I’ve Been Holding Back

Marlene says:

A few months ago now, Laurie and Debbie asked me to write here. I was flattered and excited. When they asked, one of the things they mentioned was that they thought my voice would be a good addition to theirs; that I would write things different than what was already here.

I have found myself in an odd position. While I have not been shy about the fact that I am a trans woman and that I am queer as the day is long, I have made a point of not letting all of my posts be about trans and queer related issues. To be honest, I have not wanted to be heard solely in those terms. I have more to say about the world than that. I have been afraid that some of you would think to your selves something like, “Marlene always writes about trans stuff and I’m not interested in / don’t have lots of background in / can’t relate to that stuff.” I have found myself saying “The next thing I write about should not be trans / queer stuff.”

I believe that some of the most interesting and important things going on in feminism these days are happening in the area of trans feminism. This is a relatively new branch of feminism where things are still being defined and the balance of various multi-faceted issues has not yet been established. Trans feminism is a branch of feminism that is still in lively flux. I am fortunate enough to be close to what I feel are some of the most important discussions going on anywhere in feminism. I regret that I have hesitated to bring some of those discussions here.

My personal perspective on body image issues and body politics is shaped by my experience as a trans woman. My understanding of intersectional oppressions is similarly rooted. I believe that my perspectives on these things were part of what Laurie and Debbie were asking for when they asked me to write here.

One of the possible risks in writing about trans and queer issues is that people might not have the necessary background to fully understand or participate in those conversations. It is not uncommon on mainstream feminist blogs for complex conversations of trans issues to be derailed by 101 level questions and comments. Because of that, I am setting aside the comment thread of this post for 101 level discussion and questions. I may not answer every question; I will likely point some people towards the information they need rather than writing it here myself.

If I have underestimated you, please accept my apology. I have hesitated to bring the best I have to offer to this blog because of my own anxieties. Having come to the point of this decision, it seems obvious and I almost wonder what I was thinking.


18 thoughts on “I’ve Been Holding Back

  1. This is awesome, actually. Being cisgendered, I haven’t had many experiences of what it is like to try to fit into the male-female social structure without the benefit of a body that somewhat fits into the definition of “female” without trying. On that note, I think that trans-feminism probably has a lot to do with fat acceptance, because of the way femininity is socially defined and the way that definition excludes a lot of people, trans or cis. It might be interesting to compare the things that we try to change about ourselves (our bodies, behavior, attitudes, expectations, etc.) to try to fit more comfortably into the definition of femininity, and whether they are constructive or destructive, et cetera. I don’t have a specific question, I guess – I’m just interested in seeing where this discussion goes.

  2. Marlene,

    I’ve just stumbled upon this blog recently and I was grateful to see your post. I’m really looking forward to reading what you have to say, regardless of the fact that I am a partner of a trans man.

    No questions here, just gratitude!

  3. Okay, then. Here’s a 101 question. I don’t understand trans people – particularly the idea that sex is more than skin deep. This may be because I don’t identify strongly with either gender as they’re currently constructed.

    What motivates trans people? Do you feel like you have the wrong plumbing? And, if there’s more to it than that, wouldn’t that have to be based on assumptions about what men and women are supposed to be like?

    Isn’t it better to broaden our concept of gender to be more inclusive and less coercive, rather than trying to change our physicality to match whichever set of stereotypes we relate to most closely?

    I have the feeling that I just don’t get it and never will.

  4. There are many things I don’t understand, but I am having a sort of ongoing Gender ID 101 conversation with a friend. As my father, the shrink, used to say, “This tells me more about you than it does about what you think you’re talking about.” But we are pretty confused! However, If this is outside the Trans area of interest/experience maybe you or another Body Impolitic reader can recommend useful references. Here’s the question–when a newborn’s genitals are outside the norm, my understanding is that traditionally doctors will operate (presumably usually altering a larger than usual clitoris that the too much resembles a penis, but I may be way wrong on that).

    Most of what I know on this I’ve read or seen on TV from survivors of this procedure who felt mutilated, which I can understand. My view would be that a really supportive parent would make the child feel okay, but support surgery when the the child was old enough to know what felt right. For the record I grew up in a very supportive home environment so that might influence my view on this.

    My friend, who has read a lot more fiction than nonfiction on this (books like Middlesex) and she feels that parents who are confused about a child’s sex every time they change the diaper may treat the child differently in a dangerous way. It’s also true that she grew up in a violent home and school environment. She feels that “different can be vulnerable” and having different genitals might expose a young person to violence at home and at school. She, feels that for the kid’s safety an operation might be a wiser choice.

