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This International Women’s Day, feminists should - finally - accept transgender women

To even consider whether transgender women belong in women’s communities seems retrograde. Simone de Beauvoir’s sentiment that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” was expressed over six decades ago, during which time it’s become increasingly rare for husky men to come home to a dainty, domestic woman.

Never mind stay-at-home dads and CEO moms: the very idea that gender identity aligns easily with biological sex is increasingly contested. In India, a “third gender” has been an option on official identification since 2014: Gender fluidity is a long-documented part of human existence there, as it is in cultures the world over.

Seeing beyond binary gender is ancient, and also contemporary. Last March, the American organization GLAAD, which advocates for LGBTQ rights, released a study that found 12 per cent of millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, “meaning they do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth or their gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity.” The study was cited by Forbes to advise brands that kids these days roll their eyes at stereotypical, gendered advertising.

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All this and still, the idea of welcoming those born biologically male into traditionally women’s spaces remains contentious. Take Gabrielle Bouchard, who in December became the first trans president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec, which has lobbied for women’s rights for half a century.

After being elected by the group’s 700 individual and 300 organizational members, she faced the well-worn argument that trans women can’t possibly understand the experiences of those who were born girls and grew into women. Ms. Bouchard responded that the white, middle-class women who led the FFQ before her did a decent job representing women who are poor, racialized or otherwise on the margins.

We are well beyond the idea that womanhood is a single, universal experience, dependent on shared biology, or even reproductive experiences. My childless girlfriends are terrified and ecstatic at all the right plot points when I recount giving birth, while I’ve supported them through infertility and abortion, despite personally not having dealt with either.

“Woman” is a social category and a personal, political identification – it’s not shared by everyone with female genitalia, and not off-limits to those whose bodies mark them as male, or otherwise. And if enduring violence and discrimination is a mandatory trait for a real woman, well, trans women know plenty about that.

In 2015, the Trans Pulse project found that 20 per cent of transgender people in Ontario had experienced abuse or harassment. Status of Women Canada reports that transgender people are twice as likely as cisgender women to experience domestic violence.

Yet, the idea that they’re likely to be perpetrators, not victims, of violence persists. This is often the excuse for excluding trans women, who are regularly accused of being cisgender men trying to creep into women’s spaces.

The idea that trans women have enjoyed a lifetime of male privilege is overly simplistic. It might be true some of the time, but gender non-conforming people also live with fear, of being discovered, or shame, at not being who everyone else wishes they were. Trans Pulse found that 43 per cent of transgender people had attempted suicide, and that 61 per cent of transgender women in Ontario experience depression.

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The essential commonality between (some) trans women and cisgender men is, to be frank, a penis. It’s an easy body part to scapegoat, but be careful: Biological determinism rarely works out well for cisgender women.

I’m not alone in identifying the male member as the basic problem. Last June, the Toronto women’s spa Body Blitz told a potential client that trans women wanting to visit must have had gender reassignment surgery. I immediately found this unfair – while also understanding that the sight of a penis in a space reserved for women could be unexpected, even unappealing.

Bothered by the gap between my ideals and my discomfort, I considered the warmth and simple humanity of many trans women I’ve met. I thought not just about their traumas, but also how much they might enjoy the spa’s lovely water circuit, let alone a chance to feel recognized.

I realized I had to get over it: A penis is no big deal. Beyond that, demanding that anyone have surgery to be considered a real woman runs counter to every feminist ideal of informed, empowered choice.

Creating safe spaces for all women means beginning with those who need it most. Trans women literally embody the demand to determine our own destinies – and to them I say, happy IWD, ladies.

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