Transfeminism and its origins: a personal retrospective.

Over on the PZ post “Let’s Smoke Out Some More TERFs” a discussion developed in which Susan Stryker & Sandy Stone were mentioned. In that thread, I mentioned being one person of, I am sure, many who were forced independently to coin “transfeminism” when the “trans-” prefix trend was emerging. From people like Sandy Stone and Sylvia Rivera who were adult activists while I was too young to control my bladder to youngsters like, well, me, a lot of work had been done incorporating feminism into trans* activism by the 1990s. However, it was always in a haphazard, highly individualized way. There wasn’t a broader and explicit call to make our trans* activism feminist or our feminism trans* inclusive. The movements were largely separate, both nominally and functionally, even if philosophically they were closely related in myriad ways.

In response to this observation that I was doing transfeminism before there was a word (or at least a publicly recognized word) for transfeminism, HJ Hornbeck asked if I was involved in the early transfeminist movement, even if neither I nor anyone else could ever be called a single originator or even indispensable to the movement. In response, I wrote a small personal history that after some thinking I decided I might want to be able to find again. So, I’m preserving it here in its own post even though both of my readers have probably already seen it on Pharyngula. Call it an exercise in personal vanity. Or call it oral history of an interesting time of transition. Call it whatever you like, but if you haven’t read it, here it is.

HJ: The timing suggests you were one of the first, though, if not the first. Were you involved with the transfeminist movement?


While the few early-activists that existed were focussing on stranger-danger and access to medical care, I was in a horribly abusive relationship. Raped. Attacked with knives. Never hospitalized, never injured too badly, but hit in the face with a tote-bag full of text books so hard that my neck has literally never been the same. During one honeymoon period in that relationship I actually told my abuser that I wasn’t trans, but that I wondered if it was possible to get trans-related health care without being transsexual. I knew for a fact I wasn’t transsexual because I didn’t like sequins or makeup. Duh. But of course being interested in the medical care was enough. I was punished. I was raped again. I shut up.

The first romantic relationship in which I was involved after that one, at the beginning of the 90s, was with a wonderful hippie-child. Literally. She was the child of a hippie mom, with a stereotypically hippie-child name. She also was just out of an abusive relationship. I supported her through accessing resources even though she felt guilty because she thought the resources were supposed to be for people who were still trapped in abusive relationships, not for those who had successfully escaped but were still feeling the effects.

As we spent time together, she lost that guilt. As she was setting aside her guilt and realizing that she deserved that help, she started telling me that I deserved that help. Obviously I couldn’t go to a women’s shelter or a women’s program for help, but I should go somewhere, she insisted. I called a place near where I lived that was a counseling center that specialized in helping men. “Men” was even in the name. I described being in an abusive relationship as a teen/young adult and being abused separately as a child earlier in my life. They told me that they had no programs for survivors of abusive relationships, but that they had programs for abusers and that they would welcome me into one of those groups and maybe I could get insight into my abusive relationship from talking to someone on the other side.

Though I hadn’t particularly been thinking I deserved help, when that happened I was sure I didn’t deserve that. My partner & I talked about hormones and healthcare to address my body issues (body issues that definitely weren’t related to transsexuality, of course) to the point of making an economic plan for how we could save money and how much we might need to save and how soon we could save it. At the same time, I read relentlessly on the subject of Domestic Violence (DV) and talked with my partner about that as well. She was getting the peer-counseling. I was reading all the books. Together we synthesized some early, primitive understandings.

I started speaking with friends of hers from queer women’s community, some of whom worked at the local women’s shelter. We talked about a bunch of things. I said it wasn’t good to always equate men with abusers and that it wasn’t gender that made a person dangerous, but rather behavior, with gender only making certain bad behaviors statistically more likely. It wasn’t a great perspective. It had holes. It had problems. But to an anti-violence movement that was founded on listening to the individual stories of women that society refused to help, listening to the individual stories of someone who seemed to be a man seemed reasonable. Although some refused to listen, it wasn’t because I hadn’t any academically rigorous data on the prevalence and severity of DV targeting victims who weren’t women.

