Dear ladies who are fearful and hostile to trans women,
That I grew up and spent most of my life in San Francisco I consider one of my greatest strokes of luck, because it was in its heyday the loudest, proudest queer town around. Even as a straight girl, maybe especially as a straight girl, I benefited endlessly from that. I went to my first gay bar here when I was about 14, with a gay man who was the kindest person in my adolescence. The drag queens who were his friends were also kind, and fortysomething years later my life in and around the queer community has been largely an experience of kindness. Of kindness and liberation, because all these people made it clear to me that gender was what you made of it, and biology is not destiny, and that was really helpful.
As I’ve watched transphobia explode in the American right and the British whatever, I’ve thought over my own experience. San Francisco has been for a century or so a sanctuary city for dissident, rebel and queer people, so I suspect I have lived my whole adult life in a place with more trans people per capita than almost anyplace else. Transphobes are always warning us that if trans people live in peace and legal recognition and even have rights, there will be terrible consequences, but I assume that we here have long realized, at least to some extent, that dreaded future, and we’re all fine.
Despite this, people – many of whom are supposed to be feminists – keep coming up with lurid “what ifs”. My response to them is: trans women do not pose a threat to cis-gender women, and feminism is a subcategory of human rights advocacy, which means, sorry, you can’t be a feminist if you’re not for everyone’s human rights, notably other women’s rights.
Second wave feminism produced the classic 1972 children’s album Free to Be You and Me, which I’d like to point out was not titled Free to Be Me But I Get to Define You. Back then we thought gender really was kind of binary and defined by genitals; science has gotten smarter in the decades since and we now know it’s a complex interplay of chromosomes, hormones, primary and secondary sexual characteristics and other stuff, some of which is in the brain, not the pants, and also that quite a significant number of people are born intersex, and some are misgendered at birth, and male and female never were airtight categories anyway. Cultures from Native America to India have long recognized that there are other ways to be gendered. This complexity and fluidity can be a blessing and it’s something feminism embraced when it demanded that “woman” not be a category be so tightly defined by roles, relationships, appearances and limits set upon our options.
At this point in my life I have trans friends and nonbinary friends, bisexual, gay and lesbian friends who are poets and photographers, doctors and nurses, climate organizers and professors and historians and one gay Buddhist priest who’s also a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, speaking of San Francisco things I’m proud of. I’m not speaking for any of them; so many queer and trans people have already spoken up eloquently, but perhaps there’s something useful for a cis-gender straight woman to say to other cis-gender women, which I’m gonna say as someone who is also a hardcore feminist: the major threat to women, straight or not, cis- or not, always was and still is straight men and patriarchy.
Every category is leaky and there are exceptions to every rule, but that’s where the lion’s share of violence against women comes from, as rape and domestic violence and harassment and murder. One of the really weird fears about trans women is that they’re men pretending to be women to do nefarious things to other women, but that’s either a fear of straight cis-gender men who do horrific things to women incessantly all over the world, in which case the problem is still straight men, or a deep misunderstanding of what trans women are. And yes, men who want to harm women could dress up as women, but they could also pretend to be repairmen or emergency workers to get into our homes, and actually have, and we haven’t banned repairmen and emergency workers yet.
I have never actually heard of, or read of, let alone seen, an incident in which a trans woman or girl somehow caused unpleasantness in a women’s room
As a young woman dealing with endless street harassment and menace from straight men, I used to breathe a sigh of relief when I got to the Castro District, because that was the only place I was confident I would be safe. Reflecting back on these four decades, I figure I must have spent a ton of time around trans people in bars and clubs and street parties and protests (and yeah, public restrooms) without really noticing, which is maybe the point. OK, in 2015, at the last night at the Lexington Club, San Francisco’s last lesbian bar, I did gradually realize that the many nice young men in the crowd were trans men.
