Five Ways Cis Feminists Can Help Build Trans Inclusivity And Intersectionality

The title kind of says it all, I guess.

Lately, I’ve come to notice a kind of annoying trend amongst many cis feminists who profess themselves as allies to trans people and trans-feminism. Far too many such allies (I think “ally”, like “social justice”, is a term that I no longer consider benign, and have come to regard as a bit of a red flag) seem to take an approach whereby they implicitly (though perhaps unconsciously and unknowingly) treat feminism’s ongoing issues with cissexism, cisnormativity, cis-centrism and transphobia as being trans people’s job and responsibility to solve. As though the onus is on us, the victims of feminism’s tendency towards privileging the needs of cis women, to “solve” the problem and make it right, rather than the responsibility of cis feminists themselves to, you know… not do that shit in the first place.

It’s never the job or ethical responsibility of the victims of oppression to end it. In fact, oppression operates in exactly such a way that even if it were the victims’ responsibility to end oppression, they wouldn’t be empowered to do so. The obligation (and power) always rests on the shoulders of the oppressor and those privileged by the oppression to end it. The victims may fight against their oppression, sure, but the oppressors’ responsibility isn’t simply “don’t fight back”; it is also “fight on the side of the victims”.

It’s also not the job or ethical responsibility of the victims of oppression to educate their oppressor as to how to not be an oppressor. That said, I’ve decided to opt to offer some suggestions as to how cis feminists who are interested in ultimately creating a trans-inclusive, intersectional feminism can help do so (cis feminists whose interest in this is hopefully not motivated by cookies or the ability to claim ally status, but instead because it’s the right thing to do and, as the saying goes, “my feminism will be intersectonal or it will be bullshit.”)

So, if you’re more keen for intersectional feminism than you are for bullshit feminism, it’s time to stop sitting around waiting for trans feminists to make everything better. It’s time to engage yourself, and here are some pretty simple, easily-applicable starting points.

1) Be willing to confront instances of transphobia, cissexism, cisnormativity, cis-centrism, cis privilege and other forms of destructive bias where you find them (especially when you find them within feminist, activist or queer spaces), not through “call outs” or other toxic, self-defeating or abusive strategies, but by taking the opportunity for genuine discourse.

I’m not a fan of internet “call-out culture” at all. To be perfectly honest, I’ve got nothing but contempt for it, no matter how just the underlying cause may be. Mostly, it strikes me as an excuse for bullying and abuse. And most of the time, that’s all that’s really going on, with “social justice” simply operating as an excuse. This is especially apparent when the “call outs” and underlying questions of “safety” are being directed against an already marginalized group, and when the abusive, toxic “call outs” are being conducted by the privileged themselves “on behalf” of some other marginalized group. Like the many recent occurrences in which self-identified “allies” of trans women bombarded transphobic or cissexist cis women with disgusting, misogynistic harassment and slurs like “you transphobic c–t!” or whatever, supposedly as an act of “solidarity” with trans women. How anyone can think that trans women will want men to say a bunch of misogynistic shit “on our behalf” is beyond me, unless they not only fail to realize that we’re women, but also fail to realize that we consider ourselves women. Which is, you know, ridiculous.

Anyway… yes, I get that sometimes bigotry and oppression and sexism and transphobia can be really ugly, painful and emotionally volatile things. I understand that they can make people angry. Understandably so, sure. But if you’re not the target or victim of the bigotry or oppression, if you’re not the person it affects, and if you’re not the person who has to live with the consequences, it’s not really your place to make the strategic call of vocalizing that anger, given how rarely it has a positive outcome. (I do, however, understand a trans person reacting emotionally and unstrategically to an act of transphobia, given that it’s hir choice and perogative to do so… likewise I understand PoC reacting as such to racism, women reacting as such to misogyny, PwD reacting as such to able-ism, etc. I don’t view it as “productive”, but people’s right to empower themselves through owning their anger supercedes that question of strategy… UNLESS you’re speaking “for” a different group than your own)

People who are into “call outs” often wonder aloud why it’s so rare for people to respond with a simple apology. I wonder why, given that a particular approach consistently fails to produce the intended response, they never consider that the approach might be the problem. Again, I understand expressing and owning one’s anger for its own sake, and the sake of self-empowerment, but I don’t understand anyone who regards the “call-out” as a genuinely effective, long-term strategy for dealing with oppression. I also mistrust their motives, given how the majority of call-out culture seems to have nothing to do with actually making anything better for anyone.

So I’d really, really, really prefer if cis people didn’t take this approach to transphobia. I don’t think being swarmed by embittered mobs is likely to make any transphobe any more aware of the issues… or likely to improve anything for anybody. I think it’s most likely to create bitterness, and cause people to dig their heels in.

It also wastes an opportunity.

When someone says something transphobic or cissexist, that presents an opportunity for discussing that with the person, pointing out how/why what they said was messed up, and hopefully, slowly, gradually, helping steer that person (and those within earshot, and communities and cultures as a whole) towards greater trans awareness and sensitivity.

It may or may not make a difference for the particular individual, but it introduces a chance for discussion of trans issues. Rather than that incident becoming a means by which transphobia and cissexism is normalized and affirmed within whatever social context it occurs within (such as a feminist reading and discussion group, or an abuse-survivor’s support group, or a feminist subreddit), it becomes a mean by which the importance of a sensitive, intelligent, nuanced and non-oppressive approach to trans issues can be normalized and affirmed as an aspect of that social context. Do you know what I mean?

No, as I mentioned in the introduction, the oppressed never OWE education to their oppressors, nor do they ever OWE it to the oppressor to be nice about the subject of their oppression. But in this case? It’s not YOUR oppression, cis feminists. It’s ours. You’re part of the oppressor class. And so long as you benefit from cis privilege, and you acknowledge such social inequities as a bad thing, it IS kinda your responsibility to take whatever opportunities you have for helping make things a bit better. And that includes educating each other. And being nice about it, if that’s what the situation demands.

