I once saw a good friend of mine by chance in line at a restaurant. He was facing away, but I know him well, and I was confident from his height, the color of his hair, the set of his shoulders, his clothing style, that it was him. I walked over and was about to say, “Hey, Tom! What are you doing here?” when he turned to look at something out the window and I saw that it was not my friend after all. I’d had excellent reason to suppose that he was Tom, but once I had more evidence I knew better.
And I knew that the person had never been Tom. He did not go from being Tom to being not-Tom. He was never Tom.
When I was a child, my Grandpa sometimes let me help him in his wood shop. On one occasion, he told me to get him a piece of white oak. I went and got a piece. It felt good, to be helping my Grandpa, and I loved the smell of the sawdust and the wood stains. When I handed him the wood, he smiled and explained that I had brought him white pine. I had remembered him describing some of the wood in his storage area as “white” something, and had made a mistake. He showed me how light it was, and how he could mark it with his fingernail, and he explained that it rotted easily, while white oak was dense and much harder, and reluctant to rot.
And I understood, even as a child, that the piece of wood I had brought him had never been white oak. It did not go from being white oak to being white pine. It was white pine all along.
Where I grew up, there were lizards which we called “bluebelly lizards”. On top, they were a rough mottled sandy color, but their bellies were a light shade of blue. If you were quick enough, and the day was cold enough, you could catch them and then hold them upside-down and look at their bellies. And if you did, sometimes they froze in place. They pretended to be dead. If you didn’t see them before they feared your proximity, you would not know that they were alive. But if you let them go, they flipped over and ran away. I later learned that they are not unique; many lizards play dead, as a survival strategy. Though I didn’t understand it in these terms at the time, I now know that they’re just pretending to be dead because past evidence1 has shown them that their chance of survival is better if they seem dead than if they seem alive. So they play dead, because they don’t want to actually die.
And I knew, even as a child, that they had never been dead. They did not go from being dead to being alive. They were alive the whole time.
There was no shame in any of these “mistakes.” They were reasonable conclusions, based on imperfect knowledge, incomplete evidence. They were first approximations. They all turned out to be erroneous, but that’s in the nature of first approximations; if they were always right, we could call them final conclusions.
I once met a woman who looked like a man. She apparently had a man’s body, under her man’s clothes. She had what sounded like a man’s voice. She had facial hair. But after awhile she transitioned to live openly as herself. Her transition was difficult and expensive and awkward, and it was probably difficult for people to understand why on earth she would go through all that. But I understood. She was doing what she had to do to live whole. I understood that she was a woman.
And I knew that she had never been a man. She did not go from being a man to being a woman. She was a woman the whole time.2
- in the aggregate result of millions of generations of evolution [↩]
- “…from the standpoint of people who reject the gender they were assigned at birth, transition and its related activities can be seen as taking what has been inside and bringing it out into the world for others to experience. The brain is ordered, it is simply that the brain’s orderliness is obscured for others by the screen of our bodies. …transition isn’t changing so much as revealing.”
—Diana Powe, retired police officer, trans woman [↩]
- I am indebted to Barry Deutsch, who suggested many edits, and made this a much better piece than it would have been. [↩]
This is really brilliant, Grace. Well written.
Yeah, I agree with Myca. Really well done and really important to know.
Simple, Beautiful, True.
Nicely stated. Even poetic. So I regret sullying this lovely text with a clarifying question, but I see two ways to read this.
1. The polar archetype model: There exist two archetypes — male and female. Everyone is/identifies with one or the other. Some people are raised as one archetype but are/identify with the other. Some of these people eventually transition to presenting themselves as the other archetype.
2. The discrete archetype model: Society has a variety of archetypes, and in growing up, people tend to conform to one of these archetypes. Over time, many people will recognize that they are/feel greater integrity conforming to a different archetype. For many, the transition would be small and perhaps easy. For others, the transition would be large – difficult and expensive and awkward.
