How Do You Know You’re a Woman?

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Photo: Jamie Grill/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

A few years ago, a colleague of mine asked me, “How do you know you’re a woman?” I had no idea how to answer her. I was enough of a feminist to know I couldn’t just list things like, “I’ve been called a girl since birth. I get a period. I like wearing lipstick.” But it also seemed disingenuous to say that I felt most like a woman when I was making tough decisions at work or lifting something heavy. Ultimately, I decided, I “just know” that I’m a woman.

It’s no coincidence that the colleague who asked is transgender. Her point was to push a variety of women to answer a question that she’d been asked countless times. I realized then how difficult it was to articulate an answer, and I realize now just how ahead of the curve she was. Lately, there’s a debate raging about this very question — what makes a woman? — and whether trans women are expanding that definition or narrowing it. In the Times last weekend, journalist Elinor Burkett penned an angry op-ed about how transgender women like Caitlyn Jenner are reinforcing outdated ideas about what it means to be female: You wear nail polish and corsets, you hang out with your girls, you feel it in your brain and in your soul. “People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women,” Burkett raged, “shouldn’t get to define us.”

Although Burkett’s tone is needlessly cruel, it’s also true that she’s coming from a different political generation. She’s 68 and, she explains, her second-wave politics were based on convincing the world that women are no different than men, except for when it comes to the discrimination they’ve faced. Trans women, she writes, “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.” The notion that women are unified by their hardships was crucial to passing laws that secured women a better place in the workplace, more funding for sports, and basic reproductive rights.

In a modern context, defining women in terms of the hardships we face seems not just limiting, but really sad. It also seems deeply misinformed to say that trans women don’t understand a female experience that is based on suffering. Transgender Americans are unemployed at twice the rate of the general population, and 25 percent report losing their jobs because they did not conform to gender norms. Half said they had to teach their medical providers about transgender care, and 41 percent have attempted suicide. They know what it’s like to be sexually objectified and reduced to a set of parts. They’ve woken up terrified that they won’t have access to care they need. They know the pain of discrimination.

If Burkett is truly concerned about people who enforce hoary gender stereotypes rather than explode them, she should lay blame on the media. If you only read magazine cover lines and watch heavily edited cable-news interviews, you hear binary-enforcing phrases like “born in the wrong body” or “nature made a mistake.” Listen a little closer, though, and it’s clear that such descriptions of what it’s like to be trans are merely a media-friendly shorthand. “I’ve adapted to saying, I always knew I was a girl as a defense against the louder world, which has told me — ever since I left Mom’s body in that pink hospital atop a hill in Honolulu — that my girlhood was imaginary, something made-up that needed to be fixed,” writes Janet Mock in her memoir, Redefining Realness. She never had an aha! moment, she writes, because it was a process. The writer Thomas Page McBee has pushed back against the “born in the wrong body” trans narrative. “I am not ‘finally myself.’ I’ve never spent a day being anyone else,” he writes. “Mine is another story, a real and complex story, and one, by definition, that’s not as easy to tell.”

According to everything from legal documents to psychiatry manuals to casual conversations, gender is still an either/or, so it’s easier for the media to tell transgender stories in terms of the binary rather than highlight diverse and personal narratives of people who have, at some point in their lives, not wanted to check the box marked “M” or the box marked “F.” We still live in a world where categories matter, especially when it comes to distilling big, complicated concepts like gender. On an episode of WNYC’s "Invisibilia" this spring, a woman named Paige told the story of how, for years, she “flipped” between feeling male and female, often multiple times a day. Once she felt comfortable living as a woman full-time, and began identifying as transgender, she felt things got much easier. “The first time I got my first [estrogen] injection, I just felt this immense relief,” she says.

Trans people are under much greater pressure than women like Burkett and me to tailor both their appearance and their narrative to the male/female binary, because there can be grave consequences for not fitting neatly into a category. “There are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards,” writes transgender actress Laverne Cox. “More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves.”

The question, then, is not whether transgender women are enforcing old-fashioned, binary ideas about gender. The question is how do we — all of us — make space for ambiguity and specificity? In Maggie Nelson’s new memoir, The Argonauts, she writes about the experience of falling in love and building a family with her partner, the gender-fluid artist Harry Dodge. “How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality — or anything else, really — is to listen to what they tell you, and try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?” she asks. Maybe the place to begin, before we demand answers of other women, is to ask ourselves, “How do I know I’m a woman?” And to get comfortable with how difficult it is to put our answer into words.