Rather than treating instances of transphobia and cissexism in your communities as an opportunity to show off what an ally you are, and exercise your internet smackdown skills, and hurt someone who “deserves” it, treat it as an opportunity to bring genuine trans discussion into the space, and strategically work towards improvement. It’s a slow road, but if this occurs often enough, in enough spaces, it WILL eventually have a meaningful impact. And people WILL ease up a bit on the open contempt, erasure or dismissal of trans people.

2) Don’t take a purely passive, reactive approach. Rather than waiting for things like someone saying something overtly cissexist, or a trans person bringing up a particular concern, be willing to proactively introduce trans issues, or trans-relevant aspects of broader issues, to feminist discourse. Likewise, proactively treat possible consequences, perspectives and concerns relevant to trans people and trans experiences as being not only significant but essential to all feminist issues and conversations.

The trouble, though, with using moments of someone saying something cissexist as your opportunities to discuss trans issues, awareness, inclusivity, intersectionality and so on is that it allows the cissexists to define the terms of that discussion, the general framework, the topics, and when and where it happens. It prevents the conversation from moving forward into new territory, and limits it to simply helping everyone else catch up. It also generally creates a passive approach that devalues trans stuff as being genuinely worth talking about, instead just a sort of side note, reinforces the attitude that “not being transphobic” is enough to constitute “being a trans ally”, that an absence of doing harm is equal to doing good, and a bunch of other stuff.

Likewise, waiting around for trans people to actually speak up similarly limits how seriously the importance of trans intersectionality really is. It can create the illusion that cis people don’t REALLY care, that our voices are only relevant to ourselves, and, again, keeps us sidelined as an afterthought. It’s also worth remembering that a lot of trans people are very, very intimidated from speaking BY our general erasure and dismissal within feminism. So there’s a self-perpetuating aspect, whereby the absence of trans voices, and how trans inclusion isn’t taken very seriously, reinforces the absence of trans voices and the degree to which trans inclusion isn’t taken very seriously.

It’s important to proactively speak up, so as to assert that these ARE things that are genuinely worth talking about, not simply something you ought to tack-on for the sake of the appearances, or to prevent actively harming trans people. And it needs to happen repeatedly. There need to be a number of voices, cis and trans alike, from a variety of backgrounds, repeatedly asserting that this is a significant and meaningful aspect of the conversation concerning gender and gender-based oppression for that truth to ultimately be accepted to the point that trans people become the part of the conversation we need and deserve to be.

Proactivity also permits an essential diversity and range to the kinds of discussions that take place. So long as it remains passive and reactive, it’s always going to be defined by the small range of particularly galling issues that force us into discussing it. But when we’re choosing to speak about these things, and cis people are using their cis privilege to have the topic taken seriously and listened to, we can choose what exactly we’re going to talk about and how we’re going to talk about it. Thereby, the full, incredibly broad range of trans-related discussions can become part of the conversation. Not just arguing over and over and over again about why trans women don’t “reaffirm patriarchal gender roles!” or whatever.

It also allows our conversations to not always be tainted by whatever negativity forced us into speaking.

And it shows that you actually do care about trans people. That you don’t need to be reminded that we exist and matter. Which is nice.

3) Don’t assume any given issue is strictly, or even primarily, relevant to cis women. All feminist concerns are also transgender concerns, and vice versa. There are no feminist dialogues in which trans voices “don’t belong”, or to which trans voices have “nothing to add”. There are no social issues related to gender that don’t have consequences for trans people.

Awhile back, I was invited to speak at the atheist conference Imagine No Religion in Kamloops, BC on the subject of abortion and reproductive rights. At the time, it felt really strange and a bit uncomfortable; of all the various feminist issues I could be asked to speak on, this was the one that directly impacted me the least, and I was highly nervous about how the likely entirely cisgender audience at the conference were going to react to an openly trans woman speaking about such issues. I wondered whether I was going to be perceived as having “no right” to have an opinion on the topic, given that I’ll never myself have to face the choice of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, and I internalized that question into doubt as to whether I felt I had any right to speak to the issue.

Ultimately, I resolved those doubts, and helped focus the nature of my talk, by examining what the question of reproductive rights is really about, which is the question of medical autonomy. I spoke about similarities between anti-choice arguments and the various justifications set up for trans-related gatekeeping. I talked about the horror of the state determining what happens to your body, and being subjected to endocrinological changes that you didn’t want and didn’t choose. And I talked about how the right to medical autonomy needs to remain an absolute in order to protect that right for all of us, regardless of our exact medical needs and exact anatomical configurations.

There really wasn’t any reason a transgender perspective would be “meaningless” to the question of a woman’s right to choose, because it’s about far far more than the literal, biological reality of pregnancy. It’s about patriarchy, about how women’s bodies are treated, about how we perceive sex and the sexualized aspects of bodies, and about many other things that have direct bearing upon and consequences for trans lives. Which is to say nothing of the fact that many trans people can get pregnant. Or how many nations have considered sterilization a prerequisite for legal change of sex. If that’s not a question of reproductive rights, I don’t know what is.

There was no reason I ever should have doubted my “right” to participate in a discussion of reproductive rights. Because it isn’t an exclusively “cis women’s” issue, no matter what one may assume from a superficial glance at the question.

The same holds true of numerous other issues from which trans voices are consistently excluded. Trans people DO need access to women’s shelters, to domestic abuse and rape crisis lines, to gynecological exams and mammograms and pap smears and other aspects of “women’s health”, to testicular exams and prostate checks and other aspects of “men’s health”, to planned parenthood and reproductive options and contraception and safer sex kits and everything of that kind… to a whole lot of things that we’re consistently, and often quite deliberately, cut out of. This has intense and real consequences for us, often on the scale of life and death.