In short, I’m curious what it means to “be a woman,” and whether this implies a kind of gender-essentialism.
Thank you for writing this, Grace – as usual, your makes its point beautifully and in a way that is illuminating to the reader.
Nobody.really – I can’t speak for Grace, but it seems to me that that is an irrelevant question to this particular piece. Regardless of what your views are on what it means to “be a woman”, it’s clear that some people are women. What this is saying is that (some) trans women are some of those people, just like (some) cis women (and, obviously, trans men are men). Quite possibly other people exist in the borderline between “man” and “women”, and if people exist in that space then they should certainly be treated with respect – but trans people – in general – are not those people.
Grace, this is an absolutely gorgeous piece of writing. Thank you.
Yeah, Grace, I’m gonna pile on here with thanks. You are not in this world for the purpose of enlightening and educating me, but you manage to do it.
Tom: only change was your impressions
Wood: only change was your impressions
Lizards: only change was your total observations of them (so, a little additional time and interaction to break the cover). The only example where you have a bit of a point IMO.
Woman: Changes include alterations to body, changes to behavior, etc on the part of the subject addition to your internal impressions of that person.
One of these things is not like the other.
phlinn: What about people who deliberately deceive you? A con artist doesn’t change from being an honest salesman to a con artist after you discover his trickery; he always was a con artist.
A police informant wasn’t loyal to his criminal gang up until the other gang members found out; he was an informant long before the gang members found out.
An embezzler is not an honest town clerk up until the embezzlement is discovered; she’s been stealing money for a long time.
Trans people’s motivations are less like the examples above and more like the lizards’, though.
Everyone who posted appreciation, thank you. Some of my posts take a lot of work, but the only work in this one was editing it; the basics kinda jumped out and wrote themselves down, which more often than not is a good sign.
I would like to share Lioness’ reaction. She is a past master at finding a thing’s dark side, but her response to this piece was,
(I had not looked at it that way, but once she said it, I could see it. I marvel at how lucky I am to be married to someone who can still pleasantly surprise me after more than twenty years.)
Eytan, I think you made that point well, and I would only add one thing to it: I know some people who identify as trans, but not as distinctly female, like me, or male, like Rimonim. Some of them call themselves “middle-pathers”, and I have a lot of respect for the path they have found within themselves and struggle to reconcile with our society, because I think it’s a harder path than mine.
There are places for that question. Hearing it in response to this particular piece, though, reminds me of another experience.
A few years ago, in the town where I live, same sex marriage was under debate. The state legislature had legalized it, and many towns in the state were passing resolutions in support or opposition, the latter with the stated intention of motivating the legislature to reconsider. My town debated the matter at a town meeting. Some people articulated that while they did not want to speak to the outcome in the legislature, they thought that the legislature should repeal the law because they had not gone about it in the right way. Others spoke in opposition to same-sex marriage, but no one came right out against it; their arguments fell all around it, like the one mentioned above.
I had a lot to say on the topic; I had a sheet with my main talking points drafted on it. A lot of others wanted to speak, too, and I found myself near the end of the line waiting to speak. As others made their points, I ran a line through them on my sheet. By the time it was my turn, I was down to one point.
I introduced myself. And then I said something close to this: “We’ve heard some clever arguments from people who want the legislature to reconsider the legalization of same sex marriage. It’s interesting theater, isn’t it? But we’re New Englanders. Let’s be straight about this: right now, it’s going to be legal. If this proposed resolution against it passes, if this train leaves the station, it’s only going to one destination. It’s only going in one direction. So the question is: do you think it’s going in the right direction? I don’t think so. Some people have talked about ‘giving’ gay people the same rights straight people enjoy, but we don’t ‘give’ rights in the United States. We recognize them. High time we recognized this one. Thank you.”
