Radical feminism holds that what is currently known as ‘gender’ is not a condition which naturally arises either from an individual’s sex or from any other innate source, instead being an ideology of ‘sex roles’ which support and are constructed by the patriarchy.
While the way in which gender is produced is often described as “socialisation” or “conditioning”, this article suggests modelling it as a lifelong process of sex role education, covering more than just the sex role an individual is expected to play.
This model allows us to explore in some detail the experience of transsexual people under patriarchy and to question some binaries around the political features of transsexual identities.
With these considerations in mind we revisit the political category of ‘woman’ – as used to understand structured sexism – from the point of view of transsexual women’s inclusion.
Trigger and Content Warnings
Trigger Warnings: This article contains mentions of emotional, physical and sexual violence against women and children. It contains one historical account of mistreatment in captivity.
Content Warnings: This article contains discussion of feminine socialisation and a direct account of the positions of women and men in society. It goes into considerable detail regarding medical establishment gatekeeping of treatment for transsexual women.
Who Is This Article For?
Some parts of this article may be very basic reading for radical feminists, other parts similarly for trans* people and/or those with a queer studies background, but I hope most readers will find that the article as a whole covers some useful ground.
As with any discussion of sex and gender, there may be points which some readers will disagree with, two of which may be worth disclosing up-front. One is that gender will be described in the way already mentioned above, as an ideology and not as an innate property of human beings. The second is that the existence of sex dysphoria, i.e. a loosely binary feeling of discrepancy between one’s physical sexual characteristics and those typically associated with the sex designated as the ‘other’ sex, will be taken as a given and not ascribed to social causes.
However, this piece is as much about the realpolitik as the theory, and so I’d encourage dissenting readers to continue regardless. The point you may dispute is one which defines another reader’s life, and you don’t need to share their viewpoint in order to encounter their attitudes and actions or learn from their experience.
There are groups of people whose life experiences are poorly represented in this piece, and which may be excluded on a structural level by the views taken in this piece. Those groups may include but are not limited to transsexual men, intersex people, other gender-variant people, cross-dressing/transvestite people, other people who experience gendered behaviour as innate, racialised trans* people, more-or-less anyone whose experience of gender is non-white and people who or whose cultures delineate sex, gender and sexuality in ways other than the dominant Western orthogonal systems (more on this here and here).
To those people: this article is an exploration of the consequences of gender-as-ideology for transsexual people, and an exploration of the consequences of transsexual experience under cispatriarchy for radical feminist conceptions of gender and political definitions of ‘womanhood’. In this, I’m writing what I know: I am a transsexual woman, I am a radical feminist. As always, I welcome and will publish comments and other responses from people with lived experience I lack. And I am not trying to lay out a theory that will colonise the ways you structure your own experience. This dialogue is directed inwards towards fellow radical feminists and (probably mostly white) transsexual women and asks us to reflect on each other’s lived experience and wisdom.
Gender and the Sex Role Education
Radical Feminists on Gender
Most articles on gender must necessarily open with several pages defining what gender is and does before any real discussion can begin. This article doesn’t aim to cover either of those subjects and will focus instead on how gender is done to us. This section will briefly introduce radical feminist ideas on the nature and purpose of gender – ideas which will be returned to repeatedly throughout the article – before moving on to the central topic. Those interested in a thorough discussion of the nature and purpose of gender can find it elsewhere in radical feminist writing.
Radical feminism understands gender as an ideology of male supremacy, serving as one of many tools which uphold patriarchy and other dominant orders, and radical feminists consider any attempt to explain gendered behaviours as “innate” to be antifeminist. As Dworkin wrote in Right Wing Women:
Antifeminism, in any of its political colorations, holds that the social and sexual condition of women essentially (one way or another) embodies the nature of women, that the way women are treated in sex and in society is congruent with what women are…
We are assigned at birth into either the dominant patriarchal class or the sex class based primarily on genital characteristics (in many Western countries, doctors may alter the genitalia of intersex infants to facilitate this) and subsequently primed to assume the appropriate role: “male” gender for the patriarchs, “female” gender for the sex class. The male-supremacist gender ideology varies across different cultures and sometimes includes additional roles, but these two are the most common.
