Over the past two years, I’ve shared a lot of space with cisgender feminists who are seeking to add a trans voice to their panel, event, or conference. I can often sense that these feminists’ hearts are in the right place with regards to trans issues. They’re trying and their effort is real but they’re still struggling to work past some conceptual issues that might affect their language.
So let’s start with the language and work backwards. Trans-inclusive cisgender feminists still have some pretty pernicious habits of language that stubbornly persist in their vocabulary.
Many friends and colleagues have written or tweeted about this problematic language but, much like I did in this frequently shared post on the sex/gender distinction, I wanted to compose a handy reference for cisgender feminists who know they want to be trans-inclusive and have learned some basic vocabulary, but want to learn “how to talk about it” without setting off any alarm bells.
1) Please remove the phrases “female-identified,” “male-identified,””female-bodied,” and “male-bodied” from your vocabulary.
These phrases are my number one pet peeve. Often the people using them think that they’re being really good by using these phrases instead of saying “women” and “men.” What they don’t know is that these phrases have a troubled, transphobic history and carry a lot of conceptual baggage. In their current instantiation, people who use these phrases are often just hypercorrecting, using language that is technically incorrect because it “sounds good.”
But why are they bad? “Female-identified” is a phrase that needlessly divides women with different body types from one another. When combined with language like “female-bodied,” “female-identified” carries with it the suggestion that women without vaginas are not really women, that they only identify as such in spite of their “male” bodies.
Bodies, furthermore, are not inherently male or female. Sex assignment is a social process governed largely by more-or-less arbitrary medical conventions surrounding ideal, normative genital appearance and heterosexual reproductive viability. The rigidity of our society’s two-sex system is by no means a natural outgrowth of our bodily characteristics: it’s our commitment to a two-gender system mapped in reverse onto our bodies.
“But chromsomes!” you might say. Nope. The things that you have learned and internalized about the sex of the human body are so affected by our social ideologies that they cannot be separated from them.
Even if distinctions like male/female-bodied vs. male/female identified were non-invasive or politically expedient (they’re neither), they also are semantically meaningless when we consider the full range of bodies that the category women includes. An intersex woman, for example, might not have a body that correlates with the full connotations of the phrase “female-bodied,” but may not have born with a penis, either.
Transgender women who have undergone genital reassignment surgery also frustrate the way in which “female-bodied” is used as a distinction between cisgender and transgender women: they have breasts, they have vaginas, and their bodies do not natively produce substantial quantities of testosterone. They don’t have a uterus, sure, but many cisgender women are born without a uterus as well.
By conventional and socially dominant methods of visible measurement, these bodies are female. But I’m pretty sure that people who use the phrase “female-bodied” are intending to exclude these bodies when they deploy that language.
What’s the solution to all this confusion? It’s easier than you might think. “Women” is a category that includes a variety of gender expressions and bodies. It will do just fine when you want to talk about women. “Men” is a category that includes a variety of gender expressions and bodies. It will do just fine when you want to talk about men.
You might not think it’s that simple, however. Feminism and other progressive political movements rightly engage with bodies in their political activism. Feminism, for example, focuses on reproductive justice and healthcare. How can we talk about sex, bodies, and reproduction without drawing lines between transgender women and cisgender women’sbodies?
Easy. When you want to talk about gender, talk about gender. When you want to talk about body politics, talk about bodies. If you want to talk about issues that affect people with vaginas, for example, you’re talking about both men and women.
And, as Katherine Cross observes on Feministing, feminism should fully integrate a focus on transgender women’s reproductive rights and healthcare with a focus on issues like abortion and birth control. Trans women’s bodies are women’s bodies and they deserve a place in the mainstream of feminist body politics and reproductive justice efforts.
To summarize, then, phrases like “female-identified” and “female-bodied” are biologically reductionist, needlessly divisive, and functionally meaningless. If you feel like they are necessary to engage in your form of feminist body politics, it’s time to shake up your body politics. EIther way, please quit using these phrases.
Read more by clicking the title.