TransFeminism/CisFeminism: Why Can’t We Be Friends?

The recent bout of cis-centric/transphobic commenting on some of the bigger feminist blogs highlights a problem that exists throughout the feminist community. There are very good reasons for solidarity between the transgender community, that is people whose gender identity is self-identified as different from that assigned to them at birth, and cisgender feminists (by cisgender I mean people who identify with the gender identity they were assigned at birth). However, a binary view of gender and lack of understanding of trans life experiences often leads to the exclusion of gender non-conformists from feminist analysis and to transphobic attitudes within feminist circles.

In patriarchal cultures the oppression of women through exclusion, marginalization, and violence is oppression of people who have failed to be men . When power has been deliberately concentrated in male hands and men have positioned themselves as the norm, women experience violence because they are treated as an other, as less than. Less worthy of life, less worthy of choice, less worthy of bodily autonomy. Women’s consent is deemed unnecessary because they are seen as less than human.

There are many people, including too many women, who experience marginalization, oppression, and violence because of their failure to be men but who also fail to fit a definition of woman rigidly defined as those who were identified female at birth, self-identity as female and also dress a certain way, speak a certain way, move a certain way, desire a certain way. In fact, failure to fit perfectly into the woman box is also an excuse for oppression.

The compulsory gender binary, the forcing of all people into the boxes of male or not, is an essential tool of patriarchy. It codifies the groups “male” and “female” and posits them in opposition. Power is concentrated in male hands and everyone in the male group is given a reason to oppress everyone else so they can hold on to that power. The group women is also clearly defined, and that is where the inferior others fit.

The rest of us who don’t fit the narrow parameters of either category are experiencing oppression because of patriarchy. This should be a reason for solidarity between cisgender feminists and the transgender community. But one way hierarchies are maintained is by setting up situations where members of oppressed groups in turn oppress those with even less power and privilege because it is one of the only available ways to demonstrate power and attempt to move up in the world – by moving someone else down. I am not suggesting cisgender feminists are consciously choosing to oppress gender non-conformists, but it is undoubtedly happening.

I have certainly experienced a lack of understanding that my gender identity is a feminist issue. My experience comes from the specific position of being on the spectrum of transitioning from male to female, and also of having a gender presentation that is currently in the general area of gender fuck – I seldom look like I fit into any one category.

Ciswomen doing really amazing feminist and reproductive justice organizing have challenged me when I switched pronouns, questioned the reasons for and legitimacy of my transitioning (as if I need to give a reason for being myself, especially when it comes with so much hatred and violence), and tried to fit me into an identity box (gay man) I never belonged in because that was the role they wanted me to fill in their lives. And then there is anxiety over bathrooms, treating the comfort of ciswomen as more important than the physical needs and very real threat of violence experienced by transwomen.

These are all examples of patriarchal thinking forcing its way into feminist circles. I’ve heard these sentiments from really amazing people who I love. But we live in a culture structured by patriarchy, so we are all susceptible to ways of thinking and knowing that are antithetical to our feminist ideals.

When someone challenges my pronouns, gender presentation, gender identity, sexuality, and right to pee they are, consciously or not, claiming ownership of my identity. Assuming that I lack the humanity to define myself.

This is a fundamentally feminist issue. It is the production and reification of this sort of thinking that maintains women as an underclass. The dehumanization of non-normal (meaning non-male) identities informs the pro-life movement that sees women not as conscious thinking individuals, but rather as existing for the function of baby production. As vessels for the production of life rather than life itself. This sort of thinking informs rape culture, in which people are seen as unable to make choices about their own sexuality; when someone is viewed as less than human their ability to choose what kind of sex they have when and with whom is invalidated, which further dehumanizes them.

When my gender and the identity of any gender non-conformist is challenged, patriarchy and male supremacy gets that much more powerful. Cismen are re-imposed as the norm and the compulsory gender binary is reinforced, hurting gender non-conformists and ciswomen alike.

My everyday experience of living in the world as someone whose gender identity and expression does not fit the binary suggests to me clear points of solidarity between trans folk and all feminists.

It has not been an uncommon experience for me to have cismen try to pick me up at bus stops or follow me home, assuming I am a sex worker. Because I show the world some glimpse of my gender identity they assume that identity puts me in a very specific sexual role, existing for their pleasure.

I am trans bashed on the street constantly. People who present as cismen will start yelling, getting upset, moving to the other side of the street as if I am scary, a threat. Groups of teenagers will discuss me as I walk by; what “it” is, often with the female members of the group expressing interest, liking my hair or makeup and male members only able to express revulsion. I also experience this strange highbred of bashing and catcalling when someone simultaneously mocks my presentation and sarcastically expresses attraction.

My experience is different from what ciswomen experience on the street. Ciswomen are followed and targeted by cat calling because of their proximity to fitting into the predefined role of men’s inferior. Trans folk have these experiences because we don’t fit. But both groups are targets of the everyday vocalizations that reassert male supremacy because we are the other. We are not men, so we are objects.

This is fucked. But it is also a point of solidarity.

The transgender community experiences a sort of oppression that fits very well into the analysis of patriarchy that is foundational to feminism. Feminism, stripped of transphobic ideas that are antithetical to the philosophy and goals of feminist politics, has a lot to offer the trans community. And the trans community has a lot to offer feminists. We can bring an understanding of the gender binary that calls for the dismantling of a system generally viewed as natural, fundamental, and unquestionable, a system that is an essential tool of the patriarchy that feminism exists to oppose. But in order to do so we have to stop targeting each other, start listening to each other, and unite on the issues we share.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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