Arguments against the idea that trans women are women tend to fall into two camps: biological (“there are only 2 sexes and you can’t change your sex”), and social (“gender is a social construct and you are socialized in a certain way from birth, so you can’t change how you’ve been socialized—once male, always male”). Julia Serano has written an excellent piece tearing apart both approaches. This post is not an argument. I am not trying to convince anyone that I am a woman. I don’t need to do that, because I don’t need you to believe I’m a woman for me to be one. Indeed, I find the whole notion that some people feel that they get to “debate” me and other trans people about our gender to be tiresome.
Instead, I’m writing this post primarily for my cis allies who might be curious about this whole “socialized male” idea. I’m talking to all of you, particularly my cis women allies but cis people in general, who support me, affirm me, love me, accept me, and are just here to listen and learn from my experiences. I am sharing here, not debating with TERFs. I hope all you lovely and curious people enjoy my thoughts. And who knows, maybe there are some trans people out there for whom my experiences resonate; I hope this post helps you too!
Being an ally to trans people must always start from the fundamental basis of believing in self-id. (But please, while we’re on the subject, can you drop the terms “identifies as” and “woman-identifying” from your vocabulary, please? I don’t identify as a woman, and using that term might sound inclusive but really just others me.) However, my lovely allies reading this post, I understand that if you are cis and comfortable in your gender, you might be wondering how some of us trans women get to this point. How can we claim the identity of woman if we were socialized to be men?
Many trans women, when you ask them about the idea that being socialized male makes them less of a woman, respond by pointing out that their experience of boyhood and manhood was hell. They always knew that they were different (even if they weren’t aware, at the time, why), and others seemed to know, and it resulted in bullying and ostracizing. This sucks, and anyone who shares these experiences is valid—but these were not my experiences, and I can’t speak to them.
The first 30 years of my life were pretty great. I have loving parents; I did well in school. Yes, I had some traumas—no one escapes adolescence and young adulthood unscathed! And something I continue to sort out, with the help of my friends as well as professional therapy, is how much of the rockier parts of my early life were influenced by gender incongruence. Did I have trouble forming more adult friendships in my 20s because I didn’t quite feel right in my gender but didn’t know it? I think that was a part of it. I’m still figuring that out, and maybe I’ll never quite have it all figured out. That’s ok.
On the whole, I have never been happier than I am now that I am out and exploring my true self! But my first 30 years were good too. Being socialized male wasn’t as painfully traumatic for me as it was for many trans women. So where does that leave me in this discussion of socialization?
My therapist asked me an interesting question during one session. I was talking about joining an equity and inclusion committee. I’d never been on a committee before, but my newfound confidence and assertiveness that I’m building with my new self mean I want to put myself out there and be involved. He asked me what I hoped to contribute to the committee, and I said, “Well, obviously there’s the fact that I’m trans, but I’m also bringing just the general experience of being a woman to the table.”
My therapist is a good guy and didn’t blink when I came out as trans to him at our third session (life moves pretty fast), but I think he’s also playing a lot of catch-up. So his follow-up was, “Do you think you bring a very different experience, since you have lived most of your life as a man up until this point?”
I pushed back on his phrasing and immediately replied, “Of course I bring a different experience—I bring the experience of a woman whom everyone saw as a man for the first 30 years of her life.”
This might seem like splitting hairs, and I know, allies, that the nuances of language and the ever-changing terminology can be frustrating! But this is an important semantic distinction. When I say I started transitioning last year, I don’t mean I was a man for 30 years and now I’m a woman. I have always been a woman. My transition simply marks the point where I began revealing that to society. In my case, I also figured it out around roughly the same time, but my ignorance of this fact doesn’t erase its retroactive truth. Just because you don’t know you were adopted until 30 doesn’t mean that, at 30, you suddenly “became” adopted. There are many truths about ourselves hidden even to ourselves that, when revealed, can be a shock to the system for us and those around us. In my case, it was my gender.
So that was one point I wanted to emphasize with my therapist, and it’s something I try to get across to people in general when we discuss my past. I like to say “when I was presenting as a man” or “when we all thought I was a man,” because I feel like these terms accurately represent what was going on. At no point in my life have I actually been a man.
