Archive for the ‘gender’ Category
Toronto couple Kathy Witterick and David Stocker did the usual thing that any parents do when their new child is born, they sent out an email notice noting their new baby’s vital statistics and eye color. But what they did differently was to leave short, simple statement about their baby, named Storm.
“We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …”
Essentially what Witterick and Stoker have decided is to not assume that Storm is cisgender and to leave it to Storm to figure out whom zie is for zimself in the spirit of self determination and autonomy, free of coercive gender stereotyping.
As explained in their own words their choice was as simple as that.
On May 21st, 2011 the family was featured in The Toronto Star in a story about their decision not to coercively gender Storm. In the proceeding days the story was quickly picked up by other news outlets. Men’s Health, local Fox news affiliates, Human Events, and even The Times of India re-posted the story on their websites.
Predictably, the backlash against this act not in compliance with coercive gendering came to a head and Internet Shitstorm Machine sprang to life.
As one can imagine in our cis-centric society, the family has received an enormous amount of criticism and little praise for their parenting choices. They have been accused of making their baby in to a “social experiment”, of “borderline child abuse”, and “being amoral hippies” in commentary from a multitude of sources. This fire storm of controversy and personal accusation have all come in the name of the “the good of the baby”.
But it’s hard for me to believe that any of this criticism can be counted on as being intellectually honest or in the best interest of Storm. Storm and zir’s parents are experiencing what trans people are well used to, namely, they’re receiving criticism that is not about Strom at all. Instead, Storm and zir parents are being used by cis people as foils for their own personal conflicts, confusion and stereotypes about gender and gender relations.
Both Storm and trans people are treated as kind of an abstract concept that cis people can project their own conflicts, fears and anxieties upon. But in either case, it’s not about Storm or trans people; it’s about cisgender people’s anxieties and keeping cis -supremacy in order.
As for the criticisms and “concerns”, let’s go through the three most prevalent objections I’ve seen.
1. “This will confuse the baby and damage zim”
This argument is obviously flawed in the fact that it assumes that Storm will grow up to be cis or have a binary gender identity/expression, which of course is not to be taken for granted. It also assumes that coercively raising a child as male or female as people usually do is inherently “natural” and doesn’t do damage to people when it fact it can have the opposite effect, as borne out by the lived experiences of both cis and trans people. What Storm’s parents are doing is the opposite of coercion, they’re letting Storm to figure out zir own gender for zirself. How could allowing a child a carefully considered range of freedom be damaging?
2. “This is social experiment with a political agenda.”
Again we see the effects of cis-centric thinking at work here. The truth is that I’m an experiment, you’re an experiment and we’re all experiments of a cis-supremacist and misogynistic society. Saying this ignores that children are influenced by gender stereotypes and depictions of gendered behavior dozens, perhaps hundreds of times a day. People only notice this when someone refuses to conform to these stereotypes or decides not to teach them to their children, as Storm’s parents are doing.
Socialization can come in good and bad forms. For example many kids today are socialized in to racist ideology and behavior. Yet we don’t talk about the evils of that kind of socialization because it would challenge white supremacy prevalent in American society. And in this case, we don’t hear about objections over gender socialization until people are giving their children the free will in a challenge to cis-supremacy.
And our normative gender relations and stereotyping have an enormous political agenda, namely in defending patriarchy, heterosexism and cis-supremacy to the bitter end.
3. “The child will be bullied and harmed by others”
This is about the only argument I’ve seen that actually could honestly have concern for Storm’s welfare as a top priority. But the logic is still broken, it puts the onus on an individual who somehow different to avoid being abused on compromising their integrity at their own expense. The logic privileges that “fact” that bullies will bully over the safety of the abused and that the parents are “asking for trouble”.
Of course Storm could be bullied for not being assigned a gender at birth. But that’s far down the road and as zir’s parents point out, people could bully zim for other reasons. Bullies don’t need a reason to bully. Storm’s parents acknowledge this danger in the story and seem to be on alert for anyone who might marginalize Storm. In the end the problems with bullies are bullies, not Storm or how zir’s parents raise zim.
Though the ugly face of cis-supremacy has revealed itself with its usual speed in this episode, we need to support and honor the parenting choices of Storm’s parents. To overcome cis-supremacy we need to support parenting choices that offer the most constructive forms of freedom and flexibility to our children in order to enjoy their life to the fullest extent possible.
The saddest fact about Storm’s and zir’s parent’s story is that they simply cannot win in the cis-supremacist Catch-22. If Storm grows up to be cisgender/cissexual and of a binary gender expression people will then hail that as an example of the triumph of gender essentialism. If Storm grows up to have a non-binary identity or is transsexual, then the parents will be further demonized and denounced for somehow “brainwashing” or “damaging” Storm.
And this is what you get for non-compliance with society’s ultimate cis-supremacist agenda.
Helen has already written about this, but there’s an angle I wanted to add – something that potentially affects us all as trans people; the ease with which our lives and identities can be stripped from us and used as a public plaything.
The World now knows that both the victim and the suspect in the death of Sonia Burgess are transgender. In one of the most hateful pieces of alleged “journalism” I have ever seen on trans issues (warning, reading this reduced me to sobs and I had to resort to Valium. You have been warned), the Daily Mail casually strip both women of their identity, their dignity and their humanity.
Notice too how the legal system is doing the same. The police outed the victim, the judge apparently outed the suspect (I knew she was trans and who she was a few days ago – I was keeping quiet about it). Notice how the suspect was remanded in a male prison, notice how she appeared in court with significant male-pattern facial hair. Notice how the judge asked if Nina had “completed” her “sex change”, which is, of course, code for “does she have a penis?”. Notice how it’s reported that Nina “wished to be referred to as Nina” (probably because that is her name). Wonder whether, in allowing this information to come out in this way, the state is allowing Nina to receive a trial which is fair and unprejudiced?
And, to reiterate, notice how this woman is currently in a male prison. Regardless of her guilt or innocence, she is now being punished beyond anything I dare to imagine. I can only hope that they have her in solitary confinement, because if she is exposed to the general male prison population …
This then is what transgender people face every day of our lives – the possibility that on a whim of a policeman, or a judge, or a journalist, our identities, dignity and humanity can be stripped from us, and it can be done with impunity. Sure, in theory there is the Gender Recognition Act, the thing that supposedly protects us, only according to the explanatory notes for the 2010 Equality Act, it doesn’t – not really. It should be noted that no case has ever been brought under the anti-outing provision of the GRA – Zoe checked using the Freedom of Information Act.
The Equality Act itself makes our precarious situation in society very clear, in perhaps its most chilling part for trans people. With respect to 8 of the 9 “protected characteristics”, employers can create a position which requires someone to have that particular characteristic. You can, for example, require that applicants are female, or from a particular ethnic minority, or is a wheelchair user, or is gay.
For the last remaining “protected characteristic”, gender reassignment you can’t do this – it’s not just that there is no provision in the Act to allow a job to require a transgender applicant. No, the sense of the Act is actually reversed at this point – you can only allow a job to require that the applicant is not transgender.
And if the explanatory notes are to be believed, the mighty GRA is, in this situation, irrelevant. That bit of paper that says I’m female, my birth certificate that says the same thing; the state apparently doesn’t regard them as true, not really.
Imagine living your life faced with the constant possibility that who you are can be taken away from you, if you are a woman, that you can be dumped in a men’s prison, and also that the thing that causes you the most pain in your life can and will be dragged through the press for the public’s entertainment. That is what it is to be transgender in the UK in 2010.
There but for the grace of god go I, and all that.
I wanted to link to this post of Nix’s about the movie Boys Don’t Cry because he makes a really good point about the way trans sexualities are proscribed and flat out denied by cis expectations. It’s worth copying this out in full:
Cissexism is apparent in many criticisms of Boys Don’t Cry. In [the article under discussion in the lecture], Judith Halberstam argues that a space for trans subjectivity is at one point preserved by Lana’s refusal to look at Brandon’s genitals when he is stripped by John and Tom. However, Halberstam and other critics also claim that the film portrays Brandon and Lana’s last sex scene as a lesbian sex scene, betraying Brandon’s trans/male identity and turning Brandon into a woman/female. I don’t think that the film is that great in this regard – I particularly don’t think that the last sex scene is really appropriate after such a graphic depiction of rape. However, I’m also really uncomfortable when people describe it as a lesbian sex scene for the most part because Brandon takes off his shirt and doesn’t use a prosthetic penis*. What that assertion says to me is that the viewer can’t see (or refuses to see) Brandon as a man if they also see his breasts. It also implies that trans men are not allowed to be comfortable enough with their bodies and/or their sexual partners to have sex in any way other than fully (or partially) clothed. The underlying belief here is that if a trans person is comfortable enough with their body to be naked, then they mustn’t really be trans, and they aren’t the gender they say they are.
