Trans Women Become Women
Seeking a Third Way on Trans Issues
Content warning: politics. If you are just here for the titillating fragments of memoir, skip this one.
The first thing to say here is that this is a third way on trans issues, not the (only) third way on trans issues. My highest commitment in this area (as in all areas, really) is to discussion, reason, inquiry: we ought to think, to explore, to work out. I am not saying that this is the answer; it is an answer, one which I think may provide a useful path forward. But I am willing to be taught better, if there is better to teach; I only hope that my Noble Readers approach this idea in the same spirit.
Even more importantly: this is not my third way. It is one that is out there, in the discourse. It's not much talked about—largely because the two main sides are fighting so loudly—but I think that you can identify it if you listen. Largely, I hear it coming from trans people who don't accept the full-throated trans activist ideology that is loudest in this discourse.
That said, none of them have put it precisely like this—and perhaps none of them will agree with this, at least in its specificity. My hope is that this will either be appealing to some of those who think roughly along these lines, or that it will spur them to express their views in some different way. So I am offering this as a basis for discussion, not as a final answer (that is, not even as my final answer).
This is, however, a position that feels right to me—that appeals to my intuition. Which was, for me, reason enough to consider it; and, having considered it, it seems to me to have a great deal going for it on other grounds. So I am putting it forward, as a part of what I would like to be a conversation. I hope you find it helpful.
The core of the two sides in the trans debate, the trans rights movement and the gender critical feminists, can be summed up in two competing slogans:
Trans women are women
Woman, n., adult human female
If I am characterizing a third way on trans issues, it will necessarily have a position that is neither of those; and I think the one I am describing does. I have not seen any of the lose group of people I have "non consensually co-platformed" into my imagined third way use this slogan, and I am fairly sure that many of them would not support it, but I will nevertheless propose it:
Trans women become women
This captures, I think, the crucial point that is neither slogan 1 nor slogan 2. It is not saying, as slogan 1 is, that trans women—that is, anyone who does no more than to call themselves (or, indeed, inwardly identify as) a woman—is, by that very fact, a woman, thereby denying, not the reality, but certainly the importance of biology. But it is also not saying, as slogan 2 is, that only cis women are women, and thereby denying, not the reality, but certainly the importance of identity.
Above all, it is trying to put the transition back in trans: the idea that this is not simply a state, nor as simple as a wish or speech act, but also not simply a delusion or deception, but rather something that one does. That one must go through transition to become a woman (or, for trans men, to become a man).
This may sound like a banality—it would, I think, have sounded like one twenty or even ten years ago. But at the moment, both sides are so pushed into their extremes that neither side is willing to consider any of the broad options that might fit under the phrase “trans women become women”. So what was once a banality has now become an abstruse view that must be argued for.
Note that this does not say precisely what has to be done to make a man into a woman. This is deliberate. I think that the general principle—that a man becoming a woman is neither automatic nor impossible—is important to consider and establish on its own, before we get into what makes that happen. Part of the idea here is that this view (like, really, all views that might be held by many people) are a really a family of views, and that we can sort out the specifics in (polite, reasoned) discussion. So this would encompass everything from those who think that only upon having The Surgery does a man become a woman, all the way to those who think that just announcing their new name and pronouns is enough. In short, this slogan neither says that there is one particular line, nor that everyone who adopts it agrees on where, when and how that line or lines should be drawn. All it says is that we think there is one, and that it is crossed.
Note also that this does not imply that there has to be some one thing that happens to make trans women into women. It is quite reasonable to think of it as a gradual process having many intermediate stages—in fact, I suspect that I myself would end up somewhere like that myself, if the discursive climate were such that I felt free to think and explore in the way that one has to before forming a view worthy of the name. So do remember, that to embrace this view is not to tie oneself to the idea that there is any one single step which is crucial here. It may simply be a process, which has intermediate stages.1
Further, nothing in the slogan “trans women become women” commits anyone to think that the line has to be the same for all purposes. In fact, it seems to me that, given a model where there are intermediate stages, it might make sense to have different lines for different issues. For instance, I would suggest strongly that a mere declaration of one's intention to transition should be enough to make a man into a woman for the sake of using the pronouns she wishes to use, for instance. I likewise think in nearly every case, or possibly every case tout court, use of public bathrooms, should be opened simply upon declaration of intent.2 But I think that there is a reasonable debate to be had about, for instance, sports and prisons, and where the line should be drawn there.
