How ‘Pussy Hats’ Made Me Feel Excluded — And Then Welcomed — At The Women’s March

For trans women, vagina-centric rhetoric can be painful. But thanks to a kind stranger, my march experience was ultimately affirming.

I was cold.

I had rushed out the door of my apartment and forgotten a scarf, hat, and gloves on my way to the Women’s March in wintry Portland, Maine, and that was my overwhelming feeling — I was just bone-chillingly cold.

A thought struck me: What I wouldn’t give for a hat.

I came to the march by myself, and knew I would possibly be marching by myself. I only knew of one other person who was planning on joining, and when I texted him, he had yet to arrive.

But even though I knew I may be doing so without company, participating in the protest felt like a moral obligation.

I came to march for Planned Parenthood, my hormone provider. I was just in their office for a check-up last week, and I could see the worry lines on the nurse’s face when I asked about the health-care provider’s political situation. I came to march for my daughters, both young children, so that they may have a better life. I came to march for women, especially women of color and my fellow trans women.

As I walked down the hill toward Portland’s Eastern Promenade, where thousands of marchers were gathering to have their voices heard, I began thinking about the decision that’s been dominating my life recently: whether or not I should try for Genital Reassignment Surgery. Financially, I’ll soon be receiving a large enough sum of cash to cover the procedure, which is made much more expensive by my health insurance’s blanket transition-care exclusion. For trans women like myself who experience intense gender dysphoria toward our genitals, the procedure is deemed medically necessary by numerous major medical organizations. And yet, getting the surgery means threatening my financial future.

I came to march for women, especially women of color and my fellow trans women.

It’s not an easy decision. I took my phone out of my pocket and tweeted, “Random Kate thought: What if I didn’t get GRS and instead bought a condo?”

The thought is not without basis. I’m looking at $15,000 for surgery, which would be more than enough for a down payment on a small condo in my area. I tweeted again, “I guess my life has come down to choosing between a pussy and a roof.” And I’m one of the lucky ones for even being able to make this decision.

As I thought about this enormously important choice, I looked around and realized: It was not being respected by my fellow marchers.

Ever since video surfaced of Donald Trump bragging about grabbing women by the crotch, protest rhetoric has often focused on the pussy, and that was very much the case at this march, where I was surrounded by pink “pussy” hats, cat ears, and handmade signs proclaiming things like “pussy grabs back.”

Each time this rhetoric is used, I am reminded of my assigned gender at birth. I’m not sure other people protesting are even aware of how their protest symbols enforce the damaging idea that gender is defined by genitals.

I understand the impulse to use your vagina as your your protest image, especially in the face of a president-elect who has boasted about grabbing vaginas, and an administration seemingly hell-bent on stripping women of their reproductive rights — but the fact of the matter is that when you do so, you subtly let trans women know that their place isn’t in your protest. You’re letting trans men know that you don’t see their gender, because your idea of gender is seemingly based exclusively on genitalia.

Wearing pussyhats, or chanting about vaginas, lays out a hierarchy based on genitals that is exclusionary and painful.

This rhetoric also ignores the fact that trans people are oppressed by their genitals, just as cis women are. From birth, trans people are coerced, sometimes violently, into living within society’s expectations based on the shape of the flesh between their legs. This coercion often comes with official government backing, such as the four states that don’t allow gender changes on birth certificates, and the many many places that don’t require insurance companies to cover transition care.

It’s not my place to invalidate anyone’s language, but I am constantly aware of my own incomplete womanhood between my legs. I try to pretend that it doesn’t make me different from the other women around me, but at the end of the day, I know I’m not like the rest. I see it when men reject my transness, I see it when I can’t quite always smooth the front of my pencil skirt, and I see it every time I pull on a pair of panties.

I wish I was able to live with the genitals that I already have, but I don’t think I’m strong enough to be one of those women. I wish I had been born a cis girl — but you know, it is kind of pointless to rehash that desire over and over again.

The truth is, when it comes to choosing between a pussy and a roof, I know which one I’m going to choose.

“Excuse me miss!”

It took me a second to realize that she was talking to me. I turned to see an older woman about a foot shorter than me, with salt and pepper hair, trying to get my attention. I wiped the running snot from my cupid’s bow and turned to her, suddenly worried about my appearance. Would I be welcome here?