Because it is a common misunderstanding, I’d like to draw out a particular response often made to this view, which is that it is labelling women who merely perform female gendered behaviour as antifeminist. It is not. Many women who perform female gendered behaviour already understand it not to embody the nature of women. Many more at least suspect that it may not. And when it comes to labelling people – not views – as antifeminist, then my list is long and men are at the top. Women who are not radical feminists may feel threatened by this theory insofar as they suspect that men may push them out in front of us to take the hits. They don’t need to worry; we radical feminist women are smart and will step past them to direct our blows where they belong.
Sex Role Education
The words mostly commonly used to describe this grooming process are “socialisation” and “conditioning”. Both of these imply a process which is done against an individual and are usually followed by words like “as”, e.g. “socialisation as a woman”.
In place of these I would like to introduce the metaphor of sex role education, an activity performed by society as a whole upon society as a whole and containing rich, multi-layered information about multiple sex roles.
Sex role education consists of the continuous propagation of gender beliefs and direct enforcement of gendered sex role behaviours. The process of sex role education ultimately results in the formation of 1) an individual’s gender worldview, consisting of gendered beliefs about ourselves and others based on the sex we are assigned and assign to others and 2) conditioned (unthinking) gendered behaviour.
The curriculum of sex role education is composed of a set of rules about ‘what female-sexed people are like’ and ‘what male-sexed people are like’, alongside a set of cautionary tales of “what freaks are like” (more on this system of female/male/freak gender classification).
Because gender is a male-supremacist ideology, sex role education contains sexist lessons such as, “female-sexed people are irrational” and “male-sexed people’s views are important”. Some lessons are descriptive: “female-sexed people are caring”, and others are prescriptive: “female-sexed people should not make a fuss”. Sometimes the lessons are tagged explicitly with a sex, such as in the above examples, and sometimes they are given as direct behavioural commands in which sex is implied: when you and other people assigned female are repeatedly told to remain indoors while people assigned male are told to go outside and play, the lesson that the female sex should stay indoors is implicit but clear.
Sex role education utilises various teaching methods: general immersion in a thoroughly gendered society, one-to-one tutorials with adults who give direct instruction on how ‘our’ sex should behave, peer-group discussion in which we talk about gender amongst ourselves and exchange the ideas we have received, and severe ongoing assessments in which we are punished for behaviour seen as gender-variant and rewarded for behaviour seen as gender-conforming. School popularity contests such as end-of-year ‘Queen’ and ‘King’ coronations could even be seen to function as final examinations, were sex role education not a life-long process.
Different Educations For Different Groups
This concept of sex role education lends itself easily to articulating how different people receive different educations. Not only are we each educated that women and men are different, people assigned as girls and boys are actually subscribed to different – although overlapping – curricula on what exactly women and men ‘are’ and how they should behave. For example, girls are educated that men are predatory, whereas boys don’t receive the same message about men. This can result in disconnects during adult conversations in which privileged men don’t acknowledge women’s beliefs about men as predatory, or conceptualise those beliefs as individual aberrations based on ‘bad experiences’ or even ‘prejudice’ (and there are certainly also other reasons why these conversations occur, many of which imply more male culpability).
The way in which the information is distributed is typically unequal, with women being taught more about aspects of the male sex role than vice versa. Among other things this reflects the aspect of the female sex role concerning the performance of cross-gender emotional work requiring knowledge of internalised male sex roles.
Sex roles are intersectional with other social educations such as education about race. We are taught different things about white women and black women, for example. And as with sex roles, which racialised beliefs a person is taught will depend on their own race – or the race ascribed to them by society in the case of misracialised people – such that white and black women are taught different things about white women and about black women as classes.
Again, as with gendered roles, the disprivileged class may be unable to escape learning more about the privileged class, whereas one aspect of privilege is the privilege to remain ignorant of the values and internal lives of disprivileged people. Put simply: to survive the condition of being racialised under white supremacy, or being a woman under patriarchy, may require knowledge of the privileged class, but not vice versa.
