Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner, and Identity

Rachel Dolezal was born a white woman but has been passing for black for some time, apparently by darkening her skin and getting aggressive perms. She became president of the Spokane NAACP and a spokesperson for the African American community in Spokane, which I understand is small. Now a lot of people are really pissed at Dolezal for passing herself off as something she wasn’t.

Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, has been surgically made over so that Jenner can live as a woman instead of a man. Many of us have been defending her. I’m of the “it doesn’t pick my pocket or break my leg” school of thought on this, frankly. If being a woman makes Jenner happy, I don’t have a problem with the gender reassignment.

So is this inconsistent? Not exactly. I wouldn’t choose Jenner to represent women’s interests or to become head of NOW. The life experiences of trans women are not the life experiences of biological women. Trans women have never had to deal with menstrual cramps or leaks. Pregnancy, childbirth, abortions, miscarriages — or avoiding those things — are huge parts of a biological woman’s life but are not on the transgendered’s radar. Have they ever had to find a place to nurse a hungry baby away from home? How about the joys of menopause? And then there’s the fact that someone who has lived into adulthood as a man is unlikely to have lived with the constant putdowns and sleights, socially and professionally, that all women experience. They may experience those things after the reassignment, but they didn’t have to grow up with them and have to struggle to not let it define them.

A few days ago in the New York Times, Elinor Burkett wrote an op ed arguing that transgendered women are threatening to derail progress for biological women. I was unaware of some of the stuff that has been going on —

…it’s growing harder to avoid asking pointed questions about the frequent attacks by some trans leaders on women’s right to define ourselves, our discourse and our bodies. After all, the trans movement isn’t simply echoing African-Americans, Chicanos, gays or women by demanding an end to the violence and discrimination, and to be treated with a full measure of respect. It’s demanding that women reconceptualize ourselves.

In January 2014, the actress Martha Plimpton, an abortion-rights advocate, sent out a tweet about a benefit for Texas abortion funding called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas.” Suddenly, she was swamped by criticism for using the word “vagina.” “Given the constant genital policing, you can’t expect trans folks to feel included by an event title focused on a policed, binary genital,” responded @DrJaneChi.

WHEN Ms. Plimpton explained that she would continue to say “vagina” — and why shouldn’t she, given that without a vagina, there is no pregnancy or abortion? — her feed overflowed anew with indignation, Michelle Goldberg reported in The Nation. “So you’re really committed to doubling down on using a term that you’ve been told many times is exclusionary & harmful?” asked one blogger. Ms. Plimpton became, to use the new trans insult, a terf, which stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.”

In January, Project: Theatre at Mount Holyoke College, a self-described liberal arts college for women, canceled a performance of Eve Ensler’s iconic feminist play “The Vagina Monologues” because it offered an “extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman,” explained Erin Murphy, the student group’s chairwoman.

Let me get this right: The word “vagina” is exclusionary and offers an extremely narrow perspective on womanhood, so the 3.5 billion of us who have vaginas, along with the trans people who want them, should describe ours with the politically correct terminology trans activists are pushing on us: “front hole” or “internal genitalia”?

Even the word “woman” has come under assault by some of the very people who claim the right to be considered women. The hashtags #StandWithTexasWomen, popularized after Wendy Davis, then a state senator, attempted to filibuster the Texas Legislature to prevent passage of a draconian anti-abortion law, and #WeTrustWomen, are also under attack since they, too, are exclusionary.

“Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue,” wrote Emmett Stoffer, one of many self-described transgender persons to blog on the topic. It is “a uterus owner’s issue.” Mr. Stoffer was referring to the possibility that a woman who is taking hormones or undergoing surgery to become a man, or who does not identify as a woman, can still have a uterus, become pregnant and need an abortion.

Let me repeat that last one —

“Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue,” wrote Emmett Stoffer, one of many self-described transgender persons to blog on the topic. It is “a uterus owner’s issue.”

You see the problem. Seems to me some of the trans ladies may have lost their penises but not their sense of privilege. Now they’re mansplaining to us what womanhood is.

I also agree with Burkett that a lot of trans women seem to have embraced some aspects of the feminine mystique that Betty Friedan raised hell about back in 1964. No, dears, let’s not go backward now.

So, while I have no problem with people choosing to live with a different gender identity than they one they were born with, it has to be said that they are not fully biological women and they have not had the life experiences of fully biological women. Therefore, they don’t get to define womanhood or decide what issues are important to biological women. They need, in short, to STFU about what’s important to women or what words women are allowed to use to discuss their own bodies. End of discussion. If that makes me a “terf,” bite me.

