Last week, another slew of cis [non-trans] 'feminists' have come out to discuss whether or not trans women are 'real' women. The frequent media inspection of this issue, usually entirely devoid of voices of actual trans women, is equally frustrating and relentlessly boring. It puts us in a position of having to constantly defend our womanhood and humanity, distracting us from organising for access to resources such as healthcare, better housing, and against transphobic violence. The suggestion that we are not 'real' is pervasive in the media, such that it is easy for people to see us as less human, our lives less liveable, and as a result we are seen as worthy targets for violence.
The claim of not being 'real' is rooted in the idea that - before transition - a trans woman experiences male privilege. What we refer to as 'male privilege' is shorthand for a series of advantages, opportunities, and power relations which benefit men at the expense of other genders. We often view privilege as a thing that people have or own, and that people with a certain shared privilege will have a somewhat homogenous experience. But really, privilege is a process that both happens to us and we enact on others, one that is context dependant and fluid. What this means is that each experience of privilege is unique and socially contingent.
This idea that trans women have benefited from male privilege assumes a model of transition that is not the reality for many trans women: that gender is a choice, and that when a trans woman transitions, she chooses to 'give up' male privilege in return for female identity. It assumes an agency on behalf of the trans woman and that, before transition, she was able to fully access male privilege in the same way that a cis man might do. It ignores the social context of privilege and oppression; by not taking into account the impacts of dis-identifying with male-ness, of misgendering, of painful dysphoria, and the punitive gender policing that many trans women face growing up.
This argument, that trans women have not suffered in the same way as cis women have and therefore aren't 'real', hinges womanhood on a narrow experience of suffering, one which folds a huge diversity of women's realities into a singular understanding, as well as erasing trans women's suffering. This model also falls apart when looking at the increasingly common examples of trans women raised as girls from a very young age, who will have similar socialisation as cis girls. It's not a universal experience, but a significant one, and one that is frequently ignored by those who question trans women's realness. Further, when asked about trans men, many would be happy to welcome a trans man who has been raised as a boy from a young age back into the fold of womanhood. These examples show, that working beneath these concerns about socialisation, a deeper biological essentialism is at work: women are 'real' woman if they have possessed a vagina from birth. They also show just how much this discourse is used as a weapon against trans women specifically, and how quickly these conversations can turn into blaming other women for the problem of patriarchy.
Questioning trans women's validity as women is not simply a question of privilege. It is an attempt to restrict womanhood and to define it in cis terms. To ensure that cis experiences become the default woman's experience. The history of feminism is littered with attempts to restrict womanhood to groups of women which are powerful, most significantly down lines of class, race, disability and trans status. Womanhood is a broader and more expansive church that those who attempt to restrict it can imagine. We need to view trans women's socialisation in the same light as cis women's socialisation: both are women's experiences, and our conceptualisation of womanhood needs to expand to include them both.
Still, just as there is no universal experience of womanhood, there is no universal experience of being trans, and I don't think it is useful to assume that every trans woman's experience of socialisation is the same. Because of this, I believe there is a meaningful and nuanced discussion to be had around socialisation and privilege which is not able to happen whilst this conversation is dominated by more powerful cis voices who wish to use socialisation to undermine our identities.
If there are any advantages given to trans women through socialisation, it is not useful to discuss them in terms of 'male privilege' as this is instantly invalidating of our realities and lives, we cannot participate in this conversation on equal terms if this discussion is framed in such a cis-normative way. Nor can we participate equally if people talk over us and are unwilling to listen to our experiences. In order for a genuine conversation to be had, cis people are going to have to stop and listen because trans women simply can't get a word in edgeways.
Like privilege, gender is also a process; one that happens to us as well being enacted by us. Gender has different meanings depending on social context; being a black woman is different from being a white woman, a Northern working class woman different from a Southern middle-class sub-urban woman, a trans woman different from a cis woman. Acknowledging the differences between different types of woman is important and useful, so long as this discussion acknowledges that these differences are part of the diversity of womanhood, and not used to exclude some people from it.
Our relationships with our own genders are similarly fluid and ever-changing: my gendered experience is different at work, when out at a cafe with mates, when walking home at night. Because of gender's dynamic nature, it's not something which can be objectively verified as being true or false, real or unreal. In all of this discussion about who gets to be included in womanhood; we must acknowledge that there is no such thing as a 'real' woman.