If the notion that this might be something which is different for different cases strikes anyone as too strange to accept, consider "becoming an adult". In the U.S., for most things one becomes an adult at 18. But you can drive earlier than that and can't legally drink until later; a sufficiently heinous crime might cause you to be tried as an adult before then, and a claimed inability to take care of yourself might postpone full legal adulthood indefinitely (as happened, arguably unjustly, to Brittany Spears). This is not to say anything goes— no one would argue a five-year-old is an adult for any purpose, and there is nothing that a thirty-nine year-old is too young to legally do (even in Brittany Spears-like cases one has to make a case for a specific exception). But there are multiple lines in-between. Further, we can argue for changing particular lines— I think the voting age should be much younger, for instance. But this is something that it is reasonable to differ on.
In sum, if you want to say that "trans women become women" you are not committing yourself to any particular line, nor to a single line in all cases. Just to the idea that it is an event (whether long and multi-part or as simple as a speech act), something that happens.
There are two other metaphors which work well alongside this viewpoint. The first is adoption. This is a case that has already been (persuasively, to my mind) made by Sophie Grace Chappell, in this essay (reprinted here). The parallels—a biological state which has enormous social aspects, so enormous that in many cases, for most purposes, someone who takes on the social role is considered the same as those who are in the biological relation—are persuasive.
What Chappell does not address, but which seems important, is that there is a process by which adoption takes place: we do not let just anyone claim just any child as their own. It follows that it is reasonable to discuss, as a society, what process is necessary to accomplish adoption, to become a parent. (even though for most parents, that is achieved through the biological process, and that is deemed sufficient, even for the most marginal of parents (absent fathers are still fathers)). Thus my big dissent from Chappell is that I think that a lot of the social discussion is not settled, but framed, by the notion of adoption; and that then we need to discuss it.
The other metaphor which is perhaps less persuasive overall (since it's more particular to a certain type of experience), but which I will mention for those whom it helps, is religious conversion. I am a Jew; I am one because of a conversion. I think the parallel between conversion and being trans is also a powerful one. In both cases, the immigrant to a new status has to prove themselves beyond what one born into it does: a born Jew who eats pork is a Jew still, but if you try to convert while munching on bacon you probably won't be let in. In both cases, there is some sense in which the conversion just ratifies what is already true—Jewish tradition teaches that all Jews, including converts, were present at Sinai—but you can't then skip the conversion process by saying you feel Jewish in your heart. You still need to be circumcised, and go to the mikvah.
So that is the third way I am proposing. Now I will turn to the question of its advantages.
First, while I hardly expect in a debate as entrenched and fierce as this one to fall like an array of dominos before this slight push, I think it is a considerable advantage that this view can encompass most participants in the debate save the furthest extremes. Obviously neither those who say that a trans woman is female, biologically and otherwise, from birth, and that any other view is mere bigotry, nor those that claim that a biological male is always going to be male even if they are impossible to tell from a woman short of an autopsy, since it's about genetics or interior organs and not anything else, are not going to agree to this view (nor to any plausible compromise).
But for most people, this view can encompass them. Trans activists could (won't, but could) adopt this view and simply claim that trans women become women upon self-identification— either interior or to others— and that nothing else is required. Gender critical feminists could adopt the view that only a full transition, including the surgery, should suffice for access to women's spaces (presumably fears about men pretending to be trans to have access to victims or to get out of men's prisons would be quelled if an orchiectomy were required to get it, since no one not dedicated would go that far).
This could, in short, be a ground for a debate, which we could then have in a less hostile and more productive way. We could cease to have a debate about ontology and Values and start engaging in a technical discussion about policy and how to ensure everyone's safety and happiness.
And while, again, I don't think this will actually happen, it is important for me, just for myself, to have a view that can allow me to sympathetically understand both sides, since both sides seem, at different times, to make good sense. And unless one side or the other is wholly wrong, we would expect reality (whatever that means) to be some sort of meeting place. This might be a good one to think about, and see if it makes sense.
