Woman is not a feeling

I went to college in the early 90s, and I was exposed to all sorts of crazy (albeit compelling) post-modern theory. It was fun to think about, even to apply – to literature, to film, sometimes to politics. But if one had told the nineteen-year-old dyke I was that someday, in the not-so-distant-future, these ideas (best engaged in the hallowed halls of academia) would be applied in very serious ways to women’s existence, lesbian’s existence, I wouldn’t have believed it.

In fact, this is exactly what has happened in the dominant culture. We have taken post-modern theory and applied it to a subjugated class (women). We say, with straight faces, “Anyone can be a woman!” We say, without stuttering, “A man is a woman if he says so.” What we then are to infer is that “woman” is a meaningless term – a concept, a malleable notion, a bit of academic jargon that can be tried out on a poem, a work of art, a dude. And in this way, we relegate “woman” to the status of “thing” – the lived reality of women becomes a text, an application.

I don’t give a fuck how anyone identifies. Truly, I don’t.

If, for example, a man says, “I identify as a woman. I’m going to dress like a woman. Change my name. Get some surgery. Take some pills.” Okay, fine. Cool. Rock on with your bad self. But the problem is, identity doesn’t, and never will, transcend biological reality.

The M2T seems to love this very philosophical idea: “I feel like . . . therefore I am.” M2T activists insist that males (I’m talking biology) who “feel like” females (I’m talking biology) are entitled — because of a feeling, a hunch – to women-only space (MichFest), to lesbian-only space, to shelters, to clinics, to organizations, to academic institutions that have been designed to serve the interests of women.

In a world that serves the interests of men, these spaces are essential. When we redefine woman/female as “anything anyone says it is,” then these essential spaces disappear (we already see this happening) – I mean, why have special services, spaces, institutions for a permeable concept?

But “woman” and “female” are not permeable concepts. “Female” is not a bit of academic puffery. Female is not a “feeling.”

I menstruated in adolescence not because of a “sense” or a “feeling” I had, but because of the biological reality of my femaleness. I developed breasts, not of my own volition, not of a desire to develop breasts, but because of my biology.

And despite my androgyny, my “identification” with stereotypically masculine ways of presenting myself, despite often being “misgendered” as a “sir,” (an occurrence, by the way, that never devastated me) I got breast cancer in my early thirties, a type of breast cancer caused by the estrogen my body naturally produces because I am female. This is sex. This is reality. This is not a feeling.

To that end, I’d like to conclude this post with an anecdote. I realize anecdotes are inherently problematic, as they often only speak to one experience, but this one I think is germane to my point:

When I found out I had cancer, I was frightened and devastated. Furthermore, I was living far from my family and friends. So I sought out psychotherapy to help me work through the trauma of cancer, of chemo, of losing my hair (temporarily) and parts of my body (permanently). I ended up with a therapist who was a “transwoman.” I had no problem with this – he was trained in dealing with trauma, and had worked with cancer patients before. Frankly, we had a wonderful client-therapist relationship. He saw me through the most difficult, terrifying time in my life and I have nothing but warm feelings toward him.

However, there were many times when we were not on the same page. There were many times when I think I would have been better off with a female therapist. You see, for him, womanhood was a thing to be sought after, an elusive, albeit highly desired, state. For me – as a dyke with breast cancer – womanhood was something of a burden.

During one of my first visits with him, I explained how I had begged my surgeon to “take both of my breasts.” His reaction was to gasp in shock, and fold his arms around his surgically implanted breasts. In the moment, the gesture was subtle, but also profoundly telling. He had bought his breasts, coveted them, saved and planned for those orbs under his sweater. They were precious to him, and he could not fathom demanding their removal.

But you see, for me, losing my breasts did not mean losing my identity. My identity was not contingent on my breasts and my sex would remain female regardless. Sure, it was a sad thought – I’d had those bitches since girlhood, and I quite liked them – but I was thinking about my survival. I was not, as my M2t therapist was, thinking about their value with regard to my identity.

