Dear Ms. Burkett: It’s Not About Brains

I finally read the opinion piece in last Sunday’s NY Times (I’m not going to link it, but it’s easy enough to find) by Elinor Burkett, ostensibly about Caitlyn Jenner’s trans coming out in something of a media onslaught, but which quickly descends into a diatribe against all trans women (and some trans men, but more on that later).

Look, I agree with you about brains. I don’t think men’s and women’s brains are much different. But along that thought:

1. Just because a specific trans person says they believe in any particular thing, doesn’t mean all trans people agree. Remember your oft-referred to women’s studies training—no community is a monolith.

2. Just because a trans person says something with which you disagree doesn’t mean you ought to go whole hog in throwing the entire community under the bus as trampling on your womanhood and need to be kept on the margins of culture because you personally are so offended. To reverse your example, my cis gender partner Susanne has identified as female her entire life and she disagrees that there are male and female brains, but SHE DIDN’T JUST CALL CAITLYN JENNER A MALE PRIVILEGED FAKE WOMAN IN THE NEW YORK FREAKING TIMES. Because all women have different opinions from each other. Isn’t that nice?

Now then, let’s move to your understanding of experience, since it seems to be a bridge too far for you to honor someone else’s life if they didn’t walk exactly in your steps. There is zero accounting for race or class difference in your brand of feminism as articulated in your opinion piece. You think you get to exclude trans women from the extraordinarily broad range of femininity and womanhood because for some portion of their life they lived as men or boys? Well I have a news flash: EVERY WOMAN’S EXPERIENCE IS DIFFERENT. (As I said on Facebook, if you want to see the differences in your experience as a woman from someone else’s, just go swimming in a pool in Texas.) Your experience is different from Black women, from women who come from a socioeconomic class not immediately preoccupied with career advancement but with keeping food in their cupboards, from first-generation immigrant women, from disabled women, and hell, from women with endometriosis, since you brought up period flow. (You don’t scare me talking about period flow, even if you used in such an incredibly disingenuous way.)

The wonderful, powerful thing about womanhood is that it is entirely capable of including all of these disparate experiences. It grows and flexes and rises up to meet the challenges of every modern age that has asked it to change. When capitalism asked women to enter the workforce, they did, and although there were men who mocked the riveter Rosies, they were still women. When lesbians came out of the shadows of culture and said they were their own community, there were people who railed against them, but they insisted they were still women, EVEN AS they themselves eschewed the 1950s brand of femininity that they said had previously kept them in the closet. When women in the 1980s said they wanted to break the glass ceiling and sit in the executive board rooms across America, they were labeled Feminazis, but feminists stood up and said they’re still women.

So now it’s 2015, and feminism has pushed from all angles at the notion of womanhood and here you are, drawing some ridiculous line in the sand? Now? In 2015? Ms. Burkett, that argument is over. It’s gone. You’re reaching back to the same threads of reductive hate that you yourself have fought against. It doesn’t matter that your veiled invective is aimed at a different sub-population of women, you’re still fighting against yourself as you make arbitrary and intellectually impoverished swipes at trans women. Feminism has moved on from your little corner of thought, and it did so a long time ago.

I agree talking about essential male and female characteristics is unhelpful. I wish Caitlyn hadn’t said she thought her brain was different, but it’s not a point to use against her entire identity. Many trans people are looking for validation, especially as they begin transition, as an anchor. How does a person REALLY know they’re trans? For me, I wasn’t sure for something like the first five years. It is so out of left field that I thought I was losing my mind—how could I possibly be a man? After all, I’d hit all of the so-called milestones you included in your opinion piece, the inconvenient menarche, the chronically underpaid paychecks, the fear of assault, plus I was tall and large, which oh my gosh, didn’t jive very well with some people’s notions of womanhood! Can you imagine! So when it started becoming a thought in my mind, and then a fixation, and then an obsession, that I might live as a man, that I might actually IDENTIFY as a man, I wanted some kind of evidence. There is none. At the very least, our culture hasn’t been working on helping individuals figure out their gender identity and presentation, or more precisely, it wasn’t a cultural project back in my day (I grew up in the 70s and 80s). So please forgive my fellow trans travelers if we sometimes latch onto an idea or concept that doesn’t jive with your version of feminism. It’s not a justification to say that we’re not real people in these lives we’ve worked hard to live.

One more thing: every time you point to a biological marker, like uteruses or penises or menstrual blood or breasts, you’re doing the same thing you’re critiquing PLUS you’re making trans women feel bad ALL OVER AGAIN about the limitations of their bodies. That’s not only unfeminist, that’s cruel. And also, you’re missing out. Trans women, no matter how long they lived before they transitioned, they didn’t experience male privilege in the way you think they did. Just as I didn’t revel in the joys of womanhood—each marker of my gender only served to make me confused, aggravated, or depressed. And through this experience, many trans women I know developed a terrific insight into gender that today’s feminism finds vital. Quite of few trans women friends of mine also have the sharpest wit, great senses of humor that are amazing to witness as, say, you’re sitting around complaining about your limited paychecks with the girls. Feminism, womanhood, identity, and the world are so much larger than your vision. They’re more generous, grand, and inclusive. They’re pushing progress in ways I never thought I would see when I was a fresh out of the box lesbian in 1990. I’m excited to see this new world unfold and I wish you would join us in it.

But madam, you have a LOT of reading and thinking to do first.


P.S.: If someone is working on reproductive rights, do you really care what their gender identity is, or whether they have a uterus in their body or not? I mean, ALEC is out there doing everything it can to stop abortion and choice in the US, how about we work with the folks who are showing up? For Pete’s sake.

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2 Comments on “Dear Ms. Burkett: It’s Not About Brains”

  1. June 9, 2015 at 10:00 am #

    Beautifully, wisely, urgently said! Thank you for your wisdom!

    • evmaroon
      June 9, 2015 at 10:02 am #

      Thank you! I am a bit surprised at how many people have come out with opinion pieces about trans women since the Vanity Fair cover and Diane Sawyer’s interview. It’s been a conflicted moment for trans visibility, to say the least.

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