Trans people are everywhere in the news these days: There are the protections President Trump isn’t granting to trans students, and the much-talked-about bills in North Carolina and Texas that also won’t let trans people use the bathroom corresponding to their gender. There is Caitlyn Jenner, who makes headlines every time she says something other celebrities would be ignored over. Then there are the onslaught of op-eds and comments condemning trans people—a number of them, oddly, written by liberal folks.
Back in August, anti-trans feminist Samantha Rea argued in the Huffington Post that even though you “cannot choose your sex,” “neither can you change it.” In February, ex-Jezebel writer Natasha Vargas-Cooper called transgender women in the American Conservative “men who decide to become women” that undergo “surgical mutilation.” Then this month, BBC’s Women’s Hour host Jenni Murray wrote a column for the Times claiming that transgender women aren’t “real women.” And if that wasn’t enough, beloved feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in an interview with Channel Four last week, “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women.”
So what gives with all the anti-trans think pieces and opinions coming from people supposedly on the left?
Perhaps it’s because transgender and non-binary people are in vogue, making for good content. However, the problem across both sides of the political spectrum is that while everyone wants to talk about trans people, no one has taken the time to understand them.
Transgender people are the new old frontier that many must move past their biases to accept. Just as lesbian, gay, and bisexual activists challenged the idea that human sexuality is based entirely on attraction to “the opposite sex,” transgender activists are throwing out the idea that gender is dictated by genitalia and chromosomes. For some, even the most liberal-minded, that’s a tall order to digest.
Breaking down a belief
Take a step back and think about the four articles above. The authors (and, in Adichie’s case, the woman interviewed for the article) identify as women and feminists—and two are feminists of color. While there may be some overlap, each of these writers and thinkers come from varied social and cultural backgrounds, and yet they’ve come to agree upon “what makes a woman.” It’s the same commonality they share with people who recoil at the word “transgender” as much as they do “feminist”: The fear of a paradigm shift in how humanity understands gender identity.
Being cisgender, or identifying with your birth sex, is seen as the “norm,” just as straight sexuality is the “normal” sexuality. Even in 2017, these are still considered the societal defaults. As a result, sex and gender become linked, and cisgender experiences are treated as the foundation of human experiences.
So when being cisgender is taken for granted, cisgender gender identities become fundamental symbols across the political aisle. For right-wing Christians, that means traditional “family values” dictated by church communities. Meanwhile, for trans-exclusionary second-wave feminists, the cisgender female body is a unifying symbol for cisgender women—making the vagina the easiest way to bridge gaps between women across regions and cultures.
But transgender people do not fit neatly into that cisgender narrative. Their physical presence queers society’s understanding of gender identity. By challenging both the traditional family and “traditional” feminism, transgender people rock the boat for both of these groups.
So what does it mean to be a woman if there’s no explicit unifying factor other than identifying as a woman? What is a family structure if it’s not a heterosexual, cisgender, nuclear family? Those are scary questions to answer for people who have built their world view around the idea that sex and gender are one and the same.
just ur friendly reminder on this day that trans women exist and vaginas are not the be all end all of womanhood— rico’s pizzo (@bongwater3000) March 9, 2017
But instead of addressing that problem head-on, both conservatives and liberals double down on their beliefs. Take a look, for instance, at Rea’s work for Huffington Post.
“Gender is a set of stereotypes associated with each sex,” Rea writes. “They’re society’s ideas about how men and women should behave, and how they should appear. A woman may prefer the stereotypes associated with being male, but identifying as a man won’t stop her getting pregnant, and nor will it necessarily stop men from treating her as a woman, in the very ways she wishes they wouldn’t.”
What Rea doesn’t understand are the biological aspects of transitioning. A 2010 research study, sourced in a New York Times article on trans identity, reveals one’s gender identity and sexual orientation may be programmed in the womb before any deviation in sex is developed. And an article in Scientific American points out that transgender people seem to show identical brain neurology to their aligned gender identity, even before undergoing any form of hormone replacement therapy.
“If gender is a neurological phenomenon, then trans women have lived as women from the womb—they just weren’t seen that way.”
