What Makes a Woman? A Trans Woman Responds to a Mid-20th Century Era Feminist

06/08/2015 06:28 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

While I have not been living as my authentic self as long as Ms. Burkett has, I have been a life-long feminist. I've lived through the three waves of feminism of the modern era (I recognize that academics count the suffragettes as the first wave, but I'm counting modern as beginning in the second half of the twentieth century so I don't have to divide the second wave into two camps. May the academic goddesses forgive me!), and was privileged to become the first trans elected official in NOW history. I've run for state office three times in Maryland as a qualified woman who also happens to be openly trans. Eve Ensler directed me and 23 others in the first all-trans production of The Vagina Monologues. I've been a proud activist for gay as well as trans and intersex rights for the past 15 years, and I've been waiting for a breakthrough moment such as this one, for which I thank Caitlyn Jenner. That it's not to my complete liking is just something with which I have to deal. I believe in the feminist prime directive, which is that women have the right to be themselves without interference from any person, institution or ideology.

So I have to accept Jenner as she is, and use her to both educate for the general trans experience while contrasting her very public life today to that of other trans women and our women allies. I understand Professor Burkett's anger and consternation, particularly with the respect to the "reconceptualization" I discuss later. That many progressives and feminists are supportive of Jenner is a very good thing. They are supporting her path towards self-determination. I think it's fair to say that they are generally not supporting her nail polish choices, or her makeup palette, or her belief in the sexual dimorphism of the brain. There is a major difference in accepting people for who they are and accepting their words and their behavior. That she doesn't make first or second or even third wave feminists comfortable is not necessarily a bad thing, as most American women identify as none of the above.

I remember the Summers imbroglio. The man clearly was out of his league, speaking pompously and inaccurately about women in academia. Was he wrong about the differences in female and male brains? I don't think he was well versed enough in neuroanatomy and physiology to speak on the subject, but he was clearly correct that there are differences. We are a sexually dimorphic species, and there are differences everywhere in our bodies. The question is whether they are significant.

When it comes to the proclivity of men to prefer the hard sciences, there is no firm data on whether it is hard-wired or taught. There are clearly differences in the way brains process data and location, verbal and social skills. One striking example is the stunning sex difference in the ratio of male to female autistic children. There was a time, until the David Reimer case twenty years ago, when first wave feminists and psychiatrists, led by John Money, believed you could actually make a woman out of a boy with the right amount of surgery and the proper upbringing.

It has been shown that trans women have female hypothalamic subnuclei in their brains that are related to their gender identity. In the big scheme of things that may rate as a minor difference, but for each individual it is as major a fundamental distinction as can be, save our comprehension of ourselves as independent beings. So, yes, Ms. Burkett, there are ways to distinguish male and female brains, and recognizing that doesn't undermine a hundred years of feminist analysis.

What concerns me is Ms. Burkett's contention that somehow Caitlyn Jenner, and those who support her transition, are defining women in general, and her in particular. I don't see myself as a '40s era sex kitten, and neither do most of my friends. Probably more of Jenner's girlfriends, if they're senior, Republican, white and Christian like her, see themselves in that manner. That's their right, and they've probably been doing so for a long time (I don't hang with that crowd, so I wouldn't know).

Now I will speak directly to Ms. Burkett from my personal experience, as this first wave social constructivist veers into very dangerous essentialist, second wave exclusionary territory:

Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity. They haven't traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. They haven't suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they'd forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven't had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners' checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.

My truth is not yours, nor my female identity yours, either. But I have my truth and my female identity, and all I ask is that you respect mine as I respect yours. I have travelled through the world as a woman and been shaped by it, just not for as long as you. I've suffered through such business meetings as you have, even more aware of the dismissiveness of men because once upon a time I was visible to them. I coped with the onset of my period in a manner that would horrify you, but you've already made the inference that I never had a period and that's a basic mistake. I'm a lot physically weaker than I used to be, and it's true I never had to worry about getting pregnant, just getting someone pregnant.

