Responding to the recent interview with Diane DiMassa

Diane DiMassa’s work, especially her comic “Hothead Paisan- Lesbian Homicidal Terrorist,” has served as a positive media representation for a lot of queer folks. Marginalized folks can still cause hurt to others who experience oppression, though. Following our publication of an interview with DiMassa about her paintings, I feel I have to address the pain she’s caused me and other members of the transgender community.
In 2004 DiMassa became involved in the controversy surrounding Michigan Womyn’s Festival, which has a policy of excluding trans women, when a musical based on “Hothead Paisan” was scheduled to be performed there (the comic contains a character, Daphne, whose gender history is left ambiguous but who many assumed was a trans woman). DiMassa was pressured to denounce the festival’s exclusionary policy. Instead, she wrote a letter in support of MichFest’s discrimination. In the letter, DiMassa is dismissive of trans women’s experience of oppression:

[Michigan Womyn's Festival] is for women who have been at the ass-end of life here on The Planet of the Apes their whole life. This usually does not apply to MTF’s.

The notion that cis women have a longer, and the implication is greater, experience of gender-based oppression shows a deep ignorance of trans women’s experiences. Many of us have been harassed our whole lives because we failed to fit into the compulsory gender binary. Not to mention the deep psychic pain of having to present and live a gender that is at odds with our internal reality, a truth often hidden even from ourselves. Using the term “MTF’s” serves as a reminder of our past public male identity, which the term legitimizes over our actual female identity.
DiMassa’s ignorance around trans women’s experience of oppression was more starkly revealed in an interview with Bitch Magazine</em in which she also defended MichFest:

It’s just fucking typical that a
man-born lesbian can’t get the concept of not being allowed somewhere.

DiMassa unfortunately fails to recognize the privilege that comes with fitting (broadly, no one really fits) into the gender category one is assigned at birth. At the same time, she suggests that trans women have male privilege, a notion that de-legitimizes our female identities and forces us back into the male box.
DiMassa’s work may do a lot of good for cis lesbians, but this does not negate the hurt her public, forceful, and repeated expression of transmisogyny has done to trans women.

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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  • Athenia

    “Why do you have to know what she [Daphne] is in order to know how you feel about her?”
    Sounds like DiMassa needs to take her own advice.

  • TeenMommy

    I’m always amazed by that sort of nastiness directed at trans women by otherwise liberal, social justice-minded cis women. It’s like — it’s not a trans woman’s fault that people spent years treating her like the wrong gender, and it should be obvious to any person with empathy that any privelege in that wrong treatment also involved infliction of emotional pain.
    Also, I doubt she would say that butch women who mistakenly get called Mr. are too priveleged to attend the festival.

  • Dawn.

    You know what’s “just fucking typical,” Ms. DiMassa? Transmisogyny. And it’s disappointing to find out that you conform to that cruel standard.
    P.S. I hate it when people use the term “MTF’s.” I mean, really. It’s a rejection of trans women’s identities and a deliberate spotlight on their assigned sex. It’s an effort to “remind” people that “these aren’t real women.” Disgusting.

  • s mandisa

    jos: thank you for reminding me how much work cis-dykes like myself have to do around gender oppression that we experience AND that we perpetuate.
    i must say though that DiMassa doesn’t do cis-lesbians any good by policing gender and bodies and gender expressions AS WELL AS real lived violence and oppression experienced histoirically and systemicially by transwomen. all it does it lead me to denounce even further gender essentialism which IS transphobic and homophobic and racist and classist and ableist. her, far too common, transphobia also speaks of the blatant misogyny, trans and cys, that exists in queer spaces.
    also, thank you for this because until now I had never heard of DiMassa

  • Brittany

    Many trans people themselves call themselves “MtF” or “FtM”.

  • allisonjayne

    it’s not a trans woman’s fault that people spent years treating her like the wrong gender
    YES. exactly.

