This wording “female-identified” or “woman-ID” instead of “woman” or “women” has really taken off recently. When I was on twitter I used to see it at least once a day, usually from cisgender women. This phrase drives me absolutely nuts.
It’s being used in a lot of different contexts, but I will use advertising an event (like a try out for a team that plays in the women’s division) as an example for why I don’t like the wording. Imagine a team that competes in the women’s division tweeting, putting in the descriptor of their FB event, etc, “women-identified mixer!”:
- Trans women are women. I believe that the origin of this phrase in our community was to be more inclusive to trans folks. However, trans women are women. We do not need to include the modifier “-identified”; we just need to be decent people and include trans folks with our actions. The category of “woman” is not a stable category, but rather is as inclusive as we choose to make it, contextually (and within contextual limitations). To feel the need to add “-identified” potentially even cheapens the experience of trans folks: it implies they’re not “women”, they’re “woman-identified”. Actually, no. They’re “women”, as long as we create spaces that treat them as such.
- It is more exclusive to non binary folks than even just saying “women”. Our sport (and society) is set up in the gender binary. The divisions, the gender ratios, all of it. Non binary folks are constantly working within this binary; often, in painful and frustrating ways. If they choose to partake in these binary systems, they are sometimes doing so in a way that feels against their identity and is uncomfortable. They tolerate the system because there’s nothing better. If the term “woman” is an uncomfortable category for a genderqueer person playing in the women’s division, the term “female-identifying” is even more so. The phrase “female-identified” essentially says, “We only welcome people who actively identify within the gender binary!” That sucks—not only is the system set up for cis people, we are only welcoming cis and binary people? I don’t think that’s the intent, but I would argue it’s the message. Or, what if a trans man, who hadn’t transitioned and thus was eligible for the Women’s Division, wanted to play? I think/hope that we are a community that would call someone whatever pronouns they wanted and appreciate them based on their character. The language “woman-ID” or even “women-ID and gender nonconforming” doesn’t reflect this, though.
- Basing the openness of a sports event on gender identity is inaccurate. If a MTF trans woman who has not transitioned wanted to play for a women’s division team under USAU sanctions, she could not. Thus, advertising tryouts for a women’s division team as a “women-identified” event is not actually honest, because this person would not be welcome (or, maybe she would be welcome, but at the end of the day she wouldn’t be allowed to compete).
- Basing the openness of a sports event on gender identity feels intrusive. If an event is advertised as “female-identified”, or even, “female-identified and gender non-conforming” are you going to ask, “So, what’s your gender identity?” at the registration table? No. That would be weird and aggressive. So then why advertise the event as if those are the restrictions?
- It assumes most femme people are female-identifying, and that most people in the division are female-identifying. “Female-identifying” isn’t something you should ever assume about a stranger. We do, all the time: we place people in gendered categories based on assumptions. And that’s where we’re at as a society. Because of the way that society is set up as gendered, we’re all conditioned to put people into “man” “woman” “gender nonconforming” categories as soon as we meet them. But adding “female-identified” additionally assumes that most people enjoy that experience.
My solution to this particular quandary is to say, “eligible W division players” “people eligible for the women’s division” etc because that is what we actually mean. Those are the restrictions. That is the actual line dividing people from welcome/unwelcome (I hope). Including other qualifiers is either wrong or unnecessarily exclusive. It also puts the focus on a person’s identity as a source of whether or not they will be welcomed, and what we actually want is for the focus to be on character. All good humans, loving teammates, hard workers, committed athletes, and people within the women’s division striving to be the best player they can be are welcome. And will be valued for those things, not their identities.
My advice for other questions of language is to be as specific as possible. If you want to denote people playing on Riot, say “Riots”. If you want to represent your team without representing everyone’s identity the same, say “we play in the women’s division” rather than “we’re a team of women” (or maybe everyone on the team is a woman, and that’s the language you want to use! That’s sick too. Intentionality is the most important piece of this.)
Another angle that I urge folks to consider when thinking about using the language “female-identified” for themselves, others, and for their spaces and events, is what sort of framework of gender you are reproducing. The focus on gender as something that is personal and everyone just gets to choose for themselves (I identify as x!), while important in some ways, isn’t the whole picture.
There are lots of things missing, but one of them is that gender is a social construct and a social interaction. Imagine that you were born and lived alone on an isolated island: you wouldn’t have a gender. The gendered signification that has been assigned to certain parts of certain bodies would be gone. You would just go around naked and think nothing of it. Just because we are living in society, it does not make gender any less of an arbitrary construction. It is “real”, but only in the sense that everyone believes that it is real, and all of our social systems are set up to reproduce it. It is a social category, not a natural one. So, yes, gender is an identity… and a collection of social scripts, a tool of the state, a tool of the patriarchy, an assortment of norms that reinforce male supremacy, an assortment of norms that reinforce white supremacy, an assortment of norms that reinforce capitalism, etc etc.
When cis people say “I’m female-identified!” it implies that cisgender people choose their gender, and ignores the fact that everyone is socialized to be a cisgender member of the system. Probably this chafes everyone to some extent, and chafes some more than others (ie queer folks). But no one wakes up and chooses to be cisgender; we’re all socialized to be that way, from in utero. It also implicitly reifies the idea that we are all born with “man” or “woman” in our genes; that gender is a stable category, and a biological reality rather than something constructed socially. This is only one short theoretical step away from biological determinism. Instead of promoting this model, where everyone has ‘man’ or ‘woman’ or ‘nonbinary’ written on their brains (even with the addendum “some brains might not match their bodies” which isn’t quite right either) I am promoting a model of gender in which everyone is picking from a limited and limiting list of what “gender” might be.
Let’s support and welcome and include and listen to trans folks and gender nonconforming folks. But let’s not reify and renaturalize the oppressive categories of gender that render them Other any more than we have to.
If this feels convoluted, that’s because it’s really hard to use layman’s terms to describe gender. There is a whole field of excellent queer and feminist theory that deconstructs gender (and sex) in simple and complex and brilliant ways. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1989), or Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993) are landmark works that destabilized identity politics for queer and feminist theorists long ago. I recommend reading them, though the theory is not for the faint of heart.