Less than two years ago my “opinion” of transfolk was one of extreme othering, of downright transphobia – I didn’t hate transpeople but I knew nothing about them and deemed from my place of ignorance that they were weird, freakish, incomprehensible.
Then I met, or rather came across, a transwoman named Alison. I saw her as a man in a dress. A big man in a dress, a hairy one, wearing – ridiculously – make-up and nylons while camping in a muddy field with a bunch of hippies. She said very little – she was attending a workshop / discussion about what it means to be a woman, and she was there to listen, not to speak*. I didn’t want a man in a dress in the Women’s Dome. I didn’t want her to be there, but I didn’t want to be the one who said “No”, either.
(*It turned out that she was much less intrusive, much less imposing, than a young woman who liked to dress as a boy and play with gender, a young woman whose presence was not put to the vote, and who was so busy denying that motherhood has any necessary connection with womanhood that she did not stop to hear that for many women, for me, experiences of motherhood and womanhood are in fact connected…)
I didn’t want a man in a dress in the Women’s Dome. Yet out of that discomfort, out of that politeness, came a process in which I began to question for myself what it means to be a woman, what it means to be trans. I began to question my own bigotry – and it was not an easy journey. (Here are some posts I wrote as I travelled: one, two, three.)
I found that transgenderism / transsexualism is not the weird fetish of disturbed freaks, but a genuine – and very difficult – lived reality. I looked at some of the statistics for mental health and suicide rates among transpeople – both those who transition and those who do not. I read the blogs of transfolk, mainly transwomen – some who are out in real life, some who are not. I looked into medical evidence about the causes of transgenderism and found that there is no certainty about the true cause – whether it is physical / biological or whether it is mental / emotional / social or whether the individual cause varies from person to person. Sometimes intersex biology is relevant, sometimes not. From all this I learned that gender identity is a real phenomenon, even if we do not all consciously experience it; and I learned that gender dysphoria (where gender identify does not match biological sex attributes) is a real phenomenon, even if few of us are unfortunate enough to experience it.
What I found is that the definition of class Woman is not a simple matter, and I am not the person who can define what a woman is.
Radical feminists – especially those who are separatists or who advocate (as I do) the need for woman-only space – often struggle with this. We often act as though we know exactly what a woman is, and that a transwoman is not a woman. Even if we recognise that the question is not straightforward, we still struggle with the inclusion of transwomen in women-only spaces.
Sometimes our exclusion is expressed by straightforwardly characterising transwomen as men, so that it is then self-evident that they should be excluded from woman-only spaces. This really isn’t a very profound analysis. I was saddened to see Debs using it the other day to justify the exclusion of transwomen from her otherwise excellent proposal for a national meeting of radical feminists.
Debs uses the following quotes (taken from the anti-trans site Questioning Transgender) to explain her position:
Womyn only space is time and place where the welfare of the class of womyn and its core constituents, females who were raised as girls and perceive themselves as womyn, are the primary concern. In this space the desires of others are secondary. If even one womon’s perception of safety from male violence is diminished by the presence of individuals who are or were or claim to be members of the class of men, those individuals should be excluded. If any womyn find it easier to try new things or to explore their lives without the presence of non-womyn, that should be allowed.
from “Exploring the Value of Women-Only Spaces” by Kya Ogyn
[T]he transgender movement has been taken so unquestioningly to heart by so many lesbians, feminists, and progressives, there is such dogma surrounding it, and there is such a taboo on challenging it, that I am unwilling to fudge even a little on how dangerous it is to feminism and women… Somehow we have a movement whereby men’s interests have found a clever way to siphon off lesbian and feminist energies into a liberal agenda of identity politics, individual freedom, and inclusion which make us forget altogether about challenging patriarchy. To the extent feminists partake in this, we have nursed a viper to our movement which is now out to destroy what precious little women’s space we have managed to eke out.
from “Men in Ewes’ Clothing: The Stealth Politics of the Transgender Movement” by Karla Mantilla
These writers, as portrayed in these quotes anyway, are not speaking truth.