Burkett also said,

Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.

And that brings us back to Dolezal. I’d be curious to know if she could have gotten away with the charade in a less white part of the country; Mississippi, say, instead of Spokane. She wouldn’t have had the same life experiences as someone born black, and genuinely intimate experience is hard to fake.

Without knowing Dolezal’s motivations or how her head is wired it’s hard to know what was going on, but it seems to me that if her interest in African-American well-being were genuine she would have respected the African-American experience enough to not try to fake being one in order to take leadership roles. That’s what strikes me as odd. I could see that someone white might fall in love with black culture and come to admire the unique beauty of African American women and want to copy that, but Dolezal went far beyond that.

The whole identity issue is a tricky thing. From a Buddhist perspective, things like race and gender are just temporary conditions, empty of self-nature. They are not who we are. However, they do have a big impact on how we live our lives, so we can’t very well ignore them.

Wanting to be something other than what one is comes under the heading of bhava tanha, “craving to be” or “craving to become.” It’s a particularly nasty sort of craving that has a lot to do with why people get stuck in samsara. And note that the craving itself is the problem; one can desire to be something good, like a nun or a heart surgeon, and it’s still a problem, especially if it’s more about enhancing one’s status than living on behalf of others. As soon as we think in terms of what we want to be, and not just what we hope to do, we’re in trouble.

So this whole issue of changing gender or race or anything else about oneself has a great many facets — biological, cultural, social, and spiritual — that we’re not really discussing, and which people need to consider and work out for themselves. In short, it’s complicated.

50 thoughts on “Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner, and Identity

  1. “And then there’s the fact that someone who has lived into adulthood as a man is unlikely to have lived with the constant putdowns and sleights, socially and professionally, that all women experience. They may experience those things after the reassignment, but they didn’t have to grow up with them and have to struggle to not let it define them.”

    are you for fucking real?

    You don’t think that trans people have to put up with that shit and more since the day they first realize who they are as a child? As a woman or a little girl did you constantly have people staring at you and whispering behind your back? Did you have people ask you all manner of personal questions about whether you were a boy or a girl, gay or straight, or just some sort of freak of nature? Not every transwoman is Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox. They aren’t rich, and they don’t have the resources to transform into society’s ideal of womanhood (usually dreamt up by some man) Most are regular men and women who are trying to get along in a world that has always pretended they don’t exist. I will not be so arrogant as to judge this person who by all accounts has never been anything but an advocate for the African American community. Sometimes you bloggers just suck.

    • gaylib — I didn’t say that trans people don’t suffer, but a man who is living as a man and accepted as a man, as Jenner was, did not grow up experiencing what women experience. Jenner was considered the studliest man on the planet at one time, you know; men and boys wanted to be him. It may be that he suffered secretly because he felt “wrong,” but that’s not a woman’s experience; that’s a trans experience. I don’t doubt that it’s a hard experience, but it’s different. Someone who obviously is not staying in assigned gender boxes — “effeminate” boys or “butch” girls — also have a hard time, but that wasn’t what Bruce Jenner experienced back in the day. And it also isn’t the same kind of cultural grinder most biological, heterosexual women are put through.

      And here’s a clue, toots: In the game of suffering, nobody is holding a trump card. Sorry. And you can apologize to me as soon as you’re ready.

  2. Gaylib, I won’t speak for Barbara, but I don’t think she’s saying children don’t suffer for deviating from gender norms. I think it would be a mistake, though, to assume that all suffering is fungible. Some of us can contextualize our misfortune through empathy, and some of us never do. It’s not enough to say that a given person was marginalized or traumatized for being different, or for being inadequate, when it comes to representing a whole class of people, the vast majority of whom are oppressed in very specific ways that directly relate to their reproductive systems. I think you can robustly support trans people and still make this critique.

  3. Identity is complicated, but one’s upbringing and experiences are a crucial ingredient in the mix. With all respect to gaylib above, yes, trans boys did have experiences–including slights and put-downs and stares and questions–that shaped who they were and who they became. But that’s the point; the life experiences that they had are unique to them, just as the experiences that women have in their lives are specific to their identity. I’m a straight, white, man. No operation, clothing, cosmetic, or conversation could ever make me become or even understand what it is to be gay, transgendered, a woman, or black. (Isn’t that the whole point of discussing privilege?)

