My blue Timex watch was my favorite accessory when I was in elementary school. I wore it almost always, and certainly when I was playing with the neighbor kids. I was proud of the fact that I could beat one of the boys my age in running, and I never wondered whether my clothes were fashionable. I was a tomboy.

I remember sitting in the back seat of the car one day, wondering to myself what it would be like, wishing even, to be a boy. I had three brothers, and I often envied the camaraderie they shared. We were all very close, but there was something special about their bond.

Years later, I now wear nicer watches, and I don’t challenge anyone to running contests (mostly because I know I would lose). But I like wearing some men’s (read: my husband’s) clothes, and I’m not precious about getting dirt on my hands.

As feminists have been arguing for years, there is no one way to be a woman. When I was little, I’d never heard the term transgender, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I would need to change my gender to express myself in the way I wanted to. But nowadays if a boy acts too “girly” or if a girl acts too “masculine,” many people might wonder if they should change their gender.

This type of reasoning is becoming mainstream. Last month the actor who played Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter movie series, Rupert Grint, told Esquire that he thought it was important to speak out against the opinions of the woman who made his career possible. Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling had sparked outrage for saying that transgender activists “erode ‘women’ as a political and biological class.”

“Generally, I'm not an authority on the subject,” Grint admitted. But he felt the need to speak up “out of kindness.” As did co-stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, and several human rights organizations. The conversations about gender issues are getting more frequent and more difficult these days.

Trans coverage on the rise

When I was growing up in the early 2000s, tomboys were tomboys, and no one looked sideways when I dressed my little brothers in tutus. The culture has changed rapidly in the past few years. In 2013, Laverne Cox, a trailblazer for the transgender movement, was playing a transgender woman in Orange Is the New Black. One year later, Cox was on the cover of Time. In the years since, transgender representation has exploded in the media.

The word transgender has shot up in messaging from groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD (far surpassing in frequency of use terms like “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual”).

Gen Z’s TV show of choice, Euphoria, stars 22-year-old Hunter Scafer, a transgender woman who told the New York Times that “the gender binary [is] something that’s nonexistent and a construct and a product of colonialism.” In Amy Poehler’s latest project, Moxie, a group of high school feminists makes sure to include a transgender woman in their ranks. In HBO’s 2020 hit I May Destroy You, a main character goes on a date with a cute guy who soon tells her that he was born female. So she doesn’t appear “transphobic,” a word that her date lobs at her like a warning, she finishes out the date. By the end of the show, the two are a couple.

In pop culture, no one ever questions whether it’s not transphobic to leave a date with a person who isn’t biologically male, or whether “the gender binary” actually is a product of biology.

Meanwhile different views are stifled

There’s a reason for that. Everyone is afraid to talk about transgender issues because a misstep can get you fired, canceled, or threatened with violence. Target recently removed Abigal Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters from its shelves in response to a couple of Twitter complaints. Amazon scrapped Ryan Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment without telling him.

Fans of the once-beloved J.K. Rowling are burning Harry Potter books after she made comments on transgender people and supported a woman who lost her job for expressing belief in biological sex. For that, she has been labeled a “TERF”—“trans-exclusionary radical feminist.”

“We’re living through the most misogynistic period I’ve experienced,” Rowling wrote in a post responding to the backlash. From sexual predators to “the trans activists who declare that TERFs need punching and re-educating, men across the political spectrum seem to agree: women are asking for trouble. Everywhere, women are being told to shut up and sit down, or else.”

Only in our outrage-fueled modern discourse could Rowling’s comments be perceived as “transphobic.” (Robbie Coltrane, who plays Hagrid in the Harry Potter series, defended Rowling by saying, “I don’t know why, but there’s a whole Twitter generation of people who hang around waiting to be offended.”)

Rowling simply expressed that women should not be fired “for stating that sex is real.” She also made a joke about a headline that called women “people who menstruate.” “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people,” she wrote on Twitter.

Rowling has been careful to clarify that she is not opposed to men and women expressing themselves however they choose, as long as she doesn’t have to pretend that “there is no material difference” between transgender women and biological women. As a victim of abuse, Rowling worries that erasing women’s spaces could leave them more vulnerable. Others have expressed safety concerns about indiscriminately allowing non-biological women into women’s restrooms, locker rooms, and shelters.

