I want to talk about modification – how some treatments women use are considered to be real and others fake, and why.
What I mean is, cis women take hormones and have surgeries that are considered to not negate their sense of womanhood, but trans women’s are always signaled back to some mythical “origin” of a Platonic ideal of cis maleness. I have even seen people argue with a straight face that intersexed women’s vaginaplasties are real (because they are correction), but trans women’s are fake (because they are creation).
But matter doesn’t care if you took the pill or estradiol, a body with a certain estrogen level is a body with a certain estrogen level. You don’t get a free pass from blood clots, migraines and breast cancer to name just a few because you are supposedly “not a real woman.”
So even though we exist
, trans women are considered to be not be “biologically female” in the same way, not real–and there is real political consequences to that
(up to and including death, frankly). What I want to underline is that this is a metaphysical claim, an ontological
one (that is, a category of being
), not a “reflection” of “biology.” Any change to a trans woman’s body is somehow made into a threat to bodily integrity – but not to our own, but rather an imagined cis male body’s integrity, which is suggested to be somehow obscured. So when cis people ask questions like “is that [assigned name] under there?” as though my body were a costume, it is a “real” cis male imagined to exist, one which is presumed to still exist… and not that the material which makes up my body developed one particular way rather than another.
But matter is always
developing and changing, it has no “real” telos (that is, end trajectory) and no natural, inherent meaning other than the ones we assign to it. This is what I was getting at in my Five Axioms post
, where I said that:
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
In other words, the way we talk about “male” and “female” is always a selective and partial cultural process which is simply the sedimented power to categorise. Philosopher C. Jacob Hale puts it nicely when he says that “gender intelligibility and gender unintelligibility are effects of relative gender power and powerlessness. The normative sex/gender/sexuality regime privileges itself with an appearance of obviousness.” In other words, the apparent obviousness of these cissexist ideas is an effect of the fact that 99.5% of people are cis and describe the world in cissexist ways.
Thus, cis women’s use of hormones and other body modifications is elided and does not negate their identity as women, because it is considered to be “enhancement” and hence not to threaten the morphology of the imagined body. In contrast, trans women need a shrink and an endo to access those same hormones, and will still be ungendered and negated by the cis public at large anyway. The history of psychiatrists and doctors worrying more about the 1% of potential cissexual “regretters” than the 99% who are not is long and torturous, and Lisa has written about it many times. But to make clear the imbalance: my cis female partner didn’t even need a blood test for the exact same hormones as I am on.
To summarise: most people consider some modifications/treatments to be legitimate steering of development (and hence not “fake” even though they are modifications of the body), and others decidedly not (ie trans treatments), and we ground these supposed firm distinctions in discourses of “biology” and the natural. But this is simply cissexist ideology at its purest. This is also political terrain, which means it’s contestable.