Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Feminism and Me

Am I a feminist?

[Disclaimer: I chose this title deliberately, and I write this with some trepidation. This is not meant to be "Feminism and the Transgender Woman", nor "Feminism and the Older, White Transgender Woman", nor even "Why Feminism (and Feminists) Sometimes Scare Trans Women". This is about me and my experiences with, and perceptions of, feminism. I freely admit that my knowledge and understanding of feminism may be flawed or at the very least incomplete, but my experiences with something people call "feminism" are real. ]

Now that I've transitioned and now that I'm occasionally speaking about what I've observed in the FOSS and Python communities as both male and female, I sometimes get comments or questions involving "feminism". Sometimes I'm be asked if I'm a feminist, but more often what I say is addressed with the assumption that I am a feminist.

I do understand that assumption - a lot of what I'm saying sounds feminist. There is a good reason for that - I'm one of the few who have experienced what being both male and being female in our world is like, and I've seen the differences in reactions from the same people in similar situations. To be blunt, I've seen that sexism, male privilege, and misogyny are very real. 

And I naturally have a real interest in the position of women in our society in particular and in the world in general. As I go about my life now I'm seen as a woman, if I'm lucky - that's certainly my hope and the way I see myself. If I'm not quite so lucky I'm perceived as a man who is trying to be a woman, which is problematic in a bunch of ways no non trans person is likely to ever fully understand. In either case my life is much better if being a woman is not a bad thing. So I definitely share a lot with feminists in terms of what I see as problems and what I see as solutions.

It's complicated

And yet, whenever that word has been cast in my general direction - whether it's during the Q and A following a talk, or in an online discussion, or wherever else - whenever the word "feminism" comes my way, I duck. I do my best to back away and deflect it. I say, "it's complicated."

Why do I back off? What on earth could cause me duck? What makes it "complicated"?

It's a trans thing

A big part of it is the precariousness of a trans woman's situation. No one, or at least very, very few of us, has the strength to fight battles all of the time. No matter how we feel about being trans, life is definitely easier if we're not making a point and not being gender expression warriors every waking moment. I've done my best to be completely open about who I am as I've transitioned. I've gotten the hang of charmingly explaining my situation to doctors, dentists, lawyers, insurance agents, bankers, even car rental clerks, simply because that's easier than insisting on privacy. But coming out all of the time is tiring.

Sometimes it's easier, and many times it's safer, and almost always it's more comfortable to just blend in. But there's the rub.

Many women, even not particularly feminist women, roll their eyes at the efforts trans women make to "fit in" as feminine. They will tell me that they don't worry about hairstyles, that they rarely bother with make up, that they throw on just any old thing to go out, and so on. And of course the implication is that my concern with all of those things - with hair, makeup, clothes, accessories, etc. is a case of trying too hard. I think in most cases they mean well, that they're trying to tell me to relax, that women don't really need to worry about such things to be women. 

This always strikes me as bit of cheat - the salon I frequent seems to be awfully full of women who don't appear to be transgender, the places where I buy accessories seem to pretty well visited by cisgender women, and the cosmetics sellers are clearly not primarily serving the trans community. So it would seem that many, (but not all) women do pay attention to such things, even more than I do. And I would bet that some for some of them it's because they feel they must, for others it's because they want to, and for still others, as for me, it's a combination of the two.

And yet, it is true that women don't have to worry about such things - if one is born a woman, that is. Yes, there is some social pressure to conform to society's expectations, but many women do just fine without worrying about many of them.

But if you happen to be trans (and especially if you have a body and face that has been through many years of testosterone masculinization) the rules are different. If you dress too girly and frilly you're over the top, a parody. On the other hand if you're not overtly feminine enough, if you don't make a pretty darned good attempt to look the part, you must not be "serious" about being a woman and people will fault you for not being "convincing". In some cases, people's access to hormones and other medical treatment (not to mention restrooms) can depend on making the grade in terms of feminine presentation. I actually ran across a voice therapist who made it clear that she would only see me if I was dressed in a properly feminine manner, even if we were having a session via Skype. And of course, "properly feminine" was her call to make, not mine. (I found a different voice therapist.)