Something very strange happened. Even though I was far from an expert on anything, I had a lot of practice talking about these issues with my partner and had a basic understanding of the operating perspectives of the anti-DV movement. It wasn’t deep or anything, but it was far better than most of the general public, women or not. This was enough to make communication between me and anti-sexual violence & anti-domestic violence workers at least somewhat fruitful.

But I cared desperately about this. I wanted more than “somewhat fruitful”. That call to the men’s counsellors haunted me. I didn’t want anyone else to experience that. So I wanted to be even better at talking about this. I wanted to be more skilled, more knowledgeable, more persuasive. When people were convinced that I was right that there was a problem with lack of resources (there were shelters in the city for homeless men, but not men homeless from domestic violence where they could get support around issues like how to maintain safety & change jobs while being stalked), they’d ask me what the solutions should be. I was stumped.

So, back to the books. I was reading feminism like mad. And, of course, that had a dramatic impact on how I saw myself as (potentially) trans. I realized that while I didn’t look at non-trans* women as less validly women when they wore makeup or when they eschewed it, I had been looking at trans* women as less validly women and less validly trans* if they didn’t engage in stereotypical femininity. While there were a few folks in trans* communities that spoke that way, that even argued that things should be that way (e.g. if you weren’t obsessed with wearing feminine clothing & makeup at age 4 you weren’t really an MtF trans* person), it became clear that trans* people in the community believed that because that’s what the medical providers told them, and that’s the narrative that they had to rehearse in order to get treatment.

So now I’d embedded myself in this series of informal feminist anti-violence conversations as well as this process of realizing how larger social forces control the genders and gender expressions at the individual level. Feminism seemed key to healing my psyche and my body. I couldn’t get enough. Even before I came out as trans*, I had enough awareness of trans* issues to stop advocating for “men” survivors of violence and started advocating that people should have access to feminist anti-violence tools “regardless of gender”.

And there it was: I wanted feminism to be accessible to, useful to, and beneficial to everyone. And I knew that not only could it be, it already was, even if it wasn’t yet everything that it could be. But the other trans* advocates I knew weren’t as steeped in feminism. The feminists that I knew still wanted to practice a feminism exclusive of trans* people. And in the early 90s everything trans people were doing got “trans-” slapped on the front because we were in the middle of transsexual vs. transgender intracommunity wars similar in scope and injury to the intrafeminist sex wars of the 80s. Calling important community events “trans-” was the only way to signal that it was open to both transgender and transsexual folks and (usually) other supportive people. (Where a “transsexual gathering” implied that one had to be transsexual to join the activity, a “trans gathering” carried with it a more open connotation of community that allowed partners and certain supportive others to feel welcome.)

Then as I came out – mousy, not ready to speak publicly – my now-ex partner and still my BFF pushed me into going to a Lesbian Avengers meeting, and wow was that meeting of direct action activists a revelation! As I was speaking to them in late 93/early 94 they asked me if I was doing any trans* activism.

To my shame I can’t remember perfectly and it may have been embarrassment over (potentially) being associated with certain not-very-likable segments of the trans* advocacy community as much as anything else that made me tell them that, yes, I was doing trans* activism in various ways and at various times, but a lot of what I was doing was private conversations that weren’t so much trans* advocacy, but “transfeminism”. The formation of the word seemed almost too obvious, given how trans* advocates had already begun using the trans- prefix. Although I hadn’t heard it used and hadn’t used it, it fell out of my mouth with no effort on my part. Social gravity had done all the work.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the description of what I was doing as transfeminism was just … true. There were activists talking about stranger danger. There were activists talking about removing gatekeeping attitudes and outright barriers to trans* medical care. But there weren’t activists talking about domestic violence targeting trans people. There weren’t activists connecting the access-to-care conversation to feminist insights on compulsory gender and how the so-called “gender clinics” (I’m not making up the name, they really were called that) were the worst form of Handmaid’s Tale, Orwellian, gender-control institutions. While feminists had moved on from the days of being institutionalized for gender non-conformity, trans* people were literally having doctors not only force them to wear makeup, but to control what brand and color of makeup they could wear. I wasn’t a genius or anything, but I could see that if feminists had already fought the medicalization of gender expression it would be silly to ignore all the great work that had already been accomplished when trans* communities fought medicalization of our own gender expressions.