    I just don’t believe that one can ever become a different gender or race, because life experiences–the ones you’ll never have that are unique to them, and the ones you have had, that are unique to you–are just not transferable. Transgender is it’s own thing apart from cis man or cis woman (and transgender man is a thing apart from transgender woman, too) and that in this regard, one cannot become anything other than what one is…

    But what do I know? I’ve never walked in any shoes but my own… I can only imagine and sympathize…

  4. I agree with gaylib. My niece (former nephew) is transgender, but she didn’t learn that until she was in her 20s. She experienced bullying, etc. in high school for being effeminate and, at first, she thought she was gay, but eventually she realized that that wasn’t right and somehow learned about transgenderism.

    I was aware, from reading other sources online, that there are vicious controversies about transgender women in feminist circles. Ho-hum. I also read a book about Islam and feminism and, gee, there are controversies in feminist circles about that too. Just because some feminists have bigoted views about transgender people doesn’t mean that the latter should STFU, as maha says.

    Ten years or more ago, John Aravosis at AMERICAblog (a blog that has long covered politics and LGBT issues) posted an article about the ENDA legislation he worked on that prohibited discrimination against LGB people. The group who worked on the ENDA legislation felt that was all they could get passed–bringing transgender people into the mix was thought to be a step too far for the senators and representatives. There were hundreds of comments, I’m guessing mostly from gay people based on the contents of the comments. About a third of the commentors didn’t know what transgender meant; another third felt that gay people had waited this long and transgender people should wait their turn; and the final third said that transgender people were straight anyway, so they, by definition, didn’t experience discrimination. There were a few reasoned voices here and there.

    From which (all of the above) one should learn that everyone is an individual with their own biases and preconceived notions, and that no group should be told to STFU and not have an opinion. Except for conservative Republicans, of course.

    • //that no group should be told to STFU and not have an opinion.// You can have all the opinions you like; you don’t get to define an experience you haven’t had. That’s like white people defining the black experience or straight people defining a gay experience. Imagine all the LGTB activist organizations being taken over by heterosexuals who want to explain to you what your experience of life is and define who you are. How would you feel about that? I don’t mind trans women, or straight men for that matter, joining feminist organizations, but they don’t get to dictate to biological women what words we can use or what issues we are allowed to be activist about.

  5. I’m with @repsac3.

    Every human being suffers in his/her own unique way.
    Very few people go through life without suffering the slings and arrows of others comments and/or stares.

    Unfortunately, some groups have it tougher than others.

    Oh, and I’d add one thing to the end of repsac’s comment: “I can only imagine and sympathize…”
    I’d add, ‘respect.’

  6. Good post, Maha. And I agree with you that growing up as female is entirely different from growing up as male even beyond the biological differences. One you didn’t mention and that I have experienced is taking a hike in the woods far away from any toilet facilities. A female cannot just pretend to be enjoying the scenery, whip it out and take a whiz. She must drop her pants and squat and be on the lookout for someone coming who might catch her in the act.
    One can only speculate and imagine what drives a full-grown human to take such drastic measures to be another sex but we should not judge but allow each person to walk the path they choose. As for pretending to be black, that is a bit unusual. In the past, it has been the other way around. When we all get over this objection to mixing races, the white race will become extinct, I think. If I remember correctly from my biology, genealogy classes, the white gene is recessive. Maybe I’m wrong. If so, I’m sure someone will correct me. But if so, there may eventually be only one race. What will we fight about then?

  7. Dolezal didn’t have to be “black” to go to Howard, teach African American studies or head a chapter of the NAACP. Not knowing if she attempted the transformation to create what she thought would be an advantage towards those goals, or some inner desire to become her version of blackness, I can’t judge. I say “her version” because as a white woman with those experiences, she could only become black in a superficial sense, limited by her perspective of what she had the ability to perceive blackness to be. Its more than Dolezal’s apparent interpretation.

    Race in America, from the perspective of a black or person of color, is much more complicated and difficult than many if not most in the white community realize. Granted, it is hard for someone not to have lived it, to understand. For example the childhood pain of one day realizing that you are “different” and someone who society not only sees as a negative but is also hated. Imagine what that does to the self esteem and self perception of such a child having gone through that. Few understand the heartbreak and pain as a parent of a child who’s had such an experience and is now faced with the task of trying to comfort and explain the world to an innocent child.

    In the wake of all of these killings by police of unarmed persons of color, many still have a hard time understanding why blacks tend to be afraid of police, when to a black person it not only makes perfect sense but it also becomes instinctual for many to feel afraid and distrustful, and not because you have “done something” but just knowing that, for many officers and white people in general, just being black itself is a provocation, and sometimes a deadly one. As a middle aged black man, I have had more bewildering, frightening and absolutely maddening experiences, just going about daily business as anyone would, that, for someone who did not have to out of necessity, learn these ways of the world we live in, would cause them to lose all confidence in themselves as a viable member of society, if not their sanity. As a black person you are mindful of certain aspects of the deadly routine, lest you set yourself up for hurt, or worse.

