Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: An otherwise sharp-witted feminist has a very public and very unnecessary meltdown after being posed with a question in the vein of “are trans women real women?” As if this were kryptonite, all of the critical thinking skills she ordinarily exhibits will shrivel up and die, reducing this feminist to an incoherent blubbering mess who can’t argue herself out of a wet paper bag. Instead of identifying the appropriate rhetorical error (define “real”), they happily and freely frolic into a minefield performing a response that could only be described as “interpretive dance.” Wells are poisoned, dictionaries are consulted, ontologies are confused with empirical fact, migraines are had, shots of rum are quaffed, questions are dodged, and my eyes roll out of my head because I can’t believe people haven’t figured out that the rhetoric of realness is a dead, dead horse.
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place!” And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked. “And ain’t I a woman?”
–Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?”, 1851
Eighteen fifty one. I’m sure Truth’s speech is far from the earliest example.
Murray, writing in the Sunday Times magazine, said that she was “not transphobic or anti-trans” and called for respect and protection from bullying and violence equally for “transsexuals, transvestites, gays, lesbians and those of us who hold to the sex and sexual preference assumed at birth”.
However, the piece appeared under the less nuanced heading: “Jenni Murray: Be trans, be proud – but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman’. Can someone who has lived as a man, with all the privilege that entails, really lay claim to womanhood? It takes more than a sex change and makeup”.
Murray wrote: “I know that in writing this article I am entering into the most controversial and, at times, vicious, vulgar and threatening debate of our day. I’m diving headfirst into deep and dangerous waters.”
And Chimamanda Adichie…
In the interview, broadcast on 10 March, Adichie said “I think the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences. It’s not about how we wear our hair or whether we have a vagina or a penis. It’s about the way the world treats us, and I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
…are apparently uninterested in how this dialogue has played out before–and no, I’m not merely referring to Ophelia Benson.
White suffragists, often credited as the first wave of feminism, specifically reiterated American ethnic hierarchies during their bid to give white women the vote. The second party in this scene is the white patriarchs, who responded to the push for suffrage by expressing what they perceived to be the benefits of a subordinate position within the patriarchy–the aforementioned “privileges” of being lifted over ditches symbolic of the benefits supposedly reaped by white women from the white man’s place at the head of the family. Both the white suffragists and the white patriarchs campaigned extensively off this messaging, presenting these circumstances as self-evident truths, although with different meaning depending on whose agenda you subscribed to.
The third party, then, is Sojourner Truth, a black woman who noticed the white suffragists’ messaging was never meant to include her. The supposed benefits of the status-quo–the best places, the white patriarchs called them–were never offered to her to begin with. It is the earliest example I am aware of where a black woman explicitly tells a white woman that their womanhood is not experienced the same way–a message, by the way, which to this day must be reiterated over and over.
Still, the myth of universal sisterhood seems a stubborn one, and it is a myth embedded in statements like “it would be disingenuous to insist trans women are the same as ‘women born female,'” Adichie’s response to an argument exactly no one is making.
We have arrived to my first complaint, which is that neither Murray nor Adichie can actually name drop a person who argues this. Again, I find myself aghast that this sort of rhetorical sloppiness goes largely unrecognized as these click-bait hit pieces propagate. Murray chastises one particular trans woman for not being up-to-snuff on her feminism (as if that should be the arbiter of womanhood?) and Adichie just… literally pulls this out of nowhere, but neither of them can point to a coherent statement that attempts to argue that trans women and cis women are unconditionally identical.
Even if we were to accept such an argument has been made, the corollary to that statement, which, again, neither Murray nor Adichie tells us who is saying this (except them saying trans women say this), is that cis women have enough in common with each other for generalizations to function as part of a broader analysis, that the universal womanhood is a defining experience for “females.” It is a damn shame this idea continues to spread knowing how it has been duly blasted out of the water by black womanists and feminists for a century and a half. Sisterhood is a myth. White women perpetuated slavery, white women created the lavender menace, and white women voted for the same Cheetolini who has now directed the ICE to indiscriminately tear apart families of colour.
We can’t even make the mistake of saying white feminism has “historically” scapegoated other minorities in the pursuit of one particular woman’s liberation. It’s still happening.
It’s also revisionist fantasy to think that every woman has a shared experience around which we can unite. To revisit the original statement to the effect of “trans women and cis women are different” is then true, but also conditionally irrelevant. If one means to suggest our experiences of gender are uniform enough around which to organize, that specific condition is one I find untenable. I am not automatically going to have a cause in common with someone just because we’re both trans, and the reverse is true too, two cis women will not automatically possess solidarity by virtue of being being women, as black feminists and womanists have taken great pains to say.
