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“You are not a woman! And you never will be!”
The words hit me like a slap in the face. And their volume. The crowd at the Mexican restaurant valiantly attempted to ignore my mother, who was making a scene.
“I know who you are, and I know what you are and that’s all you’ll ever be!” My demure shock turned into anger like a time lapse video of an algae bloom.
“You know nothing about me! You know what I let you know, and that’s it! Don’t you ever, ever…” and just as quickly, my anger passed. I found myself standing, preparing to leave the restaurant and walk the three miles of sidewalk-less forest road home.
“Sit down, son.”
“Stop. Calling. Me. That.”
“Why? You’re my son.” Without a word, I started toward the door. My mother grabbed me by the sleeve.
“Sit down.” Her voice was far more gentle than just moments ago. I swallow my pride and sit.
“What makes you think you are a woman?” She asks me.
“What makes you think you are?”
“I can give birth. I have. To you.”
“And the other four, whoever they are.”
“Don’t get snotty.”
“Sorry. Do you honestly think the ability to give birth is what makes you a woman?”
“And that said, with the anguish that this has caused in our family, between us, do you really think it’s okay for you to just rub it in my face how I’ll never have children?”
“Well, not with Samantha…”
“No, mom. No. The problem wasn’t just Sam. She has her own things as well, but it wasn’t just her.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that the reason we tried and failed…” eight times, dear reader, “to have children wasn’t solely because of her own trauma.”
There was a heavy silence. The tension built. Now it was my mother’s turn to get angry.
“You told me she had an IUD.”
“I lied.” I said, mirroring her tone. “Sam is a survivor. I’m not going to tell you the story, it’s not table talk, but if you ever feel like finding out, you should ask her. She didn’t change her number after she split. The point is that the problem is with me.”
“Oh my god, that’s what this is about! This whole transgender thing is because of Sam leaving!”
I make a face. “Are you joking? How would that help?”
“I don’t know, I don’t understand anything about this.”
“Well, let me explain.”
“I don’t want to understand.”
“Understand what, mother? Me? You don’t care to understand what is happening to me? You think you know all, that you can find the appropriate Bible passage and just pray really hard and it’ll all just float away?! Why do you think I am like this?!”
“I DON’T! I THINK YOU’RE TRAUMATIZED FROM YOUR DIVORCE! I THINK YOU PRETENDING TO BE A WOMAN IS ALL ABOUT NOT FEELING LONELY ANYMORE!”
“I’m not. In fact, I’ve accepted that I may never find someone to share my life. And I took it gladly in exchange for not feeling the weight of my dysphoria anymore.”
“Oh my GOD! YOU ARE NOT A WOMAN!”
“Yes,” I hissed at her, the restaurant not even attempting to not stare, “so you have said. Very loudly.”
“It’s true!” Suddenly the anger was back. As if she, by virtue of having failed to force dad to wear a condom when she was 16, knew everything. I was done.
“WHAT IS A WOMAN, MOTHER?!”
The central difficulty of my post-closet life has always been my relationship with my parents, which one could probably most diplomatically describe as “strained.” And my transition from mumblemumble to Sophia-Helene is the main antagonist. I could blame any number of things. The Church, conservatism, Tennessee, my dad’s shithead friends, my mom being a bumpkin without any desire to broaden her horizons beyond what she already knows… Any number of things could be to blame, but at the end of the day, it’s just… Who they are. Which is unfortunate.
But I often revisit that question in my head. “What is a woman, mother?” Obviously, her simplistic answer wasn’t meant as a good-faith response, and is in no way accurate. She was trying to exclude me from even the broadest conception of womanhood. I get that. But it’s a good question.
“What is a woman, mother?”
Is a woman the sum of her parts? No. Because if the parts don’t work, is she still a woman? And anyway, closely studying the structure, anatomy, and placement of the biological structures; combined with the fact that we are all female in-utero, until bombarded with hormones at some point in the development process; one comes to realize that the parts are all essentially the same.
The absence of a uterus and associated organs is personally alarming and distressing to me, but in my mother’s view (from the privileged position of having never lacked those things), that does not mean that I should have or should in the future have them.
Predestination is an argument that I often hear from the religious against my womanhood. “God made you the way you are, and God doesn’t make mistakes!” So, then, my entire life was planned out for me before I existed? Yes, according to some Christians, and it’s a sin or at the very least an affront to God for you to go against it. Even though you have no way of knowing what in the world that plan is.
I personally resist this notion, and my parents hate this one most of all…
“God doesn’t make mistakes!”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“So you can’t be anything other than what you were born!” My father thinks Mom has me cornered. I often wonder what it’s like to be that simple and yet so completely convinced of my own superiority…
“Who makes a baby, mom?”
“So sex has nothing to do with it?”
“Jesus Christ, mother, you’re a nurse! You’re literally not allowed to be that dense!” At this, my father shoots death at me through his eyes.
“What’s your point?” He growls.
“My point is that sex has something to do with it, that’s irrefutable fact.”
“That’s not a point.”
“What can be stated as fact from observation is that two fertile humans create a human body via procreation.”
“And if you have to assign some part of this process to God, I assert that God creates the soul that inhabits this body you made.”
“And if God doesn’t make mistakes… And there’s a mistake…”
“Wait, you’re blaming us for this?!”
I throw up my hands with an exasperated sigh. I’ll grant you, the gesture is not entirely authentic, because I led them to this exact point, “No, mother, because like I keep telling you, there’s nothing wrong with me! I’m just a different kind of woman.”
My father, realizing that they’d been had by their own frogspawn child, drew himself up to his full height of three inches shorter than me, but somehow managed to tower over me. Do they teach this to parents someplace? “YOU ARE NOT A F***ING WOMAN!”
And so on. Anyone who actually knows me knows that I am not, nor have I ever been, a very manly personality. Arrogant, abrupt, and aloof? Sometimes, but I have never displayed that as anything but a defensive mechanism in a world that very early taught me that they knew I was different, and they were going to punish me for it.
So it’s not biology and it’s not destiny and it’s certainly not anatomy that makes a woman… So, what is it? Here I’m going to give Dr. Jordan Peterson a well-deserved heart attack and use the term “post-modern” in the correct context. God, a woman who knows he’s full of shit and exactly why? What a nightmare! I digress.
The archetypal post-modern thought is “can we really know?” Can we really know what makes a woman? I mean, my mother’s femininity (such that it is) is one 50-year-old essay on the feminine revolving primarily around reproduction and nurturing, because that’s basically all she’s ever done with her life. That definition is vastly different from even her own sister’s, which is far more… glam-y. And it’s different from my sister’s definition of femininity, which is actually a lot closer to my own, with its learned standoffishness and RBF that can stun an ox. It’s far different from my ex-wife’s, who can quietly endure anything. I don’t think we as women can describe our own femininity, I think we’re too close to it. But others can. I know who my role models were, and they were glamorous and tough. Frequently queens and empresses; fictional characters or distant celebrities, mostly; and other women having to make their way in a world that was hostile to them for their gender.
Is femininity attitude? Is it self-identity? Is it innate? Is it destined?
At the end of the day, all I can say is that I am a woman. I fought for it. I suffered because of it, I earned my womanhood. And I still do, with every sideways look and every person who thinks I can’t hear them talk about me and every person who thinks I don’t know what Yik Yak is, I continue to fight. I know it’s real. But femininity defies description, because it is for the individual woman what she says it is.
Woman, you are who you say you are. And that is enough.