I think that the viewer of a trans film has a responsibility towards the viewing of trans bodies. I think they have a responsibility to step out of this cissexist paradigm and understand that a trans man in a sexual relationship with a woman is not switching from heterosexual male to lesbian (dependent on what bits of his body we see onscreen) but is, more likely, inhabiting a trans subject position. The inability of so many critics to recognise a possible trans space in Brandon’s relationship with Lana echoes a wide-spread inability to comprehend that trans bodies are legitimate, even though they do not seamlessly conform exactly to sexist, heterosexist, cissexist expectations of what bodies should be. Some people have a real difficulty understanding and acknowledging that a trans man’s body is male if he says it’s male**, no matter what kind of genitals he has. That’s cissexism, and it’s not OK.
* It is also because of the way the scene is shot, but, erm, I DON’T HAVE TIME to go into that at this point of the lecture!
** Likewise, that a trans woman’s body is female if she says it’s female.
Ironically given that trans bodies are so thoroughly over-sexualised in a cultural sense, we rarely ourselves seem to talk about what it means to have sex as an embodied trans person. What I think is interesting about Nix’s post is that he’s very clearly making the point that the meanings of trans bodies are viewed through a cis lens that the trans person in question very definitely does not share (and indeed a cis partner like Lana may not share that either). That nudity does not mean the cis “revelation” of the gender you really are. Rather, the first time I was naked with my girlfriend I felt open, because the peculiarly trans mixture of my body and my identity were accepted and valued for the complex things that they are.
“you’re still my girl,” she whispered to me as she pulled off my shirt, knowing how insecure I was about my body
Rather than a regression to cis-sexuality, it was an affirmation of my femaleness, of the legitimacy of my trans identity.
Of course, I do have body issues, though how that figures in sex does not fit the profile with which psychology has pathologised sexual trans bodies–the false binary between the over-sexualised auto-gynephile and the stone, sexless pre-op trans person who, if they can have sex at all, covers their body as much as possible and can’t bear to have their genitals touched. The reality is something else rather different, one that shifts from day to day.
And further, I think about my own fraught relationship with my penis as a pre-op trans woman, and how sometimes I re-figure it in my mind as a clit, or as a strap-on, and sometimes I don’t. How, sometimes using it feels like it undoes my identity as a woman.. and sometimes it doesn’t.
And none of this is particularly readable through a cis frame, because the meanings that I make from my body, are not the same meanings that of a cis-sexist society that can only see truth when its stories are mirrored back to itself.
On multiple occasions, when sucked into one of those soul-destroying conversations with anti-trans radical feminists about whether trans people actually have the right to alter our bodies, I’ve read a variation of this argument:
I get worried when academics and activists spend so much time discussing performativity, the possibility of multiple genders, and ways transgendering and crossdressing (before you get all up in arms–Im not equating these two) challenge gender studies and how we can create art and literature exploring genderbending, etc. etc. etc. What ever happened to the radical stuff–analyzing gender as an inequality? What ever happened to changing social structures such that people can be happy and healthy in the bodies they’re born with? What ever happened to the dreams feminists had of one day no longer having gender and its shackles?
It just seems to me that at base, trans is about not getting rid of gender. It seems to be about maintaining masculinity and femininity, when you cut to the chase. While I’m no authority on the issue, I have yet to see trans organizations or really any trans theorists and activists calling for an abolition of gender itself. I hope I’m wrong.
This is a perfect example of what I mentioned in my I Blame the Porno-iarchy post about how some feminists talk about utopian goals and neglect practical solutions. Or more specifically, how they tend to impose utopian goals on those whom the goals would affect most.
But this goes beyond that – beyond the insistence that since feminism supposedly has this goal to end gender, that all trans people everywhere must also want the same thing. That trans people must somehow fit into feminist theories about what gender is and why it exists. Per these theories, womanhood doesn’t really exist, therefore making it impossible for trans women (but not cis women) to be women. Cis women get to exist because they were born female. The reason that gender doesn’t exist is because it’s a social construct.
Social constructs include, but are not limited to: laws, governments, national borders, police powers, marriage, religion, families, property, citizenship, loyalty, love, money, cities, states, and nations. Few would argue that any of these things do not exist – people may question the basis of their existence, but the fact is that existing as a concept does not make these things imaginary, for good or ill. Similarly, gender is not imaginary. Gender is real, and part of our everyday life, again for good or ill.
This is also an incredibly patronizing attitude: The assumption that there is something inherently more valuable about not wanting to change your body than there is about wanting to change your body. That trans people would welcome a world where transitioning would never happen. That if we change our bodies, they are somehow no longer the bodies we are born with.
When they tell me these things, I feel like they’re trying to show me the true light of civilization, that perhaps they believe that transitioning is a prison that trans people are forced into. That society’s demands require us to transition, because we don’t behave like the sex we’re born into. And that when the glorious revolution comes and destroys the binary, then these demands would no longer exist, and we could exist as we truly should be, free to express ourselves without kowtowing to the oppressive medical profession.
Or in other words: This utopia that radical feminists describe to me is one in which people like me shouldn’t exist, that being trans is the result of living in an immature society. That my ability to transition, to stop living as a male, stop being seen as a boy, and start living as a woman, was anything but personal liberation for me.
Regardless of what newspapers constantly print about wheelies or people with illness or disability, I am not “Wheelchair bound”, nor am I “bound by my disease” or “bound by disability.” And I am NOT “House bound.” I say that because today, while I went down to the video store on the off chance they had released Supernatural Season 3 early (they do sometimes if it is a long weekend). The person denied that and wondered why I didn’t call and then said, “Oh….that’s right, you like to go outside.” Spoken to me as if I was some rare and unusual form of human or odd for a person with a disability.
I’ve seen multiple people with disabilities make the same point, and I have to wonder why cis people seem to see trans people as trapped by gender in a similar fashion.
But this is a cis privileged perspective: We’re asked to participate in a revolution that would (so they believe) erase us. We’re asked to put our lives on the line for a utopian ideal that is not going to come to pass. We’re blamed for reifying the gender binary despite the fact that there are six billion men and women who reify the gender binary without the need to spend tens of thousands of dollars on hormones, surgery, electrolysis, etc. It’s a cis privileged perspective that by stepping outside of cisnormative society and crossing that line – going from man to woman or woman to man – that we’re reinforcing cisnormative society.
It’s also a cis privileged position because it places “no one ever transitions” as the ideal state for society. That this ideal society is one in which “everyone is cissexual.” It erases people who are different from the norm, treats them as part of the norm, and expects them to comply. I find the idea of such a society highly oppressive.
I also wish that feminists who talk about the social construction of gender would spend some time examining the social construction of sex. And yes, it is socially constructed even if you remove trans people from the equation. Decades of surgery inflicted upon intersex infants should make this clear.
Edit: Right after completing this post, I followed a trackback to Coilhouse, and found a discussion relevant to this post.
Edited to remove a problematic comparison
Going back to the “Questioning Transgender Politics” well, I find Sex, Lies, and Feminism. This particular article is useful, because it shows one of the transmisogynistic “WBW policy” supporters comparing the inclusion of BDSM practitioners with the exclusion of trans women, allowing for some contrasting oppression . . . which turns out to be exactly the same.