Thus we acquire a body of beliefs about people, beliefs which are gendered, racialised and otherwise coded, and the specific set of beliefs we acquire is based on the place society assigns us within those systems of coding. We use those beliefs to draw conclusions about others based on the place we assign them, and conclusions about ourselves based on the places we are assigned by others as well as the place we assign ourselves.
Fluidity and Reeducation
The previous paragraph should demonstrate that the process of sex role education is difficult enough to understand for people who remain in the place society assigns them. People who move between positions can end up occupying very complex territory. We can explore this using the example of a transsexual woman’s experience, since that is my own perspective as well as one which illuminates several points I would like to cover.
The key points I would like to make, each of which we will explore in further detail, are:
That a person whose assigned sex feels ‘wrong’ to them will acquire different self-beliefs and behaviours than a person whose assigned sex feels ‘right’
That as a transsexual person moves away from the sex they are assigned at birth to assert their self-identified sex, they typically apply new beliefs to themselves based on what they have learned about the sex role associated with that sex
That this does not lead to identical self-beliefs and behaviour as if the person was cissexual, because people assigned different sexes at birth receive different programmes of sex role education
But that society will intervene to try and ‘normalise’ a person’s behaviour, self-beliefs and worldview, through both everyday methods (general sex role education in society) and exceptional methods, such as blackmail over access to medical treatment
What is Sex Dysphoria?
Before we discuss each of these points further, I would like to clarify what I mean by feeling ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in an assigned sex. I don’t mean feeling comfortable in a sex role. As specified earlier, sex roles (i.e. genders) are ideologically constructed in order to uphold patriarchy. Many people rightfully feel uncomfortable to some extent in their sex role, especially many women.
Instead, by feeling ‘right’, I mean a feeling of physical congruence with the identity characteristics used by patriarchy to assign sex (and thence sex roles) to individuals. For example, in a person with a penis – a characteristic typically used to assign ‘male’ sex and hence to educate a person into the male sex role – I mean a feeling of comfort and naturalness that the penis is an appropriate part of the body. And by feeling ‘wrong’, I mean a sense of sex dysphoria; for example, that the penis – along with other sexual characteristics – is not meant to be there, and that the primary sexual characteristic should be a vulva. This is not to reduce sex dysphoria to primary and secondary sexual characteristics; instead, insofar as sex is binary, sex dysphoria indicates a broad dysphoria over a wide range of sexed body characteristics.
Some readers may dispute that these feelings are legitimate, where what is typically meant by ‘legitimate’ is whether they stem from a discrete medical disorder or arise for social reasons. I would encourage those readers to focus less on the perceived legitimacy of these feelings and more on the fact that people exist who experience them. I am personally quite convinced that sex dysphoria is a concrete, indisputable reality, but what I’d like to clarify is that even if you hold another position, transsexual people still live the experience of sex dysphoria and as a result, move between social positions in the way this article describes.
I’ll now move on to my first point about transsexual experience.
Statement 1: A person whose assigned sex feels ‘wrong’ to them will acquire different self-beliefs and behaviours than a person whose assigned sex feels ‘right’
For cissexual girls, the components of sex role education which serve to inculcate gendered self-beliefs work as follows:
You are a girl. Girls are like this. Hence, you are like this.
Many cissexual girls will experience dissonance somewhere between the second and third sentences of that summary. Cissexual girls who have developed a conscious or unconscious critique of gender may object to “Girls are like this”, as they look around them at their peers and notice that, as a group, they don’t perfectly match these gendered roles. And cissexual girls who may be willing to accept general statements about other girls will still feel some discomfort with, “You are like this”, since they are simply not like this – yet.
For a transsexual girl (that is to say, a girl who was assigned male sex at birth, who still resides in that social assignation and who is being exposed to the sex role education aimed at boys), the message follows the same structure but the points of discomfort are somewhat different:
You are a boy. Boys are like this. Hence, you are like this.
