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.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted June 11, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    This is exactly the article I’ve been waiting for. I try to call out cissexism in feminist spaces but it always feels like a losing battle (at least in the short run). If an article/comment/conversation isn’t specifically about trans women, trans women don’t exist. And feminist leaders who have espoused very transphobic beliefs (*cough* Gloria Steinem *cough*) are still lionized with absolutely no call for or expectation for them to apologize or have even a footnote placed on their legacy.

    • Posted June 11, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

      I’m not expecting you to do a whole lot of digging on my account, but if you have handy any articles or other references where Gloria Steinem has espoused transphobic beliefs can you please post them? I want to be clear that I don’t doubt at all what you’re saying, it would just be good to have specifics as part of the discussion and will probably help me and others to identify our own transphobia in our comments and our outlooks. Thanks.

  2. Posted June 12, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    As a feminist and trans woman I notice the constant exclusion of us as a group, not necessarily deliberately or with ill intent, but because we are invisible most of the time. Also as a privileged trans person who usually isn’t read as trans I also don’t trigger the awareness that I used to when I was early in transition. As much as I appreciate not having to deal with transphobia everywhere I go, I also hate the fact that we as a consequence are forgotten when we blend in.

    That said, since I’m an active secular and feminist blogger, I do move in circles that are very trans aware and inclusive, so my direct exposure to the wider feminist community is limited although I do read a fair bit from outside my bubble. I do like my trans aware feminist bubble though, and I do my best to expand it.

    Trans women provide a perspective on what it means to be a woman in our society that adds to the total experience of women, not subtract from it. As do other minorities. Most trans women I know are feminists. Maybe it is because we more than many notice how steep the travel down the privilege gradient can be. I often find myself having a conversation with cis female friends about everyday sexism, and it often happens they are so used to it from a lifetime of exposure that it seems to be “just the way things are.” That is sad.

    If people in general were a little less selfish in their activism, this wouldn’t be a problem. Reproductive rights, which does not apply to me as I have no reproductive capabilities, is still one of the feminist causes I care a great deal about. Just like my feminist friends of the cis persuasion care about my challenges. I don’t think people always are aware of how much of transphobia is directly tied to plain old patriarchal misogyny — sprinkled with more than a little homophobia as a large percentage of heterosexual men seem to think being attracted to a trans woman will make them gay; as if that was a bad thing anyway.

  3. Posted June 13, 2013 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    I am a 67-year-old post-op transwoman. My good fortune was to be raised by an ardent feminist (especially impressive as this was in the 1950s and 1960s), so my life has been about fighting the injustice toward and oppression of all that is female/feminine, both human and in the natural environment (Mother Earth/Nature).

    Due to a catastrophic mistake during prenatal development, my hypothalamus (where our gender is located) was female, but because of an erroneous mix-up of signals, testosterone was released and my body developed male. Basically, my life was stolen. I watched it go by, but couldn’t participate. The trials of existing in this limbo are articulated in many sources, so there is no reason to cover that here.

    Whether or not Gloria Steinem has moderated her views toward transwomen has yet to be seen, but other important persons in the feminist world hold her earlier attitude toward us. Betty Friedan was hugely transphobic, though that is in the past. What concerns me is the current attitude of influential personalities. One in particular is Jewelle Gomez. At a feminist discussion group, where transwomen were specifically included, she was actively hostile toward, and dismissive of us. She attacked any contribution to the conversation made by any of us, accompanied by sneers and rolling of eyes. I really didn’t expect this from someone who was listed as the main draw for the event (put on by the Lesbian Resource Center). I called them and told them of my experience and that I can’t in good conscience attend any events where she is a speaker. They were polite and said they were sorry for the bad experience, and that they would look into the matter. Nothing will change, but at least I got to have my say, instead of remaining silent as I would have in the past.

  4. Posted June 13, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this, Jos. It needs to be said. The connection between trans issues and feminist issues is vital to both — in as much as they are, in fact, one and the same.

    Ever since Janice Raymond’s poisoning of the relationship between trans people and feminists, both the trans community and feminism have suffered. That was nearly a quarter century ago — fully half the extent of modern feminism. The situation is way better today, but still not what it might otherwise have been — but it’s also not nearly as good as it might currently *appear* to be. The problem isn’t simply that trans exclusion is somehow wrong in an ethical or moral sense (though it is), but that the exclusion and underrepresentation of trans women (and trans men, though here I’m only addressing the former) continues to directly diminish feminism itself.

    Through the trans/feminist estrangement, trans women were deprived of an easy and welcoming community to which our identities and affinities most naturally gravitated, depriving us as individuals and as a group, both personally and politically. Sisterhood IS powerful — in both its presence AND its lack.

    Through the the trans/feminist estrangement, feminism was deprived of the insights of trans women, who in the post-second wave era would have had much to contribute to feminist theory and discourse, particularly wrt media representations of women, always one of feminism’s greatest concerns (about which I believe feminism is stuck at a dead end), and also when it comes to the dangers of flirting with essentialism, always one of feminism’s greatest temptations (in which I see it indulging, with increasing frequency, to no happy end.)

    Non-trans women grow up as automatically accepted inhabitants of the world of women. Feminist cis women do all of their theorizing and their feministing from inside that tank. In contrast, trans women spend large chunks of our lives, often from our earliest memories, with our noses pressed up against the glass, longing for passage and admittance to the other side, all while negotiating with and resisting the forces that seek (often brutally) to keep us in our places on the side of the tank labeled boy and man and male. (Just typing those words makes me cringe.)

    This dissonance forms trans women as natural barometers of essentialism, and resistors of essentialism — quite the opposite of what we’re accused of being by a trans-exclusionary Raymondite feminism that is essentialist and reactionary to its core (while flattering itself with the label of radical). Trans women’s voices should have been gold for a truly progressive feminism focused on gender equality, including reproductive rights, of which trans rights (via issues of bodily autonomy & reproductive self-determination) are an under-recognized and integral part. Instead, feminism was for decades denied the contributions of a crucial part of its constituency.

    Gender essentialist thinking is the enemy of gender equality, and feminism traffics in it at the risk of its bearings and even, dare I say, its soul. Essentialism is a difficult gravity to escape. Yet as escapees and refugees from the essentialist imperative, trans women literally embody disessentialization, and that includes the high femmes and the butches and the non-feminists and the former feminists among us.

    As a transsexual woman, I have always known, both at a core intuitive level and as a matter of social consciousness, that my status AS a woman — socially, politically, legally — is bound to that OF women. Period. My understanding of myself as trans and as a woman was filtered though that feminist lens. That’s why I have always been feminist, and why at some level I will always be, even as I more and more find myself estranged (that word again!) from the neo-essentialist tendencies and analytical incoherencies of what much of popular/mainstream/blogospheric feminism has become.

    • Posted June 13, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      ouch… actually, Raymond’s TSE was MORE than a 1/4 century ago… and more 1/2 the extent of modern feminism. it was published in 1979…..

  5. Posted June 14, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Gender is not an orthodoxy. I do not see why there is need for anyone to apologize. People will disagree on this issue and I am more than happy that people have differing opinions. It would be a frightening world where we must all agree and where some feel objectified by the fact that their bodies (women born women have them too) are being co-opted by theoretical speak. I have no problem that some wish to align female with vagina. Just saying.

    • Posted June 16, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      Demanding apologies and self-denunciations from your adversaries and misguided allies risks mistaking their coerced contrition for your own authentic advancement.

      That said, the alignment of female with vagina supports biological determinism and reproductive essentialism, and undermines foundational feminist principles. The alignment of female with vagina, understood primarily (essentially if not exclusively) as a reproductive organ, is a pillar of the reproductive order that positioned the female as breeding stock, and on that basis defined women and subordinated them as inferior. The alignment of female with vagina is anti-culture, regressive, fundamentally anti-feminist, and the essence of so-called “Patriarchy.”

      And that’s all aside from its political impact on trans women and men.

  6. Posted June 16, 2013 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    I think this is an awesome conversation that we all should have. The extreme violence towards specifically transwomen results as an intesection of several different identities, and understanding how all the pieces of the puzzle fit adds to everyone’s stories. I mean, looking at how much different people in society have trouble understanding why anyone would give up male privilege (which is operating on just a wrong basis of understanding of what it means to be trans) shows a lot of about male privilege as well as cisgender privilege. I think when transwomen are accepted, it will be huge step for so many different groups. I really appreciated the parallel between the quest for black feminist to get their intersectional identity and specific intersectional challenges understood. Changing the perspective of feminism from class privilege, white privilege, and cisgender privilege with only add depth and love to feminism as a whole. I think feminism has done a good job with this in terms of hetero privilege. And I think it has really shed light on how women’s sexuality is always set in terms of male desire, even ESPECIALLY when men aren’t even in the picture. So I definitely think changing the basis of feminism is possible, imperative, and not happening fast enough. I’m inspired by you all making it happen. Good work and thank you!

  7. Posted June 23, 2013 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    How many comments do I have to make to be trusted? Tired of moderators who take a week to approve anything. I’ve been commenting here for over a year.

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