Simply mention the idea of TERFs, or transgender-exclusionary radical feminists, to any trans woman and you’ll get an instant visceral reaction. Trans women like myself have fought so hard to be seen as women, so TERFs represent much of what we hate and, more importantly, fear. TERFs exclude us from many feminist conversations that we feel we deserve and need to be a part of for our safety and the advancement of our rights and those of all women. I myself have been told my desire to be heard in feminist spaces comes from my “male privilege” to take up more space than those socialized as women. So many trans women reject TERF beliefs instantaneously, for they stand directly at odds with so much of what we strive to represent.
Yet my recent conversations with self-described TERFs have made me reexamine my own beliefs with what it means to be a trans woman and a woman. While I certainly will never find the anger, vitriol, and hate that some TERFs espouse toward the trans community acceptable, my more level-headed conversations have led me to a conclusion: Trans women and cis women are different, and that’s OK.
To be clear, I am not saying I am not a woman or that I agree with TERFs. What I am saying is that there are many aspects of “typical” cis womanhood that I and other trans women will never experience. I will never have a period. I will never have to worry about my access to birth control or abortions, or doctors who understand a cis woman’s body. I was not socialized from birth as a woman to take up as little space as possible, to look pretty, to accept being fetishized by men. All of these things and more will never be in my experience of trans womanhood.
Certainly, I wanted them to be. I remember when I and my schoolmates were going through puberty, I felt intense jealousy towards my female peers for their experience. I wanted to have a period. I wanted to go bra shopping with my mother. I wanted to know what it was like to be pregnant. Yet I never did nor ever will know what it was like to go through all of that, both the good and the bad.
This is the criticism most often leveled at trans women by TERFs. That we are just men who have fetishized womanhood to the point of desiring to experience it. That we are delusional, attempting to attain the unobtainable and, in so doing, forcing our “manhood” into spaces that are not our own and control the conversation. “Believing I am a helicopter does not make me a helicopter, nor can I ever be a helicopter” is a common illustrative phrase I’ve seen thrown around. As much as I want to sit here and reject that argument on its face, I cannot completely, for there is a kernel of truth in it.
I will never be a cis woman. Yet does this mean that I am not a woman?
Certainly, there was an element of exhaulting womanhood in my early years. It’s a view that is sadly almost impossible to avoid as someone who is socialized as a boy in U.S. society. From the prevailing narrative in books, movies, TV shows, religion, politics, and more, women are given mystifying and magical qualities because these institutions were created by men. It doesn’t help that girls are separated from boys in so many ways at a young age, down to the colors we are allowed to love.
So when I started to discover my transgender identity, of course the fact that I was taught to exalt womanhood intermingled with my budding realization that I am a woman. My only external experience with womanhood up until that point had been what was taught to me as an assigned-as-male person by a patriarchal society.
Yet there was something more to my transgender realization than simply a superstitious awe of womanhood. I felt wrong. My body felt foreign to me. How I was told to express myself didn’t feel natural, but forced and horrifying. I felt like I wasn’t being seen or understood even by the people who loved me most. I felt like my soul was hidden, shrouded in darkness, and all I wanted to do was push through that darkness and show the world who I really was; to know that when my mother and father looked at me with love, they were looking at and loving all of me, not just a part of me. I was a woman, and I just desperately wanted them to see that.
It wasn’t dresses, being desired by men, or wanting to get pregnant that motivated to me come out as trans. It was an intense and unending feeling that how I was being seen was wrong and how I wanted — no, needed — to be seen was as a woman. As I transitioned, the awe with which I had held the concept of womanhood, where women were otherworldly figures instead of humans, ceased. Yet my connection with my own internal womanhood only increased.
This is an experience of womanhood that no cis woman will have: the need to fight to simply be seen as a woman. And there are many other trans women-exclusive experiences that cis women will never have. They will never have to fight to get hormones. They will never have to come out as a woman. They will never be fetishized by men who are looking for a trans woman to sleep with. They will never worry about being denied basic health care for being trans or worry about having doctors who understand a trans woman’s body. They were not socialized from birth to constantly be tough and never show weakness — nor do they struggle with incorporating these socializations into their womanhood. All of these things and more will never be part of an experience of cis womanhood.
Yet it is every bit as valid an experience of womanhood as any other.
My transition was not a path where the final destination was womanhood. The entire path itself was a journey within womanhood.
This, perhaps, is the sticking point that is the fundamental difference in belief that I have with TERFs. They believe that what I have just described as a trans woman experience is not a valid part of womanhood. That it is only because I am a man trying to force myself into womanhood that I experience these issues. Yet that assumes that this experience was one of choice. While it certainly was my choice to come out, it was not my choice to have these feelings. I was what I was and I am what I am – a woman. The fact that I had to fight to be seen as a woman does not devalue that basic fact.
How do I know this? I know because, in the end, there is no true singular path or litmus test for what it means to be a woman. A white woman will never go through the same experience as a black woman. A woman born into poverty will never know what it is like to have a childhood in the upper class. A straight woman does not know what a bisexual woman or lesbian feels. A cis woman born infertile will not know it is like to be pregnant, nor will a fertile cis woman know what it's like to be infertile. A woman who is seen as hyper-feminine will not know what it is like to be a woman constantly mistaken for a man, like one of my favorite comedians, Tig Notaro, has spoken about in her stand-up. Yet we never question the validity of any of these differing experiences of womanhood. Or at least, we shouldn’t. So why it is so hard to believe that trans and cis womanhood experiences, while different, are not irreconcilable within an idea of being a woman?
What is a perfect distillation of womanhood? What is the perfect arbiter of womanhood, the goddess of women, the Hera of our time? Is womanhood earned or within us?
If it is earned, who bestows the title? So many TERFs that I argue with define their womanhood by the oppression they face. They face battles in reproductive health, abortion rights, and sexual harassment. The denial of rights and presence of harassment are terrible things that need to be fought against. Yet defining yourself by your oppression only gives the power to those who hurt you. And many trans women face similar fights for equal pay and reproductive health, and against sexual harassment. Many European countries still require trans people to sterilize themselves in order to be legally recognized. They may be different experiences, but they are still similar in so many ways.
Additionally, we have many fights that we face together as cis and trans women. We both have to fight for equal pay, ending violence toward all types of women, and representation in media both in front of and behind the camera. While we are different, we can fight together for the same causes, because we are also the same.
If womanhood is within us from our birth, why is it so hard to assume that some who are born with XY chromosomes can also have womanhood within us at birth as well? That while we may be different as trans women and cis women, we share something as well? Regardless of the battles that we have to face, both cis and trans women share the same soul.
Perhaps there is no true way to prove this to anyone who does not simply wish to believe it. It’s why, sadly, every conversation I have with a TERF eventually hits a wall of fundamental difference in belief that cannot be reconciled.
I am not a cis woman, and I never will have a cis woman experience. Cis women are not trans women and will never have a trans experience. Yet despite the different battles we face, joys we feel, and journeys we take, we still share so much. Our differences should not divide us but make us stronger together. We must also remember that outside of our struggles, we share something much more important. Something that is not diluted but instead strengthened by recognizing a diversity of experience within its definition. This amazing thing called womanhood.