Over the past two years, I’ve shared a lot of space with cisgender feminists who are seeking to add a trans voice to their panel, event, or conference. I can often sense that these feminists’ hearts are in the right place with regards to trans issues. They’re trying and their effort is real but they’re still struggling to work past some conceptual issues that might affect their use of language.
So let’s start with the language and work backwards. Trans-inclusive cisgender feminists still have some pretty pernicious habits of language that stubbornly persist in their vocabulary.
Many friends and colleagues have written or tweeted about this problematic language but, much like I did in this frequently shared post on the sex/gender distinction, I wanted to compose a handy reference for cisgender feminists who know they want to be trans-inclusive and have learned some basic vocabulary, but want to learn “how to talk about it” without setting off any alarm bells.
1) Please try to remove the phrases “female-identified,” “male-identified,””female-bodied,” and “male-bodied” from your vocabulary.
These phrases are my number one pet peeve. Often the people using them think that they’re being really good by using these phrases instead of saying “women” and “men.” What they don’t know is that these phrases have a long and troubled transphobic history and they carry a lot of conceptual baggage.
In their current instantiation, people who use these phrases are often just hypercorrecting, using language that is technically incorrect because it “sounds good.”
But why are they bad? “Female-identified” is a phrase that needlessly divides women from one another. When combined with language like “female-bodied,” “female-identified” carries with it the suggestion that women without vaginas are not really women, that they only identify as such in spite of their “male” bodies.
Bodies, furthermore, are not inherently male or female. Sex assignment is a social process governed largely by more-or-less arbitrary medical conventions surrounding ideal, normative genital appearance and heterosexual reproductive viability. The rigidity of our society’s two-sex system is by no means a natural outgrowth of our bodily characteristics: it’s our commitment to a two-gender system mapped in reverse onto our bodies.
“But chromsomes!” you might say. Nope. The things that you have learned and internalized about the sex of the human body are so affected by our social ideologies that they cannot be separated from them.
Even if distinctions like male/female-bodied vs. male/female identified were non-invasive or politically expedient (they’re neither), they also are semantically meaningless when we consider the full range of bodies that the category women includes. An intersex woman, for example, might not have a body that correlates with the connotations of the phrase “female-bodied,” but may not have born with a penis, either.
Transgender women who have undergone genital reassignment surgery also frustrate the way in which “female-bodied” is used as a distinction between cisgender and transgender women: they have breasts, they have vaginas, and their bodies do not produce substantial quantities of testosterone. They don’t have a uterus, sure, but some cisgender women are born without a uterus as well and we don’t call them “female-identified.”
By conventional and socially dominant methods of visible measurement, these transgender bodies are female. But I’m pretty sure that people who use the phrase “female-bodied” are intending to exclude these bodies when they deploy that language.
What’s the solution to all this confusion? It’s easier than you might think. “Women” is a category that includes a variety of gender expressions and bodies. It will do just fine when you want to talk about women. “Men” is a category that includes a variety of gender expressions and bodies. It will do just fine when you want to talk about men.
You might not think it’s that simple, however. Feminism and other progressive political movements rightly engage with bodies in their political activism. Feminism, for example, focuses on reproductive justice and healthcare. How can we talk about sex, bodies, and reproduction without drawing lines between transgender women and cisgender women’s bodies?
Easy. When you want to talk about gender, talk about gender. When you want to talk about body politics, talk about bodies. If you want to talk about issues that affect people with vaginas, for example, you’re talking about both men and women.
And, as Katherine Cross observes on Feministing, feminism should fully integrate a focus on transgender women’s reproductive rights and healthcare with a focus on issues like abortion and birth control. Trans women’s bodies are women’s bodies and they deserve a place in the mainstream of feminist body politics and reproductive justice efforts.
To summarize, then, phrases like “female-identified” and “female-bodied” are biologically reductionist, needlessly divisive, and functionally meaningless. If you feel like they are necessary to engage in your form of feminist body politics, it’s time to shake up your body politics. EIther way, please quit using these phrases.
2) Please do not list “women” and “trans women” as different categories when listing marginalized groups or talking about oppression.
