Empathy, part 1
Because I'm a feminist on the internet, I'm often told I need to "just have some damn empathy" for trans people. As is my wont, I go to the dictionary:
Maybe instead of empathy, they really mean sympathy?
I do feel sincere sorrow for anyone who experiences sex dysmorphia, as I would for anyone with a painful medical condition. However, I don't feel pity toward transsexual people. I don't think pity is a very useful emotion. I think many of the people scolding me to be more "empathetic" *do* feel a kind of horrified, disgusted, abject pity about the transsexual experience, which stops them from thinking very much about it at all. And I think this refusal to *look at what's really happening* is what allows people who experience no sex dysmorphia at all to co-opt the transsexual experience for political cover, while spouting obviously anti-woman rhetoric.
But what about this pity? What is so special about the pity some people feel for male transsexuals that they have no problem telling women to give up our language, our spaces, our analysis, just give trans-identified males anything they want, no questions asked?
Some statistics from the Amputee Coalition:
Two million amputees in the United States alone. Yet I am not told I must voluntarily identify as a "non-amputee," stop defining humans as bipeds, object to any language implying the use of healthy hands or feet, or in any other way center amputees in my politics. I am not told I must play-pretend that prosthetic limbs are just like natural limbs or else my friend might kill herself. Why is the suffering of amputees so qualitatively different from the suffering of transsexuals? Why can we encourage amputees to adjust to their new realities and deal with the hardships they face, but human language, feminism and sex-based boundaries must all bend around the feelings of trans-identified males?
The pity some people feel for trans-identified males renders them reactionary and thoughtless because it is bound up in their own gender expectations. A man "identifying as" a woman is a member of the dominant (superior, default human) class who identifies with the subjugated (inferior, subhuman other) class - someone to be pitied for sure, if you buy into the gender hierarchy. But - no matter their exhaustive denials - these people still know that male people are male, and female people are female. And they do not merely expect female people to empathize and/or sympathize with male people. They expect us to anticipate, prioritize, and indulge the feelings of male people. To empty our female Selves and fill our hearts and minds and bodies back up with the needs and desires of a male Other.
This is, of course, merely more of the same vis-à-vis the oppression of women.
I was raised in a sexist family. This means I was told from Day 1, by the people who were supposed to love me the most, that who I was inside was unacceptable for anyone inhabiting a female body. My accomplishments were derided; my failures were exaggerated, punished, often fabricated out of thin air. I lived in fear of violence in my own home, and when I fought back I was punished. I was a math prodigy, but was held back/obstructed not only by my family, but by teachers and school administrators who felt such talents unsuitable for a girl. I've thrown myself on the sword of marriage and step-motherhood only to be told that none of that sacrifice or work matters because I was born to serve. I'm constantly told my body is wrong, misshapen, unlovable by every corner of the media. I've been sexually harassed at work, severely underpaid, ignored, exploited. I've been treated as sub-human by multiple doctors in multiple specialties.
And I'm one of the lucky ones - I'm white, I was born in a rich country, I've worked my way into the middle class. My suffering as a female person still matters. I feel torn up inside. All the time. Torn up, sore, weary. I suffer from agoraphobia and clinical depression, including suicidal ideation. I am only still alive because I found feminist analysis. I was then able to make sense of the world, to understand why people treated me so badly, to understand that I did not deserve that treatment, that I could fight for a better life.
I'm also lucky because in my 30s my parents came to accept me for who I am. I helped my mom come to feminism. Now my mom is gone, passed away from ovarian cancer. I think of her and I'm immediately transported back to a childhood in which I felt trapped, imperiled, hated, fragile, exhausted. Then I think of her own youth, incredibly intelligent but impregnated at age 15 and all life goals out the window. I think of our shared experiences of chronic diseases dismissed by doctors, and I wonder if the cancer would have been caught earlier if we hadn't all assumed the pain was from Crohn's Disease, itself undiagnosed and untreated until her mid-50s because the excruciating abdominal pain was said to be "all in her head." I wonder if I too will develop ovarian cancer, and if I should have the hysterectomy I fought against for over ten years while seeking treatment for uterine fibroids.
But I'm told female biology is a social construct, unimportant, in no need of naming because transwomen don't experience it. And I'm told this dismissive bullshit is feminism.
This triggers me. This makes me feel physically ill and emotionally embattled. Being told I must erase my own experiences and deny my own needs is just more of the same bullying I've experienced all my life. It's just more male supremacy being forced down my throat, trying to choke off my words, my air.
