Life as a woman

24 Nov


I have a close relative whose long-term partner decided in his fifties that he wanted to live as a woman. The manner in which he went about orchestrating this change caused immense shock and distress, mostly because he upped and went to Thailand and had the surgery without telling anyone, then rang his partner from that country to tell her what he’d done.

Of course she knew his desires, and was struggling to adapt herself to having chosen to live with a man who now wanted to change his sex to female. She didn’t, she said, want to be with a woman, she’d been there, done that and for her, choosing to spend her life with a man was an enormous change. And now look.

I, unhelpfully I see in retrospect, recalled her time as a radical feminist separatist who told me as I continued to give birth to boy babies that all men should be castrated. So when I heard what had happened I said, well. Be careful what you ask for.

When her partner came back from Thailand she ran away and came to stay with me and my husband for a while. None of us had ever before encountered such a situation, but we all knew about deceit, and dissembling, and secrets, and lies, so we could help her with that part.

For mine, I have no difficulties with what people decide to do with their bodies and if someone feels deeply wrong in the skin they’re in of course they have the right to do whatever they need to do about that. I’m talking here about gender reassignment, not women having the human right to breast implants and labiaplasty to make them look like air brushed porn stars as an exercise of feminist autonomy over their bodies. Separate issues. I do wonder, though, how someone who has been born male and lived male for over fifty years in our society, can suddenly know what life is like as a woman.

In this instance, and I’m not going to extrapolate our experience to anyone else, Felicity looks like a man who has had gender reassignment, and so is often treated even worse in this heterosexually dominant culture than are many “natural”-born women.

Now I have an ear worm of Carole King singing you make me feel like a natural woman, whatever the hell that meant, it was an anthem to some bloke though, and I suppose a validation of hetero sex because I haven’t heard any woman singing that to a female lover though it would be a delightful subversion if someone did, but I still wouldn’t know what the “natural” bit meant.

Felicity and I have had some ripper brawls over this life as a woman thing. I’ve told her straight up, you aren’t living life as a woman, you’re living life as a man who’s had gender reassignment surgery. The difficulties you’re  encountering since your surgery aren’t to do with the kind of gender prejudice I’ve had to deal with my entire life, they’re to do with people being unable to cope with gender reassignment. She’s called me a fucking cunt more times than I could ever count. It took me a long time to realise I was angry with her for trying to claim my experience of living on this earth as a woman for herself, when she hasn’t done the hard yards. She is doing hard yards, but they are of a different kind and I want her to own her difficulties, which are significant, and not pinch mine. Whenever we see one another we visibly bristle, and it’s on. And yet I think so much of her for what she’s done, the subversion, the courage, the determination to live as she wants to live.

I should add here that I agree with Judith Butler, gender is a performance of the roles assigned to us at birth, according to our genitals. A performance that is profoundly ingrained.

No matter how much Julie Bishop might want to protest otherwise, life as a woman in this culture still brings with it enormous inherent challenges, for no reason other than our habitation of a female body. It does the same for indigenous people, for no reason other than skin colour.  It does the same for gays and lesbians and polyamorists. This is still the universe of the white heterosexual alpha male, and the males who aspire to that status, and the rest of us are still knocking on its doors begging to be allowed in and equally paid, and not murdered because we have vaginas, and the rest. And, if possible, to be let in on some of our own terms without having to entirely capitulate to the orthodoxy, as I would strongly argue Julie Bishop has. In my life as a woman I don’t want to play the alpha bloke’s games. Which is why I’m a blogger in my nightgown and not Janet Albrechtsen. Ha!

27 Responses to “Life as a woman”

  1. doug quixote November 24, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    Wonderful, Jennifer! I couldn’t help laughing as I read the first three paragraphs. Apologies to Felicity and to your relative, but it really was an absurd thing to do.


    • Jennifer Wilson November 24, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

      Oh, I can’t think of it as absurd, DQ. There’s not much I think of as absurd, come to think of it, other than the messes I get myself into.


  2. Alex November 24, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

    “Felicity and I have had some ripper brawls over this life as a woman thing. I’ve told her straight up, you aren’t living life as a woman, you’re living life as a man who’s had gender reassignment surgery. ”

    (hopefully the tags worked)
    Calling Felicity a man probably doesn’t help anything. I can’t speak for her, but I would rather be dead than forced to live as a man, and if one of my relatives called me a man i would refuse to have anything to do with them.

