The Consult: Amy Lane

A transgender woman talks gender politics and becoming a woman

Image courtesy of Amy Lane

Amy Lane, who has a fantastic blog about her journey as a transgender woman in transition, had some interesting responses to one of posts, and she said I can share them with you (I asked similar questions of the other person who commented, an anti-transgender radical feminist, but she did not respond).

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This is an ongoing dialogue, so I hope anyone who’s interested will respond and help me continue this conversation.

Responses are edited for clarity and flow; the questions are heavily edited and some were made up after the discussion.

Words like “sex” and “gender” have different meanings for different people. Can you talk about some of these terms?

Gender is how the brain is physiologically/
neurologically wired for different levels of estrogen or testosterone (or some combination thereof). If it helps think of it as “brain sex,” which is distinct from “physical sex,” or what genitals someone has.
Gender Identity, on the other hand, is how you mentally perceive yourself to be a man/ woman/ nonbinary/ etc, based on the structure of your brain.
Gender identity is determined by hormone levels during gestation. It has to do with how the brain is wired and expects the body to behave.Gender identity is determined by hormone levels during gestation. It has to do with how the brain is wired and expects the body to behave.

Gender roles are worth discussing too. They’re a set of societal norms dictating what types of behaviors are generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for a person based on their actual or perceived sex.

Despite what society says, not liking sports doesn’t make you not male. Lots of women (cisgender and transgender alike) are totally into sports. Many of the world’s top fashion designers are men. Gender roles don’t define gender. They’re stereotypes that feminists have to work hard to overcome. For example some of the best software engineers I know are women, but at conferences, most men tend to assume they perform “lesser” jobs, like designers or user support.

Caveat: these are my personal definitions; not everyone in the trans community differentiates between gender and gender identity, but I find it helpful to think of them as two separate aspects of gender. While I strongly believe that gender has its roots in biology, there’s no denying that gender identity has psychological aspects as well, which stem from that biology.

Why do transgender people become transgender?

If a fetus is exposed to a certain amount of testosterone vs. estrogen, the brain develops in a more “male” pattern, otherwise it develops in a more “female pattern.” These hormones need to be provided by the mother’s body, so it stands to reason that there will be cases where the hormone levels provided don’t match up with whether the baby has a Y chromosome or not.

So transgender brains are literally “wired” to expect different hormones than their (chromosomally-determined) sex organs produce. They’re also wired to expecting different physical characteristics, which is why a lot of transgender people realize they’re trans when puberty starts differentiating their bodies in a way that doesn’t match their gender identity.

So, while transgender may be born with the physical characteristics of one gender, they are actually the other gender.

And unlike gender, sexuality is primarily about the actual sex organ, right?

You’re essentially right, but there are definitely blurred lines there. As a trans woman, I was born with “male” genitalia, so they’re something that was part of my personal identity growing up, though a part I didn’t like and will some day be happy to get rid of (not all trans people have genital dysphoria, by the way, but it’s fairly common).

By the way, you mentioned the word “sexuality” there, and I just wanted to point out that sexuality is actually about who a person is attracted to (i.e., male/men/masculine, female/women/feminine), rather than their own genitalia. “Physical sex” refers to what sexual organs you have (penis/testes, vagina/ovaries, or intersex).

Can you talk a bit about your own sexuality?

It gets complicated. For example, I consider myself attracted to men, but for me, it doesn’t matter whether the man I’m involved with has a penis or a vagina (in other words, it doesn’t matter to me whether they’re cisgender male, or post/pre/non-operation trans male). I also probably wouldn’t turn down someone who’s non-binary, but towards the “masculine” end of the spectrum.

So does that make me straight? That’s a weird term for me, too, because before I came out to myself (let alone the rest of the world) as trans, I identified outwardly as a gay male. I personally don’t really tend to label my sexuality, because it’s a confusing (and sometimes distressing) topic, but the term I’ve settled on for now is “androphilic,” from the ancient Greek for “male loving.”

