In November, voters in Houston repealed that city’s human rights ordinance, known as HERO, after a relentless campaign by opponents claimed that the law would permit “men in women’s bathrooms.” The ordinance protected 15 classes of people— including transgender people— from discrimination when accessing public accommodations like hospitals, movie theaters, restaurants, and restrooms. Supporters of HERO ran a campaign that failed to effectively stand up for and defend transgender people, and did not take on the insidious myth that protecting transgender individuals from discrimination opens the door to “men in women’s bathrooms.” As advocates for the transgender community, we failed in Houston.
We could have explained that protecting transgender people from discrimination does not increase public safety risks. We should have explained that when a transgender woman uses a women’s restroom there are still zero men — biological or otherwise — in that restroom. This is straightforward: Transgender women are women; transgender men are men.
We failed to do any of that.
Thankfully, since that defeat last November, LGBTQ advocates have finally recognized that we cannot combat anti-trans discrimination without foregrounding the experiences of transgender people. And in subsequent legislative fights in South Dakota, Tennessee, and North Carolina, the voices of transgender people have figured prominently in the public conversation.
There will be no movement on formal equality for LGBTQ people without greater understanding of who transgender people are and what it means to be transgender. And more important from my perspective, we have begun to recognize that we cannot stop the systemic discrimination and violence that transgender people face without prioritizing the voices and experiences of transgender individuals— particularly the transgender women of color whose very existence is threatened on a daily basis.
We entered the 2016 legislative sessions with a growing investment in telling trans stories in the wake of the Houston loss, and it presented the most explicitly anti-trans legislative climate we have ever seen. Almost 200 anti-LGBT bills were introduced in state legislatures across the country, close to 50 of which explicitly targeted transgender people’s usage of restrooms and locker rooms. The refrain from Houston re-emerged, and local, state, and federal lawmakers again warned of the dangers of “men in women’s bathrooms.” This rhetoric reinforced the idea that women who are transgender are really men— the same message that we are all taught and many of us internalize, which leads to devastatingly high rates of violence against transgender people, particularly transgender women.
Unfortunately, in our discussions of anti-trans legislation and in efforts to increase public awareness about the transgender community, we— advocates, journalists, storytellers— are falling back on the very narrative framings that entrench the idea that transgender women are really men and transgender men are really women. Most insidious, we use the same language that opponents of transgender people use, carelessly referring to women who are trans as having “male genitals” or being “born with a male body” or being “anatomically male.” This language is both factually wrong and dangerous.
There is plainly no one type of body that we could accurately label a “male body.”
At birth, we classify infants as male or female based solely on the appearance of their external genitalia. Notably, this classification serves population control and surveillance and not medical purposes. The medical experts I have spoken with could not identify a single medical purpose for assigning sex at birth and explain that the components of sex are far more complex than just external genitalia and include, at least, chromosomes, genes, hormones, internal genitalia, gender identity, and secondary sex characteristics. By embracing a narrative that one is born with a “male body,” we reinforce the idea that only the bodies we assign male at birth— bodies that have medically normative penises— are male.
But that simply isn’t true. It is a choice to refer to some bodies as male and some bodies as female, not a fact. Our genital characteristics are one component of who we are and do not define, medically or biologically, our sex. Additionally, all components of sex from genitals to hormones to chromosomes exist on a spectrum rather than as a binary. Some people assigned female at birth have more testosterone than others; some people are born with XXY or XO chromosomes instead of XX or XY chromosomes. People with some differences in sex development may be born with genitals that doctors characterize as female at birth but which change around puberty. Our bodies are complex and dynamic, and if we classify people as male and female, such classifications should only be made based on a person’s gender identity. In the words of Dr. Deanna Adkins, a pediatric endocrinologist and medical expert in the legal challenge to North Carolina’s HB2, “The cost of not assigning sex based on gender identity is dire.” At the very least we have a responsibility to recognize that it is an ideological position—and not a scientific fact—to name someone’s body, genitals, or biology male.
In addition to being factually inaccurate, it is dangerous to refer to women who are trans as having “male bodies” and men who are trans as having “female bodies.”
Much of the violence perpetrated against transgender people by strangers occurs when a perpetrator learns that someone is transgender. It is often the perceived betrayal of a person’s “true” identity that leads to aggression and violence. When Islan Nettles, a black transgender woman, was violently beaten and murdered on the street in New York City, her confessed killer explained that he went into a rage when his friends said to him, “That’s a guy.” Of course, she wasn’t a “guy”; she was a woman. It is only because we are taught to believe that a person’s true sex is found on the body that transgender people are seen as perpetrating a fraud. That a jawline, facial hair, voice tone, or genital shape will expose someone’s real sex. And that idea of “real” sex comes from the narratives we tell about male bodies and female bodies.
Those same narratives contribute to the systemic health care discrimination against people who are trans or who have differences of sex development. The idea that there are “normal” male and female bodies has been used to justify medically unnecessary and extremely damaging genital surgeries on infants with intersex traits. Similarly, an inability to recognize that a man might have a uterus and a woman might have a prostrate has made insurance coverage for preventive health care elusive for many trans people. Our bodies are literally invisible to or disruptive of our health systems, resulting in administrative and physical violence as well as documented negative health outcomes for trans and intersex people.
And yet, we maintain our investment in the narrative that our bodies are male or female at birth. But it is simply untenable to retain these narratives when we know our bodies to be far more complex and beautiful.
It would be a devastating strategic decision to suggest that one could only be female by changing her body to align with what we assume a female body to be. Haven’t we moved beyond wanting to impose a single standard of legitimate femaleness on people? Or is that only applicable to non-transgender women?
Many advocates defend the use of the “born male” or “born with a male body” narrative as being easier for non-transgender people to understand. Of course it is easier to understand, since it reinforces deeply entrenched views about what makes a man and what makes a woman. But it is precisely these views that we must change. Our bodies are complex, and they are affected by trauma, injury, illness, disability. If a woman does not have a uterus or breasts because of illness, is her body no longer female? If a woman does not have a uterus or breasts because she was born without them, is she not female? There are choices involved in naming whose bodies are female and whose are not. To say, “I am a transgender woman, meaning I was born with a male body” is a normative—not a descriptive—statement, and we should engage with it as such and ask ourselves whether those are the norms that we want to entrench.
For me, the answer is clear: I want to advocate for a world where our bodies are not sexed by the presence or absence of a penis. I hope that our ideas of trans existence and bodily self-determination transcend the narrative that the world has already set for us. To engage only on those terms fails to account for the truth of our bodies and our lives.
I was assigned female at birth, but I have never had a female body. If it takes longer to convince the world of that than it would to simply say that I was born with a female body but am now male, I am invested in that longer path, because ultimately we will all be better off when we can challenge the idea that our body parts define us.