    Sorry if this is way off topic and it may not have any issues relevant to Trans 101, which I’m guessing is different from Nonstandard Genitalia 101. But facts and reports from those who know more are always welcome!

  5. (sorry for the delayed response. damn day job!)

    Wow! I’m excited about these comments.


    The things you’re describing are intersex conditions and questions related to them. While there is a reasonable ammount of overlap between the communities of trans people and intersexed people, both politically and otherwise, the two issues are not interchangeable. I do not feel like I am able to address intersex issues with any sort of authority. Simply armed with the correct word, you should be able to google your way to far better information on the subject than I could ever provide.

    I can tell you that the general trend in surgery of this sort is towards removal of tissue, with the accompanying loss of sensation in adulthood that one might expect.


    I can say this. A great many transsexuals have a common experience that might be best described as some part of their brain seems surprised by the physical sex of the body they are born with. There are significant social aspects to this phenomenon as well, but it would be inaccurate to say that the phenomenon is wholly physical or social.

    There are a great many transgendered people who seek to live genders that are far outside the traditional gender binary. There are many who construct their genders in such a way as to attempt to subvert the binary gender system. These people may or may not also be transsexuals.

    I think the best answer to your question I have read can be found at


    which includes material from Whipping Girl by Julia Serano. I can’t say enough good about this book. Actually, my first post here was about the very same book.

  6. I have similar questions to Dee’s.

    Plus I wonder: Why is it assumed that trans people, gays and lesbians, and non trans feminists are allies? I’ve heard “because they have the same enemies” and while that may be true, it doesn’t seem like a good reason. They seem like they have different goals, in fact. For example, the trans woman I know personally wants to be conventionally feminine, while I feel that’s a tool of the patriarchy, etc. I know some trans people are into gender bending but others want nothing more than to be perceived as conventional men or women.

  7. Lizzie,

    I risk sounding like a broken record, but there’s really good stuff in Whipping Girl on the issues you raise as well.

    Trans people’s range of expression, personality, politics, and identity is as wide as that of the general population. This includes feminists, queers, “traditionally gendered straight people” as well as geniuses, idiots, friendly people, and total assholes.

    The only generalization I’m comfortable making in this context is that trans people are probably queer and feminist at a higher rate than the general population.

    I can’t say whether or not the trans woman you know is a tool of the patriarchy, but I can say that it seems that the tendency in this culture (even, maybe especially, among feminists) to deride femininity as artificial, weak, and less-than does more to oppress women than it does to deconstruct the patriarchy.

    I think we can agree that sexism is a nasty thing that should be done away with. I think the ways sexism relates to the issues of various groups of women and men (including all those whose assumed alliances you question above) are manifold and overlapping. I think there are some issues where overlap is greater than others.

    I also think that to describe gays and lesbians (you left out bisexuals) trans people and feminists as discreet groups is probably inaccurate. I’m in most of those groups at the same time, and I haven’t even had my coffee yet.

  8. Hi Marlene. First, I hope you write about whatever the hell you want to write about; otherwise, what’s the point?

    My question may seem similar to Dee’s, but it’s not so much about etiology as about where the cisgender feminist critique of gender and the transgender feminist critique of gender diverge. I think for a lot of cisgender feminists (myself included), there is great liberation in the idea that the physical body doesn’t have to determine gender — that gender, as a set of norms, behaviors, expectations, etc. is largely culturally constructed and therefore elastic; that just because I have a female body doesn’t mean that I have to look, act, and be the way my society dictates a woman should look, act, and be; that I can, in fact, define what it means to be female, for me. For trans people who don’t go the surgical route, is there a significant difference (other than, perhaps, degree) between having a trans identity and the kind of thing I’m talking about?

    When it comes to surgical and/or hormonal modification, I understand that for some people there’s a physiological issue, a feeling of surprise or incompatibility, and I’ve read a little bit about the possible neurology of this and certainly support people in having whatever kind of surgery they need to feel whole or right; but in these cases, why does genital conformation have to correlate to a specific gender role, as it so often seems to? This is one of the things that makes me feel that *some* trans practices/ideology/issues tend to reinforce the very gender roles that many of us are working hard to break down. I do wonder whether there is something fundamentally unreconcilable here.

    I hope this doesn’t come off as an attack; I’m being as careful as I can not to make assumptions about things I don’t understand.

    Whipping Girl is on my list of books to read when I have the time.