First, I want to say that I’m not a supporter of MichFest, and I wish that anyone who is a trans woman or who considers herself an ally to trans women would stop going. I know that there was a boycott, and that it ended in 2005, but I am uncomfortable with the idea of allies who willingly give money to someone who makes it clear she does not see trans women as “real women.” I also feel that the policy sets an example that legitimizes the creation of DV and rape shelters, lesbian spaces, and other women’s spaces as “WBW-only,” or as I shall refer to it, “stop contaminating our womanly purity with your presence, you dirty trannie” policies, or “trans-exclusive” for short. The idea that all the women at MWMF bond primarily over having been raised as girls is suspicious, simply because that is the most convenient way to define trans women out of the festival. From talking to women who have attended the festival, they talk more generally of just being around women and not having to deal with the stuff women have to deal with every day, and that’s not dependent on growing up female.
Charlotte Croson starts with an argument depressingly familiar to those of us who have been watching the ENDA debacle:
The debate about sado-masochistic practice (S/M) at Festival has been a recurring issue. It has a new urgency in light of right wing attacks on Festival over the past year. These attacks are ostensibly aimed at sexual practices “harmful to children.” S/M sex has been – and is – displayed as exhibit number one. In truth the attacks are aimed at all women: the tactic being to make all lesbian sexuality no different from S/M, drawing no distinction between S/M and lesbian sex in any non-hierarchical form. For the Festival community, the attacks have again brought into sharp focus fundamental questions about women’s political and social community: who defines the interests of our community? Is it in our interests as women who love women to embrace, or at least leave unchallenged, S/M and Camp Trans/transgender politics? Independent of those attacks, what should we make of S/M and transgender politics(1): are they otherwise compatible with our community’s interests?
She talks about right wing attacks on the festival, and how they’re focusing on BDSM to represent lesbian sexuality. She then questions whether BDSM practice should be part of the community, whether they should be thrown under the bus because they serve as a weak point for the right wing to attack. She is discussing the supposed necessity of capitulating to hostile politics to increase lesbian acceptance. Or, as Alix Dobkin said in The Emperor’s New Gender, “isn’t being/creating our own individual version of a woman what lesbians have always been about?”
Okay, I couldn’t help myself. But seriously, should the lesbian community exclude those who make the easiest targets? Or should the lesbian community close ranks and protect all all lesbians? Believe me, I know which lesbian community I’d prefer to be in. However, this paragraph sets the tone for her essay: Lesbians are under siege!
Given that the women who engage in BDSM have been subjected to similar (but lesser) discrimination that trans women have, you’d think that maybe she’d talk about how trans women also give the lesbian community a bad name, somehow. This could not be further from the truth: She conflates Camp Trans with the right wing.
Defining our own interests is of paramount political importance for us, both as lesbians and as women. It is equally important that our community have safe space in which to engage in that process of definition. As if the right wing attacks weren’t enough of a challenge to that safe space, there is also Camp Trans – literally right across the road. From there Camp Trans activists, like the right wing activists, have attempted to define our interests as women as a function of how they define themselves. Perhaps more egregiously, Camp Trans also defines us as women in reference to how they define themselves as transgendered. In both cases, Festival space – safe space for women – has been disrupted by these external pressures.
I’m not sure what she means by “Camp Trans also defines us as women in reference to how they define themselves as transgendered,” but I have to assume this is based in the usual “What I believe about trans people is 1000% more valid than what they say about themselves” rhetoric that comes from radical feminists and “political lesbians.” Her linking of Camp Trans to the right wing is deliberate – she wants her readers to think of homophobes, misogynists, fundamentalist christians and their ilk when they think of trans women. She wants trans women defined as the outsider, the enemy, not someone who can (and does) share common cause with women and feminism, and many of whom are lesbians ourselves.
Her next paragraph makes it clear that she does not consider Camp Trans and the BDSM movement as having any stake in women’s interests, or rather that trying to define ourselves (in terms of our identity or our kinks) as being a part of women’s interests is unacceptable. She defines sexuality and gender identity as tools of male dominance, which then allows her to say that trans women and the lesbians who practice BDSM have a stake in male dominance. This is pretty convenient, as it allows her to shortcut any real analysis or need to understand either group.
Her next paragraph is ironically titled “Myth and Tactics.” This is appropriate, since it’s filled with myth about trans women and BDSM. She complains that there’s opposition to discussing these two groups in anything but positive terms. This is just a rephrase of the right wing’s political correctness argument, or “You won’t let me be mean to you!” This is ironic, because she’s trying to conflate trans women with the right wing, and using right wing tactics to do so – but then, bigoted language is never imaginative. It always takes the same forms. She earnestly writes that the only reason anyone might criticize negative views of trans women and BDSM is to silence any opposition. I mean, it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with objecting to lies about who we are and what we do, right? We’re just being too mean to them for not allowing them to openly speak their hatred and disgust. Of course, this assumes we actually have the power to do so. Spend one hour reading the MWMF forum and you will see just how little cis women are silenced when they express their anti-trans or anti-BDSM bigotry. Of course, one of those is easier to find than the other, but both have a history.
And that’s really the core of it – we object to them being mean to us, and that’s bad, and our objections are somehow mean to them – meaning that we don’t have the right to be angry about being misrepresented, demonized, slandered, and libeled. We don’t have the right to stand up and demand that we be treated with respect. Claiming our rights – our human rights – to be treated with respect is a “silencing” tactic.
She spends the rest of the paragraph establishing her version of the BDSM and Camp Trans positions on separatism, lesbian separatism, etc, criticising the form that the arguments allegedly take, and dismissing the validity of those arguments – for example, she claims that Camp Trans activists accuse trans-exclusive policy supporters of gender essentialism and gender fascism. In doing so, she brings them into her article without any context, and presents them as if they are self-evidently spurious. Having once pointed out gender essentialism on the MWMF forum, I am compelled to point out that it was in response to another poster claiming that she felt “male energy” coming from a supposed trans woman who had entered the Festival. Personally, I believe that if you’re going to insist that gender is a social construct, that you shouldn’t be using language like “male energy” to describe anything. Male energy itself implies that there’s something innate and essential about being male, and also that that there probably is “female energy” – something innate and essential about being female. Of course, arguments against trans women being women are rooted in essentialism, which is why transmisogynistic feminists spend so much time defending their interpretation – they know they’re on shaky ground when they both claim that gender is a social construct and that it is impossible for someone to be born in one sex but be comfortable and happy in the other. In other words, the cis ladies doth protest too much, methinks.
She goes on to discuss “Minorities and Rights.” She writes:
In the last several years self-identified “sex-positive” and “gender-queer” activists have formed an alliance. The alliance is not all that surprising, given the correspondence of gender ideology between the two. Each group claims to be a minority within women’s community that is discriminated against by the larger body of women/lesbians. S/M practitioners place themselves as a “sexual minority” within the presumptively “normal” lesbian sexuality of Festival. Transgender activists claim they are “gender” minorities within the presumptively “gender normal” women who attend Festival. Collectively they argue that they are deprived of the “right” to practice their sexuality and gender and that the reason they are not welcome at Festival is their transgressive views about sexuality and gender.
She doesn’t want to admit or fails to realize that there’s so many reasons for minorities to form coalitions, not the least of which is common experiences. For example, when two groups that overlap (yes, some trans people are into BDSM, some are lesbians, etc) and have a common problem, it is beneficial to ally to deal with that problem. In this case, both groups are relentlessly mischaracterized, dehumanized, and discriminated against by certain factions in Feminism – like the more extreme radical feminists who believe that all porn is rape and trans women rape women’s bodies by taking hormones. No, it couldn’t be that we have bigots like Charlotte Croson breathing down all our necks, it has to be because we share some kind of mythical gender ideology.
I also like how she implies that BSDM practitioners and trans women aren’t minorities, all the while arguing that it is right and natural to discriminate against and exclude us from the rest of women’s culture. A dictionary I checked has this to say:
Main Entry: mi·nor·i·ty
1 a: the period before attainment of majority b: the state of being a legal minor
2: the smaller in number of two groups constituting a whole; specifically : a group having less than the number of votes necessary for control
3 a: a part of a population differing from others in some characteristics and often subjected to differential treatment b: a member of a minority group
I do believe that trans women and BDSM practitioners are outnumbered by cis women and women who do not practice BDSM in the lesbian community. I also believe, based on this article that both qualify as “a part of a population differing from others . . . and often subjected to differential treatment.” For example, having a policy that specifically exists to target trans women, or campaigning to exclude BDSM practitioners. Defining trans women and BDSM practitioners out of minority status is a rhetorical convenience for someone who is in the majority – is privileged – in both respects. It allows her to set the terms of her distaste while simultaneously claiming that this dispute is on even ground, rather than her trying to wield oppressive power against two groups whom she despises.