It would also provide grounds for a conversation. Right now trans activists say that all gender critical feminists ("TERFS") are simply bigots; gender critical feminists (or some of them) say that trans women are deluded. If we still felt a need to use those conversation-ending claims, we could save them for people who think either that trans women are always already women, simply by wishing it, on the one hand, or that absolutely nothing can sufficiently change a man to make it reasonable to call them a woman, on the other. Most of us would simply be working out the technicalities of a complex issue — as, indeed, I think most of us are, or at least would like to be.
To be clear, I am not saying that the view should be adopted solely for instrumental reasons; I am not offering this as a purely political compromise (although I think it could, were anyone to be open to it, be that, too). I think that its ability to speak to both sides is not only a political virtue, but a philosophical one too.
Both viewpoints are firmly held in the world. It is, of course, possible that in the end one side is entirely wrong, full stop. But in this case I don't think that's true. And a view that encompass both sides is more attractive, because it can, in theory, show what motivates each side — let us see the truth mixed in into each side. It lets us explain more about the world, see more fully, since we can see at least partially from both perspectives.3 It allows us to understand more about the world—since both viewpoints are, after all, an important part of our world. It explains more.
The biggest departure from trans women's current view would be the issue of history. Trans women often say that they have always been women; they describe themselves as having a girlhood, not a boyhood; they say that the doctor who, seeing a penis, called them a boy made a mistake.
I must admit that, for me, this reclamation of history is one of the appealing things about the view. I think that being able to speak about what was—not , perhaps, in their interior self, but to the rest of the world—is important. It seems to me wrong in all sorts of important and obvious ways to say that the men's decathlon at the 1976 Olympics was won by a woman, or that The Matrix was directed by a team of two women directors. Saying these things lead to all sorts of oddities and questions (wow, did they experience any sexism in trying to get The Matrix produced?) that are avoided if you simply say that the man who won the decathlon later transitioned and is now known as Caityln, while the men who made The Matrix both transitioned so that by the time they made the TV Show Sense8 they were women.
This is not, I should say, meant to be a license to casually dead-name trans women: politeness and kindness and respect still matter, and we shouldn't throw around women's dead names for no reason, or simply to be hostile. It does, however, suggest that someone more leniency be given for celebrities who transition after they are already famous, as well as people who we know personally before and after their transition. I think it is cruel to refer to a trans woman now as a man, or as he; but to say that she was a boy, well, that makes sense in some contexts.
I am not suggesting that trans women give up their lived reality described by so many—I have always known that I was a woman. I am asking that they recognize the completion of that sentence: "inside". So that they can say I have always known that I was a woman on the inside, and have that truth acknowledged, while also recognizing that to the world, and thus as they move within the world, they are men—until they chose, or manage, to transition: to become, by steps and degrees, what they were not before: women.
The other way in which this won’t please trans activists is that it is, in most if not all of its variations, exclusionary towards a certain set of people: those who want to claim that nothing is required beyond declaration. Now, obviously those who think this, as long as they think that a declaration is required and does change things (rather than just reveal them as they always have been) are one variation of this view. But I would guess that for most of us, some more deliberate action would be required.
But one part of the motivation here is that when I hear each side talking, they often seem to talk only about the edge cases of a spectrum—and different edge cases. Trans activists say that trans women do try to look female, do work hard to present as such, even if they can’t (and possibly never will) pass. Gender critical feminists, on the other hand, talk a lot about men who simply declare themselves women and take no other affirmative steps, even (say) shaving off their beard. This view, were it to be adopted, would allow each side to hold their current view on the edge of the spectrum that seems to most concern them: trans women could say that those who make a real effort have become a woman, and should be treated as such; gender critical feminists could say that doing nothing is not enough, and that no one with a beard should use the women’s room.
If anyone is willing to hear it, it might—just might—be the basis for a compromise. For a dialing down of tension. For turning disagreement from an existential threat to a technical issue to figure out. For seeing things from each other’s viewpoints.
As for why this appeals to me personally, most of it is simply that it accords with my intuitions, my instincts, my gut reactions. I have known trans women who have transitioned, and they are clearly women. At the same time, I don't think that that is a magic process done simply by intoning the right words. It is a process that is biological (usually, at least to some degree) and social, and that takes time. Again, I think that the initial steps, which take courage and resilience, should be recognized at once: we should support our trans sisters who are still making their way to womanhood by helping them with the easiest steps, their preferred names and pronouns, right away. But that doesn't mean won't understand that they have a ways to go before they get there.