    This is what comes to mind when I think of Dolezal pretending to be black. Again, she didn’t have to pretend to do what she did. The NAACP said the same thing; its initial judgement is on her works and not who she perceives herself to be. The black community has for the most part opened our homes, arms and hearts to anyone who is sincere in wanting to understand and walk in the struggle with us. For that reason, I can’t be “angry” with Dolezal as much as I remain bewildered at whatever personal inner (and external) demons she’s struggled with that drove her to attempt this transformation.

  8. I came across a comment by “aliciamaud74” about an article by guest blogger Starling, at kateharding.net. It helps illustrate some aspects of the major differences between growing up female and growing up male.
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _


    OCTOBER 8, 2009 AT 2:43 PM

    “@Josh: Forget about handing this out to only a few people. This needs to be taught in schools.”

    Done. I do a unit with my high school seniors on gender issues (making more transparent the stuff I infuse into the other stuff we do in English all year), and will definitely be linking to this on our class website and discussing it in our class.

    My 17 year old students are generally (initially) alarmingly resistant to discussions of feminism—they’re scared to alienate each other and ill informed about the term. But, a few years ago I decided to start our unit with some basic questions about gender: do you think you should feel safe in your workplace? do you think men and women should have equal access to education? The last question I include on the survey, adapted from Jean Kilbourne’s Can’t Buy Me Love, is “You’ve parked your car in a far off lot at the mall. You’re now leaving, and it’s late. List the steps you take as you walk to your car to keep yourself safe.” In each of the 10-12 groups of students I’ve taught since, the girls scribble furiously for several minutes, while the boys say things like, “Wait, is this a dangerous neighborhood?” or “Wait, I don’t understand the question” or “What do you mean, ‘safe’?” When the girls share what they have written (ways to carry keys, avoiding parking near vans people can hide in and grab you, not walking past bushes, dialing nine-one on their phone and keeping it in their hand in case they need to dial that last one, carrying piping hot coffee they could hurl at someone in a pinch, singing loudly so people don’t walk near them), the boys are inevitably shocked, and say things like “I have never even HEARD of that!” It’s VERY illuminating for students, and often the first time they have ever considered how different the worlds in which we live actually are.
    _ _ _ _ _


  9. I apologize in advance for any flaws in this post, I passed another milestone in the codger experience yesterday and it has left me out of sorts.

    I find this thread very interesting because it clearly displays some of the ways that people are misread when they attempt rational discourse, and fortunately, the way that we try to sort things out as well.

    Our experiences prepare us to be empathetic, but they also help define who we are, viewed from the inside, i.e. who we perceive ourselves to be. Sometimes these two things are at odds. Our experiences are often painful and we fear that others might not fully appreciate this. So, when they try to communicate their experiences to us we might think they are minimizing our own, we don’t want to give up the spotlight. This is a barrier to empathy.

    Sometimes the most difficult thing is to view our own motivations clearly. Most often we have the “moment on the staircase” when we realize what we should have said or done. But so often, it is far from the staircase by too much distance or too many years. Still, it happens, and that is cause for hope.

    I spent a long time working with severely traumatized people and I learned that sometimes we can be overwhelmed by our experience and we need to find our balance again. Sometimes it’s logical and sometimes it empirical. Sometimes we never achieve it at all.

    As always Maha, I envy your mind. I guess that’s a bad thing.

  10. “I wouldn’t choose Jenner to represent women’s interests or to become head of NOW”

    Right but she sure can represent the interests of the reality TeeVee community to the tune of 500 million! I’m a little skeptical Jenner’s “transition” is sincere?

  11. I’m a little skeptical Jenner’s “transition” is sincere?
    uncledad…You’re kidding? As far as certainties go I’d put the the sincerity of her transition right behind death and taxes.

  12. Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, has been surgically made over so that Jenner can live as a woman instead of a man. Many of us have been defending her. I’m of the “it doesn’t pick my pocket or break my leg” school of thought on this, frankly. If being a woman makes Jenner happy, I don’t have a problem with the gender reassignment.

    Hm. Yeah, but…

    I have a few friends, some who are surgically changed, some who aren’t. And talking to them, I had a minor revelation… if I woke up tomorrow with tits and a vulva, I’d still be a man and want to know what the ever living *hell* is wrong with my body. And I wouldn’t care how many people told me this was “normal” and that I should “learn to live with it”.

