You Used to Call Me Sister
I am a trans man. I live in the world with the privileges of a white middle-class married father of four wonderful sons. To look at me, you would not think that I push the boundaries of gender, I’m just a guy. But there’s a lot more to me than that. I share my story because I am caught in the crux of the conflict between transgender rights and gender critical feminism.
Gender critical feminism is a fairly recent school of thought that seems to have originated from a small but vocal group of feminists in Great Britain. The basic premise of gender critical theory is that feminism is rooted in liberating women from patriarchy, that patriarchy attempts to control women by dictating what is “womanlike” and calling that gender, and that womanhood should only and simply be defined as an adult female human. From their perspective, defining the gender of women in this biologically deterministic way frees all women to express their personality however feels true for them and thus liberates them from patriarchal control.
Transgender rights advocates believe that sex, as defined by physical sexual characteristics usually at the time of birth, and gender, the role you play in society as an adult human and for which you are “shaped” throughout childhood, are two separate aspects of humanity. The physical characteristics of the body, although strongly correlated in such a way that most males become men and most females become women, do not determine what gender you will be. Gender expression is how each individual person presents themself within a cultural context, including everything from appearance and mannerisms to personality traits. Gender identity is a person’s own internal sense and personal experience of gender. For most people, their gender identity, gender expression, and sexual characteristics align. These people are called cisgender. But for some of us, our gender identity does not match our physical sexual characteristics, and we are called (using it as an umbrella term) transgender.
I strongly believe that trans men are men and trans women are women and non-binary or genderqueer people exist and they present a valid alternative to the gender binary. Yet I also came of age among a community of radical feminists and lived on women’s land. When I hear gender critical theorists say that women are adult human females, it’s a one-two sucker punch. First, the basis of this statement is that I must be a woman according to them, and any trans person’s identity is completely eradicated by that statement. Second, these women are my sisters. I grew up with them and I know where they are coming from because I was there with them.
Growing up as a girl in the 70's, I knew I was different, but the women’s movement cleared the way for me to be different. People would stop me in the streets to demand that I explain myself. “Are you a boy or a girl?” they would ask me. “Neither,” I’d smile, enjoying watching the color momentarily drain from their faces, “I’m a tomboy.” Then they would breath a sigh of relief and let me on my way.
My mother did her best to raise me right. She was not against her girls being strong women — smart, opinionated, able to hold her own. As I grew older, though, she worried about me scaring away boys. “You know, you can’t be a tomboy forever,” she said to me when I was 13 years old. Without skipping a beat, I barely raised my eyes at her and confidently replied, “Watch me.”
In college in Los Angeles in the 80's, I took my time but I eventually came out as a lesbian. Among my lesbian friends in that era, androgyny was the ideal and to be too butch or too femme was to play into the hands of the patriarchy. I did my feminist best to follow along, but still found myself a bit outside the norm. I didn’t have a clue that I would later identify as a man.
After college, I worked in social service for a year, but it wasn’t for me. I saw a flyer soliciting women to get into the construction trades and joined the carpenter’s union. As a young woman in the trades, I was strong and confident and quickly gained ground as a capable hard worker. My girlfriend, a musician and artist, went to an art camp in southern Oregon and discovered women’s land. It was like heaven for her. No men. All women living peacefully in nature with no electricity or plumbing. She came back and excitedly told me that the women’s lands had a real need for women builders. I scoffed and said, “Yeah, I can just see it now. I drive up and whip out my Skilsaw and say ‘OK, I’m here, ready to go. Where do I plug this in?’”
She did convince me, though, and we moved together to Oregon. She became a member of a newly revitalized women’s land in southern Oregon. I tried to continue my carpenter apprenticeship in Portland, but was thrown out on a technicality. My girlfriend was right about the women’s land community and I soon found plenty of work freelancing at various women’s lands throughout the state. I moved out of my apartment in Portland and lived on Oregon Women’s Land, or OWL Farm, for 15 months.
