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Friday, October 28, 2005

Ain't I a woman?

by Gwendolyn Ann Smith

While issues of discrimination, hatred, and prejudice tend to be universal, there are some things that a transgender person deals with on a regular basis that few non-transgender people are ever likely to face. One example that often frustrates yours truly is some of the questions I've been asked:

"Have you had 'the surgery?"

"What was your name ... before?"

"Are those your real breasts?"

"Which bathroom do you use?"

"What do your genitals look like?"

It's not so much the questions themselves that annoy, it's that someone felt these were appropriate questions to ask – and that they have a right to an answer. I believe I know why they might think this, too: it's part of them trying to figure out – by their own definitions – just what gender I am.

You see, these questions all boil down to one simple question, and one that many transgender people have heard, perhaps more than any of the above:

"Are you a man or a woman?"

In return, I might ask a simple question in response, particularly if I feel the person asking the question might be open to learning a thing or two. It's rare, but it happens.

"What is your definition of 'man' and 'woman'?"

For myself, I find it a deceptively difficult question. I can't so easily quantify it into a set of raw components, I cannot just say, "the doctor just removes your puppy dog tail, and you take sugar and spice on a daily basis."

I'll gladly admit that I did not grow up like many other women. I have a history that some would regard as incongruent with the gender I inhabit today. As such, I have an adjective – transgender – that sits in front of the word woman. It's a modifier for the modified, I suppose, but it does not diminish the value or the importance of the word "woman" in my life. Perhaps it even makes it stronger, given that I've had to work a lot harder at it than many other women out there in the world.

I should add that it's not something I dreamed up one slow weekend over tea, of course. This is something I knew of myself since I was 3 years old. It's something I spent a lot of energy in my teen years trying to deny – but I digress.

You see, when I try to think of those elements that everyone labels as feminine or whatnot, I find that there are also plenty of women who bend, even outright break, these notions. I've also known many men who also do a damned fine job of breaking all the usual descriptions of "man."

I know it's not biology alone. The number of folks I've known with chromosomes that don't fit what my high school textbooks said seems to toss that right out the window. Never minding, of course, that these sex chromosomes are what most will try to tell me defines my gender.

It's also not one's body, at least not in a specific sense. I've known too many women with penises and men with vaginas to settle for that definition. Likewise, this assumes that if, say, a man loses his genitals in an accident of some nature, he does not become a woman simply because he lacks his meat and two veggies.

It's certainly not based on the ability to procreate. I mean, people aren't considered non-gendered before puberty, nor is gender removed at menopause. Infertility has never determined gender for a non-transgender person, so why would it define me?

Hormones? These are too slippery, as it's common for human beings to have both testosterone (the hormone usually attributed to men) and estrogen (strong enough for a man, but made for a woman). Some just have more of one than the other – and all of those can be manipulated.

I sure hope it isn't merely one's social role, because even though we're years removed from the era of Donna Reed and Ozzie Nelson, these remain so much a part of the cultural landscape. I'm neither of them, nor would I want to be.

I know what society has told me about being a woman: it says I should be as neurotic about my appearance as Cathy Guisewite's eponymous character in a swimsuit. Ack!

In the workplace, I'm told that – as a woman – my contributions are worth less than that of a man, and that no amount of schooling or experience will keep me from being second-guessed.

Indeed, both in and out of the workplace, my desire should be secondary to the wishes of others, and I should not expect my needs to be fulfilled unless my needs involve meeting another's' desires: I should be servile, a servant.

I reject these antiquated views of what a woman is – and not simply because I'm a transgender woman. I would hope that many others would regardless of gender.

So how does one define those two genders? It's all nearly impossible to define, without heading into words like "spirit." It seems an innate sense of self, an essence. It's something that one can only feel for themselves, and no amount of questions about bathrooms, genital configuration, or "old names" can change that.

I can only tell you I am a woman, because that is how I see myself – it is what I am. Besides, I've asked myself far more question than anyone else, over many years – I know my truth, and that, ultimately, is all that matters.

Gwen Smith is no Sojourner Truth, Carole King, or Peggy Lee, but she is a woman, W-O-M-A-N. You can find her online at


Blogger padme said...

Really good post rachel! :) It helped me to get a little more insight to you. I am really glad we are becoming friends. Please keep in touch. Thanks for all your support...

7:32 pm  
Blogger wind walker said...

it's funny, but i picture those kinds of questions coming from kids...not adults...

i am a very nosey person...i love knowing what's not my business...and i am very happy that i've never thought to ask these questions....

9:10 pm  
Blogger rachel said...

Thank you shyanne and wind walker.
I'm glad you found it useful. One of the points in doing this blog was to try and educate people who aren't transgender, about who we are and what we have to face. I'm really glad you've been able to come away with a better insight into our lives.
We spend a very large part of our lifes walking on a knifes edge because of other peoples attitudes and narrow mindedness.
But it's better than the alternative of living a lie. That path leads to insanity and suicide.

Huggy Love, Rachel xxx

5:23 pm  

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