by Caragh Medlicott
Jenni Murray has sparked huge controversy with her highly debated article in the Sunday Times on whether trans women can actually call themselves real women. Really you can get a feel for the godawful tone of this article simply from the by-line: “Can someone who has lived as a man, with all the privilege that entails, really lay claim to womanhood? It takes more than a sex change and make-up.” I honestly can’t believe this is a conversation we are still having. First off, Murray assumes all trans women will have had gender reassignment surgery which is a pretty big assumption. Secondly Murray talks about gender reassignment surgery like it’s a fun little activity one undertakes on a whim, rather than a hugely drastic and painful procedure. Certainly not something you do for the fun of wearing a bit of make-up and a dress.
Murray, like many people, seems to have a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be transgender. While I am not trans and would never claim to understand what it is like to be so, I think it is fair to say this idea that Murray has of it being some kind of superficial extreme game of dress up is completely wrong. In her article Murray describes anger at trans presenter India Willoughby‘s claims that she is a ‘real woman’. Murray says this has to be false assertion considering Willoughby had ‘spent all of her life before her transition enjoying the privileged position in our society generally accorded to a man’. Enjoyed? I mean seriously, enjoyed? Does Murray think trans women wake up one day and go ‘hm, you know what I think I fancy being a woman now’. Does she really not realise that for most trans women they have spent their life up to their transition in deep turmoil, disconnected from the body they have been born in, suffering serious gender dysphoria (defined as ‘a condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress because there’s a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity’). Yes, many tans women will have experienced male-privilege pre-transition but surely this is somewhat overshadowed by their inner struggle they will have had while trying to perform masculinity and then the sexism and transmisogyny they’ll likely experience post-transition.
I also find this ‘you-can’t-be-a-woman-because-you-haven’t-lived-your-whole-life-as-a-woman’ narrative impossible to get my head around. I wasn’t aware every woman has had a cut-and-paste experience of womanhood growing up and it is that identical experience that is integral to being female. Murray completely ignores the nuance of privileges we experience in growing up from gender, race, class and sexuality. And even in addition to that the different experience we have just as individuals. Quite in the manner of someone saying ‘I have a black friend and they don’t mind me using the “N word”’ Murray brings up Jenny Roberts a trans woman who says she’s ‘not a real woman’ as an example which is meant to convince us that if one trans woman feels she’s not a real woman then surely all the rest of them are wrong too.
Really Kellie Maloney’s response to Murray can frame a far better opposition than I ever could and I strongly suggest you read the whole Guardian article summarising her points, but I will leave you with a brief quote on the pain Murray suffered pre-transition and the damage Murray’s comments have caused: ‘“I would cry myself to sleep, I would drink myself to oblivion because I didn’t know how to deal with what was going on inside myself, so to read that someone dismisses me with the stroke of a pen, it doesn’t help when an established broadcaster does this.” Really, it’s very easy for Jenni Murray to come out and condemn trans women saying they haven’t had the real experience of a real woman, without her even thinking about the fact she has no idea what it’s like to experience life as a trans woman.