culture that harasses and ridicules gender variance (and in particular femininity and female identities in those assigned male). In spite of societies that reward men richly for playing the manly game: There they are, trans people who dream, long and desperately need to live their lives as the gender they feel they are.
They did not ask for this mismatch. Most of them would give a lot not to feel this way. But they do and it does not go away. For many of them this is a matter of life and death. The attempted suicide rate among transgender people is 40 percent. You do not try to kill yourself unless you are experiencing something very, very real.
In other words: The very existence of transgender men and women, the very people you try to invalidate, proves that you are wrong.
Genderqueer and nonbinary people prove that gender is a complex issue
And, on top of that, there are quite a few transgender and genderqueer people who find it hard to identify with only one of the two genders. They may feel that they are somewhere in between, or that their identity is both male and female or masculine and feminine at the same time.
This is another indication of gender not being as clear-cut and binary as you might think.
Biological sex and experienced gender are often two separate things
If you are trying to say that biological sex is real, by all means say so. You could simply say that "trans women were born with biological male characteristics" or something to that effect. But the very existence of gender dysphoric trans people tells us that biological sex is not the same as experienced gender.
(I know that there are trans activists who are not willing to use the term biological sex at all, arguing that the biological male body of a non-transitioning male to female transgender person is a female body, since her gender identity is female. This is equally pedantic. While you make biological sex the only real factor, they insist that experienced gender is. We need some kind of language to talk about gender incongruence, and in order to do that, we need to talk about both biological sex and gender, even if the terms are ambiguous and complicated.)
A word does not equal a “thing” out there
The idea that words can be reduced to a sign referring to something “out there” in the “real world”, has been abandoned by most linguists and philosophers.
I am not a post-modernist, and I do believe that natural science has a lot to say about sex, sexuality and gender, but the words “man” and “woman”, as we use them in everyday language, cannot be reduced to biology.
Felix Conrad gives an excellent example of the flexibility of language his book Am I a Woman?, where he refers to the fact that a “mother” who does not give physically birth to a child may nevertheless be recognized as its mother. She might have adopted her child. (The linguist George Lakoff makes a similar point in his excellent book, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, a book I highly recommend to those who think word’s can be reduced to physics and biology, detached from the metaphors we make use of.)
Even if there is a biological reality (and there is!), the way we classify what we see is in most ways cultural. This also applies to terms like "mental illness", "paraphilia" and "fetish", which are often used to invalidate trans people. These are words made by people who feel threatened by gender variance and who want to push transgender people back into the closet.
There is more than enough room in words like “man” and “woman” to include trans men and trans women, if we want to.