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Simone de Beauvoir was against essentialism–including neurological essentialism.

Date: April 29, 2013

In Transphobia Has No Place in Feminism, writer Lauren Rankin repeats a popular pro-trans argument that the (dominant) radical feminist stance on trans women (i.e. they are not women) is contradicted by Simone de Beauvior’s famous quote, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Lauren writes:

Any assumption that cisgender women are the only true women is a blatant form of bigotry. And honestly, it’s in direct violation of Feminism 101. After all, Simone De Beauvoir said more than half a century ago “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Feminism is predicated on the idea that gender is a social construct, that women are not defined by their biology, and that the category of “woman” is informed and constructed by social gender norms. If women are more than what’s between their legs, why do some feminists continue to perpetuate a patriarchal notion that biology is destiny?

I agree that “any assumption that cisgender women are the only true women is a blatant form of bigotry”–not necessarily because I believe that trans women are “true women,” but because I don’t know what “true women” means in the first place–but I don’t feel that the use of de Beauvoir’s quote in this context is appropriate.

This famous quote comes from the beginning of the book two of The Second Sex, which is a chapter about the development of gendered characteristics in childhood. de Beauvoir writes:

No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society […] Only the intervention of someone else can establish an individual as an Other. […] If, well before puberty and sometimes even from early infancy, she seems to us to be already sexually determined, this is not because mysterious instincts directly doom her to passivity, coquetry, maternity; it is because the influence of others upon the child is a factor almost from the start, and thus she is indoctrinated with her vocation from her earliest years.

Simone de Beauvoir does negate the “patriarchal notion that biology is destiny,” but that notion is not what (most) radical feminists actually subscribe to. Radical feminists believe, as did de Beauvoir, that one becomes a woman through and as a result of “the intervention of someone else” that indoctrinates female children into feminine gender roles.

On the other hand, trans activists and allies sometimes claim that trans women are women because of some “mysterious instincts,” as de Beauvoir calls it–a form of neuroessentialism. They might, possibly, be right about the etiology of gender identity, but they cannot use de Beauvoir’s words to support that position.

My position–following Naomi Scheman’s statement that “transsexual lives are lived, hence livable”–has always been that trans women are women because they just are; trans existence does not require any theoretical justification any more than cis existence does. But when trans activists and allies resort to a mis-interpretation of classical feminist text to argue against the anti-trans bigotry within feminism, I worry that it only bolsters radical feminists’ confidence that they are the only real feminists who understand feminism.

Declining Nomination to the Inaugural “Trans 100” List

Date: April 3, 2013

Last Sunday, trans activist groups We Happy Trans and This Is HOW launched the first-ever “Trans 100” List highlighting “100 trans activists currently working in the U.S. to improve the conditions of the community and the lives of those in it.”

During the launch ceremony, which was held in Chicago and was also live-streamed online, they announced my name as one of the 100 activists, without my consent. I only found out about it because someone congratulated me on Twitter. It was confusing, because at first I only read that I was “mentioned,” which didn’t make it clear if I was actually one of the 100 people named in “Trans 100” list, or if I was just casually mentioned–but someone watching the event told me that they definitely did read my name as part of the list.

Seeing my confused tweets, co-directors of “Trans 100” both reached out me later to apologize what happened. Here’s what they said:

This was the first attempt at creating a list of trans activists doing work in the community. We had over 500 nominations. A team of 17 curators researched, argued and voted on 360 distinct individuals. We had aimed to secure permission from each of the final 100 selected before the 31st, and a volunteer wrote to this address on the 26th, but there were a few people who we hadn’t heard from, yourself included.

I produced the launch event held in Chicago, where we were to read aloud the 100 names. In the last minute push to show time, I made a quick decision to read all 100 names, but hold off on publishing the list, which was supposed to be released immediately following the event.

It was a bad judgement call to read your name when we hadn’t secured your permission, and I apologize. It was an error that won’t be repeated with anyone else in the future, and I’m truly sorry you had to learn about this secondhand.

I can just imagine the nightmare of communicating with every one of 100 people when working with a deadline, so I understand why they did what they did–although of course it would have been better if they didn’t just jump forward. I do appreciate their work, and that they nominated me for the honor.

After much thought, however, I decided to formally decline my inclusion in this year’s “Trans 100” list. I just don’t like being packaged this way, especially when the list is being sent to the mainstream media, and also feel that it would impose an expectation on me that feels restrictive. I need to be able to write and speak honestly without worrying that I might give “Trans 100” list bad publicity.? I’m weird like that.

On a side note, this reminded me of when Campus Pride selected me as part of its 2009 “Hot List.” Campus Pride didn’t contact me at all, before or after the selection (well not for several years until I was contacted for something else), and I only found out about it when a local LGBT newspaper called me to interview me about it. I was so unprepared and uninterested in the listing that they didn’t even use any part of my interview.