A lexical decision
by Danielle Navarro, 13 Aug 2020
Why do I call myself a woman?
It’s not a straightforward question for me to answer. For one thing, it’s a personal question that has an idiosyncratic answer. I suspect that every transgender person has their own answer, and no two of us would say the same thing. When giving my answer, then, I do not presume to speak for anyone except myself.
Along similar lines, when I give my answer to the question I’m not trying to make a political argument. No-one is obliged to share my reasons, and in any case nothing I say here is intended to form the basis for a claim about transgender rights. As I’ve said elsewhere, it is my strongly held view that transgender rights can (and should) be justified on their own terms. To my mind, it does not matter in the slightest bit whether “trans women are real women” when that question arises: rather the only thing that matters is that (per the less annoying of the two slogans) “trans rights are human rights”
What I am trying to do by writing this is put my own reasons into words, to have them written down somewhere. I write for my own sake, because I’m tired of participating in the absurd “debate” on this topic that I see on Twitter. I half suspect that the reason I feel compelled to do this is that I’ve never made a serious attempt to describe my own views. I’ve noticed that ever since I wrote down my opinions about the justification for trans rights, I’ve not felt so obligated to talk about that subject on Twitter. I’m hoping this will serve much the same role in getting me to keep quiet on the subject of trans identities.
It is also, I’m sorry to say, something I feel obligated to do for the sake of my mental health. On the internet I am often – like other trans women — called “delusional”, “sick”, “disturbed”, “mentally ill”, etc, for no reason other than the fact that I use the word “woman” to describe myself. The terrible truth of the matter is that if enough people call you delusional and you never push back against that claim, eventually you start to question your own sanity and think that perhaps you really are delusional.
This is no small matter. In everyday life we often use the phrase “I feel like I’m losing my mind” metaphorically, as an expression of frustration. But speaking from personal experience – as someone who spent last night in the emergency room at the RPA hospital due to the suicidal thoughts that followed the most recent round of online harassment – what it actually feels like is pure, undiluted terror. To lose faith in one’s reason and one’s perception of the world is debilitating, and having gone through the experience I would not care to do so again. Nor would wish it upon others.
So. Here are my reasons. Why do I linguistically identify myself as a woman, and what does that statement mean when I say it? I leave it to the reader to decide for themselves whether these justifications constitute a delusion.
The argument from convention
My first reason is simply “by linguistic convention”: it is the usual terminology that we use to describe people like me. When I was younger the accepted term would have been “MTF transsexual”, and if I’d transitioned earlier that’s the terminology I would have used. I call myself a trans woman precisely because that’s the term most commonly used to describe the people I am most similar to.
This argument is of course very modest and a little circular, but it is worth noting that the same argument holds for every other word in my language. I call my cat a “cat” because my cat is like other cats. I assign my cat to a particular lexicalised category and I use the label “cat” for no reason other than “cat” is the accepted label within my linguistic community. Along much the same lines, I categorise myself as a trans woman (as do other people) and so I use the conventional label “trans woman” that goes with that category. Sometimes I even get – gasp – lazy and don’t bother specifying the “trans” part, and I just say “woman”.
Truth be told, speaking for myself this is single biggest reason I use the term. I’m not actually very interested in philosophical questions about what a woman “really” is. I use the word because everyone else does and that’s basically all there is to it. I just don’t care enough about metaphysics to get hung up on such matters.
It’s important to recognise then, that while this “I really don’t care, that’s just what the term is” argument is genuinely my primary reason for calling myself a woman, it honestly says nothing at all – one way or the other – about whether I am a “real” woman. A “hotdog” can be called a “dog” without being a canine, a submissive can be called a “sub” while having no resemblance to sandwiches and so on. The argument from convention says nothing one way or the other about whether, as a “trans woman” I am a real woman. All it asserts is that “woman” is one of the accepted terms used to describe a person like me.
The argument from convention is an odd one in some ways, because it is purely an argument about the words that people actually use. It is not a moral argument in any way. For example, from time to time I am called transphobic slurs – “tranny”, “shemale”, “ladyboy”, “troon”, etc – and yes, those words do refer to me. I am those things. The words are all hideously offensive (and on that basis I do not ordinarily use them), but they are words in our language whose referent is understood to include me. The argument from convention is purely an argument about what our language “is” not what it “ought” to be.
