Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Thoughts on feminism, femininity and being female in the 21st century

On International Women's Day, here's another very personal essay, this time on what it is to be a woman and how to be a feminist in the modern world. Be warned, it's a long 'un. 

It’s International Women’s Day today. To me, that includes all women, of whatever skin colour or belief system, whether they were born with vaginas or not. It also includes people whose gender doesn’t neatly fit at one end of the spectrum or the other, yet still possess vaginas and want to continue possessing them. It also includes men, with or without penises at birth. Importantly, men have to be included in dialogue in order to promote understanding and support on both sides.

Let’s be honest: your nads are your business. You can be feminist if you have a vagina, if you have a penis, if you have neither or both, if you get your tits out in an international fashion magazine, if you keep yourself covered fully in public. We’re 17 years into the 21st century, for crying out loud. It’s who you are and how you treat people that should count. 

Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll be upfront. I have a specific issue I’d like to talk about, and about which I’ve spent a long time thinking and wondering whether to shove my oar in. So here goes nothing:

Too much has been written recently about how trans women (the area seems to be a bit greyer where genderqueer or agender people are concerned) shouldn’t be included in today’s festivities, shouldn’t be included in feminism, and shouldn’t even be considered women. The thinking, according to at least some of the writing I’ve read, seems to be that these are men who, almost on a whim, decided they quite fancied being women – as if they’re just playing dress up, playacting at being female.

A lot of the rhetoric seems to exclude the personal torment, the mental health issues, and the stigma they will have faced in coming out and beginning the process of transitioning. It also ignores the fact that transitioning is never done lightly – it can’t be, because there are too many barriers, legal, medical and otherwise.

For many trans people, it might have taken a lifetime to get there. They might be treated like freaks, shunned by their families and their communities. For some, too, at the very best, it might mean facing ostracism and scorn, and the very worst, violence and death, just as so-called “real” women have in other circumstances. 

The people who engage in the kind of thinking that treats trans women as “fake” women would do well to remember that trans women most assuredly have their own struggles, equally real and even equally painful. What’s more, if you’ve lived most of your life as a man, of course it’s going to take time to learn the realities of being a woman. Of course you’ll see things through a male gaze. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn, or that they should be forbidden from trying. 

These people would also do well to remember that, just as there are people who are physically male and want to become female, there are those for whom the reverse is true, who will have endured many, if not all, of the same struggles, and who also deserve a place at the table. Would you devote as many column inches to saying trans men aren’t “real” men? I doubt it. Why do it to trans women?

While I don’t agree with it, I admit I can see where this exclusionary mentality comes from. At least to an extent, men who transition must have enjoyed the privileges that go along with being male. They haven’t had to suffer the same knock backs and discrimination and dangers as those assigned female at birth and who’ve grown up in a world that tells them they’re inferior because of their sex.

They are, however, prepared to drop all their male privilege in exchange for ridicule and condemnation, so that they can stop hiding.

The problem, really, is that this mentality speaks of a mindset that is in fact extremely outdated: women are this, men are that, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Whether intentionally or not, it actually seems to support the very rigid definitions of gender that created the dangerous divisions between the treatment of men and women in the first place. 

The fact is, the idea of being transgender simply hasn’t been part of the mainstream consciousness for long enough to have generated the same levels of oppression. The issues around it are still being unpacked. But that doesn’t mean trans women shouldn’t be included in the discussion of feminism and on how to go forward. Why can’t we add their struggle to the existing one, and work together? Why can’t we all be on the same page? All people should be treated equally. Can’t we agree on that at least?

Here’s my thought process: it’s not about eroding the position of either women or men, or the hard-won rights that feminists have fought for over the centuries. In fact, at a fundamental level, I’d argue there must be a definition of what a woman or man is, physically, mentally and emotionally, for someone to identify as one or the other. You can’t have trans women without women, or trans men without men. But being born with the “wrong” genitalia doesn’t exclude you from aligning yourself with one gender or the other. It doesn’t mean you have to be one thing or the other. Male is not the opposite of female. You can sit at either end of the spectrum, whether you were born there or not, and anywhere in between. 

Of course, it’s perfectly possible to be masculine without being male, and feminine without being female, and that, I’d argue, is another great example of the strides humanity has made. You have that choice now. I’m a (cis) woman, married to a (cis) man, but that doesn’t mean I have to wear frilly frocks and stay at home and make his dinner every night. I could choose to, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone else making that choice. But at the same time, we’re equal partners and neither of us is lessened by not fitting into a “traditional” role.

I admit, I do wonder about the validity of labelling children as transgender at very young ages, as I think there has to be a certain amount of maturity, a certain amount of understanding present before one’s identity is fully formed. Kids do go through phases – I myself wore my hair short and liked being mistaken for a boy between the ages of about nine and eleven – and sometimes, they stick, but sometimes they don’t. In my opinion, it’s better to let kids figure things out for themselves and make up their own minds about their identities. It’s better to let them know it’s ok for them to go against the “norm”, and help them understand gender identity, but don’t prejudge them or force them into a pigeonhole. Then, if they themselves feel their gender doesn’t match their sex, support them and stick by them if they decide to transition. 

(Let me interject here that being transracial is not a thing. The constructs around race and ethnicity are wholly different to those around gender and sex. Let’s leave that alone for now, but read this, by someone much cleverer than me, if you still can’t grasp it.)

I also concede that it’s totally daft to stop putting on productions of The Vagina Monologues, or stop talking about issues that pertain solely to women who were born with female genitalia, such as reproductive rights, because it supposedly excludes trans women. 

The point here is that there will be issues that affect trans women only, issues that affect cis women only, issues that affect black women, Indian women, Muslim women, Christian women, small groups of women, large groups, medium groups, all of the above, some of the above, and varying combinations. We don’t have to exclude one for the benefit of another, and nor should we: it risks derailing feminist discourse altogether. 

Instead, we need to be as aware of all these issues as we can, and to take stock of the intersections and the differences that make us so amazing and diverse and cool. We all need to be part of the discussion, and we all need to be thinking about ways to make things better. We need to stop saying, “you’re excluded because you don’t have this” or “you’re only included if you do have that”.

Feminism is not the exclusive domain of a single group. Everyone can be a feminist, and everyone should be. As I’ve said before, we need to use whatever privilege we have to help those who don’t have it. 

Full disclosure: I admit, I don’t understand what it is to be transgender and never fully could, for the simple reason that I’m not transgender. My personal privilege is largely attached to my skin colour, but also to the fact I’m (more or less) cisgender. I don’t have that experience and never will. 

But I also accept that it’s not for me to decide how someone else presents themselves. It’s not for me to tell them they can’t be who they are because it doesn’t sit neatly within an outdated definition of manhood or womanhood. If you’re not hurting anybody, you do you. What’s going on under your clothes is really none of my business. Now let me welcome you to the table, and let’s start talking.  

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