    Now, this is different, because I’m positing a man who grew to adulthood with high testosterone, low estrogen (and all those other bodily differences). That can’t help but have made a difference in my outlook. And yet, if I stop for a moment, and imagine that I know that I’m a man with the wrong body, I get a tiny glimpse of what it might be like. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have been living my whole life with people telling me I’m a girl/woman, and I can’t imagine how my thoughts and experiences might be different.

    But I have an idea. And that leads me to push back against “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” and suggest that the attitude ought to be more positive than mere “it don’t harm me none”.

    Hm. Am I coming across as a scold here? That’s not my intent – I’m trying to share that insight, that realization that, wow, if someone really does feel that way, it really does *matter*.

    • LHW — I know of no reason to think Jenner had less testosterone or more estrogen than you did. Back in his Olympic days his body suggested he had grown up with the normal amount of testosterone. I don’t think that has anything to do with anything. I don’t think we know why some people develop an intense sense that they are the wrong gender, but it doesn’t appear to be hormonal. It could be neurological, or it could be purely psychological. IMO it’s significant that many trans people seem hell-bent on acting out gender cultural stereotypes that many people born into that gender would rather drop.

      Although there are real physical and neurological differences between men and women, and although we have very different life experiences as a result, IMO a lot of gender identity is cultural conditioning rather than physiology. So of course if you woke up tomorrow in a woman’s body you wouldn’t automatically accept it and step into a woman’s life. However, in a few years of people reacting to you as a woman, you’d probably adjust. A lot of our identity comes from how other people in our culture understand us and what they expect from us.

      In Jenner’s case, I’m certainly not saying that it doesn’t *matter.* Clearly, it matters a lot *to her,* and I respect that. What I’m saying is that if individuals decide to take on a different gender identity, it really doesn’t affect anyone but themselves, immediate family and close friends. It’s not something everyone on the planet needs to be bent out of shape about.

  13. unclcedad — There’s one thing more important to most men than money, and Jenner was willing to lose it.

    If you’re referring to the package, Jenner did not have genital surgery and has no plans for it: Caitlyn Jenner on Not Undergoing Genital Surgery.

    So Jenner still has a penis and testicles and plans to keep them. The only surgery was “facial feminization” and apparently breast implants.

  14. Jenner did not lose that one thing more important to men than money. He chose to keep it. However, I am not sure that makes him less sincere. I think about the surgery regarding changing men genitals to women genitals; and, I would think that is surgery that could go very, very wrong with lots of really bad side effects. I am aware of this fact because Bill Maher carried on about it during his last show.

  15. maha: gaylib confuses vehemence with certainty. Part of the identity-politics trap is that the search for identity adds to the very suffering that prompts the search for identity.

    If there were an injection to permanently change skin color, then would Dolezal be ‘pre-injection black’? If a million blacks took a whitening injection, would that count?

    Conversely: suppose that another injection could cure gender dysphoria by changing mind to match body? Would this be better than surgery or worse?

    • //Part of the identity-politics trap is that the search for identity adds to the very suffering that prompts the search for identity.//

      Interesting insight.

      Also: If gender dysphoria could be easily “cured” would that be a better solution than massive surgery? People would have to work that out for themselves, I guess.

      It would be interesting to me if trans women are even interested in “owning’ a working uturus. If they were required to accept menstrual cramps, childbirth, stretch marks and menopause along with the nail polish and other glitter, would being a woman be less appealing to them? Maybe I’m selling trans women short, but having read a lot of commentaries by trans women on how they understand themselves and their lives and roles, all that messy reproductive stuff doesn’t seem to be on their radar. But for women who are born women, those are at the inescapable center of life experience.

      Actual womanhood is more Sylvia Plath than RuPaul, I’m afraid.

  16. Or what if gender reassignment included implanting a working uterus? Would _that_ be enough surgery?

    As time and technology proceeds, we’re going to see more of these compromises of boundaries and blurrings of identities.

  17. So this whole issue of changing gender or race or anything else about oneself has a great many facets — biological, cultural, social, and spiritual — that we’re not really discussing, and which people need to consider and work out for themselves. In short, it’s complicated.

    For me, that about sums it up. Way too much oversimplifying going on.