  • Suzy Q

    I am a woman who was born transsexual.
    About 15 years ago one of my brothers, a man born transsexual introduced me to the core idea of these memes. He describe himself not as female to male but as transsexual to male.
    Cis-sexual/gender folks assume that those of us who grow up transsexual have the same life experiences they do during that socialization process. It is beyond them that we might just have been transkids with trans childhoods.
    Therefore when we attain agency and change our sexes or live our our lives in gender roles that feel right we are not moving from the same place cis-sexual/gender people experience but rather from our own unique space as people with transsexualism or transgenderism.

  • Brianna G

    I hear it sometimes when people are referring to their medical history, or, in one case, a woman used it because she passed so effectively that she actually had to clarify she was born anatomically male, instead of born anatomically female and wanting to become male. Even to her doctors, who naturally assumed she was pre-op FtM and dismissed her trying to tell them that no, vaginal bleeding was NOT a normal thing for her!
    Honestly, though, in this case “transwomen” would be more accurate and appropriate, since many transwomen are in intermittent physical transition stages and some might not feel “MtF” covers their experience.

  • LalaReina

    For those of us as uninformed as myself what does “MTF” stand for? I have an idea but I’m not certain…

  • Suzy Q

    I am a woman who was born transsexual.
    I use WBT instead of MtF.
    Women Born Transsexual grew out of something I first heard a man who was born transsexual use to describe himself.
    Instead of saying that he was female to male, he said he was transsexual to male TtM which would make me TtF.
    This kind of made real sense to me since as children we were transkids creating our own socialization, often outcasts in a world of cis-sexual/gendered people.
    When we transition it is not from cis-sexual/gender but from transsexual to female or male as the case may be.

  • makomk

    While I’ve no doubt there are exceptions, generally they just refer to themselves as “women” and “men” respectively unless their experiences as trans people are particularly relevant. (Plus, not every trans person identifies as FtM or MtF, even if an outsider might think the label fits.) In particular, the way DiMassa is using the term MtF – as a way of referring to people she doesn’t think of as real women – is a blatant example of third gendering, and incredibly transphobic. Also, notice the emphasis on the “male” part, as clarified by the Bitch magazine interview…

  • gatanegra

    I agree that DiMassa’s comments are dismissive and don’t take into account the type of oppression transmen/women have gone through in their lives. The Michigan Womyn’s Fest stance was the worst of second wave feminism and just plan wrong.
    There is one lingering issue though that I think deserves attention, one that probably can only be discussed in safe spaces in communities where people trust each other enough to really talk openly. That issue is socialization. Not all transwomen have the same experiences. Some were deeply socialized as men and lived with male privilege and this has carried forward and affects interactions in our communities. Talking about how ciswomen may have internalized sexist views is often taboo, and definitely talking about how transwomen may be sexist is taboo. It does none of us any good to pretend that these issues aren’t real, but since the discussions often come (as in DiMassa’s case) with dismissals of trans lives and identities, it may be a long time coming.

  • makomk

    While that’s a great post, I do wonder if anything will change. Diane DiMassa will still get quoted in and interviewed by all the big feminist sites and magazines, still be treated as an important figure of respect (possibly more so than any trans woman). Her transphobia and trans-mysogyny will continue to be minimized as a minor and unfortunate detail compared to all the wonderful things she’s done for cis women. Seen it time and time again.
    Also, calling this ignorance is probably giving her far too much credit. It sounds like people have tried to explain these issues to her, and been ignored or deliberately dismissed. Certainly, that’s the case with (for example) Julie Bindel, and that doesn’t stop her transphobia and trans-mysogyny from being treated as mere ignorance.
    [ This comment brought you you by a cis guy, because all the trans women who've spotted this and reached this level of cynicism have probably left Feministing by now - or in some cases just abandoned the feminist movement entirely. ]

  • Zoe Brain

    Actually – I think Feministing and Feminism generally are doing a pretty good job of getting our house in order.
    Feminists are speaking out against Transphobia, it’s no longer the standard or default.
    I do get discouraged sometimes though, by the relative silence over FGM. I don’t just mean FGM in faraway countries, I mean the hundreds of cases amongst immigrants everywhere every week.
    Hundreds every week? Consider in Australia, population 21 million, they have 600 cases per year in just one city. A dozen a week. Now multiply by 15 to get the US rate. Add in the UK rate. The Canadian rate. Just amongst the Anglosphere, yes, hundreds per week, and virtually no-one is saying anything about it.
    If there’s one issue that we should do something about, it’s this one.
    Oh yes, I’m Intersexed, I transitioned, call me MtoF or TtoF or whatever. That’s not important, my unusual past is pretty much irrelevant to my life. Yes, Transphobia’s still a problem, but I think the apathy over FGM is worse.