But of course actual women - adult human females - are not allowed to be triggered by sex-based oppression. We're just supposed to shut up, lie back and take it. Any resistance will be framed as either (innate) weakness or (unnatural) selfishness.
But I know the truth, I see it and speak it, no matter if my voice shakes. If transwomen were female, they would be expected to *give* empathy, rather than demand it all for themselves. And if transwomen weren't male, they wouldn't confuse empathy with capitulation.
Empathy, part 2
I'm in the tiny, grimy bathroom of a tiny, grimy rental apartment in a tiny, frat-infested college town in the middle of nowhere. I'm in my third job post graduate degree, working 80 hours a week for an obtusely sexist, abusive boss, and I still don't make enough to get ahead of the massive debt. Every bill is a panic attack in an envelope sitting like a bomb in my mailbox.
I'm in a "relationship," of sorts, with a(nother) tortured writer. He considers himself a "dominant" in bed, which it seems the majority of men do these days, bless their shitty little boyhearts. I let him abuse me. In those moments, I feel erased, and that erasure is the only relief I feel all week. He is my temporary suicide. I won't do the real thing, not as long as I have a dog who looks at me with all the love I never got as a child bubbling out of his eyes.
I can't afford the dog, who came into my life when I was married, before divorce bankrupted me. But I cannot give him up. I cry into his fur. I cry all the time. I have no idea how to get out of the hole I'm in. Hard work doesn't do it. Nothing helps. I have no hope.
I'm in the tiny, grimy bathroom of a tiny, grimy rental apartment in an empty landscape and a life of brick walls. I'm tired. My head hurts.
The stick I peed on two minutes ago reads positive.
I shut down half my brain. I shut down the panic. I go to a movie with a friend. I don't tell her I'm pregnant. Later, I text the writer. He wants to talk. I say, not now. I'm not going to cry. I can control that much.
I might love to have a baby, but like I said, I can't even afford my dog. Best not to think of what might be. Best not to think what is happening INSIDE ME.
I log on. I spend hours searching, but there is no abortion clinic anywhere near me. (The clinic up the street, the one I walk by every day on my way to work, is run by pro-lifers). I call the Planned Parenthood abortion line. The voice on the other end is calm and kind. This makes it harder to not-cry.
We figure out what I have to do in order to comply with all the new Republican laws: take a half day off work to drive four hours (round trip) to the nearest clinic that can show the required video and provide the required form to begin my waiting period. Take another full day off to drive three hours (one way) to the nearest clinic to perform the actual procedure.
I can't afford both the gas to make those trips and groceries, but that's alright, as I don't have much of an appetite anyway.
My boss wants to know why I'm taking the time off. I tell him "doctor's appointments." He pushes, I snap. He assigns me even more work in retribution.
All day alone in waiting rooms. Interviews, forms. Perfunctory ultrasound performed by uninterested clinician. "Yep, there it is," she says, with an instrument not much smaller than my arm crammed up my vagina. The abortion itself is breathtakingly painful but blessedly brief. A nurse lets me squeeze her hand while it feels like my innards are being sucked out through my cervix. I walk on shaky legs to the recovery room. I joke with the other women. Most of them already have kids. We all wear unclenched faces of relief. We call out our thanks to the grim-faced doctor as he leaves. He spends all day every Friday doing this. He is the only doctor performing abortions in this third of the state.
I've rented a hotel room nearby, as a friend cautioned me against driving home directly after. The writer is paying for it. He's waiting for me. He brought me a heating pad. He wants a blow job. I give him one. I am a good girlfriend. (Except I'm not his girlfriend.)
On the drive home alone I cry. I cry a lot. At home, I continue to cry. Great heaving helpless sobs that morph into dry heaves. I'm not sorry I had an abortion. I'm immensely relieved it's done. I'm crying because my life is a closed box.
A month later, I email the writer to announce my period has arrived. I am overjoyed. The relief comes in huge waves. His response: "I don't really need to hear about that."
"I don't really need to hear about that."
I begin to comprehend how he sees me. Or how he doesn't see me. I'm not a person. I don't continue to exist when I'm not in the same room as his dick. I'm a doll, I'm a cheerleader, I'm an editorial assistant. The parts of me that are useful to him are, while useful, real, but the rest of me is but the echo of a rhetorical tree fallen in a lonely forest.
I think back to my marriage. I was a nanny, a secretary, a maid. A useful accessory with no claim to an inner life.
I begin to love myself out of pure contrariness. I begin to inhabit my body again. I begin to stop loving men.
My reality is a female reality. I will not have it erased.