I am a cis woman, you are a trans woman, and here is why that distinction does not matter
An interesting thing happened last month, where a cis woman decided to argue for her right to trans exlusionary, ‘cis women-only’ spaces.
“Silenced by men first and now trans women, will women ever not feel silenced?” she wrote. She was angry about having her voice ‘policed’ for the benefit of trans women, who she thinks are not truly women. She was bewildered that she’s been called a transphobe after saying things like, “my being born with a vagina matters in the conversation around the rights of trans women”.
Her anger also stems from the fact that trans women are pushing for a more inclusive vocabulary: ‘chestfeeding’ instead of ‘breastfeeding’, for instance*. Her understanding, as I understand it, is that granting trans women these rights somehow reduces, nullifies, counteracts the rights of cis women.
The author elaborately describes the ways in which the presence of trans women using ‘cis’ women’s spaces around her traumatises her. She writes, “Saying that because you are a woman, your penis is a female penis and should be seen as a vagina in change rooms… while women constantly still deal with being sent dick pics, and being flashed, and forced to see penises when we never consented to. As a rape survivor this can be especially difficult for me.”
She’s also mad at Caitlyn Jenner: “A celebrity rich famous woman who had been a man for so so many years and a woman for very few winning a women’s award over women who had far far more right.” **
Her entire piece essentially hinges around the point that since, according to her, trans women are not truly women (why care about what trans women think of themselves), they should not be allowed into spaces meant for (cis) women. Because apparently, “when a trans woman enters that space, cis women often feel invalidated, offended, and angry.”
It is important to note here that this is the kind of exclusionary talk that Republicans in the US have been rolling back protection that allows trans people access to bathrooms of their chosen gender. It is the very same brand of transphobia that encourages their exclusion from colleges, schools and workplaces — this toxic idea that they are the ‘other’, and that this otherness needs to exist somewhere else, somewhere we don’t have to look at them.
Much is said here (and has been said in the past) about how trans women are different from cis women, because, in the words of this author, they “looked male for part of [their] life, [they] experienced a different life. [They] got privileges.”
Earlier this year, Nigerian writer-feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sparked a row after implying that trans women were not ‘real’ women because they enjoyed male privilege before transitioning into women — a statement that overlooked the abuse and discrimination that gender non-confirming people undergo all their lives as a result of their dysphoria.
So what does it take to be a woman? Where does gender lie? Is it in the organs we possess? Then, are women who’ve undergone hysterectomies or mastectomies still women? Are men who surgically give up their penises still men? We’re moving past these definitions, thankfully, and embracing gender as mutable and perceived personal identities that cannot be boiled down to a checklist of character attributes.
Trans women are women. They are as much women as ‘natal’ or cis women, and the ‘they have different experiences’ argument does not invalidate their womanhood. If it did, would we be okay with creating separate spaces for white women because their experiences were different from those of women of colour?
And this is precisely what makes the arguments of this author so hypocritical and baffling. On the one hand, she claims with fantastically faux magnanimity that she is willing to support “surgeries and pronouns” for trans women, while on the other, rejects their femininity altogether.
Cis women can be — and sometimes are — great allies of the trans community because of our shared heritage of oppression, our frequent brushes with abuse and our common burden of trauma, even though these experiences are extremely diverse and cannot be clubbed blindly together. All of us come from a place of knowing what it’s like not to have access to our bodies, of having control taken from us, of being told every single day what we’re supposed to look like. Both cis and trans women carry the weight of femininity and are fighting for the same things: the right to life, to be safe in our homes and on the streets, to not be objectified, parodied, paraded. And most significantly, all of us face a common oppressor: the patriarchy.
The difference is that cis women have, after centuries of struggle, gained a (fragile) foothold in the world. We can now vote, own property, work. Some of us can even hold public office. In no way is this the ideal; we are still a deeply regressive society that objectifies, discriminates against, abuses and kills us on the daily — BUT we’ve succeeded in getting out there. We are fighting for representation in popular media and are making baby steps towards achieving some. Cis women are even going on to lead (a very, very small fraction of) countries and are taking corrective steps to try and undo centuries of damage.
