TERFs, trans women, imperfect bodies and girl-power messaging
I have a daughter with special needs, who sees all the advertising and messages about women’s bodies in the media that I can’t entirely filter for her and takes it in without even the usual mild resistance most kids have.
It’s all literal to her. She believes every word: There is only one way to be pretty. You must have this accessory to be OK. You must have this shade of hair to be popular. Ditsy, smart friends are OK to have, but beauty standards and charisma are most crucial for the person at the center of the story. You are loved if you get a pile of presents that fills your entire living room on your birthday. Anything less is not love.
We’ve had many conversations on these topics to no effect. She has difficulty with auditory processing and memory. Conversations don’t mean much. Videos and ads designed by psychologists to get at the deepest parts of the brain have much more power. The media world is more real to her than reality.
Now she has budding breasts and she hates them. I found her using scissors to cut off her first bits of body hair. I take her on my lap and try to gently explain. I read her stories about girl power and great women of history. I try to be a counter-weight but I’m just one drop against a tsunami of images and messages at school and on every device that she gets her hands on when I’m not looking.
My words are unscripted and analog. The videos are photoshopped and tailored by experts to addict. I’m losing ground every day.
The other day I posted a meme about the spiritual power of women, about creativity and the miracle of women’s fertility bringing new souls into the world. It featured a woman of color, breathtakingly beautiful in my view but not in line with Youtube standards. My daughter struggles with skin color a lot, being a trans-racially adopted child. I listen to her. I try to give her hope. This meme is a bit beyond her still, but it is a tiny shard of the mosaic of positive womanhood I am trying to build.
This is my world. I shared the image because this is what I want to support in the world.
What happened next is what has been happening a lot in my spiritual community in the past two years with girl-positive or woman-positive messages and images. I was rebuked by someone I respect in the Pagan community.
The image celebrated fertility and birth as a spiritual contribution of women. It did not include a caveat about how not all women have children. It did not backtrack to explain that trans-women don’t even have uteruses. Shame. Shame. Shame.
I was shocked at how deep the anger goes in me. I never could understand the TERF (Trans-exclusive Radical Feminists) concept before that moment. Why would anyone try to tell trans-women they weren’t “real women?” Why would anyone insist on a strict biological, limited concept of womanhood?
Ah, but to never be allowed to speak positively of women’s bodies? To relegate fertility and birth to a gross bodily function like farting, something a bit shameful that we should get over as quickly as possible and not talk about in public? Is this the price for including trans-women? Are you either TERF or anti-body.?
Until now, TERFs were mythical creatures I have never actually encountered in the wild, outside a few books from the 1970 and 1980s. I still haven’t met a real live TERF—a person who is a feminist AND is trans-phonic and/or homophobic. But the issue and the ostensible choice was being shoved in my face:
Choose! Your sense of ethical integrity and your trans friends or your relationship to your female body! Now! Choose! Shame on you for even hesitating!
I have a uterus. Little good it has done me. I have had extremely painful menstrual cramps since I was a young teen with no medical explanation and repeated anemia due to heavy bleeding. In addition, I had unexplained infertility. I spent six years fighting with my body with every technological weapon available in high-tech European universal health care, and no one could ever tell me why I couldn’t carry a child to term.
Do the TERFs think I’m a real woman?
I don’t really care if they do or not. TERF philosophy may have been briefly trendy in about 1993 but any remaining TERFs have clearly been pushed so far back into the underbrush that we’ll find them around the time we find the unicorns. They don’t appear to be a current threat to me or to my trans friends. Patriarchal images and messages degrading our bodies and souls most definitely are still a threat.
Additionally, when a friend puts out a post about the beauty of color or anything else visually amazing or spiritual, do I come along and slap them with a rebuke about the fact that there are blind people in the world, so somehow they should not mention such things?
No, I don’t. I don’t even think it. And it isn’t that disability doesn’t carry as much social stigma as being trans.