She goes on to say that ”
The minority and rights-based rhetoric these movements employ is politically powerful. “The idea of sexual minorities has become a powerful one because ‘minorities’ can lay claim to ‘rights.’”
This reminds me of right wing rhetoric about how the homosexual agenda is about getting “special rights.” That is, a kind of rights that apparently the majority doesn’t get. The flaw in this argument is, of course, that the rights minorities seek are to put them on as close to equal footing with the majority as possible. ENDA, for example, doesn’t provide rights to GLBT people that straight people don’t get just because they’re straight – the right to not be fired over who you’re attracted to or your gender identity is something that’s automatic for heteronormative people (except when they present too far outside gender norms, like women not wearing makeup). So, the right to not be fired for not being heteronormative just extends that right to actually lose your job when you suck at it instead of because your boss doesn’t like who you prefer to fuck. Similarly, trans women aren’t seeking a special right in entering MWMF or other trans-exclusive spaces – we seek a right that cis women already receive automatically. As for BDSM, Trinity discusses whether BDSM is oppressed at Let Them Eat Pro-SM Feminist Safe Spaces.
She goes on to say that simply by virtue of being minorities, trans women and BDSM practitioners recast lesbian women who fit into neither group as fitting into patriarchal norms. In other words, her theory – as a feminist – is more important than our lived realities and experiences. And one thing I’ve learned from those feminists who hate us is that their theory must always trump the lives that appear to contradict it. She concludes that “rights rhetoric” is used to emotionally blackmail cis women into supporting these distasteful not-minority minorities, and that when they oppose us, they’re unfairly cast as oppressors.
This is one of the linchpins of bigoted feminism in general – the basic premise that women can never be the oppressor. That because women are oppressed by men, that it is impossible for women to oppress anyone else, that they don’t have the power. Earlier, she complains that pro-trans people and pro-BDSM people criticize Feminist arguments against both groups as “saying that women lack agency.” Of course, the idea that women can’t oppress is saying that – it’s saying that women are too weak to do anything. If you can’t oppress a group with less social capital than your own, what can you do? To be honest, the idea that these cis vanilla women are not oppressing BDSM practitioners or trans women is ludicrous, and smacks of newspeak. They’re trying to redefine the language – the meanings of the words used – to say that what they do is not oppression, while at the same time practicing oppression. They may as well place a sign reading “Freedom is Slavery” and “We have always been at war with Camp Transia” over the entrance gate to MWMF, given how thoroughly they practice this redefinition.
In her next paragraph, she claims that the implied gender and sexual normativity simply doesn’t exist in the lesbian community. Now, to be honest, this implication she’s drawing is based on her own prejudices and issues. She doesn’t realize that acknowledging that trans people and BDSM practitioners are distinct subgroups within the lesbian community does not force anyone to also assume that anyone who’s not trans is also not gender variant – I don’t believe most butch lesbians identify as gender variant so much as they enjoy taking on masculinity, but still see themselves as women. It does not assume that anyone who is not into BDSM is pure vanilla. There’s so many different ways for lesbians to have sex (this link includes NSFW Language) that it’s just plain ludicrous to believe that BDSM practitioners want to define a false dichotomy where you have them and you have lesbians who do it missionary style. But again, the truth here is inconvenient. In order to keep casting Camp Trans and BDSM as enemies, she has to keep piling specious claim upon specious claim, to show how our simple desire to be treated as equals means that we want to redefine and destroy lesbian culture.
She wants her readers to believe that granting that trans women and BDSM practitioners are a minority turns the rest of lesbian culture into one big homogenous block defined as oppressors. Now, I’m sympathetic. As a white person, in the past, I hated it when someone told me that I was racist or that all white people were racist. My conception of myself as a person was that I wasn’t prejudiced and I didn’t do these things. Of course, I was wrong, and I lost one of my best friends because I treated him like crap without really realizing it. I was practicing white supremacy around him, and it really hurt to admit that this was my doing. But the fact is, I had to come to terms with that, to own my own shit and realize that “Yes, I am carrying around internalized white privilege” and to question it and work on it. So I can understand not wanting to be labeled as an oppressor. Ms. Croson actually defines this label further: “. . . [BDSM practioners and trans people] create women solely as oppressors . . .” This is because it is not enough to say that we define women with an unwanted label, but that we erase everything else about these women and simply see them as oppressors. She uses this argument to justify the claim that we do not examine male dominance (although she believes both groups partake fully in male dominance) in relation to women, as well as the minority groups of women who are trans or into BDSM.
The problem with not allowing yourself to be defined as an oppressor is pretty simple: It excuses you from owning your shit. It’s like white people who claim to be “colorblind,” thus denying the reality of race relations and pretending they aren’t racist. It’s a luxury the privileged have – to ignore their own status as oppressors. The cis women who want trans-exclusive space have the luxury – with their cissexual privilege – of denying that there’s any oppression going on here, because it costs them absolutely nothing to do so. On the other hand, I can’t deny the oppression I experience, I can’t afford to. I can’t look at the MWMF trans-exclusive policy and how it’s echoed throughout lesbian and feminist culture, and say “Well, that has no effect on me” because it is aimed directly at me. I don’t have the luxury of believing cis women who not only say that they’re not transphobic, but deny transphobia even exists. Women who openly practice BDSM are in a similar position. They can be ostracized for their “patriarchal sex practices” and do not have the luxury of pretending that all of the lesbian community accepts them, or at least treats them fairly. Lesbians who don’t practice BDSM can believe that, because again it doesn’t cost them anything to deny their own agency and complicity in this oppression.
Next, Ms. Croson discusses “transgression.” One of the red herrings that comes up in discussions about trans people is that transphobic radical feminists will start attacking imaginary transgender political stances. One of those is the idea that trans people run around claiming to transgress gender, that we’re gender rebels out to smash the gender binary. They then criticize us for not actually doing this. It’s immaterial that we don’t run around claiming this, we’re judged for not doing so because, well, radical feminism would like to destroy the gender binary, and they see us as reinforcing it.
She talks about how it’s transgressive for women to choose our own sexuality, to choose sexual roles denied by patriarchal norms. And I do think that the willingness to accept yourself as anywhere on the queer spectrum is transgressive. Modern society hates gay men, hates lesbians, hates bisexuals, really truly for sure hates transgender and transsexual people. When someone who appears to be a man goes through all that effort to become a woman, society punishes us harshly – we lose friends, family, jobs. We sometimes get pushed to the point where we have to engage in survival sex work just to pay the bills and keep the hormones flowing. A trans person is more likely to be murdered than anyone else in America. This is because to society, we are transgressive. The fact that a trans man can grow a beard and be accepted as a man if his trans status isn’t known is just plain outside what many people are willing to accept as valid. But because most of us go from man to woman or woman to man, we’re accused of reinforcing the gender binary, of not transgressing the norms, etc. etc.
The other problem with this is that it conflates our desire to live our lives with political goals. Real lesbians do not declare themselves lesbian to transgress heteronormative society. Real lesbians declare themselves lesbians because we want to live our lives and not suppress who we are. This does affect our politics, but our politics do not drive this. People who practice BDSM do not practice BDSM as a political statement. They do this because that is the kind of sex they enjoy. We do not choose these things to transgress, but society punishes us for doing so because they are transgressions.
The criticism that our personal actions are not political enough, or are the wrong kind of politics, is just a way to demonize our politics. To claim that we’re invested in patriarchy, that we enforce heteronormativity. I do admit, saying that we reinforce patriarchy and heteronormativity simply by virtue of being different from that normative state and claiming minority status is one I don’t see often. “You’re so different you make us look normal!” Yeah, thank you Charlotte for telling us we’re freaks because we’re not like you.
I will continue discussion of this article in a second post.
Terrance of The Republic of T has a couple of great posts about ENDA, which he’s also cross-posted to Pam’s House Blend. For that matter, Pam’s House Blend is filled to the brim with ENDA-related posts that are worth reading.
