I’ve been talking an awful lot about the tension between trans-feminism and certain branches of radical feminism lately. Now I’m going to talk about it some more! It seems like a topic that demands attention at the moment, given the conferences being organized, or attempted to be, in Portland and London, and Sheila Jeffreys upcoming hate screed (available soon from Rutledge University Press!).
There’s a flip side to this all that I don’t think does get talked about enough, though. Which is that periodically, beneath their burning, biased, clearly irrational hatred and fear, the transphobes organizing themselves into these “radical” cliques occasionally touch on points that do deserve to be addressed. The truth is that the trans community, and certainly it’s main stream, often do espouse anti-feminist principles, and suggest creepy, essentialist things.
We need to talk about that. Dividing ourselves into strict camps, circling wagons, and refusing to ever perceive any fault amongst our own is not going to help move anything forward. How can we ask cisgender feminists to examine their own statements, beliefs and assumptions, and hold the hateful, oppressive voices of their community accountable, if we’re not willing to do the same?
In conversations pertaining to the “debate” of transgenderism (even calling it that makes me shiver), you’ll often hear critiques like “the trans industry bio-essentializes by insisting surgery is necessary to be a woman! It polices womanhood and acts like if you don’t wear skirts or didn’t play with dolls as a kid you’re not ‘really’ a woman! It buys into this ridiculous gender binary where the outer, socially dictated terms of what a woman or man is ‘like’ determine the interior identity of the individual!”.
One of the main responses we can offer is that the “transgender industry” is controlled by cisgender people, that those narratives aren’t being enforced by us trans people, they’re being enforced ON US by the cisgender doctors, surgeons, gatekeepers, journalists, psychiatrists and sexologists who require that we be comprehensible to their understanding of gender before they’re willing to treat us, and the much stricter standard of gender-conformity that trans people are held to BY CIS PEOPLE in order to “prove” we’re “really” who we say we are… an intensely strict standard often reinforced by the same cis feminists blaming us for its existence, while also holding us accountable for the allegedly “exaggerated”, “false” femininity we often need to express in order to survive these imposed standards (with the additional double bind of chastising us for “male privilege” and “aggression” if we don’t happen to fit into the “exaggeratedly feminine caricature” stereotype that mostly exists in their imaginations).
But the truth is that these standards and narratives aren’t strictly imposed on us by external forces like the gatekeeping arm of the medical establishment. We do impose it on ourselves. In every trans support group, on every trans message board, on sites like tsroadmap.com, in “gender tests” like the COGIATI, in books like She’s Not There and My Husband Betty, in the voices of many of our community’s “leaders”, in almost every trans space imaginable (other than perhaps the explicitly trans-feminist ones), there exist the capos and quizlings of cissexism, happily internalizing the lies we were forced to tell about who we are, what we are, how we came to understand ourselves, and what motivates our decisions, desires and identities. Trans people ourselves are frequently the most strident, most aggressive, most cruel, and most efficient wing of the gender police, an assignment we often take gladly on the promise that this will absolve of us our own shames and doubts, and help our identities be considered valid in contrast to the “false” or “partial” transsexual people whose identities we undermine on the basis that they don’t fit into a narrow, cissexist, misogynistic, binary, essentialist, anti-feminist view of gender.
The other response we can offer to that criticism is those concerns are internal to the trans community. They affect us primarily, and aren’t all about how some privileged cisgender feminists somewhere totally removed from it happens to feel about it. You all love your opinions on us, don’t you? Given that it’s not cis people’s problem, or cis people’s concern, it’s not their place to dictate to us how we resolve it, certainly not their place to shame us for the existence of these issues, and given their privilege and removal from the situation, their conception of it, and more dangerously whatever “solutions” they envision, are undoubtedly going to miss a whole lot of crucial points. Therefore, it’s trans people’s issue to resolve. For ourselves.
And as much as I agree with that response, it loses all it’s teeth if we don’t bother doing it, if the majority of trans people make the claim that we’re the ones who need to address our own concerns and yet consistently fail to hold ourselves accountable, fail to address all the deeply sexist ideas threaded through our community. We can’t say “back off, we’ll handle it ourselves” and then turn a blind eye to what we just pledged to handle.
There are things we need to talk about. Serious things. Take for instance the recent @RadFem2012 parody account, created to mock the transphobic rad-fem conference that had been planned to be thrown in Conway Hall in July in London (partially as promotion for Jeffreys’ new book, although her talk was canceled on the grounds of hate-speech. Conway Hall also canceled on the grounds that the conference’s organizations would not provide assurances that attendance would be open to all, stubbornly sticking to their guns on the trans-exclusion policy. I’d rather NOT have the obligatory “free speech” debate in the comments here, btw). This twitter account very, very quickly went from light-hearted parody to outright misogyny, up to and including jokes about rape (and rape apologism), and jokes about menstruation. Menstruation, incidentally, is something NO trans woman has any fucking business using to ridicule cis women. Just like no pre-op or non-op trans woman has any claim to the word “cunt” as “theirs”. We’re women just as much as any woman is, but if it’s not OUR bodies that the terms disparage, we don’t get to “reclaim” them.
