Ambivalent women don’t have to turn TERF

J.K. Rowling has a new essay doubling down on her TERFy tweets. Like so many high-profile homophobes and transphobes, J.K. Rowling’s intolerance seems to be driven in part by some closet vibes:

[I]f I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition. The allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge. I struggled with severe OCD as a teenager. If I’d found community and sympathy online that I couldn’t find in my immediate environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.

When I read about the theory of gender identity, I remember how mentally sexless I felt in youth. I remember Colette’s description of herself as a ‘mental hermaphrodite’ and Simone de Beauvoir’s words: ‘It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations posed upon her by her sex. The real question is not why she should reject them: the problem is rather to understand why she accepts them.’

As I didn’t have a realistic possibility of becoming a man back in the 1980s, it had to be books and music that got me through both my mental health issues and the sexualised scrutiny and judgement that sets so many girls to war against their bodies in their teens. Fortunately for me, I found my own sense of otherness, and my ambivalence about being a woman, reflected in the work of female writers and musicians who reassured me that, in spite of everything a sexist world tries to throw at the female-bodied, it’s fine not to feel pink, frilly and compliant inside your own head; it’s OK to feel confused, dark, both sexual and non-sexual, unsure of what or who you are.

I could make a snarky post about how this proves that J.K. Rowling is secretly a self-hating trans man, but I won’t, because I relate to a lot of this excerpt. I have always felt ambivalent toward the sex I was assigned at birth, and part of me wonders if I wouldn’t have transitioned if I’d had access to that vocabulary at a younger age. Like many AFAB butch lesbians and former tomboys who “grew out of it”, I ended up identifying as a woman mostly because of the ways that my perceived femaleness has shaped my experiences of cisheteropatriarchy. I don’t have an innate sense of womanhood that I identify with, but my life is shaped by other people’s notions of what a woman – someone on the female side of the male/female binary – should be. And I identify with that collective experience. I am not a femme, but I am very much a woman.

TERFs aren’t wrong to say that sex is material and that womanhood is a political class. The erosion of language for describing this is a real deficit in certain strains of internet queer theory today, and TERFs have been very successful in exploiting that deficit to promote their agenda of bigotry. Where the TERF analysis goes wrong is in where it locates the boundaries of that class. Women are not monolithic, and womanhood is not hereditary. Womanhood looks very different in different cultural contexts, and women at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities face oppressions specific to those intersections that are more than the sum of their component parts.

There is no singular, universal experience of what it means to be a woman – for any biological criterion TERFs put forth, there will be some cis women who don’t meet it. For every social experience of marginalization that has a gendered component to it, there are some cis women who do not experience it. The common thread in defining woman-as-a-class is not any essential quality – it’s the inherently social and political act of identifying with that class, and therefore being seen (at least intermittently) as part of that class.

Yes, sex is real and female is a meaningful category. Women who identify as women simply because we see ourselves as biologically and socially female, are valid – and some of those women were assigned male at birth. Trans women’s femaleness poses no threat to the femaleness of nonbinary butches and gender-ambivalent straight women. In fact, no material analysis of sex can be complete without acknowledging these AMAB members of the female sex-class.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.