But, as Rowling writes, transgender activists demand not just acceptance but complete deference to their beliefs. For her unorthodox views, Rowling has been cursed at and threatened with violence.

Feeling female

What is a woman? A New Yorker article bearing that question as a headline reports that transgender women “say that they are women because they feel female—that, as some put it, they have women’s brains in men’s bodies.” But what does it mean to feel like a woman? Let’s be honest: no one really knows.

A woman is simply an “adult female person,” according to Merriam-Webster. What “female” means, we as a culture are still unsure about. A CNN straight news story from late March assured readers that “there is no consensus criteria for assigning sex at birth,” claiming that “biological sex” is a “disputed term.”

“I often will ask trans activists what a woman is,” Meghan Murphy, a feminist writer who was banned from Twitter for “misgendering” a transgender person, told me over the phone. “They can’t really define this word except to say if you feel like a woman, you are one. Nobody knows what it feels like to be a woman. If that’s a meaningless category, then why is it important that we include certain males within it?”

When people do start looking for definitions of “womanhood” besides biological sex, they often wade into archaic and offensive stereotypes of women. When Caitlyn Jenner came out to society in a 2015 Vanity Fair cover story, much was made of the former Olympian’s new, sultry look. In the interview, Jenner gushes about “girls’ night” at which you “can talk about outfits. You can talk about hair and makeup, anything you want.”

In Are Women Human? the English writer Dorothy Sayers rejects the idea that women and their desires can be easily categorized. “What is unreasonable and irritating is to assume that all one’s tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs. That has been the very common error into which men have frequently fallen about women.”

In particular, Sayers rejects the idea that women must fit into certain gender roles in order to represent their sex. “What we ask is to be human individuals, however peculiar and unexpected,” she writes. “It is no good saying: ‘You are a little girl and therefore you ought to like dolls’; if the answer is, ‘But I don’t,’ there is no more to be said.” A girl need not love dolls and clothes and makeup simply because she is female. The flip side of Sayer’s point is that a man is not a woman simply because he does love dolls and clothes and makeup.

It used to be that feminists rejected women made in man’s image. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf describes the difference between women in fiction and women in society: “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant.” Woolf’s words seem to have found a new meaning in 2021. We idolize women, in theory; in practice, we now believe they are so mundane that anyone can become one.

Nonstarter conversations

Talking about gender issues is challenging today not only because it’s so difficult to agree on what a “woman” is, but also because only one side is really allowed to speak out. “One of the toughest parts about this debate is that people won’t engage in it,” Murphy says. She’s been contacted by organizations hoping to organize a debate between her and a transgender activist, but no one will agree to talk with her.

Like Rowling, Murphy has been subject to harassment for her statements about women. Yet this is an issue that nearly evenly divides Americans: 54 percent of adults say gender is assigned through biological sex, while 44 percent say the two can be different.

Gender dysphoria, the DSM-diagnosable condition of feeling that your biological sex and gender don’t match, is real and difficult to face. Those who struggle with it deserve our sympathy and support, but that doesn’t mean the transgender movement should negate women’s rights. And that’s what most people who affirm the importance of biological sex will tell you.

But when we have this conversation, now we’re not allowed to talk about the way the transgender movement has started to erase women. Now, we don’t even get to be “women.” We’re “people with vaginas and uteruses.” We’re “people who menstruate” and occasionally “pregnant people.” We’ve been sliced up, reduced to the sum of our functions and body parts and given back to ourselves piecemeal.

As transgender issues have taken over our national conversation—though fewer than 1 percent of adults identify as transgender—it has been more, not less, difficult to have a discussion about what gender means. The early waves of feminism could at least rely on presenting women as a distinct class; now, the National Organization for Women declares that “trans women are women, trans girls are girls, and that non-binary and gender-nonconforming people are valid in their stated identities.” Any dissent from this kind of language sparks intense backlash.

If you speak out against this narrative, you could be banned from social media platforms. You could lose your job. You could be harassed, online or in-person. With consequences this bleak, it’s easy to wonder whether women should do as they’ve been told: “Shut up and sit down,” as Rowling says.

But it’s important that women know not everyone accepts the new narrative that anyone can be a woman. In fact, a slim majority of Americans don’t. They’re just afraid to speak up. We need to keep talking about the ways the transgender movement and the women’s rights movements conflict. After all, we can’t protect women if we’re not even sure who they are.