What is a woman?
What is a woman? Am I one of them?
This is a question that has hung over me throughout my life, with varying degrees of distress. I was pretty sure I’d put it to bed 30 years ago when I’d convinced myself that I was not transgender (well, at the time, we called them transsexuals). I was just a dude who got his rocks off wearing women’s clothing. Cool. A transvestite. Sure.
Things started unraveling a few years back as I started to introduce a more androgynous look into my wardrobe…. behold, the slippery slope! The more feminine I presented in public, the happier I felt! Exploration led to more exploration. I now identify, without hesitation or concern, as transgender.
But am I a woman? This has proved a much more problematic and elusive question for me. There is a stereotype around transgender people that says something to the effect of “I knew from the very beginning. I always knew exactly what I was, and that was a binary-gendered person in the wrong body.”. As it turns out, this trope represents a very tiny minority of the trans community. I think its prevalence arises from its digestibility within the cisgender majority. It’s much easier for us, at a cultural level, to say “Sometimes folks end up in the wrong body, so we just gotta do what we can to switch it over. Problem solved!”. The much more common experience is one of, “I knew something was off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was years (or decades) before I figured out I was transgender.”.
Now, before I go any further, I do want to be absolutely crystal clear about something: If a transgender person tells you they are a woman, then THEY. ARE. A. WOMAN. If you disagree with this on any level, you can go read someone else’s article.
What I’m talking about here is not the validity of trans identities. I’m talking about my own internal process around figuring out just who and what I am.
Having finally gotten to a place where I can call myself transgender and feel really good about it, I’ve continually had serious reticence to call myself a woman. For a long time, this hasn’t really mattered. I just called myself non-binary and got on with my day. But there is a degree to which this feels like a cop-out rather than an actual stake in the ground. So I’ve been doing a lot of internal work lately trying to figure out what that resistance is about. Why am I afraid of claiming a spot in woman-space?
Not surprisingly, this isn’t a simple question and has required a whole lot of introspection. A lot of the problem revolves around habits I have of applying different standards to myself than I do to others. If another trans person came to me and said, “I want to claim womanhood, but I don’t plan on facial surgery, I still have an adam’s apple, my beard still shadows, and I don’t plan on changing my voice.”, I’d reply that none of those are blocking issues. If you feel like you are a woman, then you are a woman. The current or eventual state of your body has absolutely nothing to do with it.
But that’s not what I told myself. I’d set up womanhood in my head such that in order to achieve it, I’d have to get my adam’s apple shaved, I’d need voice coaching, I’d need to consider plastic surgery. I’d have to at least *try* to ‘pass’¹. I wasn’t planning on doing any of these things, so therefore I couldn’t claim womanhood. I know, it’s not logical…. stay with me here. There’s more to the story.
Becoming an adult in our culture looks something like this: A person spends years wondering what it means to be the adult version of their gender. That person then periodically reviews their alignment with that definition. At some point, their self-perception is close enough to what they perceive the adult version of their gender to look like, and they are now an adult. Because they say so. Transgender people are no different, they go through the same process, often twice…. once with their birth gender, and once with their correct gender. But there’s an additional complexity trans folks have that cisgender people don’t. Cisgender people perceive their adult counterparts with an assumption that they will one day be that. It’s inevitable, and only the pathway is uncertain. Trans people, on the other hand, don’t have the privilege of inevitability. In addition to defining what the adult version of our gender is, we have to determine for ourselves whether or not that’s what we are. And as it turns out, that’s really at the core of my own Gordian knot. I hadn’t yet defined for myself what a woman is, and without that framework, I couldn’t answer the question of whether or not that’s what I was (or might become).
I’ve been stuck there for a while now. Years.
And so it came to pass that last week, I attended a Galentine’s Day event. This event was a panel discussion with 5 *AMAZING* women, all discussing how they have managed creating and maintaining female friendships in the context of work. I wasn’t totally certain I belonged there, but I was absolutely clear that I didn’t NOT belong! After all, I care deeply about making more meaningful friendships with women. I really enjoyed the discussion, and am basically crushed out on every single woman that spoke! Before and after the discussion, there was also a fair amount of mingle/network time and I met even more amazing women (and 1 intrepid man!). The discussion itself revolved around some really challenging questions related to the varying ways that the panelists had succeeded (or failed) to create and maintain ‘girlfriends at work’. The words that the discussion kept coming back to were ones like ‘authentic’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘courageous’, ‘just show up’, and others. They were basically speaking my love language. Over the course of the discussion, I had a series of epiphanies.
It occurred to me, with a clarity I hadn’t experienced before, that I get to decide what differentiates a woman from a girl. So this is what I will decide that to be: A woman is a girl that has learned how to show up… completely, authentically, vulnerably, and in spite of fear. A woman is someone who lives with intention. A woman is someone who feels deeply and unapologetically. A woman is a girl that has found her strengths outside the framework of patriarchy. THAT is what I say a woman is.
Now that in and of itself is pretty profound. But along with that came another realization: That is precisely who I want to be. Who I strive to be every day.
The math is starting to shape up nicely, and I’m still building up a good understanding of the implications, but I think I feel comfortable saying to the world, for the first time: I am a woman.
It is difficult for me to quantify the amount and nature of the feelings that come up around saying that and it is clear to me that this is not just an intellectual exercise in self-identification. I am giving myself a permission that I hadn’t before, and it is one that I really needed. I also want to point out that I’m not ‘done’. I’m still growing, still learning, still becoming. But in the same way that a young woman can say with inevitability that she is in the process of achieving womanhood, so too am I taking on and choosing that inevitability.
I am a woman.
- ‘Passing’ is the idea that others in public will not identify you as trans. It’s a super toxic construct for all kinds of reasons that I’m not going to get into here. Suffice it to say that for me, it’s not a priority.