Reading your comment, I was reminded of that experience. In my little vignettes, above, the woman is presented as a woman. In that context, it’s a given. Done deal. Your question can only head in one direction, from there. In an academic setting, or a setting where someone has to make a decision which will affect another human being, it might be a necessary question. But in this context, a trans person writing from and about her experience, that question can only drive us toward questions very like, “But is she a woman, really? Are people like her women, really?”
All analogies are flawed. I suppose the term for the perfect analogy would be identity (in the mathematical sense of the word), but it wouldn’t work very well as an analogy. An analogy works to the extent that the person receiving it can see past its flaw to understand what the person offering the analogy is getting at.
But if we must…
Awhile back, my department hired a new officer, during the winter. Spring came, and with it, short-sleeved uniforms. The new hire was discovered to have tattoos on his forearms, old ones, from his time in military service.
And we knew, then, that during the time we knew him, he had never been without ink. He did not go from being not-tattooed to tattooed. He was tattooed the whole time.
Awhile back I noticed that the car in front of me was having trouble staying in its lane. I pulled it over. When I got up to the driver’s window, I identified myself and started to explain why I pulled him over, but he interrupted me with, “No hablo inglés.”
“Okay,” I said, “Está bien. Te paré por manejando así.” (And I made a back and forth motion with my hand.) “Por manejando de un lado al otro. Por favor, dame tu licencia y registración. ¿De dónde vienes, esta noche?” And his face fell, and it shortly developed that he did speak functional English. And also that his license was suspended, which he had hoped to conceal.
And I knew, then, that during that stop he had always been able to speak English. I had not magically enabled him to start. He had been able to all along.
This one is speculation, but I’ll bet it happened somewhere. Once, a Tutsi saw that Hutus were killing Tutsis right and left and pretended to be a Hutu in order to avoid death. He travelled with some moderate Hutus to a place of safety. Once he was there, he revealed that he was, in fact, Tutsi.
And his Hutu traveling companions understood that he had always been a Tutsi. He had not been a Hutu and then become a Tutsi. He was a Tutsi all along.
Though I constrained my original post for the sake of elegance, I could go on like this for a long time.
You sought to make a distinction between the various objects of observation, in each analogy. Do you think the point of the analogies was in those objects, or do you think I was making a point about the observation and the observer?
Oh, I’m sorry! To paraphrase Wrath of Khan, I question not to challenge, but to understand.
For what it’s worth, I read the original post to emphasize two points. 1) A person who transitions experiences the transition not (as an observer might) as changing to a new gender, but as revealing the gender she has always had, but previously kept disclosed. So, observers experience this as change, but the person doing the transitioning experiences a sense of continuity and growing integrity. 2) When talking about people who transition, Grace favors expressing the point of view of the person undergoing the transition, not the point of view of the observer.
(I surmise this view may come into play regarding the gender pronoun people should use when discussing, for example, Grace’s childhood: Because Grace has always experienced herself as a woman, she finds it most appropriate to use a female pronoun. People who knew her then, and experienced her not as a woman but as a man, might not find this such an obvious choice.)
So, if these are the theses Grace is expounding, then I get it. (And if it’s not, then I guess I don’t.)
Well, almost. It drives us toward the question, “Is anyone a woman, really?” This question was prompted by the statement, “She was a woman the whole time.” As we become more conscious of trans people and “middle-pathers,” does it make sense to continue to define ourselves in dichotomous man/woman terms?
But if this isn’t the appropriate setting for that discussion, never mind.
An analogy to orientation might be helpful here. It’s true that there is at the very least a one-dimensional scale with exclusively heterosexual at one end, exclusively homosexual at the other, and bisexuals in the middle. The existence of bisexuals doesn’t negate the existence of the endpoints. It doesn’t even mean that somebody at Kinsey 0.05 should call themselves bisexual: their primary attraction is to the opposite sex, they probably have that pretty built into their identity, and actually meaning it when they say they’d sleep with George Clooney or Melissa McCarthy or whatever doesn’t mean that that has a lot of impact on their daily lives. We acknowledge there’s a little variability in “straight” and “gay”, but that doesn’t make them useless. And likewise, you can acknowledge the existence of other gendered people while still feeling that you, personally, are female or male.
