This goes out to all my fellow cisgender people in tech, both men and women. If you don’t know what cisgender means, stick with me. Content warning over the usual things.
I’m subtweeting… subposting?… sumblring? a recent personal blog post of a man whose technical work I respect, who I perceive as feminist, and who has been a good Twitter buddy to me for a few years now. I can’t bring myself to bombard him from orbit with my disproportionate social media reach, so, no names, no direct quotes. (I apologize for not being more direct about it. This is rooted in my ongoing social anxiety.) His post lamented the ongoing gender disparity in tech, but then criticized transgender women for eating up resources that should be going to real women in tech, essentially reducing trans women to a cosplay fetish and just another way for selfish men to center narratives on themselves.
I remind you for context that transgender people routinely face domestic abuse, routinely face street violence, and routinely face being driven to suicide. Transgender people are vastly more likely to be murdered than the average person. This is especially true of trans women, and extra-especially true of trans women of color. Such details are not directly tracked by most governments, making citations up to scientific standards difficult to come by. Estimates of the projected lifespan of trans individuals range from about thirty-five to twenty-seven to as low as TWENTY-THREE.
My sister is twenty-five. Imagined gods of social justice, give her more borrowed time than that.
Being transgender is not a costume you can put on and take off at your convenience; it’s not a role you choose to play. Specific people may vary their gender identity over time, but this doesn’t make them trans and then not trans any more than my bisexuality (pansexuality, really) means I flip-flop from straight to lesbian every time I see a cute girl. I can’t speak as to the subjective experience of being trans, because I am in fact Cis As Heck no matter how many times verbal abusers tell me that I, and implicitly all trans women, are “lying” by claiming feminine identities in tech. However, I can say that transgender identity is acknowledged by medical science as a Real Thing, and that the recommended course of action for one’s mental well-being is to embrace it, not suppress it. Unfortunately, prejudice is so deeply ingrained in culture that many doctors and mental health care providers are wholly ignorant, or worse, actively ignore research into transgender issues in order to enforce their gender essentialism beliefs at the expense of the well-being of their patients. Hence, repeated signs may be missed through one’s childhood, adolescence, or even their entire lives, and a transgender person may never get the help and support they need.
Several people in my personal life – blood relatives, in-laws, classmates, friends – have embraced the transition process in recent years, both designated-male-at-birth and designated-female-at-birth individuals. I have seen the same pattern repeatedly: someone struggling with depression, entire years of their lives weighed down with intense emotional distress, and suddenly – they’re happy! They’re productive! They’re going at life again! They face incredible challenges of course – possibly losing the support of family or encountering workplace prejudice, experiencing resurgences of depression and anxiety, and as already mentioned, everyone who is openly trans has to worry about their personal safety in public. However I would say without hesitation that, from my perspective, pursuing their trans identities was absolutely the right thing to do for their own sake in every case.
It seems to be true that there are a lot of trans women, relatively speaking, in tech. I don’t know that it’s possible to even estimate the numbers or ratios. However, I suspect it’s completely untrue that they exist in such numbers as to push cis women out of the frame. Just like you can put six men and two women in a movie and people will report that they perceived it as roughly 50/50, you can put a few trans women with a bunch of cis women and people will remark that there sure are a lot of trans women simply because they exist in the plural. Unfortunately, such observations seem to come with a negative connotation – too many trans women – not enough “normal” women.
The blog post that prompted this one complained that trans women have in the past benefited from male privilege, and hence someone transitioning mid-career is effectively bootstrapping on said male privilege before “changing teams” to the historically oppressed group. Specific trans women I know have confided in me that their eyes were opened to how much male privilege they really had in the past. But since a mid-career transition is a sign of not having gotten the help and support they needed during adolescence (it’s not like gender dysphoria typically comes out of nowhere late in life), being upset with a trans woman for a lingering patina of male privilege is contrary to the cause of supporting gender equality and minorities in general. The concept of “Shared Girlhood” underlying womankind’s struggle is only partially true to begin with. Black girls have a different window on oppression than white girls. Gay girls have a different window on oppression than straight girls. Poor girls have a different window than rich girls. So on and so forth. Trans girls – by which I mean trans women during their assigned-male childhood – have a very different view from cis girls. They simultaneously experience male privilege and deeply internalized repression, reinforced by every facet of culture, demanding that they bury their female identity and “man up.” The experiences are wildly different, but the common core is that culture denigrates femininity and femaleness as inferior to masculinity and maleness in most respects. A trans man will struggle with being assigned femininity he may scarcely even possess. A nonbinary person may be confronted by perfect strangers on the street angry about “mixed signals,” because these strangers feel an urgent need to know whether to put them in the masculine or feminine slot. So on and so forth.
I’m just one cis-woman-in-tech, but my stance on the subject is:
I accept trans women as women, who, like all women and DFAB non-women, from the most feminine to the most masculine, have experienced difficulties in life due to cultural bias against femininity and femaleness;
I do not resent trans women for making use of resources set aside for women, joining women’s organizations, or occupying roles that place them as a prominent face of women-in-tech;
I welcome trans women and nonbinary/agender/genderqueer people in my safe spaces.
We’re all in this together – it is the responsibility of everyone to make the culture we have, the industry we have, a safer place for people who have experienced discrimination and prejudice of any sort.
Trying to enforce the separation of trans women from other women does not support any cause I believe in – especially if that enforcement is being proposed by a man, no matter how well-meaning or feminist.
I thank the community of Unstable Systems for reviewing this post and providing feedback from several perspectives. I tweaked some wording after getting feedback from someone who wasn’t available during the preview.