Patriarchy would like gender to be fixed and a lot of its violence is punishment of women who aren’t submissive enough, men who aren’t straight enough, and anyone else who steps out of line. It’s no coincidence the American right is obsessed with border walls and with airtight gender definitions and racial discrimination to keep others in their places. Also, I can’t believe we even have to talk about the bathroom issue, which on this continent is a strictly rightwing rile-the-base issue. I have been using public restrooms in this exceptionally gender-diverse city for the past 40-something years, and also reading the local and national papers, plus I know a lot of schoolteachers and parents of schoolchildren, and in all that time I have never actually heard of, or read of, let alone seen, an incident in which a trans woman or girl somehow caused unpleasantness in a women’s room, and it does not appear to be something anyone worries about here. In the Year of Our Lady 2020 there’s still a fuss in the UK about the bathroom business.
When there is so much real violence against women, it’s a sad waste of time to focus on imaginary maybe presumably it-could-theoretically-happen violence. Trans women pose no threat to cis-women, but we pose a threat to them if we make them outcasts and pariahs (and insisting they use men’s bathrooms endangered them horribly). Trans women live dangerous lives, because gender nonconformity is punished in innumerable ways, speaking of patriarchy, and black trans women are murdered at a horrific rate, generally by cis-gender men.
There’s also a hullabaloo about young people choosing to be trans who may change their minds. I’m sure they exist. Also, we all know they’re rare, and that people are not trying on genders like they were Halloween costumes, because this is not easy for them. We all know that being cis-gender straight is the easiest and most encouraged thing to be, and if some young women are daunted by the prospect of being women under patriarchy, the thing to fix is patriarchy, ie apply more feminism here.
There is no one-size-fits-all definition of what a woman is
What I also know is how formerly many people whose assigned sex did not correspond to their gender identity were unable to find the chance or the courage to transition until later in life and how often they had ruinously miserable lives beforehand. Lots of them wrote books about it, so anyone who wants to know it can know it. It’s great that people can transition earlier, and in those early cases parents and medical experts tend to be exceedingly careful about how those decisions are made, and a few of those parents are my friends and family, and in their kids’ cases it’s worked out really well. We all need to trust them and recognize that that’s their business and not ours.
Finally there are about 4 billion women and girls on Earth, and we are not in danger of being erased. But also there is no one-size-fits-all definition of what a woman is; some of us are born with absent or divergent personal parts, or with chromosomal or hormonal anomalies; we come in many shapes and styles (patrolling bathrooms against trans women has led to some nonconforming cis-gender women being harassed and humiliated). It’s not about having a uterus or breasts or periods or about giving birth, because women are not breeding stock (and, sorry I can’t stop boasting about my city: the first man to give birth was in San Francisco). Some of us had mastectomies or hysterectomies or in the case of Angelina Jolie, who I’m pretty sure everyone accepts as a woman, both; and so many other variations exist, because nature is restlessly creative and gender is more a spectrum and a circus than two lockboxes.
I was proud of being from the queerest town around before Silicon Valley ate it for breakfast. And now, though there is so much else to loathe about my country now, I’m proud to have supported Elizabeth Warren’s run for the presidency, in part because during it she said more about trans rights than pretty much all the other national politicians in the US put together. I’m proud that Brooklyn put on a giant march to say that trans black rights matter, that San Francisco has the world’s first trans cultural district, commemorating the 1966 Compton Cafeteria Riot (sorry New York, our uprising was three years before Stonewall, and yeah everyone who thinks trans women are some new thing, they were central to both these 1960s insurrections). I’m thrilled that, miraculously, the US supreme court ruled in June that trans and queer rights are protected rights in the workplace. One of the beautiful things about that is that the basis for that decision comes from the 1964 Civil Rights Act; those who stood up for racial justice so long ago laid the groundwork for gender justice too.
It’s all connected, or rather we are, and that’s good news.
Rebecca Solnit is a US Guardian columnist. She is also the author of Men Explain Things to Me and The Mother of All Questions. Her most recent book is Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters