On trans issues within feminism and strengthening the movement’s gender analysis

I’ve taken some time away from blogging while I’ve been in grad school, and it’s given me an opportunity for some perspective on the feminist blogosphere. I started working at Feministing in 2009 with a goal of centering trans issues within feminism. I think the oppression trans folks face, particularly the extreme marginalization and violence aimed at trans women in this misogynist culture, is exactly what feminism can exist to change. I understand feminism as a response to gendered oppression in a patriarchal context, where femininity is devalued. I see the worst of our gender hierarchy landing on the shoulders of folks who fail to meet the strict rules of the compulsory gender binary in a way that’s perceived as feminine. This plays out when, for example, queer men and trans women are specifically targeted with violence. So I see the exclusion of trans women and our issues from feminism (or the feminist movement’s active perpetuation of transmisogyny) as a problem that needs to be addressed.

Centering the issues of trans and gender non-conforming folks requires a shift in thinking for folks who’s feminism is based in cisgender norms, though. The norm in our culture is to assume someone will identify with the gender assigned to them at birth based on a doctor looking at their crotch. Which means we assume a link between gender and genitals, which leads to a supposed link between gender and someone’s sexual role and reproductive capacity as well. As I pointed out regarding the “War on Women” rhetoric about attacks on reproductive rights, most reproductive rights organizing packs the assumption that woman = person with a vagina who can make babies. This is true for a lot of women, but it’s not the experience of all women. And painting all women as fundamentally baby making factories is exactly what the anti-choice movement wants. Feminism that’s based in a link between gender and genitals doesn’t just exclude people who’s bodies don’t fit – it’s a fundamentally flawed analysis that perpetuates an essentialist idea that feminism partially exists to combat. Feminism that centers a trans feminist take on gender, that recognizes that woman ≠ vagina, offers a more accurate gender analysis in general that benefits everyone.

A growing number of trans women, including myself, have been working in the feminist and social justice blogosphere for a while now. I’ve heard from a number of the most prominent feminist writers that they really like my work. Which is nice, but frankly I’m here to make change within feminism, so this means nothing to me if my writing’s not encouraging a shift in their analysis. This is the continuation of familiar problem: when women of color introduced the idea of intersectionality, they made the point that their experiences were not white women’s experiences plus race. For feminism to take their issues seriously it needed to center the experiences of women of color. The amazing thing about this approach is that it still benefits white women, but it doesn’t exclude the experiences that happen at the intersection of race and gender. However, white feminists continue to treat the issues of women of color as something to be added on to feminism, the “especially women of color” that makes their argument stronger. But the argument still overwhelmingly begins with the experiences of white (and typically class privileged) women (the same thing happens when addressing trans women’s issues – I have absolutely been complicit in this).

I see this pattern continuing in a moment when trans women are trying to raise our issues within feminism. Recognizing our humanity and our oppression requires shifting the link between gender and genitals. A feminism that doesn’t do this will continue to perpetuate our exclusion. I was particularly struck last Fall by the coverage of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina book. The feminist critique seemed to be that Wolf reduced women to their vaginas, or really to her specific experience of her vagina. So, based on this feminist read, the fact that the book is cisnormative is the first, most obvious critique. But this was missing from most feminist discussion of the book in the press. Wolf’s argument was consistently called out for essentializing vaginas and women in a way that is heterosexist and racist. I was told trans issues were cut for space from an incredibly long round table discussion about the book among a bunch of prominent feminists in media. Which is frankly ridiculous. As Jaclyn Friedman demonstrated in one of the few articles that actually mentioned this issue, it takes very little space to highlight:

Women who don’t have vaginas, and people with vaginas who aren’t women? [Wolf] Never heard of ’em.

Simple, right? The fact that the most obvious critique wasn’t a priority for a lot of feminists writing about the book says a lot about the place of trans issues in their feminism. It’s not actually important. It’s something to be tacked on when we’re talking specifically about trans folks. But it’s not central to how they think gender.

The voices of trans women within feminism have definitely had an impact. Tumblr’s a great example – a lot of the feminist base is thinking very seriously about the ways our understanding of the world is grounded in cis norms, and they’re making space within gender for other ways of having bodies. But a lot of the most prominent feminists, the folks who are writing in major publications, doing TV and getting book deals, haven’t shifted their analysis from being based in cis experience. Frankly, the movement could leave a lot of its more prominent figures in the dust.

So consistently, I read a version of feminism that leaves me out. This happens regularly on this very blog, which we’re starting to work directly to address. Cisnormative assumptions are also a standard part of private conversations among public feminists that I’ve been a part of (I’m consistently amazed by what people don’t realize they’re saying in front of me). It stands out in language that defines women as baby makers. But it’s also a set of assumptions at the ground level that determines what issues are considered important feminist issues and how those topics are addressed. Sexual and gender violence, reproductive oppression, health care access, employment, body image… issues are consistently framed in ways that ignore the particular experiences of trans and gender non-conforming folks, especially feminine spectrum folks. This isn’t just a rhetorical problem – feminism played a role in setting up domestic violence shelters that exclude trans women, for example.

Trans and gender non-conforming folks face extraordinary discrimination that should be a feminist focus but is still a marginal issue at best. This needs to change. It is changing. It’s not enough for feminists to enjoy the writing of folks who experience marginalization that they don’t. To take those issues seriously, it’s necessary to think about how they’re different from your experience, how they shift the base you work from, and the assumptions you have that might end up perpetuating exclusion. This is the work we all have to do as part of an intersectional feminist movement where we all have different experiences of privilege and oppression.

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.

Read more about Jos

Join the Conversation