In other words, I simply don't have the same range in many areas as natal women - I'm left with a somewhat narrow and fairly conventional range of clothing and behavior if I want to be accepted. Most of the time I'm actually okay with that range - I spent a lifetime wanting to be able to express who I was in a way that society might understand. But like it or not, this exact advice is given to trans women all the time - to carefully observe the cisgender women around you, throw out the extremes, and model yourself on those in middle, blend in with the social norms, do what is expected. Extremes and calling attention to yourself are to be avoided. 

Feminism, on the other hand, has historically been justifiably suspicious of attempts to make all women match that kind of standard. So the trans reality doesn't always mesh with the feminist one. (I'll leave out discussion of "trans feminism" for this post, since it seems mostly to be of interest to and acknowledged by trans women.)

It's a feminist thing

When cisgender women, usually more or less feminist women, tell me that they wear less make up than I do, that they have fewer accessories than I do, that they do less with their hair, that they worry less about body hair, etc. than I do, I do get the message that I'm somehow too obsessed with appearances and not what's really important. In other words, I'm made to feel that I'm not doing it right, that the very way I'm being a woman is letting down the cause, and is invalidating any claim I might have to be a woman. It's a classic double bind - damned if you do, damned if you don't.

And in fact there is a small, vociferous, and agressive segment of radical feminism that takes that point even a bit further. Trans women are, they argue, stooges of the patriarchy, tools used to prop up and reinforce inherently repressive gender constructs. Our very efforts to be female both give support to artificial (and harmful) notions of gender and at the same time violate and mock something innate in natal females. They suggest that we are not women, will never be anything but mutilated men, and are not to be trusted nor allowed in women's spaces. In fact, they would very much prefer it if we were in some way or another just made to go away. 

Maybe it's just me

I won't claim to be well read in feminist theory. Nor will I pretend to have any idea of the true intent of feminism, and I doubt that there is complete agreement among feminists on such a thing. 

But all of this leaves me feeling feminism is a game where I can't win. The way that I feel I need to be a woman seems almost to make me ineligble for that particular club. And in fact some of it's most strident members seem to agree and then some. I do realize that there are many feminists who would strongly disagree with both of those beliefs, but I'm certainly not the only trans woman I know who has felt the same thing.

I've experienced misogyny, sexism, and (straight male cisgender) privilege from both sides. I totally believe in the notion that all people should have the same ability to act, the same safety, the same respect for who and what they are. I also feel the need to share what I've seen in the hope that somehow it helps people understand, that it contributes. 

And yet, when I'm asked in public if I'm a feminist? That's when I have to say, "it's complicated."


  1. "No one, or at least very, very few of us, has the strength to fight battles all of the time."

    That's a beautiful formulation of the answer to so many similar questions: "if you call yourself an X, why aren't you doing X-ish things?" In a perfect world, maybe....

  2. I guess I'm not sure that I could really see the women who cause these feelings as real feminists. While it is true that the outward expressions of "female beauty" have been and are driven by male-dominant societal expectations, they are really only the symptom. I believe (as a long-time cis-male) that true feminism is about attitudes toward others. I could go on and on, but it IS a work day, so I'll just distill it to this. Be comfortable in your skin and don't worry about the nattering in the background. Also, realize that you're probably doing more for cross-gender understanding than any of the nay sayers will ever do!

  3. tl;dr: well said re: complicated relationship with feminism

    In an ideal world, any woman, whether cis or trans or fluid, could be as dressy or not as she liked. Realistically, here and now, that's not happening.

    I can dress in a polo shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes and I'm still 'female'(I haven't really been mistaken for male since I was 18). I can wear a formal gown, heels, and make up and I'm 'female'. That's my privilege as a cisfemale. And it's up to me to realize that and support women who don't have that privilege. I may not be able to make it easier, but I can sure stop making it harder.

    Since (as I understand it) feminism is the radical notion that women are people and deserve the same treatment, that goes for all women; cis-, trans-, and fluid. We should be able to choose whether to be stay at home moms, work in construction, write video games, or be CEOs. We should be able to choose how much time and attention to devote to 'looking feminine.' Women who think of themselves feminists but deny these choices to other women, are they really helping?

  4. "I also feel the need to share what I've seen in the hope that somehow it helps people understand, that it contributes."

    You have helped me to do just that. I think anyone who treads the line between male and female blows society wide open, and is to be commended for their courage.