I’ve been spending some time finding my own voice, finding where I stand when it comes to transgender issues over the last couple of years. Slowly, though, as I know very few transgendered people and don’t have a close relationship to any. My experience in this area has been very limited. Human rights are a great passion of mine, though, so it makes me uncomfortable when I don’t have understanding and solid convictions in areas of social justice and equality. It always sends me on a quest to find my ground in new areas. I want to be the best activist I can be.
Here’s the thing, though. My first instinct as a human rights advocate was to jump on board with supporting transgendered people without any real understanding of the issues inherent within the movement for equality, or any understanding of the controversy at hand. I jumped on board with great intentions, wanting to support other fellow human beings. And, in my opinion, who doesn't want to be that kind of person? I was completely disarmed, then, when I read an article against trans women (transgendered people born biologically male, but identifying as female) “invading” the women’s rights movement and women’s safe spaces because (as a cis woman [a phrase to describe non-transgender women] who has experienced traumas at the hands of men –as in, I’m now struggling to heal my PTSD and anxiety disorder), at first, it actually made a lot of sense to me.
It made sense to me, the idea that forcing cis women to accept trans women in their support groups, locker rooms, women's circles, etc., is just one more way for men to overpower women and their space/movement; it made sense that someone born with a penis could use it to hurt girls and women if they gained our trust by dressing and living as one; it made sense when I read some men get aroused when dressing as women and it poses a threat to us; it made sense that women are angry when someone they view as male is yet again trying to define what it means to be a woman. Because of my deeply instinctual protectiveness toward women and girls, and the anxiety I live with after male-caused trauma, these things made sense.
I was profoundly swayed by the article, and the new side of things to which it had opened my eyes and mind, but something was off, despite my convictions toward women and girls being safe and empowered; the pieces weren't fitting together and I knew the picture I had was incomplete. I knew had to find a better, more well-rounded understanding of things. So I started asking questions.
(That article, by the way, found on Wipeout Misogyny's Facebook page seems to have been removed, but you can find other similar articles there; they are radical feminists who believe only women who are biologically born female can be women. In addition, though, check out Everyday Feminism as well; they're trans-inclusive and often write excellent articles on a variety of important and interesting topics.)
As a "beginner," new to this area of human rights, I started asking questions. Guess what I discovered. Not one person in support of equality for transgendered people would answer my questions, no matter how gently, humbly, kindly, tactfully, and articulately I asked them, let alone even allow me to ask them without angrily attacking me and attempting to shame me. I was immediately lashed out at as a horrible person just for wanting to understand both sides better. Like, because I was asking for clarity, and an informed perspective from people who have the experience and have found their voices on the matter, I was trans-exclusionary, or worse; I was treated as a bigot even though I ask questions out of a place of deep empathy and compassion, and never hatred. I mean, I’m a human rights activistbecause I care about the future of all of humanity! Not just the humans I agree with, but all of us. We’re all in this together, after all.
Just for clarity's sake, I'm sharing my personal story here not to make any of this about me, my negative experiences, or my complaints; in the bigger picture, this really has nothing to do with me. I'm sharing my personal story here because if I'm experiencing it this way then so are a lot of other people. And if they're asking questions, and seeking to learn more, they probably mean well. A caring heart that means well can be a powerful tool for social change when it's also informed on how to take the best action.
Getting back to the subject, though...
The next thing I discovered: “I’m more than my genitals” is this vague notion (but an important one) that we’re all supposed to accept without further explanation or understanding. Allies will jump on calling people who don’t understand (or believe) this statement disgusting and ignorant pieces of shit, or something similar, rather than taking the time and energy to further explain what that actually means to a trans person. Seriously, there's a big lack of anyone taking the time to put their anger and ego aside and help any of us understand this very key component of the transgender experience better! At least, that's been the case in my experience as someone hungry for knowledge and awareness.
Disappointed by a lack of resources on Google and feminism forums to help me grasp the importance of being trans-inclusive, or trans-positive, when compared to the radical feminists who find trans women a serious threat to non-transgender women, I turned within. I squeezed into my "empath hat" to recognize for myself what it must be like to be born in a wrong-sexed body. It’s moments like these that make me deeply grateful for my heightened empathy; empathy that otherwise often has me feeling far too sensitive to the world. In this case, I’m now able to better understand, as much as an ally can, that is, that being trans-gendered IS a matter of being more than our genitals; it’s a matter of who you are literally being born into the wrong type of body. It’s not about who you want to be (it’s not a grown man deciding he wants to be a woman, for example); it’s about who you just naturally are on the inside.
This world normalizes hetero and cis, in every way, and then alienates and punishes those who don't fit that mold.
(If my empathic understanding isn't a good enough argument for those who don't feel the same way, and I'm always in favor of people tuning into and trusting their own guts, I'd ask why, in a history of humans being female, male, something in the middle of that spectrum, AND transgendered, certain people now believe we all have to be either male/men or female/women depending on which body-type we were born into biologically. Transgender history is one simple Google search away...)
It helped, too, that I looked up some YouTube videos on transgendered people and watched Jazz Jennings talk about her life as a girl born into a biologically male body. It’s hard to ignore the innocence and purity of a child standing up for what they know is right.
Most importantly, for me at least, I finally accepted that when it comes to protecting the women’s rights movement, and protecting safe spaces for women from men, it’s not trans women I’m afraid of, it’s men; it’s misogyny and sexism against women; it’s male violence, rape, harrassment, object-ification, degradation, etc. against women, both individual and systemic; it’s the patriarchy; it's fear of testosterone and machismo.
So, while I have a thorough understanding of the anxiety that can be caused for many traumatized women by fear of a trans woman with a penis, or a trans woman who was raised as a male –with male privilege, a male view, male sexual impulses, and engrained misogyny- I also, just as thoroughly, understand that THE FOCUS HERE IS WRONG. Not that we should take the focus of women's safety and empowerment away from cis women, but that trans women aren’t men looking to pretend to be women so they can hurt other women or take over our few safe spaces; trans women identify with life AS women because they ARE women, on the inside. When we put aside our fear of men, rape, male violence, misogyny, and the patriarchy, it becomes easy to see there’s room for all women in our feminism and activism. We can find a way to support and strengthen the lives and communities of both cis women and trans women.
(If you don’t agree with this, then please, take some time, self-exploration, and courage to get in touch with what it is that frightens you or repels you here; what are you trying to protect and what’s the root fear behind that defense?)
But people, no matter our differing beliefs and values, have to be willing to start talking about this, from all angles, engaging in well-rounded conversations together. And ask questions, receptively, with defenses down, good listening skills up, and hearts wide open. We have to be willing to see each other’s sides and perspectives; to embrace each other’s experiences as our own, even if only briefly. We have to be willing –and brave enough- to teach others what we know while also continuing to openly learn new things about this movement of change and equality. We have to come together in this way, instead of fighting each other and keeping each other in the dark. Doesn't humanity deserve a mending and bridging of its people? Isn't it long overdue for all of us?
To bridge the gap between trans allies and trans skeptics (and hopefully trans enemies), we have to have the conversation of what it means to make space for transgendered people in this world, the way we’d have society make space for our daughters, mothers, fathers, sons, grandmothers, best friends, and selves. This is the conversation that needs to happen.