We lived without men, without electricity, without media or cell phones. I tended my small living space, kept warm in the winter by a fire in a tin stove. I pumped water from a well into 5 gallon buckets and hauled these up the slopes to young fruit trees planted there. I dug trenches to irrigate the gardens. I shared meals with others in the guest house. We told stories and laughed together. We went beyond studying feminism and philosophically seeking ways to end oppression. We sought to create a new society, at peace with nature and one another. We dreamed. Our dreams guided us, they became our version of streaming entertainment, and they brought forth our deepest fears and greatest hopes.
It was an incredible period of time for me. I learned so much about communication, consensus, conflict, confidence, and concession. Our way of life was economically simple and emotionally complex. I could travel to a work site and spend three to five days on a job and earn enough money to pay for six to eight weeks of food, gas, and toiletries. Yet I wrote lengthy letters to friends back in California about the ongoing dramas and ethical deliberations. I learned what ‘process’ means. I had dialogs that went deep into my darkest corners of hidden underlying assumptions and lasted long into the night or sometimes days on end. There were no limits to how much an issue could be discussed until a settlement was reached.
The politic of separatism was commonplace on women’s lands. Many of the women who lived there identified as lesbian separatists. Beyond a sexual orientation to women, these women further believed that society would be better off without men, or at least that they had a right to create a society without men. Individually, they held varying degrees of contempt towards men. On one extreme, there were actual man-hating lesbians who wished for ways to eradicate them from existing without resorting to violence (which was too masculine itself to resort to). On the other extreme, there were those who feigned indifference about men, not needing them and unwilling to give them an iota of their time or energy. Most women were somewhere in between. Personally, I hailed women’s right to women-only space and participated in the rewriting of herstory, renaming common words such as moonstruating and girling water. Yet I could never buy the wholesale rejection of men, knowing too many ‘good’ men in my life already from college and my own brothers. Nor did I truly believe, as some purported, that a world run entirely by women would instantly remove the source of all the problems in the world today.
I continued freelance carpentry and traveled around through the west coast and southwestern states. Over time, I found more and more ways to express my masculinity: as a butch dyke, in the leather scene, role playing, etc. Then one day, I saw a film featuring a trans man. It wasn’t the first time I had heard of transsexuals, but it was the first time I’d seen one portrayed in a positive light. Everything I saw in the media about sex change ranged from sensational to horrific. I had never considered gender change as a possibility because I thought it was only for desperate, maladjusted freaks. But this guy was good-looking, happy, normal. A whole new world of possibilities opened up to me. I couldn’t shake the recognition of something that had been true all along but that I wasn’t aware of until then. I recognized myself as a man. It was one of those things that just clicks and you know.
It was actually seven years later that I transitioned. I waited until after giving birth to my eldest son and weaning him. During those seven years, I had many, many opportunities to think about my gender identity and consider all my options. Gender critical theorists sometimes claim that young people are being pressured into transitioning, but for me it was not at all ‘easy’ or ‘trendy’ or pressured by peers. Quite the opposite, all the women who were close to me pressured me away from the thought, but nothing moved what I now knew to be true. I still believe that despite a rise in trans activism and support today, there are still far more pressures in society telling people not to be trans. With the women closest to me, I had many, many long lesbian processing discussions. Ironically, all the men in my life were welcoming. Some confessed they had always felt a ‘just one of the guys’ camaraderie with me. One even helped me design my first handmade ‘packy’, prosthetic flaccid genitalia to wear when cross dressing as a man.
I went to a Gender Center in Los Angeles that acted like they had no idea what to do with people going in my direction. At the time, when people said ‘transsexual’ what they meant was trans women. I talked about it in therapy and the therapist gave me a book on female orgasm, hoping that if I were happier in my sex life, I might not want to change my body. I met and talked to other trans men at various stages of transition. Eventually, I joined a support group for trans men that I attended for two years and later hosted when the original host quit. The guys in that group were like brothers to me. I saw myself in them and somehow, even though I still looked like a lesbian on the outside, they could see the man in me.