The first point of discomfort is, “You are a boy”. The extent to which this statement is dissonant will depend on the extent to which she experiences sex dysphoria and feels that the physical characteristics being used as a basis for that statement aren’t a core part of her body. The second point of discomfort may be, “Boys are like this”. Just as for the cissexual girl, the transsexual girl may have developed an analysis of gender ideology which allows her to identify these general statements as suspect. Finally, the transsexual girl may also feel dissonance with the conclusion, “Hence, you are like this”. The specifics of this for a transsexual girl bear some attention:
She may feel some dissonance in a way similar to the cissexual girl; she may realise that she is not like this. Since gender roles are a fiction, in some ways it doesn’t really matter which fictional role a child is being told they are like; there will inevitably be dissonance since people do not match those roles.
There is something to be said, though, for the fact that the male sex roles which cissexual boys and transsexual girls are told to inhabit are, reflecting patriarchy, more privileged than the female sex roles forced upon cissexual girls and transsexual boys. So the statement, “You are like this [sex role]” may be easier to accept in some ways for transsexual girls than it is for cissexual girls, because an existence which promises male privilege is a more liveable existence than one which does not.
A transsexual girl may already have developed an identification with cissexual girls, based on the fact that she rejects “You are a boy” and is looking for another sex assignment she can accept. In that case, “You are like this [male sex role]” may be dissonant for another reason. She may already have started to absorb sex role beliefs about herself based on the information she is exposed to about the female sex role. While this is not the same information being given to cissexual girls – remember, the sex role education one receives is based partially on who society thinks one is, and society thinks she is a boy – it is still a sex role which can be internalised as self-beliefs. When told, “You are like [the male sex role]“, she thinks, “No, I am not. I am like [what I know of the female sex role]” and tries to resist the conditioning.
Regardless of this dissonance, the messages are powerful – and, as discussed earlier, are driven home in many different ways – and it’s likely for every child that much of the conditioning will to some extent get through.
But what I am trying to highlight here is that there are actually more than two kinds of childhood sex role education. While society attempts to give the same education to transsexual children as it does cissexual children – since it typically does not recognise the existence of transsexual children – it often produces different results. Though definitely a simplification, it may be useful to think of there as being at least four broad types of childhood sex role education when considering cis/trans* (and of course more along other axes): that received by cissexual girls, cissexual boys, transsexual girls and transsexual boys.
Statement 2: As a transsexual person moves away from the sex they are assigned at birth to assert their self-identified sex, they typically apply new beliefs to themselves based on what they have learned about the sex role associated with their self-identified sex
As a transsexual woman begins to understand herself as transsexual and as a person of female sex, she may – depending on the extent to which she accepts gender ideology – begin to identify herself more with the female sex role. As a result, many transsexual women will begin to form self-beliefs based on what they have learned about the female sex role in their sex role education.
They are not starting from a place of no knowledge. Society is thoroughly gendered, and everyone’s sex role educations, including those of transsexual girls and women, include considerable information on “what women are like”. This may involve a transsexual woman beginning to conceive of herself as more compassionate, or less capable of logical problem-solving. It may also involve changes in behaviour such as speaking up less in group environments or taking on more emotional work.
Of course, new self-beliefs don’t always translate into conditioned behaviour. Two women, one cissexual, one transsexual, may both hold the same poisonous self-belief that, “as a woman, I must present myself as attractive to the heterosexual male gaze”, but the transsexual woman may not yet reflexively perform acts of subservience under the male gaze such as dropping eye contact, adopting submissive physical postures and performing public smiling. As acts like these are key to gendered behaviour, this may cause the transsexual woman to be misgendered by cissexual men and cissexual women alike and treated as a ‘freak’.
Lack of alternative models of womanhood and the punishment of misgendering are two of the reasons why we can understand a adult transsexual woman’s ‘choice’ to adopt the self-beliefs and behaviours of the learned female sex role as a choice made under duress. There are other reasons; we’ll explore the full extent of this duress later when we discuss the ways in which society intervenes to ‘gender’ transsexual people.
The extent to which the identification is formed under duress should also be kept in mind when attaching political meanings to the act of transsexual women’s identification with the female sex role. It’s an act which some cis radical feminists can see as antifeminism: that a person may first identify themselves as female-sexed, and then as a result of this identify themselves with the female sex role, suggests that they see the female sex role to be an inherent quality of the female sex.