It's also true that you know nothing about what it's like to be a woman assigned male at birth, raised as male, and forced by society to deny your womanhood for decades. To pretend to be a man, always in fear of being exposed as a woman and consequently being subject to dismissal, loss of career, spouse and children. I know what it's like to be a woman, pre- and post-transition, and my experience is neither more nor less authentic than yours, just considerably less common.

For me and many women, feminist and otherwise, one of the difficult parts of witnessing and wanting to rally behind the movement for transgender rights is the language that a growing number of trans individuals insist on, the notions of femininity that they're articulating, and their disregard for the fact that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.

Being a woman isn't solely defined by "accruing certain experiences, enduring certain indignities and relishing certain courtesies." I do, however, fully agree with your disputing the demands of a small number of trans men (note -- men, not women) to rewrite the language of reproductive rights and women's colleges. They clearly don't realize how offensive their demands are. Some of the motivation for those demands is simply to be seen, other is part of the effort to smash the gender binary and neutralize language in general. I don't support it, and most of the trans community doesn't, either. The "growing number" is still quite small, so if feminists take a stand we can give all women the respect that they're due. Just please don't paint us all with such a broad brush, or as a monolith that will overrun the country. We are still the most marginalized and disrespected minority in our society, particularly those of us who are women of color, despite Jenner's ESPY award and the president's recognition of her courage.

The "I was born in the wrong body" rhetoric favored by other trans people doesn't work any better and is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas. Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.

Maybe, in a manner analogous to the tone deafness of the young trans men I mentioned above, you don't realize just how offensive this comment is, how it denies trans reality. While the "I was born in the wrong body" rhetoric is becoming dated, it still holds true for many, particularly of our age. What it means is that our minds, products of our brains, do not match those visible aspects of our bodies that were used to assign us a sex and to police our gender role and behavior. Just because genitals are visible and the hypothalamus is not, does not make the brain any less real. You can manage without your genitals but not without your brain. Gender transition allows, for those who desire it, the opportunity to bring the body into physical congruence with the brain. It in no way reduces you, us or any other woman to just breasts and vaginas.

It's demanding that women reconceptualize ourselves.

No, we're not. As I've said, these are the actions of some college students, and they hardly represent the trans community. They feel free to erase women from the safety of their college cocoons, protected from microaggressions by trigger warnings, creating an embarrassment for many of us. I've written about this many times this year, in The Huffington Post (here, here, here, and here) and the American Prospect, and been twitterbombed as a result. So be it. It's not respectful to expect women to reconceptualize the language that would marginalize them to assuage a handful of trans men, or to expect women's colleges to jettison "sisterhood" for "siblinghood." Resisting the efforts to smash the gender binary make me your ally, not your enemy.

. . . three times as many gender reassignment surgeries are performed on men. Men are, comparatively speaking, more bound, even strangled, by gender stereotyping.

I hope you've misspoken here, because gender reassignment surgeries are not performed on men, but on trans women, nor on women, but on trans men. If not, then you've again erased our identity, undermined your arguments and thrown yourself in with the second-wave trans exclusionary radical feminists who gleefully call all trans women "men." And for those interested in the facts, genital surgeries are predominantly performed on trans women because it is still, as we surgeons say, "easier to dig a hole than build a pole." Penis construction is very difficult and extremely expensive, which accounts for the difference in surgical procedures.

The struggle to move beyond such stereotypes is far from over, and trans activists could be women's natural allies moving forward. So long as humans produce X and Y chromosomes that lead to the development of penises and vaginas, almost all of us will be "assigned" genders at birth. But what we do with those genders -- the roles we assign ourselves, and each other, based on them -- is almost entirely mutable.

If that's the ultimate message of the mainstream of the trans community, we'll happily, lovingly welcome them to the fight to create space for everyone to express him-, her- or, in gender neutral parlance, hir-self without being coerced by gendered expectations. But undermining women's identities, and silencing, erasing or renaming our experiences, aren't necessary to that struggle.

Amen. What we do with our assigned genders, given their mutability, is the point. Some of us reassign them for ourselves; most do not and proceed along the paths of their birth assignment, as most obstetricians do happen to get it right.

I look forward to being happily and lovingly welcomed to your fight as the ally I've been for most of my life.