Being a man is so core to my identity that I transitioned even though I am a feminist, even though as a woman in the trades I saw what jerks men can be and I mocked their alpha male jockeying for power stupidity, even though I lived on womyn’s land and celebrated freedoms there to express my masculinity.
When I finally took that first shot of testosterone seven years after I first identified as trans, there was no question unasked, no possibility unconsidered. I knew this about myself more fully than anything else.
I knew myself to be a man and that was separate and distinct both from being male (which I was not) and from being masculine (which I was already as a woman). This personal truth violates the core of gender critical theory as I hear it. The experience of who I am goes directly against the idea that a woman is always and only an adult human female. You see, once you define gender as an immutable trait determined by the sex you are at birth, it immediately nullifies who I am as a man, a husband, and a father.
Being a man is so core to my identity that I transitioned even though I am a feminist, even though as a woman in the trades I saw what jerks men can be and I mocked their alpha male jockeying for power stupidity, even though I lived on womyn’s land and celebrated freedoms there to express my masculinity, even though I found butch dyke, S/M, cross dressing, role playing counter cultural refuges and community. Still, in all honesty and authenticity, I am a man.
And being a man is a joy to me. It’s not about elevated social status, or higher wages, or having more weight to my words, or taking up more space in a room, although all those privileges do fall on me now and I take on the responsibility to keep that in my awareness. It is visceral and pervasive and resonating. It’s me.
Why that is true when I was clearly born female is as much a mystery to me as it is to everyone else. But it is my truth. And if it flies in the face of gender critical theory, then I am asking you to question the basis of that theory before you question the validity of my existence.
I have been living as a man now for 20 years. Most days, that is enough. I am a loving father with a spouse who I am devoted to and who loves me for the man I am. You know, once you get through the first years of hormonal shifts and surgeries and legal proceedings, you can just go about your life as a man. I try to be a socially conscious man, a good man. But one day, a young transmasculine student at the high school I taught at came to a staff meeting and challenged all the queer staff to get out of the closet. “If you can’t feel safe enough to be out about who you are in this institution,” he said, “how do you think that makes us feel about coming out about who we are?”
I walked away from that meeting confused. My closet was growing up as a girl. That was when I pretended. That was when I put on the dresses and hid who I really was. Now, my being out of the closet is simply being the man I am and was always meant to be. I believe that if there is a God, they made me this way with this unique challenge to be a man who was born female. And yet when I simply identify as the man I am, that makes me invisible to gender variant youth. I began to see why it is important to identify as transgender even though the transition itself was just a blink in time, a thing that happened. So now, I identify as a trans man so people know that this is a way to be for some of us. It’s not better than being cisgender, but for people like me, it is the best way to be. Trying to ‘repair’ us by making us more comfortable with the gender that aligns with the sex we were born as will only make things worse.
What all feminists must understand is that denying that trans women are women is effectively wiping away an entire facet of humanity in one fell swoop.
It is because those of us who experience gender dysphoria know this to be true about ourselves that we insist that trans women are women and trans men are men. Gender critical theorists want to clarify who women’s rights represent. They seem to feel it to be self evident that women are people born female. To say that not only excludes people who also should be included, it goes beyond that to deny our very existence. These feminists who want to define womanhood on their own terms are offended when the trans activist community reacts to their seemingly benign definition with powerful insistence that trans women are women and condemn their words as transphobic. The gender critical feminists label such trans advocacy ‘male entitlement’, which doubly negates trans women, first by calling them male, and secondly by insinuating that they are not entitled to legal validity. What all feminists must understand is that denying that trans women are women is effectively wiping away an entire facet of humanity in one fell swoop. And this idea of defining women in terms of biological sex was not how feminist theory was presented to me in the 80's. Far from it, women found being defined by their biology to be entrapment in objectification as sexual commodities and child bearers. Shulamith Firestone, one of the founders of radical feminism, asserted that society could not achieve true gender equality until women’s biological traits are separated from their identity. So where did it come from? The language and the timing of biological determinism emerging in feminist circles is strongly correlated with what was being said by Christian fundamentalists in response to transgender rights.