I already had an “identity,” largely irrespective of my biology. I already was a fully formed human being with interests and a sense of humor and an aesthetic sensibility that had little to do with my possession of tits or a vag.

However, my biology is part of my reality. I had estrogen induced breast cancer. I have breasts. I menstruate. I see a gynecologist for reasons beyond mere pretense. As an adolescent, I was ogled by adult men and felt afraid. As a teen, I rejected the cult of makeup and had no interest in boys and was ridiculed for this – and no, that does not make me “trans,” it makes me a dyke. I appreciate my dumb luck at being born a female in the First World.

Tell Malala Yousafza that “female is a feeling.” Tell baby girls in China that female is “whatever you want it to be.” That woman is “whatever” is a male conceit and it is false. Men, despite their precious fucking feelings cannot simply colonize womanhood. Not without a fight.

You can identify as whatever-the-fuck you like, but unless you were born female, you will never be female. Embrace your fanciful identity. Enjoy your feelings. Leave women alone.

On gender

“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is; I know not “seems.” – Hamlet

A friend and I were recently having a conversation about her daughter. Her daughter is four, and during this conversation my friend bemoaned the fact that her four-year-old daughter has developed an interest in princesses. “She loves that shit,” my friend said. “And there’s nothing really I can do about that.”

Both my friend and I identify as feminists, and as such, we see gender as inherently problematic – particularly for girls, but also for boys. I understood where she was coming from in expressing dismay at her daughter’s affinity for a bit of stereotypical frivolity.

Now, gender norms would have us think, “Well, of course she like princesses and fairytales – she’s a little girl.” Gender would have us believe that the little girl’s interest in dresses and castles and glitter was a direct result of her biological sex. Sexist hierarchies are upheld when people believe this. Gender reads a child’s interest in baby dolls or trucks as a reflection of their DNA, rather than the byproduct of socialization or, you know, just unique human personality. (Like, I really dig true crime books and dirt bag rock on vinyl, but I would never attribute my fondness for those things to my female biology.)

So back to my friend’s daughter. After a bit of cajoling, my friend admitted that she had books about princesses that she read to her daughter at night. “But,” my friend said. “I always change the ending to and then she went to college.” The reason I mention this, is that it’s important to note her daughter did not, apropos of nothing, develop an affinity for princesses. She had her mom read her a book that she liked, and she got really into that shit. She also got really into Oscar the Grouch from watching “Sesame Street.” And when I came to visit, got really into looking at pictures of my dog. She’s a human being with interests. Even at four, we have personalities, we have interests. Even at four, we’re drawn to some things and not others.

For a patriarchy to survive, human interests – for books or colors or movies, must be tethered to sex. The very notion of gender has nothing to do with choice, and everything to do with control. The concept “gender” exists, at its core, to convince little boys and girls that their biology has preordained their futures – what they will do, what they will like (buy), what they will say, and how they will say it. Patriarchy, and the beneficiaries of, hope we will fall in lock-step with the lie.

I was lucky to grow up in a home where neither my mother nor my father were enforcers of so-called “gender norms.” My brother and I both played with Barbie dolls, and enjoyed it. My brother and I both went fishing with dad, and enjoyed it. When my mother put curlers in my hair, or painted my nails for Easter, my brother sometimes wanted a curler or two in his hair, a bit of nail polish on his fingers, and my mother granted this. My father didn’t freak out when I put mascara on my brother (he asked me to), and my mom didn’t question my female-ness when I played He-Man with my brother. None of this meant my brother or I were “gender queer.” Later, when my sister came along, she went through an extensive phase of wanting to wear “boy clothes” and “boy hats.” My mother let her. No one cared. It was cute, and eventually, she stopped wanting to wear the construction hats and overalls. None of this meant anything about our biology, our sex – my sister and I were still female, my brother still male. All this meant is that we were kids, who liked things. I was lucky enough to have parents who could grasp this.

This is the difference between “seems” and “is.” Gender “seems.” Sex “is.” Gender is a pretense. Sex is fact.

