I’ve been doing work with and for trans women for about 15 years now. Arguably, I have met more trans women than most people on this planet. Older transitioners, young transitioners, passing, non-passing, those who pursue medical options, those who don’t, very feminine trans women, butch trans women, trans women who had children before they transitioned, trans women who had children after transition, trans women who are partnered to men, or to women, or to neither.
And the thing I tell most audiences at the outset is this: once you know one trans person, you know one trans person, & that is all you know.
So Germaine Greer has met a few trans women and she has made a decision about all trans women, and she has decided that trans women are not women. She has also clarified that she did not say this to prohibit trans women from getting surgery or other medical treatment, and also clarified that she thinks people who chose Jenner for the cover of Glamour were motivated by misogyny.
I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she is not making such a sweeping statement based on personal and anecdotal evidence. After that, we have only biology and theory as lines of reasoning for what a woman is. Let’s start with biology.
Here is what I think: trans women are not just women. They are female. This is a hang-up on the part of many feminists who are still stuck in some world where biology is destiny (oh, the irony!). Because if ‘woman’ is a social construct, and deBeauvoir was right, we become women by living as women in the world, by facing oppression based on gender. For some women, that social conditioning starts with birth, because of a vagina and a doctor’s declaration. For others, it starts at 15, or 45, or 75.
Trans women are aware that they are female and are meant to have bodies that allow others to gender them correctly. Harry Benjamin, when he started working with trans women, noticed that we had tried many ways over many years to convince trans women they are not women and that not only hadn’t worked but it caused undue (& for him, anti-Hippocratic) suffering. But bodies, unlike brains, are changeable. So he designed a way to make it work.
Because definitions of sex are based on only a very few things: chromosomes (which we now know there is a panoply of chromosomal variation, not just XX & XY but XO and XXY, etc.) and hormone dominance. The combination of those two is what creates a sexed body, but we also know that bodies with vaginas sometimes come with XY chromosomes and vice versa. We also really have no goddamned good idea what part of the brain “tells” us our sex, and mostly, for those of us who are not trans, we never face a disruption between our bodies/glands/hormones and the way we are socialized. But trans people do. Some experience a crippling, brutal disruption. They experience gendered oppression internally and externally, as it were.
Which is all my way of saying: ‘female’, like ‘woman’, is also an unstable category. Its very definition is changing, has changed, due to what we know about bodies, chromosomes, hormones, and fetal development, and what we know about brain sex even moreso.
Which is what leads us to theory for a definition of woman. As a feminist, my compassion is with those who experience gendered oppression of whatever kind. My intersectional feminism respects that all women experience gendered oppression in different ways: for black women, for instance, gendered oppression is racialized. For poor women, gendered oppression is classed. For trans women, gendered oppression is transphobic.
I don’t know why Germaine Greer missed out on 30+ years of gender theory which allows her to posit that woman is a stable, universal, and identifiable category. I really don’t. It hasn’t been for a very long time. I also don’t know how she can be any kind of post structural feminist and not acknowledge that socialization is what makes a woman a woman – it is, in essence, what we raise females to be, and it is made of how we treat women, including their right to self determine, to have bodily autonomy, and to resist definitions of woman-ness that oppress and restrict them.
And I don’t know of a group of women right now who are more restricted or oppressed by someone else’s definition of ‘woman’ than trans women (except, of course, black women and lesbians and childfree women and post menopausal women). ‘Woman’ is, after all, a category of patriarchy’s making, and it pains me to see a feminist borrow tools from the master’s toolbox and call them liberation.
Germaine Greer is wrong. And her speech, whether she admits to it or not, carries a greater resonance – and a greater burden – because we expect such remarkable feminism and knowledge from her. She is not dismissable nor stupid, but she is still wrong. Because everything I know as a feminist is built on inclusion; ‘woman’ is an alliance, not an identity you choose; it is the sum of all of the parts of what it is to live in a patriarchy and to feel no power and a tremendous threat of violence if you don’t follow the rules. And if there is anyone in the world who is experiencing those things right now, it is trans women. She is not just upsetting people by saying what she says. She is giving those who hate trans women permission to make their lives more miserable. And there is nothing, NOTHING, feminist about asserting the rights of the oppressors over the dignity and value of the oppressed.
Her stance is not just harmful and illogical but more than anything else it seems spiteful, exclusive, and lacking in compassion. It is not my feminism, and no feminist worth her salt would exclude other women based on how good or how bad they are at being women. And she is doing exactly that. Let her fade; let her be remembered for the good work she did do when she was still keeping up with the reading and while her fire was lit for ending oppression and not causing more of it.
There is nothing to see here. Ms. Greer has left the building.