Edit: and please kick me over to the open thread if this is too off-topic! :)
I don’t know if this is a flaw in the analogy or a flaw in my thinking, but it seems to me that the first three examples–Tom, white oak, and living lizards–all were what they were because of qualities that they possess that are clearly defined and meet an either/or standard.
But the woman in the last example, if I’m understanding correctly, is and always has been a woman in spite of any conceivable quality that we might imagine a “woman” to possess. I am not arguing, mind you, that she is not a woman. I am just pointing out that, as I interpret this, just as there was no quality that definitively made her a man, there is no quality that anyone besides her could identify that definitively makes her a woman. Even if she had a male body, male clothing, male mannerisms, male DNA, male clothing–heck, even if she identified as a man–that doesn’t necessarily mean that she actually was a man.
One might say that with Tom, white oak, and a not-dead lizard, we can clearly understand that they were always what they are because any reasonable person can easily agree on the definition of Tom, white oak, and the quality of not being dead. (Or at least, I can understand what it means to not be Tom, even if I have no idea who Tom himself actually is.)
It seems that the definition of a woman that you’re operating from is: “A person who identifies as a woman.”
…would that be a reasonable definition of the term as you’re using it? Or is there a better way to phrase it, such that a person can be a woman instead of something else.
Always happy to pleasantly surprise you.
Because I have seen you participate in good faith in various discussions at Alas, I take you at your word. Unfortunately for you and the sake of the discussion we might have had in good faith around that question, that ground has been salted and without careful preparation, seeds planted there won’t do us any good.
I’d much rather discuss other interesting things (like what Harlequin brings up in #12) in this thread, and I don’t want “What is ‘woman’?” to get all the oxygen. At some point, that can have its own thread.
Would it perhaps be a decent analogy to say something like this?…
I visited my friend who lost a lot of weight. I said, “You must feel great, being so beautiful now!”
She replied, “No; I have always been beautiful.”
I told my sister that I was impressed; after the ordeal we went through, she was a much stronger person.
She responded, “No; I have always been strong.”
I feel a bit irked at the direction this thread is taking. Grace, feel free to correct me, but the main point I take from this post is not by a long shot “Being a woman is a Real Empirical Fact with an extremely stable, unambiguous definition” but rather, “People are normally able to acknowledge a misperception in light of new information; learning that someone is trans, and that you misjudged their gender, is a run-of-the-mill misperception.” So the takeaway, in my opinion, is that when one reads a person’s gender one way and then finds out this was incorrect, one ought to acknowledge the mistake with a bit of humility (as opposed to, say, outrage).
Now, instead of discussing basic respect for trans folks’ genders, we’re mired in this question of “what is a woman.” Interesting how this question has suddenly become extremely important now, instead of on any of the 100s of posts about cis women on this blog.
I appreciate Harlequin’s Kinsey Scale example. Allow me to take it a bit further. My mom came out as a lesbian around age 40. Before she came out, she had never had a romantic or sexual relationship with a woman, or given any explicit indication of being gay. She had had several boyfriends and been married to a man (my father) for 15 years. By all indications, she was a straight woman–her behavior was 100% heterosexual. When she came out, it was important for her to assert that she hadn’t “become” a lesbian–rather, she had been able to acknowledge what was true all along. It would be bizarre and rude to respond to this announcement with philosophical questions about the nature the sexual orientation and whether she was “really” always a lesbian given her heterosexual behavior. AFAIK, no one did any such thing, because it our community, it is widely understood that sexual orientation has both a behavioral and an internal component (identity/attraction). We also know that these 2 dimensions can conflict, and when they do, and a person chooses to resolve them, we perceive the internal dimension as the truth. We know that while the behavioral aspect is malleable, the internal aspect is not.