I don’t disagree, but I’d invite those who follow this line of reasoning to consider how many cissexual women do just the same thing. The association of female sex with the female sex role is both an expression of internalised antifeminism and also typical of most people who are not radical feminists, both cis and trans*. It’s unfortunate – and a natural consequence of patriarchy – that there is very little instruction available in society upon how to “do” womanhood apart from the sex role education which sets out the female sex role. Radical and other feminisms suggest alternate models of womanhood, but not all people have access to these or the time or energy to apply feminist critiques to their own lives.
There are women of every kind, all the time; there are always women who will ignore egregious wrongs. My aspirations for dignity and equality do not hinge on perfection in myself or in any other woman; only on the humanity we share, fragile as that appears to be.
- Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, 2nd Edition (1989), Introduction
Dworkin was speaking here about women’s political responses to pornography but she could just as well have been talking about women’s responses to sex roles. And insofar as radical feminists should understand transsexual women as women in a political sense – a topic I’ll address below – I believe her argument applies to transsexual women as well. We are all – even those of us who embrace it with the limited agency we have available – entitled to liberation from the oppressive work done on us by the female sex role.
Statement 3: This does not lead to identical self-beliefs and behaviour as if the person was cissexual, because people assigned different sexes at birth receive different programmes of sex role education
If you recall our earlier point, the lessons on ‘what women are like’ have different content based on the sex society considers the (oft-unwilling) pupils to be. This means that transsexual women raised as boys will have absorbed a different idea of ‘what women are like’ from cissexual women raised as girls.
But it’s not just the lessons learned about women which are different. The ways in which they are given are different too. One flaw of the ‘sex role education’ concept is that it sounds gentle, like warm days spent at school. Perhaps it is worth remembering exactly what school was like for some of us before we associate education with benevolence, as Kwerey writes in her excellent new blog, querything:
It’s just about little increments of damage, it’s about how the way we grow up shapes us. It’s about the climate there: a climate that got more hostile the further you obviously you broke rules about things like gender, and I’m sure similar climates sit heavily on people all over the country as they grow up and as they start to look for a sexual identity. I’d put it behind me, those schools, the time I spent there not very happily, but looking back now I think it’s worth remembering the place, and remembering all the holes it didn’t fill in my identity.
Sex role education is punishing and vicious. Its methods are inhumane in proportion to the inhumanity of the role which is being enforced. This means that it is especially inhumane in its treatment of those who are being groomed for the female sex role, because the female sex role is less fully human. Part of the sex role education must necessarily be corporal, the infliction of psychic (and sometimes physical) wounds aimed to suppress resistance and to break girls for womanhood. Emotional and physical violence against women and girls is endemic and this is one of its functions.
Other groups are also subject to gendered forms of violence. As is frequently remarked, Patriarchy Hurts Men Too. But we should also place considerable weight on the violence done to trans* children. Properly, this isn’t ‘gendered’ violence, it is ‘cisgendered’ violence since it’s administered, not to a gender, but to people whose gendered expression is perceived to deviate from the sex role education in such a way as to suggest they identify themselves with the ‘other’ sex role. (Though of course transsexual boys may also be recipients of the general gendered violence aimed at girls.)
There are some points of commonality between cisgendered and gendered violence as they relate to sex role education. They are typically administered by people or systems which understand there to be two sex roles and who wish to force a child (or adult, but we are discussing childhood) to conform to one of those roles. The admonishment delivered, explicit or implicit, alongside the violence is, “Be a man!”, or, “Act ladylike!”. (Isn’t it interesting how one is ‘be’ and one is ‘act’? If I didn’t know better, I’d say the patriarchy is self-aware and self-satirising.)
A second admonishment embedded in these violences is, “Your sex is your sex role is your reality”. Assuming the impossibility of transitioning between assigned sexes, sex-immutability acts as a pillar of the sex role education by constructing sex roles as an inevitable consequence of sex, which apparently is inescapable. Both cis- and transsexual people experience the assertion that sex roles are reality as a form of violence. But only transsexual people also experience violence in the assertion, implicit in the above, that your sex is your reality.
