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Don’t want to do a Jenni Murray? Don’t say “real” women

March 5, 2017

The BBC Radio 4 presenter of Woman’s Hour, Jenni Murray, has landed herself in hot water after stating that trans women are not “real” women. Lo, the internet blew up like a mushroom cloud.

The unfortunate thing is, she could almost certainly have avoided the whole sorry affair if she had just refrained from that one, simple term, “real”. Trans people know they will never be “real” women or men, in the sense that she means. But if we could choose, we would be, so pointing it out is like rubbing Pinocchio’s long nose in the fact that he’s made of wood.

All she meant was, a transwoman can’t claim to have had the full breadth of female experience, because they weren’t raised as girls and have been subject to male privilege for their entire lives. Granted, male privilege they didn’t particularly want, but male privilege nonetheless.

She went on to bemoan some transwoman priest who was wittering on about choosing clothes, when what Murray wanted to know was how this transwoman felt about the struggle for female priests. She was angry that this person didn’t respond the way she hoped, as if she had until that point expected that someone with no experience of being a girl or young woman could immediately grasp the systemic inequities of our complicated gender system.

Well, no. Being trans is its own thing, and when you first start out, clothes aren’t just clothes. They’re symbols of your entire identity and being. That soon fades as you become more comfortable in your own skin, but early in transition, those clothes are your skin. If trans people seem to put too much emphasis on clothing, and other things which cisgendered people tend to think of as vain or shallow, it’s because being trans is plainly just different to being cis.

You may just have to take our word for it when we say that, since there’s no way to objectively prove it. Our testimony is the only evidence at your disposal. Just as being a man is not the same as being a woman and being a boy is not the same as being a girl, being trans is not the same as being cis. Different rules for different experiences; none of them are invalid.

If only Murray had stuck to the perfectly obvious fact which no trans person would argue with – that being raised a boy is different to being raised a girl – and not made a generic value judgement on the nature of gender that just happened to strike the biggest sore spot trans people have.

Saying that someone isn’t “real” is the most direct way of saying that they don’t matter and are not worthy of consideration. If that isn’t what you mean, don’t say it. You’re talking about people, after all. What people like to be told that they count for nothing?

If you start banging the drum of real, not-real, all you do is flag up how you don’t have an entry level understanding of how it feels to be trans. Frankly, the gender politics of men and women is not on the forefront of a trans person’s mind when they start to transition. There isn’t enough room to focus on anything except profound body dysphoria, which you will then struggle to deal with for a number of years.

I could argue that it is, in a perverse way, the privilege of women to be able to worry about society as a whole. In the trans world, the major fear is that you won’t be permitted to live in the body you believe is meant for you. There are so many people breathing down your neck, telling you’ll never be real, you’re appropriating womanhood, mentally ill, deluded, or just plain weird. It’s quite a big thing to have to put up with.

If being trans often seems like it’s self-involved, that’s because it’s an internal condition. Further, it’s inflamed by a number of attacks which can never fail to be personal. They concern core identity, just like sexual orientation or race. These are never not-personal, however general one tries to make them. You’re insulting someone’s essence.

The problem is, the attackers simply don’t believe us when we say that this is a real condition best fixed by surgery to the body, not a passing fancy that changes with the whims of gender politics. It makes one wonder how many years of trans life need to be lived before we can agree that enough anecdotal evidence has been gathered to draw a safe conclusion: We’re real. We’re over here. Hi!

Some transwomen are great with feminism and women’s rights. But sometimes that’s difficult, especially in the instances when feminists seem to be against them. Credit should go to those transwomen; they’re not obliged to give their time over to a cause that sometimes hates them, when they are so critically distracted by the confusing cross-wiring of their own neurology.

Just like you don’t start telling depressed people they’re selfish for being fixated on their own concerns, you don’t start telling trans people that they should forget about their own gender identity issues and become big card-carrying feminists instead. It’ll have to wait until we’re ready for the world, and the world is ready for us.

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From → Gender Politics

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