Two weeks have passed since Jenni Murray’s infamous piece in the Sunday Times on why trans women are not “real women” and passions have cooled. It may be that most people have forgotten it already. But it certainly polarised opinion at the time. Twitter is not a place for subtlety and nuance and two rival camps quickly established themselves, supporters of Murray thanking her for saying what all women felt but were afraid to say too publicly, whilst opponents shouted “TERF” and “transphobe.” I fall into neither camp, but want to say, what I, as a trans woman, think and how I see relations between cis and trans women.
To begin with, it is necessary to point out that the piece is written in more measured terms than some recent contributions to this debate and it is refreshingly free from the abuse that the likes of Bindel and Greer seem to revel in. The argument is, in essence, one have heard radical feminist make. It goes like this: I have nothing against people who identify as transgender but they can never be real women. They do, of course, suffer prejudice and discrimination. This is wrong and I support them on their struggle to be treated with dignity and respect but their struggle is separate from the women’s struggle. Indeed attempts to link the two are actually harmful to women as the battles that women fight in terms of reproductive rights, etc can be erased by the wider struggle particularly as the trans community is made up of people who were brought up male, in other words with privilege and who carry over male attitudes and behaviour onto their new identity. Trans advocates tend to be vocal, they can be intimidating and, cis gendered women’s issues get drowned out.
To illustrate her point Murray refers to two trans women she once interviewed. One, a priest of the Church of England, had nothing to say about the institutional misogyny of the Church but was quite keen to talk about her frocks. The other, the TV presenter India Willoughby was, apparently, unable to see a problem with the sexist work dress codes that many women were rightly getting angry about a few months ago. The inference we are expected to draw, it seems, is that trans women are shallow, concerned mainly with appearance and unwilling to understand, or engage with, significant issues that affect cis gendered women.
It is difficult to avoid thinking that she has effectively put up tow straw women to knock down here and I know from my own experience that they are not typical.
But to return to the main argument. In one sense Murray is simply defining real as having, or having had, a uterus. Real is simply a synonym of cisgendered and in this sense, that argument is trivial. Nonetheless what Murray says touches on an important issue. For it is undeniable that social and legal control of women’s bodies revolve around reproduction. Menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation and menopause are elemental physical experiences for cisgendered women, and are at the root of control, superstition and oppression that women, at various times inm history have suffered. Trans women, by definition, cannot experience these things directly.
It is, however, a leap of logic to suggest that trans women cannot understand these things or cannot support the struggles of their cisgendered sisters. And there is not, I think, a dichotomy between trans and cisgendered women’s issues, but rather continuity on a spectrum of discrimination, and overlap. Consider the bathroom laws on some US states. These were justified as protecting cisgendered women against the threat of violence from sexual predators masquerading as trans women as if men intent on rape and sexual assault need to put on a dress and go to the ladies bathroom to find victims. In fact a number of those humiliated and forcibly removed from bathrooms have been cisgendeed women who were considered by security people not to look feminine enough. There is, therefore, a real sense in which the discrimination suffered by trans and cis women overlap and intersect. I think too that rights are indivisible. The achievement of, for example, racial equality, actually benefits white people too, just as gender equality can be liberating for cisgendered men. The same goers for trans rights.
And finally a word on my experience. I have a wide circle of cisgendered women friends, two of whom are very close friends. Most women I meet, socially or otherwise, have no difficulty in accepting me as a woman. Some of them have given me support, encouragement, advice, and love that I have found truly humbling. And really all I want to do is to get on with my life and enjoy these friendships. I know that I will never be as a cisgendered woman in so many ways, I know too that I would never wish to privilege trans rights over, for example, reproductive rights, in the feminist movement. I know too that it doesn’t matter to me that whether particular people want to describe me as not a real woman although it is disappointing that someone I always had enormous respect for should jump on the bandwagon like this. Some points she makes are pertinent and trans people need to answer them. But too often she falls back on cliché and caricature. At the end of it all I am who I am. And that’s fine by the people who matter to me.