Caitlin Jenner posing on the cover of Vanity Fair.
This Sunday, the New York Times ran an op-ed by feminist filmmaker and journalist Elinor Burkett, titled “What Makes a Woman?” The piece voices Burkett’s manifold complaints with the trans equality movement, focusing specifically on the ways trans women like Caitlyn Jenner express femininity and the manner in which trans visibility redefines the term “woman.”
For trans women, Burkett’s arguments are, sadly, nothing new. But with the recent explosion of trans visibility in mainstream culture, it feels important to offer a response.
Second-wave feminist thought was largely “trans exclusionary,” meaning its members often expressed a refusal to see trans women as women. In the 1970s and 1980s, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Janice Raymond, and others held that trans women were aberrant and did not belong in the women’s movement. Since then, some prominent feminists—including Steinem—have publicly changed their stances after hearing from trans people. But at the time, the main argument against recognizing the identities of trans women was two-fold and sometimes contradictory: Being a woman is a cultural experience and therefore only belongs to people raised from birth as girls, as cis women are. At the same time, the argument goes, trans women who would present as women using the trappings of traditional femininity—like dresses or Jenner’s sexy corset—were holding back the movement’s goal to get rid of the idea that being a woman required being traditionally feminine.
With cultural acceptance for the trans community rising, women such as Burkett—cis women accustomed to defining womanhood on their own terms—find themselves befuddled and aggrieved by notions of womanhood becoming even broader.
Burkett argues that “people who haven’t lived their whole lives as women” shouldn’t get to define what being a woman means. She writes:
“They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. They haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.”
This is classic transphobia: a cis person believing their gender identity allows them to define “true” gender identities. It’s saying: I have a uterus, and—despite you and all of your forms of hard-won legal ID saying you’re female—I make the rules. As Burkett notes, though, the rules have changed. And she’s upset by it.
Another trope among second-wave feminists’ right to exclude trans women is the notion of residual “male privilege.” Burkett employs that in her article, as well. Shortly after offering menstruation as the true mark of womanhood, she shifts gears and argues for acculturation. “Ms. Jenner’s experience included a hefty dose of male privilege few women could possibly imagine,” she writes, citing Jenner’s athletic success, earning potential, and safety while walking at night as evidence.
To someone who saw trans women as men and had no understanding of—or empathy for—trans experiences, this might sound persuasive. However, this is not how trans women experience their forced misgendering. For many, many trans people, it is not all high wages and safe walks home at night. Instead, trans people face high rates of assault and can legally be fired for their gender identity in most states. In her interview with Diane Sawyer, Caitlyn Jenner offered an achingly honest account of the dysphoria and isolation she suffered as a closeted trans girl and woman, one with which I could identify.
Statistics from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Graphic by Bitch Media.
For me, the experience of being forcibly acculturated male involved my gender being misassigned at birth, years before it actually emerged. When I asserted my identity at the age of three, I was bullied and harassed until I disavowed it, learning to police my behavior and eliminate any femininity from my expression. I entered a world as a child that contained zero trans representation. Like a character in some dystopic novel, my identity was a frightening, shameful secret, and puberty was a confusing trauma. Any privilege I might have accrued feels well mitigated by the terror and self-loathing that defined my early life.
The idea of trans women’s theoretical “male privilege” becomes even more distasteful when one considers trans women like Islan Nettles, and those like her, who are murdered simply because of her gender identity, or trans feminine youth like Leelah Alcorn, who take their lives because they can’t imagine a future for themselves in a transmisogynist world.
Because women like Burkett do not see trans women as women, they tend to view our gender expressions to be mockeries of womanhood. Though they’ve worked throughout their lives to free women from sexist scrutiny, they freely scrutinize and ridicule the appearance of women like Caitlyn Jenner.
With derision, she describes Jenner’s appearance in Vanity Fair, cataloging her “cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, (and) thick mascara.” Were anyone to critique a cis woman this way, one imagines Burkett would take umbrage. Likewise, were one to extrapolate from a few photos that this was the subject’s “idea of a woman,” as Burkett does here with Jenner, one would think any feminist would take offense. Burkett seems to see trans women as interlopers or squatters in the land of femaledom. In a particularly offensive passage, she likens a trans woman to a young man who dies his skin and “crochets his hair into twists” and “expects to be embraced by the black community.”
The clear theme of Burkett’s article is that she does not wish to see gender redefined from the way she and her generation would have it set. In the article’s second half, she offers a lengthy recitation of what might be called “occasions in which trans activists have argued for inclusive language,” a list familiar to readers of Michelle Goldberg’s articles on the issue. In observing recent requests by queer and trans people and their allies that abortion not be defined by vaginas, that The Vagina Monologues not be performed because of it’s exclusionary of trans identities, and that the term “sisterhood” be replaced by “siblinghood” at women’s colleges, Burkett detects the definition of woman changing in a way that she thinks is misguided.
On the one hand, one can sympathize with how she feels, given that she and her cohorts worked hard to advance women’s rights. Burkett clearly feels a stake in women’s advancement and I respect that and the hard work she channeled into gaining gender equality years before I was born. On the other hand, though, if the feminists of a generation ago had not actively excluded transgender women, we wouldn’t have to make as much of a ruckus today.
Throughout Burkett’s life, trans women have lived largely on the margins of society (or in the closet) without rights or protections. Rather than see us as equals, many feminists of her generation insisted, as Burkett does still, on insulting and repudiating us. Our bodies are different, and, against our wills, so were our childhoods. From her perch, Burkett appoints herself to critique our appearance, language ,and experience apparently without a lot of input from transgender people themselves.
Burkett writes that she wants to “rally behind the movement for transgender rights” and I believe her. Most people who believe in equality now do. For the communities who’ve been historically closest to them, meaning the LGBTQ and women’s movements, supporting transgender rights today can mean having to face the ways they’ve excluded trans people and refused to see us as who we really are.
Supporting trans women means seeing them as equal to all other women. When you do this, then Caitlyn Jenner’s self-expression is as valid as any other woman’s. It means every trans woman’s body is a woman’s body and any definition of woman inherently includes trans women. If this is what Burkett means when she writes the trans movement is “demanding that women reconceptualize ourselves,” then I suppose she’s correct. It will be nice when people no longer see it as a “demand,” though, and when people no longer ask, “What makes a woman?” and assuming the answer excludes transgender women.
Leela Ginelle is a trans woman playwright and journalist whose work appears in PQ Monthly, Bitch, and the Advocate.