In the fall of 2015, the theater board of the women’s college Mount Holyoke announced that it would forgo the annual tradition of performing Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. The feminist classic is a 90-minute amalgamation of over 200 interviews Ensler conducted with women about their often fraught relationships with their vaginas. The 20-year-old production is a bit schmaltzy, outdated, and irritating for its unrelenting earnestness, but of course those very qualities make the play perfect for the university circuit. Nevertheless, the Holyoke theater board decided not only to nix the play but also to issue a statement lambasting the work. Erin Murphy, a representative of the board, sent an email to students explaining the decision:
“At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman. … Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive.”
On the college’s anonymous online message board, The Confessional, students cheered the decision. One called the show “blatantly transphobic.”
In other words, Mount Holyoke, a women’s college, decided not to produce a play about women and their vaginas because some audience members who identify as women—but don’t have vaginas—would feel excluded. The result was that women who did possess vaginas, and maybe had complex feelings about that fact, were out of luck. Further, anyone who wanted to see the play, or even star in it, was at risk of being accused of transphobia or bigotry.
For her part, Ensler penned a response in Time magazine, saying, “The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman. It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina. In the play, I never defined a woman as a person with a vagina.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the linguistic acrobatics of political speech on college campuses these days, Ensler’s assertion that she never “defined a woman as a person with a vagina” may seem confounding, as most people would agree that having a vagina is a fundamental aspect of womanhood. Nevertheless, we find ourselves at a moment in history when defining a woman as a person with a vagina is considered beyond the pale.
The theater board’s decision to blacklist Ensler’s play was part of a broader movement within Holyoke to have a more “inclusive” campus. Throughout the 2014 academic year, students and faculty rallied around the effort to allow certain individuals—i.e., men who did not have vaginas but nevertheless identified as women—admission into the traditionally all-female campus. Six months before Murphy sent her note about the “exclusive” and “reductionist” nature of Ensler’s play, the president of Holyoke, Lynn Pasquerella, announced that the campus would be admitting transgendered women. The audience greeted the announcement with rapturous applause.
And that’s fine. Young people who have insisted that we treat those who are different with more acceptance and tolerance have tended to be on the correct side of history. But trans acceptance is a twofold proposition: the realistic and the rhetorical. The realistic aims are easy enough to accept: access to sex-reassignment surgery and access to hormones (the role of insurance companies, psychiatry, and the state’s medical apparatus in connection to this demand is a thorny one that I will address later); the ability to use the bathroom of one’s chosen gender; bureaucratic institutions issuing a preferred M or F on documents; and to be treated with the overall dignity a civilized human being should expect.
The trouble arises when we are asked to concede to the rhetorical demands: when we are told to concede that womanhood is a construction and not a matter of biology; that surgical mutilation is brave; that men who decide to become women are immune from criticism after they’ve taken a certain amount of estrogen; that expression of discomfort is bigotry; and that the cause of women’s political and economic liberation is somehow hindered if we alienate transgendered women or if we discuss the realities of women’s biology.
After Holyoke’s inclusion policy was announced, a student praising Pasquerella’s policy made a celebratory video in which she interviewed female students about their views on “womanness” and the questions surrounding transgender and cisgender identity (cisgender is when sexual identity coincides with biology).
“I think womanhood is definitely beyond genitalia,” one student says assuredly, “and this binary cisgender concept of womanhood where being a woman is directly correlated with having a vagina and whatever we call ‘female structures.’”
The filmmaker did manage to interview two dissenters—with faces blurred and names withheld as though they were mob informants. In painfully measured terms, both described their unease and confusion about what this decision meant for women who chose to attend a women’s college specifically for its lack of men. Of course, it’s no surprise why these women insisted on anonymity: nobody wants to be considered a bigot.
In the same video, Pasquerella says that, to implement this “inclusive” policy, she will need to accommodate existing “communities” at the college, like the religious, the politically conservative, and the “radical feminists” who believe men who were born male, and lived much of their lives as men, “have a male privilege that attaches to that.”
Again, what’s puzzling here is the notion that it’s unacceptably radical to believe that biological males who use hormones or surgeries, or who simply have an overwhelming desire to be women, are not automatically women. Further, that women who assert that having a vagina is an essential part of womanhood (encompassing such experiences as pregnancy, menstruation, abortion, adoption, miscarriage, clitoral orgasms, etc.) are considered at best ignorant and at worst transphobic.
