Women Plus Trans

“"Some trans women are really femme, some trans women are really butch. Everybody's different, and Caitlyn happens to be from a family -- I'm a huge Kardashians fan -- everybody in that family talks about hair and makeup and clothes all the time. It's their hobby to look good, so that's where Caitlyn comes from," Soloway said. "Whether or not she has a right to do that -- of course she has a right to do that. She's a woman. Every woman has a right to be as femme or as not femme as they wish to be. And it's absolutely awesome that Glamour has honored her."
-- Jill Soloway

It’s easy to map the challenges of transwomen onto the broader challenges of women in the world.

It’s just often not true or useful.   Trans issues are not just women’s issues; they add many layers of challenges and twists.

When, around the receipt of her Glamour Woman of the Year award, Ms. Jenner said “The hardest thing about being a woman is deciding what to wear,” nobody was questioning her right to wear whatever she wanted.

What they were questioning is her understanding of what is really hard for women in the world.  How much does she understand the challenges of women in the world around sexism, economics, reproductive freedom and more?   Does she understand the shared cultural experience of women?

Most trans activists, were even questioning if she understood the range of challenges transwomen face in the world.

Because the most vocal transwomen are often the most newly out of women, entering their trans-adolescence and spouting off while being very self-focused, this is often a problem.

While Ms. Soloway may enjoy the Kardashians, I doubt she would want to see them as speaking for the US at a world conference on the status of women, for example.   In the trans sphere, though, we have few mature and senior people who are still attractive to the media, who much prefer shiny looks and simple coming out stories to the nuanced challenges of a trans life.

If a man makes a stupid mistake,
other men say “What a fool that man is.”
If a woman makes a stupid mistake,
the men say “What fools women are.”
— H.C.L. Jackson, 1888

For transpeople, we are still at the stage where we are seen as a group rather than individuals, where people are looking to dismiss the whole concept that transpeople deserve standing as people in the world.

This makes us highly sensitive to the choices that other transpeople make that we would never make for ourselves, often feeling the requirement to pass judgement on what they do.

The politically correct enforcement of social norms through identity politics has been a problem in second wave feminist circles, and I have no doubt that Ms. Soloway has felt that burn personally.   Her words speak to embracing diversity within the community of women, a great thing, but different than the challenge of where transwomen are in the world.

Carmen Carrera has a dream.   She wants to be just a woman, not a transperson.  That’s not an unusual dream; Who The Fuck Wants To Be A Tranny? (2006)

Wanting to be seen as normative, though, isn’t what happens to transwomen, at least not today.  And even if we do achieve that by determined stealth, we quickly find  that hiding part of who we are has a high cost to our soul.

The issues you lay out — lack of trust, perfectionism, emotional outbursts, denial, and disconnection from self — are all very much rooted in the experience of shame. 

Transpeople share the experience of being shamed into the closet, into severe self policing to keep the “bad” parts of themselves hidden from the world. Even when we emerge and are presenting as the gender associated with our trans heart, we still feel the need to self-police, keeping our history in the closet so people won’t use it to hurt and dismiss us. Doing the shame work, with people like Brené Brown and John Bradshaw has been vital for me, but even doing that, I still have to negotiate people who want to tell me that somehow, my trans expression isn’t “real.” 

I love the idea that people will do the work to reach out to transpeople, but that requires them to do their own healing beyond binary separations, something most still accept as “true.” For transpeople, the political is personal; our emotional healing is the only way we can help the world heal around separations that run though hearts. Healing ourselves is where trans liberation always has to start.

The experience of being trans is not simply the experience of being a woman in the world, no matter how glibly people want to map the trans experience onto woman’s experience in the world.    Transpeople don’t have the same group identity issues, the same kind of sexualization.  The social pressure we received to play a role is not the role we end up playing, but the role we are assigned by dint of our reproductive biology.

Women are taught to be women by the women around them, the mothers, grandmothers, peers and others who help girls understand the shared goals, heritage, strategies, trade-offs and challenges of being a woman in the world.  As girls experiment, growing into their womanhood, they are supported by other women at every step.

The rebirth we go through, standing alone rather than in a group of peers, always leaves us a bit distant and raw.

Transwomen are not simply women.   We have many other layers and many deficits to negotiate.  Maybe someday, when people stop seeing reproductive biology as determinate and transwomen can early and easily integrate into the community of women, being immersed in the traditions and challenges of womanhood this will change, but that isn’t today.

Today, transwomen always stand on shaky footing, waiting for the third gotcha, for our standing to change, sliding in what feels like a dangerous way.   We aren’t simply woman, even if the challenges of women can be mapped into our issues too.

One other point: femme, at least to me, doesn’t mean wearing fashion.  As a femme myself, I wouldn’t identify the Kardashian gals as femme, mostly because I would never identify them as queer.  They are feminine, no doubt, and make feminine choices, but femme choices queer femininity in a profound way, which is why femmes aren’t straight gals.

Engaging and embracing your own queerness, which means accepting both your queer individuality and the queerness of others beyond social expectations of normativity, is the way we grow up to be ourselves in the world.

When you think the hardest thing is picking an outfit, you signal that you very much care about fitting in, about how others see you.   For queers, the hard thing is moving past the expectations of just fitting in to claim our own unique and essential humanity.

Femme queers femininity.  And the queerness is the way we celebrate moving beyond expectations into exceptional.