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This Whole “Are Trans Women Real Women?” Thing is Gross

The question is not whether trans women are “real,” but what is the real motivation behind defining some women as “real?”

Emma Lindsay
Mar 23, 2017 · 10 min read

One of my facebook friends posted some article on how to be an ally to trans people. Something about the article rubbed me the wrong way, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what — so I asked my friend why she’d posted the article. Did you find this article helpful when interacting with the trans people in your life?

She told me she didn’t know any trans people, but wanted to make clear that she was a safe person to talk to about trans issues. As it happened, she actually did know a trans person, she just didn’t know that person was trans. Apparently her method of broadcasting her “trans-safety” via facebook shares was not effective. This friend has always to me represented, like, something that is deeply wrong with liberal culture. The desire to be open minded simply for the sake of being open minded, not because you have come up against a situation that requires it, seems fairly toxic. Additionally, the belief that by dealing with something in the abstract, that by reading enough articles about it, you’ll be equipped to deal with it in real life, seems woefully misguided.

I have a few trans friends, and at times I have behaved problematically towards them. I’m not proud of it; I’m just trying to be honest. You can’t learn how to interact with people via facebook articles. You can’t get to the point where you’re this flawless ally without being a fucked up ally first. And, to get real with you, I try to be a good ally, but I still got trans women on the internet telling me how transmisogynist my writing is, so clearly I still got some shit to work on.

But, despite my problematic bigotry, a surprising number of trans people have forgiven me my issues and opened up to me about their feelings and thoughts on gender. Which, is actually a little weird in some ways.

Truth be told, early on some of my feelings on trans issues were a little TERFish. I remember talking to one of my old friends about feminism, and she said something like “a lot of feminists want to abolish gender, and I really, really don’t want to abolish gender.” She was a trans woman, and she didn’t want to abolish gender because she liked being a woman.

But… I was sort of one of those feminists who wanted to abolish gender! I was into math and science, the sports I liked were fighting sports (wrestling and jiu jitsu) and I had just suffered for a long, long time to do the things I wanted to do as a woman. And, for some chick to be like “omg, all this girly shit IS GREAT — LET’S KEEP DOING GIRLY SHIT” was very threatening to me initially. It triggered an almost instinctual panic: is some of my autonomy going to get lost if I fully embrace the trans movement?

Yet, despite my fears, I liked my friend and I saw how important this was to her, so I just rolled with it. I certainly fucked up a few times, but whenever I did, it was always accidental. Nowadays, I fuck up less because I just think of her as a woman. A quirky woman, possibly a morally questionable woman, definitely a loud woman, but mostly just a woman who is not substantially different from my other female friends.

And that place of acceptance wasn’t very scary. In fact, just the opposite, I think my friendship with her has greatly enriched my life. When I was younger, perhaps part of me wished we could abolish gender, but now I think the problem is that we value masculinity more than femininity. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a woman; it was that I had to suffer so much indignity because I was one. We assume women who wear makeup aren’t smart, or that caring, nurturing work is less valuable than technical work. It wasn’t until befriending trans women and reading the writings of trans women that I began to really see how much I had internalized the societal belief that femininity is worse than masculinity.

When I talk with trans women, I find a lot of similarities in our experiences. Often, they talk about a type of interior struggle to realize that it’s ok to like feminine things, and it doesn’t make you worse to embody feminine traits. This is absolutely something I have been struggling with my whole life. Men also project their sexual desire onto our bodies — both the trans bodies and the cis bodies of women — without consideration for our consent or autonomy.

Yet, finally — and, this is somewhat politically incorrect to say, but I’ll just say it — often talking to a trans woman just feels like talking to a cis woman. The way they listen and engage with me is very similar to how my cis female friends listen and engage with me. And, this is non-PC because who am I to legitimize someone’s gender? If a trans woman didn’t feel like a cis woman to me, would she not be a woman? To which I’d say: no, she’d still be a woman. However, honest truth, it would be harder for me to not microaggression against her. I’d have to exert a lot more mental energy getting her pronouns right. And I’m sorry if that hurts, but I’m not going to deny that how I unconsciously read someone’s gender is not always the same as the gender they wish to be read as.

The problem of how we unconsciously read gender is one that is constantly overlooked by both trans activists and trans opponents, but also one that comes up a lot when you’re interacting with trans people in the real world.

Often, the question around trans people — especially trans women — is phrased as are they “real.” Is a trans woman “a real woman?” So… what the fuck is a “real” woman anyway? A woman who can give birth? Are infertile women not real women? Is a real woman someone with two x chromosomes? Then, what is someone with 3 x chromosomes? What is someone with xy chromosomes, but testosterone insensitivity, so they develop breasts and a vagina? Because, society sure as hell treats all these people like they’re real women. They are raised as women and socialized as women. Straight men and gay women will be attracted to them, gay men and straight women will not. So… why are trans women not “real?”

