Trigger warnings: anti-gay slurs, transmisogyny, self-harm.
I am exhausted. I am so tired of hearing the same old tired arguments from TERFs and from DFAB trans people who throw trans women under the bus in exchange for less violence on themselves (will henceforth be categorized in the acronym TERF). TERFs invoke the ‘socialization’ argument in order to call trans women “men” and to give DFAB trans people a nudge and a wink, that they’re really only female. DFAB trans people invoke it to gain access to women’s spaces, resources, shelters, and more at the direct expense of trans women. On both accounts, the goal is to other trans women.
TERFs willfully misuse the word ‘socialization’ to misgender trans women and treat us as malicious “men,” saying trans women are and have been perpetrators of male violence, because us trans women pre-coming out and pre-transition must experience malehood and therefore male privilege. They generally base this off how we are read when we are younger, meaning read as male and treated as such. While I understand why folks argue this, it relies on omitting a few things: a key aspect of socialization called response, what privilege actually is, and, naturally, the lived experiences of trans women. Not just this, but the socialization argument also relies on a caricature of trans women as men in dresses. but it also perpetuates the myth of shared girlhood, which has already been disassembled by women of color particularly along with fellow trans women. As Reed puts it, “There is no singular, universal woman’s narrative. There are as many stories and experiences as there are women.”
And she’s right. What experience of womanhood is experienced by all women? You probably don’t have to think very hard to see that this really is impossible, and for shared girlhood to be a thing, it needs to ignore that us women are multifaceted. As I pointed out earlier, TERFs believe trans women have male privilege. What they don’t understand is that one can receive benefits from privilege without actually having said privilege. In regards to transness, this is often referred to as cis-read privilege (which is conditional), sometimes called “passing” privilege. When it comes to privilege, I use Toni D’orsay’s five-step test to privilege:
- Membership: I am a member of a social group that is dominant through no action of my own, nor through being mistaken for a member of that social group.
- Stigma: I do not have stigma attached to me along that axis of oppression
- Innocence: I am not looked to as the cause of problems in a social group.
- Worthiness: I am presumed worthy of a social group’s trust and wealth.
- Competence: I am expected to be skillful, successful, and autonomous.
To have privilege, one must be a member of a certain group, and trans women are not a part of the dominant gender groups in both cisness and maleness. We might be mistaken as members for these groups, but we are not in truth either. Benefiting from privilege is not the same thing as possessing that privilege, as D’orsay puts it. However, TERFs insist that trans women, because they were likely read and treated as males growing up, never internalized the messages of womanhood. They must have internalized the messages of boyhood. Trans women, therefore, cannot truly be women. While trans women might receive some practical benefits from being read as male, that does not mean we’ve all internalized boyhood. Once again, we see TERFs relying on the myth of shared girlhood, that women across all social positionings receive these messages in the same way. It assumes whiteness, it assumes a certain class status, it assumes one is able-bodied, it assumes one is neurotypical, it assumes a particular geographic location, it assumes every privileged category outside of ‘woman.’ It also assumes a major lack of agency in regards to all women, not just trans women.
And when trans women point this out, the moving goalposts fallacy comes up in attempts to show that us trans women don’t really understand womanhood and can, in fact, never understand it. Moving goalposts is a logical fallacy that is also known as “raising the bar.” It dismisses evidence made for a specific claim, and then demands some other (often greater) evidence. There was an initial goal, but then the goalposts are moved to exclude the attempt made. You know when Charlie Brown attempts to kick the football while Lucy holds it, and says she promises to hold it in place, but every time he tries, she moves the football away? And Charlie hurts himself, Lucy mocks him, and then he has to get another running start, maybe further back this time around? Moving goalposts is exactly that.
