WHAT MAKES a woman? If a man cuts off his penis, pumps himself full of hormones, gets silicone breasts and electrolysis, and stuffs his feet into high heels, is he/she a woman?
To me, that surgically and chemically altered person is a walking testament to the craziness of our cultural rigidity. If all children weren’t crammed into pink or blue categories, with prescribed sets of feelings, beliefs and behaviours, maybe the gender-ambiguous wouldn’t be driven to such painfully harsh medical extremes. Would that everyone could live freely, in freely chosen sexual modes, without mutilations and lifelong chemicals.
Being female is a complicated mixture of physiology, cultural conditioning and lived experience – or even, as one academic thesis would have it, “a political category created through oppression.” Out of politeness, I’d be willing to call that surgically altered person a woman and use the feminine pronoun. But a part of me will always feel outraged that “woman” could be defined as an outward set of physical characteristics – lack of penis, fake breasts – along with an ultra-sexist “female impersonator” style of clothing and gesture.
For me (but not for all women), some of the defining moments of femaleness were the restrictions imposed on me as a child; the shame of enduring male molestation; the omnipresent threat of male sexual attack that dogged us from the age of 8 or 9; the happy daydreams of “what shall I name my children;” the nervous pleasure of being seen as pretty; the rage that prettiness was all that counted; the sting of injustice and exclusion from endless male entitlements and privileges; the mingled embarrassment and triumph of first menstruation; the thrill of sexual power in adolescence and young womanhood; the struggle to come to terms with sexual assault; and the transformative gifts of pregnancy, childbirth and nurturance.
Want to cross-dress and send up our culture’s gender strictures by playing the vamp with a feather boa and sequins? Fine. But don’t show up at the rape crisis centre and ask to counsel women who have been victimized by male sexual violence. Imagine a raped woman fleeing to the safety of a woman-only centre, only to be confronted by a former man who had never shared any of those formative female experiences.
Kimberley Nixon, a former bush pilot, who was a man for his first 30 years and was then surgically changed, says he always wanted to be a woman. In Nixon’s discrimination claim against the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, she says she was so hurt when she was turned away from a volunteer training session at VRR that she wandered the streets weeping and thinking of suicide. She refused apologies, $500 compensation for hurt feelings and the chance to work with volunteer fundraisers. On her behalf, the B.C. Human Rights Commission is trying to force Vancouver Rape Relief to fork over $10,000 in damages, compel all staff to take sensitivity training about “transphobia” and to advertise its eagerness from now on to hire transgendered staff.
Nixon’s complaint, in which testimony has been heard at a Human Rights tribunal for the last two weeks, has tied up the VRR in legal wrangling for the past five years and has cost VRR the equivalent of an annual staff salary.
Vancouver Rape Relief is 25 years old. It relies on the hard work of a mostly male support team to raise money so it can shelter about 100 assaulted women and their children a year, and respond to 1,200 crisis phone calls. It is also one of the last woman-only protected spaces in B.C. At least one other, the Vancouver Lesbian Connection, fell apart after the B.C. Human Rights Commission ordered it to accept transgendered members.
Vancouver Rape Relief is nationally noted as a feminist centre of activism. It has made important contributions to Canada-wide debates about custody and access, rape shield laws and federal anti-violence measures.
“We’re known for our inclusiveness and our sensitivity to race and class,” said Lee Lakeman in an interview. “This hurts our reputation and could break us financially.” Lakeman, a member of the VRR collective, says that it responds humanely to transgendered people seeking help. “But we have to think of the ordinary women at our front door.”
Woman-centred services are beseiged with enemies enough in this backlash era. What a twisted irony it is that the latest and perhaps fatal blow should be inflicted by someone who wants to be a woman – but doesn’t hesitate to inflict potential ruin on a women’s service that tried to say “no” to her unwanted advances.
This article was originally published at the Toronto Star