    As for the connection between fat and trans issues, an anecdote: About 12 years ago, I lost nearly 100 pounds in less than a year as a result of health problems (type 1 diabetes misdiagnosed as type 2). At Deb’s New Year’s Day party that year, I saw a lot of people I only see once a year, so the last time they’d seen me I’d looked radically different. I got the gamut of responses: “Wow, I almost didn’t recognize you”; “Oh my god, what’s wrong? Are you okay?” “You look different, have you lost weight or something?” etc. One person just flat-out didn’t recognize me, even after we conversed for 10 or 15 minutes. Eventually, after I realized she didn’t know who I was and told her, she was flabbergasted and said something like “you look like a completely different person.” I found it especially ironic because she was MTF transgender.

  9. Janet,

    I’m going to start with your anecdote. In the past couple of years, I think someone wrote something about passing. Maybe it was an anthology? It included stuff on race, class, gender, size and some other issues. It discussed issues people had in political arenas when, for one reason or another, they did not read to the general public as a member of the oppressed class they were working to improve the situation of. There was some of it that discussed a fat activist becoming thin. Maybe someone here can remind me what I’m talking about.

    The first time I saw my brother after starting transition, he had passed through the period in his early twenties when he became hairier and suddenly older looking. He went from looking like a boy to looking like a man. I said “Wow! You look so different.” This was in the first few hours of him adjusting (visually) to the fact that his brother was now his sister. We both laughed a lot.

    As far as the other points you raise are concerned, the first thing I’ll say is that there is a difference between the kind of thing you are talking about and a trans experience. You (I presume, and please correct me) may not look or act the way some people say a woman should, but that is significantly different from them perceiving you as something other than a woman.

    For many trans people, perception in the world is more significant than genitals. Until we live in a world where gender is no longer the first thing we assess about another person when we see or hear them, and where the distinctions between “man” and “woman” as we currently understand them have lost most of their meaning, social transition will be a significantly different experience from other forms of gender non-conformity.

    Surgery and hormones… Hmmmmmmm…

    When I transitioned, 15 years ago, people were just starting to talk about a category of trans folk who had until that time been poorly described: non operative transsexuals. These are people who do not identify as “something in between” but fully with their preferred sex, yet they prefer (for whatever reason) not to undergo genital surgery. It was a new idea to suggest that a lack of desire for genital reconstruction did not somehow invalidate a person’s desire to live fully as their preferred sex. Many more people identify this way now than did then.

    My experience was that this idea was much more common among trans men. A common reason cited was the poor results to be expected from phalloplasty, which is a very expensive and dangerous procedure. Similarly, while srs for trans women was generally accepted as being more satisfactory, I heard one of my trans sisters once remark, “I really want a cunt, but I’m not so interested in what some sexist straight male doctor thinks a reasonable approximation of a cunt is. I’m certainly not interested enough to risk nerve damage and a urethra that points who knows where.”

    Trans people are still living with the legacy of the period in which our ability to live as we wanted was almost completely controlled by “experts” whose ideas of who and how we are had to be met to access transition related treatments. the category non operative transsexual was (I believe) the first category trans people created for themselves. Similarly, the public perception how trans people view the correlation between gender and genitals likely bears little resemblance to the truth.

    When we fight for people to have autonomy over their bodies, we don’t do it with the condition that everyone will do with their bodies what we think they should, or even make decisions in a way that we think is reasonable. We fight for people to have autonomy over their bodies anyway, because it is right.

    A quick bit on semantics: When I refer to trans feminism, I refer to a branch of feminist thought. I do not mean the feminism of trans folks vs the feminism of cis folks. There is no cis feminism. That’s just feminism and it’s my feminism too. There are plenty of cis feminists and trans feminists, but those are people not ideologies. The wikipedia entry for transfeminism isn’t bad.

    Lastly, I’m having plenty of fun here, but I’m the only one answering these (really good) questions. Anyone who thinks they can get near an authoritative answer, especially anyone trans, please feel free to stick your two cents in. I sure don’t want this to be “Marlene speaks for all trans people and represents them as conforming to her personal biases tastes and opinions, except when she excoriates them for not doing so.”

  10. Hi Marlene
    This is the first time I’ve stumbled on to this site and I’m really interested to find out more about trans issues. Thanks for the education!