The bar is always raised for trans women, and it gets raised to an impossible standard just to say trans women are men. “You don’t have breasts so you can’t be a woman.” Some cis women don’t have breasts, and some trans women do have breasts. “But trans women’s breasts are fake.” What does that even mean, a “natural” boob? One that develops from hormones? Some cis women have to take hormones or have cosmetic surgery for their breasts. “You do a lot of boy things.” There aren’t women who do things marked as masculine? Tomboys don’t exist? “Your assertiveness shows your maleness.” Again, are there no assertive women? Is the category ‘woman’ marked by passiveness? Sounds pretty patriarchal to me. “You’re too muscular.” Some cis women have defined muscles. “You can’t give birth.” There are cis women who can’t give birth. “You have a penis, and so you can never experience womanhood.” Some trans women have vaginas. It appears that when you tell trans women who they are, you’re also telling other women who they are. Women must fit a certain standard in order to be “real,” and what’s that require? It requires policing, and nothing about that is radical or progressive. In fact, it is downright misogynistic.
I said earlier that TERFs omit a key aspect of socialization called response along with the lived experiences of trans women. By omitting these things, TERFS gain a monopoly on the “female narrative,” because they never have to have trans women in the conversation at all. I will counter this by discussing socialization.
Socialization: What It Actually Is
Socialization is the process which prepares human beings to function in social life. It is how new folks are prepared to become members of an existing group and to think, feel, and act in ways this group considers appropriate. What this looks like will vary from culture to culture, family to family, etc. (Think back to the myth of shared girlhood again) It is also important to know that all of us are still being socialized. As a society shifts and changes, so do the social environments we move through. And so to get a better look at socialization, we need to talk about it in three parts.
The three major aspects of socialization are as follows: context, content and processes, and response. Context simply refers to specific locations/time periods in which we are socialized, ie at work, childhood, school, with friends, informal environments, traveling, and more.
“The content and process of socialization is like the play, the lines, and the actors. It includes the structure of the socializing activity—how intense and prolonged it is, who does it, how it is done, whether it is a total experience or only a partial process, how aware the individual is of alternatives, and how attractive those alternatives are. Content refers specifically to what is passed from member to novice. Processes are those interactions that convey to new members how they are to speak, behave, think, and even feel.” (source)
Response is just that: how somebody responds to these messages they’re being bombarded with, which means what? That this person has a self-concept, is self-aware. They have an idea of themselves (regardless of how well others think they know it) and whether or not they agree with the messages being sent to them, and then how they deal with that connection/disconnection. This one is key.
The response one needs to be elaborated on a bit more. Nobody internalizes all messages sent to them the same way (which is, again, why there are so many different expressions of womanhood). In fact, some are outright rejected, and that’s because folks know a message is not about them. TERFs often act like folks have no agency within these structures, that people, particularly women in this case, are more stone tablets to have their identities engraved upon them. That sounds pretty darn misogynistic, doesn’t it? Seems to be a pattern in TERF rhetoric. Acting like women don’t have agency over their own experiences sounds exactly like what patriarchy says about women. Which brings me to the next bit, another sociological concept TERFs seem to omit on the regular: Structure and Agency.
Structure refers to the recurrent, patterned arrangements (think back to the content and processes + context aspects of socialization) which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available. This means how systems of oppression and privilege operate in our lives and influence our experiences. Agency means the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.
Structure and Agency together is the interaction between individuals and the structures they’re working within. That means that all facets of identity are at play here, because we as individuals are multifaceted. Based on how you comprehend yourself, and your relationship to these messages broadcasted to you in an innumerable amount of ways by social environments, that is how you are socialized.
In other words, I wasn’t raised as a male. I was a trans girl who had cis norms imposed on her. I was responding to these “you are male” messages as a trans girl. And because of that disconnect, I committed varying forms of violence against myself. I self-harmed, I abused drugs and alcohol, I starved myself, and more. Others recognized that disconnect and bullied me for “being a faggot.” I will not lie about how that disconnect also resulted in violence against others in the form of lashing out verbally and getting into fist fights with men who bullied me. I know how TERFs will frame this. They will say my lashing out is a result of my maleness, not a reaction to abuse and violence I faced as a young trans girl. That, in itself, is a form of transmisogynistic violence, because you are calling a trans woman a man.
And I know they will still call me a man based on the fact that I have a penis, and they will do the same to trans women who have had bottom surgery by saying they once had a penis. Defining genders based on sex characteristics is exactly what patriarchy does, but suddenly it’s alright for these so-called feminists to do so because the very existence of trans women is just too scary to think about. So instead of acknowledging trans women as we are: women, these folks buy into a white supremacist notion of gender, ignoring sex for what it is.