But what about the perspective of my sisters from women’s land? What about their concerns about creating space for themselves where they can be empowered, a space that is free of dominant male influence? I remember being there. I remember the freedom that was found there. I still maintain that any oppressed group deserves to create space for themselves free of their oppressor. But I ask each woman to ask herself why she feels uncomfortable sharing that space with trans women. Is it a principle that you feel bound to uphold that gender must be irrevocably tied to sex? If so, you are aligned with the Christian right even though they are not aligned with you. Consider that and its implications. I think for most cisgender women radical feminists who I know, however, it is not about theory. It is a gut feeling, a fear.
I had a girlfriend who was a survivor of sexual assault. Women’s land was more than a country living experience for her. It was a chance for her to learn how to live without the constant fight or flight cortisol ridden trauma of being around men. She grew in her confidence and capability to be a strong woman in the world. She grew to a place where she could go back into the many-gendered world and help others learn how to heal their trauma.
She and I were out shopping together one day and as we pushed our cart across the parking lot towards our car, she noticed some guys hanging out in the parking lot, leaning against the trunk of their car. She went stiff and the color drained from her face. She urged me to get into the car quickly and once inside, she locked the doors. I asked her what was up. She said those guys don’t feel safe to her. From my perspective, I did not see the threat. I saw three Latino guys talking to each other and laughing. They didn’t even seem to be paying any attention to us at all. Two things may have been going on here. On the one hand, one or all three of these guys could have had predatory inclinations. They might have leered at my girlfriend in a way that escaped me. She may have been attuned to a perpetrator vibe that I, as someone with the privilege of having never been sexually assaulted, am clueless about. But there is another equally valid possibility. She could have been experiencing a hidden racial bias. Even though she consciously identifies as an ally working against racism, we all have these stereotypes built into our psyches. Maybe her gut feeling was a sexual assault survivor’s radar, or maybe it was just racism. The only evidence we could use to help determine which it actually was would be if we could somehow find out whether or not those three guys were actually being creepy. If they were, then the gut feeling is justified. If they weren’t, if they were just three guys hanging out, then the needle points to racial stereotypes.
I think about that when cisgender women I know tell me they are uncomfortable being around trans women. When I hear cisgender women use phrases like “raised with male privilege” or “male-bodied” trans women or coming right out and saying they don’t want to be around penises, I’m hearing that underlying fear. I always have to wonder about the deeply set stereotypes about trans people and how much this bias creates an unjustified fear. The fact that a woman is trans is not enough to justify a fear that she will attack or harm you. If she, or anyone else for that matter, does attack or harm you, or even has the intent to attack or harm you, then your fears are justified but not on account of her being a trans woman, only on account of her being a creep. Your righteous anger should apply just as much to a cisgender lesbian who would harm you in the same ways, or a cisgender man, or anyone. To take that anger and wrap it up in accusations about and judgments towards trans women as a whole is discrimination. This is a kind of unpackaging that my white sisters are used to doing when it comes to racial justice work. It is messy, it can be embarrassing, and it is extremely uncomfortable work, but it is critically important.
As a trans man who used to live in women-only space, I know there is a middle ground where radical feminist cisgender women and trans rights activists can work together and support each other. The real people I know on both sides of the debate want the same things — equity and justice for all. None of the people I know want to eradicate the other side. No one I am friends with wants to operate from hate. Women I know who say trans exclusive things mean the trans community no harm, they simply don’t seem to realize how damaging their words are. Young trans activists I know who have just found their community and want to shoot down anyone who maligns them don’t seem to realize how much of an ally some of them could be.