But there is another reason, too. I am an autogynephile; I am also, albeit to a lesser extent, a crossdreamer. I often imagine what I would be (or would have been) if I were to become (or had been) a woman. But I do know that I am not one. I don't identify as a woman; I don't see myself as in any particular way feminine. I just wish, often, that things were otherwise. The current trans activist view—that to proclaim one’s womanhood is to claim it—refuses to see the condition that I (and, I suspect, many others) are in: that is, that we precisely want what is not the case to be (or have been) the case. I mean, sure, I could stand up, say I am now Georgina, my pronouns are she/her… and then get a lot of people (nearly all with the best of motives) to treat me as a woman. But it wouldn’t actually get me any closer to anything that I, at least, actually want.
But I do think that if I were to call myself Georgina, and have HRT to feminize my body, and to get surgery to transform my penis into a neovagina, then I would be a woman. I think I would have changed myself. There are limits to the level that those changes could reach, especially at my age, but they would be very significant. I would feel like a woman. Maybe not an attractive one, or the sort of one that I am in my daydreams; but a woman, nonetheless.
Which is to say, this view helps me make sense of my own feelings. It is not the reason I adopt it (I don't think), and certainly not the reason I would suggest anyone else adopt it. But as this is a confession, I should confess this: this view is also a personal one.
"Trans women become women" is a slogan. The slogan is simple, but the reality is not. To capture what a policy should be, or even how we can best think about any particular person, requires nuance and specifics and multiple lines. The two fighting faiths that dominate the debate create results that leave no ambiguity when checking a box on a form or composing within 288 characters. The GC can say that the census form should force trans women to check male; the TRA can say that the census form should enable everyone to check the box that matches their identities. The third way... does not fit into a census very easily.
This is a problem, but it is also its strength. The extreme ideologies have evolved to digest, explain and judge every situation in under 288 characters, usually leaving enough space for insults. The third way attempts to explain the world, to grapple with the complexity that is really there—something which does not fit within 288 characters. Starting with a different end point (correct portrayal not politics) it achieves different strengths (accuracy not simplicity).
Of course, as I have phrased it, even the third way is over-simplified: trans women become women is still a slogan, even as it tries to suggest a more complex reality. It arguably both understates the real womanhood of those who identify without transitioning and overstates the transformation of those who do all that can be done. It is not perfect by any means. But it is better, I think, than the existing alternatives.
(Recurring) Notes on practical matters
This newsletter is a part of Confessions of an Autogynephile, an ongoing memoir in the form of a Stack of Sub essays (with occasional bonus politics thrown in, as there is this week). At least for the foreseeable future, this newsletter will (usually) post once a week on Wednesdays, and will be free.
If anyone wishes to contact me, I am reachable by email under the handle YorickPenn at gmail, and am on twitter as PennYorick (I don't know why twitter wished that backwards, but it wasn’t my doing).
At the moment I am known to no-one, having been just (re)born as poor Yorick: so there is no one to promote this newsletter to. (For what I rather hope are obvious reasons, I will not send a link out to my friends and family!) Therefore, if you know anyone who might find it of interest, I would be grateful if you would send it there way.
Next week is Rosh HaShannah, so I am taking the week off. So instead…
It's odd how the people who most loudly suggest that sex is a spectrum oppose the notion that there might be a process with in-between stages in a transition, but there you are.
Although here, unlike with pronouns, I can see an argument that one might ask for one more step, namely, some indication of effort. There are people who identify as trans women who make no effort to look like women at all—for instance, who have beards. If you're not even willing to shave, I think using the women's bathroom is a bit of a stretch. But, again, the key point here is the general point that this needs to be discussed and debated, not that my specific lines are right.
I am not saying that in any debate there will always be a mid-point; we know that is not the case. But even in those cases, it is worth trying to see what motivates the other side in a sympathetic way. A good example of this is Stephen Jay Gould's essay "William Jennings Bryan's Last Campaign" which, on the occasion of a Supreme Court victory denying any refuge to the falsehood of creationism, sought to sympathetically understand why Bryan was drawn to that (unquestionably false) view. Which is to say: even if we are entirely right, we still have sympathetic work to do. And more often, we are not entirely right. So let us do the work preemptively, without compromising on truth, and see how far that gets us.