What’s even more mind-boggling is if I were to admit publicly, as I’m doing now, that I don’t find the decision by Bruce Jenner—a wealthy, Republican, male sports star—to transition into being a woman, through the use of hormones and surgery, to be a particularly brave or laudable one, I am absolutely certain I would be labeled transphobic by a sea of Twitter users who have deputized themselves as gender apparatchiks. In truth, I possess no phobia about trans men or women, but as a lifelong feminist I think it’s preposterous to snuff out a critique of men, and their relationships to women’s bodies, simply because those men want to be women.
This is one of the many paradoxes and contradictions within trans activism, some of which are in direct opposition to the women’s-liberation movement. That’s fine too. One of the great virtues of an open society is that narrowly defined political groups exist and flourish. To achieve the realistic goals of feminism and trans assimilation, the two groups do not need to correspond or get along. In many ways, they’re better off without each other.
Second-wave feminists like myself, who view feminism as a liberation movement closely tied to political action (via the promulgation of “reproductive freedom,” sexual-harassment laws, equal pay, paid maternity leave, and universal child care), often keep our mouths shut regarding the way trans activists discuss womanhood and gender politics. This is rooted in a fear that our criticism of the trans rhetorical goals will translate into denying their realistic goals.
Nevertheless, here’s the criticism.
There has long been a strain in leftist utopian thought that biology is largely a myth or, in college dorm parlance, “a construct.” The notion is embedded in the language used by the women at Holyoke who described womanness as a structure, not bound to the anatomy of our genitals or gender. Echoing that same logic, author and Guardian columnist Laurie Penny wrote an article for BuzzFeed called “How To Be A Genderqueer Feminist,” urging young feminists to support the trans acceptance movement. Penny’s premise is that, since manhood and womanhood are constructs, women’s fight for equality extends to all people who consider themselves women.
I consider “woman” to be a made-up category, an intangible, constantly changing idea with as many different definitions as there are cultures on Earth. You could say the same thing about “justice” or “money” or “democracy”—these are made-up ideas, stories we tell ourselves about the shape of our lives, and yet they are ideas with enormous real-world consequences. Saying that gender is fluid doesn’t mean that we have to ignore sexism. In fact, it’s the opposite.
That passage is the product of too much French post-modernist theory, not enough common sense, and a blatant denial of the constant biological war women are conscripted to wage. To start, Penny’s dubious declaration ignores thousands of years of women’s existence in the real world. She believes that women who take pride in the notion of womanhood have been swindled by some great scam. Further, Penny denies that for millennia women have been and continue to be inextricably bound to their biology.
Norman Mailer once wrote that he believed women had begun to withdraw their respect for men once pregnancy no longer carried the real possibility of death. “Once the doctor could replace the midwife,” Mailer argued in The Prisoner of Sex, “once the anesthesia, antiseptics, obstetrics, and delivery by fluorescent lamp were able to replace boiling water, the lamp by the bed, and the long drum roll of labor, then women began to be insulated from the dramatic possibility of a fatal end. If that had once been a possibility real enough for them to look at their mate with eyes of love or eyes of hate, but know that their man might be the agent of their death … ”
It’s true: the more power women have over their own reproduction, the less power men have over them. And while the removal of death and mutilation from childbirth has indeed taken some of the medieval drama out of sex for American women, there are giant swaths of the female population worldwide that still exist in that reality. To say to the woman crouched in a hut, tearing herself open to give life, that this uniquely female, and dangerously female, experience is somehow a construct makes you sound not only foolish but also callous.
Women are nature’s conscripts. For approximately 40 years of a woman’s life, nature demands that she be a mother. It is only through medical and political triumphs that they now have a say in the matter. Camille Paglia describes this female phenomenon as such:
“Every pregnant woman has a body and a self taken over by a chthonian force beyond her control. In the welcomed pregnancy, this is a happy sacrifice. But in an unwanted one, initiated by rape or misadventure, it is a horror. Such unfortunate women look directly into nature’s heart of darkness. For a fetus is a benign tumor, a vampire who steals in order to live. The so-called miracle of birth is nature getting her own way.”
There’s a saying in the trans community to chide feminists: “Do you only support women who bleed from their monthly cycles?” What this slogan fails to confront is what that blood means. That blood is a symbol of women’s ongoing war with nature. They use hormones, condoms, copper devices, and all manner of contraception to deny nature’s plans for them. When after 28 days they see their period, they know that they won that month. When the contraception and plans fail, then they have lost their opening skirmish with nature. The war then continues within their own bodies which begin to flood their bloodstream with hormones that expand their womb to make a cozy living nook for an uninvited body.
