Last week at Royal Mail, while on break and working my way through the exercises in my Springboard Workbook, I encountered the following passage…
Being a woman
Being a woman is at the core of who you are. Usually the first thing that people notice about each other is the gender that they are. Some people have changed their gender, usually after a long process. So if you have had your gender re-assigned you will have thought a lot about what it means to you to be a woman.
Daisley, Jenny and Willis, Liz; Springboard – Women’s Development Workbook; 7th ed. (Stroud: Hawthorn Press, 2013); p.48.
…which certainly clears up a lot of my anxiety as to whether or not I should even be on such a course (one can at least assume from this that the course designers did not see it as a problem, in theory), although I found it an interesting point in and of itself. Perhaps even a worrying one.
Regarding that point about “the first thing that people notice”: Caitlyn Jenner’s recent gaffe about non-passing transwomen making people feel uncomfortable, although possibly taken out of context in some sources, has been making much noise of late, and as someone who struggles to pass at the best of times it rings with a nasty logic whether I like it or not. Almost certainly, as time goes by, I will try to send out increasingly unequivocal signals of my gender identity if for no other reason than to mitigate social awkwardness. Whatever feminist instinct I may be said to possess bridles at the thought of a life spent becoming more stereotypically feminine to attain social ease. It is true that one does not see that many butch transwomen. Given the alternative of spending my life being assumed to be a gender-neutral / gender-fluid / non-binary man, however, I cannot see myself doing anything other than capitulating on this point. Even my weekly electrolysis sessions, although with a bearing on my dysphoria, could also be seen as an expensive and unnecessary cosmetic concession to social expectations (It is not as if there are no born women who do not experience unusually heavy facial hair growth). One option that does not currently appeal to me is facial feminisation surgery – I have seen poor psychological outcomes of heavy facial surgery, and have no wish to inflict that on myself – but even so I am cursed with a sad sense that the means of embodiment of a transwoman could be argued from all of this as inimical to women in general: their right especially to express as they please, without reference to anyone else’s comfort or expectations.
This is germane to the second point, “you will have thought a lot about what it means to you to be a woman”, and I find in other ways that I now need to be far more analytical about my life. One disturbing thing I have noticed of late is not that I have become less assertive per se, but I have become more comfortable with being unassertive, when I strongly suspect I owe it to the world to do exactly the opposite. I used to feel acute shame when men (it was, alas, overwhelmingly men) steamrollered me in conversation, patronised me on points where I was at least no more ill-informed than they were, and generally talked down to me without actual benefit of greater knowledge (and I don’t count the Daily Mail as valid source material). This all still happens, but since my coming-out it feels inevitable, and thus less shameful.
To clarify my thoughts on this point: sexism is not shameful to women (nor to transwomen). It bloody well ought not to be inevitable, though.
Still, that is part of the reason I am on this course in the first place, and hopefully it can help me to better define my role within the context of feminism, if I even have one. One faces a curious double-bind as a transwoman: anxious about appearing too meekly self-effacing, and thus embodying the most socially regressive stereotypes, yet also anxious about appearing brash and narcissistic, too eager to make oneself the centre of the struggle. I do not, as I have hopefully already said, believe that feminism – liberal or radical – should bend over backwards to centre transwomen or trans issues in general. The issues are complex, and the place (or even existence) of trans people in any speculative gender-reformed or genderless future society is hard to guess at. Second-Wave radical feminist Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005), who it should be stressed was not inimical to trans people (seeing their condition as symptomatic of rather than causative of a patriarchal society), had this to say:
There is no doubt that in the culture of male-female discreteness, transsexuality is a disaster for the individual transsexual. Every transsexual, white, black, man, woman, rich, poor, is in a state of primary emergency […] as a transsexual. There are 3 crucial points here. One, every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition. Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised. Three, community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.
Dworkin, Andrea; Woman Hating (New York: Penguin, 1974); pp.185-6.
Possibly slightly digressive of me, but I do enjoy quoting that, as it is so much more compassionate and less vitriolic than legions of modern internet philosophers and activists on this subject… but it does raise that nagging possibility that we are creatures born out of the very structure of abuse that feminism is (and by definition must be) ranged against. Of value in diagnosing it, perhaps – as Caroline Criado-Perez suggests – but perhaps too closely and ironically identified with it for our perspectives ever to be taken without a pinch of salt, even by ourselves. It makes my skin crawl when a retail assistant addresses me as “sir” or “fella” (although I am curious to know what training manual recommended the latter as a polite form of address). Should it not equally make my skin crawl when a stranger addresses me as “darling” or “babe?” The answer would be yes… It certainly should not feel as if I have achieved something.
Having said all that, there is one solace I dare take to from all this, which is that the authors of the Springboard workbook included that passage referring to transwomen in the first place. Critics could argue they only did that to appease liberal lawmakers, but they could easily have skipped over the issue (The law merely requires that they do not discriminate against applicants). Since the authors thus apparently felt it appropriate to include people like me on their women’s assertiveness / development course I will take that as a sign of encouragement, though also as a warning. Whatever I amount to – be it a badly-constructed woman or a badly-programmed man – I made a conscious decision to embody the social category of woman, and heaven forbid I should do so irresponsibly.