I want to riff off Cara’s post here, random and unfinished thoughts about female anatomy. My first thought is, like GallingGalla’s, that they are indeed unfinished. I don’t want to give Cara a hard time about it, since she’s careful to point out “these are just a few of my experiences, and so there’s obviously no way they’re universal or complete, and they don’t even begin to address experiences outside of my white, straight, cis perspective.” So, my problem is not with Cara (who posts regularly on trans issues and is in my opinion one cis (that is, not trans) feminist who tries very hard to get it), but rather with the language that we (yes, all of us) largely use to discuss bodies and gender.
Because like almost every discussion about bodies, there’s cis-normative assumptions through-out Cara’s piece and the comment thread. The problem is, the further a trans woman’s body gets away from cis, the more invisible it becomes in these conversations (and the same for trans men with cis male bodies).
So, I’m going to sketch out a few axioms, Eve Sedgwick style.
1. Respecting trans identities means rethinking your assumptions about bodies and gender and what they mean.
Fairly self-explanatory, yes?
2. Genitals do not of themselves determine gender
A penis is not inherently male, a vagina is not inherently female. If she has one, a trans women’s penis is female. Similarly, if he has one, a trans man’s vagina is male. Therefore, “female genitals” do not automatically exclude a penis, and automatically include a vagina. An analogy would be the changing fortunes of the word “marriage”–where “marriage” once implicitly and only referred to heterosexual relationships (as it continue to in many parts of the world), with the introduction of gay marriage in some areas this is no longer strictly the case. So it is with “male genitals” and “female genitals”–an overwhelming majority does indeed have one kind, but this does not apriori exclude the alternate configurations of some trans people.
“Male” and “female” are broader, fuzzy concepts that include all kinds of things – including genitals, body shape, skin depth, facial hair and body hair, hair softness, fat distribution, voice pitch, chromosomes, the social experience of being treated as your sex, and so on. Many of these are presumed rather than known–is there a genital check for day-to-day life? How many people do you know who’ve had a karotype to check to make sure they are indeed XX or XY? It is ridiculous to suggest that genitals are necessarily only and solely determinative of gender, when many trans people share so many of these as to go un-noticed in their day-to-day lives. Clearly, “male” and “female” precede any given genital/body configuration and therefore must include the totality of body expressions in those groups
But this is not merely a linguistic concern about what “male” and “female” mean. The equations penis = male, vagina = female are codified into law, determining a whole host of things from access to shelters to housing in prison. This is the cause of much oppression of trans people, because cissexist meanings have material social effects. For instance, if a trans woman has a penis in Australia (and indeed most parts of the world) she will be housed in a men’s prison, the wrong prison–and put at a high risk of rape and assault.
To summarise: the idea that genitals mean only “male” or “female” (depending) is a social and linguistic convention based on the number of people possessing them (trans people with mismatched presentations and genitals are after all a tiny minority). It is not however something inherent in flesh itself, and to insist entirely upon those meanings as solely determinative of sex is to expose trans people to violence and discrimination.
3. The meanings of “female” “male” and “genderqueer” are not reducible to bodies, but are not un-related, and we cannot know in advance how they intersect.
The meanings that trans people make from our bodies can be related to our bodies, but nevertheless stand apart from them. I know cis people often feel this way, and but this is not necessarily so. A person may feel that their genitals, breast or hormone status etc determine their sex, but they may not. In other words, identifications exist outside of genital status, desire for surgery etc, and they should be respected right now. Neither are the meanings reducible to appearance, passability-as-cis or hormone status, though they may be experienced that way.
4. Desiring a trans person is not inherently different from desiring a cis person, though it might be
What I mean by that is, the whole foundation of the “trans panic” defence is that having sex with a woman with a penis makes the cis male killer gay (and therefore it is only natural that the man kill the trans woman in question). No, it makes them straight (or bisexual if they also fancy men). And trans men are not kinder, softer men. If you conceptualise desired genders as binary (gay/straight/bisexual), desiring someone genderqueer identified may (or may not) problematise your orientation.
5. Trans ways of having sex may correspond with their cissexual counterparts, but they may not.
There’s a lot shame about trans people and what we do with our genitals. Classically, the diagnosis for gender dysphoria meant that if you masturbated or had sex before genital surgery, you were not trans. The theory goes, that trans people must be so cut off from our genitals that we can’t bear to use them unless after surgery. So besides, the originating gender dissonance, people had to manage their responses to gatekeepers that were always on the lookout for “signs” of an originary cissexuality.
Needless to say, this is bullshit. Some people might, and some people might not, but if we haven’t had surgery, the ways we have sex still do not ungender us—eg when a trans men is penetrated, he is not magically a woman.
Ok, so like Cara’s post, it’s still kinda work in progress which I might modify, if you have thoughts or I bollocks anything up.
ETA: Cheers to the radical “feminists” linking this post, selectively (mis)quoting and willfully misinterpreting my post as some kind of postmodernist free-for-all about genitals, divorced from institutional and social context. Your intellectual dishonesty and rubbish reading comprehension are, as always, appreciated.