This is a phenomenon that only women experience. Women with vaginas, women who bleed, and women who have had to battle for the right to defy what nature demands of them.
It defies logic to say that womanhood is a construct when men and trans women are naturally excluded from these female experiences. There are essential elements to being a woman; they are few, but they are profound, and they shape the way we interact with the world. To erase or deny that reality because it doesn’t include biological men is an insult to women.
Penny goes on to say that “feminism’s focus on women can be alienating to queer people and anyone questioning the gender binary.”
What else should feminism focus on if not women? Penny seems to adhere to the muddled, Maoist notion that all oppressed peoples share the same political objectives. This is not true. If political movements are to be viable, they must be disciplined and narrow in their objectives. If the Bus Riders Union wants to expand lines to poor areas across a major metropolitan region, its members need not reconcile their various stances toward Palestinian independence. When LGBTQ activists campaigned for marriage equality, they did not figure out a way to include the drum circles of the Occupy movement. Exclusion is the price of militancy and often the root of its success.
Further, the last five decades have proven that a discretely focused agenda for women can engender radical changes: greater access to contraception and, yes, abortion; criminalization of marital rape; establishing battered women’s shelters (the first domestic-violence shelter was built in 1973—1973!); and stronger anti-discrimination and sexual-harassment policies. These were the realistic demands of feminism, and there are still many more to go. Theorizing how trans inclusion helps feminism achieve further political power is at best unnecessary.
“Trying to make categories is very American, very stupid, and very dangerous,” Gore Vidal said when asked about his own fluid sexuality and why he never self-identified as gay. “But since everyone is a mixture of inclinations, the categories break down, and when they break down, the irrational takes over.” We can see the irrational creep into the trans-assimilation discussion when the issue of gender is dealt with head on. Trans activists claim that gender is a gradient and that the binary system of gender is oppressive. Yet when a person makes the decision to transition from one gender to the other, it often means abandoning one set of gender tropes for another.
Penny makes an attempt to reconcile this inconsistency in her essay:
Some ‘radical’ feminists argue that trans and genderqueer people actually shore up the gender binary by seeking to cross or straddle it rather than setting it on fire. To which I’d say: It is also possible to jump over a burning building.
In fact, watch me.
Only when we recognize that ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’ are made-up categories, invented to control human beings and violently imposed, can we truly understand the nature of sexism, of misogyny, of the way we are all worked over by gender in the end.
This paragraph, written by an Oxford graduate, is emblematic of the soft-boiled platitudes that have replaced intellectual rigor in leftist circles. Who invented these “made-up categories”? The Greeks? Advertisers? Men? Why have these categories of men and women persisted since the dawn of civilization? If it’s all been a ruse, how has it been so successfully perpetrated on such a global scale? How long exactly have we been living The Matrix?
And how does switching between categories help free us of them? After all, if gender is so oppressive, so rigid and stupid, why not subvert it and play with it rather than go through radical, genital-mutilating procedures that reinforce it?
Here we come to one of the most tedious elements of the trans-assimilation movement: how dreadfully serious they are about their identities. Rather than existing as sort of a third gender like the hijra of India, or as androgynous gender renegades like David Bowie, Patti Smith, RuPaul Charles, or the stone-cold butch lesbians of the ’70s who had zero regard for looking feminine yet did not opt for double mastectomies and testosterone infusions, trans activists insist that they be identified as either strictly male or strictly female. Once they’ve transitioned to their preferred gender, it’s considered a serious act of hostility to refer to them by their former pronoun. Style guides for news outlets like the Associated Press and Reuters instruct reporters to refer to people by their chosen pronouns. Meanwhile the New York Times is even willing to indulge those who use made-up pronouns like they/x (in place of he or she).
Fine. It’s simply neighborly to accommodate human beings’ preferences, and those who are not trans suffer in no way by making this concession. But why such dour emphasis on gender identity when it is somehow both arbitrary and sacrosanct?
Of course, part of the reason why trans men and women take their identities so seriously is the great lengths they go to in altering their bodies—tens of thousands of dollars to undergo the sorts of surgeries (gonadectomies, mastectomies) cancer patients are put through to save their lives. What are we to make of such radical medical intervention at such high sums?
To start, let’s address the biological and psychological distinctions in sex-reassignment surgery. There are people who are born intersex, with both female and male reproductive parts. Some women are born with a vagina but also with undescended testes. Olympic silver medalist Caster Semenya, who competed in the women’s 800 meter race, was born with a vagina but no womb, no ovaries, and functional but undescended testes that produce testosterone. There are boys who are born with male reproductive organs but whose bodies cannot absorb androgen (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome), a male sex hormone similar to testosterone. Their bodies convert the androgen into estrogen, and so when puberty hits, these young boys can often grow breasts. In these cases, sex-reassignment surgeries, mastectomies, and hormone treatments make obvious sense.
