Ain’t I a woman?

All week long, the media has been all atwitter about Jenna Talackova’s disqualification from the Miss Universe Canada pageant last weekend. A 23-year-old Vancouver native, Talackova was disqualified, according to Miss Universe Canada officials,  because “she did not meet the requirements to compete despite having stated otherwise on her entry form.” And what requirement, pray tell, did she fail to meet? Talackova was born male, knowing by age 4 that she was a female. She started taking hormones when she was 14, and she underwent gender reassignment surgery at age 19. Although her genitals look female, she wasn’t born with them. Hence the disqualification.

Of course, this is not the first time that transwomen have been asked to stay away from cisgendered female spaces. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, for example, is a well-known example of a “womyn-only space” – and their “womyn-born-womyn” policy effectively excludes transwomen from this space. Emerging during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, women-only spaces were intended as “safe zones” for women – places where women could experience freedom from the patriarchal dictates of femininity and womanhood. In women-only spaces (theoretically, at least), a woman is free from the objectification of the “male gaze.” She won’t have to worry about her voice being ignored, trampled on, and silenced. She won’t have to appropriate a masculine persona in order to be heard. And she’ll have the freedom to be who she is on her own terms, rather than defining herself in relation to men. Even the term “womyn” was a linguistic step away from the binds of patriarchy, conveying the idea that one doesn’t need “man” in order to be “womyn.”

From this standpoint, not every woman is a “womyn.” Inside every transwoman is a man, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Cisgendered women were born female, raised as girls, and socialized under the dictates of patriarchy. Transwomen were born male and raised as boys, experiencing male privilege along the way. That alone, argue advocates of women-only spaces, makes transwomen not-women. In her book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, radical feminist scholar Janice Raymond repeatedly refers to transwomen as “male-to-constructed-females,” powerfully revealing her belief that transwomen are really anything but women.

So here’s what I find interesting about all this. So many of us think that, biologically speaking, there’s “male” and there’s “female” and that’s all there is to it. But Anne Fausto-Sterling’s classic article, “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough,” in which she focuses on intersex conditions, suggests otherwise. “Intersex” is a general term used to refer to conditions in which a person is born with a sexual or reproductive anatomy that doesn’t fit into the standard definition of “male” and “female.” In one of these conditions, called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), a person who is genetically male (with one X and one Y chromosome) is resistant to male sex hormones. Despite having the genetic makeup of a man, a person with AIS typically has some or all of the physical characteristics of a woman. In fact, in many cases, AIS individuals look like model-perfect females, with a tall stature, slim figure, voluptuous breasts, long legs, and clear skin. It’s no wonder that more than a few women with AIS find their way into the modeling industry – the same industry that has blackballed Jenna Talackova. And even though women with AIS have an XY chromosomal pattern – and in many cases have undescended testes – you don’t hear about women with AIS getting kicked out of beauty pageants.  

Come to think of it, you don’t really hear about AIS women at all. In fact, some women with AIS don’t even know they have it, because that information has been concealed from them – or, in some cases, information was fabricated in order to hide the truth. Eden Atwood, a model, actress, and singer with AIS, was told by her doctors that she had twisted ovaries and that removing them would result in infertility, when in fact her “twisted ovaries” were actually undescended testes. In fact, historically medical protocols have called for constructing intersex children into one sex or the other. And why is the truth hidden from view? Because the truth calls the male-female binary into question.

 So what is a woman? Are transwomen really women? Are AIS women really women? Am I, a cisgendered female, more woman than Jenna Talackova, or Eden Atwood?

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Filed under intersex, transgender, transphobia

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