Put another way, we can understand “your sex is your sex role is your reality” as a combination of cissexism (sex-immutability) and sexism (sex/sex role correspondence), with the two systems working together to close the circle of sex role assignation.
Only transsexual children betray the doctrine of sex-immutability in visible ways which prompt people and systems to target them with cisgendered violence. There is a difference between the violence employed against girls who won’t stay quiet (a requirement of the female sex role and a transgression under sexism), and children-assigned-as-boys who try on dresses (a violation of sex-immutability and a transgression under cissexism). But there is a similarity in that both forms of violence are applied to keep us in, and to make us conform to, gendered roles.
Cisgendered violence isn’t necessarily ‘more’ or ‘less’ violent than gendered violence – I would like to reject these terms as absolute properties of violence, since the hurt is in the experience of violence, which varies with the survivor – but it is violence with a different purpose and it will be applied in different ways. None of this is an appeal to “oppression olympics”, in which transsexual and cissexual women can compete to decide who had the most unhappy childhoods. Cissexism and sexism are not comparable, are both tragedies, and cannot be traded off against one another.
Instead we should continue to see the issue as complex, not as a simple case of oppressed and not oppressed; something Dworkin acknowledged in Woman Hating:
There is no doubt that in the culture of male-female discreteness, transsexuality is a disaster for the individual transsexual. Every transsexual, white, black, man, woman, rich, poor, is in a state of primary emergency as a transsexual.
- Dworkin, Woman Hating (EP Dutton, 1974)
Statement 4: Society will intervene to try and ‘normalise’ a person’s behaviour, self-beliefs and worldview
While the previous section discussed a function of gendered and cisgendered violences against children, here we will address the methods employed against adults who are perceived to be gender-variant, and some of the reasons for them.
For patriarchy to function, it is necessary that most people behave according to the sex role assigned to them. If there were too many people visibly acting outside of sex roles, those roles might lose their claim to universality. And as sex roles directly support patriarchy, sufficient non-compliance might actually weaken patriarchy. The dominant order clearly will not allow this.
In my article, The Gender Ternary, I described how society rejects individuals who it cannot fit into the gender (sex role) system, classifying them as ‘freaks’ to avoid the need to deconstruct the two predominant sex roles.
But what about when a person can be conceivably fitted into a sex role, and it’s just that this sex role is not the one they are assigned at birth? This was the realisation reached in Western society when it became clear that transsexual people, like cissexual people, typically absorbed enough binary-gender ideology that they could potentially be incorporated into the system rather than placed outside of it.
The cultural response to this realisation resembles nothing more than a programme of remedial sex role education, designed to bring transsexual people into line as quickly as possible with the sex role associated with their self-identified sex. Some readers will be familiar with what this entails, but for those who aren’t, a brief summary.
First, a transsexual woman must survive childhood and, potentially, cisgendered violence. If she does, she must then come to terms with transsexuality. Most of her models are media portrayals of transsexual women as freaks, held up as cautionary tales to reinforce cissexism. Despite this, she overcomes trepidation to register with her doctor and attend an initial consultation to discuss her feelings about gender.
Note how the discussion is already framed in terms of gender and not sex. While it’s understood that sex dysphoria is part of transsexual experience, gender dysphoria is thought to be an inevitable, medical component of transsexuality, despite the fact that great numbers of cissexual people experience what could also be called gender dysphoria, in that they feel a discomfort with the sex role expected of them.
She now enters the first part of a long ‘gatekeeping’ phase. Ostensibly designed to prevent delusional cissexual people – thinking themselves transsexual – from passing through the treatment system for transsexuality, this involves years of consultations, assessments and hurdles. She will be judged on her body language, her dress, her ‘dedication’, her history, her family background, her relationships and her good manners.
Unfortunately, very few of those gates have anything to do with sex. If the function of the gatekeeping was to ensure that cissexual people do not mistakenly access sex hormone treatment or surgery on primary and secondary sexual characteristics, then wearing a skirt and lipstick to the psychological assessment would not be a tacit requirement for diagnosis.