The thoughts that came next are common when I interact with strangers: “Did I just wipe away my concealer off my lip? Is my hair making people see me as trans? Do be careful with your voice, Katelyn.”

I managed to squeak out a serviceable “Hi!”

She looked at me with kind eyes and a smile, and my body language relaxed. “I made this . . . ” she began, holding up a knitted pink “pussy” hat. “I noticed you didn’t have a hat, would you like this one?” I eyed her carefully and noticed she was wearing a matching hat. “I wanted to make more, but I only found out about this march earlier in the week; I want you to have my extra one! It’s acrylic, is that okay?”

I weighed the decision in my mind. These hats inherently other me from womanhood, and yet . . . I was really fucking cold, and this stranger probably just wanted me to be warm. I accepted and donned the hat. “Thank you. Oh my god, I was so cold!” I replied. We stood there awkwardly for a few minutes, unsure of what came next.

“I’m Katelyn, by the way.”

“I’m Laura, nice to meet you. Are you here alone?”

I nodded and she replied, “Me too, want to walk with me?” I eagerly agreed.

As we chatted, we realized that we had a lot in common. We were both starting our lives over after divorces, we’ve both worked in banking for many years, and we grew up not far from each other. What brought us together was our mutual desire to march for women, for abused women, for young girls, for reproductive rights. We really weren’t as different as those who try to divide us by anatomy claim that we are.

Not long into our newfound friendship, I leaned over and confided that I’m transgender, and she nodded. She said she kind of guessed when she first saw me, but she could also tell I was really cold and without a hat.

We really weren’t as different as those who try to divide us by anatomy claim that we are.

It was a powerful moment. As tears clung to the corners of my eyes, I took in the scene around me, with the pink hat and the pussy rhetoric, and began to reflect on what solidarity in protest means.

I mean sure, for many many women who marched across the country yesterday, I will never be enough woman for them. The RadFems, the GenderCrits, the Transphobes. But maybe womanhood is more about the fight and not about the flesh. Maybe vagina symbolism can be more symbolic than exclusionary.

But first, some changes need to be made.

I’d like to see more inclusive language from cis women and feminism in general. Absolutely the fight for reproductive rights and equal pay are critically important, but don’t forget that these things are important for all women in different ways. I think it’s easy to forget that trans women exist and have political needs beyond bathroom bills. Some of us medically need a quite literal pussy.

I’d like to see more inclusive language from cis women and feminism in general.

I understand the overwhelming offensiveness of Trump’s pussy-grabbing brag. But trans women are also groped, and for them, sometimes a grope from a strange man can turn deadly in an instant. I’d like to see more acknowledgement of the gendered violence faced by trans women of color alongside the intense imagery of pink vaginas and uteruses.

I’d like to see more of the inclusiveness and compassion I experienced first-hand that day in Portland.

Laura and I walked and talked for three and a half hours, just two of the over 10,000 people who turned out to march in our little New England seaside city. When we marched past Portland city hall, the clocktower struck noon. We looked at each other and mouthed “Wow!”; in that moment, it felt as if state power was acknowledging our public display of resistance. When we reached the end of the route, we exchanged hugs and email addresses, promising to get together again.

For me, the women’s march in Portland became an incredible affirmation of my womanhood thanks to the kindness and newfound friendship of a total stranger. I will never forget it. It wasn’t that my womanhood was validated by a cis woman that I’d never met before; it was deeper than that. Both of us had our own reasons as women to be there and march, and it was this shared experience of womanhood that brought us together.

The women’s march became an incredible affirmation of my womanhood thanks to the kindness of a total stranger.

I ended up wearing the pink hat not because I thought it validated my gender, or because I was making some subversive gender statement. I wore the hat because I was really fucking cold, and I had three hours of marching ahead of me with a newfound friend.

My hope is that I wasn’t the only one to form a new connection during one of these protests throughout the world. Despite the exclusionary imagery of the protest, I was welcomed warmly, and I was given a hat when someone noticed that I was cold.

Together, Laura and I realized that cis women and trans women share more than what divides us. It’s these individual connections and compassionate moments that will continue to open up diversity within the cis white feminist movement, and I hope there were more cis women showing kindness and support to trans women, more white women deciding to befriend women of color, and more women sharing their experiences as women with each other. That is how political movements strengthen.

I hope we can march again soon.