Emelina invited me to share my thoughts on the intersections of Trans* and Feminism, as inspired by a panel I was a part of at WisCon, a feminist Science Fiction/Fantasy conference. The questions I seek to address are listed in this post.
This essay has to be introduced with some disclaimers: 1) The first is that as a cis-y (cis-ish?) queer woman, there’s only so much perspective I can offer, and naturally my opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent Emelina’s or any other person anywhere, ever. 2) Because we didn’t record the panel referenced earlier, I won’t attempt to recreate the comments made by anyone else in the room, and I’ll only speak from my experience. 3) This post specifically addresses trans women and the intersection of their struggle for equality with the struggle of various feminist movements. I don’t address trans masculine issues in this post because I believe it’s a very different struggle that would turn this already long post into an epic post. So, it’s with simplicity in mind that I focus only on women-identified people moving forward.
The final caveat is that whenever I use the unqualified term “woman” in this post, it’s referring to all woman-identified people regardless of genetics or genitalia.
Feminism includes trans* rights. To declare otherwise is to completely ignore, deny and dismiss the core of feminist ethos: the belief in the fundamental equality and core humanity of womanhood and manhood, and of femininity and masculinity.
Let’s take it down to a fundamental. Definitionally, feminism is the belief in the equality of the sexes. Functionally, it is the belief in the raising of stature of female people and feminine concepts, ideals and communities in order to achieve that equality. In its earliest incarnations feminism championed the belief that woman’s work was work, that functionally supporting a household was worthy of admiration, that we had the right to choose when and how we reproduced and raised children, that having the right to opt powerfully into woman’s work was just as worthy as choosing to opt out of it.
It sought to even the playing field by taking the weights off women’s ankles.
The fight remains tangible: equal pay, fair maternity leave, women of stature lauded for their accomplishments, reproductive rights and access to safe health care, eradication of rape culture, more roles for women of color in film, equal representation in public office and Fortune 500 companies.
The fight is also subtle: Honoring the inherit worth in traditionally feminine concepts and actions: environmentalism, collaboration, empathy, emotional dynamism, dialogue, transformation, compassion, process.
The fight against patriarchy and misogyny is the fight for respect for our identities, our bodies and our right to exist as autonomous individuals. It is the demand for respect for our fundamental humanity and worth.
The reason why trans* rights within the feminist fight are considered a “conundrum” or a “debate” is because there are some very loud people with some very strong misunderstandings about how gender based oppression works in real life. These people see a penis and think “rape,” instead of “complicated”. They see a uterus and think “universal experience.”
Unfortunately, I’ve learned about these arguments mostly from reading insane vitriol on so-called “radfem” websites, where dialogue or counterpoints are certainly not appreciated. Most of these “radfem” arguments are so easily destroyed that I’m not going to spend much time dismantling them here. Instead, I’d direct you to Julia Serano’s post at Ms. Magazine where she does most of the heavy lifting necessary.
What makes the radfem arguments stick is that often they do include a tiny kernel of truth, no matter how covered with the grime of bigotry and loathing.
The first of these arguments is that trans women are “dudes in dresses” or don’t know what it’s like to be a woman because they weren’t socialized as women.
Practically speaking, I have known some trans women who do indeed present as clumsy or grasping at tenuous ideas of womanhood and femininity. Some of them have gone through phases of ascribing to patriarchal ideals of what a woman “should” be, stumbling through versions of identities on their way to who they will eventually (perhaps just as transiently) become. Rather than following whatever inner compass or outer role models better suited for the job, they reach for the most obvious neon-lit versions of women – the super models, the actresses, the porn stars and the fembots. These are the trans women the radfems usually point to when complaining that all trans women are just guys in disguise (patly ignoring, of course, that these women may just be clumsy women instead of nefarious men). There are many women who go through these phases, cis women absolutely included. Young trans women have very little chance of learning the ways of femininity at a self-directed pace, because most of them have to wait until they’re no longer dependents or socially threatened (economically or culturally speaking) before they can even begin to explore femininity. This means we find far more 50 something women who are transitioning than one might expect. I’ve known trans women who’ve become green berets, steel workers and merchant marines, all to escape their inner truth.
The patriarchy creates the conundrum, as we women must wonder whether to assimilate or rebel, and what exactly either of those choices would look like in practice. However, it’s far more likely that a trans woman will suffer the slings and arrows of some feminists for clumsy entrees into womanhood, while the equally clumsy and seeking cis women may get a free pass as a “phase” or misplaced acting out, or often a sad, ignorant woman who is just another victim of the patriarchy.
No doubt the oppression a young cis woman experiences is different from that a young trans woman or genderqueer person experiences, because the world tends to treat people born with penises differently from people with vaginas. That doesn’t, however, mean that people born with penises don’t have a conflict with the way they’re treated, and it certainly doesn’t mean that as that person ages they won’t experience violence, witness misogyny, or feel the bite of anti-feminine oppression.
Regardless of what you’re packing in your panties, many of us try on versions of femininity that become a form of drag, merely because it doesn’t “fit” in the way a more organic identification with femininity ultimately becomes.
(sidenote: I’ve known women with hyper-feminine diction, manners, gait, vocal inflection, and dress who appear far less draggy than their more “neutral” counterparts. They’re called femmes. And you wouldn’t dare tell them they’re tools of the patriarchy unless you want a stiletto in the eye.)