In Terrance’s first post, LGB-T = ENDA, pt. 1, he discusses his experiences with the kind of incrementalism used to justify the removal of gender protections. He says, about the statement, “the implication of gradualism is that some people will have to continue to endure injustice without remedy,”
Its one thing to be an incrementalist and at least be honest about that last sentence. It’s quite another to declare that it is the right thing to do to ask others to continue to suffer injustice without remedy is the right thing to do, that they ought to be glad to do it, and that they are wrong for objecting to it.
That’s what’s asked of of gay folks by progressives on the marriage issue. And now that’s what gay folks are asking of transgender folks on employment discrimination, which for some transgender people is literally a matter of life and death.
That’s it in a nutshell. GLB-rights activists (for they are surely not *T rights activists) who magnanimously sacrifice someone else’s chance at fairness or equality to get theirs first aren’t really making concessions – a true concession requires you to give up something that matters to you.
Terrance continues with LGB-T = ENDA, pt. 2. Here he nails down just what workplace discrimination against trans people means. Seriously, even in San Francisco where trans people have a large number of civil rights protections, you’re looking at something like 75% unemployment. Looking at numbers like that, it’s hard to see how anyone could argue that we don’t need our civil rights yet if it means everyone else waiting an extra year or two. Because, really, unlike John Aravosis’ belief that including T could set his civil rights back decades, we were really close to having enough votes to get a trans-inclusive ENDA passed in the House, and we don’t even know for sure if we didn’t have those votes. People have observed a few irregularities surrounding the alleged whip count.
Terrance mentions how getting employment can be a matter of life or death for trans people, and specifically mentions trans women who had been murdered by men who discovered their trans status, who were in sex work to support themselves because of the difficulty in finding employment. This is called “survival prostitution.” The four women he names are trans women of color, who not only had to deal with transmisogyny, but also racism and sexism. Since transphobia and transmisogyny barely register as unacceptable to many people, it’s also more acceptable to turn up the heat on the racism and sexism.
Terrance highlights that the lack of protection for transgender people really is a matter of life or death. To call us selfish, to tell us we’re holding the gay rights movement back because we are very clear on how badly we need those rights, demonstrates a profound lack of compassion. I would like to know how many trans women have to turn to prostitution to survive, have to live on the edge of homelessness, how many have to die before we’ve earned our place at the table. Is it because the trans people who suffer most – who die most often – are trans women of color? Why is this lack of protection acceptable to civil rights “activists” like Joe Solmonese? Why does John Aravosis constantly characterize our need for these protections as selfish and demanding?
LGB-T = ENDA, pt. 3 further condemns incrementalism as a political strategy, emphasizing the cost to those whose rights are sacrificed “for the greater good.” As he states in these two paragraphs:
If Democrats and progressives are convinced that righting for legal marriage isn’t effective right now, then we need to find another way to protect our families right now, not ten or twenty or thirty years down the line. We need to do more than shake our heads and say it’s a shame that happens. If civil unions are the answer, then great. Let’s craft legislation, or pour resources into states where it’s achievable. But let’s do something besides “just wait.”
If we believe that employment discrimination transgender persons is wrong and shouldn’t happen, and an inclusive ENDA isn’t gongi to work right now, then we need to find another way to protect transgender persons right now, not ten or twenty or thirty years down the line. We need to do more than shake our heads and say it’s a shame that happens. Let’s start educating Congress on transgender issues now, get a panel of transgender persons who’ve experienced workplace discrimination in front of a committee hearing, or sitting down with key members of congress, or pour some resources into public education campaigns in key states or districts where legislators might be influenced. But let’s do something besides “just wait.”
I wish we had more voices like his.
On Pam’s House Blend, AHiddenSaint tells her personal story.
Autumn Sandeen discusses the dilemma for some representatives – whether it was worth voting against civil rights legislation in order to oppose the trans-exclusive ENDA.
Daimeon talks about picking up the pieces now that we’ve been thoroughly backstabbed and thrown under the bus.
Also, keep an eye on Donna’s ENDABlog as she posts post-mortem analysis. Donna Rose was on the HRC board until HRC voted to not oppose the trans-exclusive ENDA, at which point she resigned.
I made the mistake of getting into an MWMF discussion and used up most of my rhetoric for the day. I was also thinking about the discussion from yesterday’s post, when DaisyDeadhead asked
A lot of that is just nonsense, though… what are “real women”? A William Faulkner character made it clear that post-menopausal women like myself were not “real women” either. I can no longer menstruate or reproduce, which BTW, doesn’t bother me at all. But seriously, that is obviously what the character was thinking, yes? Lots of people have historically taken that view. Faulkner gave the character this attitude to illustrate that he was backward. Like the stuff Jennifer Roberts is saying here.
Until these terms are fully defined, as far as I am concerned, they are totally subjective and don’t mean shit.
And they won’t be… if you are going to start issuing orders like: must have uterus, must menstruate, blabbity blah, well, someone assigned female at birth and is as XX as the dickens, will STILL fall outside of your definition. As a child, I lived next to a girl born without a uterus. Poor girl, her mother told everyone and the neighborhood gossiped about her and how she would never have babies. But, it would never have occurred to ANYONE that she was not a girl. In fact, she was pretty girlie, which made it all the more “tragic” to the busybodies…
So, is it supposed to be the presence of uteruses (uteri?) or what?
I’ve been thinking about it, because, you know, transition from one side to the other, I should know definitively what “woman” is, right? Well, I don’t. I mean, I don’t have an easy answer. I know I’m a woman, just as any woman does. There’s no part of me that thinks “am I other than a woman?” and such thoughts are just nonsensical to me, like random passersby who tell me I should try being a man. They may as well shout “Banana orange rutabaga toothpaste!” for all the weird moon language they’re spouting at me.
I know someone may call this essentialist, but at this stage, I really don’t care. I’m talking about my self-awareness, not my politics.
But seriously, when I think of “woman,” I can’t distill the concept down to breasts, or vagina, or womb, or any part of the anatomy, even though those are parts of a woman’s anatomy. That reduces womanhood to, well, breasts, vagina, or womb. Even if I use all three, plus the ovaries, and name everything from the clitoris to the cervix, I’m not going to define womanhood, but I will get a hell of a lot more porn searches hitting my blog. I can’t define it as XX chromosomes. It’s bad enough to define womanhood on the basis of physical traits like breasts, but no one can see chromosomes. Plus, you have things like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome and transsexualism messing that up by giving us perfectly good XY women. Never mind chimera, who might have different genes in different organs. A woman’s liver might be XY, or heck, even her uterus.
I guess we could define “woman” by who can have babies (and thus, who menstruates when she’s not having babies). One radical feminist defined women as “the tribe that bleeds.” This fails because not all women can have babies. Yes, a healthy cissexual woman will be able to carry a baby, but if we can’t really define a woman by having a womb, then we can’t define her by the ability to give birth. We can say that the majority of women can, but those who can’t remain women. Menstruation may be a bit tougher, because it’s often described as a “rite of passage” into womanhood. But, this goes back to defining a woman as having a womb, rather than as very likely to have a womb. We still have women who do not menstruate, who are still women. If a woman can’t be defined by her body parts, she can’t be defined by the function of those body parts.
Julia Serano says on page 239-240 of Whipping Girl:
Another popular excuse for our exclusion is the fact that some trans women have male genitals (as many of us either cannot afford or choose not to have sex reassignment surgery). This “penis” argument not only objectifies trans women by reducing us to our genitals, but propagates the male myth that men’s power and domination somehow arise from the phallus. The truth is, our penises are flesh and blood, nothing more. And the very idea that the femaleness of my mind, personality, lived experiences, and the rest of my body can be somehow trumped by the mere presence of a penis can only be described as phallocentric.