I would speculate that it is the implication that women, cis or trans, experience gender in a uniform way such that we can be cleanly divided that informs much of the backlash against Adichie. Certainly that is my complaint.
Which brings me to Murray.
Consider this: Outside the intellectual wankery contained when a cis person asks “are trans women real women,” I will go about my life being interpreted and understood as a “real” woman, with all the baggage that entails. When the cashier uses the honorific “miss” (or, Dog forbid, “ma’am”) to ask if I need help bagging my groceries, when the man driving the pick-up truck asks to see my tits, when strangers refer to me as “that girl,” I collect an experience that must be stripped of all context in order for such a line of questioning to even begin.
Here lies my second complaint with both the question and any attempt to answer it–by necessity, you have to strip us of our context and our lives before you can offer up your frankly unwelcome opinion. It sets up a false dichotomy, a “male in the Tweets, female in the streets.” You have to flash freeze me and take a brush to paint lines around me, but the moment things thaw and I leave the confines of your intellectual wankery, I’ll be walking out of the box you just painted in your pet diorama. The world isn’t going to stop for your self-congratulatory sophistry in which you take theatrically set up the pike upon which you impale yourself. Cashiers will ma’am me and truckers sexually harass me regardless of your opinion of whether or not I am “real.”
Again, it is the corollary that illuminates the absurdity of the charge that trans women are not “real”–for such a state to exist, we must then accept that it is possible to be not real, or “fake.” But how then do we determine realness? For the especially naive, they will default to the characteristics of the body which they assume to be present in each and every woman they observe. Having listed their criteria, they will, in their construct, exclude at least some women who–outside of their thought experiment–they would not hesitate to call women, because they do not realize that they have spent the entirety of their observations assuming rather than measuring what is true of those they call women. Certainly, no one has asked to see my karyotype or my genitalia before assuming my pronoun–or, indeed, hollering to see my tits!
An equally weak heuristic then is our experiences, often couched in a phrase like “socialization.” Girls are conditioned to be subordinate to men, so the claim goes, and lacking that experience defines trans women apart from cis. But this is inductive reasoning, prone to the error encapsulated in the concept of the black swan. What happens when a trans women does believe she is subordinate to men, despite being “socialized as male”? What happens when a cis woman rejects her subordinate position–as many of these pundits do!–does that not imply that socialization is not the prison they make it out to be? It cannot be both destiny and mere chains that can be broken with enough will, for if it is the former it cannot be repudiated, and if the latter it cannot be infallible. Clearly the holders of this opinion undermine their own argument, for they have simultaneously recognized what society expects of them as women and rejected it. If it is possible for them to do, so must it be possible for us. If it’s at all possible to be a fake woman as defined by experiences or lack thereof to begin with, then that net will surely capture more women than intended.
So who then arbitrates realness or lack thereof for someone else, and on what authority do they do so? I find that many a pundit will happily volunteer themselves for the former without giving answer to the latter. That, I suspect, is what forms the basis of the backlash against Murray–that authority is unquestioned and simply taken for granted.
This is to explain that conditions do exist in which the distinction between cis and trans is not always made in practice, in which the division feels forced when insisted in theory by the likes of Adichie or Murray. They are essentially forced to concede what happens in practice (or flat out deny it) and stick strictly to “in theory,” which itself would merely be annoying if they weren’t so insistent on turning their theories into practice via the law. So exactly how much womanhood do I need to experience to “count”? In practice–well, I get ma’am’d at the grocery store and sexually harassed by truckers. In theory? Who the fuck knows.
Who the fuck cares. Why do cis people keep fawning over other cis people who say something as asinine as “well, there are some differences”? You sound like fucking Caboose! “There are some walls, and some ceilings… no WAIT–just one ceiling.”
We know, man. We know.
Although Murray’s work has never much resonated with me, I am quite disappointed by Adichie’s take on this problem. Adichie specifically wrote about the tendency to “storify,” or reduce the complexities of an entire people through narrative. It is particularly stinging to know you are the blind spot to her fantastic work, for she has done exactly what she warned against in implying cis and trans women can both be storified, and that the stories in conglomerate differ absolutely, that no overlap occurs, that the gap between us is supposedly explained by experiencing sexism as you, specifically, experienced it.
But, I suppose, part of being alive these days is a periodic reminder that there are no heroes. I only hope I will have the patience and grace to at least recognize I fucked up, when I fuck up.
*Again, I am compelled to point out, The Guardian can’t stop pumping these transantagonistic hit pieces, nor am I the only one to notice. Their editors accepted, point blank, many of the questionable assertions of both Murray and Adichie. So I find myself repeating this accusation that The Guardian has a very large, very obvious transantagonistic axe to grind.