By Shaadi D
This question has become the refrain for those who label themselves “gender critics” as the moniker for a movement that is dedicated to proving that the way transgender people experience their own bodies is false. They say that because the way trans people experience our bodies and our relationship to gender are “false,” that society would be “insane” to acknowledge and support our experiences.
The problem here, in my opinion, is that while gender, sex and sexuality are far from being static biological truths—they are both deeply personal experiences as well as collectively social ones—they can be supported or denied by institutions according to what those with power deem “legitimate.” Legitimate here means “what will reproduce and uphold deeply entrenched norms of power, rather than challenge them.”
For example, real women, “those worthy of protecting,” have often been defined as those who are white and able-bodied. Read: Those white women who can reproduce power and produce more white men as heirs to their husbands. In contrast, Black and Indigenous women have often been labeled and offered as examples of aberrant and improper womanhood. An example is cultural messaging that defines Black women as hypersexual and unable to feel pain. This messaging supported the institution of slavery and currently supports other anti-Black institutions, such as racism in the criminal justice system and malpractice in the health care industry when it comes to pre-natal care.
Therefore, “what is a woman?” is actually an excellent starting point for a discussion on gender. It opens up a space for potential exploration and an opportunity to challenge deeply entrenched systems of power that have harmed many marginalized communities for generations. When we attempt to answer this question and consider the history however, an exact and narrow definition would be a fascist one. A sharp, short, and concise answer based strictly on physicality is often what colonialism has used to define non-white and disabled people as “not real men and women,” when compared with the “norm” of whiteness.
This is why “gender critics” love the question. They convince the general public that because the question cannot be answered in a soundbite that appeals to emotions rigged by colonial legacy, that it should not be trusted at all. They say “We all know what a real woman is, right? It’s an unchanging truth about your physical body.” But is it? History says otherwise. Once we accept their definition, many people will always be rendered punishable for the offense of improper womahood. It is for these reasons that Sojourner Truth had to stamp history with the words “Ain’t I woman?”
When we begin to ask this question of trans women, we must also consider this history—one that says the definition of womanhood has always been a sliding scale. The interpretation of this scale’s diagnostics, “what is normal and acceptable and what is not,” has often varied greatly and been defined by those with the power to violently enforce it. When we consider many of our Indigenous histories, (such as those in the Indigenous Americas and the Phillipines) we actually find a robust legacy of definitions of man, woman, gender and sex itself that differ entirely from what most of us consider the “unquestionable truths” of the dominant discourse. These Indigenous and communal legacies were interrupted violently, so that colonial powers could insert their own and replace the narratives of our communities with truths that empowered them and rendered us “insane and savage.”
When we begin to assert what is a “sane world” and define it as a world in which people’s self definition cannot be trusted, we evoke a racist and ableist framework defined by whiteness, and once again enter a legacy of fascism. If what is sane is only what white Christian morals approve, what world are we attempting to recreate? What many trans people of color are seeking is exactly a departure from this world. Therefore, redefinition that defies colonial “logic” is exactly what we are aspiring towards. Systems of thought that support powerful institutions are not unquestionable truths. This is true, no matter how deeply they have been entrenched in the visceral collective consciousness through the use of continued violence.
“Gender critics,” in my opinion, are not true critics. They end their exploration at the physicality of their own bodies and arrive at the realm of animals. The realm of “the savage” is where they place Black and Indigenous people for failing to achieve white norms of gender and humanity. They attempt to convince the general public that they are “protecting ‘real women’” while ignoring the biggest threat to women is cis male violence and that THIS is the best location for those who attempt to harm women, no “costume” needed. They say they are “protecting women in sports and society” while ignoring the real threats of sexual abuse and wage discrimination in women’s athletics and general society. Why do they not dedicate the same determination and fervor to these issues? Where were these “gender critics” and “protectors of women” when Simone Biles and her colleagues were in need of intervention when they were sexually abused by Larry Nassar and needed insitutional support in bringing their case against him? When Castor Semenya was accused of not being a real woman and subjected to dehumanizing and humiliating blood tests? When Serena Williams was constantly attacked and undermined by the media and athletic institutions? Where are they now while Brittney Griner still remains under detention in a foreign country? Did they drum up the same global movements and charged reactions as they do against the imagined threat of trans women? The answer is no. When women need real help, especially Black women, these “critics” are usually nowhere to be found.
The truth is that the imagined threat of transgender people in society is an acceptable and deeply charged launching platform for open fascism. It effectively grabs the attention of most members of society, where they would resist otherwise, and offers them an acceptable political invite into fascist framework. Trans people are extremely marginalized within society and most people hold deeply entrenched distrust and bias towards our communities and the demand for our own survival and existence. This is the seduction of fascist rhetoric, that says some people are “real” and others are simply “fantasy” and “insanity.” This rhetoric relies on an ableist framework that then says that those people are worthy of violent correction and complete obliteration. Sometimes, fascism is seductive because it reaffirms our worst fears and promises us that it will keep us safe from a space where we feel discomfort at the challenge to be more.
Finally, in my opinion, the question of what it means to be a woman can be answered no more easily than the question of what it means to be human. It varies greatly according to belief, culture and intention. It’s a question that falls out of reach just before we attempt to grab it and is attempted better through poetics than a European system of logic. But wouldn’t you prefer the space of exploration, rather than the hard lines of exclusion? Wouldn’t you like to feel more than what the rhetoric of colonial identity offers you?
When asked “what is a woman?” I can only give my own definition:
A space of exploration in the mysteries of the feminine and our different points of arrival. Only those initiated, those who feel the name applies, can understand; not through sharp definitions, but through deep knowing. Those uninitiated and those too afraid to take the journey cannot define this space through exclusion. Exclusion is not the language of the divine feminine. Her gift is compassion, grace and invitation into Her divine mystery, exactly that which escapes the logic of colonizers’ rigidity. I remind you that the most evocative and powerful women are often called “insane.” And therefore I embrace the journey of leaving a “sane world” in exchange for a loving one.
About The Author: Shaadi Devereaux is a writer, speaker, and poet using media to build narratives for Trans Women of Color. She is also an independent contractor and consultant on a variety of programming centered on human rights for women and marginalized communities.