Similarly, when trans people come out, it is often important for us to assert that we haven’t “become” men or women. Rather, we have been able to acknowledge what was true all along. Gender has a behavioral dimension and an internal dimension. Since the behavioral aspect is malleable and the internal aspect is not, we resolve a conflict between the 2 in favor of the internal aspect; it’s the only solution that actually works. Therefor we deem the internal aspect to be true, and the behavior a lie.
Firstly, I would just like to say thank you for this amazing post, Grace. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with a more apt online name – your writing and the thoughts expressed therein, and the responses make to others comments are always full of grace, and graceful.
Secondly – and hopefully this is continuing the discussion in a way that you are comfortable with – I wanted to say that it has never occurred to me to be defensive or hostile toward someone who chose to trust me with the information that they were trans, let alone (to reference a previous post of yours) to be embarrassed by their existence. In some cases the person who disclosed that they were trans had only recently begun (began?) to transition and I had misperceived their gender before their transition began; in some cases the person had transitioned years ago and I had correctly perceived their gender. In every case though, it’s hard for me to imagine a reasonable framing of the situation where *I* would be the more vulnerable person (whose actions, were they to show some measure of defensiveness/hostility/embarrassment, would be understandable). However, in every case, the person who shared that they were trans were neither defensive nor hostile (nor embarrassed), and I felt it was only appropriate to attempt to mirror the grace they had shown me.
Unfortunately, as well, there have been a few instances in which I have misread the gender of a person who had already begun to transition, in which case I was embarrassed, but only of and by my own actions because they no doubt caused the person in question at least some measure of discomfort (and potentially a goodly portion of sorrow as well). Even then, I have not been met with defensiveness/hostility, so.
The short version of my feelings on this whole subject is that cis people should stop taking the collective and individual existences people being trans so personally, because it’s really, really, really not about us.
Thirdly, your description of the practical outcomes of many ‘tone deaf’ arguments (applicable to many subjects, I think) in the ‘one-way-track’ section of one your comments was brilliant and I’m so excited to bust it out, with attribution of course, the next time I encounter a similar situation :)
The impression I got was that the post was meant to counter the view that a person who is, for example, a trans woman, is a woman now but used to be a man. That view, until recently, was very common (and seems to still be common.) Janet Mock, for example, had to tell Piers Morgan “No, I was never a man. Not now, not ever.” The GLAAD Media Guide advises journalists to avoid the term “sex change” and to avoid terms like “pre op” and “post op.” One might say that GLAAD in this case, is in fact talking about basic respect for trans folks’ genders.
I don’t want to cause anyone to feel hurt or unsafe, but I think it is fair to say that there is a difference between asking, generally, “What is a woman?” and asking, “What did you mean when you used this word in the piece that you wrote?” The former comes across as a large-scale existential question, and the latter seems to be a way to seek clarification if you aren’t 100% sure that you understand an author in the way that they meant.
The reality is that a word like “woman” (or “man” or “sex” or “gender”) is a polyseme–a word with many different meanings, though some of the meanings are related or share characteristics with others. This is true by whatever measure you choose–dictionary definitions, academic writing, popular usage, etc. Is it your opinion that there isn’t a polite way to discuss these meanings?
ETA: It is possible that I misunderstood the point of the Original Post, and that all it was saying was, in fact, “Sometimes people misjudge a thing or person based on a first impression.”
Certainly not–in fact I find it a fascinating and worthwhile discussion. If/when somebody writes a post about the meaning of words like “woman” and “man” I will read the discussion with interest (from time to time I write posts on that subject myself). It’s a question of context. Cis people aren’t asked to have a fully-developed theoretical view on the nature of gender to talk about their life experiences as men or women; I don’t think trans people should have to, either.
That’s a fair point, and I imagine it’s a discussion that gets tiresome for trans people much more quickly than for cis people.
I think it depends on how one interprets the post to begin with. If a trans woman, for example, writes about clothing, or work life, or sports, in the context of, “Here’s what I encountered today,” it’s probably a derail to ask about the definition of womanhood.