So I became a bridge between local feminist activists and both local and national trans* activists. And although I found some people who were more feminism-informed than others, it was clear that there had as yet been no real embrace of feminism. There was no sense that trans* advocacy was another feminist struggle in the sense that access to abortion is a feminist struggle without being all of or defining to feminism itself.

I didn’t use “transfeminism” or “transfeminist” in published writing until later – probably 1996 or so – but that period from late 1993 – mid 1996 was amazingly productive, and it’s fitting that the rise of the term dates to those fertile years.

Although I came from an AMAB/MtF perspective, transfeminism was also dramatically affected by other gender orientations (which are not sexual orientations: MtF is a gender orientation, it describes how one was initially positioned in the gender schema and how one is moving in relation to that initial position, in other words, how one is “oriented” in a gendered sense). FtM folks had largely felt that they had to leave feminism behind. Those who had worked in shelters or other feminist institutions were forced out. Sexism, obviously still strong even today, makes it harder for men to have productive friendships than it would be otherwise, and it makes it especially difficult for certain feminist collaborations to take place. A man in the room, it was often felt, undercut the sense of power and accomplishment (“we did this ourselves”) that feminist women might otherwise feel. Even when FtM men weren’t kicked out, they were pushed out by these dynamics. And though their further activism was clearly informed by feminism, many seemed reluctant to call it feminism or to refer too much or too often to feminist sources when making the case that they should be accepted as men without discrimination. The reasons for that should be obvious.

FtM men were also invisibilized even more dramatically than MtF folk whose perspectives were ignored even when our existence was highlighted (often for the most horrible of reasons, to be targeted as the enemy within). FtM men were not even generally known to exist. FtM people who weren’t men were, if it was possible, even less visible. And therefore the activism, accomplishments, and feminism (to whatever extent it existed) of these people were also invisible.

So a feminist trans* movement was a new thing. Even as certain ideas caught on, feminist communities and trans* activist communities were largely separate. Tragically this was even true for people who existed in both: too often they had to cease being part of one temporarily to participate in the activities of the other.

But I couldn’t leave either behind. It was all or nothing. When I read feminism, I had been particularly attracted to the stories of the outsiders-within-feminism. Pat Parker. Mitsue Yamada. Tillie Black Bear. Audre Lorde. mary hope lee. Dorothy Roberts. Suzanne Pharr. I was determined not to be the type of feminist who left anyone behind. As I came across information about intersexuality, I included that information in my analysis and my activism. The more I learned about racism, the more I included that in my analysis and activism. And within trans* communities I was one of the few who determined that there should be larger communities with real FtM/MtF/ItT friendship and collaboration. There weren’t very many areas of the country where FtM, MtF, and intersex folks were all working closely together, having brunch together, inspiring each other. I wasn’t going to be part of a disjointed and segregationist activism where issues were addressed separately and the largest subpopulations told others to wait their turn (as the Gay Liberation, Gay & Lesbian Liberation & LGB movements did to trans folk, both to each other and to trans* folk, each in their turn). I was going to be part of something better. Something more inclusive. Something more integrated. A movement which decades later could be embarrassed by its failures, but not by its efforts.

With nothing better to name it, for me transfeminism came to mean this movement as well. While I was using this concept, others became excited by it, and every year new people would come to place more importance on integrating trans* advocacy and feminism. Every year new people would call themselves transfeminists. Every year was better and more exciting than the last. It was an incredibly heady time. I was part of some truly wonderful, even truly great things.

Was I always good at doing what I wanted? No. My own limitations dictated my many mistakes and failures.