And it should go without saying that transgender perspectives are both relevant and necessary to discussion of all social, cultural, political and theoretical questions of gender. Not simply the “trans question” as academically and distantly considered by cis people discussing gender, either; trans people should ourselves be permitted to offer our own perspectives in relation to ALL such questions, and be given a chance to be heard and listened to.

The inclusion of trans perspectives is not only something we deserve in terms of our own rights and needs, but it also can help illuminate important questions or considerations relevant to the rights and needs of cis women or men that were nonetheless missed, or weren’t taken seriously. We have at least as much to offer feminism as feminism has to offer us (though the latter question, what feminism can do for groups who’ve been marginalized by present understandings and treatment of gender, should always be the priority).

Never, ever assume that you, in your (necessarily) limited cisgender experience and knowledge, know when transgender perspectives aren’t really necessary to a given conversation. Assume they always are. If it’s an issue where we feel we don’t have anything to say, we’ll let you know.

4) Proactively seek out transgender voices, perspectives and input on all issues, not simply what you regard as “trans issues” or situations where the value of such perspectives is immediately obvious to you. Come to us, rather than waiting for us to come to you.

One of the ways that marginalization operates is by making it definitively more difficult for marginalized identities to get their voices heard and noticed. This is a result of countless barriers and risks for people in marginalized positions contrasting with the privileges afforded to others in being heard and paid attention to. For instance, a woman is exposing herself to all kinds of harassment, risks, compromises and exhausting uphill struggles in deciding to launch or join a visible blog that men don’t have to face. Queer writers face additional harassment and risks that other writers don’t have to, such as potentially being outed and the consequences that can follow. These risks are compounded for trans writers, as opposed to cis writers. And people of colour are far less likely to have their views taken seriously, and considered in light of the social complexities of race, than white writers (whose vantage point is treated as the cultural “norm”). The overall effect is that it means something very different for someone in such a marginalized position to make themselves visible and heard than what it means for the privileged, and not everyone in a marginalized position, especially an intersectional one, is going to be willing to subject themselves to the risks and hassle. Especially if their chances of actually being heard and taken seriously are unclear.

This is one of the many reasons it’s never enough for any organization or space to simply decide against directly excluding marginalized voices, and then claim that alone makes them “inclusive” and “[x]-friendly”. It’s not enough to just open up your doors and then expect that those who approach you will reflect broader demographics and lead to greater “diversity”.  Proactive efforts to deliberately seek out such voices, deliberately ensure that they’re reflected in your conversation, deliberately investigate whatever subtle or “invisible” barriers might be excluding certain people or leading them to feel uneasy about participating, deliberately investigate how you might be failing to meet the needs and interests of a given demographic, deliberately and actively address those barriers and limitations and find ways to remedy them, and deliberately make sure that the wider extant barriers for marginalized voices are taken into consideration, are all necessary in order to create an actually diverse space and conversation. Much like how it’s not enough for an employer to simply claim to offer equal opportunities to all applicants and employees, and affirmative action and real, proactive policies are necessary to counteract wider social problems that disadvantage women and minorities in finding employment or being promoted.

Feminism can’t be trans-inclusive simply by quietly, passively deciding not to be actively trans-exclusive. In order for trans voices to end up genuinely included and reflected in the conversation, they need to be sought out, while feminists need to also be making a concerted effort to address its internal limitations in meeting the needs of trans people and potential trans speakers, writers, activists, etc. Efforts to be more trans-inclusive also can’t be done quietly, in such a way that trans people might simply assume that all the same exclusions and gender-policing and such are still going on. To make trans voices a part of your space or organization or discourse or whatever, you need to vocally reach out to us, do so in a way that recognizes and addresses our different risks, concerns, barriers and needs, and let us know that you want us there and are aware that we don’t have all the same privileges and safety and assurances of being heard that you might take for granted.

It might also be worth asking yourselves why you want us there, and what you’re actually offering us in exchange for our participation. Why should we want to work with you? For instance, are we going to simply be there to lend your organization the appearance of diversity and inclusivity? Are you actually interested in a trans perspective and voice, even if it ends up being critical of your pre-existing assumptions, practices and attitudes? Are we going to be tokens, or are we going to be participants? Are we going to be offered any actual responsibility and control? Are we going to be permitted leadership positions, or are things like that going to remain restricted to cis people and otherwise already-privileged participants? Are you interested in what you can do for us, or only in what we can do for you?

Additionally, this kind of proactive effort to include trans voices I’m advocating also can’t simply be restricted to situations or issues or whatever that you, or other cis people, consider to be “trans issues” or something where a trans perspective might be beneficial. If the only times you ever actively seek out trans people to be included in feminist conversation is when it’s something like doing a panel on a subject like “gender outlaws, androgyny and gender-bending in pop culture”, “gender and body modification”, or, most commonly, just “trans-feminism” or “trans… stuff”, where the relevance of including a trans perspective (or a tokenized trans presence) is immediately apparent to your cisgender perspective, then you’re not actually including trans perspectives in feminism; you’re just ghettoizing such perspectives and keeping us hemmed into particular roles and meanings that cis people have defined for us. By restricting our “inclusion” to what you’ve defined as a “trans issue” or “trans-related” issue, you’ve barred us from participation on our own terms, or offering perspectives on what we see as important. In other words, you’re not actually including our perspectives and concerns, only your own perspective of us.

To create a genuinely trans-inclusive feminism (or space, organization, event, conversation, etc.), it’s necessary to proactively seek out our inclusion, to do so with recognition of our specific circumstances and risks, permit us to be included as full and unrestricted participants, permit us the same level of responsibility and mobility and power as everyone else, and allow us to define for ourselves what our participation will be, where our perspective is of value, and what issues we wish to address.

5) Don’t treat the larger social conflict of gender as being dialectic or binary in nature. Don’t assume a unidirectional model of gender-based oppression.

This is one of those many many mistakes people can make in discussing social issues where once you notice it, it feels like it SHOULD be obvious, but nonetheless gets made all the time, even by very intelligent and otherwise conscientious people.

