Building Bridges

By Jenny Roberts


"Respect cannot be learned, purchased, or acquired; it can only be earned." Anonymous

It may be a women's hostel, a rape-crisis centre or women-only social space. But, increasingly, women's groups all over the [U.K.] are experiencing a difficult conflict: whether or not to admit M-to-F transsexuals.

Understandably, many lesbians have reservations and some are totally opposed. It is, after all, an ex-man, insisting that she is a woman, that is demanding equal treatment. Quite naturally, there are fears about the dynamics of the group. About the vulnerability of some members and perhaps, if we are honest, the feeling that the transsexual is an alien being whose presence is simply not appropriate or comfortable.

Not surprisingly, the transwoman - who probably doesn't understand the concept of women's space anyway - feels utterly rejected and hurt. She has never felt like a man; she has always identified with women. Therefore, she rationalises, she is a woman. She has a right to be included.

Inevitably, dispute and upset follows. Some of the women feel threatened, and differences and divisions often occur over what should be done. Meanwhile, the rejection feeds the transsexual's insecurity and battered self-value and she often responds in the only way she knows - with male aggression and anger. The resulting conflict damages us all - transsexuals and born-women alike - and it particularly upsets those of us who understand what it means to live among other women and share a community

So what is the solution? Well, let's be clear on one thing from the start. As M-to-F transsexuals, we can never be real women. However distasteful we may find it, and however hard some transsexuals may argue against it, the inescapable fact is that we've grown up with gender privilege. We've been taught to compete, take power and demand what should be ours. And we've done it for so long that we don't even notice it happening. What's more, it's likely that the women we've known so far have been too sympathetic and made far too many allowances. No one has told us the way it is - not the doctors, not the psychiatrists, not the surgeons. "You want to be a woman? Fine! Take the tablets, wear a dress, and learn to use make-up". Nobody, but nobody, mentions women's politics, women's culture or letting go of male power. (How would they? With few exceptions the gender practitioners are almost exclusively male) So nobody prepares us. And when the 'rejection' comes it feels personal, hurtful and very, very scary. And sometimes we can react in the wrong ways.

But, however understandable it may be, demanding equal treatment is not acceptable - or productive. However strongly we may identify as women, as transsexuals we need to acknowledge that we are different. We don't know what it's like to grow up as a girl in a male dominated society, we'll never experience women's puberty and menopause, we can't conjure up the social experience of growing up female, or know what it's like to bleed. Of course we can approximate the physical shape and we may well consider that, inside, we feel the same as born-women feel. But, demonstrably - and however much we may wish otherwise - we cannot be the same. If we can learn to respect this difference openly, then we can embrace the solution that it offers.

First, transwomen should be scrupulously honest about their past. We should be sensitive to the fears and perceptions of others, respectful of women's space and the vulnerability that is sometimes found within it. We should accept that there are groups where our presence is not appropriate and groups where it is. And we should stop acting like we still have the privileges that we grew up with. That means making an effort to understand just what it may feel like to grow up as a woman rather than as a man. It means reading about and digesting as much of women's history as we can; understanding what the struggle for equality was - and is - about. It means talking to women about their reservations and fears about us. And doing it all that without becoming angry or hurt, defensive or aggressive.

But respect works both ways, and transwomen can't do this alone. Often they won't even begin to understand the issues involved. I was lucky. Like most post-op transsexuals I trotted out the mantra, "I'm a woman, you have to accept me." But my first (lesbian) girlfriend was a strong woman and - thank goodness - she set me right: teaching me about difference, explaining the politics, making me think about the reality of entering the lesbian community, and the reservations of some of the women I would meet along the way. I learnt that I should walk away respectfully when I wasn't invited in, that I should feel honoured at the gift of inclusion when it was given, and that I should listen and learn from the women who I wished to live among. It wasn't easy - when you are vulnerable and insecure, criticism and rejection hurts. But slowly my male perceptions began to change as I came to understand how very different it was to live in a women's community. I began to understand, too, how I could still have the freedom to be me - but in a way that was also respectful and gracious to those who had been born as women.

So, transsexual women need mentors who will be totally honest (as well as understanding and kind). They need to be shown the boundaries, to learn about changing inappropriate behaviour, to understand that the women's/lesbian community is very different from the way men perceive it to be. And they need help in letting go of male culture. It is a hard, painful path to follow but, for us, it is the most important journey of all - and we can't make it unless someone helps us.

But what about those transwomen who won't take that journey? We all know who they are. Those who continue to flout the conventions, trash feminist issues and ride roughshod over anyone who crosses them. What about them?

Well, I believe that the deal is this: Being accepted into the lesbian community is a gift that can only be given by others. And it is a gift we have to earn - by respecting difference, by behaving appropriately and by understanding how to fit in. If individuals won't make that effort, if they insist purely on membership "by right," then they do not deserve acceptance. There can be no excuse for arrogant, confrontational behaviour from some individuals. Such people not only cause damage to the community, they also undermine the effort that the rest of us are making.

Respect cannot be bought through a sex-change operation. It has to be earned. And if transwomen can both give and earn respect, then our world - and yours - can be just fine.


© 2002 by Jenny Roberts and Diva Magazine; used by permission.