    As an older trans woman the shit Felicity has to deal with is different from the shit you have to deal with, and different from what I have had to deal with as a younger trans woman. There is no universal condition of women-hood, our experiences are all different but still affected by misogyny and the patriarchal culture we live in.
    By transitioning we refuse to play the heterosexual alpha cis-male game, and we end up dealing with all the same grief.

    (Though I agree Felicity handled her transition in a really poor way; she should have really spoken about this with her partner before acting).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson November 24, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

      I don’t call Felicity a man, I call her a woman as she prefers. My point is her life experience has been as a man in a strictly gendered society, and is very different to mine as a woman. I don’t see any point in pretending men and women aren’t treated very differently from birth in our culture, and this has lifelong effects. To me, living as a man or a woman is about our conditioning into those roles, our performance of the gender we’ve been assigned because of our genitals, at birth.


      • battybattybats November 25, 2014 at 2:15 am #

        Incorrect, her life experience has been as a closeted Transgender Woman in a strictly Cisgender gendered society.

        So yes she has had different experiences to you, but still a woman’s experience that only occur to a different kind of woman to you.

        Where you see she experienced privilege you missed the hundreds of harmful gender-policing micro-aggressions she faced every day of her entire life that causes catastrophic mental health harm to many TransWomen leading to an attempted suicide rate between 38% to 54% or higher (depending on country).

        You missed that her every day of maleness was enforced, coerced and painful. That male society is filled with attacks on any sign of femininity policed with not just violence but extreme violence, so even closeted transgender people face higher rates of violence despite attempting to keep themselves hidden as few can hide their inner transness perfectly.

        Then if they come out, well let’s look at some comparative stats shall we?

        Key survey results:

        Received verbal abuse:

        69 per cent of females
        92 per cent transgender male to female

        Physical assault without a weapon:

        15 per cent of females
        46 per cent transgender male to female

        Physical attack with a weapon, knife, bottle or stone:

        6 per cent of females
        38 per cent transgender male to female

        Source – AAP/Speaking Out: Stopping Homophobic and Transphobic Abuse in Queensland. via

        So that’s approximately:
        1/3rd more verbal harassment.
        2/3rds more assaults without a weapon
        6 TIMES more violence with one.

        Yes her hardships were different to yours.. you cannot begin to imagine the hardships Transgender people go through. You know what it’s like to be oppressed for being a woman in a gendered society, you have no idea what it would be like to be oppressed as Trans in a Cisgendered society, the incalculable daily micro-aggressions and exclusions against Trans people by Cis men and Cis women, the strict policing of signs of femininity amongst men, the suffering that hiding, repressing one’s true self causes and the harm that comes from having your inner self be ignored, go unrecognised.

        But even if you cannot imagine it, the catastrophic attempted suicide rate and vastly higher violence rate makes it clear.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jennifer Wilson November 25, 2014 at 5:44 am #

          I know Felicity experienced white male privilege for over fifty years, as well as the difficulties you outline. I’m uncertain as to what we actually mean when we describe ourselves as a”woman,” as I’ve said I see gender as a role we are encultured to perform.


          • battybattybats November 25, 2014 at 11:56 am #

            Except we know that an identity associated with that cultural role is biological. We know it from the genes correlated with being Trans as well as decades of studies on Trans brains showing distinct divergence from averages.

            That does not mean what we culturally ascribe to gender isn’t mainly arbitrary, it means that there is a biological component to seeing ones self as female or male regardless of how the culture determines the roles to be, regardless of the trappings that culture connects to them.

            In a hypothetical matriarchal culture where all cis men wear makeup and make themselves pretty for women and wear impractical clothes and bake cookies like 50’s housewifes were told to there would still be the same Trans people, both MtF and FtM, because the trappings of present sexist culture’s determination of Gender isn’t what makes them Trans, it’s just the trappings that socially enable their inner identity to be recognised by others. Instead it’s clearly biological, therefore no matter what the culture had determined would be categorised as male or female there will still be Trans, the same people, based on genetic and epigenetic mechanisms.