I don’t want to get too personal or take too much of your time. Are these questions OK?

Yep, totally. 🙂 I’m happy to discuss transgender issues in any context that’s respectful. The main reason I blog about my experiences, is to help others understand.

Getting into politics and transmisoginy – I suppose anti-transgender radical feminists, known by many as TERFs, would disagree with you and say gender is the effect of growing up in a sexist world- i.e. you “earn” being part of the female gender by surviving life in a sexist society. They believe gender is a social artifact that can be destroyed. Can you speak to that?

Their argument is basically that since I was born into the privilege of being male, I can’t earn the label of “female,” because I wasn’t always at a disadvantage. I could argue here that while others may have seen me as privileged in that regard, it added to the internal anxiety and strife I experienced all through my teen years and most of my twenties, which severely impacted personal relationships, work (not being motivated), etc. But the main argument I want to make here is this: everyone has both privileges and disadvantages.

Is Kim Kardashian less of a woman because she was born into the privilege being wealthy, and didn’t have the disadvantage of having to worry about her safety walking home from a late shift? Is a white woman less deserving because she didn’t have to put up with all of the disadvantages that come with being a person of color?

If anything, I could argue that trans women are moredisadvantaged than most women. We have to worry about “passing” as the gender identify as, or risk being ridiculed everywhere we go. Whether or not I’m allowed to safely use a public restroom is a hot topic of political “debate.” Next month, I have to fly to North Carolina for work, and I’ll be flying with documents that don’t match my name or gender presentation; I’m going to the airport hours early, so I don’t miss my flight when my genitals show up as an “anomaly.”

But rather than focus on who has what specific disadvantage, I choose the point of view that we should all be working together to reduce all forms of disadvantage.

I love that argument about anti-transgender radical feminists.

I do have a concern – If we’re taking about gender as something that exists on a spectrum and is fluid, where does that leave a transgender woman who’s struggling to get society to accept her as a woman? I’m worried viewing gender as being on a spectrum can be used against transgender people to say that no, they’re not women/men. Do you think that’s a valid concern?

Easy peasy. She is a woman because that’s how she identifies to herself, regardless of whether other people are willing to accept her as such.

Gender is a spectrum, but there are two ends to that spectrum: male and female. You can be at either end (man/ woman), somewhere in the middle (bigender, genderqueer), move back and forth (gender fluid), or not even be on the spectrum (agender). (There are lots of other terms for places on or off the gender spectrum, but those are the “main” ones.)

None of that negates the fact that society should accept people as they are.

If gender is on a spectrum, would it be more correct (or ethical) to say you’re a woman or that you belong to some other category that’s neither male nor female? Because some are “all male” or “all female” in that their sex organs, chromosomes and experiences are all in alignment towards them being a man or a woman; and you’re not in either of those categories.

Gender, gender identity, physical sex, and sexuality are all separate, though related ideas. For me, I’ve got a female brain because of the hormone levels I was exposed to in the womb, thus I idenify as (and am) a woman. I simply happened to be born with a penis and testes, because of a chromosmal difference.

Like I said above, everyone has different experiences. Saying that my experiences don’t make me a woman is like saying Kim Kardashian isn’t a woman because she was born rich.

Maybe it’s that nobody is all male or all female; e.g. my sex organs, chromosomes and most of my experiences are in agreement as being male but I don’t like sports and that puts me a notch away from “all male” on the spectrum.

Nobody is all one binary thing or another. We’re all the product of a multi-dimensional grid, with the spectrum of each of the terms I mentioned above (gender, gender identity, physical sex, sexuality) on each axis. Every single person on the planet occupies a different point in that multi-dimensional space, and that doesn’t even take into account invidividual experiences outside of those four axes.

I think Tom Selleck would probably still be all male, though.; kidding, kidding.

Yeah, I’d probably agree with you there. 😛

Check out Amy’s blog, Amy Lane.

Respond to this blog in the comments and keep the dialogue going! If you say it’s OK I’ll try to include your response in a future post.