Cisters, we need to talk. (By “cis” I mean cisgender women–people who were assigned female at birth and also identify as women).
We’re living in scary times, battling multiple pandemics, and in the wake of the Supreme Court gutting abortion rights, the assault on autonomy over our bodies continues. With lives at stake, many trans and gender non-conforming people have come out to say to cis people, “Hey, please don’t forget about us in the fight for abortion rights,” as many trans men and gender non-conforming people have uteruses, are also able to give birth, and are already facing disproportionate harm when it comes to receiving healthcare. The backlash has been swift.
Many famous cis white women like Bette Midler and Pamela Paul in the New York Times have gone so far as to say that using inclusive language like “birthing people” or “people with uteruses” instead of just saying “women” when talking about abortion rights, is “erasure,” and just as violent as politicians and judges making anti–abortion laws. Unfortunately, Black cisgender women have also been attacking trans people. The latest Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) to join the fray is singer Macy Gray who went out of her way to be a guest on noted racist and misogynoirist Piers Morgan’s show to say, “Just because you go change your parts, doesn't make you a woman, sorry."
This is straight up transphobia and just not true. Trans women are women. And “womanhood” is a social construction–which means its rules are made up by what a society decides at a point in time. It is not biological. (Even in biology, there are more than two sexes.) And looking to "parts" to make up the definition of a woman is dangerous.
Last week, a pregnant 10-year-old child, a rape victim, had to flee Ohio to get a legal abortion last week. This child has the “parts” to give birth, but is in no way a woman at 10 years old. There are women who have no reproductive organs. There are women who are unable or uninterested in giving birth. There are women who don’t want to ever be mothers. There are innumerable ways to be a woman. But when you reduce women to their “birthing parts,” you should not be surprised when your society dictates what you are and aren’t allowed to do with those parts. Motherhood is a choice and for all of our protection, it must be separate from womanhood.
Transphobia is violent and harms all Black women (that means cis and trans). To understand this, we must understand who constructed our ideas of womanhood and why.
The oppressive systems that all Black women are living under are interconnected and multi-faceted, targeting us for race, gender, sexuality, ability, class and so much more. This white supremacist, capitalist, ableist, cishetero patriarchy (to paraphrase bell hooks) has constructed our identities and assigned value on our lives based on how white we look, and how well we perform our assigned gender, heterosexuality, able-bodiedness and wealth. As a result, of course, white, straight, cis, able-bodied, wealthy men are at the top of this oppressive system and do everything in their power to oppress us so they can remain there.
When wealthy, land-owning, white men wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” they were only talking about other wealthy, land-owning, able-bodied white males, to the exclusion of everyone else.
Similarly, all the “women” (who did not even exist in any of America’s founding documents) were white, able-bodied, and married to men. Under white supremacist patriarchy, these white women could not hold elected positions or vote. Their property ownership was limited without fathers, husbands or brothers controlling their fates. Their pedestaling of white women as the ideal of womanhood, with a delicateness that needed to be protected and cared for by men has always been oppressive and infantilizing. But white women took comfort in having power over people with less wealth and people who weren’t white. And many of these footsoldiers of the patriarchy hold onto their white power in the face of their own gender oppression to this day.
When you understand the creation of womanhood and manhood as white supremacist constructs meant to specifically exclude the Black people they enslaved, you understand that womanhood and manhood are identities based on the whims of our oppressors, that can be taken away from us whenever they feel like it.
Ask Caster Semanya. The two-time Olympian and queer Black woman from South Africa is dark-skinned, muscular, married to another woman, and naturally produces testosterone in her body, which white people have decided gives her an unfair advantage to compete in women’s sports. The international governing body of sports decided she had to take medication to chemically alter her biology in order to be “female enough” to compete as the woman she is, or she would be banned from competing. Silver medalist Francine Niyonsaba from Burundi and bronze medalist Margaret Wambui from Kenya and many more were also banned for the same reason. That’s what happens when you win too much as a Black woman: they change the rules.
Ask Megan Thee Stallion. After all the hate she got for just literally being a victim of a shooting “allegedly” committed by Tory Lanez, she knew that her race, her complexion and the build of her body all played a role in why she was not allowed to be the dainty woman who deserves protection, care and human decency.
“And I don’t know if people don’t take it seriously because I seem strong,” Megan told Rolling Stone. “I wonder if it’s because of the way I look. Is it because I’m not light enough? Is it that I’m not white enough? Am I not the shape? The height? Because I’m not petite? Do I not seem like I’m worth being treated like a woman?”
Black cisgender women like Megan face transmisogynoir too, because the root of the violence against all Black women specifically is to reinforce our devaluation as people in comparison to white women and white men. Despite the ways individual Black women can gain proximity to whiteness (through colorism/featurism; through class; through performance of gender), we will never as a group be treated equally to white people under white supremacy. The police that murder Black people with impunity, regardless of our class and gender performance, will remind us of that. But cis people don't have to play the role of police against trans people for them. We don’t have to hold as sacrosanct a white supremacist construction of gender and gender expression that was never meant to include Black people in the first place!
When cis people reject transphobia, we are actively rejecting white supremacy and all of its spawn: classism, ableism, colorism/featurism, capitalism, and cishetero patriarchy. We are actively rejecting the idea that we can quantify people’s value and grant and restrict their rights as a result. We are boldly claiming bodily autonomy and personhood as a human right and becoming one step closer to our own liberation. And we need it urgently.
Trans people are under attack. More than 300 anti-trans rights’ bills have been introduced across the country in 2022 alone. Black trans women are being murdered with impunity in record numbers. Like Black cis women, Black trans men and gender non-conforming people are at extreme risk due to these abortion bans. Our siblings are in danger. They are not “replacing” or “erasing” us; they are us. And when white supremacists start to blur these so-called fixed lines about who these bans apply to – the same way they’ve done in sports to so many Black women; the same way they've done to a 10-year-old rape victim; the same way they've done to the chronically ill whose life-saving medication may be banned under the new abortion rules - we’ll all find out the hard way.
Cis people, we have a choice to make. The scapegoating of trans women, trans people and other gender non-conforming people will not save us. Trans people are not our enemies. They are not the ones who have built the systems that oppress us. They are our sisters and siblings and our liberation is tied up together. Our collective struggle is against white supremacist, capitalist, ableist, cishetero patriarchy. We can either be the overseers for white supremacy and eventually get crushed under its boots, or we can all be free.
Which will you choose?
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