Friday, March 23, 2012

A Question of Womanhood and Uteri

(TRIGGER WARNING--discussions of transphobia, violence, and sexual assault)

Serious question time: Why do oh so many of you presume that "woman" = "uterus"?

I know, I know, I've brought this up again and again--here on this blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, in private conversations. But it is my obligation to keep saying it, for reasons that should be clear, if not already, then by the end of this post.

I have a lot of friends who swear they would never, ever, in a thousand years, blindly accept what they're told by their parents, or their schools, or the TV, or even their friends. But on this matter, they won't admit that they've already done so. They'll simply state, "Because it IS." They'll accept, without reflection, everyone else's word on the gender of a body part.

We wouldn't gender a foot, a lung, or a kidney. It'd be absurd to do so. But when it comes to the so-called "reproductive organs"--which are used for a lot more than reproduction, and in many cases never used for reproduction anyhow--we're eager to make an exception.

Never mind that there are women without uteri. Never mind that there are people with uteri who aren't women.

Ah, but sex and gender are different things, right? Don't we have a loophole here? After all, you may reason, you may have a trans friend who once told you glibly that sex is about your body but gender is about your identity. At one confused point in my life, I might've been that trans friend, trying to be helpful by claiming gender and sex weren't the same thing.

But no. HELL no. 

When I said sex and gender were different, I was terribly wrong. As Asher Bauer once pointed out, the terms we use for sex organs are as much socially constructed as the terms we use for gender. So all you're really doing by insisting that there's a difference between sex and gender is moving the goal posts. And doing so lets you get away with murder--literally.

The cruelty of this artificial dichotomy between sex and gender leads to so-called "trans panic" defenses where a cisgender person says they were deceived by a trans woman who didn't say who she "really" was. It leads to trans women being told that, because they weren't "born women," they won't be allowed into women's homeless shelters--and, since there are few gender-neutral shelters, they will likely have to choose between the risk of being assaulted in a men's shelter or freezing to death on wintry streets. It leads to hospitals refusing to help dangerously ill trans folk of all genders because the doctors and nurses are too fixated on what genders belong to which organs. It leads to assaults on people--not just trans folk--because someone thought someone else was in the "wrong" bathroom. In short, saying sex and gender are different things enables violent transphobia.

Do you get it yet? Nearly all of us--me, likely you, certainly our parents and our schools and the TV and our friends--have enabled transphobia because we couldn't let go of this notion that certain body parts belong to certain genders of people. I'm culpable too. I'm guilty. Hence my obligation--my endless atonement, on behalf of all those impacted by transphobia far worse than what I've endured. Hence, too, my moral outrage: In light of how most of us have allowed this tragedy to continue, we insist on clinging to the concepts that abet the tragedy. 

Worse, in this society, we are prone to excuse the gendering of organs on the grounds of what others do, which is a morally reprehensible excuse in the first place. We, as a society, are quick to ignore the deadly effects of transphobia because we are quick to assign genders to behaviors. 

Witness how rape is discussed; we assume the rapist is a man, the victim is a woman. That's not always true in the first place. But the assumption gets extended to feminist discussions of trans women, where suddenly--despite the horrific rate at which we get raped, too--we are accused of "raping" women's bodies since we are "really" men and thus appropriators of women's experiences. It also gets extended to discussions of trans panic defenses--if we didn't make it abundantly clear enough that we were trans, our sexual partners aren't fully consenting to have sex with us, and thus were raped.

Instead of merely dealing with the typical blame-the-victim shaming that comes after rape, we trans women are also accused of being perpetrators. How's that for a catch-22?

And then--get this!--we're sometimes told that since we obviously "chose" to be trans, we have to accept the transphobic consequences. As if we'd choose this. As if we're somehow oblivious to how this society treats people like us. As if we are somehow morally bound to pay the price for the sacrosanct place society created for gender definitions.

When someone mentions the "War on Women," I want to agree that there is a cultural war on women--trans and cis alike--and that we should stand together, united against this threat to our lives. But then they start talking about specific body parts that I don't have and can't get, and it's clear from the discussion that they won't stand with me. It's also clear that they won't stand with trans men either, who may in fact have the exact same body parts and the exact same resulting health issues.

And here is the tragic irony: If I bring all this up, they want to know why I won't stand with them.

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