Defining ‘women’

Gender identity can’t be determined by ‘a line in the sand’, Anonymous argues.

Earlier this month NOWSA, the national student conference for women, passed two motions that sought to exclude trans masculine people from the conference and from women’s groups and spaces around the country. These motions read:

“That NOWSA 2014 changes NOWSA’s definition of women to be ‘people who currently identify as women or currently experience oppression as women’.”

“That NOWSA 2014 encourages women’s organizations and spaces to adopt the NOWSA definition of who is eligible to attend and participate in these spaces. NOWSA explicitly condemns defining this as ‘non-cis-male’.”

That both of these motions emerged from NOWSA’s Trans Caucus is certainly relevant to the debate. There is no doubt that, historically, women’s spaces have been inaccessible to trans women and as such that creating women’s spaces that are welcoming and inclusive of trans feminine individuals is crucial. However, I dispute that the ongoing relationship trans men have with womanhood must necessarily be dismantled in order to validate the identities of trans women. As a trans man, these motions affect both my ability to access women’s spaces and additionally erase my ongoing connection to womanhood. My experience is not going to be representative of all trans masculine individuals. However it is my personal belief that the underlying sentiment of motions like these can only further exacerbate the already poor mental health outcomes within trans masculine communities.

NOWSA’s definition of women is embedded in binary notions of gender. It is a line in the sand – on one side we find women, on the other, men. At some point, trans men cross this line and all connection to womanhood is erased. This relies heavily on the assumption of ‘passing’ – the concept that trans men or, indeed, trans masculine non-binary individuals are read as male, gain cisgender-male privilege and no longer experience sexism or misogyny. This places a heavy emphasis on medical transition and gender presentation and also opens the door to the policing of people’s identities based on physical appearance.

This ‘line in the sand’ approach begs the contentious question: when do we presume that trans masculine people are no longer experiencing oppression as women? After taking male hormones for over 12 months I do not pass. I may never pass 100 per cent of the time. Every interaction I have with the legal or medical systems is characterised by the fact that my documents and body alike are read as that of a woman. I am not, and nor do I identify as, a ‘man’ in the normative sense of the word. When the proponents of this motion say “[trans men] are men and should be treated as men,” what they are saying is: you are a man now, you are not welcome here. They not only erase 20 years of my womanhood prior to transitioning but also the ways in which womanhood continues to shape my present identity.

It is easy to dismiss the connection between trans masculinities and womanhood. Patriarchal structures demand a certain type of masculinity of trans men if they wish to live their lives in relative safety. For example, I know of many trans masculine people who wouldn’t choose to bind their chest if society could reconcile the elements of masculinity and femininity that co-exist in many trans, sex and gender diverse bodies. How people present is not always how they identify. On a personal level I feel a deep connection to womanhood and this will always underpin the sort of masculinity I seek to embody. Women and trans inclusive spaces have been a huge part of making me feel safe and included in Queer spaces, allowing me to engage on issues of sexism and transphobia alike in my community.

If we are to move away from the definition ‘non-cisgender male’ then I would suggest we instead consider phrases like ‘identify in whole or part as women’ or ‘identity as or with women’. We will not be able to truly address, subvert or engage with sexism and misogyny when we are preoccupied with policing identity and excluding members of our own community based on patriarchal, binary models of gender and masculinity.