There is a common thread that runs among the “trans women are women but not female” crowd. This group is mostly composed of nice, white, liberal, middle-class-ish, lady bloggers and journalists who will not accept that the penis of a trans woman is a female penis but who will concede that a man with a penis can be a woman because woman is gender and genitals is sex. These women are often called TERFs by the more wacko trans activists because they believe that sex is immutable and cannot be changed even though they’re willing to concede that there are male women and female men. These women will often say that they accept trans women as women if they “present as women” or they are “read as women.”
This argument that you become a woman by presenting yourself as a woman and being perceived as womanly by others is sexist to its very core. It’s saying that womanhood is nothing more than femininity and that women who abstain from feminine beauty practices and behaviours are less womanly than men who adhere to them. It’s also just not a justifiable statement because it depends on so many variables. If we’re going to assert that is a person is a woman simply by virtue of presenting themselves as a woman and being perceived as a woman, that is the same thing as saying, “you are not the thing that you are; you are the perception people have of you.” And that is just demonstrably untrue. Butch lesbians are read as male all the fucking time yet their actual femaleness; their physical sex – the thing that makes them a woman – is clearly verifiable.
I am often “read” as a hipster because I haven’t had a haircut in 2 years and I dress like a homeless man a lot of the time but actually I’ve never in my life liked anything before it was cool (apart from Radical Feminism, obvs) and I dress like this because I’m poor and I’ve been wearing this outfit since 1999. So people “read” me as a hipster and treat me like a hipster. I’m not actually a hipster though because I’m thirty-one years old and I don’t really properly know what a hipster is. I just know you need money to be one and I don’t have any.
Thirteen year old girls often present as women and are read as women. Does that make them women or are they actually girls hoping to look like women? If they present as women, read as women and identify themselves as women, should we treat them like women?
So even if it were true that trans women are generally “read as women” by the world at large, that’s not enough to actually make them women. If that were true, then that would mean that butch lesbians (and butch straight women) who “present as men” and are “read as men” are suddenly actual men because that’s how they’re perceived. We would have to say, “sorry, dykes. You dress like a man and look like a man and I read you as a man so you have to pee in the boys’ toilets and change in the men’s room.”
Heterosexual women who accept sufficiently feminine males as women rarely want to enter into a discussion with lesbians (who are actual women) about their views. They consider any attempt to ask questions a “pile-on” and either refuse to engage or claim that they are being harangued and harassed. Lesbians would like to know if being read as the opposite sex automatically makes you a member of that sex in all cases or if it’s only true for special people who actually want to be read as the opposite sex. Is it that males can be women if they’re read as women and they also want to be read as women but they’re still men if they’re read as women and they don’t want to be?
Are butch dykes still women because they’re read as men but don’t want to be read as men? If they wanted to be read as men, would they then be men? It’s not a rhetorical question but so far no one has been willing to take it on.
These are legitimate questions that lesbians are asking and the silence around it from heterosexual feminists is deafening. It’s really nice that you all have recently discovered that a penis is actually a male organ but it’s been a while now and that’s a pretty basic thing. It’s hard to have discussions about advancing women’s liberation with people who are unable to define precisely what a woman is. (I’ll give you a clue: it doesn’t have anything to do with special feelings.)
If you believe that there can be such a thing as a male woman, a good rule to keep in mind as a feminist is this: female women take precedence over male women. If a female woman is saying to you, “hey, this male woman is stepping on my toes,” you should listen to her. Even if she’s – gasp – a lesbian. Endlessly repeating, “trans women are women because trans women are women,” is not a good look and it’s it’s not doing actual women any favours. How can we have come to a point in time where prominent feminist journalists are unable to define what a woman even is and frame any attempt at discussion about it a “pile-on”?