December 10, 2015


When is it OK to object to something and how should we generally respond to the objections of people? It is a balancing act we are taught how to do from a very early age.

Today I received an email message from a service organization seeking a financial contribution. In part, it included the following:

Well, I can assure you that these statements represent a body of opinion that some people, including people I greatly admire and respect, would take serious issue with.

Of the statements, the one I would not take issue with is the last one. Trans women are people and people deserve respect. But it does depend upon your definition of what constitutes respect.

For most of the other statements, your agreement or disagreement may hinge upon your definition of just one word: “women.”  The dictionary (I looked in lots of them) define woman as : “an adult female human being.” The same dictionaries define female as: “belonging or relating to women, or the sex that can give birth to young or produce eggs.” By that definition, trans women are not women, as they do not have ovaries or produce eggs… but there are lots of people who are and always have been women who do not have ovaries and do not produce eggs. Our concept of woman encompasses a lot more than just biology.

I would say that my own personal definition of woman would follow from my intimate understanding of my three sisters and who they are. They are very different people. They do many different things. But each of them have things in common as more or less core facts of their existence as people:

  1. As children, they were expected to act and do as girls should and perhaps even more importantly to refrain from acting or doing as girls should not.
  2. As young women, they faced the possibility with each male they encountered that this person might, under the right circumstances, with or without their consent, impregnate them and cause them to become pregnant and potentially bear a living human offspring into the world.
  3. They faced the restrictions and possibilities of being women their entire life without possibility of getting a different deal - oh, they certainly strove to change the rules of the game to be more fair and equitable, but whatever deal women got, they got.  Much in the same way as a human person can think of being a bird or a dolphin, but knows that there is no possibility of their ever becoming something other than that which they are.

Two of my sisters bore children and one did not, but the one who did not is not one iota less of a woman for having chosen a life that did not include childbirth.

Now, things get subjective. I seem to be saying here that my sisters are really women because they have always been women, known themselves to be women and been known to be women and treated as women their entire lives. A lot of people would think them deranged if they did not think they were women. If one of these women were discovered to have internal testes and no ovaries. Technically, this person would then be biologically male, but I do not think that would make me believe them to be intrinsically different.

But let’s propose a different case, a case where my brother grew up as a boy, thinking himself a boy, assuming he would become a man, treated by one and all as a male person. And then let us further suppose that he, when he became 21 years old, decided that this was all wrong. He didn’t feel male and he thought he never had, really. He is convinced that he has been playing the wrong part in the play of life and playing it quite badly. It tears him apart and he seeks and gets psychological counseling and medical therapy which decreases his male characteristics and gives him some of the physical characteristics we typically associate with women.

Would I then had another sister? If I respect this sibling and wish them well, then of course I would call her my sister, refer to her by her new name and not disrespect her by contradicting her deeply held belief and desire to be, and to always have been a woman.

But would her belief and my respect earn her womanhood? Would my acquiescence be honestly sincere? Would I, in my heart and my mind consider her to be my other sister?

This begs a much, much bigger question:  what is the difference, exactly, between “brother” and “sister”? If it is so difficult for me t honestly accept this person as a woman, when previously I considered this person to be a man, isn’t that because I have a deep and abiding understanding that men and women are fundamentally different?

Where did my “just one kind of human” ideal run off to?

Let us presume a different scenario. Let us presume that all my siblings and myself happen to fall under the classification caucasian. Let’s further stipulate that one of my sisters decides that she is really and has always been a negro. She receives counseling and she obtains medical assistance to alter her physical characteristics so that people typically assume her to be black.

If I respected her and wish her well, would I accept that she was black?  Well, that’s easier. Of course I would, because to my mind and my heart I don’t think that would make her any different. She would be capable of the same things. She would have the same faults and failings. She would be essentially the same in every measure I think is important. However, many people, particularly people of color would take extreme umbrage at her actions. They would feel she was at least deceptive, if not actually deranged. Many women feel almost exactly the same way about trans women.

One has to look at what equality means and how it functions in the practical world. If a group of people is treated as inferiors, they become inferior in many respects. Some of this happens because they internalize their oppression. Some of it happens because we learn and develop by what we do and if you prohibit group X from doing many of the things group Y generally does, then group X will be less capable than group Y in measurable and demonstrable ways.

Let us take an extreme example to demonstrate how that kind of institutionalized oppression becomes measurable difference. Assume a rigidly traditional Islamic society where women and men are treated extremely different. Male children are encouraged to undertake physical games outdoors from an early age. They are given significant freedom in selecting their daily activities when not in school. Female children are not educated or permitted to learn to read or do arithmetic. They are dressed in close fitting enveloping clothes that do not allow them freedom of movement. Young men are taught trades or professions. They get to drive motor vehicles, which women are not allowed to even enter. Young women are kept in the home and never allowed to leave unless accompanied by their parents. Men are expected to be in their 30’s before taking a wife, who is typically half their age.

In this circumstance, would you expect the average woman to be the equal of a man in performing a range of technical skills? If asked to travel alone to a strange city in a foreign land and get a job, which would you assume would get the better job?

That kind of circumstance makes people unequal. It does so deliberately. In that set of circumstances, men and women ARE different. They are made different on purpose. Societies have long standing codes of conduct and social rules on the theory that abiding by these strictures benefits most people, even if it harms lots of people. The trouble really happens when things change, but the rules don’t and they end up harming most people and benefitting nobody in particular.

Our society is not so extreme and we have more flexibility in many if not most of our contract with society. Of course we reserve the most flexibility for those who have already most of the wealth and privilege, but we’re gradually becoming more egalitarian rather than less. But even the best of us is not nearly perfect and we all carry within ourselves a ton of baggage. This is why gay men and women still have a justified fear of being beaten by strangers. This is why trans women are not welcome in many women only spaces. Come to think of it, this is why we have women only spaces.

Someday I hope we achieve a level of understanding and wisdom that accepts one kind of human being and allows everyone to belong to the family of mankind equally, without distinction. We’re not there yet and until we get a lot closer many people will deny that trans men are men or trans women are women… and even more importantly, we will need to understand things a whole bunch better before we care what label any particular human wears.

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