As far as I can tell, the only common trait that differentiates “real” women from “fake” women is that all the “real” women had their gender imposed upon them by society. They had no autonomy when it came to their gender. All other things — external physical anatomy, hormone levels, chromosomes, appearance — are things that many trans women could share with certain cis women. So. Effectively, in our society, to be a “real” woman, somebody else has to declare you a woman.

Uh… yay feminism.

We need to stop saying trans women are “real” women, because we need to stop fucking talking about real women. It’s just something that’s going to make a whole bunch of women — trans and cis — feel like shit. Women who get hysterectomies are going to start worrying they’re not “real” women. Women with small tits are going to worry they’re not “real” women. Hell, at many times in my life, I’ve worried that I’m not a “real” woman because I’m too tomboyish. It’s gross, it’s exclusive, and it’s not helping.

And, even more troublingly, it is part of how we enforce gender conformity in women. Check out these “real women” memes:

Basically, a “real woman” is one who serves men, whose existence is to be available for the pleasure of and consumption by men. Defining some women as “real” and other women as “not-real” is a way of shaming “not-real” women into adopting patriarchal behaviors. And, this isn’t what TERFs think they mean when they say trans women aren’t “real” women, but this is absolutely where this ideology is coming from. Functionally, TERF feminists using the same definition as “real” as sexist men who wish to exploit women. A “real” woman is one who has been socialized to serve men — if you haven’t been spiritually crushed for the benefit of the patriarchy (so the TERFs and the misogynists say) you’re fake.

And, all those pro-trans feminists saying trans women actually are “real” aren’t helping either. It’s like asking “does it make you sad when you beat your wife?” — either “yes” or a “no” answer to that question is implicitly buys into unstated assumptions about the situation. Insisting that trans women are “real” further reinforces the idea that there is a real, that “real” is a significant, innate thing, and it’s something we need to be concentrating on when it comes to trans issues.

It isn’t.

What we really need to look at is people’s unconscious response to gender. When one person designates another person a “real” woman, I think what they are usually saying is “I unconsciously respond to this person as a woman.” People narcissistically believe that their own perception of reality defines reality for everyone. On the flip side, when people say “this person isn’t a real woman” I think what they really mean is “I am not unconsciously responding to this person the way I normally respond to women.”

And, a lot of straight men unconsciously define “women” as “what gets their dick hard.” You’ll notice that denying the gender of women they find unattractive is a common tactic for asshole men — including our very own commander in chief. It’s not just trans women — ugly women also aren’t real woman according to our president. But, how do we square this with the fact that to me ugly women seem like real women? They interact with me like just like any other woman. Hell, I’m pretty sure I’m turned on by a bunch of women Trump would call “ugly,” so I’m not sure I could even identify the women Trump thinks are’t “real” women. So, how do we deal with that?

How do we deal with the fact that different people in our society are having different unconscious reactions to other people’s genders?

This is quite a pickle.

To make matters even worse, a lot of people are making these declarations about people’s gender without even meeting them. Conservatives be all “YOU’RE A MAN” to trans women on the internet, while liberals be all “I ACCEPT YOUR YOUR GENDER NO MATTER WHAT.” But like — all of this is overlooking the fact that when you’re there, with a person in the moment, you will respond to another person’s gender instinctively. Maybe you’ll respond to them the way they want you to, and maybe you won’t. Maybe you can learn to respond to their gender the way they want you to, and maybe you can’t. But, people are acting like our instinctive reactions to each other don’t exist, like we’re capable of rationally controlling our reactions to gender.

The conversation around gender has gotten so abstract it’s absurd. We have people who have never met a trans person commenting on the gender legitimacy of trans folk. Or, people who have never knowingly met a trans person anyway. Because if you’re unconsciously responding to someone’s gender the way they want you to, the issue may never have come up.

And, it’s not just trans people who deal with incorrect gender perception. Even though I’m a cis woman, sometimes people call me “he” because they unconsciously respond to me as a man. Then, I’ll tell a friend about it, and they’ll say “I can’t imagine how anyone would ever think you look like a man.” Me neither, but it happens. How do we deal with the fact that different people have conflicting unconscious responses to gender? What do you do when you can tell how you’re responding to someone is not in line with how they see themselves? These issues come up frequently for trans people, but they do not only happen for trans people, so they’re not just trans issues. However, cis people generally have more power than trans people to insist that others use the pronouns they prefer, so they can override someone else’s initial unconscious response.

We respond to each other differently — who we find attractive, what gender we see, who we like and dislike — and that’s just part of the diversity of human nature. However, when someone sees me in a way that I do not want to be seen, this is painful. This is the crux of the problem we have to deal with, and we’re not talking about it. How do we deal when someone’s image of themself conflicts with what other people around them are seeing? How do we deal when not everyone sees the same thing in one person? We don’t have the societal infrastructure to deal with these conflicts, and we’re leaning into old solutions that don’t work anymore. Women are allowed more diversity of expression than they have ever been allowed, and this is a wonderful thing. But, it’s going to make it damn near impossible to define what a “real woman” is — so don’t even try.

Emma Lindsay

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Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/protectingthecrushed/ — Twitter: https://twitter.com/SassyDotLove

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