The “unidirectional model” is the idea that sexism operates in, well, one direction: as a top-down force of oppression by which men subjugate and control women. While this was a useful way of looking at some of the more overt kinds of patriarchy, like women being prevented from owning property or voting, being restricted to the home, and not being permitted to advance in either business or politics, a discussion of the more subtle and pervasive forms of patriarchy and sexism in our culture requires understanding sexism as a systemic problem, a very complex one, and one that is every bit as “down-top” as it is “top-down”, as much perpetuated by women as by men, as much inflicted on ourselves and one another as at the hands of those with the most immediate power, etc.

I’m not going to say anything here about “misandry” or “female privilege” or “men are just as victimized by sexism as women are!”. I find all such notions contemptible and absurd. Nonetheless, understanding sexism requires understanding that it has, at least, two facets: misogyny and oppositional sexism. Men, maleness and masculinity are all considered superior, preferable, stronger, healthier, more natural and more “normal” and “default” than women, femaleness and femininity, true. That’s the misogyny part. However, those concepts can only work and be maintained by way of initially treating gender as a binary, dialectic, oppositional thing, with men on one side and women on the other. The idea of human beings as divided into two, mutually exclusive “opposite sexes” is what I mean when I say “oppositional sexism”, and in addition to being a prerequisite for misogyny to function, it has numerous oppressive qualities all on its own, that can and do harm people across the entire “spectrum” (not actually a spectrum) of gender and sex. Men and others who are assigned male at birth, for instance, end up being much more viciously and violently reprimanded for straying outside of the expectations of their assigned gender role. This specific issue is primarily a consequence of the misogynistic devaluing of women and femininity relative to men and masculinity, but by way of oppositional sexism it ends up harming men and AMAB people the most.

Both oppositional sexism and misogyny can be subtle and pervasive, and present in very small, seemingly insignificant everyday actions. There are many forms of sexism that don’t remotely fit the model of “man subjugates women”… such as “benevolent sexism”, the various subtle acts that imply women are weak and dependent that take on the outward appearance of a kind, generous or chivalrous gesture, such as a man insisting upon opening doors or paying for the meal, regardless of a woman’s wishes. There are also numerous little codes and modes of behaviour that help prop up rape culture and the idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies or sexuality, the attitude of women’s bodies as property, the idea that women’s worth is through their beauty, the idea that women are naturally domestic, etc. And while in all of these subtle kinds of sexism are, in their misogynistic aspect, meant towards privileging men, the oppositional aspect will end up having a reflection in the expectations that are placed on men and those so-assigned that can, in turn, harm them (and perhaps be mistaken as an issue of “misandry” or “female privilege”).

And, of course, this subtle, discursive oppositional framework really fucks over trans people and anyone else who can’t be fitted into that structure.

The trouble is that feminism often sort of shoots itself in the foot, and shoots trans people in the back (or the face), by playing along with the idea of “men” and “women” as fundamentally different and oppositionally defined concepts. Many feminists will talk about “female socialization” as some kind of universal experience, or talk about female “energy”, or the inherent psychological and emotional qualities of women as opposed to men, or (with self-awareness or not) discuss a Hegelian or Marxist dialectic between male “masters” and female “slaves” (which need to position ALL human beings as fitting into one of the two supposed classes), or discuss female subjugation and misogyny but totally ignore all other forms of gender-based oppression, or ignore the ways that women themselves participate in systems of both misogyny and oppositional sexism, or talk about how the presence or absence of a vagina or uterus or penis or the capacity to give birth or the capacity to menstraute or any other sexually dimorphic anatomical quality is the “key” difference between men and women that explains patriarchy…

…or sometimes even just tiny little things like naming their feminist site “The XXsomethingerather!”, or snarkily saying “this conversation is only for people with vaginas!”, or otherwise “innocently” using certain specific (but by no means universal) biological aspects of most women to mean “women” in a general sense.

All of that is destructive. All of it is cissexist. No matter whether you meant it to be or not.

I know that the more complex and nuanced a discussion of gender becomes, the harder it becomes to sell to people. I know that a lot of feminists feel we’re losing energy and momentum because we no longer have a “key” issue to push forward, like the vote or equal pay. I know that a lot of the time it really DOES seem like an issue of men vs women, with men on one side, privileged and powerful, and women on the other, constantly having to fight to have our voices heard and our minds respected and our bodies treated as our own. I know. And I know that fights are easier to fight when you have a nice, clearly defined enemy. But what are we fighting for?

We’re fighting for a better world, right? A better understanding of gender? And a world where gender and sex don’t end up defining our social position, and our options in life, and in which they are never exploited as a means to oppress or subjugate or silence or coerce another human being?

Well, if that’s the case, then we need to do our job right. And we need to be addressing the actual complex, nuanced, tangled, often seemingly contradictory, often outright baffling realities of gender and gender-based oppression, not just a simplistic mock-up thereof.

Remember that sexism isn’t just about men oppressing women. It’s mostly about human beings oppressing each other and themselves. It works in every possible direction.

Bonus Points:

Remember, when including trans perspectives, that intersectionality doesn’t stop there. Which trans perspectives are you including?

Thanks for listening! And pre-emptive thanks to anyone/everyone who makes the effort. 🙂




  1. says

    I feel really bad that you blocked me on Twitter, because you’re pretty fucking awesome, and way smarter than me or really most folks I come across. You’ve got a real gift for expression, in that you not only show how people can understand and help advance the specific cause you focus on, but you make it sort of universal as well. That’s kind of amazing, and I’m sorry I pissed you off that one time.

  2. dgrasett says

    I don’t know what I can really do. You are the only person that I know with this problem so I don’t have a lot of examples.
    I decided long ago, that how a person presents is what they are – in the absence of other information.
    At least, I feel that you are slightly more happy (perhaps content is a better word) than when you were writing last spring.
    Would more chocolate help?
    I shall be listening in Ottawa.

