I saw passionate, self-righteous loathing of me, everyone like me and all that we stand for, distilled into one word. It took me aback. Non-trans people may get some echo of my feeling, seeing the word; trans people should beware reading this post because I quote it. I fear quoting it because I fear that some cis people might read it and have a revelation- that is why trans women are so objectionable!
The word is “Womanface”.
I type the word and start to weep. I feel decades of agony. I have wanted to die, much of the time, since my mid twenties and now Covid bothers me less than it bothers others, perhaps, because, well, it would mean it would all be over. So I will unpack that word. It echoes Blackface- so for this campaigner, whatever I have done, hormones and surgery, facial electrolysis- hours of pain- and voice training, is the oppressor’s mockery and appropriation. I am the oppressor and must be resisted, though it does not feel like that from where I am, right now.
For some women, trans might seem repulsive because of their principled politics and personal bravery. In January I saw a woman tell a familiar story: she is lesbian, was a “tomboy” as a child, was uncomfortable with bodily changes in puberty and worried that had she been born a few years later she would have been sucked in by internet forums and had a double mastectomy, a beard and a baritone caused by T injections. In her twenties she became comfortable with who she is, a lesbian, not wanting to appear conventionally feminine. There are variations on this story: one friend told me of four pregnancies, of the paps where she gave suck, of the meaning of the woman’s body so different from a man’s. There is pain and even threat to life in uterine problems. I get it, I really do.
And, Patriarchy exists. There is male privilege: often men are heard, women silenced, men celebrated and women judged for ordinary human reactions, and feminists resist it, and others seem just to go along with it. Would all women be feminist if only their consciousness could be raised? But how? I read that for Black, Indigenous, and communities of color (and among other marginalized groups), silence has been a form of oppression that cuts us off from sharing our voice and agency and more. For me it’s complicated. In some ways I am confident, and I know that I have worthwhile things to say and skill in saying them, and I expect to be heard.
I appreciate a feminist perspective- how are women wronged?- even though I see how it skews perception. The concern of some feminists about trans people is skewed. On trans men, they hate the thought of mastectomy and mutilation, though that denies that trans men can make their own decisions or see their own interests. On trans women, they hate the thought of penises in women’s space, threatening women, so that a post-op transsexual might be more acceptable, or they fear-monger about trans women allegedly with penises.
If the trans woman becomes the symbol of oppression, trans women are screwed. Some feminists say trans women are the first and most important threat to women’s human rights, that we poison women’s space like a drop of ink in a litre of water, and negate the very meaning of woman- a woman is someone who feels like it rather than someone with a female reproductive system, and that destroys women’s solidarity, women’s rights, women’s campaigning. Though I see it differently- we are an anomaly, a few more or less ridiculous individuals, scared and scarred in our own ways, rather than a threat a potential ally.
So my solution is this. Recognise that we don’t fit gender stereotypes any more than you do, and this is our way of coping. We are so alike! We face similar problems!
I have said this before, and I don’t feel heard.
I am writing now because of sensed discomfort in yet another encounter, where my attempt at empathy may have got it entirely wrong, where our attempt at fellow-feeling may yet establish commonality of experience and interest. I don’t want to write about that encounter so I write of previous encounters. Words like “Whiteface” may make people impervious to finding that common interest, might stop them seeing my humanity, make them see me only as threat. Words are powerful. When I was at university I saw on a toilet door the most disgusting joke I have ever seen, in twenty-two syllables elegantly and expressively constructed to work like a joke. I have always remembered it, only once shared it, and felt that because I know it a tiny part of me is sullied.
Who is the oppressor here, and who the oppressed?
I saw that word used by Dr Julia Long, radical lesbian activist and academic. On self-isolation, she asked “would I be… forced to accept a man in womanface bringing my shopping?” Objecting to trans women in loos is bad enough, objecting to a moment’s interaction with a worker or perhaps another person in a mixed sex self-help group is- out of proportion? I don’t know if Dr Long originated the word which horrified me and made me cry while “Tranny!” hardly bothers me, but she uses it habitually. I saw it in a trans activist space, shared to show how extreme anti-trans campaigners can be. If I complained, they might tell me to spend more time in support groups and less in activist spaces.
I could make a fair case that Dr Long is the oppressor. She is highly articulate, with a number of platforms including at times the Guardian and Channel 4, and she devotes a great deal of her time and energy to monstering trans women with speech and writing at all registers from academic to dehumanising mockery, in alliance with Rupert Murdoch and the Heritage Foundation. And at the same time she is oppressed- I do not know her or her history at all, but am quite sure she will have experienced unwanted sexual attention, probably sexual violence, and may reasonably believe that her career has been held back by anti-lesbian or sexist prejudice.
I have no wish to recite the arguments why I would be seen to be the oppressor, but it does not feel that way from where I’m sitting. As Dr Long says, “Even while isolating yourself in the midst of a global pandemic, it seems there is no escaping this shit.”
Any way of escape has to involve seeing the oppression of the other. All oppression has to be recognised, as well as all the good in it: the cleverness in its creation, the comfort that it brings.