The Prerequisites to “Woman”

A women-only pharmacy — according to reports, possibly the first of its kind in North America — is opening in Vancouver on Tuesday.  This pharmacy is designed to offer a comfortable, open environment, woman-specific information and non-judgmental counseling.  They are also planning to add a “resource centre behind Lu’s to get more health information from volunteers and peruse the library, which includes clipping files and Internet access…. a nurse practitioner …. a big couch at the back where visitors can join support groups for addictions and to stop smoking.”

I’d love to applaud this, I really would.  I know all too well the unpredictability of the biases of the person you seek medical information from, the inconsistent quality of that information, the questions about your body that you don’t dare ask anyone, the denial of reliable information on medications, the way that the health system and society in general have medicalized womens’ bodies.  But in the end, it doesn’t matter whether I applaud or not: my business is not wanted.  Lu’s: A Pharmacy for Women very specifically caters only to “any woman who was born a woman.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise, as Vancouver was also the site of the Kimberly Nixon v. Rape Relief battle.  During that controversial legal case, the trans community became largely estranged from the feminist and lesbian communities, and if this is any indication, not much has changed.

Now, don’t get me wrong: although I believe that Ms. Nixon was in the right, I do realize that Nixon v. RR was a bad scenario with a lot of grey area.  For those who don’t recall the case, it centered around a rape counseling service’s refusal to accept a volunteer because she was transsexual.  Ms. Nixon took Rape Relief before the B.C. Human Rights Commission and won, but then the organization appealed up through the B.C. Supreme Court to the B.C. Court of Appeal and overturned the ruling.  The case was appealed again, but the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear it.

And as I said, I “get” that a woman’s comfort in time of crisis such as after rape is crucial.  I get it.  I also get that the discomforts people get from encountering transsexuals (if they read us) largely come from their own inaccurate assumptions and stereotypes, rather than any real incompatibility or danger.  I also get that crisis is not the time to address those assumptions and stereotypes.  I also get that unfounded assumptions and stereotypes are not a good reason to refuse to stand behind a qualified counselor.  In the larger sphere, this thing goes around in circles until nobody can be fully satisfied with any possible outcome.

But that wasn’t the direction that Rape Relief came from.  Chief among Rape Relief’s legal arguments was that transsexuals, operative or no, are not “real women.”  And an additional argument that the larger class of transgender people did not have protection under the category of “sex” in human rights legislation (and that extended understandings of “sex” should not be taken into account) could in fact have resulted in a major step backward for both women with ambiguous or controversial gender presentation and extended circumstances such as pregnancy, had it been won at the Human Rights Commission level.  From the summation of the Human Rights case by lawyer barbara findlay QC:

“Rape Relief called as a witness a woman who had been a client of the organization in the mid-80s.  She testified that she had seen Ms Nixon at the superior court proceeding, and knew by looking at her that she would have felt uncomfortable speaking with her about the issues which had taken her to Rape Relief.  Asked whether she would object to speaking with anyone of the audience to the hearing, the client identified two people she would not want to speak with.  One was a man, the other a woman.  The woman testified in reply that she had been born a woman, considered herself unambiguously female, but had very often in her life been mistaken as a man, including by feminists at all-women’s organizations and events.  Dr. Pacey agreed that any ‘silencing’ of women would occur whether the woman was actually transsexual, or was born female but was mistaken by a client as a man.  So a rule excluding transsexual women was both overinclusive – in that it caught transsexual women who would be seen as female by the clients, and underinclusive, in that it did not address the problem the rule was designed to solve since clients might still be triggered by a woman who appeared male.”

Ms. Nixon won at the HRC level, but for the first time in a case involving a transsexual, it proceeded beyond, and was overturned.  Along the way, courts of public opinion developed several different criteria to define “woman,” many conflicting, often designed to be excluding.  In doing so, people looked at the physical, social, experiential and psychological, to arrive at prerequisites that include but are not limited to the following:

  • Physical milestones that women endure, such as puberty, menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth.  Of course, MTF hormone therapy induces physical puberty (though circumstances differ, see next point), and not all women can become pregnant or experience childbirth.  Some women with various medical conditions never experience menstruation.
  • Having always been excluded from male privilege.  Certainly, many if not most pre-transition MTF transsexuals have questioned male privilege when they’ve observed it, been sensitive to it, and chose not to assert or regard it in their own lives.  I know that before transition, I’d never felt particularly entitled, and generally-speaking, society usually picked up on that, and treated me as lesser, accordingly.  Even so, yes there were times that privilege had been granted without my assertion.  I bring none of that privilege with me from my former life, save the very clear lesson from seeing the before and after of how I as a woman am now consistently denied it.  To my thinking, transsexuals — both MTF and FTM — are able to provide the strongest testaments that male privilege exists, and just how disparate that gap really is.  That said, people early in transition sometimes have to run through a few conflicts before their eyes are opened to this.
  • Chemical traits stemming from hormones.  Within one to two years of hormone therapy, MTF transsexuals become hormonally equivalent, both in physical (muscle-fat distribution, endurance capabilities) and chemical regards.
  • Chromosomal DNA.  Of course, we don’t test everyone on this, we just assume that anyone born with male genitalia has exclusively male chromosomes.  Science has been unearthing some conflicting data, but we don’t have it all collected, yet.  Stay tuned.
  • Socialized, life-long experiences as women.  Again, many of these experiences (rape, victimization and violence, sexist treatment, discriminatory assumptions, wage disparity, the way that the commodification of the female “beauty” aesthetic affects our value as humans, medical impositions on the body) are things that MTF transsexuals can and do experience as well, but it’s often asserted that said experience has not been for long enough (yet a timeline when one has “arrived” at womanhood is never specified).  Other experiences (i.e. puberty during conflicted childhood, socialization as “girl”) are more likely to appear exclusive, but overlooks the possibility that there may be comparative experiences in a transsexual’s life.  For example, the childhood-long relentless and frequent beating out of me (both physically and mentally) of the effeminate traits that were natural to me could certainly qualify as lifelong lessons in the lesser regard that women and their associated traits are held in.  Social prerequisites stem from a belief that women are oppressed from birth by men, and that only women with common experiences of oppression are truly women. Anyone who had ever experienced life as a man is thus excluded, by this reasoning.