Then there’s psychological desire to live as the opposite sex. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), “An established body of medical research demonstrates the effectiveness and medical necessity of mental health care, hormone therapy, and sex-reassignment surgery as forms of therapeutic treatment for many people diagnosed with GID [gender identity disorder].”
GID, now officially “gender dysphoria,” is a classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), putting it on par with psychiatric disorders like bulimia, depression, or hyperactivity disorder. Since it’s classified as a mental disorder, those diagnosed with GID can have medical-insurance companies pay for therapeutic treatments such as hormone injections and sex-reassignment surgery. If you are diagnosed with GID as a prisoner, for instance, then you are treated as though you had any other psychiatric diagnosis. Therefore, according to a recent announcement from the Department of Justice, prisoners diagnosed with GID are entitled to hormones, and possibly surgery, at the expense of the state.
Those with GID must be suffering enough to believe the relief from the surgery will outweigh the suffering that will come from flaying your genitals and the social stigma of transitioning. Sure, there are the lower-risk, lower-pain options like a steady course of hormones to soften or harden one’s secondary sex characteristics. Nevertheless, these are largely irreversible measures with intense physical and psychological consequences.
Judith Butler, a revered feminist theorist (and utterly unreadable author), views sex-reassignment surgery as a brave act of self-determination.
“It is always brave to insist on undergoing transformations that feel necessary and right even when there are so many obstructions to doing so, including people and institutions who seek to pathologize or criminalize such important acts of self-definition. I know that for some feels less brave than necessary, but we all have to defend those necessities that allow us to live and breathe in the way that feels right to us.”
Yet when we talk about other forms of extreme body modification, outside the context of gender, the life-affirming kudos we give to those trans men and women don’t seem to apply.
If a black man were to say that he wanted to bleach his skin to be considered light-skinned or even white, what would the typical reaction be? If he said it would make him “breathe easier,” how would we respond? Our reaction would likely be one of pity and sadness, of course. The good college liberal would say that this person has internalized racism and colorism. While we may not ban the practice, it would certainly be frowned upon and considered some sort of failure for both the individual and the collective.
When a housewife says that her drooping eyes, sagging chin, and flat chest make her feel less like a woman, and that her happiness is impeded by not being able to live up to a feminine ideal she has in her mind’s eye, what would society call her? Certainly not brave. Would we say she’s internalized the patriarchy? Or that the unattainable beauty standards of mass media have warped her mind?
Say a young woman weighs 100 pounds. She says she feels obese and will be unhappy until she weighs 80 pounds. What the mirror reflects and what she sees are two different things, and she’s willing to undergo radical means until she reaches her ideal weight. Well, clearly, this woman has an eating disorder, a profound body dysphoria that causes her anguish. We do not condone her radical means. We instead insist that she seek psychiatric counseling to treat her mental disorder.
Here we encounter another paradox of the trans movement. On the one hand, we have a marginalized community demanding a set of rights in order to live an actualized version of themselves. But actualizing themselves is expensive, requires medical procedures, and can often only be paid for with the help of insurance companies. So either by choice or necessity, trans activists have chosen to align themselves with institutions of society that they also claim are marginalizing them.
Who is to pay for these procedures and this journey of self-actualization? This is where rhetorical claims and realistic demands collide. If trans people are to be assimilated into society, will they be able to do it without pathologizing themselves?
Likely not, since our current political epoch is dominated by cries of victimization and marginalization. Those are the grounds on which all entitlement claims are made. Because of that, there’s an incentive for individuals to claim ever-more-exotic forms of marginalization. Their problem is somewhat invisible: trans people are marginalized, so the thinking goes, because they are not allowed to truly express what they want their gender to be. When does someone begin to be trans? When they take a certain amount of hormones? When they were born? The issue becomes increasingly abstract and insular. It is difficult, then, to stack up the grievances of trans people against the struggles of gays, blacks, and women, and see how these claims merit the same level of social attention. (Of course, this is the problem with all egalitarian movements: they quickly splinter and devolve into a game of oppression Olympics.)
Further, the aims of the trans community are either a) to pass as women, which is then wanting access to another marginalized group and appropriating their culture, or b) wanting to pass as men, which is an alliance with a more dominant group. Again, it’s fine. It’s fine. These realistic goals harm no one and offer fulfillment to those who seek to achieve them.
