There's a trans theory concept called the "Cotton Ceiling." (Basically, it tries to explain why some, especially lesbian, women don't really see trans women as real women), Rad-fems don't like it, as one might expect. I'm not going to try and discuss the contents of that article, or the comments on it; I might do so later, but it's tricky and I'm only marginally qualified to talk about this.
I will link to someone who thinks it's all a big miscommunication. Others might suggest that the real issue is unsolvable: rad-fems will refuse to see trans women as women (or even, arguably, as people) regardless, while simultaneously refusing to really see trans men as men (which they're okay with, since women are generally beyond reproach). I don't really know the answer.
But I would like to make an observation. It's been made before, but it bears repeating: our culture is obsessed with penises, and this needs to stop.
At one point, this obsession did make a kind of sense in the following way: Men had nearly all of the power in society. Men have penises. Hence, power and penis were thought to be related. People are interested in power, ergo a fascination with the penis. See: Freud. But this way of thinking hasn't been widely subscribed to in a very long time. Yes, male-bodied people still retain a majority of the world's power, but it's also clear that this is being maintained by inertia. Men have power because men have power. Genitals don't have anything to do with it, not in a direct sense, not anymore.
Still, the obsession remains. So far as I can tell:
- Non-feminist spectrum straight men are obsessed with both their own penises and other people's, but are terrified of thinking about those other penises. This causes them extreme psychological discomfort. (No homo!)
- Non-feminist spectrum straight women are obsessed with penises as the perceived source of all power.
- Gay/bi/pan men are just obsessed with penises. I could argue that we have an excuse, because we sort-of do for obvious reasons. We still need to get over it; if nothing else it would make our sex lives more interesting.
- Radical feminists (straight, political lesbian, and lesbian) of the modern variety are obsessed with penises as the root of all evil.
- Second-wave feminist women are obsessed with penises as a source of power, with a view toward dismantling it.
- Many third-wave feminist straight women are conflicted: they like penises sexually, but are concerned about the penis's role in society as a whole. See: small penis jokes about anti-women politicians.
- Third-wave feminist straight men are obsessed with penises because they're either feeling guilt about having them, or because they're still under the illusion that having one gives them special privileges. Observe your garden-variety mansplaining male baby-feminist at your local web forum, blog, or feminist lecture.
- Third-wave feminist lesbians aren't usually too obsessed, but they've absorbed a lot of rad-fem ideology and culture, which exhibits itself under stress.
- Trans spectrum people (both male and female) are obsessed with penises, if for no other reason than because they are forced to be by the obsession permeating the rest of our culture.
Excluding asexuals (who generally don't talk about penises a lot as far as I can see), that basically leaves three groups, who do have a more balanced view of penises.
- Sex-positive (kink, straight, lesbian) types, who tend toward live-and-let-live, and don't mind penises as long as there's mutual enthusiastic consent.
- Non-feminist (or not overtly feminist) lesbians, who think penises are just whatever (or funny), but don't give much of a shit about academic gender politics. (Yes, people like this do exist; see also every conservative gay women ever).
- A smattering of very third-wave feminist straight women, who like penises, but don't think they're that important.
The trouble is that only the last group is interested in engaging with the subject in any meaningful way, and they're being drowned out by the crowd.
So I'd like to propose this: let's just stop being so serious about penises. A penis is merely just a small piece of some people's bodies. It doesn't have a mind of it's own. It's only related to sexual desire by association (yep, that's in the brain, turns out). It has no practical function outside of sex and urination, and, surprisingly for some, it isn't even remotely necessary for having sex. A penis or the lack therof shouldn't hold the complexity it does. Yes, sometimes the subject will come up. Penises do exist. But let's not give them undue importance.
Even jokes about penises are loaded. There's always this undercurrent, that penises are inherently threatening, or that men can afford to joke because having a penis makes one unassailable. (I think the recent trend toward vagina jokes is actually quite positive. If female genitals are no longer sacred, they too can be seen as a minor source of power). Gender/power issues are confusing enough without complicating the subject with specific physical attributes.
There's a real issue in this whole cotton ceiling debate—namely the true nature of sexual orientation. It's probable that many rad-fem-lesbians honestly think having a vagina is the sole determining factor for femaleness, but it's nearly always actually expressed in the sense of not having a penis. This obscures the issue tremendously.
There's this thing about genitals: Turns out, everybody's got 'em. It shouldn't be such a big deal.