They fail to consider at all the very first question, whether transwomen are in fact “men” at all or whether they should be acknowledged as members of “the class of womyn”. They assume that transwomen are “really” men, and take it from there. They posit a gender binary and place transwomen firmly, unanalytically, on the male side: pretty unradical for a movement that is supposed to be about questioning the gender binary. Ogyn asserts that “females who were raised as girls” are primary – without saying why. Is it simply because this is, numerically and in terms of sheer weight of privilege, the dominant group? If so then again this is hardly a strong radical feminist position. If not – what? (more on this below) Mantilla asserts that the transgender movement is dangerous to feminism and women because it involves the promotion of “men’s interests” at the expense of feminist energy. But, even if we overlook this blunt non-analysis of gender identity, we are not talking about diverting the radical feminist movement into a transgender movement; we are talking about the inclusion of radical feminist transwomen in a radical feminist woman-only space. The one does not lead to the other.
There are more subtle arguments in favour of excluding transwomen. The second part of that Ogyn quote is a good example of one of these: the appeal for consideration to be given to women who fear male violence or who may be discouraged or intimidated if they had to worry about the sneering of “non-womyn”. But again don’t we need to think and explore a bit more carefully before defining transwomen as “non-women”? And we need to remember also that transwomen are often often at huge risk themselves from the same male sexual violence and the same male sneering. (Some data, stats about young queers, a personal perspective.)
I do get that this is hard. I get that – especially for women who have been traumatised by men, women who have good reason to fear men, women who do in fact (as I once did) view transwomen as just men in drag – this is very hard indeed. Doing the right thing is often hard. It is still the right thing.
I keep making a connection in my mind with people who have suffered in war or conflict who are then asked to make peace with those whom they identify as their (former) enemies. We can understand if a person who suffered and was traumatised by long years in a prison camp, a rape camp, a concentration camp, if this person cannot forgive the group of people responsible for the suffering, is intensely distrustful and triggered by the mere presence of a person who looks like those people or shares their nationality… We understand, but understanding is not the same as condoning the organisation of, say, racist mental health spaces from which even innocent members of that group or nation are excluded – even members who were themselves traumatised, who fled as refugees, who reject their birth nationality and claim citizenship in their place of asylum…
I understand that this is hard. We want to protect those among us who have been hurt, who are still hurting. The question is not whether we want to protect women who are asking for safety. The question is whether we can actually achieve that by the exclusion of transwomen, and whether it is even acceptable to offer such protection when it comes at the expense of transwomen, by perpetuating the poorly analysed othering of transwomen, by ignoring the hurts and the violence that transwomen experience precisely because of their (desire to have) membership of class Woman. I don’t think so.
There is one more argument for trans-exclusion that I want to cover. It is touched upon in the Ogyn quote about “females who were raised as girls.” The idea is that transwomen, because they were raised as boys, cannot understand female oppression, that they have absorbed a degree of male entitlement that is impossible to reconcile with radical feminist women-only spaces. This is a big fat stereotype. If you tell a radical, young, woman-loving transwoman of colour that she is too dangerous and privileged to be allowed into your radfem women-only space then she will, if she is strong enough, laugh in your face. Rightly so.
Undoubtedly there are transwomen who fit this stereotype. I have come across them, or at least come across transwomen who present that way. They have a sense of entitlement that seems wholly incompatible with their membership of class (trans)Woman. A lifestory that seems to me not uncommon – and I appreciate that this is in itself a stereotype – is the story of a person who has lived and survived well as a man until middle age, a person who may be married or even have children, who is typically white and middle class, typically well-educated and/or fairly successful in their chosen (traditional, male-dominated) occupation. In middle age the person begins to feel safe enough, or desperate enough, to come out and/or transition. These transwomen certainly do have a good chance of ending up with major entitlement complexes – but it is not because they were “raised as boys” – it is because they have lived the whole damn white supremacist hetero-patriarchal male wet dream. They have experienced huge levels of race / sex / class privilege despite their (closet) transgenderism. It is hardly surprising if such a person develops an unhealthy sense of entitlement, leading to an exaggerated (but genuinely felt) outrage at the new experience of exclusion and oppression after coming out or transitioning. These are the transwomen who give transfolk a bad name: protected as they are by their whiteness, money, class, it is hard for them to have any real clue that theirs is not the only oppression in town. This lack of clue can indeed make them a potential danger – especially since they are likely to be the most powerful activists in the transgender lobby, the least desperate to stay under the radar, the most likely to turn up and protest their exclusion from women-only events.