It’s distressing that such phallocentric arguments, along with related arguments that harp on the idea that trans women “physically resemble” or “look like” men in other ways are so regularly made by lesbian-feminists, considering that they are based in the society-wide privileging of male attributes over female ones. In what is now considered classic research, sociologists Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna showed that in our culture, when people (both women and men) gender others, we tend to weigh male visual cues as more significant than female ones, and almost invariably consider the penis as being the single most important gender cue of all (i.e., its presence trumps all other gender cues; the presence of a vagina does not elicit a similar effect). In their words,”There seem to be no cues that are definitely female, while there are many that are definitely male. To be male is to ‘have’ something and to be female is to ‘not have’ it.” Kessler and McKenna view this privileging of male cues as resulting from male-centrism (similar to how people often favor using the pronoun “he” when speaking generically). Taking this into account, it becomes rather obvious that when cissexual women deny trans women the right to participate in women-only spaces because of their own tendency to privilege any “mannish” or “masculine” traits we may have over our many female attributes, they are fostering and promoting male-centrism.”
So we gender people by whether we see masculine traits, but this doesn’t define us as men or women. We can gender men as women or women as men for any number of reasons. Women can have visibly masculine features and men can have visibly feminine features, so perception cannot define whether the person we’re looking at is a man or a woman.
So I’m kind of stuck. I can’t define woman in a way that won’t trip me up. I could try to define man, and then pretend everything not-man is woman, but that would be stupid. Not everyone who isn’t a man identifies as a woman, even though people might subconsciously gender them as women. And, I’m stuck defining man, which I find is problematic as well. If I can’t really reduce womanhood to the vagina, or the breasts, I sure as hell can’t reduce manhood to the penis. Based on what I said about XX not being a firm definition for women, I’m stuck with not defining men as having XY chromosomes. I mean, sure, you can expect men to have those, but trans men will have XX, and you can have guys running around with XXY as well.
I think the problem is that man and woman are culturally axiomatic, and proving axioms is a pain in the ass. I also believe that gender is social – It’s not just who you are, but how you’re treated. Men are treated as men, reinforcing the man thing. Women are treated as women, reinforcing the woman thing. Trans people experience both sides of this – we grow up being treated one way, transition, and are treated the other. So, gender is something you are, but your perceived gender is how people treat you, for lack of a better phrase. To borrow one of the radical feminists’ favorite offensive stereotypes, for example, one way in which trans women show our inherent and ineradicable male privilege is by “taking up a lot of social space.” That is, we talk over other women, dominate social settings, and try to be the center of attention.
This has two elements. The first is that the man doing it has internalized that it’s okay to do this, and so he does it. The second thing is women have internalized that it’s expected* for men to do this, and let him do it. In other words, for this trick to work, everyone participates. Now, in my experience, I find that around women, no one really dominates the conversation like that. I don’t. When we talk over each other, we stop, apologize, and one of us keeps talking. We acknowledge when this happens. I’m not generalizing that all women do this, I’m just saying this is how the dynamic works when I’ve been with women and no men. When men are around, they just talk over you and when you say “Dude, wtf? I was talking,” he didn’t even realize you were still talking.
Of course, the thing is, before transition, I wasn’t the “talk over women” person. I didn’t operate that way, I didn’t have the expectation that this was the way I should deal with people, and I didn’t do it. It wasn’t a conscious thing, it’s just not what I did. Boys didn’t try to talk over me the way they would someone they saw as a girl, and I didn’t really talk over girls – if I and a girl started talking at the same time, we’d apologize and one of us would continue.
But, I’m back where I started: What the heck definitively lays out “this is a woman,” and “this is a man?” I don’t think it’s really that easy to get there from here. I don’t have a short answer, not one that encompasses all women and all men. One that accounts for the variety of men and women, including intersexed and trans people who identify as men or women but are not anatomically exactly male and female. I definitely don’t have an answer that accounts for two-spirits, genderqueers, transgender people who do not identify as strictly male or strictly female, or for those on the transfeminine or transmasculine spectrum.
I’m sure many people reading this will say “what are you smoking? I know I’m a (wo)man,” and I’ll just point back up to where I admit I know I’m a woman, and I expect most people know what their gender is, even if they don’t really think about it. I’m not talking about whether you “feel like a man” or “feel like a woman,” although people are certainly welcome to feel that way if they want. I’m not here to judge.
I know I’m a woman, I’ve known all my life – well, I knew I was a girl at a young age. I wasn’t socially seen as one, and that can really be frustrating and even traumatic, but I’m talking about what I knew about myself, not what people saw when they looked at me (although lots of people who saw me before puberty thought I was a girl, so nyah). If I trust my own self-knowledge, I guess it’s fair to trust everyone else’s self-knowledge. It’d be fair of them to trust mine, assuming they trust their own.
I realize that Daisy reached this conclusion in about 1500 fewer words.
What do you think?
*I don’t know many women who think it’s okay – it’s bloody annoying
My usual reaction when I read the more outrageous transphobic assertions is “that’s not right – it is not even wrong,” a paraphrase of a quote attributed to Wolfgang Pauli when he had to grade a poor science paper.
In that spirit, I want to address the essay, “Men in Ewes’ Clothing: The Stealth Politics of the Transgender Movement.” This essay is available on the Questioning Transgender website as well as the Vancouver Rape Relief website. I won’t be quoting the entire article, but I will reference it from beginning to end.
Stealth Politics actually elaborates on the vague and threatening language used in the introduction with slightly less vague and more threatening language. For example:
it is really an insidious form of paralyzing liberalism which translates into ultraconservatism in action.
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.
In the first quote, Karla Mantilla (someone associated with Off Our Backs) uses words intended to invoke fear and hatred: “insidious,” “paralyzing,” and “ultraconservatism.” She’s equating “transgender politics” with the likes of Pat Robertson or Strom Thurmond. This is echoed more recently when Catherine Crouch tries to imply a similar connection in Gendercator with the line about the “fundies and trannies” teaming up to force every gender nonconformist to transition into conformity. She goes on to imply that it is too difficult to challenge transgender politics, implying that putting up a website filled with hate speech about a persecuted minority is somehow a heroic resistance against the transgender-conformist tide. Of course, we get the reiteration about how dangerous transgender
people politics are to women and feminism.However, we won’t see what the actual danger is by the end of this article.
She sets out to establish a separation between mtf trans women and ftm trans men. This is important, because the dogma here is that “trans women are trying to infiltrate and destroy women’s culture and spaces” while trans men are “dupes to the patriarchy.” She’s not willing to go so far as to demonize those born female-bodied, even as they betray sisterhood by shooting up with testosterone and becoming men.
Okay, immediately after the introductory section, we get right into the probable libel:
Look at what happened at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival last year (2001). Apparently, pre-op mtfs entered the festival and disrobed by the showers where women were also naked preparing to shower.
First, this happened in 1999. Second, it was a single trans man named Tony Baretto-Neto. He may or may not have showered in the more private/heated showers for women with disabilities, but I can’t confirm either way. He wasn’t trying to shock anyone. The event is briefly mentioned here, although I came across the story on the MWMF forum. So, already, we have scaremongering about penis-flashing trans women trying to scare women in the showers, and it never happened. Did Ms. Mantilla bother to confirm this story, or did she simply accept it as true because of her disposition to view trans people as dangerous? Since this never happened, the rest of the paragraph is almost meaningless.
One of the most important things women get from going to Michigan is the feeling of complete safety from men and patriarchal rape culture. Now that safety has been eroded.
By “almost meaningless,” I mean she desperately wants her readers to believe that trans women only a short step from raping cis women at the festival. This is not an uncommon assertion from transphobes. Lucky Nkl (often of Heart/womensspace’s blog) asserted a similar idea during an infamous thread on I Blame the Patriarchy in December 2006.
Her next paragraph immediately leaps to the question of whether trans women deserve access to the festival. She’s profiling us. She has an anecdote of an incident that allegedly involved a handful of trans women, and extending that to mean that all trans women want to run around flashing their penises at cis women. Considering that the initial event never happened, and considering that Ms. Mantilla was almost certainly present at MWMF in 2001, or at least knew women who were, I think she may be prevaricating. In other words, I don’t believe she’s just passing along an urban (rural?) legend, she’s actually creating and reinforcing one solely to demonize trans women and maintain our exclusion from the festival. She’s willing to call us all patriarchal rapists* in order to reinforce the idea that we’re a danger “to feminism and women,” so I expect she’s willing to say just about anything. In other words, anything else she says really shouldn’t carry any credibility.
This is also a tactic fundamentalist Christians use when talking about homosexuality – to immediately and dramatically associate homosexuality with paedophilia and bestiality to undermine the chance for any honest discussion.
