I am a man in a man's body. Whose body would I be in if not my own?
Whenever I say something like this, someone always seems to ask whether there's a particular incident that it's about. The answer right now, like usual, is no. I don't know about anybody else, but I don't generally experience oppression in the form of a specific person directly informing me that they are about to begin oppressing me, so would I please fasten my seatbelt and put my tray table upright. No, it's more like little reminders dropped in passing that I'm not welcome in a particular situation or that I'm not as much of a person as the next guy.
Like tonight. I was leaving an ostensibly trans/genderqueer/gender-variant-person-f
event when I noticed copies of an article sitting around about "genderqueer etiquette"
. I'd like to draw your attention in particular to this passage:
In the age of girls’ nights out, bachelor parties, women-only Sacred Goddess gatherings and men-only nights at the hot tubs, genderqueers are often playing the "Am I welcome?" game. It can be a difficult thing for any event organizer to figure out. If it’s a "safe space for women," will some participants consider ladies with dicks a threat? If it’s a "gay dudes only" night, will a guy packing a silicone cock ruin the mood?
Whatever you decide, be abundantly clear in your invitations. It’s okay to say that something is "for female-bodied people only." If your event is open to a broader crowd, it’s useful to say something like "This event is open to all self-identified men" so non-male-bodied men know they’re welcome.
While the author of this article IDs as genderqueer, I, as a binary-identified trans person, still feel completely confident in responding: Allies, ur doin it wrong. I'm addressing trans people and their would-be allies in what follows; if you're about to tell me that I shouldn't police your language and you'll use whatever words you want to use so don't be so nit-picky, you shouldn't bother, because I'm not talking to you. I am talking to people who are interested in speaking accurately and in making it clear, through the language they use, that they accept trans people as equals.
That said, let's deconstruct some parts of the above passage. The author assumes that it's a given that it's okay to hold events that exclude people based on... well, based on what, exactly? Before we can critique that assumption, we have to know what it really means to limit an event to "female-bodied" or to "male-bodied" people.
I would presumably be welcome at an event listed as being for "female-bodied people" (why? I'll get to that), but I suspect that any ladies attending such an event would look funny at a bearded interloper who sings in the bass section, and I wouldn't feel welcome in such a forum anyway. (For similar reasons, I don't go to events billed as being for "women and trans people", which usually means "cis women and trans men".) I'm pointing this out not to belabor the obvious, but to further complicate the meaning of a phrase like "female-bodied people".
What about an event for "male-bodied people"? There are fewer of those (why?), but if someone were to tell me I was not welcome somewhere because they believed I was "female-bodied", I wish they would do me the courtesy of telling me what they really mean by that and exactly which body part they presume I have that menaces them so. I don't know why somebody would segregate an event based on body parts that aren't visible in most social contexts -- and, depending how you interpret "male-bodied people" and "female-bodied people", possibly based on body parts that aren't visible unless you have a scalpel or a microscope -- anyway.
But I'm being deliberately coy, because in general people organizing events for "male-bodied people" or "female-bodied people" are organizing events for "female-bodied people" and wish to exclude trans women. So, again, I ask -- not just in the context of event planning, but in the context of people earnestly trying to describe what it is that makes trans men different from -- y'know -- regular
men -- what does "female-bodied" mean?
When somebody is trying to differentiate a trans man from a man who was assigned male at birth (we call the latter a "cis man"), and they call the trans man "female-bodied", what do they mean?
Do they mean that he has breasts? Well, many cis men have breasts (or perhaps all of them do, depending on whether you're talking about breasts per se or just breasts of a certain size), and many trans men don't.
Do they mean that he can become pregnant and give birth? Well, clearly that ability isn't necessary
in order to be "female-bodied" (did your mom become "male-bodied" when she entered menopause?). If we're saying that having that ability is sufficient
for being "female-bodied", on the other hand, it's not a case for trans men being "female-bodied", since trans men who have taken testosterone for more than a few years generally aren't fertile (unless they stop taking it).
Do they mean that he has a female brain (that is, a brain that functions best with an estrogen-based hormone balance and that's wired sexually to expect a body with a clitoris, vulva and vagina)? Well, he doesn't have one, because he's a trans man. But if you're the kind of person differentiating bodies into "male" and "female", brains apparently don't count as part of the body. (Cartesian dualism lives!)
Do they mean that he has a vulva? Well, maybe he doesn't, but it's likely that most trans men do, given the inaccessibility and varying quality of genital reconstruction surgery for trans men. So if you really want to organize an "event for people with vulvas", then say that that's what you mean, rather than being coy with terms like "female-bodied".
We could rattle through a long list of other traits of supposedly "female-bodied" people, and generally we can point out that most traits are absent in some trans men and present in some cis men. Chromosomes? Let's talk about XX males
, not that you typically know what someone else's karyotype is anyway; what kind of party requires a DNA test for entry? But rather than doing that exercise, let's try a different thought experiment. In the common parlance, is it possible for a "male-bodied" person to become "female-bodied", or vice versa?
Since "female-bodied" and "male-bodied" are so often used as synonyms for a cis woman or trans man (the first) or for a cis man or trans woman (the second), I think the answer is "no". Someone whose externally observable sex characteristics were all
indistinguishable from those of a woman who was assigned female at birth would still be deemed "male-bodied" by someone who's apt to use these terms in the first place. And that's why we have to consider the possibility that "female-bodied" and "male-bodied" are terms that describe your body only indirectly (at best), and that really describe the judgment that an observer made about you when you were born.
(To the retort that once female-bodied, always female-bodied because "you can't change your chromosomes", I'd note that you can't change your blood type either; so? Such an argument is based on confusing the common (but inaccurate) logical deduction "A appears female to me, therefore A's karyotype is XX" with a nonexistent inference rule that says "If A's karyotype is XX, then A is a girl or woman." The point is that we attribute gender based on observable
characteristics, and the only time non-researchers tend to bring up unobservable characteristics like genes and chromosomes is when they're looking for a post hoc
justification of the decision they've already made to deny someone's gender. Saying a trans man is "female-bodied" because he has XX chromosomes -- or because you believe they do, more likely -- is essentially saying "I insist you're not a man because I'm aware that you're trans," since the chromosome test never gets applied to people whose gendered legitimacy hasn't already been questioned. It's just an attempt to clothe subjectivity in a cheap facsimile of scientific objectivity.)
So if you mean to limit your event to "people who were assigned female at birth", then say that. And in any context, when you mean to say that a person was "assigned female at birth", it's best to describe them as just that, not as "female-bodied"; it's primarily a matter of clarity and secondarily a matter of declining to participate in the reproduction of an oppressive discourse.
(Now for extra credit, dear reader, you can deconstruct "biologically male" and "biologically female".)
Going back to the original passage: Being "abundantly clear" about your intentions, as an event organizer, seems hard to argue with. But that's really not good enough, because if you're going to exclude some people, you need a reason. Events that are just for people of color, or just for women (need I remind you that by that I mean self-identified women?), or just for trans people, are justifiable because people in all of the above groups have histories of being shouted down by the majority in a group that includes both majority and minority people. Events that claim to be for women but that exclude trans women -- given that cis women are in a superior political position to trans women -- are harder to justify. "No Irish need apply" is very clear, but these days we can generally see the problem with that.
In short, why are you segregating your event in such a manner at all? Some men have vulvas, some men have penises, some women have vulvas, and some women have penises. Isn't it time -- as a culture -- to get over it?