Gender: A Family Story

My trans daughter and I have something in common besides our gender: We’ve both spent a lifetime being mistaken for men. We’re taller than most women. We have enormous hands. We need to shop in the men's department for our shoes. We're physically strong, and naturally muscular. Our shoulders are broader than our hips. When either of us walks into a public restroom, women scream. It happens to us both. It happens all the time. These women don't care if one of us had an "F" typed on the birth certificate as a newborn and the other one had an "M.” We don’t belong.  And whenever I hear the arguments that radical feminists make to exclude women like my daughter, I hear arguments that exclude me, too.
My daughter and I have both suffered because we live in bodies that other people think we shouldn’t be living in. My height and muscularity bothered my mother so much that she sought out medical interventions to keep me from becoming too manly. She took me to see doctors who specialized in treating a socially constructed malady known as Tall Girl Syndrome. She mused about finding specialists to remove vertebrae from my back—or maybe a few inches from my leg bones—to make me shorter. 
When my daughter was a child she was satisfied with “he” pronouns, but she liked to wear dresses and nail-polish. My neighbors saw my child playing in the front yard in a dress, and they called the police. Three times. On three separate occasions men with guns came to my door and grilled me on my parenting methods. Then they looked my child over for signs of abuse. It happened in one of the most liberal counties in California. My child learned that wearing a dress was dangerous, and that the neighbors were watching us all the time, and judging her, and judging her mother, too, for our gender crimes.
Here’s another way my daughter and I have something in common: We’ve both known male privilege. Yes. I own it. I've benefited from a powerful kind of male privilege my whole life, even if I'm an AFAB. While living inside of this big strong body, and no matter what the shape of my genitals, I’ve never felt the ever-present, inchoate terror that I see in women’s eyes every time they scream at me in public restrooms. I don’t live in constant fear of being harmed by a stranger.
Men treat me differently from the way they treat women—that’s what male privilege looks like, when extended to a woman. When men look at me, they see someone they code as mainly masculine. This misconception has privileged me in all sorts of ways throughout my life. It’s helped me tangibly: in job assignments and promotions. It’s helped me weirdly, when I’m the only woman invited to go along with the men to the golf course, or the gun range, or the geisha house. Yes. The geisha house. That happened, too. Women treat me differently, as well. They ask me to walk them to their cars at night. When they’re harassed by a random man, they look to me to intervene. 
Some feminists would exclude my daughter from the category of “woman” because my girl had the privilege of growing up as a boy. But I’m the one who has enjoyed unearned privilege, far more than my daughter, in spite of her boyhood. Long before my child ever thought: I’m trans, she triggered hostility in others. They called her ‘gay.’ They teased her incessantly, and with great cruelty, not only because she sometimes behaved outside of her expected gender box, but also because she is disabled. 
I feel strange when I hear other feminists insist that, for me to be a woman-woman, I need to have experienced a kind of vulnerability I don’t think I’ve ever faced. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously expressed this viewpoint in a 2017 interview:
“It’s about the way the world treats us, and I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
When I read this definition of what it means to be a woman—a view that defines gender by what women have been denied, and not who they are—I feel sorry for the women who believe it. It’s a view that defines gender solely by the experience of harm done to them by men. It treats womanhood like a gated fiefdom, where those inside the gates argue with one another about whether another woman—a trans woman—has been oppressed enough to enter the fiefdom or not. It harms men, too, by elevating gender above all other vulnerabilities—race, disability, sexuality—that men experience, vulnerabilities that neuter any male privilege they may have enjoyed, if only they’d been white, abled-bodied, cis-het men. Preferably also tall.
The other day my daughter said to me: “I’m done with my transition, Mom. I’m exactly the way I want to be.” What wonderful words for a mother to hear, when your daughter tells you she’s who she wants to be. I thought about how beautiful she is. I thought, fleetingly, about how unlikely it is that she won’t continue to be misgendered and misunderstood, for the rest of her life. I thought about how little it mattered. She’s unlike any other woman I’ve ever known. She’s decided it’s not her problem what people think of her. She’s done worrying whether she fits into other people’s idea of what a woman is supposed to look like. I love my daughter for many reasons, and when she told me she was done with her transition, what I loved most about her was the way she loves herself.
Photo: Ellen Zensen.
Claire Oshetsky
Photo: Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.
Chouette by Claire Oshetsky
Just lately my daughter and I have both been stepping toward a gender that isn’t entirely defined by the word woman. I could not tell you whether this exploration of our individual gender identities is because we’ve both felt excluded by the tittering, ridiculous, harmful and hurtful cultural expectations of what a woman should be. Maybe we’re just learning more about ourselves. We’re not men. Both of us are clear about that. But we’re allowing for the possibility that we belong somewhere else on the gender spectrum, other than the farthest pole marked “W.” We try on many words. Masculine woman. Non-binary. Genderqueer. Demi-woman. Demi-Warrior. Some words feel playful. Some words feel astoundingly accurate, where something about the sound of the words makes my heart pound in recognition. 
I think about how strange it is, how other people believe so completely that they get to decide who I am. 
My daughter tells me her pronouns are “she,” and “they,” and “good-boy.” 
I tell her my pronouns are “they,” and “she,” and “hey-you.” 
She tells me she’s a Pomeranian. 
I tell her I’m a Crow.
Claire Oshetsky is the author of Chouette, a novel inspired by the glorious experience of raising their daughter, musician Patricia Taxxon.

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