That said, social aspects are somewhat inadequate as prerequisites, because societies differ greatly, and what is defined as “woman” here will often be invalid in other societies.  In some cultures, wearing pants is a violation of the natural lot of women.  In some earlier cultures, matriarchal societies held women in a regard that was never undermined by male privilege.  We’ll never know the wearing of the burqa with hijab to conceal our faces and bodies; in parts of the Muslim world it is an integral aspect of womanhood, roles and experience.  Social aspects are often social constructs.  Perhaps the temptation to see social aspects as defining is why gender itself leans toward being a partial construction.

Certainly, MTF transsexuals are often not socialized the same way that women are in Western culture.  But the socialization as male didn’t take so well either, as we most often willingly and happily reject it throughout transition and beyond.  Experience is often different, yes, but creating prerequisites that are exclusionary based on experiential differences can easily lead to narrowing definitions to exclude many other women in many other realities, with many other upbringings.

Classes of people quite often feel the need to define themselves, and it’s very crucial that they be allowed to self-define.  However, narrowing self-definitions to eject various subclasses risks alienating far more people that is imminently obvious, and as proven historically disastrous.  Looking at this, I’m often reminded of the politically correct ’80s and a movement within the lesbian community to eject “butches and femmes” for perpetuating poor stereotypes (which oftentimes alienated some of the first people to come out as lesbian and foster the fledgling community), and to eject women associated with porn and sex work for perpetuating the commodification of women (when many of them were undertaking a process of reclaiming self-determination of womens’ role in and right to eroticism).  Division and exclusion has never accomplished much besides spreading resentment and betrayal, from the gay and lesbian ejection of transanyone in the 70s / 80s to transsexual ejection of transgender.  Self-definition is vital, yes, up to but not including the limit of encorporating disrespect of others.  Communal self-definition that can simultaneously respect individual self-definitions and embrace the diversities of that community and learn from the many varied experiences within has always seemed to me a preferable way to go.

Up to this point, I’ve said little about female-to-male transsexuals.  The Vancouver Women’s Health Collective, which runs Lu’s: A Pharmacy for Women, describes their mandate in their Political Agreements document as one focusing on “women who were born women and live their lives as women,” thus also excluding FTMs.    Yet here also is a class of people who in fact were mostly socialized as women, usually have female DNA, experienced hormones, and bodily / experiential milestones being excluded.  I’m not saying that FTM transsexuals are women by any stretch of the imagination, they are as male as I am female — but this demonstrates another way that the prerequisites being thrown up in front of MTF transsexuals fail, and don’t really apply when the people defining them don’t want them to.  I’ve written before about how the very existence of transsexuals appears to threaten a principle of one branch of feminist thought if it isn’t examined too closely:  I’d suggest it is this illusion of threat instead that drives the creation of these prerequisites.

Which brings us back to Lu’s, a brilliant and needed concept tarnished by a disastrously poor policy.  For those who don’t know Vancouver, that part of West Hastings is near the rough part of town, the skid row.  There are other pharmacies present, all cold environments, heavy glass between caregiver and client, patrons subject to suspicion just for entering the doors.  In this area, yes, trans sex workers and the poor of our community could probably use some respectful and reliable advice without hostility and prejudice.  Unfortunately, Lu’s is not there to give it — Lu’s has chosen to be selective in how it defines women.

And Nixon v. Rape Relief is now being used to enable a discriminatory restriction of products and services.

Lu’s is a sign of a deeper problem, one better addressed by dialogue than by boycotting or harassing what is otherwise a potentially valuable business (if that first step is doable).  It is my hope that with awareness, this dialogue between trans and feminist communities can happen.  But both parties need to be willing.

A challenge is made.

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

  1. I felt a chill when I read an article about the pharmacy and saw the bald-faced “any woman who was born a woman,” as though that were an acceptable statement. And immediately I thought of Nixon v. Rape Relief and the kind of precedent it set.

    I have experienced Vancouver as a fairly trans-friendly city. Even early in my transition, even on public transit, I was never hassled. But I now I know a place where I’m not welcome, and by implication a community that does not accept me as a woman. And as someone closely associated with the queer community, I find this very troubling.

    I agree that dialogue is the way to go. I just hope we can get one going.

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