    • says

      Problem? 😛

      Nah… this whole year has been kind of awful for me. I’m even more worn out now than I was in the Spring. That said, I do think I’ve grown a bit as a person and as a feminist since then.

  3. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    I’m just one person, and I’m not much of a talker in anxiety-provoking situations, but I’m trying to help raise awareness wherever I can.

    I’m still pretty much at 101 level as far as understanding goes, so if people have questions I can’t answer definitively I tend direct them here! You’re a veritable font of knowledge and such an eloquent writer.
    It’s good to know that there’s at least something I can do, I’m often terrified of crossing the line into cis-privileged arsehole territory when trying to give people more of a clue on trans issues. I find that just outlining the basics of non-binary gender, the “genderbread man” with its distinctions between sex, gender, orientation and expression and just stressing the importance of letting people know and express their own parameters.
    Anything beyond that – ask an expert!

  4. moblues says

    I owe you a belated apology for violating #1. I’m a committed lurker, but the super gawdawful thread over at JT’s blog had me seeing red before I got to the comments. It seemed as though the whole post and response we’re troll bait. I responded with a stupid level of venom. I’m not too dense to know that you are right about this.
    I’m sorry.
    I greatly appreciate the intense social discourse that you provoke.
    -Cis Lesbian Lurker

  5. says

    one more thing, if i may humbly add it:

    the idea that *some* trans people are okay and not others. you know, person A is okay, but person B just isn’t (blah) enough. this is something that becomes really tiresome and as an assumed-cis woman, i hear shit like this…a lot…and discourse always ends up slathered in bullshit like discussing that person’s “female essence” or similar things, and then i end up banging my head on the desk, um, a lot.

    it’s actually been a situation i’ve ended up coming out in more than once in the cases where that was possible. hint: the wrong answer to “how do you know i’m not trans?” is laughing at me.

  6. karmakin says

    I love your writing on these subjects as I think that it really catches a lot of the tension that often goes unstated in these discussions. Maybe this is overstepping the bounds, but I think that tension is something that’s innate inside you as a person. I say that as someone who as of late has been going through the same thing myself. Personally, I’ve come out on the other side, myself, having realized that generally speaking the oppressor/oppressed top-down model of these issues generally speaking doesn’t work from either a communicative nor a policy point of view.

    But I figured it out, at least for myself, I’ll continue talking to people about fourth wave feminism/intersectionalism as a way to move forward and not worry what anybody thinks about it.

    • ik says

      Yeah, the very simplistic view of oppressor-oppressed isn’t good. It also leads to oppression essentialism.

      And I will still defend the idea of misandry being a thing, too, but even without that it has it’s problems.

  7. great1american1satan says

    “Female Socialization” as I understand the term seems to be pretty close to universal for AFAB folks, though I could be wrong. Thousands of hours of talking with my dude about his life, his feelings, and the way the women in his life have been and have influenced him paints a pretty intense picture of a life I’d never have imagined in CisDudeLand. The central theme is that your life, as a woman, is only to please or support others, rather than to have intrinsic value and independence of your own. Creepy.

    What’s your take on the word and why do you not think of it as universal? I can imagine there might be exceptions, but I see signs of it everywhere I happen to look.

    • says

      You can’t talk about AFAB and “female socialization” as “universal” by comparing them to AMAB and “male socialization”. Of course they mean different things relative to one another. But one woman’s “female socialization” may or may not bear any meaningful resemblance to another woman’s “female socialization”, and the differences in how different women are raised (say, a rich WASP girl in Connecticut who does debutante balls, as compared to a black girl raised in some of the rougher neighbourhoods of Atlanta, as compared to a middle-class white girl raised by a granola lesbian couple in Eugene Oregon, as compared to a latina girl growing up on a farm in rural Texas) can be just as profound as the abstract differences between a generalized “female socialization” and a similarly generalized “male socialization”.

      • PAO says

        On this I respectfully disagree.

        I think that regardless of socialization around other forms of privilege related to race, class and other hierarchies, there is a universal socialization that as women, we are inferior and/or subordinate to men. I also think that this is the root or primary socialization and that other forms of privilege do not cancel out the privilege afforded to men because of this socialization.

        • says

          Again, as said, female socialization has meaning relative to men, yes. Like you’re saying: universally socialzied as inferior TO men. But female socialization is not universal on its own, from one woman to another. Without comparing it to male socialization, there’s nothing about female socialziation that is consistent, and I challenge you to name an example that isn’t dependent on male socialization and patriarchy as a contrast.

          • PAO says

            I think the part of female socialization that says we are all (regardless of class, race, etc) inferior to men, is a universal to ALL women. I think it is profound, not abstract and is the primary socialization that underpins all the other way that we are socialized in regard to intersectional socialization that results in privilege. I think that ALL women are socialized this way regardless of the other varieties of socialization they receive about the relative value of people in our society. So that even within one group (let’s say POC) women are still socialized that they are less than men.

            Also, you can say that that women’s socialization is “only”relative to men, but isn’t the socialization that says POC are less than white folks only relative to non POC folks or that the socialization that trans folks are less than cis folks only relative to cis folks? Not sure what the point of that is…

            Can we agree that there are intersections of socialization resulting in intersections of privilege? If so, I ‘m not sure why female socialization is the “abstract” one.

            Sorry for the long comment…not meaning to spam your blog so let me know if we should just agree to disagree.

          • says


            We can’t, as a group, usefully address the issue of improving women’s lives, and resisting injustice, armed only with the knowledge that “women are all socialized to be less than men”. A movement must actually know something about the specific kinds of oppression that affect each woman’s life, if it wants to contribute to her healing and strengthening against that oppression.

            But in practice, the problem is that so many feminist articles are written by cis white straight women that cis white straight women’s experiences are taken to be “universal”, against a “universal” straight white male. That is not helpful to everyone else, and even for straight white women, ignorance of other women’s lives makes a lot of their problems of sexism seem unsolvable.

