by Miriam English
The dark, overcast sky made the afternoon look later than it was. The air was fresh and damp after the rain.
She pulled out her phone to check it, then pocketed it again. "We have time to get down the hill if we hurry."
The path was wide enough for three people to walk side-by-side, and there was enough light to see even as it wound down the hill through the gloom of the towering forest and between tall tree ferns.
We walked briskly, our breath misting in the cold air, our cheeks and noses reddening.
After a while she glanced sideways at me. "Do you mind if I ask you something personal?"
I raised my eyebrows, "Go ahead."
"Do you think you feel like a woman, or a man, or something in between?"
I shrugged, "How does anybody know what it feels like to be a woman or a man?"
She snorted dismissively, "What kind of reply is that? I know what it feels like to be a woman."
"Do you? How do you know? You don't have telepathy. Other women might feel entirely different to you. How could you know? Nobody — no man and no woman — knows what it feels like to be another person." I smiled, "Half the time we don't even know what people mean when making objective statements, let alone subtleties of feeling."
We strode on, having naturally fallen into step. She was frowning, clearly unsatisfied with my reply, "Alright, let me ask this way, do you feel feminine or masculine?"
I nodded, "Like you, sometimes I feel feminine, sometimes I feel masculine, sometimes neither."
She looked skeptical, "You think I sometimes feel masculine?"
"Definitely. Well, I should say, sometimes you act masculine. You can be quite aggressive and assertive, carrying yourself with a swagger, taking risks, and caring little for finer details and sensitivities. It's one of the things I've always liked about you."
"You think those are masculine things?"
"What would you call them?"
"I'd call them false stereotypes."
I shrugged, "Okay. What would you define as masculine attributes? What would you define as feminine attributes?"
She thought for a while, and we walked in silence, except for the step of our boots. After a minute she said, "I wouldn't. They're false stereotypes."
"Oh come on. You use those stereotypes all the time. Just the other day you remarked of my clothes, that I'm such a guy sometimes."
She gave me an apologetic smile. "I didn't mean anything bad by it."
"I know." I grinned. I pushed her a little to the side as we walked and she bumped a branch that showered us with heavy drops. We shrieked as we shook off the water.
Presently, she said, "Okay, I'll concede there are masculine and feminine stereotypes, but they're different from what it feels to be female or male. I don't think I can define them."
I laughed, my voice echoing off the trees, "You seemed happy to believe they could be defined earlier. But when forced to think more closely on it you're now willing to agree with what I was saying, that nobody really knows what it feels like to be a woman or to be a man."
We were both puffing a little from the pace of our walk. She put up her hand, "Hang on, I wasn't agreeing with you. I'm saying I can't put it into words. The experience of seeing the color red is genuinely different from seeing blue, but I can't describe why they are different."
I shook my head. "A better example is to ask if my experience of seeing the color red is the same as yours. How would you ever know if another person's experience of that color is the same as yours? One person might have less color receptors in their eyes so that color is seen only vaguely, or even not at all. Or maybe they had terrifying events associated with that color, or it might be attached to some very comforting memories. In the same way, nobody can know what it feels like for other men or women to be male or female. Or, wait! An even better example is for both of us to listen to a piece of music. We both listen to exactly the same instruments and exactly the same tune, but one of us might become impatient and irritated while the other is enraptured by it. Each person's experience is different, even with exactly the same input."
She shook her head impatiently, "You're unnecessarily complicating it. In broad terms, women have a shared experience that men don't have, and vice versa."
"Really? As relatively privileged, Australian women, what shared experience do either of us have with a half-starved, third-world woman who is at great risk of being raped or beaten, or even killed if she speaks her mind? Some women have very painful periods, some have a very easy time of it, some don't have periods at all. Some have large, heavy breasts that limit their movement, others have breasts smaller than man-boobs. Some women are tall, some muscular, some small, some have a lot of fat on their belly, for some it concentrates on their thighs, others on their buttocks. Some women are calm and cerebral, others easily angered. Some are knowledgeable, some ignorant and superstitious. Tell me more about this shared experience."
"There's the hormonal cycles and their effects on moods--"
I gently interrupted, "...which differs greatly between individuals, with some not experiencing those cycles at all. And trans women have those hormonal effects too, but somehow I doubt you'd be willing to accept that as part of shared female experience."
The path opened to a grassy area fringed by the forest behind us and the calm waters of the river before us. About a kilometer away, the lights of the boatshed were already lit, their reflections dancing on the dark water. All was quiet except for small waves gently lapping at the water's edge and distant kookaburras' laughter echoing off the surrounding hills as they readied for the evening. The saline tang of the water combined with the rich damp scent of the forest's leafy carpet.
We hurried along the narrower path above the river's edge that would take us to the far lights and the jetty where our boat was moored.
I said, "Honey, you're one of the most open-minded people I know, and you pride yourself on not being bigoted, but I think you have to face the fact that you do have a little bit of lingering prejudice on this. You're unwilling to allow that trans women are really women, or that trans men are really men. Yes, you're happy to accord them a place at the table and don't think they should be discriminated against legally or socially, but you still hold on to the idea that they can never truly be their chosen gender. You think there's something extra that they can never gain. Nothing will allow them entry — hormones, surgery, nothing."
She thought for a while, then admitted, "Well, yeah. They don't have the life experience of other people of that gender."
I shook my head and sighed. "But neither do you. You don't know what other women feel like. No woman does. And no man knows what other men feel like. No trans person knows what another person truly feels like. All the people I know — trans and cis — some act feminine, some act masculine, while most act in various mixtures of the two, or somewhere in-between. But even though they may act these ways, nobody really knows how anybody else feels." I looked at her sadly, "But you're not really convinced by this, are you... and that's the problem. Even in intelligent, enlightened people, prejudice remains very resistant to change."
The gloom was gathering, but I was confident that we would reach our destination before night fell.