The next part is “identity as stealth politics.” Ms. Mantilla immediately makes her opinion of trans women clear:
First, one of the ways transgender mtf activists have managed to confuse lesbians who know that there is something wrong with letting men, however altered, into Michigan is through framing their position as one of identity. The argument is that they are, in some fundamental way, really a woman inside a male body. That is their identity. It is taken as a given that one must not question another person’s assertion of his or her own identity.
Mind you, in all the conversations on the MichFest forums, the arguments that have raged from IBTP to Alas to Womensspace to Fetch me my Axe to Woman of Color Blog, all the way back to the Ms. Magazine forums before they were shut down in 2004, in which trans women have tried to engage women who deny our identity and persist in imposing the male gender on us, we don’t assert. We explain. We go to great lengths to try to communicate what it is like to be a trans person, what it means to grow up with the persistent and inescapable sense that your body should not be the sex it is. We tolerate far more questioning than any reasonable person would ever allow and answer as carefully as we can because, frankly, these conversations are minefields. We’re told straight up that you can’t trust a trans person’s narrative of his or her own life – that we’re basically just telling self-serving lies, or apparently we’re not as self-aware as other human beings. We weather numerous assertions about the quality of our character, or the supposed true reasons we choose to transition. We read post after post about how transitioning is a political act, and not a personal act, and how being a trans person means not having a valid gender. And we rarely, if ever, argue that we’re a woman inside of a male body, or a woman trapped inside a man’s body (or vice versa for trans men). Those are really crude explanations for what it’s like to be a trans person, and rather crudely implies that we’re somehow prisoners inside our own bodies, which is nonsense.
The reason Ms. Mantilla frames this argument this way is pretty simple – despite her generous statement that:
Clearly, transpeople (like all people) deserve basic human rights, such as access to jobs, health insurance, respectful treatment, and freedom from living in fear of hate crimes and violence.
She immediately goes on to deny that we’re anything but men, and deny that we deserve to have our identities respected. She implies that we’re lying about our lives and our reasons for transition.
Her next paragraphs establish that radical feminists believe that gender is a matter of socialization and that many transgender people explain ourselves in essentialist terms. Now, I’ve been in these arguments, and they’re not so clearcut.
Radical feminists do throw out essentialist arguments in order to deny the validity of trans people’s gender. I’ve had a woman tell me that my lived reality and experiences as a trans woman is so deeply offensive to some radical feminists as to actually be offensive and triggering, that by saying “I’m a trans woman,” I’m imposing the entire patriarchal system of gender on women. That’s another fundamentalist christian rhetorical trick – “your existence as a homosexuality is offensive in the eyes of God” – but it’s probably unfair of me to hold that particular discussion against the author of this essay, except so far as her essay enables such bigotry.
Anyway, Ms. Mantilla goes on to say that if she must be burdened with the need to respect a trans woman’s identity as much as her own identity is respected, then it’s impossible to criticize or analyze trans woman identities, and that it sidesteps the political implications of our identities. She goes on to conclude that identity politics is a stealth maneuver that demands that others not challenge those politics.
Now, the first problem here is that she wants us to believe that she’s informed enough about trans woman identities to be able to question or analyze them. Of course, given that she’s willing to assert that there’s a real danger of trans women running around raping cis women, I think we can safely say that her understanding of trans women is perhaps a bit less than perfect. She’s also assuming that trans women don’t actually spend much of our lives examining and analyzing our own ideas, perhaps implying that we decided to transition one day just because it seemed like a neat idea.
I want to describe another group who uses a form of stealth politics to shut down discussion of a certain topic, and to insist that it doesn’t need to be analyzed or criticized. This would in fact be radical feminist transphobia. As anyone who has tried to point their transphobia out to them knows, they immediately accuse us of trying to silence them, make magnanimous declarations about how they support our need for civil rights and respect our identities, or assert very loudly that they can’t possibly be transphobic and trying to oppress trans women because “You’re men, and women have no power to oppress you.”
They also silence us by imposing their own invented narratives on us. They tell us what our motives are, why we want to transition, and how we hate women for doing so, and then they analyze and criticize those imposed narratives. They don’t have to engage us, they don’t want to. They want a target, a scapegoat.
I also want to highlight this particular statement:
And if I demand that other people respect my identity as a catholic, then I demand that they accept without protest the politics that I choose along with my catholic identity, even while I pretend my catholicism is not a political choice, only a matter of identity.
I know I keep doing this, but I can’t resist. Fundamentalist christianity asserts that homosexuality is a choice, not identity. Again and again, Ms. Mantella echoes note for note the oppressive statements that fundamentalists impose on gay, lesbian and bisexual people for her arguments against transsexualism.
She closes by questioning whether it’s possible to, by changing one’s appearance, presentation, or body, also change one’s gender. This pretty much nails that she doesn’t get trans women or men – she’s arguing against us changing our gender, and we’ve certainly never argued that we’re trying to change our gender, either. We’re changing our sex, because it doesn’t match what our brain expects it to be. She criticizes trans women for focusing on “passing” rather than overcoming internalized masculinity, which is again, a matter of her imposing a narrative of her choosing on our lives. She believes that the process of changing sex is a superficial thing, focused on how you hold your hands, how you walk, what you dress, and that prior to transition, trans women were men in an uncomplicated fashion. That’s how she speaks of us – she doesn’t acknowledge that we typically are aware of our transness from an early age, nor does she acknowledge that this could possibly affect our socialization growing up. She doesn’t believe that transness is possible because her political theory is more important to her than the lived realities and experiences of trans women and men,
She also says that this focus on the superficial instead of power dynamics, masculinity, and patriarchy shows little understanding of feminism. She’s still practicing telepathy. She seems to believe that a trans woman’s life doesn’t change in any way after she transitions, and that society still somehow magically detects she’s biologically male and extends her male privilege while simultaneously choosing not to beat her to death. She also seems to be implying that womanhood brings an innate understanding of feminism, and that trans women are somehow unable to come by this mystical, essential, understanding. I might be overinterpreting her words, but I don’t believe this is the case.
Now we get to “it’s a woman thing, you wouldn’t understand.”
This is the most offensive, patronizing, and purely racist part of the essay, and reminds me that radical feminism is first and foremost a middle-class white woman’s movement. She introduces this example:
How superficial, individualistic, and simplistic it would be for me, as a white american raised by a white family, to come to feel that I was really a black person inside, to change my skin color and other features to begin passing as black, and to demand to enter people of color space! In that case we could clearly see how outrageous such a demand would be. Being black in the United States (and elsewhere) is so much more than a matter of adopting skin color. It is an insult and the mark of privilege to miss that point so entirely.
First, this is appropriation. Ms. Mantilla uses people of color to make her point – they’re basically political tokens to generate outrage. Second, this silences trans people of color, who might have their own take on this scenario, and certainly understand intersectionalities of oppression very well. Third, she again implies that transitioning from one sex to the other is a superficial thing, which betrays her lack of understanding of trans people yet again. Given that she paints as us rapists (and yes, I will mention that again, I want to make it clear how badly she distorts us to defend her bigotry), this isn’t surprising in the least.
Anyway, Queen Emily of Sexual Ambiguities addresses and refutes this point rather skillfully, saving me the effort (and thus allowing me to put off a more detailed discussion until I have to deal with the “Trans-Race” essay). If you didn’t read this when I linked it in this post please read it now – it’s a really good post.
She then insists that trans women don’t get womanhood, and refers back to the fictional shower raid, which again undermines the point she’s trying to make (by building it on a lie), and again makes it clear she views us all as being a monolithic group of potential rapists.
The rest of the essay dealing with trans women introduces the idea that transgender politics is a libertarian movement:
The transgender movement, by dwelling so much on freedom of choice to identify as whatever gender you want, takes our eyes off the consequences of choices and the way our choices are structured by oppressive forces, in short, it does nothing to eliminate a system based on power and privilege. Such a system values competition over connection, control over cooperation, aggression over compassion, and individualism over interdependence. Freeing people from gender roles means they are free to hold whatever values they choose including the values of power: they can be controlling, disconnected from others, or aggressive if they want to.
