Does not having a cervix make you any less of a woman?

Talking about the differences between cis women and trans women - when done right - isn't transphobic

12 August 2018 - 00:00
By haji mohamed dawjee AND Haji Mohamed Dawjee
Transgender actress Laverne Cox.
Image: Getty Images/Nicholas Hunt Transgender actress Laverne Cox.

"Public Cervix Announcement: F*** You." This was one of the posters that stood out for me last week at the TotalShutdown women's march in Cape Town. I shared a lot of posts on Instagram and Twitter from the march that day, many of them images of strong, powerful placards. But this one stood out for me for two reasons.

The first is that I am a writer, and a cheap audience for a good pun.

The second is that I am a queer brown woman who is cisgender. That is, I identify with the gender that was assigned to me at birth, and so I identify with the cervix and ovaries and the blood bath that is the monthly period, and the heat packs and pain medication that come with it.

It was pointed out to me that my lauding of this particular sign was trans-exclusionary. And that, at a march that was advertised as being intersectional, the poster was a metaphorical Stop sign. That it was there to make observers, activists and others pause and evaluate how far we have yet to go as a society seeking gender inclusion. To talk about a cervix is to talk only about a particular type of woman. It does not take into consideration "all" women.

At its heart, it was pointed out to me, in not so many words, the poster is dismissive of transgender women who were assigned male at birth and do not have a cervix.

A participant at  the third annual Amber Rose SlutWalk last year  in Los Angeles.
Image: Getty Images/Chelsea Guglielmino A participant at the third annual Amber Rose SlutWalk last year in Los Angeles.

It begs saying that there were plenty of inclusive posters at the march as well. But, again, it was pointed out to me that the degree of inclusivity felt could only be decided by the trans community. It was not my place to objectively come to that conclusion.

True. I cannot disagree. My deciding whether trans women feel included is the same as a white man deciding that I feel included as a brown woman. They. Just. Can't.

But having said this, it is important to consider the other side of the coin - as taboo and "controversial" and potentially ignorant as that side of the coin may be. And that is: if I am not allowed to speak on behalf of the trans community because I would be straying far from my lane (and I would), then is it not also true that as a cisgender queer brown woman who comments on a poster about a cervix that is part of my community is very much staying in my lane?

Differences do not make us less diverse. Differences do not have to create division.

To acknowledge the rights, language and humour (I am talking about the pun here) of my own cervix should not be confused with endorsing exclusion.

That's not to say that this kind of appreciation can't be weaponised. It very much can. Which brings us then to the ultimate question: does not having a cervix make you any less of a woman? My conclusive answer: no. Does having a cervix make you less inclusive? Again, no. It does not.

If members of a trans community must be respected and given agency to decide for themselves, then so must those in cisgender women's communities.

The pressure on all-female spaces to accommodate trans women does not appear to be matched by any corresponding pressure on all-cisgender-male communities to accommodate trans men. No one is asking men to cancel Movember, for example, even though it excludes trans men who are not at risk of contracting testicular cancer because they were assigned female at birth.

If it does happen, it does not draw as much criticism as is directed at women in these very same circumstantial environments.

Former soldier Christine Jorgensen, the first man to become a woman (by a series of operations and hormone treatments in a Copenhagen hospital).
Image: Getty Images/Wesley Former soldier Christine Jorgensen, the first man to become a woman (by a series of operations and hormone treatments in a Copenhagen hospital).

"Communities", by the way, are exclusionary by their very nature, so maybe we should work on this language a bit as well, in the way that we're all learning and working on the language orthodoxies of gender.

And this is one area where I often feel we've hit a brick wall; how can I use a language I can't even talk about?

We cannot be helped and enlightened or ask important questions where we seek to educate ourselves on the nuances of these important issues because we are expected to use the exact language we're expected to use. If not, we will not be engaged with - this has often been my experience. But I cannot listen if I cannot ask, because it's when I ask that you allow me to listen.

Last year, feminist African author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came under fire for talking about what was effectively the experience of gender. Adichie said: "Girls are socialised in ways that are harmful to their sense of self - to reduce themselves, to cater to the egos of men, to think of their bodies as repositories of shame. As adult women, many struggle to overcome, to unlearn, much of that social conditioning."

She continued: "I think the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences. It's not about how we wear our hair or whether we have a vagina or a penis. It's about the way the world treats us, and I think if you've lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it's difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are."

Adichie was wrong to assume that there are some things that make some women more woman than others. But she was not wrong to point out the differences in the experiences of gender. It is not exclusionary to have these discussions, to interrogate and investigate them. It is not exclusionary to consider the feelings societal privilege brings.

Transgender woman, author, activist and doctor Anastacia Tomson says the idea of societal privilege is "a double-edged sword".

She says: "The world accords more privilege to those it reads as male, but people who are trans also have to deal with the effects of toxic masculinity and expectations that are set on them by virtue of that. Certainly, to say trans women enjoy 'male privilege' is wrong. Trans women experience a kind of intersectionality that is different in some ways, and similar in some ways, to cisgender women and people of other identities."

Actor Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, one of the first-known recipients of gender re-assignment surgery, in the 2015  film 'The Danish Girl'.
Image: Supplied Actor Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, one of the first-known recipients of gender re-assignment surgery, in the 2015 film 'The Danish Girl'.

While there is a lot of truth in this, I would argue that it is hard to escape societal privilege. We see an example of this in Caitlyn Jenner who, when she identified as - or rather, was perceived as - male, was afforded every opportunity and reward. There was no abuse and no marginalisation, and this same male privilege has been carried over since coming out.

Another example of inherent privilege is that trans women are often given more airtime than trans men. I see more about Chelsea Manning and Laverne Cox in the media than I do about any trans man. Why is that? Is it just that we're morbidly fascinated with the female form, or is it because men get a louder voice even if they do not identify as men?

These are not considerations that can or should be dismissed.

It is not exclusionary to dissect the differences between how the world treats you if you are a woman and if you are a man.

And it should not be transphobic to talk about the differences between cis women and trans women.

In fact, it is necessary to voice these interrogations within feminist discourse so that we don't forget that the opposite is also true - if it is possible to be transphobic, it is possible to cervixphobic, or vaginaphobic or ovaryphobic as well.

In the fight to be informed, we must take care to make sure that we do not silence, rename and erase the identities of women or, for the purposes of this argument, the cervix community, because one can in fact exist with the other.