Your definition of a ‘real woman’ is ableist

Lola Phoenix
Mar 7, 2017 · 5 min read
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If you haven’t been paying attention to the news recently, Dame Jenni Murray had a lot to say about trans women calling themselves women. I’m not going to give this article a link or a time to debate because that’s not what I want to talk about here. Trans women are women. Period.

But in response to that, Angela Epstein writes an article titled, ‘A transgender woman can’t know the hot roar of menopause’. Just so you know, menopause is a description of a collective of symptoms that individuals with vaginas may undergo once they reach a certain age which is also accompanied by a stop in menstruation.

The symptoms of menopause are due to hormonal changes and they include hot flushes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, difficulty sleeping, low moods, reduced sex drive, and memory problems. As these are hormonal, trans women CAN and DO experience these things, but that’s not the issue I want to address.

Recently, I experienced this, despite being only 29. Let me tell you. Night sweats and hot flashes are no joke. And thankfully my ‘menopause’ is gone and I’m hoping I’ll never have to experience it again.

But this experience does not make me a ‘real woman’. And in fact people with disabilities and disorders like mine, including intersex people, can find this tired narrative really alienating.

I have a disorder which causes a myriad of things, including me not producing oestrogen and testosterone. I take oral contraceptive pills as a replacement for oestrogen and apply testosterone gel to replace testosterone. My puberty did not occur ‘naturally’. It was induced. And my ‘menopause’ was a result of me stopping my oestrogen for 8 weeks prior to my surgery.

Growing up, my disability alienated me from the vast majority of people. I was angry that I couldn’t get perfect attendance in school because I needed to go see the doctor. I had growth hormone injections daily. I took pills. I hated being ‘different’, and this affected my puberty in spades.

Doctors waited for my breast growth and period to occur ‘naturally’ and they never did. So they gave me hormones to induce my puberty. And that, to me, meant that I couldn’t be anything other than an ‘unnatural woman’.

Today, I identify as non-binary, neither male nor female, and the process of coming to understand that this word fit my feelings was made all the more complex by narratives like this. My feelings not fitting in to the identity of ‘female’ surely was because I was unnatural, right?

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Can’t you tell whose legs are whose?

Everywhere I went as I aged and entered to an all-women’s university, there were narratives that kept reminding me that the womanhood I had was ‘fake’. I didn’t have that first period story because I knew when mine would come. I didn’t have hair on my legs, but I tried shaving anyway. I didn’t grow much body hair so all of the articles encouraging women to not feel bad about their pubic hair because having no hair was childlike and creepy anyway made me feel confused.

When I entered the all-women’s university, Mills College, I attended, I assumed that I’d be judged for my hairless legs as a peon of the patriarchy, but nothing could be further from the truth. Attending Mills made me realise that there were all sorts of definitions of ‘womanhood’, that the primary definition offered by this society was focused on white, middle class women, that ‘womanhood’ could look and feel differently for disabled women — and that’s okay.

And with that in mind, I realised that ‘womanhood’ actually didn’t fit, not because I wasn’t a ‘natural’ woman, but because I wasn’t a woman at all.

Summarising womanhood and women down to the biological inherently alienates disabled and intersex women who may not have experienced these functions. Had I identified as a woman, my experience of feeling ‘unnatural’ and therefore not valid would not have changed. I would have fought much longer to come into my own as a woman because of ignorant assumptions like these.

Labels to me are all about expressing a commonality of experience. And sometimes, that label becomes reductive, it becomes a way of asserting that one type of experience is clandestine to all others. Even within the transgender community, many transgender people would consider me ‘not trans’ because I am non-binary.

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These people assume I don’t want ‘hormones and surgery’ despite the fact I’ve taken hormones since I was 12 and despite the fact that I have had more surgery than some binary identified trans people I know. GICs have assumed that my dislike for ‘androgyny’ because I don’t believe it to be anything other than masculinity light, means I am not serious about who I am.

And I get it. For those who have the privilege to get ‘hormones and surgery’ and who have fought long and hard to get those things, it can feel quite frustrating to have someone come along and claim this word which for you has come to represent your struggle.

But there is an assumption that struggle has to look like yours to be struggle. I have struggled, maybe not in the same ways that a binary trans person does, but it’s still there. I don’t experience transmisogyny and my struggles are very different from other trans people, but it doesn’t make my experience any less valid.

Likewise, trans womanhood may not look like the womanhood you know, but it doesn’t mean it is not womanhood. Because if you are defining ‘womanhood’ by things like menopause symptoms, that of which vary WILDLY between cis women, then you are not only enforcing a definition which is inaccurate, but also a definition which alienates more people than you might assume.

So let’s stop doing that, shall we?

Having menopausal symptoms doesn’t make one and certainly didn’t make me a ‘real woman’.

Trans identities as disorders

The price of visibility

Why you should listen to trans kids

Gender abolition as colonisation

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