And so when the author says that cis experiences cannot be equated to the trans experiences, I agree. Indeed, it cannot, because in almost all parts of the world, cis women do not undergo the kind of widespread egregious violence and systemic abuse that trans women do. All women have limited access to safety, security and their bodies, but it’s much worse for trans women. In the US, trans women are 4.3 times more likely than cis women to be murdered — and these are only conservative estimates since they are likely to be misgendered by the police after death.
Deaths from this community form the bulk of hate violence-related LGBTQ murders. We still haven’t agreed on a language that honours their chosen identities. We ignore their desired pronouns and even in the presence of media guidelines, journalists continue to exhibit shocking disregard for their lives and deaths. India Clarke, a transgender woman, was found beaten to death in Florida in July 2015. A local news channel decided to report the news of her death with the text, “Man dressed as woman found murdered”.
Trans and gender non-confirming people are harassed and rejected by families, schools and colleges (“Nearly 80% of transgender people report experiencing harassment at school when they were young,” a TIME story says). In addition, “employment discrimination can cause high rates of unemployment or underemployment, which can lead to homelessness and prevent individuals from accessing necessary healthcare.”
“Transgender people are also four times more likely than the general population to report living in extreme poverty,” which forces them to be homeless or relocate to unsafe neighbourhoods, which adds to disproportionately high mortality rates among the gender non-confirming. Their discrimination and oppression is systemic. It is everywhere. And it is fatal.
But this is a slippery slope, this comparison of miseries between cis and trans women, of wanting to say, “Look! My problems are bigger!” and it makes sure that we stay stuck, squabbling over the shape and texture of our respective traumas. But our allyship needs more than just commiseration — it needs an understanding that as cis women, we come from a place of privilege: the privilege of being able to, in a largely bigoted world, biologically confirm to accepted and desired gender norms. And that this bestows on us safety that our trans and gender non-conforming friends have never known. Our allyship needs an acknowledgment of these facts and a willingness to welcome and accommodate as we want to be welcomed and accommodated.
But time and again, sadly, we, as women, seem to make the same mistake we have been complaining about for decades: we force trans women to keep proving themselves to us. We keep asking them to repeat the story of their choices, their transition (or the lack of it), and their abuse in order to grant them a seat at the women’s table.
(Then we go off, funnily, and continue our fight for the right to have a seat at the ‘men’s’ table.)
How much did we protest when the sexual assault case against Bill Cosby’s ended up in a mistrial despite 60 women’s testimonials? How angry were we at the Brock Turner debacle? How many times have we rallied against a system of misogyny that forces us to recount our abuses in full — and then refuses to believe us anyway?
And have we learned nothing from this? Are we truly only as fair as the system that oppresses us all?
This, if nothing else, is a common thread that binds all women: we appear to be doomed to be stuck in a cycle of repeating ourselves, asking for protection and never being heard.
Towards the end, the author of this piece waves a poisonous olive branch by saying, “I will call you by your pronoun, I will fight for your right for safety, surgery, trans safe spaces and even trans- inclusory womens’ spaces, but you also have to be ok with me wanting my language and my cis only spaces.”
But if you listen closely, you can almost hear her say in the background that she doesn’t believe these surgeries and struggles make someone a woman. “No,” she seems to tell trans women, “get all the surgeries you want, but you will never be one of us.”
In every single way, her show of allyship is the worst, scariest kind of lip service. One that says “I will support you — but only by sharing memes about inclusionary feminism or ‘liking’ pages on trans rights.”
She’s saying, “You are safe for me only in theory. You are palatable only in pixels. You are supported only from the other side of a screen.”
She’s saying, “I want your body nowhere near mine.”
*Addendum #1 in response to some very valid concerns expressed in the responses: it “seems worth noting that it is nursing transmasculine people who are typically dysphoric about having their chests called breasts. The author omits this point in her hurry to invalidate trans-inclusive language and I failed to clarify this further when I quoted her.
** Addendum #2: An earlier version of this article mentioned that the author had a problem with Laverne Cox, when actually, her problem is with Caitlyn Jenner. The inadvertent mistake was a result of the fact that the author alluded to nothing but a “celebrity rich famous woman who had been a man for so so many years” and won awards — a category that includes Laverne Cox as well as Caitlyn Jenner. The mistake is mildly regretted.