I get flack every single day for being a blind person and almost no support or even tolerance in the Pagan community. I am excluded, talked down to, accused of faking or making it up, ignored, dismissed and socially marginalized. I don’t think I have ever seen a abled Pagan come to the defense of disabled Pagans and insist we must be included when we have been excluded all too often. Every little bit of adaptation or mere tolerance of presence that disabled Pagans have received was won through our own hard work and quiet—and even so resented—hand-raising.
On the other hand, trans awareness has grown exponentially in the Pagan community in the past several years, and that is a good thing. It will help all of us. I have been part of it, writing in defense of trans rights in the wider world and in Pagan communities. The vast majority of people with disabilities are with you on this one. We know bodies don’t always do with they were supposed to.
I also have two close trans friends. But the fact is that I didn’t know one of them was trans for five years, because it isn’t actually something he has to deal with socially every single day if he doesn’t choose to, which he usually doesn’t. His transition was 20 years ago.
It affects him, certainly. Part of the reason the issue came up between us was that my husband and I as well as he and his wife were going through IVF at the same time, and everyone who goes through IVF asks other IVFers “What are you in for?” like prison inmates.
“Aw, man. That’s a raw deal. Me, it’s being trans.”
“ Well, shucks.. I wish I at least had a reason. I didn’t even get a jury trial.”
That’s not a direct transcription of the conversation, but you get the point.
Nature plays chaotic and diverse with bodies. You don’t always get what you bargained for at birth. That does not make you “less than” anyone else. It does not mean you should not celebrate your body or that others shouldn’t celebrate theirs.
There are many ways to be a woman. Just because many women give birth and it is a big part of being among women does not mean that those who don’t have children, for whatever reason, are less women. I couldn’t biologically have children no matter how hard I tried, even though I do have a uterus. That meme about women’s spiritual power of birth doesn’t offend me. Since I needed to have children and I was clearly meant to be a mother, I adopted them.
It does not make me feel any less of a woman because I didn’t give birth. It does not make me less in awe of birth and the creative power of women.
I did participate in birth. I was born. I was born from a uterus. We all share that.
And there is nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t make trans people “wrong” or veneration of women’s fertility “wrong.“ When talk of women and birth stings trans women or infertile women, are those who discuss it to blame? Are those who describe a beautiful piece of music as a spiritual treasure of all humanity to blame if a deaf person can’t relate?
I say no. Don’t rub it in when your body has some great power that another body may not have. There is no superiority and inferiority here. There is only primal awe. We are. Look at the amazing diversity of life! Isn’t it dazzling and infinitely discoverable?
The pain comes more from internalized, socially abusive doubt creeping in from a culture that has been divorced from nature and from our bodies. If you are a trans woman, there is a reason you are a woman. It may not be to give birth. But it is still woman-ness.
There is something definable about being a woman. That’s why trans people care whether they are perceived as their true gender. If there was nothing that defined a woman, there would be no trans people. Fertility and birth are part of who we are, even if only a fractional part. It is not our whole but it is there. It is in our consciousness and in our ancestry. We don’t have to each fulfill every part of it personally to be a valid part of the whole.
So please stop the berating of people who say positive things about women. We still live in a society where the biggest and loudest messages about women are very negative. And then along comes this undercurrent saying we can’t even say something positive about women because we aren’t all the same.
We are all different. The fact that I can’t see does not make me resent people who can.
As a person with a physical difference, I want to sit at the table, not dictate what is said at the table. Yes, living in a sighted world is always going to be difficult for blind people. But I don’t insist that the whole world be adapted for blind people. That wouldn’t work out very well for my deaf friends.
Trans people are here. We accept them and love them. We can’t help that nature has made a world in which they are not the average, and in which giving birth is a gendered thing.
My spirituality is tied to nature. Rather than ask that we ignore the gendered basis of human fertility, I would ask, as many Native Americans traditionally have, what spiritual lessons we can learn from the fact that gender is not a simple binary. Trans people should not feel excluded from Pagan fertility talk. They should be considered an integral part, those who carry and embody a deep mystery.