Separating out “trans women” from “women” carries with it the suggestion that a “trans woman” is not a woman unmodified, that she is a different kind of person entirely. “Women” is allowed to stand alone as an unquestioned and unmarked category while “trans women” are marked as the Other to a de facto group of cisgender women.
This linguistic habit also runs the risk of suggesting that trans women do not experience the same marginalization that women do. I most recently heard it used in the context of “I know what it’s like to be a woman but I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans woman.”
While there are forms of oppression that are unique to transgender people, transgender women share in cisgender women’s oppression. Sexual and domestic violence, street harassment, employment discrimination, body image issues, lack of access to reproductive health care, eating disorders, self-harm, the list goes on; if it affects cisgender women, it affects transgender women, too.
Furthermore, if you utter the word “women,” you are already including transgender women by definition. At that point, it’s up to you to be sure that your feminist politics also includes issues that acutely affect transgender women in particular such as police harassment, stop and frisk laws, gender identity inclusion in civil rights legislation, access to trans-inclusive healthcare, etc.
In some contexts where it’s necessary to highlight your own privilege, it might be worthwhile to note that you are unaware of the added layers of marginalization that transgender women experience. But do not do this at the expense of disavowing the common struggles of women, unmarked, unmodified, transgender and cisgender alike.
When you must speak to the specific issues that affect cisgender women and transgender women respectively, don’t leave your own womanhood unmarked while marking a transgender woman’s womanhood.
Transgender women’s particular struggles are yours too as a fellow woman; they’re not mythical, comprehension-defying.forms of oppression. If you’re a cisgender woman, you don’t get to speak from experience about transgender women’s specific oppression, true, nor do you have the authority to prescribe directions for transfeminist politics, but you also don’t get to mark transgender issues as a very important special interest compartment of feminism. They’re your issues, too.
3) Please do not self-label as “cisgender” unless you are directly commenting on your own privilege.
There are moments when one’s cisgender status needs to be acknowledged. When making claims about transgender people or speaking about transfeminist politics, it’s probably useful to let your audience know the location from which you’re speaking.
But don’t drop your “cisgender” status so much that it becomes an empty disclaimer. You do need to consider issues of authority and perspective, but please be aware that constantly reminding everyone that you’re cisgender is a way of highlighting differences between women rather than building community among them.
This is why I generally advise other women not to disclose their cisgender status on Facebook now that gender options have expanded unless they primarily use their Facebook as a political platform and feel it necessary to disclose their position of privilege.
4) Don’t make distinctions between sex and gender or use phrases like “biological woman” or “biowoman.”
I have written about this before: here and here. The justification for removing these phrases from your vocabulary follows point #1 in this piece as well.
The general lesson across all these points is: don’t draw distinctions between cisgender and transgender women unless you have to. When you do need to draw these distinctions, don’t use language that ties specific genders to specific kinds of bodies.
While I generally give most cisgender feminists who use this language the benefit of a doubt, I do want to mark a troubling mindset that often lurks behind these phrases and linguistic habits. If you’ve read through this article, clearly see what’s been happening with your language, and you’re ready to change it, congratulations! My work here is done.
If you were still encountering some internal resistance as you scrolled through this piece, read on:
Some cisgender feminists want to practice trans-inclusive politics, they know how to repeat the mantra “trans women are women” like it’s their job, but somewhere in their heart of hearts, they still approach a transgender woman on an interpersonal level as a different kind of woman. Somewhere, it still matters to them what kind of genitals another woman has. Somewhere, they don’t feel a transgender woman as their sister, they see her as an asterisk.
If this is you, you’ve probably got some internal work to do that goes beyond your use of language. You have to ask yourself what womanhood means to you, you have to internalize what it means for you personally that the category of “woman” includes people without vaginas or people who did not have them since birth, you have to examine and challenge your own cisnormative feelings of entitlement to know the intimate details of other women’s bodies.
You have to figure out a way not just to say that transgender women are women, but to embrace transgender women as such in a way that is not tokenistic, condescending, or hollow. If this describes your position, start with the language and let your heart follow.