  11. Hi Marlene
    Me again! I am interested to know whether you have always been a feminist, or whether it is something that has come about as a result of your transition. Are there specific issues that you have to address as a transgendered feminist, which are not addressed in cisgendered feminism?
    I hope you don’t think these questions are too basic or intrusive, it’s that I have never had anyone to ask before.
    All best wishes

  12. Curvygirl,

    First, please se my little semantic note in the post above yours.

    Second, I hope everyone will realize that my ansers to these questions are purely personal and have entirely to do with my personal history.

    Yes. I have always been a feminist. I grew up in a good second wave household, where my mother was a breastfeeding advocate (when that was radical feminist stuff). I was raised on the children’s stories occasionally published in Ms Magazine.

    When I was in college, I identified as a kinky bisexual faggot. I was involved with a kinky bisexual dyke. Her senior project was a philosophical analysis of Simone de Beauvior’s The Second Sex. We would stay up late talking our way through her arguments and debating arcane points of feminist theory. These discussions usually ended when we finished the bottle of bourbon.

    These feminist discussions played a significant part in my coming to terms with my own gender issues.

    Aside from the great historical tragedy of the name Radical Feminism being coopted by academically questionable hate mongering difference feminism fundamentalists like Janice Raymond, My biggest qualm with mainstream feminism has little to do with my experience as a trans woman. It has everything to do with my experience living in the world as a boy and as a man.

    While mainstream feminism gives lip service to an ideal of gender equality, it has primarily concerned itself with the rights of women and girls to take on traditionally masculine behaviors. The failure to make the world a better place for feminine men and boys has hindered progress towards gender equality in our culture. Put more broadly, if you want men to stop acting like assholes, it might be a good idea to help make the world a place where men who don’t act like assholes aren’t persecuted for it.

    I think the things going on in trans feminism right now are not especially different from what feminism has been doing from it’s beginnings; trying to undo sexism. I think trans feminism uses new perspectives to further clarify some of the modes by which sexism drives and intersects with other prejudices. This clarification (I believe) gives us better and more achievable targets as a movement, while keeping us aware of short term bargains to avoid because of the unintended stumbling blocks they place on the path to our final goal. It’s only trans feminism because of the perspectives that are the basis for the analysis. In the end it is everyone’s feminism.

  13. Thanks Marlene. I’ve come to feminism reasonably late in my life (37) and realise I am somewhat uninformed. I agree with you entirely about how men are treated – we’re all human and all deserve respect and dignity.
    Thanks again :)

  14. Marlene, thanks for your response. (I was taking finals last week and am only now catching my breath.)

    When I was writing my comment, I had a hard time with the terminology; sometimes it feels like writing is more about avoiding wrong words than finding the right ones — I didn’t want to use a word like “mainstream” or “traditional.” In any case, transfeminism as a shorthand for “feminism informed by trans issues” makes a lot of sense.

    One thing that struck me on the issue of surgery: are there any women and/or trans doctors performing these surgeries? I can certainly understand a reluctance to go under the knife given the situation as it is and has been. But it sounds like there will continue to be people with non-op transgender identity even as the surgical techniques are improved.

    As for my anecdote, I do sometimes feel like a stealth fat person and probably always will, no matter what size I am. Though really, having gone rapidly from “obese” to “normal” shading to “underweight” and back up to “overweight,” I can definitely report that there’s a lot to be said for a stable weight, no matter where on the idiotic BMI scale it falls.

  15. Hi Janet,

    I hope finals went well.

    I have to agree about the advantages of weight stability. I hate having to buy new jeans. I have a hard time finding stuff that fits me right at any size.

    As far as I know, there are no trans people performing genital surgeries. There may be one or two women. The available surgical options have not changed significantly in the past 50 years for trans women (not counting improvements in surgical technique and cosmetic approximation of a vulva). The most common surgery (penile inversion) was developed around the first world war. I’m not sure, but I believe metidoidioplasty (an alternative to phalloplasty for trans men, which I have surely mis spelled) is a fairly recent development.

    There will continue to be as many ways to be trans as there are trans people. I have no doubt of that.

  16. Hey, I’m planning on jumping in a little more to help field some of these questions, but I just wanted to respond quickly to Janet @15 and Marlene @16–actually, one of the most respected and prominent surgeons in the field, Marci Bowers out of Colorado, is a trans woman. Naturally, being a woman, a gynecologist, and someone who’s undergone vaginoplasty herself, she was the one who vastly improved the procedure when it came to construction of the clitoris…

  17. Yeah. My bad on that one. I even knew that in some part of my brain that I wasn’t using.

    I’m so glad to have you here.

Join the Conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.