Lately, I’ve been thinking about the similarities between gender and immigration to the United States. You can try endlessly to delineate the differences between people who were born Americans and those who are now living here as citizens, or you can talk about what the United States gains from welcoming new citizens, even if their arrival requires a mutual adjustment.
The analogy is imperfect, but given the resurgence of longstanding feminist clashes over whether transgender women ought to be recognized as women, most lately in comments by the feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I think it’s useful.
No serious person contends that transgender and cisgender women move through the world in identical ways from the moment they are born, simply that the term “woman” can include the different obstacles and socialization we each must face. We could keep conducting a fruitless and painful argument about whether those differences mean transgender women ought to be denied citizenship in women’s country once they come out. Or we could take a close look at what both cisgender women — those whose sense of their gender identity corresponds to their physical body — and transgender women have to gain from embracing each other, and all the different ways it’s possible to be a woman.
Before we continue, we should acknowledge two things.
First, this is not merely a question of language. Whether or not transgender women are recognized as women can affect everything from the conditions of their incarceration to their access to public accommodations.
And second, there are differences between being born and raised as a cisgender woman, and growing up transgender, as well as enormous variety in the lives of individuals who fall into those two broad categories.
I tend to think that Adichie and other feminists are wrong to suggest that transgender women carry male privilege with them. Many trans women experience astonishing danger and discrimination before their transition, punished for not conforming neatly to gender expectations. And those, like Caitlyn Jenner, who benefitted from the privilege that came from meeting hypermasculine ideals purchased that security at a radically different price than cis men.
To take one specific example, it’s true that cisgender women may have experienced pressure to look, dress and present themselves in conventionally feminine ways, while transgender women may have been punished for wearing or yearning after dresses, heels, makeup or clothing in colors like pink that are considered feminine.
The conventional lines of debate over these different experiences could line up like this:
A cisgender feminist might suggest that she has spent her life trying to get away from the expectation that she has to wear certain clothes or adopt certain adornments to be seen as an adequate woman, and argue that transgender women who present themselves in a hyperfeminine way are reinforcing those expectations. A transgender feminist might, correctly, respond that given the current political and social environment, she faces much greater danger if she doesn’t meet those expectations, even if she acknowledges that they are rigid and confining.
Of course, both women are correct. Depending on her circumstances, what feels like a restrictive irritation to one woman may to another be protective armor that will allow her to avoid harassment or fatal violence. Acknowledging the different weight women carry on their shoulders as they make these choices is a route to a much deeper understanding of just how deep sexism lies, and how perniciously it works.
In a similar way, debates over whether or not it’s appropriate to refer to certain categories of health care, including abortion and prenatal care, as “women’s health,” are sometimes posed as a question of who is included, excluded or centered by the names or descriptions of health-care practices or fundraising or lobbying efforts. Without suggesting that these conversations are a distraction, these are hardly the most interesting exchanges to come out of an environment where both a lot of cis women and a very small number of trans men are seeking abortions and giving birth.
I’d imagine that some cisgender women who don’t respond to the acronym-laden message board conversations around pregnancy and femininity might find plenty to talk about with transgender men who want to have children. The experiences of pregnancy and gender transition are not the same, but trans women and pregnant cis women might find common ground in experiences of body dysmorphia. And cis women who experience infertility and transgender women may have wrestled with the same pernicious conception that what defines a woman is her ability to become pregnant and give birth.
Just because our experiences are not identical does not mean we have nothing to offer each other.
The longer I live, the clearer it is to me that I have a lot to gain and learn from women whose lives have been radically different from my own. My friends who have chosen not to have children have sharpened my thinking about my marriage, my career and the ways I use my time, even if I have reached the opposite conclusion about what I want. As someone who was late to learn how to style my hair, wear makeup and develop a distinct sense of style, watching my friends who are trans women develop their distinct aesthetics has encouraged me to cultivate my own.
My life is better and richer because “woman” is an expansive idea. It would be poorer if I denied myself the experience of having such wonderful fellow citizens.