As transgender protections are being actively eroded, transgender activism and the demand for inclusion is a fight for survival. Lesbians and cisgender radical feminists, though they still face discrimination and oppression, have more legal protections, more societal acceptance, and more privilege than trans women do right now. I’m calling out to my cisgender sisters to say we urgently need you now. It is time to roll up your sleeves, unpack your transphobia and unify. The trans community is not going to take away your rights or make your protections disappear. In fact, if you let the fundamentalists turn you against the trans community by absorbing their rhetoric about biological determination of gender, you will play into the hands that actually will take away your rights and protections.
To my trans friends, especially to the younger ones, I say your anger is justified but violence towards gender critical women is not. It is appropriate to be appalled when people, knowingly or unknowingly, deny your existence. The acronyms TERF and TIRF were two ways that radical feminists distinguished a stance on the role of trans women in radical feminist space. Since then, gender critical theorists claim that TERF has become a slur and is used to attack them. I have seen evidence within the trans community of all-out assaults on these women. Stop putting your energy into the “Kill all TERFs” campaigns and direct it towards the establishment that benefits most from all this in-fighting in the queer community.
There are many historically dominant groups, white supremacists and Christian fundamentalists for starters, who feel threatened by the entire rainbow of queer people and are very happy to see us turn against our own in the hopes of breaking us down and securing a political foothold that has been slipping. We know that we transgender and genderqueer people are the low-hanging fruit for the white supremacist patriarchal ideologues to go after first. We are the smallest in number and the least protected. They can afford to lose our votes but they need to alienate us from the rest of the queer crowd for the time being. We cannot allow them to divide and conquer us. We need to focus on educating and building alliances. I know it is a big ask, but when you are faced with trans exclusive rhetoric from within our queer ranks, we need to not let it get to us by countering an attack. We need to be bigger than that and remain calm but insistent and let these women know that their fear is unjustified and their words are killing us.
I have so much love for people on both sides of this debate. The rift tears at my heart, and I know it doesn’t need to be this way. Maybe that is the answer to the mystery of why I was created this way. Maybe my path of coming of age through a womb of radical feminism to come out the other side as a trans man was for this very purpose. So that I could stand here today in all vulnerability and ask these two groups to set down their swords and join forces for good.
 A person assigned female at birth who identifies as a man, also known as FTM, transsexual man, transgender man.
 People whose gender identity is not exclusively masculine or feminine, also called genderqueer. Non-binary people may express a combination of masculinity and femininity, or neither, in their gender expression.
 Feminists who call for a radical reordering of society in which male supremacy is eliminated in all social and economic contexts.
 Intentional community organized by lesbian separatists to establish counter-cultural, women-centered space, without the presence of men.
 The method of conflict resolution and personal growth by which one commits to valuing one’s emotions and working through feelings until a place of resolution is attained.
 The advocacy for an oppressed subgroup of a society to separate themselves from the larger group. Separatist groups may seek greater autonomy or may believe that they are hindered from self-determination in the presence of the dominant group.
 Man here refers to how I see my place and role in society in terms of gender identity.
 Male here refers to the physical state of a human body with male features and body parts.
 Masculine here refers to the collection of personality traits typically associated with men, but not exclusive to men. Nor are all men required to display these traits in part or in full.
 A term for people whose gender identity matches the gender they were designated to be at birth according to their physiological sexual characteristics. Other terms that some cisgender women prefer include ‘women born women’, natal women, female women, or biological women.
 There is already a lot of documentation out there about why ‘gender reparative’ approaches to gender dysphoria were unsuccessful in the long run and in fact more damaging to the individual. See http://juliaserano.blogspot.com/2018/06/trans-health-professionals-consider.html.
 The condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity as man or woman to be opposite to one’s biological sex as female or male.
 Firestone, S. (2003). The dialectic of sex : the case for feminist revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
 The release of cortisol is a physiological stress response experienced at higher levels by peoples who are oppressed.
 The unconscious attribution of particular qualities to a member of a certain social group, or stereotypes that affect your judgement even when you may not be aware of it.
 Trans exclusive radical feminist.
 Trans inclusive radical feminist.