Transwomen like this do, I think, exist.
Nevertheless, I still advocate the inclusion of transwomen in woman-only spaces. Even the entitled / privileged ones.
Let’s remember that many women – even self-professed radical feminist women – have entitlement complexes as well. Those of us who are (or in some cases have been) white, middle-class, well-educated, married, able-bodied – we too are indoctrinated into a sense of entitlement, despite our vaginas, that we must fight to recognise and abandon.
Let’s also remember that the sometimes disproportionately vocal group of entitled / privileged transwomen are not representative of all transwomen. There are some amazing, consciouis, wonderful, feminist transwomen out there. Women who have been trans since forever, women who have never felt comfort or experienced freedom in the “privilege” of being raised as a gender dysphoric boy. These are the transwomen that I want to reach out to, to welcome, to engage with, to just include.
I’d like to introduce a couple of them.
SabrinaStar, who sadly seems to have stopped blogging at Monstrous Regiment is a transwoman who showed me a lot of things. I am grateful to her. In this post on the right to be equally objectified she writes thoughtfully about why it is that transwomen squee about being called “pretty” and about why feminist WBW find that annoying.
Little Light, who I never did read as much as I should have, is another awesome transwoman. Her iconic prose poem the seam of skin and scales is so powerful and amazing that I’m going to have to insist you read it, or at least this excerpt:
What I say may be in a language incomprehensible, but there is a time for that, and it is right now, because this is a monster’s creed. It is for the cobbled-together, the sewn-up, the grafted-on. It is for the golden, the under-the-earth, the foreign, the travels-by-night; the filthy ship-sinking cave-dwelling bone-cracking gorgeousness that says hell no, I am not tidy. I am not easy. I am not what you suppose me to be and until you listen to my voice and look me in my eyes, I will cling fast to this life no matter how far you drive me, how deep, with how many torches and pitchforks, biting back the whole way down. I will not give you my suicide. I will not give you my surrender.
Read this one too. In it Little Light shares a story of what it was like one night to be (young and) transgendered and idealistic.
Read those blogs, read those posts and tell me which of these writers are “non-women”. Tell me which of them is dangerous, anti-feminist. Tell me which of them is labouring under the weight of unexamined privilege. Tell me which is a viper in our midst, too entitled / privileged to have any hope of understanding the radical feminist perspective. Can you do that? I can’t.
It is time that radical feminism did some analysis of this transphobia. It is time we tried to understand why Alison dressed in drag. It is time we learned to recognise that the boundary between male and female is not what patriarchy has taught us, and stopped abusing our power as gatekeepers of class Woman. It is time we moved away from imagining all transwomen as dangerous imposters, men in drag seeking to infiltrate our movement, our spaces.
This is difficult. I know it is. If we renounce the privilege of policing the boundaries of woman-only space, then how can we keep out the truly dangerous elements? If transwomen are permitted entry to class Woman, then where shall we draw the line? These are difficult questions. I don’t pretend that I know the answers. But not knowing the answers is not a reason to cling to our WBW privilege, to continuing excluding and rejecting the feminism of transwomen.
Working out exactly how to make a trans-inclusive woman only space may be difficult, it may be a challenge. I would like us to try and meet that challenge. Or maybe, if we don’t yet know how to do that, at least to acknowledge that it exists… Anyone?