In the past month or so i’ve dealt with a lot of moments of body essentialism. By this i don’t mean the kind where people are totally disrespectful of my gender or my trans* identity; saying i’m a boy because i was assigned so at birth. It’s something that’s ever so slightly more nuanced.
i was at a Trans* conference a few weeks ago. One of the keynote speakers kept describing people as “male bodied,” and “female bodied.” Although several people visibly reacted to this, most people in the room seemed not to. When i called this out my opinions were mostly blown off, cast as hyper-radical and/or irrelevant. i’ve heard these essentialist terms used a few times since then and feel the need to respond.
To call a MAAB trans* person’s body a “male body” or a FAAB trans* person’s body a “female body” explicitly disallows them the capacity to define their own experience and their own body. It’s obviously problematic in that it essentializes what male and female are.
By casting bodies born with penises as “male bodies” and bodies born with vaginas as “female bodies,” this viewpoint takes mainstream biological perspectives as given truths and erases the lived experiences of folks who don’t identify in that way. This is a perspective that i have, sadly, come to expect from most of society, but to hear it from a keynote at a trans* conference was truly disheartening.
Further, it naturalizes the idea that bodies fall into these two distinct categories. This thinking posits that a body is either a male body or a female body. There are no other options allowed and bodies are characterized as always being somehow the same as they were.
i find this difficult, and not just because i don’t characterize my body as a male body. i find it difficult because i no longer characterize my body as a female body either. i have a trans* body. i don’t want my body to be read as a male body or as a female body. i explicitly want my body to be read as a non-male body and as a non-female body. i have altered my body by taking hormones. i’ve got tiny tits to match my broad shoulders and an ass on skinny hips. i have body hair that has become blonde, but is absolutely still present. i’ve got smooth, delicate skin wrapped around long bones.
Taking steps to physically alter my body is one way in which my body is a trans* body. However, it is not the only way. My body is a trans* body because of how i carry it, because i swish when i walk and how i own my voice(s). Mostly though, my body is a trans* body because i claim it as a trans* body. This is how i relate to my body, and i do not want it to be seen as a cis body in any way.
One of my friends recently referred to cis women as “bio-women.” This statement operates similarly. This statement characterizes some bodies as essentially women’s bodies, deeply ingrained and true. Rather than respecting the fact that anyone who identifies as a woman, who claims her body as a woman, as having a woman’s body, this phrase draws a line between types of bodies.
In this instance, some bodies are “more biological” than others. All bodies are biological. All bodies are made up of living cells; all bodies require food, water, etc. In equating biology to cisness, my friend unintentionally naturalized cis bodies. This process of naturalization further casts trans* bodies as abnormal; it strips trans* folk of legitimacy in defining our bodies and our relationships to our bodies.
This cartoon, has been bouncing all over the internet as of late. It states that “women are women, regardless of sex.” Although i appreciate the sentiment that “women are women” insofar as it places a primacy on identification over assignation, it still delineates between sex and gender.
This bifurcation of sex and gender is all too common in both feminist and queer discourse. “Sex” is characterized as being located in some sort of biological truth of a body, while “gender” is cast as being about presentation and identification. This definition is simply… too simple.
Again, this process naturalizes some bodies and reifies cisnormativity by allowing trans* bodies to be viewed as “incongruent” with genders. Although this way of perceiving oneself may be useful for some trans* folk, it is not for me and a lot of people that i know.
But beyond its lack of universal use value, which is enough grounds for challenge, i find it most problematic in the way it operates culturally. Not only does this language normalize cis bodies, and in so doing implies that trans* bodies are somehow fake, it also normalizes a certain mode of trans* experience. This language is constructed in such a way that the only option for trans* folks is a crossing from one “natural”/binary body conception to (in this case) the other.
Because of this type of logic, for example, i have been referred to as a “male bodied woman.” Even in periods of my life when i was more binary identified than i currently am this was unacceptable. It cast me as a woman, but didn’t allow me to claim my body. This capacity was reserved for a rigid medical model that does not respect self-determination.
In all of this though, i am not without hope. Another friend of mine recently said something similar about someone with a “male body.” i gently asked him how he felt about the terminology. He said that he hadn’t really thought about it, and then listened to what i had to say. He understood, and throughout the rest of our conversation was more careful with his language. i see his language use being intrinsically linked to his consciousness, and i saw both shift. Growth seems possible when discourse is opened. This is my hope.