What is a Woman (or a Man): A Trans Woman’s Perspective
The insistence on line-drawing, not the existence of trans people, is the problem.
Today, I want to talk about the twin questions of ‘what is a woman’, and its reverse, ‘what is a man’, from the perspective of a trans woman. From what I see, a small number of people keep asking these questions for a variety of reasons, which leads people to think that trans people are out to challenge common societal understandings about men and women, which ultimately brings on a lot of unnecessary backlash to us. In this episode, I will argue that people have been looking at the whole thing in the wrong way.
So, ‘what is a woman’? Or, ‘what is a man’? I guess there are no hard and fast answers to these questions. You see, the concepts ‘man’ and ‘woman’ were part of the English language, and indeed part of every language in the world, well before humans had given any thoughts to define things clearly. Historically, the need to define things absolutely clearly came with the development of things like modern legal systems and scientific study. However, human civilization had a long history before these developments. And it is in these ancient times that the concepts of ‘men’ and ‘women’ arose.
Before what we could call modern academic thinking emerged, the way human beings understood things, especially natural phenomenon, was mostly by perception, and comparing to what they already knew. Hence, a ‘man’ was what people perceived as similar to other men they had known, and a ‘woman’ was what people perceived as similar to other women they had known. There was no ‘definition’, in the modern sense, to speak of. We also have to remember that perception is necessarily subjective to some extent, which means its application to borderline cases could vary between observers. (However, in ancient times, people generally lived in smaller and more isolated communities, and they weren’t likely to come across borderline cases, so it wasn’t much of a problem.) Hence, any rule that claims to be able to objectively and reliably classify borderline cases as ‘men’ or ‘women’ 100% of the time, would have to be a modern invention. This includes definitions based on reproductive systems, gametes, genes and identity alike.
This then begs the question: if a 100% clear and certain definition for ‘man’ and ‘woman’ never existed in the first place, is it a good idea to invent one now? I don’t actually think so. The fact is, whatever definition you come up with, it is going to be problematic in some way. For example, definitions emphasizing genetics, reproductive systems or other aspects of anatomy are going to find plenty of exceptions, even if we exclude trans people. There are non-trans women with XY chromosomes, there are many naturally infertile men and women, and there are certainly enough people with atypical anatomy to make any system of definition embarrassing and painfully hurtful to some individuals. Besides, why do we have to obsess about classifying people? Can’t we just accept people as they are, and treat everyone with compassion?
Since there really can be no satisfactory definition, instead of obsessing about definitions and where to ‘draw the line’, I think it is more useful to think of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as archetypes, which would in fact be more consistent with the traditional way people used these words. There is a clear archetype of what a ‘man’ is, and what a ‘woman’ is, agreed to by people across the centuries and across different cultures, and everyone knows what the archetypes look like. Therefore, we do actually have a firm and shared understanding of what a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is.
But how about trans people, who basically have a mix of features from both archetypes? People who insist on engaging in line-drawing exercises make it look like it’s trans people who are the problem, but then, if you let go of the obsessive need to put people into boxes, much of the problem actually goes away. Trans people do not inherently challenge the long-standing archetypes of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ just by existing. It is only the act of obsessive line-drawing that makes it look like so. I think society should simply recognize that trans people are an exception to the rule, and provide accommodations where necessary, rather than be fixated on which ‘category’ we should belong to.
Ultimately, the point of life shouldn’t be to obsessively classify people. People should be treated as human beings rather than objects to be classified, and accepted as they exist, even if they don’t fit into boxes neatly.