If transgender people experience their gender identity since birth psychologically and neurologically, then that means there’s some innate basis for a transgender person’s gender. In other words, trans people really are “born that way.”
That doesn’t stop naysayers and exclusionary feminists, however, from comparing gender identity to racial identity and implying trans people are making a choice. “If a black man were to say that he wanted to bleach his skin to be considered light-skinned or even white, what would the typical reaction be? If he said it would make him ‘breathe easier,’ how would we respond?” Vargas-Cooper rhetorically asks at the American Conservative. “While we may not ban the practice, it would certainly be frowned upon and considered some sort of failure for both the individual and the collective.”
What Vargas-Cooper doesn’t understand is that there’s a difference between the color of one’s skin and the neurological or psychological embodiment of gender. Race and color are largely defined by external appearance; there’s no psychological proof that a black American and a white American are different on a neurological level. However, a cisgender man and a transgender woman certainly are different: not just by appearance, but through their brain’s makeup.
In other words, white-born Rachel Dolezal has no neurological basis for identifying as a black person. Laverne Cox, however, does have a scientific reason behind her identity as a woman.
Another, related point anti-trans feminists like to argue is that trans women have “lived as men” for some time so they can’t fully understand the female experience and therefore can’t be granted a badge of womanhood.
“I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender,” Adichie said in her interview, “it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
Of course, if gender is a neurological phenomenon, then trans women have lived as women from the womb—they just weren’t seen that way. Instead of experiencing gender from the point of transitioning, transgender women actually experience their gender identity from the moment they were born. That is why a trans person experiences what is called gender dysphoria during their pre-transition years—they may not consciously realize it, but subconsciously, their brain already knows that their gender is different from the one they were assigned at birth.
Cox broke apart Adichie’s argument in a thread on Twitter. “I was talking to my twin brother today about whether he believes I had male privilege growing up. I was a very feminine child though I was assigned male at birth. My gender was constantly policed. I was told I acted like a girl and was bullied and shamed for that. My femininity did not make me feel privileged. I was a good student and was very much encouraged because of that, but I saw cis girls who showed academic promise being nurtured in the black community.”
1.I was talking to my twin brother today about whether he believes I had male privilege growing up. I was a very feminine child though I was— Laverne Cox (@Lavernecox) March 11, 2017
Cox insists that “the binary narrative” that trans women transition from male privilege to womanhood “erases a lot of experiences and isn’t intersectional.” She’s touching on an important point that Adichie is missing: Gender is about who a person is innately. The problem comes when that innate identity combats the internal pressures a person feels over their gender being aligned—or unaligned—with how others perceive them.
Go to the source
What’s so unfortunate about the pieces like the ones by Murray, Vargas-Cooper, and Rea is that they attract large audiences, and thus their attacks on transgender people prevent others from building a more authentic understanding of human gender identity. Instead of interviewing trans people about their experiences, these writers form non-scientific-based opinions and encourage readers to stick their heads in the sand and repeat that sex is gender and gender is entirely sociocultural. Their biases against transgender and non-binary identities paint transitioning as a dark abyss that will lead to a clear-cut breakdown of gender—you were a woman before, and you’re a man after. And that’s just not true. It’s a simple sci-fi packaged fantasy.
If society embraced a more thorough and complicated understanding of gender identity, then humanity as a whole would benefit from that newfound knowledge. We would learn more about human psychology, brain neurology, the relationship between gender and sexuality, and how romantic and sexual attraction compare to one another. Humanity wouldn’t undergo a paradigm shift toward mayhem; we’d simply learn new ways to think about our time spent on Earth.
When it comes down to it, the “trans controversy” is about taking transgender people seriously, honoring their gender identity, and accepting their experiences as real. Such is a luxury given to any cisgender person just for showing up. But to truly respect trans people, society needs to put its fear of transitioning to bed. That means no more think pieces about who a “real woman” is, and a little bit more empathy towards trans men who have to go to the gynecologist.
Ana Valens is a transgender journalist and essayist living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Bitch Media, Kill Screen, The Toast, and the Daily Dot.