The second point was buried implicitly in that first clause: “of course I bring a difference experience.” I say this because every woman has a different experience of womanhood. This is the fundamental truth that transphobic people run up against when they try to argue that I can’t be a woman because I wasn’t socialized “as a woman.” What do you mean “as a woman”?? There is no single common experience that all women around the world have. No matter what you name, I can point to exceptions. There are women who menstruate but there are women who don’t. White women have a dramatically different experience of womanhood from Black women. Ditto for women in richer areas of a Western country versus an impoverished area or a country in the global South. The only way to arrive at a consistent formalist definition of woman is an exclusionary one (which is exactly what white feminism has done for decades and … yeah, we still need to address that, fellow white ladies).
So when you put my transness into this context, doesn’t it become clearer? My “male socialization” is just a different experience of womanhood—perhaps quite an outlier, I grant you, and that incongruence is often what makes it so traumatic for people. But there is no way to draw a sharp line between “male socialization” and “female socialization,” because there will always be overlap somewhere and exceptions.
Now, if you’re thinking, “But Kara, doesn’t that make the whole idea of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ less of a box and more of a fuzzy, amorphous label?” And I would say to you, “Yes, absolutely, you’ve got it.” That’s why we have tons of other labels, other genders and absences of gender and mixtures of gender—because it isn’t two binary categories, never has been, even when for a period of time colonialism told us to pretend it was on pain of death.
This is what scares radical feminists and the patriarchy alike, and it’s why transphobic people tend to swing around to the same patriarchal, colonial, racist rhetoric that originates from the structures these people were originally fighting. For people who spent their entire lives fighting for the rights of women, the idea that the entire category cannot be neatly defined or characterized, the idea that womanhood is a lived experience in which every version of womanhood must be valid—it’s understandable that’s scary. It makes you a little uncomfortable, for sure.
So I have sympathy for such people, I really do. What I don’t have sympathy for is how they channel that fear, confusion, anger into telling me I don’t exist, don’t have a right to exist, or that I’m a man. Rude.
This is why I love talking to you, my lovely cis allies. Because even when you don’t quite understand, you accept your discomfort, because your discomfort is a small price to pay if it also means accepting my lived experience. You are willing to listen and learn with humility and empathy (and I hope I can do the same for you, when you are sharing your experiences and knowledge with me).
When you think about it, our gender is irrelevant in isolation. I’ve struggled with this during COVID—in a kind of “if a tree falls” way I keep wondering if I’m really a woman when there’s no one around to see my gender! Gender as a social construct exists less as an individual label and more as a way for us to view ourselves as part of an aggregate along one particular axis. Nevertheless, you’ll hopefully have realized by now that “woman” by itself is almost always too broad of a category for fine data analysis. When discussing the lived experiences of women, of course we will want to break things down into various categories.
So yeah, when you point out that women who were socialized male are different from women who weren’t, you’re correct. That is literally one of the reasons I am trans, and that’s why we have the corresponding label of cis so we can talk about women who were assigned that gender at birth. I will never get offended if someone wants to talk about “cis women” as a distinct category from trans women, because obviously that’s a useful distinction. But it’s a distinction of kind and not degree.
Yes, being trans makes me a different kind of woman. But so does being a woman who has given birth, a woman who grew up with a disability, a woman who has lived in multiple countries throughout childhood, etc. None of those experiences makes any of those women less of a woman, and by the same token, my transness marks me as different but not as less than. It doesn’t matter whether you get your gender label at birth or you realize it as a child, a teen, or any time through your adulthood. The point is the label fits.
We women do not all share the same lived experiences, and this is why intersectionality is so essential for feminism. Yet each of us share some lived experiences with some other subset of women, some overlap, enough that the word “woman” when we apply it to ourselves fits. That is the bottom line. And the only person who gets to decide is each one of us. Either you accept that my lived experience means “woman” fits me best, or you don’t, in which case … too bad, because it turns out your vote doesn’t count. I believe in gender freedom, and to achieve it, we need to break the shackles of biological determinism, of gender essentialism, and of socialization purity.
We’ll all be better off for it.