Free Thoughts #2: Unspoken Narratives »« Free Thoughts #1: Superheroes And Disability

Common Ground

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.

Comments

  1. says

    This is a thought-provoking post.

    As a cis man, I often feel it’s inappropriate for me to offer any opinion on these kinds of debates within feminism – since I’m conscious of my own position of privilege, and my lack of first-hand experience. On these issues, I think it’s better for people like me to listen than to talk – especially given the complexity and nuance involved in talking about these issues.

    At the same time, standing up for trans rights and women’s rights is important to me, and – as someone who plans to become an immigration and asylum lawyer – it’s important for me to integrate gender equality and gender justice into my future work. Your blog has helped to educate me about issues I previously understood poorly.

    (Sorry, I know this isn’t a very substantive comment… I just wanted to express my admiration and appreciation for your work, and for your series of posts on feminism and trans-feminism in particular.)

  2. says

    I wish I could find good, feminist, trans message boards. The best I’ve currently found are good boards which are very feminist and mostly trans friendly (ie: a large number of users, and the entire mod staff are feminist to some degree, and very queer including trans women friendly). I’ve been banned from trans boards for being openly critical of their essentialist crap as well. Which sucks.

    I’ve always wondering what the best way to try and deal with this crap in the trans community is. Currently, I’ve just ignored it, or gone elsewhere. But ignoring it doesn’t work. Of course, attacking it directly (through twitter, through forums, through blogs) also seems to not work – people can just block, or spam you, flame you, troll you, then try and do even worse. Even call outs seem to only work if you’re thought about or important enough for people to listen to you. If you’re a no one like me, call outs are useless.

    So, with that in mind, I’m wondering how we, as trans feminists, can do. I know I’d like to work toward change, positive change. Locally, I want to actually make an in person community, where I have in person friends who are trans women, and we get together and do stuff. Not a support group, just a group. Not sure if this works, but I want to try. Any other ideas?

  3. Nepenthe says

    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.

    I feel like I have to quibble here. Gender policing, while obviously not generally a life or death situation for cisgender women like myself, is not removed from the life of any woman (or any person, I suppose). The path of my life has been radically altered by gender policing. In so far as gender policing trans women literally embody and reify the roles that oppress non-femininity compliant women–trans and cis–it is the business of cis women. It’s not a particularly significant portion of their business, certainly not even remotely close to the extent that transphobic radfems make it out to, but, it’s at least a footnote to wider critiques of gender policing.

    But, yeah, that’s the only thing I have to say besides “right on” and “thank you”.

    • says

      I totally get where you’re coming from Nepenthe, and I have this discussion frequently with my partner, who is a non-gender conforming cis woman. The “trans women are helping to enforce gender roles that oppress cis women” is definitely a second-order effect, since there are so few of us to start with for us to have any real impact on expectations held up to judge cis women, while the non-performance of expected gender expression is so often used by the medical establishment to lock the gates on trans people, so that we are put in a real and impossible bind.

      Even when I’m going all out to appear as my preferred side of the gender binary (and I wouldn’t want to have to that at all, except it is regularly unsafe for me in public not to, as I routinely suffer hostility from complete strangers), I still get relentlessly and thoughtlessly misgendered, whereas my partner never suffers being called a man. Simply can’t win.

      • says

        * whoops, dunno what’s wrong with my head to day, in 2nd paragraph it should have like this: … (and I wouldn’t want to have to identify like that at all the time, …

  4. says

    This is powerful stuff. Essential Reeding For Feminists perhaps.

    “given [cis people’s] privilege and removal from the situation…whatever “solutions” they envision, are undoubtedly going to miss a whole lot of crucial points”

    You can say THAT again. I’ve recently had to realize that as a cis person, no matter how smart and thoughtful I am and how much I learn from different trans people I know, I am highly liable to miss a lot of the potential consequences of any new solution I come up with. Maybe lots of skeptics think that an “objective” or abstract viewpoint is better for reasoning on a subject, but I think people are often better at solving concrete problems, and checking their solutions against realities they understand.