            For example I just read an article that talked about how men don’t realize that they can be threatening women. In the US this is not true: black men and brown men are taught quite forcefully that society as a whole sees them as threatening; and white women don’t realize that in their disproportionate fear of black men and brown men, they are perpetuating racism which in turn perpetuates violence, because then the police will go after said men only, and leave the white men alone, who will go on hurting white women and women of color, and…

            if you don’t address and respect differences, if you allow the most dominant experiences of each group to seem the most universal, you really do get bullshit.

          • PAO says

            @Hall of Rage

            I agree with everything you have written. I have not denied that there are intersections of socialization and privilege, indeed I stated that…my disagreement was with the idea that there is not a universal socialization for women.

            That this universal socialization for women interacts with, overlaps or intersects other types of socialization is not in doubt, I think. And I did not say or do I think that it is the only socialization to consider but denying it is not helpful either.

          • says

            Also, even if all the message that women are inferior to men is a universal aspect of ‘female socialisation’, the way in which that message is delivered varies hugely between individuals and cultures. For example, someone who is raised by feminist parents who teach them that boys and girls are equal but still receives the message that girls are inferior from the books they read, TV they watch, their teachers etc. will experience that differently to someone who is raised by a parents who tell them right from day one that daughters are a curse and sons are a blessing.

            I think the key point here is how the concept of ‘female socialisation’ is usually used – it’s usually cited (in my experience) in an attempt to identify something which AFAB people have in common that might justify the exclusion of trans women from ‘women only’ spaces. It is an attempt at defining a common experience which AFAB people have and AMAB people lack. If the only thing that can be identified as common to ‘female socialisation’ is receiving the message that women are inferior to men, that’s not really much of a common experience at all – and is vastly outweighed by the differences in our experience.

          • says

            And the messsage that women are inferior to men is, incidentally, a message that men and DMAB people ALSO receive. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I say that trans women didn’t experience “male socialization” in any kind of conventional sense: we internalized those messages about “what women ought be” in relation to ourselves and what we wanted to be rather than desire and what we wanted to possess in others. It’s one of the biggest problems with the mentality of “passing”: those ideas of “passing”, of what is necessary to “be a woman”, are culturally received, and filtered through the beauty industry and cultural standards of beauty, rather than those messages having been internalized, as in cis women, as what one ought aspire towards through the womanhood you already “are” by default. So for cis women, the cultural message is what you’re supposed to be like, for cis men, it’s what you’re supposed to want, and for trans women, it’s what you NEED to BECOME in order to be a woman at all.

  8. Sinéad says

    I have to say that I wouldn’t know how much has changed over the last few years since I’ve been in self imposed exile from any and all lgbt groups. I am just cynical enough that when the level anti-trans women rhetoric shifted from womyn-born-womyn to “vagina owners” to uterus bearers, as quaint ways to find a ways to exclude people like me regardless of our surgical statuses, I just quit caring. When I see “trans-inclusive” in a lesbian/bi women’s group, I anticipate that the trans-inclusivity is for trans men only, and I would probably be 100% correct even today. Even if I never experienced outright hostility, I was passively expected to never discuss my having a penis, or how hormones effectively made it just a longe urethra and not a sexual arousal agent.

    I guess I am just pessimistically going to say that I don’t trust cis lgb people to change. I don’t expect any more acceptance post-vaginoplasty from lesbians. I don’t care if cis people won’t more activelt try to reach out to me. I’m just too cynical to believe that in their hearts they will ever see me as who I am.

    I guess I’m just as cynical about trans* community also. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count how many people will be “kind” to you at a meeting or event, but run from you in public for fear that even being within a foot of you will get them “read.”

    I only trust in myself to take care of myself and fight for my rights. Even as a labor activist in a union workolace, I can’t expect others to not trade my welfare in negotiation for something they want.

  9. Mattir says

    I have learned so much from you, and this is really terrific. One thing about the word “ally” – I work with youth,often in seriously LGTBQ hostile environments (Boy Scouts of America, anyone?). My rainbow “ally” button is primarily a signal to kids who may need an adult advocate (there are plenty of vulnerable youth in scouting, believe me!), and secondarily a signal to adult leader that not everyone who can teach knot tying agrees with the organization’s discriminatory crap. Quietly making one’s ally status known in hostile situations is useful. Yammering about one’s ally-ness in minority/LGTBQ communities is more often self-aggrandizing appropriation, especially if those are the only places in which one speaks up as an ally.

  10. clairecramer says

    This piece was a wonderful birthday surprise for me. Thank you so much for writing this. As a cis queer woman who works to make sure trans (women’s) issues are heard in cisqueer space, I agree that the use of the term “ally” has become a red flag for me. When I speak to groups about “allyship” I tell them that no one should *ever* call themselves an ally: it’s not a term one should ever apply to oneself.

    I also have a huge problem with “call out” culture and am currently trying my hardest not to engage with it. I know so many other intelligent, loving feminists who feel the same way and I’ve been intending to talk about it more intentionally with them. My reasoning is: “Don’t call out, speak up!”

    Generally, thank you for all the work that you do. It’s a real blessing that someone so intelligent is also so prolific. You are a role model for me (no, really).

  11. Monica H. says

    I am so glad I took the time to read this! You certainly gave me a lot to think about.

    I have little insight to share in response, but I do have one question. I have always heard the “progressive” standpoint that gender is a spectrum. I’m intrigued by your parenthetical note that this is not true. I’d like to read about alternative conceptualizations of gender; any suggestions?

  12. Pen says

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more about being nice. I’m not sure I’m qualified to undertake any educating. The closest I might get is ‘err.. that doesn’t sound quite right’. Well, unless it’s obviously not right in which case I can appeal to common humanity and rights and so forth.

    2. I can understand how to increase the visibility of trans people in my field, but again, I don’t feel confident enough of my own education to start discussing issues.