But consider the case of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman from Spokane, Wash. who identified as African-American and even served as the head of her NAACP chapter. With a deep tan and dark hair in large tendrils, she “passed” as black. After Dolezal was “outed” by her parents as a white woman and the howls of execration reached a fever pitch, Dolezal told a local news outlet that people should “maybe think about W.E.B. Du Bois that said race is usually biological, always cultural.” Here, Dolezal was using the same language and reasoning many trans activists do about their decision to transition. Dolezal then appeared on the Today show, where she said that “nothing about being white describes who I am.” Dolezal went on to say that she started to identify with being black around age five. “I would draw self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon.”
This is a similar narrative to that adopted by the trans community, if you swap out the racial terms for gender ones, you will quickly recognize it—“Nothing about being a man describes who I am.” Or, “I started to feel like a girl around age five.”
If the crayon comment feels silly, consider Caitlyn Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer. When asked what aspect of being a woman Jenner most looked forward to, Jenner replied, “[to] be able to have my nail polish on long enough that it actually chips off.”
The same leftist circles that riotously applauded Jenner’s performance on Sawyer publicly shamed and ridiculed Dolezal rather than cheering her self-determinism. She remains a cultural punch line. While I was not won over by Jenner’s claims of having a “female brain,” it seems largely irrational that Dolezal should be disemboweled, while Jenner is championed, by the same circles that claim that everything—including race—is a construct. It seems some constructs are more equal than others.
Perhaps the biggest criticism that can be leveled against trans assimilation—as a progressive movement—is how strangely conservative and individualistic it is. Beyond reinforcing the gender binary, what trans assimilators seek is the privilege to shop and wear the things they want to wear without people gasping. Once the trans woman or trans man gets his or her surgeries, has the proper pronoun stamped on his or her driver’s license, and gets to stroll through the “gendered” department store aisle without curious glances … then what? What has been achieved? How has society improved?
With so much emphasis on body modification, hormones, genitals, and mastectomies, the argument could be made, I suppose, that this is a movement concerned with body autonomy. And yes, while hormones and sex surgeries are hard to come by in Omaha or Muskogee, there is no strict federal or state prohibition against individuals seeking those treatments. The rub, of course, is that in order to cheaply gain access to those treatments (to avoid an $80,000 trip to Thailand, where you can get top-to-bottom service without a doctor’s note), you must be diagnosed as mentally ill. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a loud enough contingent within the trans movement to divorce itself from the psychiatric component.
Ultimately, to pass as one’s chosen gender is a selfish pursuit. And that’s, again, fine. Trans people should not be harassed or discriminated against for this pursuit. People should be able to pursue happiness. But at the same time, this pursuit does not need to be elevated into a crusade. It is purely personal, purely neutral, and apolitical. We do not project radical politics or praise on women who get plastic surgery or men who “fight ageism” through hair plugs. Why do we ascribe such brave and political motivations to those who want to change their sex, simply because it’s difficult and costly?
The problem with elevating this kind of personal pursuit—and the disastrous problem with the insipid phrase “the personal is political”—is that somehow the ability to pass as a man or woman is considered “progressive.” As a union organizer who embraces traditional leftist causes like fighting poverty and income inequality and demanding universal access to medical care and child care, I find that the aims of the trans movement amount to a therapeutic endeavor rather than a political one. Yet, alas, therapy, identity, symbols make up the conceptual framework for nearly all contemporary leftist politics. This conception of social justice has completely replaced the leftist political goal of socialism. Giant collective movements for wealth redistribution and a strong welfare state have been supplanted by a diffuse, leaderless network of online grievances that typically center on issues of language (e.g., the use of pronouns, a celebrity saying something racially insensitive, books read in a college course) and mass media (the Academy Awards having no black nominees, few strong female leads in television shows, advertisers’ unrealistic beauty standards, etc., etc.).
The trans-assimilation movement and its advocates hold that defying what the “system” or “hegemony” or “patriarchy” wants from you somehow “makes a difference.” These acts of personal defiance equate to a young feminist not shaving her underarms, a young man wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, or, now, a woman binding her breasts down so she can wear a men’s dress shirt. These acts are not the raw, amorphous stuff of collective movements or great societal change.
In her interview with Diane Sawyer, Caitlyn Jenner proudly declared, “what I’m doing is going to do some good. And we’re going to change the world.”
Changing the world is a good project. It’s also a very difficult project, in which details like genitals don’t matter.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper works as a union organizer and independent journalist in Southern California.