A Response to “What Makes a Woman?”

| Jun 29, 2015
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Babs Casbar Siperstein wrote a response to an op-ed by Elinor Burkett titled What Makes a Woman? that ran in The New York Times on June 6. The Times did not choose to run Babs’ response so we bring it to you here.

What makes a woman?

I would hope that a “Kardashian” woman, whether of female or male experience does not get to define all the women of the world. I do understand and sympathize with Ms. Burkett’s frustration at all the press and attention that comes with a “celebrity,” a newbie, coming out as a woman. I share that frustration as a transgender activist living in a “straight” world, a “gay” world, and a “trans” world for many years and reading about instant transgender mavens who suddenly come out, find their media soapboxes, and express their often naive and myopic opinions as facts to the general public.

Let’s get to the basics and try and keep it simple. We talk about sex and gender and gender identity. For 98% of us, sex is what’s between the legs, gender is what’s between the ears. Medical research indicates that approximately 2% of the population have some sort of a medical condition that could be called “intersex.” So when transgender women say they have a female brain, yes, based on their gender identity, they identify as a woman for lack of better and more precise terminology.

I understand about the experiences that most women have that Jenner and most transgender women have not. I’ve spoken at many venues , academic, political , social and educational and I describe myself as “a woman who has been scarred by many years of testosterone”. I understand male privilege; I’ve experienced it and I’ve experienced the loss of it. I understand the double standard and have experienced that as well. I have neither experienced a period nor PMS. I have not given birth, although I was a coach and had my hand crushed in the process. But not all women have experienced childbirth, either.

Many years ago a powerful political leader once grabbed a “feel.” My reaction was acute yet mixed. I felt violated and wanted to “pop him” in the face, while on the other hand there was a sense of satisfaction that he viewed me simply as a woman, not just a transgender activist. I said nothing, gave him a “look” and it never happened again.

In my 72 years, I’ve had only 2 long term relationships, both with strong, yet sensitive women, real feminists. My late wife of 34 years was a teacher who, in the late ’60s with a few other women, took the lead in a successful action to allow teachers to wear pants in New Jersey’s second largest school district. We had a powerful balanced partnership together and when I came out of my denial to myself, I had the confidence to come out to her as well. We remained married, continued to raise our family and led a double life together for many years, meeting, dining, and traveling the world with many other middle aged-middle class couples where the husband was transgender.

I met my current partner in 2002 quite serendipitously. I was certainly not what she initially assumed and she was truthful about her concerns having a relationship with a fully transitioned transgender woman. She is, as my late wife was, secure in her own gender identity. She is a veteran feminist activist and leader, who left the public advocacy arena and thrived as a corporate leader who helped raise the glass ceiling for women in her industry. Her stories about being the lone female executive or as one of the very few women in executive positions to be dealing with the male culture of the business world of that era are eye-popping and stomach churning and often shocking. She was nearly 10 years ahead of the time of the women in the 9 to 5 movie! She is warm, sweet, creative, tough and disciplined and a role model! Brava!

Ms Burkett has several complaints about transgender women and that our messaging somehow demeans womanhood. “But undermining women’s identities, and silencing, erasing or renaming our experiences, aren’t necessary to that struggle.”It seems that Professor Burkett has only looked at the surface and not made an attempt to dig into the transgender movement and our struggle that has gone hand in hand with the women’s movement. In citing only Ms Jenner and Ms Manning as representatives, she picked the two people who are arguably the least representative of transgender women in America!

“The “I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric favored by other trans people doesn’t work any better and is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas.”

Well, as one who experienced that exact feeling realizing I was“born in the wrong body” as a pre adolescent, I do not know of a better or more succinct way to describe the feeling. Yes, womanhood is so much more, and so much of that is different for each individual, but that is the basic starting point and we must start somewhere!

She complains about Ms. Jenner’s preoccupation with her external presentation and her excitement over wearing nail polish and presenting all femme! For most trans women including me, it is very normal to be fixated on the ability to be doing such openly, to have the freedom after being repressed by societal restrictions or even actual harm for years and years is exhilarating. I remember the excitement of my first manicures, my first makeovers, my first times out in a woman’s bathing suit. Now it’s a clear coat to protect the nails, a little tinted powder with sunscreen to protect and understate the flaws and it’s been a dozen or so trips to venues with a beach or a pool that I’ve packed a bathing suit and not had the time or taken the opportunity to wear it.

Jenner is a celebrity and is part of the Kardashian culture, the uniquely Hollywood California celebrity culture! She’s done at least 10 hours of facial feminization surgery. I ask you how many trans women can afford that? I also ask, “what is the culture in California (and other places) regarding plastic surgery for every little perceived flaw?

Over the years I’ve observed and experienced that women who transitioned later in life go through a female “growing up” period to make up for the childhood and adolescence we never had. We learn the basics of walking, talking, the protocols that girls learn naturally from their mothers, female relatives and peers. We make mistakes. A middle-aged woman wearing clothes appropriate for a teenager or twenty something stands out and even more so if she’s a 6 foot transgender woman. Eventually we learn and grow up!

Transgender activists are natural allies of women. Where we have succeeded, we who have toiled years and years in the political and social trenches to get non discrimination laws passed in 21 States and hundreds of counties and municipalities have done so working as women together. We do not get on primetime TV or mainstream magazine covers. We’ve worked with women’s groups, labor unions, businesses, religious institutions and political organizations. We’ve worked together as part and parcel of American culture in our fight for acceptance and respect.

My truth is not your truth. My female identity is not your female identity. You have not had to hide who you are, lie to family and friends and employers and shopkeepers and medical providers. You have not had to play the role that you were not. You didn’t feel guilt and internal shame when a transgender woman was beaten or murdered for fear you might “out” yourself by speaking up!

We are all different, and to paraphrase Jefferson’s words that most of us memorized in our grammar school civics class, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all (people) are created equal . . .” You all should know the rest.

Don’t blame transgender women for your problems as a woman. Understand that our society loves cosmetic glamour and that our media embraces that to thrive. Reach out to transgender women who have survived the “hard” way and learn from them. If you wish to play the “victim” card, look no further than transgender women, especially women of color! Use our combined knowledge to help empower “all” women. Be part of the solution, our movements have more in common than you can possibly imagine.

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Category: Transgender Opinion


About the Author ()

Babs at 76 passed away in 2019. She was a member of the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee, Deputy Vice Chair of the NJ Democratic State Committee and Political Director of the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of NJ. She served on the Executive Committee of Trans United 4 Obama. She has served as Vice Chair of the DNC Eastern Caucus, was President of NJ Stonewall Democrats, Co-Chair of National Stonewall Democrats Federal PAC Board, Vice-Chair of Garden State Equality, Executive Board member of National Stonewall Democrats as Chair of the DNC Relations Committee and a member of the NJ Civil Unions Review Commission.

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