On transphobic “feminism”

“Again with the trans related posts!”, I hear you say. When you spend so long hanging around with feminists and trans people, you can’t help but think about trans issues and feminism a lot. And one of the issues that came up quite a bit while I was at a party with some cool trans people and feminists earlier this week was RadFem 2012, the upcoming “radical feminist” conference in London. But however good it sounds, it has a horrible policy:

In turn we ask that RadFem 2012 be respected as a space where women born women living as women are able to meet and share information in a peaceful and safe environment.

Radical feminism, as it’s commonly understood these days, is a continuation/evolution of second-wave feminism separate from third-wave feminism. This, in turn, belies a problem: coming from the strong roots of the second wave (indeed, some view the third wave as revisionism in the Marxist sense), it can’t adapt itself well to the ideas of the twenty-first century (as opposed to the ’60s through ’80s). One of the most obvious flaws is the reaction to men in the movement. And when I say men, I generally mean anyone born with a penis.

Now, obviously feminism will, and should, remain a woman-centric movement. But the game has changed. From the original ideas of the patriarchy, now come the ideas of kyriarchy and intersectionality, which understands that there is not just male privilege, but also white privilege, religious privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege, and so on. And they all intersect in ways: for example, CeCe McDonald, as I posted, was disadvantaged and oppressed both as a trans woman and a black woman. And most people are aware of this fact: you often hear left-wing people complaining about legislatures being full of old white Christian men, or right-wing people complaining that  jobs are going to the mythical black lesbian in a wheelchair (they don’t).

There are two points to make here: men and trans women (and trans men, for that matter) can both bring perspectives on patriarchal oppression that a cis woman can not. Both sets of people, after all, are brought up in a society that expects toxic masculinity, and your gender and or sexuality is questioned if you don’t conform (“You don’t like football? What are you, a poof?”). Doubly so for trans women, which experience both toxic masculinity to start with, and as they transition, become also oppressed as women through the usual avenues, and oppressed as trans when their gender identity is denied recognition. And of course, they are then expected to conform to the submissive femininity demanded of women.

The argument for a women-born-women space comes primarily from the argument that as trans women grow up with and benefit from male privilege, then they shouldn’t be in spaces meant for those who have been oppressed. Also in the list of reasons include that abusers could “claim” a female identity to infiltrate spaces (although this doesn’t really happen), that trans people unnecessarily entrench the gender binary, and, even worse, that trans women are actually men. But a space for cis women only doesn’t compare to the classic idea of a safe space for one simple reason: cis women are privileged.

Spaces for the oppressed or minorities exist as a way to collectively group against their oppression. That’s the reason why there is a Black Police Organisation but not a White Police Organisation, why there are Women’s Officers in student unions but not a Men’s Officer, or a LGBT Society but not a Straight Society: because they don’t need them, as the wider population sees their issues as the norm. Hell, even trade unions are an example, where the workers group together to collectively power against their management. If anything, there should be a trans-only space where trans men and women meet to discuss oppression, not the other way around.

Because, let’s face it, trans people are oppressed even within the feminist movement. There’s an idea that trans women reinforce the gender binary in several ways: for example, they transition to feel “straight”, or they are too ultra-feminine or ultra-masculine. But the first one erases the ideas of lesbian trans women and gay trans men, and the latter erases the ideas of femme trans men and butch trans women. And they’re forced into ideas of ultra-femininity because that’s what society expects of them, not often because of any choice. Of course, any failure to be feminine also raises ire from people who claim they’re not true women.

The idea of “true women” is, however, incredibly essentialist, and not even consistent. One example where the idea falls apart is in women with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome. These are women who have XY chromosomes but, due to their body’s inability to process androgens, externally resemble women (to the point it often isn’t realised until puberty), and are hormonally female, are brought up as female, and are often quite welcomed into cis-women-only spaces despite their Y chromosome. So, sometimes, are closeted trans women, as the organisers of the Michigan Womyn’s Festival know well.

