Thanks for publishing the article "Dyke with a Dick" in The Second Coming. I thought I was the only transwoman in my position, being a lesbian who doesn't have a conventional pussy. I decided years ago that getting genital surgery was not for me. It takes me a long time to have an orgasm already, just because of the estrogen, and I couldn't take the risk of losing the ability to come forever. I know the surgery has improved since I transitioned, but I still feel like I have adjusted well enough to my body and my life. I have a beautiful woman in my life who says sex is between your ears, not between your legs. But I know she would like to go to events like lesbian sex parties or women-only saunas, and this upsets me. I wish I could go with her, and she won't go without me. Do you think the lesbian community will ever get to the point where women like me will truly be welcome?
But that's not much of a weekly column, is it?
I'm going to explain what the problem is, but I ask for your patience, Transdyke, because you will already know much if not all of what I have to say.
Lesbianism, like male homosexuality, heterosexuality, and to some extent bisexuality as well, is based on a belief that there are people called "women" who are essentially different from the people called "men." For most lesbians, identifying who is a woman and who is a man is so important that the community has wasted a lot of time and energy merely seeking out and expelling genetic females who were deemed to be "male-identified." (Yes, there was more going on than poppers and orgies in the 1970s.)
We all know that females have xx sex chromosomes and males have xy's. But very few of us carry around the sort of laboratory equipment needed to determine what a person we are interest ed in has by way of sex chromosomes. But we can pull their pants down! So for most of us, the presence or absence of a penis is what determines gender. People with penises are men; you can't be a man without one. (Yes, it's hard for me to say that with a straight face.) You don't have to have a vagina or the other parts of female genitalia to be declared a woman; you just have to lack a penis.
Lesbians are perhaps unique in their recognition of and appreciation for the fact that women have lovely and fascinating sex equipment. No lesbian would fall for the lie that a woman's sex could be defined as an absence or lack of anything. Lesbian are connoisseurs of cunt, our world's foremost experts on its contours, erotic possibilities, taste, color, depth, and foibles.
But this leaves women like you at a distinct disadvantage. Like your lover, I would agree that the most important aspect of gender is between our ears, not our knees. It's the inner conviction of being male or female that guides an individual as they seek out and shape an adult life. When that conviction doesn't match what biology has given you to work with, life can get pretty damn difficult. In an older paradigm of transsexuality, we were all supposed to get genital surgery and just disappear into the majority. But the truth is that even getting surgery rarely allows us to pass completely. More and more transpeople are being honest about deciding not to get lower surgery and demand the right to be recognized as their gender of preference anyway.
I do feel that I need to add, however, that many transpeople do get genital surgery, and for many of them, that is necessary in order to feel secure in their gender identity. The quality of the surgery has indeed improved a great deal since these operations were first performed fifty or so years ago. Transwomen especially can expect a much higher rate of being able to achieve orgasm after surgery. I do not want to contribute to a negative view of transmen or transwomen who get genital surgery. Sometimes taking that risk is very important and necessary.
Acceptance of transwomen first appeared in the leatherdyke community. Everyone who hosts a sex party or other intimate women-only occasion has their own admission policy about gender. Some events are advertised for women-born-women only (as if transpeople were not born with their own unique identities). The places that welcome transwomen will sometimes ask that you have legal ID that says you are female; others care only about your self-label and way of life. Sometimes transwomen who have not had genital surgery are specifically excluded.
Sometimes all that's necessary is to keep your undergarments on. I know transwomen who attend sex parties or saunas for women only who do this; they don't engage in full nudity. I think it helps a lot if you know other women who are at the event, and they are educated about trans issues and willing to support your right to be there.
Sadly, however, I think most lesbians will continue to associate penises with men, and define a transwoman's preoperative genitalia as a penis. Gender essentialism is a problem here, but so is the hatred and fear of men. I would be the last person to defend patriarchy. But a feminism that's based on eliminating men is advocacy of bias and genocide. The world cannot be easily divided into the women who are the good, progressive people and men who are the evil, subordinating people. There are many, many women who collaborate in maintaining a male-dominated society, and there are men who are feminists and working on creating a world with less violence and more equality.
The only thing that will make this change is activism. Transwomen who identify as lesbians need to confront the rest of the lesbian community and demand change. I say this knowing it's a hard thing to do. People don't like being called on their prejudices. Many transdykes settle for local acceptance and a friendship network of progressive lesbians who accept them and validate their lesbianism. Ten years ago, even that much probably would not be possible. But it's not enough, as your letter points out. Being a token is not the same thing as being able to enjoy full freedom and a right to participate in your community's life.