Sex Is Social Construction
For this section, I believe it’d be best to define what a social construction is exactly:
“Social constructs are the by-products of people interacting with each other. They are the products of communal creation and understanding of reality around them, and they are based in the notion that things are not universal and based in an understanding of them as having an essential quality that transcends time and space. […] Social constructions are the ways in which people collectively participate in the construction of their perceived social reality; the manner by which social phenomena are created, institutionalized, known, and made into tradition by humans. […] The social construction of reality is an ongoing, dynamic process that is reproduced by people acting on their interpretations and their knowledge of it. Social constructs must be constantly maintained and re-affirmed in order to persist, and often the tools by which this happens, themselves are part of the way in which that happens. […] Social Constructs are how Structure is created, in other words. They are the concepts, ideas, and thoughts that are shared, communicated, and accepted in a way that becomes part of what everyone accepts.” (source)
And part of what everyone has accepted (the dominant narrative in other words) is this: When it comes to one’s sex, there are five criteria that are looked at by biologists when analyzing sex characteristics: chromosomes, gonads, genitals, secondary sex characteristics, and hormones. (Note: This is how it operates generally in Western culture, and it may vary more or less outside of this context.) These criteria are often viewed as immutable and static, and this immutability has been used historically by white settlers to impose their conception of gender on Indigenous people. This isn’t to say that sex as an immutable part of gender has ceased being discussed as such. It still is, as I’ve pointed out in the first section. That’s not news to anybody. What might be news is how this is currently practiced on people whose bodies don’t match up with these conventional ideas of “sex.”
“But one of the most important moments in the sex assignment process happens in the first hours after birth. The case of those considered “intersex” can be illustrative here. Suppose a child is born in a western country who has ovaries on the inside, but a penis on the outside. Alternatively, suppose a child is born with labia and a vagina, but also with testes (once again, these cases are not so uncommon; intersex individuals account for around 2% of all births, and in some regions of the world this rate is considerably higher). The first thing that typically happens is that this situation is declared to be a medical emergency. Think about this for a second. Intersex “conditions” present few if any health risks. There is of course a social stigma associated with any appearance of not fitting rigidly into one of the two sex classes. Yet there is also a social stigma associated with being gay, and we don’t consider homosexuality a “condition” or a “disorder” that needs to be medically treated. Moreover, the treatments used to “correct” intersex characteristics sometimes carry substantial risks, and the long-term effects they have are still relatively ill-researched. The motivation behind “correcting” intersex characteristics is thus not one related to the health of the child, it is entirely one of enforcing the sex binary. Any variance from the rigidly defined “male” and “female” classes is an emergency that must be snuffed out as soon as possible.” (source)
So really, what actually constitutes a “male” or “female” body? Does somebody need to have a certain number of sex characteristics in order to fit into this binary? Is it chromosomes? Is it hormones? Is it something about gonads, maybe genitalia? Or, are the strict categorizations of “male” and “female” bodies not as useful as some might think? As this same piece argues, gender is not based on sex assignment. Rather, the reverse is true: sex assignment is based on gender. The construction of sex is but one other way to impose gender roles upon people while denying the variance in bodies. Sex has been constructed so that it serves the ends of a white patriarchy. TERFs are then reinforcing this same exact structure when they police the borders of womanhood by invoking gender essentialism (by way of biology and socialization) to exclude trans women. Their approach is nothing short of white supremacist, colonial feminism, and transmisogyny naturally follows from that approach. TERFs actually challenge nothing about patriarchy, but they reinforce the same oppressive tenets they claim to combat: misogyny, white supremacy, and more. The feminism of TERFs might as well be called patriarchal feminism.
My perceived sex characteristics say nothing about my gender, nor is it already set in stone by an omniscient structure as to how I will receive certain messages that are hurled in my direction by folks who read me incorrectly. These structures are not so deterministic, and if they were, social movements would be mostly non-existent, because social movements are an acknowledgement that these structures aren’t working. Trans women are not men seeking to invade women’s spaces. We have always been around. We did not suddenly appear into existence. And so for you to not repeat this long and brutal history, you need to keep your patriarchy covered hands off my body.
My designation at birth is not my destination.