What make a real woman?
There has been a lot of conversation lately about Caitlyn Jenner and her gender-revealing photo shoot in Vanity Fair. While she has been the impetus for much of this conversation, the tangential directions those conversations have taken are more than a little alarming to me.
A little background for the sake of relevancy: most people in my life do not know this about me, and most of them wouldn’t care. But as a child, I wrestled with my own gender identity. I was raised in upstate NY in a very Catholic household, attended Catholic school, was an altar server, and had plenty of dolls and Barbies like any other young girl my age.
But I struggled.
I had my hair cut short, tried to wear as much “boy” clothing as I could, played with Hot Wheels/Matchbox cars, climbed trees, took bikes off of steep jumps, wore scars and blood with badges of honor, and felt at home in the rough and tumble world of boys. I also had friends who were girls, and we played dolls and Barbies together for hours.I knew there were male and female versions of a lot of names, and when I discovered what I thought at the time was the male form of my own, it became mine in my head.
As we got older, we experimented with makeup, talked about boys and dating, and that’s where things started to go a little south for me. I kept struggling. I felt so much more comfortable hanging out with guys, but that became more taboo as I couldn’t let on that some of them had attractions to the same girls I did. I was awkward, never felt like I fit in with my female friends completely. This was through no fault of theirs whatsoever. But the fact that they had so much more freedom than I did, combined with my inability to giggle and sigh and flirt with boys, just left me feeling lost and alone.
Perhaps that’s why the sentiments I’m hearing lately are, in my mind, dangerous.
I’ve heard “butch” women vilify Caitlyn Jenner (and other women, too) as being a poser, a wannabe, someone playing dress-up in pretty clothes and makeup. Derision drips from observations such as, “Could she go a little further overboard in stereotyping the girly girl woman? Real women aren’t like that.” Really? Hmm. I wasn’t aware that there was a definition of a real woman written down somewhere.
On the flip side,I hear women who make snide comments about “butch women aren’t real women. Clearly they don’t want to be women, since they don’t want to look like one.” Hold on. So if a woman doesn’t wear stereotypical women’s fashion and style, she isn’t a real woman but if she does wear traditionally feminine clothing, hairstyles, and makeup, then she isn’t a real woman because it’s a stereotype?
Is anyone else confused yet?
I hear feminists who accuse Caitlyn Jenner of being “a man who is trying to usurp our struggle for equality. Makeup and women’s clothing doesn’t make you a woman. Going through it does.” Wait, what? Our struggle for equality isn’t just about man vs woman or XX vs XY. It’s supposed to be about all people being equal to each other. Isn’t it?
And one of the worst definitions I’ve heard slung around? “Real women have put up with their menstrual cycle. Transgender women aren’t real women.” Wow. I guess then, that when I had my hysterectomy at age 29, I lost my right to call myself a real woman. I no longer bleed, I can no longer have children. Am I poser, too?
Many people hold fast to the concept that gender identity is merely a social construct; an existential persona, if you will, placed on a child from his or her outside world. While I absolutely agree that a child’s environment plays a huge part in whether or not a cisgender child stays that way or identifies otherwise, there is an inherent genealogical link that cannot be ignored. Sexual identity is very different from gender identity, but that doesn’t mean they cannot both have a biological origin. Way too many kids look in the mirror and don’t see a representation that matches what’s in their head, their heart, their spirit. The mere fact that there are people who do not identify as cisgender supports this. If we know deep down inside, where the truth cannot hide, that 2 and 2 are not adding up to 5, something isn’t right.
There have been accusations of “celebrity privilege” tossed around as well. And perhaps there is a sliver of accuracy there. Most people who are in transition do not have unlimited budgets for gender reassignment surgery, Barbara Walters interviews, or Vanity Fair photo shoots. But I think when celebrities do use the privilege they’ve been handed, it can have a positive impact on those who are still in the shadows. If one person sees Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner and finds strength, inspiration, or just faith in him or herself, then it was worth it. People call Caitlyn Jenner an “attention whore”. I’m not going to dispute that, considering the “reality” TV show that exists of her family, and that i don’t know her personally to form an educated opinion. What I will say is that opening yourself up to the vicious condemnation of the online world, along with the political pundits and gossip columnists, takes a lot of guts that most of us don’t have. Yes, I know the adage of “even negative attention is still attention”, there’s a big difference when it’s some media-created scandal versus your actual identity as a human being.
We never hear stories of F-M transgender people trying to horn in on men’s issues. Why do we as women need to shove open the gap that divides us further? Do we honestly think that a man would go through the ridicule, painful surgery, hormone side effects, potential job loss, family estrangement, and even physical abuse and violence in order to intrude on “our” issues?
When women deride transgender women as somehow being less than anything other than a real woman, we don’t just bring the hammer of judgment down on them. We bring it on ourselves. We shine the spotlight of bigotry and prejudice where we wish it couldn’t go.
Dissension in the ranks of any group will ultimately be its downfall. Women are no different. If we want to be seen as strong, inclusive, loving people, it has to include all people.
That includes Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. That includes the butch, the femme, the androgynous, the cisgender, the transgender, the gender neutral, the queer, the pan, the bi, the lesbian. That includes you, and however you identify. And that also includes me. A real woman.