  18. It occurred to me this AM that all this man/woman stuff and the difference may be a misunderstanding of the human condition. Our world is a duality and one cannot ignore the biological differences in males and females. And men are usually defined as yang and women as yin. However, yin and yang are relative and both exist in each individual. Perhaps when a man has lived his whole life expressing the “yang” and ignoring the “yin” he has a desire to go to the opposite extreme. Not understanding that yin and yang is more than physical, he goes the physical route. Maybe this is what he/she is looking for. Perhaps if we didn’t have such defined/opposite roles for men and women, each individual could simply be themselves and express whatever it is inside that they need to express. I’m not judging Caitlyn or even suggesting this is what is going on in her psyche because I don’t know. I’m simply trying to give everyone one more view in this very complicated issue.

  19. “There’s one thing more important to most men than money, and Jenner was willing to lose it”

    I don’t think Jenner had his package removed, I believe he/she had facial surgery and breast implants? Either way Jenner, the Kardashians seem to be driven by only one thing, fame. They seem to crave the spotlight more than the money but hey if someone’s’ gonna pay they are more than willing to take the cash. I’d take Jenner’s “transition” a little more seriously if it wasn’t accompanied by a new reality TeeVee show, modeling and endorsement contracts etc estimated at 500 million!

  20. Maha,

    Yeah, when I was talking about hormones, I meant that if I’d grown up in a *woman’s* body, sure I was a man, I don’t know what influence that had. If Jenner’s body was not adequately supplied with testosterone, he probably couldn’t have been the athlete he was.

    I just know if I woke up tomorrow, having been magically transformed into a woman, with ovaries sending estrogen and testosterone down to some miniscule portion of my current, I’m still pretty sure I’d “know” I was a man, regardless of what the body is telling me.

    Whether I’d adjust to such a transformation – well, that was my insight. I don’t think I would. I might *accept* it as irreversible, I might look at the stats for trying to create man parts from woman parts and decide I’m better with what I have (NB: I don’t know those stats, but I’ve heard they have an easier time going the other way), but I’m not sure I would adjust. I think I’d always be “a man” in my mind.

    The other half to that insight was that if a close, true friend were to tell me that I should accept who I was, that I shouldn’t “mutilate” my body, or somesuch, I’d feel betrayed by that friend. Sure, I know strangers would say that, and that wouldn’t be okay, but it wouldn’t feel like betrayal.

    I also can’t deny there’s some sensibility to wanting to help people be happy as they are, if that’s possible. But I could easily see me, magically transformed to a woman, demanding to get my body as close to my identity as I could. That’s kind of what helped me understand that it might well not be possible.

  21. When I was in university, most of the campus conversation about sex and gender revolved around the distinction between biological sex and gender as a social construct. The preferred terms (at least among my local peers) was that male and female were used to designate biological sex and man and woman were used to designate the two traditional genders.

    The people responding to Burkett do sort of have a point, since using this terminology, vaginas (and the ability to take care of them without interference from the government) are a female problem, not necessarily a woman problem. Burkett might have devoted a paragraph to this, but it sounds like her critics are taking advantage of the opportunity to nitpick her word choice to make the conversation all about them.

    I think it is fair to say that gay and lesbian rights are advancing pretty quickly in this part of the world while equality between the sexes has completely stalled. Transsexual and transgender issues seem to be lagging behind those of gays, lesbians and bisexuals, so I can understand a sense of urgency on their part, but not to the point of ignoring the real issues that “uterus owners”, as Stoffer puts it, currently have.

    • I object to “womanhood” being used as a label for social/cultural femininity and “female” used to describe a biological woman. I do not like that at all. Women have worked too hard to understand our reproductive selves as a source of strength rather than a weakness, and “womanhood” — especially the messy baby-producing bits — as something powerful and worthy of respect. The word “female” robs us of our humanity; it’s clinical. No, this is not going to stand.

  22. Obviously there are fringe voices among any group of people, but I don’t personally come across trans women saying they have the same experience as cis women. (Thus the very existence of the cis label.) I do see trans women taking issue with the idea that womanhood is a category identical with cis womanhood. If that is enough to make you say it is an effort to force (cis) women to reconceptualize themselves, then congratulations! You now share mental space with husbands and wives who view same-sex marriages as forcing them to reconceptualize themselves as spouses.

    • Mark K. — What you wrote is bullshit on steroids. I see no comparison to two openly gay people entering a same-sex marriage and a transgendered woman ordering feminists to stop talking about vaginas because it is “exclusionary.” Gay marriage is a win/win for everybody, from what I see. Trans women demanding that feminism must change its agenda to cater to their feelings is something else entirely. It’s an insult to women and grossly detrimental to feminism.