But when the horrible misogyny of the @RadFem2012 account was pointed out, the majority of trans people following it, including a lot of trans-feminists who REALLY should know better, were eager to defend it, or at least continue following it, offering quiet support and approval. Arguments were made that apparently misogyny is totally fine as long as it’s directed against someone we don’t like. Fuck that.
To be honest, I have the vague suspicion the account was created by an MRA, not a trans woman. But when the distinction between us and MRAs becomes thin and blurry, it’s time to take a fucking step back and reassess who we are and what we’re doing.
Of course, @RadFem2012 was not, by any means, the only instance of such vicious misogyny being used as a counterattack against transphobic cis women. It’s never okay.
I’ve also been disturbed by the numerous trans women who outright, openly support MRA philosophy and ideas. Like the time I saw Amazing Atheist’s misogynistic rants posted to a trans message board (one that even had an unusually more feminist tone than most trans boards, which is why I liked it… more on that in a second) with the commentary being “I think he makes a few good points!”. The reason they wanted to hedge their approval of him as “a few good points” wasn’t due to hesitation to be seen approving of an MRA, incidentally. It was because of hesitation to openly approve of an atheist.
Many other women on that same board, while not openly approving of MRAs, nonetheless held a consistently and extremely hostile view of feminism. It eventually became impossible to discuss feminism at all in that space because it would eventually turn into a flame war between the same old set of people talking about how hateful and horrible and “female supremacist” it is (MRA talking points), with the same old set of people trying desperately to explain why feminism is important for us, as women AND as trans people, and how much it’s done for us. Those explanations would always fall on deaf ears. I eventually left.
And that was the most feminist trans board I could find. The others were all dominated by boomers, and rife with archaic, deeply fucked up attitudes about sex and gender. That there are “female personalities” and “male personalities”. That if you don’t fit into a certain outdated, sexist housewifey archetype you’re not “really” a woman. That you had to have never, ever had any doubts (which is true for none of us). That you had to “always” know (also true for none of us). That you had to put everything you had into SRS. That you had to intensely value “passing”. That you had to happily receive the constant, aggressive, unsolicited “passing tips”, actually just a thin, paper-mask disguise for gender-policing. And those “passing tips”, and their idea of what the goal of transition “ought” to be, was always about eventually fitting into a highly heteronormative, white, middle-class, ableist, privileged-in-every-way-but-cis conception of what a woman “ought” to be.
When the one trans space I could find in the early part of my transition that wasn’t dominated by those narratives ended up embracing MRAs more openly than feminism or skepticism, that’s a problem. A really big problem.
We need to call these problems out. We need to stop being gender police. We need to stop embracing archaic, essentialist, sexist attitudes as though that’s what will offer us acceptance. We need to stop thinking posing as a more socially “acceptable” form of woman will someone make-up for the other aspects of our histories that lead to our rejection by a sexist society. We need to realize the sexist society is the problem, not the ways we fail to live up to its expectations. We need to stop acting like having played with dolls as a kid has ANYTHING to do with being a woman (although it’s totally okay to talk about what dolls meant to us, or symbolized). We need to be careful about supplanting “biology is destiny” with “neurobiology is destiny”. We need to stop acting like we need to reject the notion that gender is in any way subjective or socio-cultural in order for it to be meaningful and important (in fact, EVERYONE needs to stop acting like “subjective” or “socio-cultural” mean the same thing as “meaningless”, “irrelevant” and “freely chosen”). We need to stop thinking that being women (or being AFAB) gives us some entitlement to misogyny or the denigration of women’s bodies. We need to stop reifying a particular view of gender, conditioned by intersecting oppressions and privileges, as essential and innate and immutable and “correct”. We need to stop putting our “leaders” on pedestals and acting like they can do no wrong, or “at least we’re getting heard, so I don’t care if the voice that is getting heard is saying awful things”. We need to hold ourselves accountable.
Trans-feminism can be a great thing. Acceptance of gender variance can be a step forward into a much broader, intersectional and useful approach to feminism. But if our participation in feminism is going to be a positive thing, we need to be willing to work on the issues in our own backyard too.
I’ll make a deal with cisgender feminists. If you’re willing to shed those transphobic, disgusting, hateful, oppressive, anti-feminist elements of your community, and hold them accountable for all the awful things they say and do, and stop lending them support and insulating them from criticism, we’ll do the same. We’ll shed the disgusting, misogynistic, patriarchy-supporting, sexist, archaic, anti-feminist elements of our community, and hold them accountable for the awful things they say and do, stop lending them support, and stop insulating them from criticism. Deal?
Let’s be clear about something here: neither our outdated, gender-policing “leaders”, nor your hate-screed writing, transphobic-conference-organizing “leaders” care about us, or feminism, at all. They care about their egos and their private agendas. They care about being “right”. They care about the values they dreamt up decades ago and failed to move on from. And they’re using us for that. Pitting us at each other’s throats. The Personified Avatar Of Patriarchy himself couldn’t have imagined a better scenario.
Yes, feminism needs the trans community, and any feminism that excludes us is hardly deserving of the name. But the trans community needs feminism too.
We need each other.