Today, I sometimes worry that as our society increasingly conflates gender and sex, increasingly reinforces the false notion that gender comes from within, that parents, having fully bought the lie, will either confuse or destroy their children – either by pushing their boys toward altering their bodies to fit their interests, or by killing the souls of their girl children, by teaching them their sex is a very specific destiny.

This is dangerous.

This is a lie.

On privilege

I spend a good deal of time thinking about race.

I don’t ascribe to the liberal lie, “I don’t see race.” Because I do see race. We all see race. Our experiences are shaped by, among other things, our race. In a country where racism is so entrenched, the greatest divide between my experience and my students’ experience, the experience of some friends, is often a matter of race. So I think about this.

It’s not always (if ever) a comfortable thing to ruminate on. When I hear friends and students of color talk about white privilege, it’s not always easy for me (or them), and sometimes it makes us all feel kind of sad. But you know what? All my empathy, all my self-critique, does not mean I am magically without the privilege my whiteness has afforded me.  

I can challenge it, I can question it, but I cannot merely abandon it.

“Inherent,” unearned privilege is the birthright of people society deems superior – whites, men. Whether we admit it or not, we all know this.

I would never say to my African American students or friends, “Hey, I’m cool. I don’t even have white privilege.” 1) Because I’m not insane. 2) Because that is an insane comment.

But men feel perfectly comfortable telling women they are no longer in possession of male privilege because they “feel like” a woman. And as women, we’re expected to believe this. We’re not supposed to be insulted, or confused by this claim. We’re not supposed to laugh.

One of the screeds I commonly hear from the M2T community is, “But I don’t have male privilege, because I’m a woman now!” This is as fundamentally absurd as claiming, “I don’t have white privilege, because I have black friends!” It presumes that by aligning oneself with the “other,” one automatically becomes the other – replete with the other’s history, experience, struggle. To claim “I no longer have male privilege” because one “feels” like a woman (I’ll leave the hilarity of that claim alone for now), because one is gobbling estrogen, because one has embraced an affinity for pink and frills, is beyond nonsensical – it is an insulting lie that men tell themselves in order to avoid confronting and challenging the reality of their deeply engrained entitlement.  

By saying one can take a pill, wear a dress, or undergo surgery and no longer be possessed of former privilege is to assert that oppression is easily remedied, it is to posit that one is no longer complicit in oppressive systems because they have simply washed their hands of it. This is not how privilege works. Would that it were.

The irony, of course, is that the very men who claim to have “relinquished their male privilege” tend to embody the very behaviors that the male privilege has afforded them: they name women (cis), they attempt to silence women who do not instantly collude with their highly problematic ideology (you’re a bigot because you can think critically), they threaten violence (rape, beatings) against women who do not prioritize their thoughts and feelings, they claim womanhood (not unlike privilege) is nothing more than a garment one can purchase or pass on. And this is male privilege.  

When men tell the lie that they have simply discarded their privilege it attempts to discredit discourse around the very real existence of unearned privilege. Furthermore, claiming to simply have “gotten rid of” male privilege undermines the experience of women who have suffered, in very actual ways, from living in a society where they are not male. The message it sends is “your oppression is a fantasy.”

Now, to deflect from notions of male privilege, many M2T’s have invented fantasy privileges — like the notion of “female privilege” and “lesbian privilege.” To distance themselves from the reality of their own entitlement, many very vocal M2T “activists,” with an almost fetishistic determination, throw around statistics about M2T suicide, rape, et al in an effort to say – what, exactly? That no oppression exists because their oppression exists? That some oppression is worse than others? That no one can call them out on their privilege because statistics?

What I’d say to those men who run around wringing their hands over the fact that they’ve been accused of exerting male privilege — stop for a fucking second and check yourself. Listen, really listen, to what women are telling you, even if it doesn’t feel nice.  No matter how many hormones you take, no matter how many pairs of shoes or shades of lipstick you own, your privilege exists. If you don’t like this, then challenge it. Breathe. Think critically for a moment about your actions, your words, and the message they send to those who have not been handed male privilege. Engage these thoughts, even though they make you uncomfortable.