Jenni Murray, one of the UK’s best-known radio broadcasters and long-term presenter of the iconic BBC series Woman’s Hour, has caused a storm by suggesting that transwomen can’t be “real women”. Writing in The Sunday Times, she said “it takes more than a sex change and make-up” to “lay claim to womanhood”.
It’s saddening to read this from Jenni, who should know better than to generalise and use this old cliché. We can endlessly debate what constitutes the key to authenticity (ask the same questions about disabliity and infertility), and whether anyone who transitions was ever the gender they were assigned at birth.
Of course, all those who transition from male to female have lived with male privilege, but not all continue to assert it, though some do and obnoxiously so. Those who transition from female to male don’t do it to gain patriarchal power, and many don’t ever wish to assert it. Transition isn’t an easy decision based on some kind of misplaced vanity. Many transwomen have been forced to conform to ridiculous stereotypes as a price for securing medical intervention from (usually) male doctors, and trans* people from an earlier generation have lived through transition without the kind of peer group which exists today. My personal experience (I’m a CIS man, btw) is that the trans* community is as wonderful or infuriating, varied and imperfect as the rest of us.
None of us can change our history, and the injury and injustice discrimination and prejudice have wrought upon us. But we can do a lot to change our present and our future, and that’s what I’m focusing on here.
Jenni’s comments – in the way that they’re reported – only serve to demean the trans community, reinforcing the kind of bigotry which leads to “bathroom laws” and worse. I’ve actually never met a transman or a transwoman (and I have met a good many) who claims that all the psychotherapy, surgery and hormone treatment has turned them into a perfect physical replica of a “biological” man or woman; but it has got them as close as is essential for them to survive. I’ve known a couple of people who have transitioned later in life, and who have had to face dilemmas about the enormity of accepting the necessity of the decision which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. On a purely technical note, the switch of hormones produces a rollercoaster of physical and emotional changes without any of the joys of being a teenager. Not everyone can have the surgery they would like to have for both financial and health reasons. It’s not something anyone takes lightly, and some come out on the other side knowing that they are going to be stared at and talked about behind their backs for the rest of their lives.
I understand the intellectual argument that goes “if we got rid of gender-based discrimination and patriarchy, the need wouldn’t arise”, but I think that’s a rather 1970s feminist position; we’ve learned a lot more about gender, biology and human biochemistry since then. I just don’t understand why otherwise rational and thoughtful people as Jenni Murray and Germaine Greer see trans* people as some kind of “land grab” and a threat to their identity to the point that they have to try and reduce them to something less than the gender they now are.
Discussion and debate is interesting and worthwhile, but as always, it’s how and where it takes place. I agree with you that in this case, it’s just nasty. It’s a public challenge, however elegantly worded. It would be fine to lament the lack of understanding of feminism on the part of middle-aged CofE clergy or ITV regional journalists who happen to be trans (or not), but to make it a somehow defining characteristic of being transgender is a cheap target.
We all develop our own archetypes of what we believe should represent us as men or women and hold them up against people we meet. I spent most of my teens and 20s regularly being told I wasn’t a “real man” because I was gay, and equally, there’s a whole legion of male stereotypes I can’t support or identify with. “Transwomen aren’t real women” isn’t far from “of course, you’re adopted” or “same-sex marriage isn’t real marriage”. And I wouldn’t want the woman friend of mine – now in her 60s – who had a hysterectomy and her ovaries removed at 17 in order to save her life to be told she isn’t “ a real woman” because she has been taking hormones ever since.
Let’s by all means challenge poor attitudes and bad behaviour on the part of individuals (don’t get me started on Caitlin Jenner), but let’s accept that people are who they say they are.