    I hope this example is on-topic enough: I’d always figured that if I was with a trans woman who got blatantly harassed, I would become aggressive and scare off the harasser. But when that actually happened, I realized mid-response that this would mean I was putting my friend at risk. I wouldn’t be the one the harasser would come back to and attack, either then or when next my friend was alone. She would be. It was not my risk to take, and it was my cis privilege and comparative lack of fear making me blind to the consequences. (That, and my own instincts: I am small and skinny, so nearly anyone threatening me may feel so physically scary that I attack violently.)

  5. says

    This is a very good post Natalie. I’ve been thinking along the same lines, but been too scared to put it into a blogpost like you just did. I’m just not confident I have pondered enough on this to be as objective as I want to be about such an important issue.

    Somewhere in there I’m pretty sure you were referring to that one trans forum where we both are members and where such discussions come up frequently. I still defend feminism there, but I have come to realise that a lot of trans people, women in particular, have too much baggage to think clearly about this topic.

    As for the RadFem2012 showdown on Twitter, I have very mixed feelings about how trans people have been handling that too. That fake account did indeed quickly cross the line. I will not stand for misogyny in any form for any reason. I called the RadFem2012 supporters out on their hypocrisy, I’ll try not to be one myself. I did however keep quiet when trans activists took it too far. In fact I received enough abuse from the RadFems personally that I more or less avoided that hash-tag like the plague.

    I did however interact with one of them who weren’t a hater. Even if we disagreed, we also agreed on many major points about feminism. A lot of the hurt from the abuse was also cancelled by all the cis feminists who defended our inclusion. Making statements about feminism being about equality for all women.

    One thing I have been thinking about after this is that trans women do at times impose themselves on women’s issues that don’t affect us. Aside from rare intersex conditions, I assume, pregnancy support groups and groups on reproductive issues aren’t really a place where we belong, at least not in any other capacity than supporters and allies. I’m perfectly fine with that. We are what we are. Denying that is a symptom of internalised transphobia.

    Feminism is for all women, cis or trans. I am even uncertain how much I care for the term “trans feminism” as anything other than a way of describing a subset of feminism that is trans specific. I think I prefer to call myself a feminist, and instead try to do my bit to make feminism being what it is supposed to be.

    When I discuss feminism with non-feminists in general, I make no distinction between cis feminism or trans feminism. I’ll be the feminist voice of any of the talking points, even those that doesn’t affect me personally. That’s what I aim for, and what I hope trans and cis women alike will do.

  6. Cara says

    I’m not sure the line can be so easily drawn on “cunt” because so many people use it as synecdoche for “female.” I’ve been called a “cunt” before, presumably because they gendered me female—is my surgical status really more important than whether I’ve been slurred with it?

    I don’t know what to do about anti-feminism in trans communities. I encountered it when I was just starting to figure out my gender; it probably enhanced my doubts and internalized transphobia, because of course I didn’t fit the stereotypical trans-feminine narratives. I dealt by hanging out with mostly only people younger than I am (there’s definitely a generational thing going on here), withdrawing from spaces I found unproductive, and reading people skeptically and ignoring the parts I found stupid. I just don’t have the emotional energy to engage the HBSers and their ilk, and I question whether that that’s effective in changing things. What do I do?

  7. Blue Duck says

    Mostly all I can add is, good points Natalie!

    but…I am floored there are trans women websites or boards that support or approve of MRAs! So far as I can tell, MRAs hate anyone female (cis or trans) and anything associated in any way feminine or feminist. MRA writings remind me of rantings from dedicated KKK types – just switch out the words ‘black’ for ‘women’, it’s the same fear and hatred.

  8. No Light says

    I was horrified yesterday to see two separate instances of appalling misogyny.

    One AFAB man said he was anti-feminism, because it kept men down. In his view it’s a harmful movement built on the notion that women are superior to men. This, btw, in a space that’s 50/50 transmasculine and transfeminine.

