You Can’t Fight Patriarchy Without Fighting Transphobia
Reproductive rights, women’s rights, and transgender rights are not competing for causes — they are one and the same
Transgender rights are reproductive rights, and vice versa. It’s a connection that is not stressed often enough in a world where cis women and trans people are pitted against each other by bad-faith liberals and bathroom-obsessed conservatives alike. Yet nothing could be clearer — as witnessed by recent legislation, here and abroad, that aims not just to define women purely as bearers of children, but to prohibit trans people from building families at all.
The most recent proposed legislation comes from Utah. The so-called Vital Statistics Act Amendment is intended to prohibit transgender people from changing their gender on their birth certificate. This in itself is a civil rights issue — trans people often need to change that documentation so they don’t get outed every time they’re carded at a bar or pulled over by a traffic cop. However, in forcing trans people to identify with their “birth gender,” Utah legislators were forced to clarify what they believe gender to be. A woman, as first reported by Imani Gandy on Twitter, is defined as an individual born with genitals that “appear to have the purpose of performing the natural reproductive function of providing eggs and receiving sperm from a male donor.”
You heard right: A woman is a person who serves the purpose of receiving a man’s sperm. The entirety of womanhood, here, is reified down to the capacity to bear children. A woman is a uterus and a uterus is a woman.
It’s not an unfamiliar position. The Catholic Church, for example, recently ruled that cis women may receive hysterectomies only “when the uterus is found to be irreversibly in such a state that it is no longer suitable for procreation.” Hysterectomies to address chronic pain, nonfatal illness, or prevent children are all sinful. (This is an upgrade from the previous position, in which women could get hysterectomies only if they were at immediate risk of death; in 1994, the Vatican ruled that even if a future pregnancy would likely kill the woman, she was to keep her uterus and avoid using birth control, because her death would be the consequence of “future sexual acts freely chosen.”) However, cis women are not the only people who get hysterectomies. Trans men frequently pursue them as part of the gender confirmation process. The same rules that require women to get sick, suffer, or even die in the name of preserving their fertility have also resulted in multiple men being turned away from Catholic hospitals while seeking the procedure.
This is how patriarchy functions: by trapping us in our own bodies, simplifying the massive complexity of gender down to an imaginary binary. In this worldview, there is one gender that gets pregnant and another that does the impregnating, and the impregnators always rule the impregnated. Women exist purely for the purpose of bearing men’s children; thus, womanhood is wholly a matter of having a fertile uterus, and birth control or abortion or anything else that gives a woman control over her own fertility must be banned. Men, too, have a simple function: to subjugate women, in part by getting them pregnant and making them care for the resulting children while men work. Thus, men cannot prefer sex with other men, they cannot get pregnant themselves, and they cannot occupy anything but a dominant role.
Transgender people are suppressed and oppressed in part because they demonstrate that family does not always work that way. Trans women can impregnate their partners. Trans men can bear children themselves. If neither you nor your partner has sperm, you can look for a donor. If neither you nor your partner has a uterus, you can look for a surrogate. It’s a wide world out there, and when reproduction no longer follows “the rules,” we can all start to do what works. Of course, this approach has dire implications for the patriarchy as we know it — for one thing, if you look closely, it makes cis men unnecessary — and thus inspires no end of hatred in the world.
Transgender rights are reproductive rights, and vice versa.
In Japan, for example, courts recently upheld a law that forces transgender people to be both childless and sterilized. Like the Utah law, the Japanese law aims to limit trans people’s ability to change their gender on “official documents.” In this case, it allows document change, but only if the person is unmarried, does not have any children, “permanently lacks functioning [reproductive organs],” and “appears to have parts that resemble the genital organs” of the gender with which they identify. The law was challenged, unsuccessfully, by a transgender man named Takakito Usui, whose dysphoria was not triggered by his uterus and who wanted children. “I hope to find what constitutes a family of my own that does not fit the traditional mold,” he said in a news conference after the decision.
It is just as dehumanizing to be told you must have a hysterectomy as it is to be told you cannot have one; it is just as soul-crushing to be confined to a life of forced childbirth as it is to have the possibility of family permanently taken away. Trans rights are reproductive rights, and vice versa, not only because trans men and nonbinary people sometimes require the abortion and birth control services currently threatened by Republican rule of law and a conservative Supreme Court, but also because the right to be more than your body, to have the family you want in the way you want it, is the essence of reproductive justice itself.
It is also the essence of feminism. For many cis women, our commitment to feminist causes is based on the primal realization that we are more than incubators. Transgender feminists are also breaking down the idea that biology is destiny; there are many more genders than two, none of them easily determined by body type, and it’s who we are, not how our genitals are shaped, that deserves to determine how we live our lives.
These aren’t just similar insights; they are more or less the same insight, and the enemies of one are reliably the enemies of the other — hence the recurring reports that TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists, whose main “political” position is an enduring hostility to trans women) are funded by or working with right-wing groups like the Heritage Foundation. That same Heritage Foundation has relentlessly crusaded against Planned Parenthood and is a crucial force behind the push for federal abortion bans.
For the rest of us, though, the crisis is pressing, and the need to have each others’ backs has never been more apparent. The brutal drive to eliminate transgender people from public life — made evident through Trump’s transgender military ban or his threats to define trans people out of existence — is one and the same with the blitzkrieg on reproductive rights that has shuttered countless clinics across the country and signed the death warrant of Roe v. Wade. Both are symptoms of a social order wherein our bodies control us and cis men control our bodies. Patriarchy is old, and it is cruel, and it is everywhere. If we fight together, we may survive it. If we fight each other, it will destroy us all.