The argument from perception
The second reason I use the word “woman” is based on my experiences going about my daily life. Though a great many internet trolls have claimed otherwise, in my daily life I “pass” moderately well. I don’t have any illusions about this, of course. People do sometimes notice that I’m trans even from casual interaction: I don’t usually pass when faced with a more careful scrutiny, particularly from a hostile person. Blah blah blah. I really don’t care.
My point here is that most of the time people are lazy. They notice the breasts, the clothing, the hairstyle, the lack of facial hair, they classify me as a woman on that basis and they treat me accordingly. The consequence of this social classification is that people follow very similar social conventions in their behaviour toward me as they do toward cisgender women, including but not restricted to:
- Men hug and kiss me hello (albeit not during the pandemic!)
- In formal language I am called “ma’am” rather than “sir”
- People (both men and women) smile at me more often
- People allow (and expect) me to be more emotionally expressive toward and supportive of them
- Men hold open doors for me, expect me to enter elevators before me
- I am expected to be deferential to men
- Women are more likely to confide in me; men are less likely to
- Men explain things to me
- People (men and women alike) will direct me to the women’s toilet if I ask for directions to the bathroom
In other words, because in my everyday life I “look like a woman”, people around me expect me to “act like a woman is supposed to act”. And unfortunately, if I break those stereotypical conventions, I can be subject to the same social sanctions as a woman: men call me “bitch” when I disagree with them too assertively, for example.
Notice that this is not a metaphysical claim either. The fact that people treat me like a real woman does not mean that I am one. It only implies that I am similar to a real woman in an important respect that actually does matter in real life. In particular:
- I am expected to call myself a woman
Looking the way that I do, in everyday life it is usually perceived as a violation of social norms for me to call myself a man (the expectations of online trolls being a notable exception).
The argument from perception is subtly different to the argument from convention. By convention I call myself a woman because “trans woman” is the terminology used to describe trans women. In contrast, the social perception argument is that I call myself a woman because “woman” is the term used to describe cisgender women, and I look sufficiently similar to a cisgender woman that this is the social norm expected of me in my daily life.
The argument from gender dysphoria
The third reason I call myself a woman is simply that it makes me feel more comfortable to do so. Regardless of the reason why this is so, it causes me discomfort to call myself a man; it does not feel uncomfortable to call myself a woman.
This is, again, a slightly different reason. In this case we’re not talking about other people’s expectations, and we’re not talking about linguistic conventions either. This one is entirely about how I feel: it’s the term that makes me happy, the term that minimises my gender dysphoria, and because most people honestly couldn’t care less what I call myself that’s what I use. I’d prefer not to cause myself pain unnecessarily, so I use the term that causes me less distress. That seems entirely sensible to me?
The argument from community
Another reason I use the term “woman” to describe myself is that this is what other trans women use to describe themselves. This isn’t about linguistic convention per se, not about general social convention, and it’s not even about my gender dysphoria. It’s about expressing support for other trans women. I am not an island, and I am not the only person with gender dysphoria. Other trans women have gender dysphoria too, and if I were to call myself a man in front of them (while quite obviously living as a trans woman), it would cause them pain. Other trans women are my people, my community, and I have no desire to see them suffer.
The argument from feminism
This one is perhaps a little more controversial, because feminists are not unanimous in their views. Gender critical feminists, for example, argue that it is inappropriate to call me a woman. However, the plain fact of the matter is that they are a minority among feminists (except perhaps in the UK media). The mainstream view in feminism adopts the position that it is appropriate for trans women to use the label “woman”. Accordingly, I do so.
In a sense this does seem a little vacuous. Do I mindlessly follow the instructions from cisgender feminists? Phrased that way it seems rather pathetic of me but I’d like to suggest that it isn’t quite as empty as it sounds. One thing I spent quite a lot of time thinking about during transition is how cisgender women would perceive me or interpret the act of me using the word. If it really had been the case that most women were offended or angry at me for using the word, I would be far less willing to use it. Even before transition I tried to do my best to support women where I could and I would feel very uncomfortable “intruding” on women’s spaces if women did not welcome me. In point of fact there are some women’s spaces – most notably changing rooms – that I personally do not ever use, because I worry that it would cause severe discomfort to some women. I have no real need to use those spaces myself (quite unlike bathrooms which… look, I have bodily functions too I’m afraid), so I don’t.
My feeling about the word “woman” is very similar. If it were generally considered intrusive of me to use the word – by women, that is, I don’t care what men think on this matter – I would probably not use it. However the plain fact is that (loud protestations of the gender critical crowd to the contrary) it is considered acceptable, so I do.