We all have to learn how to be women in the world. Possession of a fully-functional uterus does not guarantee the presence of any positive qualities of femininity. We all must learn empathy, cooperation, kindness and love. Women, it might be argued, learn these things from birth because we’re treated as though they are endemic to our gender, but also because of the solidarity that arises as a side effect of oppression.
Being born with a uterus is only a guarantee of one thing: having a uterus. Not everyone with a uterus ovulates, menstruates, gives birth, has sex, gets raped or develops cervical cancer. But the radfem claim that uteruses matter SO MUCH to the construction of womanhood that I have more in common with a heterosexual Sudanese mother of six than I have in common with Julia Serano, is just dumb.
Oppression doesn’t start and end at the uterus. The experience of womanhood in our world is informed by race, class, gender expression, nationality, religion, age and any number of other ways society constructs worth.
Using the uterus to define some sort of universal experience is just a convenient way of ignoring all these less cut and dry ways in which oppression acts on women.
What we’re actually dealing with is the presence of the penis, either real or implied. And this is where anti-trans “feminists” go full circle to patriarchal tools. Reducing a person to their genitalia is exactly what the patriarchy has been doing for fucktons of years. Women were denigrated because our constitutions were considered weak, we were crazy because our uteruses wandered through our bodies, and we weren’t capable of authority because our brains were smaller than men’s. It was our junk that made us less than, undeveloped, inferior.
Now, “radfems” are claiming this argument as their own, declaring trans women not women because of their genitalia, regardless of what it actually looks like.
Do fibroids matter? Of course. Do female genital mutilations, transvaginal ultrasounds, hypertension and menopause matter? Yes, yes, they do. Do they matter enough to occlude all the other things we as women are fighting for? Do they take precedent over equal pay, rape culture, preservation of the environment, maternity leave, marriage rights and hate crimes? Are they so much more important than creating lasting bonds around our womanhood, strengthening our communities economically, socially and spiritually, and exalting the feminine such that it must be considered indispensible around the world?
Which leads us to the question: What exactly are we fighting for? What relevance can feminism hope to have if we are actively policing the qualifications of people who want to join the fight?
The fundamentalists of our world already got feminists to in-fight once. It happened in the late 70s and early 80s when the sex wars began. We started policing other women’s behavior, including who we took to bed, how we dressed and how we chose to express ourselves publicly. And, it can be argued that this infighting is what has kept women from achieving much of what was so close in the 60s. The Backlash isn’t just Christian-funded. They have folks working on the inside.
One of the greatest successes of the women’s liberation, feminist and womanist movements was their ability to expand the acceptance of gender non-normativity for women. Women are allowed to wear pants, work in labor jobs, hold political office and fight in the armed forces because of the work of early feminists. There is still rigidity, no doubt, but our range of acceptable expression is far wider than that of masculine-acculturated people.
If we’re fighting for the sanctity of womanhood, should we not be inviting those that revere it equally to the table? Those who have fought and suffered to bear the cross of a oppressed gender?
I’d rather have Andrea James, Julia Serano and Drew Deveaux at my party before I’d think of inviting Michelle Bachmann. Just because Ms. Bachmann was born with two X-Chromosomes (I assume – when was the last time you got your chromosomes tested?), doesn’t make her a stronger cocompatriot.
This is, of course, assuming they want a seat at the table. I believe separatism has a valuable role in the healing and strengthening of an individual. It is sometimes necessary to cloister oneself from the world to allow yourself time to heal. However, separatism is not a useful tool for social change. What anti-trans radfems are doing is misconstruing their happy place for the world everyone should live in.
Out here, we’re all different shapes and colors and our worlds are vastly different depending on the permutations of oppressions and privileges that affect our lives. Feminism (womanism, humanism, etc) fights to transform the antiquated ideas of universality into ever-evolving ideas of intersectionality.
We learn a valuable lesson whenever a woman succeeds at whatever she chooses: Biology is not destiny. Our vaginas do not make us weak, our uteruses do not make us natural caregivers, our penises do not make us men. We can choose to be any of these things, but to assume that they stem from our sex organs and that our sex organs have the last word is reductive and most of all foolish.
Women’s status can only strengthen by honoring the feminine in everyone, exalting womanhood in its multiplicities and listening to everyone as they share their own (different) experiences of their femininity. Trans women enthusiastically included.
Allison Moon is an author and educator known for her lesbian werewolf book, Lunatic Fringe, which was nominated for a 2011 Goldie Award. A popular speaker and educator, Allison teaches publishing, creativity, art, writing and their intersections with social justice and sexuality. She’s best known for her workshops How to Drive a Vulva (aka Girl Sex 101) and Creativity for Radicals. In 2011, she was named a Lambda Literary Emerging LGBT Authors Fellow where she developed and workshopped the sequel to Lunatic Fringe. She blogs about gender, sexuality, writing and creativity at her website TalesofthePack.com You can preorder her sequel to Lunatic Fringe, Hungry Ghost, on Kickstarter through November 10, 2012.
This guest post will be re-published on The Human Experience once it’s live, an online queer publication aiming to redefine queer culture through the collaboration of all our voices. Find us on Facebook and Twitter.