The radical feminist opposition to trans women is just transphobia. It’s evident in the language used: “male-to-trans”, “men”, “tranny”, and so on, to refer to the trans women themselves, and “handmaidens” or “men’s rights activists” for their allies.  And, for trans men, they’re more than welcome in women-born-women spaces. It’s a concerted effort to deny a person’s gender identity by claiming that it’s all a lie, and that they know better about someone’s gender identity than that person themselves. It’s similar to the MRA idea of mansplaining, to the point it’s been termed cissplaining. And it ignores what we know about gender identity: that a) it’s fucking complicated, and, more importantly, b) transgender identities have existed throughout history, even in non-patriarchal societies. It’s not an imposition by the patriarchy, despite what opponents claim.

Indeed, there’s an uncomfortable similarity with conservatism in this respect: just as one of the criteria of a true woman is the ability to bear children, so does a marriage, which is why trans people or same-gender couples shouldn’t be recognised. But hey, women who have had hysterectomies can marry, and likewise too they are recognised as “true women”. There’s also the sharing of terminology, from derogatory terms that only seek to lessen the identity of trans people, to the old canard that they’re not “transphobic” because “I ain’t scared of trannies!”

“Such an Easy Mistake to Make” by Barry Deutsch, CC-BY 3.0

Take for example,  Sheila Jeffreys, one of the keynote speakers of RadFem 2012. In a recent podcast last year on the subject of “moderate” feminism, she said transgenderism is:

[A] practice  in which persons who do not adhere to the  correctly gendered practices that have been placed upon the biological sex are considered to have something called Gender Identity Disorder and they’re expected to cross over into the other sex. Not criticize the gendered system as it exists, because that’s unthinkable but to make some kind of “journey” by mutilating their bodies and taking dangerous drugs for the rest of their lives in order to supposedly represent the opposite sex.

This is not some random radical feminist: this is a keynote speaker and famous second-wave radical feminist. When you look in the dregs of the internet, it only gets worse.

This is why transphobic feminism shouldn’t be regarded feminism. At the heart of all feminist thought is the one key idea: women have full self-agency which must not be breached on account of their womanhood (and, as a corollary, this often extends to all genders). It’s why you see people like Sarah Palin claim to be feminists, but they aren’t regarded as such, because no feminist would want to ban abortion in all circumstances. And likewise, transphobia breaches a trans person’s agency by forcing them to identify with which they would sometimes rather die than do so, and even runs the risk of marginalising butch cis women because they don’t conform to standard ideas of being female. That, or trans people can’t discuss oppression effectively and are forced to keep silent lest they get ejected on a transphobic premise. In the end, it’s still oppression of women – no matter whether they are cis or trans – and we should not recognise any person who deliberately makes transphobic statements as feminist.

There is, I believe, a silver lining. Given its link to the second wave, it’ll hopefully start to become less relevant to feminist activism as time goes on. There’s a new generation of feminist activists from across the political spectrum, from liberal feminists (such as myself) to anarcha-feminists to Marxist feminists, there is religious feminism and atheist feminism, and more perspectives that you can shake a stick at and the movement is healthier for it. I’m confident that transfeminism, coupled with the rise in awareness in trans issues over the past ten years, will be a major component of the “fourth wave” when it comes, if it hasn’t already. As popularised by the wonderful transfeminist blogger Natalie Reed (really, you should read her blog, especially her posts on the fourth wave):

If feminism is the radical idea that women are people, then trans-feminism is the radical idea that women come in different containers.

7 Replies to “On transphobic “feminism””

  1. I think there’s some room for communication on both sides. While I don’t have any time for the ‘trans women aren’t real women’ argument, you can go too far with the argument that women can learn from the experiences of trans women/men/trans men etc and must include them in this or that aspect of their campaigning. Women have fought hard for their safe spaces, and I think phobia is probably an appropriate word – some of them are afraid of having them taken over, of having their agenda diverted – I don’t agree, but I think it’s something that needs talking about, especially with people like Natalie Reed making fairly extreme statements that you can’t have proper feminism without trans feminism.

    I don’t think it’s too much to ask that people who attend women-only events should have the experience of having lived as women. As long as they are viewed by society as men, trans women are privileged by the same system that simultaneously oppresses them – isn’t patriarchy fun? So while there’s a whole load of oppression that comes with being a trans woman living as a man (forgive me if my terminology’s wrong here) I don’t see it as being an intrinsic part of feminism – I don’t think there’s really much crossover that can be constructive in a women-only space (as opposed to its place within a broader discussion of the gender binary, or a narrower discussion of trans people’s issues).

