There’s a strange irony to the current spotlight on transgender issues it seems. On one hand, it has made more people aware that gender is not as binary as many once believed. Yet discussions about transgenderism themselves are often conducted in harsh black and white. However, it took a member of the Kardashian clan to dropkick transgenderism into the mainstream. But amid all the carefully worded expressions of support for Caitlyn Jenner – previously known as Bruce – from President Obama to the Kardashians themselves.
But people who haven’t lived their whole lives as women should they get to define us women. That’s something men have been doing for much too long. They haven’t travelled through the world as women and been shaped by all that that entails.
Feminists back in the day probably remember clearly the fights they led to liberate women from horrible constraints, and they did this so successfully that few women born after 1980 can imagine living under such constraints today. But at no point did western women endure the kind of marginalisation and risk of violence and suicide still suffered by so many trans people today.
So, I ask can a trans woman who has lived for most of their life as a man can they understand what it feels like to be a woman. As for the contention that trans women “undermine almost a century of hard-fought arguments that the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us”. Considering all that feminism has accomplished, but I reckon it will probably survive Vanity Fair dressing up Caitlyn Jenner in a tight dress.
The mainstreaming of transgenderism is a new world, and that means questions will be asked, and that’s a good thing. It means people want to understand. What does Caitlyn Jenner, who became famous as an Olympic decathlete – competing in an event from which women are still excluded – mean when she says she always felt more like a woman?
Some feminists, say that the rush to embrace transgenderism after so many years of exclusion has slammed down any room for debate. Arguments from the more extremist fringes have not helped, such as when the activist Martha Plimpton was widely criticised for using the word “vagina” about a benefit for Texas abortion funding. To reference female genitalia, Plimpton was told, is “exclusionary” because trans women are born without one. But these extremist wings, while loud, are no more representative of the wider trans movement than the radical feminist events that explicitly exclude trans women are reflective of feminism. Just as the experience of the hugely privileged and near universally praised Caitlyn Jenner, for that matter, is hardly representative of that of the average trans person.
Questions should still be asked. Because perhaps the biggest irony to debates about the trans movement is that, while they get bogged down too often in one-upmanship, academic posturing and hysteria, the growing acceptance of trans people themselves shows a realisation of an underlying truth: we are all just humans.