The argument from law
This one is boring but it does matter. I have updated my birth certificate. I followed the legal process associated with it. That doesn’t just mean I have a legal “right” to call myself a woman (though it most certainly does), it carries a kind of obligation. Consider the Canadian man who attempted to legally changed his gender for insurance purposes but then didn’t transition in any meaningful sense. That’s terrible behaviour. If I intend to live legally as my adopted gender, then part of that is using the name. It feels wrong to me that I would adopt the word legally – at great personal cost I might add – but then decide not to use the word in social practice.
Commentary on the counterarguments
There are numerous arguments that are often put forward to claim that I should not call myself a woman. I’ll comment briefly on a few of them and explain why I don’t find them convincing.
The argument from biology
The argument from biology asserts that the word “woman” should be used to label a biological category, not a social one. That is, the term should refer to adult people with XX chromosomes, ovaries, a uterus, a vagina, high estrogen levels, breasts, no facial hair, and so on. Of those six features listed, I only possess three. As a transsexual woman I share some biological characteristics with other women, but not all. And yes, it is true to say that women occasionally lack some of these features (PCOS can cause facial hair, AIS means that some XY people are anatomically women in most respects, mastectomy is a real thing etc), I think it is fair to say that it would be only a small minority of cisgender women who have fewer of these features than I do. Statistically speaking, I am more distant from the central tendency of the distribution over biological sex characteristics than most women. Perhaps this is sufficient reason not to use the word?
I am unconvinced by this argument for a few reasons. First and foremost, most of the time when people use the word “woman” in everyday life they really aren’t making reference to a karyotype. We don’t ask people to testify as to their genitalia when ticking a box in a gender field. In most contexts we are asking about a social category, and as such my language use reflects the social realities I described earlier.
Secondly, it is also the case that my medical and legal records already specify that I am transgender. When I go to the doctor they can see what drugs I am prescribed and why I am prescribed them. In almost every real world situation where my biology is relevant that information is already available. In the few cases where it is relevant but unavailable, I disclose the fact that I am trans (assuming it is safe to do so).
Taken together, all this amounts to a simple point: when people need to know the particulars of my biology, they already know it! It doesn’t clarify anything for me to call myself a man. The only situation where it would “clarify” anything is in the case of nosy people who have no need to know what I have in my pants but think they deserve to anyway. Given that (a) such people often have the overconfident belief that they can always tell when someone is trans, and (b) I have no interest in satisfying the prurient interests of jerks, I see no reason to indulge them.
The argument from religion
I sometimes encounter people who argue that there is a religious reason to preclude trans women using the word. I’m not prepared to enter into a theological debate with anyone, however, and I myself am atheist. I rarely make a big deal out of my atheism (and I greatly dislike the obnoxious internet atheists who see it as their duty to “debunk” other people’s faith), but there are some limits to my ecumenical tendencies. This is one. I respect the faith of other people, but not to the point that I am willing to degrade and humiliate myself by referring to myself using a term (i.e. “man”) that makes my skin crawl. I do have some small amount of self respect after all. Anyone and everyone is perfectly free to believe what they like about me; they don’t have the social or legal authority to make me agree with them on this point
The argument from sex based rights
It is sometimes argued (most often by British feminists) that women’s rights are sex based rights and that this is a reason not to allow trans women to call ourselves women. I don’t find this compelling either. For example, the laws around reproductive rights where I live do not change as a function of social labels. Transgender men have abortion rights. I remain unaffected by abortion rights. Sex is legally protected in Australian nondiscrimination law. So is sexual orientation. So is gender identity. The actual legal regime where I live is such that my rights and women’s rights are not in any way affected by the word that I use to describe myself. The law is not so fragile.
There are other things I could say on this topic. This is not by any means a complete accounting of my thoughts on the subject.
Quite notably, I have not spoken about metaphysics at all. In my earlier article I outline my belief that transgender rights can be justified without reliance on any metaphysical claim; the same is true here. Again, I stress that I do not speak for anyone except myself. But when I describe myself as a woman, I’m not making a metaphysical claim at all, I’m making a pragmatic one. My reasons for describing myself as a woman are practical ones. They don’t depend on metaphysics, and they aren’t based on any psychological notion of “feeling like a woman” – honestly I don’t even know what that phrase is supposed to mean.
Life is a little less painful for me if I call myself a woman, and it doesn’t harm anyone else when I do. Personally I don’t think that decision is delusional, but as I said, I will leave it to the reader to decide for themselves.