But you’re implying that a person who writes, “Person X was born a woman even though she had a boy’s body” is using “woman” in exactly the same way that a person who writes “My mother was a woman.” (The inference in the latter sentence would likely be that mother was cisgendered. Even were it not true, most audience members would assume the mother in question was cisgendered, even if they’re unfamiliar with the term ‘cisgendered.’ Such is the nature of privilege.) You are right that it probably would not occur to most audience members to ask about the meaning of “woman.”
It seems that the point of the first sentence, however, is: while you may have thought that this woman was born a boy, that’s not true; in fact, she was born a woman.
It would seem that the author is actually, specifically, trying to present a different interpretation of the word “woman” than the average audience is member is likely to have in their head before they read the sentence.
A comparison might be sentences like this:
Alex is my mother even though she did not give birth to me.
Yves has always been an American, even though he was born in China to Chinese parents.
Carlile is a lesbian even though she prefers to have sexual relationships with men.
I can understand being annoyed when someone asks for clarification; it seems like you’re implying that a person who asks for clarification is somehow being inappropriate or rude.
Phil–thanks for your thoughtful response. Grace–please let us know if we are taking the thread in a different direction than you’d prefer. I would be happy to designate a space for the “what is a woman” conversation on my blog (I think what Phil and I are discussing is slightly different from that–the meaning of asking that question in this space–which is why I’m tentatively continuing the discussion here).
It’s important to note that, for many trans people, having one’s gender misread is a huge aspect of daily life. The difference between this post and a more obviously personal one is, IMO, mostly an issue of poetic license. However, we clearly had different takes on the original post, and that’s okay.
I agree. I see the difference as simply including trans people. In other words, trans people really are members of our genders, even though our parents raised us the other gender, we kept it secret for years, etc. That’s why the “what is a woman” question implies, to my ears, an invalidation of trans genders (Grace’s response to nobody.really at no. 10 captures my reaction well).
I think this is a great example, and I feel pretty similarly about it. If an adoptee wrote a post calling attention to the fact that her mom who raised her is frequently dismissed as not her “real” mom, I would also consider it a derail for someone to follow up with questions about the definition of “mother.” The thing is, in both cases, it’s pretty darn clear from context what the author means. (Did anyone read this post and not realize the woman in the example is trans? Or not know what it means for a person to be a trans woman?) Again, it’s about context, not the overall merits of a certain line of thought.
This is analogous to, “Juan is a woman even though he was raised a boy and now identifies and lives as a man.” Indeed, that makes no sense. On the other hand, this case is extremely close to, “Carlile has always been a lesbian, even though for many years she only had sexual relationships with men” (I used the same analogy in my 1st comment above).
The only premises one need to accept, IMO, are a) gender identity/subconscious sex is a real thing that b) can diverge from assigned/apparent sex and that c) in cases of divergence, it’s legitimate for a person to assert their gender identity/subconscious sex as their true self.
So, yeah, a “boy” with a female gender identity isn’t really a boy, at least not in a straightforward sense. For one thing, whether or not she ever comes out or transitions, her life experiences are likely to be radically different from her male-assigned peers with male gender identities. The fact that people (perhaps understandably) failed to notice that she was not a boy doesn’t make it less true that she was never really a boy. If this is confusing to you, I get that, and I would be happy to talk to you about some of my experiences growing up trans so you can see what I mean more concretely.
I can see that I implied that, and I do think that, to a certain extent. [ETA: Though I don’t mean to attribute any ill will to you or nobody.really, and if I’ve implied that, I am sorry.] The main thing I wanted to say is more like this: I feel annoyed; the fact that trans people are feeling annoyed, in a conversation about trans people being misunderstood, is an important data point about the conversation. As far as I can tell, the reaction among trans people in this thread (just me and Grace?) is pretty uniform. If in a discussion between groups X and Y about group X, all members of X feel uncomfortable, perhaps something has gone wrong in the discussion.