Growing up in San Francisco, the loudest, proudest queer town around, made it clear to me that gender was what you made of it
Mon 10 Aug 2020
Dear ladies who are fearful and hostile to trans women,
That I grew up and spent most of my life in San Francisco I consider one of my greatest strokes of luck, because it was in its heyday the loudest, proudest queer town around. Even as a straight girl, maybe especially as a straight girl, I benefited endlessly from that. I went to my first gay bar here when I was about 14, with a gay man who was the kindest person in my adolescence. The drag queens who were his friends were also kind, and fortysomething years later my life in and around the queer community has been largely an experience of kindness. Of kindness and liberation, because all these people made it clear to me that gender was what you made of it, and biology is not destiny, and that was really helpful.
As I’ve watched transphobia explode in the American right and the British whatever, I’ve thought over my own experience. San Francisco has been for a century or so a sanctuary city for dissident, rebel and queer people, so I suspect I have lived my whole adult life in a place with more trans people per capita than almost anyplace else. Transphobes are always warning us that if trans people live in peace and legal recognition and even have rights, there will be terrible consequences, but I assume that we here have long realized, at least to some extent, that dreaded future, and we’re all fine.
Despite this, people – many of whom are supposed to be feminists – keep coming up with lurid “what ifs”. My response to them is: trans women do not pose a threat to cis-gender women, and feminism is a subcategory of human rights advocacy, which means, sorry, you can’t be a feminist if you’re not for everyone’s human rights, notably other women’s rights.
Second wave feminism produced the classic 1972 children’s album Free to Be You and Me, which I’d like to point out was not titled Free to Be Me But I Get to Define You. Back then we thought gender really was kind of binary and defined by genitals; science has gotten smarter in the decades since and we now know it’s a complex interplay of chromosomes, hormones, primary and secondary sexual characteristics and other stuff, some of which is in the brain, not the pants, and also that quite a significant number of people are born intersex, and some are misgendered at birth, and male and female never were airtight categories anyway. Cultures from Native America to India have long recognized that there are other ways to be gendered. This complexity and fluidity can be a blessing and it’s something feminism embraced when it demanded that “woman” not be a category be so tightly defined by roles, relationships, appearances and limits set upon our options.
At this point in my life I have trans friends and nonbinary friends, bisexual, gay and lesbian friends who are poets and photographers, doctors and nurses, climate organizers and professors and historians and one gay Buddhist priest who’s also a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, speaking of San Francisco things I’m proud of. I’m not speaking for any of them; so many queer and trans people have already spoken up eloquently, but perhaps there’s something useful for a cis-gender straight woman to say to other cis-gender women, which I’m gonna say as someone who is also a hardcore feminist: the major threat to women, straight or not, cis- or not, always was and still is straight men and patriarchy.
Every category is leaky and there are exceptions to every rule, but that’s where the lion’s share of violence against women comes from, as rape and domestic violence and harassment and murder. One of the really weird fears about trans women is that they’re men pretending to be women to do nefarious things to other women, but that’s either a fear of straight cis-gender men who do horrific things to women incessantly all over the world, in which case the problem is still straight men, or a deep misunderstanding of what trans women are. And yes, men who want to harm women could dress up as women, but they could also pretend to be repairmen or emergency workers to get into our homes, and actually have, and we haven’t banned repairmen and emergency workers yet.