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Defining Woman

About a year ago I read an article in the New Yorker about the struggle of Skylar, a transgender teenager who was born female but identified as male. The story is compelling and dramatic; at sixteen he began taking testosterone and underwent a double mastectomy with the support of his middle-class suburban family. I couldn’t completely decide on my response to the article and the movement, most of my internal debate emanating from a medical perspective.

On the one hand, I respected the difficult battle and decisions I’m sure Skylar and his family went through as he came to understand his gender identity. In the end, parents want their children to be happy and healthy, and so much family strife centers around the inability to accept a perspective apart from our own. So I applauded this seemingly traditional family for accepting their child, and supporting him through whatever decisions made him happy and healthy.

But on the other hand I struggled with the permanent medical consequences of transitioning, especially at such a young age. Happy and healhy, right? While many young people realize they identify with the opposite gender relatively early in life, the decision to modify your body to match at the same young age is complicated. Hormones can cause serious side effects and alter your body permanently, and obviously surgery can leave scars that aren’t easily reversed. My question from the outside looking in was, how can you be sure? In the haze of pubertal fog, with social pressures, morphing bodies, and tumultuous chemistry, how can a teenager be sure what he or she wants? Is it ethical for minors to consent to permanently changing their bodies to match what they perceive to be their true inner identity? Afterall, don’t we all go through phases of identity - but would we want the self we identified with at fourteen to leave its enduring and irreversible effects far into the uncertain future?

Even more controversial, and possibly dangerous, is the trend toward delaying the onset of puberty and secondary sex characteristics (eg an Adam’s apple, voice changes, hair growth, breast development) so that children who exhibit gender dysphoria can have more time to figure it out. The drugs that are being used to stall pubertal changes were initially prescribed to treat medical conditions such as precocious puberty.

Despite my hesitations, in the end I regarded the struggle of families and individuals dealing with gender dysphoria as personal. Their journey and ultimate decision is fraught with enough challenges without outside judgement.

Then today, I read another New Yorker article on a similar, if tangentially related, topic which brought the subject back to mind. While the article about Skylar and his family highlighted the individual journey toward acceptance, “What is a Woman?” focuses on the broader social implications of being female, or identifying as such. The article explores radical feminists and their fight against acceptance of transgender women on the same level as women born women. Their argument lies in the notion that the female struggle is a construct of a misogynistic society, a struggle that a man born male could never understand. 

"Anyone born a man retains male privilege in society; even if he chooses to live as a woman - and accept a correspondingly subordinate social position - the fact that he has a choice means that he can never understand what being a woman is really like."

They reject the idea that men and women have fundamentally different brains, and that the differences in the way women act or think are because society has forced them into “ritualized submission”, as Lierre Keith from Radfems Respond put it. It essentially refutes the oft-quoted gender dysphoria mantra, “born in the wrong body”, which implies that the mind or brain is gender branded. The concept is interesting, although somewhat militantly presented by Radfems Reform who seem to think the two groups are mutually exclusive. 

It seems like transgender women could still be embraced by feminists, with the acknowledgement that their journey is obviously radically different from the perceived oppression of a woman born a woman. In fact, the majority of feminists and radical feminists do seem to have adopted acceptance toward their transgender counterparts. Most of the heat revolves around events billed exclusively for women born women and their claim that allowing transwomen to participate would fundamentally alter its intended spirit. Transwomen balk at the implication that they are dangerous and inherently different from other women.

But aren’t they different? The struggles of a transwoman are inherently unique from the struggles of a RadFem or woman born woman. The indignation over male oppression that RadFems so righteously cling to seems overwrought. It’s as if they are gluttonously hoarding all rights to sexism, aggressively fending off those who empathize from a different vantage.

To each their own, I say. Because honestly, if the fight is over ownership of discrimination and social prejudice, who really wants to be the winner?