      The problem is that “traditional” social/cultural womanhood and biological womanhood are not the same thing, although they ought to be. The tight social/cultural role women were put into years ago demanded they be sexy and asexual at the same time. Motherhood was idealized, but reproduction and its by-products (like menstruation and menopause) were nasty things not discussed in public. There was a reason “The Vagina Monologues” was written, which is that in spite of women being sex objects, so much of our actual life experiences as sexual beings was unmentionable and hidden even from each other. Even the way we give birth to babies, without excessive interference by the medical profession, is something we’ve had to fight for. Reproduction rights is still something we’re fighting for. Breast feeding babies in public is still an issue. And so on and so on. Feminism isn’t just about having careers and getting equal pay. A lot of the issues that women are still having to fight for are very much centered on our reproductive organs and processes. And our reproduction processes are very much at the center of most women’s experience of womanhood. Read Sylvia Plath and Betty Friedan sometime, for example. Or maybe you should watch “The Vagina Monologues.”

      So if you’re going to stomp around telling women that we can’t talk about these things any more because they exclude you, then you are getting in the way. Trans women may fully embody social/cultural womanhood, but they are not experiencing womanhood in the same way a biological (or “cis”) woman experiences womanhood. Your trying to redefine womanhood to erase that distinction is basically telling biological women that we would should give up more than 50 years of trying to get these issues addressed so as not to hurt your feelings. WTF?

      I’m very happy to support a transgendered person’s efforts to reassign his or her gender and take on the social/cultural role that feels comfortable. But if you are going to march around demanding that biological women have to put their needs and issues on the back burner so as not to hurt your feelings, I say, who the hell needs you? So just go get your nails done and stay out of the way, dear. Thanks much.

  23. I am a ciswoman, which by definition I have a female body, complete with vagina and uterus. The last does not make me a ‘uterus owner’ it makes me female. I sympathize with trans women and the concept of being a woman, but I’m not interested in having that conflated with being female nor am I sympathetic to complaints that the issues of a biological woman are not “women’s issues”. I would be equally unsympathetic to a trans man complaining that prostate cancer is not a ‘male issue’ but instead only an issue for “penis owners”.

    I am especially not sympathetic to a complaint that “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas” is exclusionary. Of course it is! It is specifically about a female condition – the ability to get pregnant and to potentially find oneself in need of an abortion. That does not mean that those who cannot find themselves in that position are not welcome to engage in the struggle or to support others in this issue. I believe that as a very straight woman my support for lgbt issues is appreciated, but I can’t say I feel excluded by gay pride events because gay is a binary term.

  24. Excuse me: Personally I think all this definition stuff is getting ridiculous. Ciswoman, uterus owner, woman vs female, transgender, etc, etc, ad nauseum. Almost makes me want to go back to the garden of Eden (even though I don’t believe in it) where things were much simpler.
    I agree with Maha, a person born as a male and lives many decades with a male body then wants a female body cannot really comprehend what it is to be a woman. Being a woman is much more than body parts. It is experiencing the world in a much different way than a man does. Does not make it better or worse, just different. We have lived in a patriarchal society for so long that everything gets identified according to that standard. Perhaps it is time to look at things differently. Perhaps that is what Caitlyn is seeking. So what if she gets publicity, a TV show and money? It is her path and we need to respect it. I certainly respect her a lot more than someone like Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber who I consider spoiled brats. Now I’m showing my prejudice. Time to go take Mr. Spock for a walk.

    • All of us of a certain age, plus a lot of the younger women too, surely have noticed that “female” is the preferred term used by genuine misogynists when referring to women. It’s kind of a tell of a woman-hater if he uses “female” as a noun when most people would say “woman.” This isn’t always the case; certainly there is a place for the word “female.” I use the word, too, although usually as an adjective. But in some contexts “female” has long been a kind of gender equivalent to “Negro.” People telling us that we have to concede the word “woman” and retreat to being “females” are pushing a big, ugly button.

  25. “So what if she gets publicity, a TV show and money?”

    I don’t have a problem with that either, I just think legitimate civil rights groups should be careful before they hitch their wagon to Caitlyn’s star, they may live to regret it? I don’t think she got the TeeVee show because she transitioned, I think she transitioned to get a Tee Vee show, I might be wrong but that’s what I think! By the way from now on I am going to Identify as a hedge Fund CEO, can I have all your money now?

    • There’s got to be an easier way to get a TV show. I tend to think Jenner did what she felt she needed to do to be comfortable with herself.