            • Jennifer Wilson November 25, 2014 at 4:28 pm #

              Yes, I agree there is a biological component and there are always Trans. Norrie, I think, has made inroads into the recognition of people who wish to be known as non-gendered. The cultural trappings that signify male and female are destructive and bear little relevance to biological components. IMO.


  3. samjandwich November 24, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

    I certainly agree with “people being unable to cope with gender reassignment”. I recently went to Raewyn Connell’s “last lecture” (, where the senior person from the faculty introduced her as “he” and expounded on his lifelong achievements. Cringe-worthy…

    …it has often struck me however, how difficult it is for adults to adapt into a new culture or identity framework, no matter how accepting they are. I always want to try to think of myself as not particularly Australian – especially in view of the ever-growing list of horrendous things that our government deigns to represent us by doing – but the instant I go overseas I realise just what an endemic Aussie I really am, and how completely impossible it would be to ever take on the identity of a person from the country I’m in, regardless of how long I spent trying. And this is due as much to my own personal limitations as it is to the perceptions of others.

    I’m also finding it impossible to adapt Jennifer’s recent dramatic increase in output!

    But I wouldn’t have it any other way… and perhaps for me the moral of this story is that categories such as gender, as much as we would like for them to be completely fluid, are often less-so in practice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson November 24, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

      It’s my new medication.

      Gawd, I can’t believe someone introduced Raewyn as a man.

      Liked by 1 person

      • samjandwich November 24, 2014 at 9:26 pm #

        What is it?! I want some!

        I have found in the past that duloxetine works wonders for me, but near on a year ago I decided to embrace the austerity of my existence and go it alone. But I’ve found the cost of emergency champagne is sending me to the poor house so I’m seriously reconsidering…


  4. KB November 24, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    What a fantastically brave piece of writing. This is a space that few dare to tread. I agree, whilst honouring and valuing the experiences of people who feel so wrong in their skin that they re-assign their gender… The experiences of a woman who used to be a man… and a woman who has been a woman from birth… are fundamentally different. I, like you Jennifer, mean not to underplay the internal struggle that must lead to such a decision… and of course a person’s right to make such a decision… but the external experiences pre-transition are that of a man… This makes the transgendered woman a different type of woman… not less.. not more.. but different… This point surely leads us to the underlying premise of Butler’s account of performativity… that there is indeed a conversation to be had about difference that is not limited by the binaries of sex and gender…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jennifer Wilson November 24, 2014 at 6:17 pm #

      I suppose gender reassignment is the ultimate performative…

      Liked by 2 people

      • lidz78 November 24, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

        I don’t know… It almost seems as if poor felicity is getting prejudice from both sides!

        I kind of wonder why you could not let it go. ….and personally I think that any in between gender has it worse, much worse than the average female.
        This seems to b backed up by statistics showing that bisexual women cop the most abuse by far compared to either hetero OR homo -sexual women.

        Seems that people attack in-betweeners, hating their ambiguity, their lack of concrete definition, and of course how the person sees themselves in relation to this non-clear gendered person.

        I decided to embrace a non-identity of sorts regarding gender and sexual identity …like a sort of Buddhist approach/screw-society’s-pathological-need-to-pigeon-hole-me attitude. And I have never felt more sure of who I am ….which, if a person must know is hetero with some bi leanings.

        I approve of the in-betweeners. I say that these people are brave in creating who they are instead of trying simply to fit the mould. – Smash it and make your own!!


        • Jennifer Wilson November 24, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

          I agree with you about Felicity’s courage.
          I think she & are are working all this stuff out in our battles.


      • lidz78 November 24, 2014 at 7:11 pm #

        I also think that you mistakenly believe that a person could not truly think like the opposite gender.

        I say that you show a kind of sexism yourself but are not aware of it.

        So what if Felicity may not have a perfect grasp yet on her exact identity! I think you are showing a lack of consideration.

        Maybe not unlike when some gay people used to pointing out homophobia then demonstrate prejudice to heterosexuals, r bisexuals.

        But I say that you are wrong if you believe that it s impossible for a person of a gender to think and feel like a person of different gender, and in fact experience quite well what that other person feels.

        I’m sure that all the people convinced homsexality was a mental illness or sin thought it “unnatural” to as you eloquently put it.

        Who are you to judge another’s experience? …unless of course, that is you can claim first to have experienced it within yourself. -Ahem!