    Once a trans woman starts to live as a woman, she’s affected by many of the same issues feminists talk about, plus a whole load more. So personally, as a 3rd-wave feminist heavily influenced by 2nd wave thinkers, I’d argue that FAB women should recognise their relative position of privilege there, and welcome trans women into women-only spaces. But trans women should recognise that their experiences are in some ways different and that there will be areas where it makes more sense to work separately (but supportively) rather than together, just like with other equality campaigns.

    1. Of course, there are some experiences that trans women will never have, such as having to go through childbirth. Every woman’s – and man’s – experience of patriarchal oppression is different and a decent feminist campaign would do well to reflect them.

      There is some patriarchal oppression of men and trans women who live/have lived as men that I believe is relevant to feminism: the hypermasculine man/hyperfeminine woman dichotomy. I know from experience, growing up as a boy who wasn’t that interested in some masculine activities such as playing rugby or football every day, that it does come from that expectation. I personally think a lot of the oppression of trans people is relevant to feminism, which is why I’m so interested in transfeminism.

      I fully support women-only spaces/events (as well as LGBT-only, trans-only, PoC-only, etc), but I’m wary of cis women-only spaces as they don’t conform well to the idea of minority-led safe spaces (as cis women are the majority). I’d think that, when a cis-only space was necessary, for example, to talk about reproductive issues, trans women would be understanding; I’ve seen more cis invasion of trans spaces than trans invasion of cis spaces. Personally, my bar for entry would be self-definition; it tends to work well for the NUS for their liberation campaigns. That, and it invades someone’s privacy to demand to prove their sexuality or gender identity.

      I wouldn’t go as far as Natalie Reed, but I really do think trans activism/transfeminism is the way forward. I’m 21, and involved of my university’s feminist society, and we don’t even see anything wrong with trans women, even those presenting as men, with talking about stuff. The party mentioned in the beginning involved a cis friend of mine talking about how she was so pissed off that she found out a women’s space she stayed at had a cis-only policy. And as a corollary, I think it’s going to be become hard to defend your feminism if you’re transphobic, just as it’s hard to defend feminism if you’re homophobic or racist.

      1. We seem to be largely in agreement here. Just a couple of clarifications:
        1) I think women-only spaces should only be part of the communication that feminists have, usually a minority part (Bradford may be an exception though, it seems that you only have to *mention* the F word here to get a huge pile of sexist jokes, sneering and What About Teh Menz).

        2) Gender stereotyping is of course relevant to feminism, but I don’t think women-only spaces are the best place to discuss it. That debate affects everyone to some extent, and should be more inclusive. We should be using the right tools for each part of the equalities campaign, with good communication between, um, factions? Can’t think of a better word right now. And there needs to be respect, on both sides, for the fact that while both trans women and cis women are oppressed by rigid gender roles, it’s in different ways, and some of their experiences will be parallel but different. For example, my experience as a non-cis girl who grew up into a cis woman is not equivalent to that of a trans man (so none of the ‘they’re just reinforcing the gender binary because they couldn’t cope with acting outside gender norms’ arguments) but trans women have a different set of expectations placed on them growing up to women, and their contribution to discussing how women are socially constructed during childhood will be limited by that – unless it’s part of a wider discussion of how children generally are confined by gender norms.

        3) I think it’s also necessary when talking about women-only spaces to distinguish between feminist debate spaces, and areas like women’s refuges where people presenting as men are seen as a threat by particularly vulnerable women. Where trans women fit into those services – that’s another debate, and I think it’s one for the people who deliver and use (or who need but are excluded from using) those services, I don’t feel qualified to judge.

        1. Not sure how SARSVL do stuff, but I’d assume they’d give refuge to female-presenting trans women. Trans women do get raped and abused too, after all, proportionally more so than cis women. Everyone’s experiences are different, after all, and I think there’s respect among trans women for reproductive health campaigns, as much as there should be respect among cis women for trans equality campaigns.

    1. Yes, it is very much an issue because it affects me as an individual and you as part of our collective whole.

      It’s a sad world when people think equality for all isn’t worth discussing or even acknowledging.

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