At best, gatekeeping acts to determine whether a transsexual woman who accesses medical treatments has absorbed sufficient education on the female sex role that she will be able to assimilate into the gender system as a woman and not be a ‘freak’. (I would like to defend transsexual women who make this so-called ‘choice’, by the way, just as I don’t attack cissexual woman who consider their survival tied to their performance of the female sex role.) That is to say, looked at in the most generous possible light, it is patronising and infantalising.
In reality, the primary effect of gatekeeping is to act as an advanced component of sex role education. By requiring certain criteria to be met before treatment may progress, the gatekeepers are like teachers who teach to a test, a test they are also responsible for assessing. Gatekeeping both produces and enforces sex roles in transsexual people.
One common criteria for beginning treatment is that a woman must disclose a convincing transsexual history. In the minds of gender-confused, antifeminist doctors, the only transsexual history they find convincing is a history of cross-gender identification, an unbidden arising of the ‘other’ sex’s gendered thoughts and behaviours. It should not be surprising that many transsexual women, having suffered for years with sex dysphoria and only accessing medical treatment when they are desperate, will disclose a perfectly potted traditional transsexual narrative complete with borrowing their mother’s dresses at age seven and total identification with the female sex and sex role at least since puberty.
For some, coming to believe in such a history may even be a psychological precondition for attending the assessment in the first place. The history above may be a fair representation of the occasional transsexual woman’s experiences. But as it is the only representation we are ever shown by the media, many women who understand themselves as transsexual must resolve any cognitive dissonance between their more opaquely gendered history and the traditional transsexual narrative. One way of doing that is to reject the traditional transsexual narrative as the only transsexual narrative, but another is to internalise the traditional history and to selectively reimagine one’s own history as if it had followed this commonly portrayed pattern. (It’s certainly a pressure I’ve felt myself.)
Another notorious component of gatekeeping is the RLE, or Real Life Experience. In the UK, transsexual women are often expected to complete two years of RLE before they will be considered for treatment. This sometimes refers to surgical treatment, but the RLE requirement can be enforced before even hormones are offered. RLE consists of living ‘full time as a woman’ for typically two years. This means using a ‘female’ name, female pronouns and wearing ‘female’ clothes.
There are some women who immediately are ‘read’ as women by mainstream society the moment they adopt feminine gender markers in their dress and behaviour. They are in the relative minority. For most transsexual women, going straight into RLE is not an experience of womanhood but an experience of public freakhood, composed of constant stares, transphobic harassment and potentially violence, without access to much of the (intensely double-edged) training given to cissexual women on how to survive this.
Hang on, did I just say “stares, harassment and violence”? Sounds like ‘womanhood’ to me. RLE actually does reproduce experience in the female sex role, but not in the way it claims. By exposing transsexual women to scrutiny, humiliation, stress and danger, RLE functions to ‘break’ transsexual women for womanhood.
In Intercourse, Andrea Dworkin recounts the life of Joan of Arc, telling her story as the story of a woman who escaped the condition of ‘womanhood’ through a rejection of intercourse and of femininity. We don’t need to consider any question of Joan of Arc’s transsexual/cissexual status in order to understand the relationship between the following passage and the process of RLE:
[Joan of Arc's] male clothing became the focus of [the Inquisition's] sexual obsession with her: ridding her of it became synonymous with breaking her literally and metaphorically; making her female-submissive.
- Dworkin, Intercourse (Arrow, 1988), p118
Patriarchy has no use for women (transsexual women or holy warriors!) who will not tolerate objectification and unwanted sexual advances. Because people assigned the male sex role are not taught to put up with these, there is a danger that transsexual women may also reject these everyday aspects of female experience. This in itself is not too problematic for patriarchy, since it’s far more important that cissexual women are available for harassment. But it doesn’t need transsexual women setting a bad example. Let’s pass the mic to Twisty for a moment, speaking on a related subject (though not specifically regarding transsexual women):
… if the fairer sex go longer than 16 minutes without girlification, ghettoization, infantilization, and condescension, they’re liable to start acting like unfuckable men. From there, as you can well imagine, it’s but a short, slippery hop to the cosmos-rocking vortex of horror that would be the dissolution of the gender binary, followed closely by the total destruction of oppression culture as we know it.