        • Jennifer Wilson November 24, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

          I don’t say we can’t think like the gender we are not. I’m saying we are treated differently from birth, based on our sex.


          • samjandwich November 24, 2014 at 9:19 pm #

            Yes I was just about to say the same thing – it seems to me that all of this is underpinned by the fact that the experience of the person concerned is the ultimate end-point. If your friend Felicity feels comfortable and secure in her femininity then really that’s all that matters – but that doesn’t mean others can’t disagree with her about what femininity is.

            Hence I basically concur with KB.

            I do rather like Lidz’s sexual identity ambiguity though. Yes it is hard to be an in-betweener – so good on you for embracing it!


            • Jennifer Wilson November 25, 2014 at 5:45 am #

              What the fuck is femininity?


              • Forrest Gumpp (@ForrestGumpp) November 25, 2014 at 8:28 am #

                That is a blog title, languishing in amongst the comments.

                Liked by 2 people

                • samjandwich November 25, 2014 at 11:46 am #

                  Yes quite possibly – though for me it simply means the subjective experience of being female… whatever that means to the person feeling it.

                  Perhaps it’s a rather loaded term though, I can see now!

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Jennifer Wilson November 25, 2014 at 4:30 pm #

                    LOL. You have read, I’m assuming, Raewyn’s “Masculinities?” I think similar ideas can be applied to femininity.


  5. doug quixote November 25, 2014 at 8:02 am #

    We probably need to recognise that there is now a third option, the transgender person. This option was never possible until the last century; a castrated male was a eunuch, and a woman was incapable of becoming a male except by subterfuge.

    The advent of hormone treatments has opened up a whole new range of possibilities, more than even sophisticated surgery could achieve.

    But I don’t think there is any value in a person born a man asserting that they are now a woman, and trying to assert that they are subject to prejudice against women. It is a whole new realm of prejudice. Many women refuse to accept them as female, and most men whilst perhaps sympathetic see it as a somewhat extreme, threatening denial of manhood, and see the person in question as “not quite right in the head” to put it politely.

    It is up to those who are modified to establish their third way. I note earlier a reference to Raewyn Connell, who whilst accepted as male for about 60 years, is now wishing to be accepted as a woman, “transitioning late in life” . Her choice, no doubt; but is she a woman? I think not. A third way, surely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • battybattybats November 25, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

      Good point but let us importantly recognise that Trans people have existed throughout history.

      That many ancient Goddess traditions included both ciswomen and transwomen priestesses such as Cybele, Ishtar and many others.

      That in the past there was ways they got hormones, as we know that the Transwomen of the early Scythians drank the urine of pregnant mares for hormones the very same source of the Premarin in the early Contraceptive Pill.

      That in many animist cultures it was Transgender people who were the Shaman or similar such as the two-spirit traditions of many Native-American peoples.

      That the rise of Patriarchal Mono-theism was clearly anti-Trans as seen in the bible in the condemnation of the Transwomen of Goddess Asherah who once shared Hebrew temples till they were cast out and worship of Jehovah’s equal Wife was outlawed.

      I do not see it as coincidental that when the Nazis came to power one of their first targets was the Institute that not only studied Homosexuality but also gave us many of the Terms of Trans and the first modern Trans surgeries. The famous photo of Nazi book-burning being the burning of the library of that institute.


    • Jennifer Wilson November 25, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

      Embracing the concept of being neither male nor female:


      • battybattybats November 26, 2014 at 11:22 am #

        Yes and for the majority of Trans people who have non-binary Gender-Identities (or perhaps the term might more accurately be sex-identity in the context of the understanding of Gender we are discussing) that may be appropriate in some way whether it is presented as being a-gender or bi-gender or gender-fluid nevertheless the biological discoveries support that others will have a much more set sex-identity that is less in the middle and includes a hard-wired brain/body map that is much more firmly set in direct opposition to the development of their later anatomy.

        The neurology of the foetus is set at an earlier stage to the broad anatomy, and evidence currently supports the hypothesis that hormone fluctuations at these stages creates these differences both mild as found in the majority and extreme as in the minority. With genes and epigenetic switches specifically involved in this process. So we now have a plausible evidence-based explanation fo the physical phenomena seen under brain-dissection and in FMRI scans.


    • Jennifer Wilson November 25, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

      Embracing the concept of being neither male nor female:


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