    Then, in a related forum, an AFAB person decided that transition to male was for them, but only because they hate other women. Apparently every other woman on earth, cis and trans alike, is a stupid bimbo, who values boobs over brains, and has no value. They repeated over and over that their only dysphoria was around being seen as a disgusting, frivolous female (ah MRA gold, reducing women to their biology), They’d be happy being female (argh) if other females were as clever, pretty but without makeup, interested in logic and science, and rational.

    Seems like MRA beliefs are oozing everywhere.

    • Bia says

      I’m pretty certain some of that AFAB trans men misogyny is a product of the same sexist bullshit that AMAB trans women face. You feel pressured to fit in, whether that’s internal pressure or external pressure because being “misread” can lead to death.

      I’ve met a lot of cis women that say they can’t stand or even hate other women. I’ve yet to meet a cis man that has said the same. I’m not condoning those expressions or condemning them, I just think it’s interesting and some what telling about our culture.

  9. Bia says

    For many of the reasons you’ve stated here Natalie, I’ve had to quietly excuse myself from countless groups. To the extent that I normally feel safest, or most secure in Gender Queer communities. I’ve always been way uncomfortable with the Cosmo / Playboy theory of femininity, but even I have some internalized ideas about gender that I strive to overcome.

    Some of those come from being an artist though. I mean I don’t think high heals and make up make someone a woman, but sometimes those trappings are hawt. I understand they are problematic and I see the detriment that the fashion and “beauty” industries have on society and women in particular but that doesn’t make the entire thing evil. Nor does it mean that a woman who enjoys those things is frivolous.

    In any case I really think we need a new community for trans* people that get what you’re saying Natalie. The shift needs to happen, we need some reform within the community. I’m just afraid that some of the gender policing and related issues won’t go away until we can reasonably be sure that just walking out the door isn’t an invitation to harassment and or death.

    I’m from the south, it can be fucking scary down here.

  10. Comrade Svilova says

    Thanks for this post. I have been happy recently to know several trans men who are very well-informed and active feminists; a very welcome change, as up to this point I had primarily encountered trans men who were extremely misogynist. It definitely is a two way street, and as a cis queer woman I hope to do my part to dismantle the transphobia in feminist circles.

  11. Anonymous says

    I feel I need to speak up but need to remain anonymous too. On another forum, since closed, a trans-exclusionist posted a series of rhetorical questions for the trans women. I don’t remember all of them, but I remember one of them was about how we felt during our first periods. I think the point was to hurt us and to make us feel other.

    I replied. I wrote about how, although I had not been too worried then, my parents had rushed me from doctor to doctor for a diagnosis each time the bleeding returned. I never got a diagnosis. One possibility was an autoimmune disease. Another possibility is persistent Müllerian duct syndrome. I don’t have the risk factors for the autoimmune disease, but if that’s what it was, it would slowly kill my kidneys, and eventually kill me. I feel like I have a right to gallows humor about this. Of course, my answer got mixed up with Zoe Brain’s answer and turned into hateful nonsense to use against both of us. I’m tired of don’t-call-me-cis women using menstruation to ridicule trans women like me. I’m tired of feeling like I can’t talk about this.

  12. Sgaile-beairt says

    This is the mirror-image of why it is so wrong and so important to say so LOUDLY, for liberals to insult baddies like Ann Coulter on the grounds that she (supposedly) looks like a man (whatever that means) and make jokes that she’s REALLY trans. (also the same shit about it’s okay to use misogynist insult against anti feminist conservative women happens usually by the same posters). WE CAN’T DO THAT AND CALL OURSELVES GOOD FOLKS ANY MORE, if it’s wrong for them its wrong for us!!! at least i see more people jumping on transphobic/misoginyistic double standard insults these days than defending them but it’s taken years of hammering at it to make even a dent :-(

  13. says

    It might not be as urgent, but sooner or later we need to find some way of telling our stories without erasing the stories of, for example, cis tomboys who felt they ought to be boys but grew up to be womyn.

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