    3. I will bear it in mind though I need help to understand how the particular issues I’m working on interact with the perspectives of transgender women or men.

    4. OK, I work mainly with written texts, sometimes artworks or film. At this point anything that makes finding those by/about transpeople easier would help no end. Maybe there already is a list and I just need to find it?

    5. Totally understood.

    PS. I’m not intending to be negative about your suggestions at all. I would really like to follow through. I guess my summary is: visibility and respect, I can manage by myself, education not so much. Who’s going to educate me? I’m at the ‘Natalie Reed said…’ stage, which is just one perspective of course, and I already spend far more time on FTB than I can spare.

    • Claire Cramer says

      With all due respect, asking a trans person to educate you is just another part of asking trans people to do all of the work eradicating cissexism, etc. Asking people to educate you on their own oppression is oppression. There are many online resources, books, articles, other blog posts, and discussion groups out there. I was able to find quite a lot through Googling.

      • Carla B says

        If I read Pen’s intentions correctly, I think the request was for a good starting point, preferably a book or a film. I didn’t read it as a “I know little, tell me all of the things” request for spoon feeding. While spoon feeding certainly puts all the work on the oppressed group and doesn’t give the knowledge-seeker a full spectrum of knowledge, it’s not unreasonable for the seeker to ask for a starting point. There’s a lot of crap information (on every subject) to be found by Googling. Giving someone a good place to start is beneficial to everyone.

        Speaking as an atheist, if someone asked me to explain the whole deal about creationism/ID vs evolution, I obviously wouldn’t want to spend an hour repeating information that’s already available. But I would want to refer them to a book or blog or website that presents the information properly, then they could use that as a jumping off point for additional resources — or they could come back to me and we could have an interesting discussion on a more advanced level.

  13. natashayar-routh says

    Very well done and very necessary. Your points are applicable to being inclusive in general. All social justice organizations would do well to turn your five points into a poster format and display them prominently.

    The fight against Proposition 8 in California failed because the white cis urban middle class people heading up the No On 8 group failed to follow any of your rules. Thus they went from winning by 55% to losing by 52% in two months.

    Thank you gain for your always insightful and thought provoking essays.

  14. LicoriceAllsort says

    Thanks for this. This is a resource that I’ll need to read over several times in the coming weeks & months to keep beating these points into my skull. I struggle with the line between white knighting and trying to help, and like others have said above, I worry that my own limitations in experience/understanding make me unqualified to speak up. But these are minor concerns in the scheme of things, so I’ll try to take these points to heart.

  15. says

    As a cis feminist that is trying to be more inclusive and understanding, I really appriciate this (and all of what you write, actually). I know it’s not the responsibility of the trans community to educate clueless cis people–hell, I get frustrated with guys who believe that it’s my responsibility to educate them on basic feminist theory, especially in the internet age where all your answers are a google search away, and I don’t want to turn around and do the same thing to anyone else–so I do feel incredibily grateful when people take the time to make posts like this. And, personally, I find it even more helpful to have a list of positive things to do rather than a list of things not to do (which is also helpful and unfortunately necessary, don’t get me wrong).

    Your third point is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. So much of the online activism the last few months has revolved around the forced pregnancy issue, mostly because there are a lot of new people getting into feminism and activism purely because of the recent attacks on contraception and abortion, and the vile things elected officials are saying on the subject. And that’s great, but it’s dangerous for a person’s feminist activism to revolve only around abortion. I think a lot of feminists made that mistake in the past. It’s a good jumping off point, though, to understand and fight for the rights of women to have control over their bodies, like you said. I think it’s dangerous to get hyper-focused on the rights of women to decide not to have children (though it’s an important right! don’t misunderstand me, I will fight to the death to protect it!), when there are so many women who don’t have the right to have children. And it drives me nuts to listen to some radfems go on and on about abortion rights and the evils of the state controlling women’s bodies, who then turn around and try to exert that same control on trans women and men.

    I’ve been pissed off at a lot of my Christian relatives who are both anti-gay and hyper-capitalist; I can’t understand why they twist the bible upside down to justify their capitalism and ignore the passages that sound like they were written by Marx (holding all possessions and property in common and distributing as people have need), but when it comes to the gay stuff, oh, they aren’t homophobic, they just have to obey the bible literally. But very secular feminists are doing the exact same thing: fighting for bodily autonomy on one hand whilst denying that autonomy to women they disagree with on the other. This sort of thing drives me up a fucking wall, and, sadly, the couple radfems I’ve tried to point this out to are just as intractable as the Christians I’ve talked to on facebook. Ugh.

    • says

      “when there are so many women who don’t have the right to have children”

      Yeah. You know, I’m pretty US-centric in general, but I do know a few things, and one of them is that in China, there have been forced abortion campaigns in some provinces. Because people were using their relationships to get around the One Child (or one daughter and a second child, or pay a fine, or…) policy. One of the biggest ones was the year my sister was born in the US. And there have been policies where women had to get ultrasounds every 3 months. And all kinds of awfulness.

      So sometimes when people make jokes about forced abortions, jokes that rely on the idea that such a thing is impossible, I really want to hurt them.

  16. Mel says

    w/re: proactive challenging.

    as a cis woman with a trans partner, i sometimes have trouble with the finesse required in being non-passive, non-reactive. a lot of the situations i encounter are ones i am navigating in conjunction with my partner, who happens to be a fairly quiet, passive person. he doesn’t like making waves. i, on the other hand, have no problem rocking ANY boat. my dilemma has consistently been in … how can i best say this? i don’t want to “steal his thunder”, as it were. example: i saw in many places that today is the trans* day of rememberance, but have kept relatively mum in my public online spaces simply because he shares many of those spaces, and has not seen fit to speak out about today of his own accord.

    do you, or any of your readers, have thoughts about how to combat transphobia while also upholding the respect and boundaries of my very real, very beloved trans man?