(Twisty’s writing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)
It’s understandable that, say, a cissexual teenage girl can be forced to tolerate treatment such as public harassment, since it is relatively easy for society to bring pressure to bear on a teenager. But what about an adult? Why should an adult transsexual woman accept the abuse of RLE? It’s because, and I say this advisedly, the medical system has her by the balls.
Not every medical practitioner will demand RLE, and different treatments are made conditional on it, but it’s common for RLE to gatekeep either hormone replacement therapy or genital surgery. If a transsexual woman is financially comfortable she may be able to buy hormones online, but many women cannot afford this, and many more cannot afford private surgery. Money often requires work, and many transsexual women are kept in a material state of financial inequality because many forms of work discriminate against them. How convenient.
There may be a reason that workers in information technology seem overrepresented among transsexual women who are out as transsexual (itself a crime against compulsory assimilation): they’re often some of the very few people who can afford to bypass some gatekeeping and the breaking for assimilation it represents. Everyone else (assuming they are even accepted for treatment) goes through the system, and the system functions. It aims to breaks down their resistance to living under the sexual inequality common to all women, it compels identification not with the female sex but with the female sex role, and it encourages silence and conformity: not only the silence expected of women who may not speak up about sexism, but the silence of transsexual people who must not speak up about cissexism, who must conceal even their own history.
Conclusions and The Political Category of ‘Woman’
Who owns the term ‘woman’? I’m not interested in defining it biologically. As a feminist, I view ‘woman’ as a political category, tautologically defined as ‘a target of the oppression aimed at women’.
In writing this essay, I’ve looked to dispel simplified views of transsexual women’s experience held by trans* and queer-theory thinkers and by radical feminists. Transsexual women are not identical to cissexual women, because our histories and gender educations (and reeducations) are different. But neither are we completely distinct from cissexual women, in that many of our oppressions are identical or similar and we are both exposed to, and absorb, sex role education about what we – women – should be and do.
Gender ideology is sufficiently potent that it is able to bring both cissexual women and transsexual women to some extent under the influence of the female sex role. This is done using a variety of tactics, with different tactics applied to cissexual and transsexual women, but the goal – however successful it may be – is to gender all women as women, i.e. to place us in a position of submission to patriarchy so that male power can be upheld.
During this process of ‘feminisation’, patriarchy drills us, lectures us, wounds us and examines us, hammering the ideology of gender into our heads and intruding into our lives to ensure that we are living our assigned gender.
For a while, it is male gender which is pushed upon transsexual women-as-girls. The success of this may depend on how keenly she experienced herself as a transsexual girl in a cissexist world.
But soon enough patriarchy realises its mistake, and rather than allow women to exist with a male sense of entitlement it swings its enforcement machine around 180 degrees to ensure sufficient feminisation of this class of woman as well. The process of deconstructing any male sex role privilege which she did acquire in her childhood is blunt and imperfect, the trauma of transition varying between transsexual women. If something remains, it is the memory of once being told we were allowed to be fully human – coincidentally something that feminism has been trying to tell cissexual women for decades.
What to do with these similar-but-different experiences of oppression as women under patriarchy? Insisting that transsexual women and cissexual women are the same doesn’t just erase the traumas inflicted on girls who were assigned female at birth, it also erases the trauma of a transsexual childhood. But considering us as separate categories ignores the common ways in which patriarchy acts to oppress us as women, part of which is the effort to bring us all in line under the female sex role. Transsexual and cissexual women are targeted by rape and pornography. We are sex objects, if we’re ‘lucky’, or else we’re despised. More often, we’re both. We are underpaid, if we are paid at all. We are both viewed as less than human.
A progressive, trans*-inclusive view of the political ‘woman’ does not mean we have to redefine the term to mean, “cissexual women, including transsexual women who are the same”. I suggest not a redefinition of the term ‘woman’, but an expansion. Just as we can recognise that women worldwide have differing experiences, perhaps we can also understand that women may experience different abuses during our childhoods and still make our way to a place where we share common experience of present-day womanhood.