Did I truly invent anything? No. Everything that I helped to create was a simple combination of ingredients already present in the society around me, and even where I did combine them in novel ways it was inevitable that people who care about trans* folks would eventually care about making sure trans* folks had access to anti-DV services and FtM/MtF dialog and things like free food for anyone – trans or not – who was hungry, but in an environment where trans* folks were welcome and the food was mostly prepared by another trans* person.

But to the extent that there can be said to be a period before transfeminism, a period with widespread transfeminism, and a period in which transfeminism was new, under-appreaciated, frequently misunderstood, and rapidly spreading, can I accurately be said to have been one of the early adopters? Yeah. I can.

I would even like to be proud of that, though I don’t think that makes much sense as I don’t think I could have done anything else.

Post Script: It was the social gravity, the effortlessness of combining “trans-” and “feminism” that makes me certain I couldn’t have been the first to coin the term, though it’s true that I used it without ever hearing or reading it before. After some random people started giving me credit for coining the term I became interested in finding anyone who might have used it before me in another part of the English speaking world. Disappointingly I haven’t found them yet, but I’ve barely met Sandy Stone and never had a chance to talk about this topic specifically. If there’s anyone who is likely to be the actual originator of the term – the true first coiner, not merely one of many independent coiners – my doubloons would be on her.


  1. says

    I appreciate what you’ve taught me, when you’ve taught me, and how you’ve taught me. It’s interesting to know where it came from so thanks for posting.

  2. Owlmirror says

    It took me a few minutes of confusion to figure out that DV=”domestic violence”. Just pointing out that it could be made clearer.

    Also, I think you could honestly title this something else, maybe like “A Personal Retrospective on Transfeminism”. Ask yourself if someone else you know had written something like this: Would you suggest that they title it “Useless Vanity. Or Not”? If they did, would you suggest that maybe they’re being too hard on themselves?

    There’s a point where trying to avoid sounding too self-important ends up being so self-abnegating that you trip over your own feet and get in the way of communicating clearly.

  3. Hj Hornbeck says

    Daamn, thank you so much for writing this! It’s important to keep this history alive, so that it doesn’t get forgotten or distorted. Whether you coined the term or not, you played a key role in nurturing the movement and in the process helped make the world a little less transphobic. Had I accomplished half as much, I’d have been proud of my work.

    So I’m squarely in the “not” camp.

  4. says

    For clarity, the part that felt like “vanity” was the part where I took the comment from PZ’s blog and posted it here so that I wouldn’t lose track of it. It didn’t feel like vanity to post it once, but it did feel a little cringe-y to me to effectively post it twice.

    No, I know I played an important role in a then-small movement at a crucial time. It rarely felt like a big deal, because I was just engaged in conversation and using each thing I read and each thing I heard to make my next conversation a little more informed, a little more productive, a little more useful. There was no big diploma at some point along the way. There wasn’t any particular election won. There was just a lot of slow changing of minds, and as the minds in my immediate area began to come largely into agreement with my thinking, I got more and more requests to come speak to or write for people farther away. Traveling to speak felt like a threshold had been crossed the first couple times, but there were always more people who still needed to have those conversations, and so even if I was making progress, it didn’t feel much like making progress. The need for those conversations never ended and it won’t end for decades more, probably.

    It was all just so … mundane. Quotidian. I just happened to have a perspective most people hadn’t considered and I happened to be thoughtful enough with my words to be able to communicate that perspective well. But I like to think that anyone could have done it. I happened to do it, but that doesn’t mean I was special.

    Maybe I’m more self-abnegating than is appropriate (per Owlmirror), but I also like to think that it can be revolutionary to communicate just how mundane it is to pay attention to the things that make you a better, more informed person and then pass those things on to others. Because if minds really are changed by conversation (and they are) then anyone can change the world for the better right the fuck now. Caine and others here have certainly done that for me. Maybe in a decade or two you all can be surprised at being important to one or two trends that later changed the world for the better.

    I hope for that every day.

  5. voyager says

    Thanks for sharing this. Your writing has been important to my understanding of both feminism and trans issues. I think you have many reasons to be proud of having earned your place at the head of the table.
    (Sorry to be so late making this comment, but I’ve just had a chance to catch up on my reading.)

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