    • says

      It’s not easy, for sure. Based on my own tactics I would aim for a “say *something*, or give *some* kind of look or incredulous “why would you say that” to make the person off-balance, let your partner say something if he wants to, or decide it’s not worth it if he wants to.”

      But, given your ongoing relationship, you should be able to communicate with him before and afterwards about it, right? That is, your partner will presumably give you feedback if you are responding in ways he finds unhelpful, and if he doesn’t, that in itself something to ask him about.

  17. Lothea L. says

    I have no interest in sharing my sob story about why I love this article so much, but I do, and I really appreciate you writing it. This topic is very close to my heart and someone I love chose the “in-your-face” approach.

    Communication, patience, and understanding are the harder choices to make, but have far better results in the long run.

    I wish more people (including me, most of the time,) understood their intrinsic value.

  18. Ju Carroll says

    What a bunch of bullshit. I am not cis, I am a woman. We invented feminism. Dont start telling is how to do it,

  19. says

    Let’s look at the kind of Feminism the “I am not cis” crowd has invented. I won’t editoralise – merely quote them.

    From one of the contributors, Bev Jo, regarding the violence against trans women:

    “They expect we’ll be shocked to see statistics about them being killed, and don’t realize, some of us wish they would ALL be dead.”

    Here’s her response to some medical breakthroughs that should one day allow trans girls just being born to have children:

    “I can just imagine their gloating if they can get female body parts and reproduce (not to mention how reproduction is destroying the earth and the likelihood of birth defects and bad health from babies coming from such a place.) There are no words to describe them. There are tiny parasitic wasps who paralyse small animals (spiders, caterpillars, etc.) and lay their eggs on them, so the animal is alive while being slowing eaten by the growing baby. But the wasps aren’t deliberately cruel. These men remind me of a deliberately female-hating version of that. They’ve prove what I’ve been saying for decades — they are more female-hating than even many het men. The character in Silence of the Lambs who skinned women to wear really seems more accurate all the time. “

    Feminists want no part of this cis-sexist “Feminism” you’ve invented.

    You do serve a useful purpose though, as many don’t believe that such ideologies as yours still exist. All we have to do is quote you.

    • says

      I love how often they reference Buffalo Bill, in how directly it indicates that the monsters they’re supposedly fighting are wholly fictional, and how little they comprehend the division between paranoid, horrific fictions and the actual realities of gender.

  20. nathanaelnerode says

    Regarding (1):

    I have no idea how to open a respectful dialogue with people who are saying stupid, ignorant things.

    Well, so this is my own personal skills shortage. I guess it involves emotional manipulation of the ignorant people I’m talking to, and being on the autism spectrum, that’s something I’m unlikely to ever be very good at. Plus, I like being verbally combative, and I’m *good* at it.

    So for me it really is “reasoned call-out” (obviously, swearing is worthless) versus “let it pass”; the third option you’re promoting is not something I know how to do, and not something I have been able to learn how to do (when I’ve tried, it’s only come across as MORE rude than usual, presumably because I’m missing the correct emotional manipluation cues).

    In the atheist blogosphere, filled with rationalists, don’t be surprised if you find a lot of people who are just no good at “nicely” opening coversations with bigots. I would say PZ Myers sure doesn’t know how to.

    Calling people out practically never fixes their behavior, so it’s only worthwhile for the peanut gallery. I still think in pervasively hostile groups — ones containing nobody who is out as whatever the oppressed class is — it seems better to call out the bigotry than just letting it pass and letting everyone assume I agree.

  21. Abi says

    I have come to this trans women versus feminist women debate late. I am a female, with no real problem with transwomen as people deserving of the same human rights as me. I am easy about anybody, anything consenting adults do is fine with me. I don’t really know about all of trans women, I am loathe to judge about people that I am not.But The thing I find so hard to accept about the trans debate is the lack of sensititivity from trans women for females. You might feel aggrieved by not being allowed to use female toilets but I might be raped??? This is no joke, from the age of 12 ! I have been propositioned by males.
    . Female spaces to me = freedom.
    This does not mean that you as born males are classed as rapists. I beleive that anyone who identified as female MUST know about all the awful things that can happen to you as female??? BUT To all trans women I have engaged with this seems like a JOKE or even worse a PRIVILEGE????

    • says

      Ummmmmm… trans women are female. Trans women ALSO get raped. Per capita, trans women, regardless of genital configuration, are actually at GREATER risk of rape or sexual assault than cis women. I don’t think you really understand these issues at all. And trans women CERTAINLY don’t pose some special threat of rape to cis women. Please give all this some more thought and research. If you think somehow an “F” on your birth certificate is a pre-requisite to rape or sexual assault, you’re SERIOUSLY naive.

      P.S. I’m a rape-survivor. Several times over. (From the age of 10!). These rapes, incidentally, occurred while I was read as a “boy”. I’ve also been a victim of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Many, many times over. Both while read as a boy/man and as a woman.

  22. Indiana Kelly Edwards says

    I am also a rape surviver and trans. You just completely contradicted your self ? Abi I am female I dont understand your ignorant logic.

  23. says

    Natalie, thank you very much for this insightful article. Over the last few years, I have been crawling through a ciswoman’s understanding of transgender issues, mainly due to a few friends who have gone through gender reassignment. There are times when I feel hopelessly uninformed on such issues, but I have a genuine desire to participate in the dialogue and provide as much support and championing as I can. I am grateful we live in a time where humans are free to become the people they truly are, and that they are no longer bound by limited or outdated understandings of gender and sexuality. I hope I can continue to be an advocate for all people, regardless of gender, sexuality, color, race, religion or —well, you get it. I will happily share your excellent article in the hopes that it will continue to spark understanding, conversation, and eventually, inclusion and respect for all.

  24. Lindsey says

    Bravo! This article is amazing. I think the concepts you mention transcends to other groups of people that are oppressed. Definitely pocketing this one.


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