  • agreenballoon

    Those comments were unfortunate and dismissive, but I don’t really think they reflect the views of her work.
    I don’t know if DiMassa was taken out of context there (they still suck even if she was just trying to make a snarky point about misogyny), but her comic work generally reflects the opposite view. Her lesbian-identified main character has no problem with her attraction to the trans character and often critiques readers who would judge their relationship.
    There’s a whole dialogue in her comic where the “hotheaded” main character first criticizes a transman who is going to get hormones at a clinic. But Hothead gets an education in transpolitics when the trans character tells her that ze always felt strange in zir body, and that ze liked it better when the “outside matched the inside.” (I can’t remember exactly how this goes.)
    I’d still encourage people of any gender to check out DiMassa’s work as a hilarious critique of masculinity that follows the spiritual and emotional journey through gender politics and her own experience in a patriarchal society.

  • LalaReina

    Okay under the auspices of “there is no such thing as a stupid question” I’m not going to be embarrassed I asked that stupid question.

  • gatanegra

    Ugh. Don’t even know where to start commenting on this one. I think this issue has been done to death by Western feminists usually from a totally neocolonial perspective that doesn’t take cultural issues into account or even women’s own voices from other countries. Listen to what they’re saying about it before telling them what they should do.
    And, there is an irony her that this issue is being brought up in the context of transphobia. For many outside of our cultural context, surgeries that some transfolk have are also seen as genital/body mutilation and we would defend people’s rights to do it based on their “freedom of choice.”
    There’s a bit of hypocrisy there.

  • makomk

    Interesting. As far as I can see, Feministing is… basically unchanged over at least the last couple of years in this regard. Which means such charming things as loads of comments about how trans people who have sex without coming out as trans are rapists. (That whole argument was started by a community post making a similar argument itself – and remember that community posts have to be approved.)
    It also means articles like this obituary, talking about all the great things the person have done for women when that only applies to cis women. In particular, note the total lack of any mention of Mary Daly’s very influential transphobia, which is kinda important. This is something Feministing had in common with the vast majority of websites.
    As best as I can tell, all the reasons that people boycotted Feministing in the first place are still there.
    [ If you want a much less polite take on the issue of feminist handling of trans* issues, this blog post by genderbitch may be interesting. Note that there's a good reason Shakesville was her last hope: in practice it's the only one of the big feminist blogs that doesn't allow horribly transphobic comments. ]
    Of course, even supposedly transfeminist communities can treat transphobic feminists’ feelings as more important than trans women…

  • Zoe Brain

    It’s the matter of informed consent – the difference between involuntary genital destruction on someone who can’t consent, and voluntary genital reconstruction on someone who can and does.
    Or are you asserting that parents have the right to insist upon genital reconstruction surgery for 8 year olds too, regardless of the child’s wishes?
    It’s also the difference between sex regardless of “consent” at age 10, and sex with consent at age 18.
    I’m Intersexed, and thus have to deal on support fora with Intersexed kids who have had their appearance “normalised” to please society and their parents before age 2. That always leads to loss of sensitivity and scar tissue, and usually sterilises them. Many have difficulty dealing with this in later life, especially if the surgery was done the wrong way. They then have to overcome the stigma of being labelled “mentally ill” because they disagree with the guess – sometimes literally decided by a coin-toss – of the surgeons.
    Your post sounds like a knee-jerk reaction. I hope it wasn’t. But I do think you need to educate yourself a bit more on the issues.
    NO SURGERY WITHOUT INFORMED CONSENT unless medically indicated.