  26. I’ve not heard the female versus woman distinction in the same way you have. I don’t know if I’ve just not noticed, or if it’s difference between grouping up in the 50s/60s versus the mid60s-mid80s. I would say I primarily identify myself as a woman (I am woman hear me roar), but I also self describe as ‘female not male’ so I’m more willing to accept a female = biological construct. I don’t have a good frame of reference to describe the shared experience with a trans woman without using womanhood in some manner; feminine doesn’t really work either. I think that might be part of the stumbling block for some.

    No matter though – feminism is about making things better for women. Full stop. That includes both biological and not biological in my world view. Which means that yes, reproductive rights is absolutely a feminist issue. And so is the right for a trans woman to use the women’s restroom/locker/shower. And for all women, regardless of what their underlying biology is, to expect to be able to work at any type of job they choose, for equivalent pay, without being maligned for their gender.

    • Loredena — this may be a southern/midwestern thing, but it’s long been a tell of the standard White Male Bigot to speak of women collectively as “females,” usually with a tone of sneering condescension. It’s like they can’t say the word “women.” It also strips us of our humanity; he could be speaking of any brood animal. To use “female” as an adjective or in a clause contrasted with “male” is perfectly okay, but I don’t accept “females” as a synonym for “women.”

      I don’t disagree with what you say about the rights of trans women. I object when some trans women want to take over feminism and dictate what issues we may or may not consider “women’s issues.” Anything involving reproduction is to be removed from “women’s issues” and reassigned to “uterus owners,” because it’s “exclusionary.” See the more recent post I wrote about the long fight women have waged to take ownership of and be respected for our reproduction functions. https://www.mahablog.com/2015/06/16/feminisms-and-other-feminisms/

  27. As I said, I don’t think it is a mainstream trans (if that’s not an oxymoron) to claim that reproductive rights are not a women’s issue. If you don’t understand how central reproduction and complementary biological roles are to many heterosexual folks who are married, then I pity your lack of either personal experience or reading habits, because they’re a third of the US population or so. If you think me pointing out in a value-neutral way the conceptual overlap between your position and theirs is stomping around, well, that says more about you than me. There are biological differences between XX and XY humans, yes–ignoring for the moment the humans who don’t come with one of those particular chromosomal packages–but they don’t all sort into tidy, discrete boxes. Tl;dr: cis women aren’t the only biological women. You may disagree with me on the science–we can do dueling citations if you really want–but to say I am calling all womanhood cultural is simply inaccurate. And if your feminism doesn’t have room for people like me who absolutely see reproductive rights as a core women’s issue and thinks that people who find that exclusionary are stupid, while also paying attention to current gender science research and are married to an XX woman who DOESN’T HAVE A FREAKIN’ UTERUS and has suffered from “women defined by their life-bearing magical powers”, then your feminism does indeed have more in common with Herero-normative bullshit than anything that protects and advances the well-being of all women.

    • Mark K, I do wish you’d learn to read. My quarrel with trans women is with the ones who demand that they be allowed to define womanhood and feminism to suit themselves. If that isn’t you, then fine, but you can take your overbearing attitude and shove it up your ass, along with the phrase “ciswomen.” And you are projecting a lot of crap onto me that doesn’t have anything to do with my position. I explain things at more length in another post, Feminisms and Other Feminisms. You won’t like it, because I define womanhood in a way that leaves out trans women. But it might give you a clue why this is important, and why this is a fight trans women are going to lose if they push it too far.

      I’ll give you one more chance to apologize before I ban your ass, but only because I’m trying to be nice.

  28. Nah, no need to ban me. I won’t be coming back; there’s no point. I read you perfectly fine, in that you find a simple descriptor like cis woman (and presumably cis men too) to be fightin’ words. You don’t want to simply point out the stupidity of objections to talking about women having vaginas and/or uteri, you want to make those anatomical features–out of all the genetically encoded gender differences–a black-and-white, in-or-out definition of being a woman. Which is insulting to so many of the beautiful women I hold dear to me (XX chromosome and otherwise). You say in your more recent post that you aren’t currently active in any particular feminist circles. It shows. It really, really does.

  29. “There’s got to be an easier way to get a TV show”

    Not when your a washed up cereal box model turned reality TV star surrounded by the most craven fame whores (that includes Kanye) in showbiz, he had to step up his game! Have you ever watched an episode of that TV show? I’m not sure how anyone even remotely connected with it can be taken seriously about anything. To me Jenner is the Mike Brown of the transgender movement, certainly not the ideal spokesperson.


  30. “Mike Brown of the transgender movement”

    My bad, more like the Donald Trump of the transgender movement.

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