In defense of transfemininity
I, Marie Sayler, have always been a woman. I was born a woman according to the state, raised a woman in a gender essentialist Catholic community, and grew up into the woman I am today. No one has ever questioned the innate womanness that a marker on my birth certificate afforded me except for me and a few of my criminally perceptive queer friends. I have always been a girl, even for the year and a half that I wasn’t sure what I was. But the “F” marker on my identification isn’t what makes me a woman, because if it were I wouldn’t have spent the last 21 years feeling like my body was splitting open every time I looked in a mirror.
Yes, I am a woman. And that means something different to me than it does to any other woman in the world. I honestly don’t even really feel like I am a woman yet – I think I’m still a 21 year old teenage girl. “Woman” is for people who know a lot more than I do, and I don’t think I’ll be a real grownup until I’m at least thirty, but that’s a topic for another day.
Femininity, womanhood, and girlhood are all different things. You can be feminine without being a woman, and be a woman without being feminine. The term “transfeminine” is a wide umbrella that houses a lot of different people. Trans women are in here, obviously, but so are feminine-presenting nonbinary people or feminine trans men. The things that we consider to be femininity – skirts, makeup, long hair, crying at rom coms – are all just behaviors that all humans can exhibit that don’t actually have anything to do with gender. A man in a dress is no less a man for wearing that dress. I’m no less a woman when I’m in one of my big old “Adam Sandler” outfits. Gender is not external or physical, it is internal. Women who don’t make an effort to pass are still women, cis or trans, regardless of appearance. Womanhood is spiritual and innate, not a set of clothes, and it’s absurd to define something so ineffable in such basic and insignificant terms.
The dictionary defines girlhood as “the state or time of being a girl.” To me, girlhood has been something I have experienced every day of my life. It is my perpetual state of being, the container that all of my experiences so far can be packed into. I’m a cisgender woman, meaning I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth. One would assume that, in the Christian-conservative-based city/state/country we live in, this means that I should have spent my whole life in perfect confidence and security. I have filled the base requirements for womanhood on paper, and therefore my identity is immutable and irremovable from me. Right?
It turns out womanhood actually comes with a whole bunch of secret, hidden terms and conditions that no one tells you about until you’ve violated one of them. I have spent my whole life feeling as if I, as a person, am wholly at odds with my own gender. I’ve spent 21 years fighting against the idea of womanhood that has been pushed upon me, and instead of anyone ever telling me that I’m not doing womanhood wrong, people just have a weirdly narrow view of it, I was repeatedly told that I was somehow being a woman wrong. I’ve never felt like I fit with the ideas of womanhood that people have presented to me. I’m always too something. Too loud, too sexual, too naive, too physical, too weird, too intellectual, too morbid, too angry. There was no room for loud women, sexual women, angry women, or any kind of woman that wasn’t a cookie-cutter idealization that I don’t think anyone alive has ever fit into. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I had to sit down with myself and God and figure out if I really was a woman at all, that I realized that there’s nothing wrong with me.
My womanhood has nothing to do with the body I was born in. It’s a spiritual personal characteristic that I can’t even begin to explain or define. I just know, in the deepest part of myself, that I am a girl and was always meant to be. My gender is, in many ways, my connection to God. It is something that I know to be true in my heart of hearts, and the only being who can ever understand that fully is the one who made me, exactly the way I am. It’s something that is between me and God alone. No one was super surprised when I figured out that I am a woman through and through, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to have realized this if I’d been raised as a man my whole life. For some reason, though, trans people are fair game for everyone in the world to try to pry into their lives and try to tell them what their gender is, which is not only disrespectful and mean, it’s also preposterous. Saying you know the Ultimate Truth about someone else’s gender is like saying you understand the mind of God. It simply isn’t something you can do.
Girlhood is a lot of things and it’s different for everyone. To me, it’s a state of constant assigned inferiority. It’s being looked down on and dismissed immediately. It’s having to fight tooth and nail just to be seen as the same basic, default human being that my male peers are without having to do a thing. It’s watching my back at all times, and watching the backs of every other girl in the world, no matter what. It’s knowing that even if I hate someone, I am always going to stand between her and an angry man because women are put at a social disadvantage the moment we are born. It’s being told that I’m playing with the wrong toys, playing with the right toys the wrong way, liking the wrong things, liking the right things for the wrong reasons, and always, always, falling short of some invisible mark. Girl is an insult, a put-down, a detriment. It’s something I have to overcome to be good, to be worthy, to be a person. It’s a word that is, in theory, the highest compliment – but never bestowed upon me in that way because I am somehow always insufficient. I am always the wrong kind of girl.
Transfeminine people were the first exposure I had to a community that didn’t see girl as a dirty word. They were the first people I knew who saw womanhood as a good thing, as something to strive for, as a positive attribute. I feel such a deep kinship and love for trans women. We have both spent our whole lives told that the title of “woman” is something we don’t deserve. I have been given the title of “woman” as a backhanded insult at best. Never an honor, never praise. Trans women have introduced me to the idea of womanhood as a pure good, and not in a religious-purity-culture way. They see womanhood as an immutable, spiritual force of good – and no one has ever presented that to me before. Trans women are my sisters. They are just like me. I’m not a woman because of what’s in my pants, and that’s not what makes them women either. It is something ineffable and personal and all-powerful that I genuinely believe comes from God. Because if biology was all it took to make me a woman, I would not have spent my whole life chasing after the correct way to be a girl. The secret is that there is no correct way to be a girl. I’m doing it right, trans women are doing it right, and cis women are doing it right. Womanhood is ours and, as it turns out, has nothing to do with physical traits.
I think TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) are just scared. Because they aren’t secure in their own identities, it rattles them to see other women who are secure in their identities in a way they don’t understand. Trans women aren’t cis women’s enemies. They’re our sisters, and they’re role models. They are some of the bravest, strongest women in the world, and they have taught me to appreciate my womanhood as a source of joy. They’ve taught me to love myself more than any “pussy power” campaign ever could, and they’ve shown me an entirely new way to look at the world – one where “woman” is not a failing, but a triumph.
I want to close with a line from a poem that I wrote a couple years ago, simply entitled “woman!” I wrote it after listening to Harry Styles’ song by the same name, and thinking about the stark difference between that song speaks and the way that my girl friends speak to me.
he says it like an order
but she says it like a prayer