Now, I want to emphasize here that when Ms. Mantilla talks about how transgender choices “do nothing to eliminate a system based on power and privilege,” she’s talking about a documented medical condition. The reason that Gender Identity Disorder is in the DSM-IV is because, from Harry Benjamin forward, the medical profession has dealt with us, determined that the only way to resolve the problem of having a brain that expects the body to be a different sex is to make that body as close to the desired sex as possible – hormones, surgery, and (for trans women) electrolysis. Attempts to cure us with electro-shock therapy, administering hormones, aversion therapy, or even just plain denial don’t work. In fact, we have a suicide rate pre-transition that’s five times that of the general population. What Ms. Mantilla is saying here is that her politics are much more important than our lives, and that we should be willing to subordinate our lives and our happiness to validate her politics. I find it ironic that she goes on to say that transpeople transitioning supports a system that values aggression over compassion, when her argument here is so clearly devoid of compassion itself. Who is it that values competition over connection? She’s clearly placing radical feminism in opposition to trans people, and makes no attempt to connect to or understand trans people – choosing instead to dismiss our lives in favor of her fables about us. Who values control over cooperation? She would have us subordinate our needs to satisfy her politics. Aggression over compassion? She attacks us relentlessly, fabricates stories about the horrors we’ve committed in the MWMF showers, implies that we might even be rapists, and insists that it’s selfish for us to live our lives as we must lives our lives. Individualism over interdependence? She clearly doesn’t want trans people and radical feminists to be interdependent in any way, although I’m not sure I could argue that this implies anything about individualism.
She closes by saying that she wants to dismantle patriarchy, which she implies transsexualism prevents.
Finally, for all the lip service paid to challenging gender stereotypes through transgression, there is remarkably little analysis about male power, oppression, and patriarchy in its politics. The transgender movement is really a liberal platform–a movement for inclusion in the existing social structure.
What she seems to be saying here is that a) trans women (because this entire essay is about trans women) pay lip service to challenging gender stereotypes through transgression. This is completely a manufactured position or she’s conflating what other transgender people have said with trans women. She asserts that the transgender movement is a movement for inclusion in the existing social structure.
We have to live in the existing social structure, and the odds of blowing that up are pretty low. The odds of us suffering because we have to live in a social structure that devalues people like us are pretty high. I also don’t see radical feminism criticizing people of color or people with disabilities who are involved in political activism for greater inclusion in the existing social structure. I don’t see them criticizing cis women all that harshly, either for this particular reason. In fact, I only see them criticizing trans people who are actively punished by the existing social structures for transitioning – losing jobs, family, life. She doesn’t want to acknowledge that transitioning for trans people is a matter of survival, not politics.
She finishes the trans woman part of the article with a discussion on why inclusion is bad. Like with most of the other sections, she begins by lobbing a fallacy into the discussion – this time, she starts with another racial argument:
I have always been skeptical of the sudden interest in “equality” evinced by white people who feel that affirmative action is not fair to whites. The argument goes, after all, if we want equality between all kinds of people, shouldn’t we start treating all people equally now? This strikes me as self-interestedly disingenuous. It is like a basketball game in which one team is forced to play with one hand tied behind their back until half time. At half time the score is accordingly drastically uneven. Then, after half time, when the first team finally gets to use both hands, the second team says it is unfair to ask to even the score–after all, shouldn’t the score be tallied purely on merit, shouldn’t they be treated equally? Funny how the second team didn’t feel merit and equality were so important during the first half. Acting as though equality has been already reached and now needs to be extended towards the oppressor group belies how pervasive racism still is and is a way of undermining efforts to challenge racism.
Now, this has absolutely nothing to do with anything, unless she’s equating cis women to the oppressor group and trans women to the oppressed group – but she’s not. She’s again trying to coopt racial issues to defend her transphobia. She goes on to discuss how women’s space is a powerful thing under siege from the right wing and the GLBT movement, and that women don’t even get one whole week without men (which is her code for “trans women”) trying to force their way in and ties it back to attempts by white people to abolish affirmative action. Of course, as I point out in a backwards way above, this argument really only works if she assumes trans women are a privileged class. That we’re the white people demanding an end to affirmative action. The only way she can assert that we are privileged is to completely ignore the oppression we experience, but that’s not an unusual radical feminist stance. This discussion on Fetch me My Axe features a radical feminist saying
You play the victim card every chance you get. Some of you claim you are MORE oppressed than other women.
The very idea that trans people suffer worse oppression than cis women is unthinkable to the radical feminist mindset espoused here. Women are seen as the most oppressed class, which is such a problematic position it is impossible to defend without pretending race, class, disability, sexual orientation, and transitioning do not exist. This is why many say that radical feminism (or feminism in general) is largely a middle-class white woman’s movement. Trans women cannot possibly be more oppressed than cis women, despite the fact that we have to deal with how society treats women, plus how society treats trans people. This goes back to the convenient myth that trans women experience uncomplicated and total male privilege after transitioning, which the above quoted paragraph stealthily tries to assert.
And now it’s time for another dose of fear, uncertainty, and doubt:
As for inclusion and nondiscrimination at Michigan, of all places, that would destroy the very meaning and soul of the festival. The whole point of the festival is to get a chance to experience life without male oppression or the fear of male violence. If the festival operated under the idea of inclusion, why wouldn’t we just invite in those guys who ride cars up and down the road outside the festival trying to get a glimpse of naked women? If we want inclusion, why go all the way up to rural northern Michigan–we can stay at home and simply go to a diverse public gathering of any sort. Inclusion is the very opposite of the whole Michigan experience. Excluding men is the point: it’s what makes it the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and not a shopping mall. If having women’s space just once a year for a week in one place in this country is so threatening that the boys have to find any way they can to destroy it, I say let’s have more of it! Fuck inclusion! We’ll have inclusion when we live in post-patriarchy.
First, inclusion would destroy the meaning and soul of the festival. Allowing trans women into the festival would shatter it to its foundations. The goddess herself would burn the place down with a flurry of lightning bolts and meteors. Never mind that trans women have been attending the festival for years without such terrible consequences. She goes on to reiterate the ludicrous notion that a trans woman in the festival is a potential rapist, regardless of her op status. She follows with a slippery slope argument: If we let the trannies in, why don’t we just go invite a bunch of men in, because of course, there is absolutely no difference between a trans woman and a cis man.
She finishes by continuing to imply that trans women are men, thus absolving her from the cognitive dissonance of trying to defend the idea that a space for women should exclude some women. It’s okay – we’re not really women! Of course, given that she also says we’re rapists, that we don’t examine our own identities, politics, and choices, that we try to silence any discussion when we’re actually trying to explain ourselves, we can safely say that she’s ignorant enough about trans women that she’s not qualified to assess whether we’re even human. In fact, I would say that it’s fairly clear she does not view us as fully human, given the lengths she goes to in order to describe us in dehumanizing and occasionally monstrous terms.
I have a whole other essay on how the MWMF exclusionist policy supports discrimination against trans women in other areas of life as well as permanent woman-only spaces, which I’ll get to someday soon.
This ended up longer than I expected, so I will address the FTM portion tomorrow.
* Edited for TMI: In the short version, estrogen + penis = difficult to achieve erections. You’re in more danger from a dildo.
Additional note: This is applicable to checking any kind of privilege. If you’re called on saying or doing something oppressive – sexist, racist, homophobic, and so on – then the same principles apply. If an oppressed person tells you that you’re being offensive, check yourself.
Ampersand of Alas, a Blog, posted an article for white people, explaining how not to be defensive when accused of racism. In the spirit of that essay, I would like to explain to cisgendered people how not to be defensive when accused of transphobia.
I see this all the time. Someone makes a bigoted transphobic or transmisogynistic comment, is called on it, and immediately claims that accusations of transphobia are silencing tactics, or they claim that we’re saying any disagreement with a trans person is automatically equal to transphobia. This is similar to the ““you’re playing the race card” counter accusation, which is a silencing tactic:
Recently, I was asked by someone in the audience of one of my speeches, whether or not I believed that racism–though certainly a problem–might also be something conjured up by people of color in situations where the charge was inappropriate. In other words, did I believe that occasionally folks play the so-called race card, as a ploy to gain sympathy or detract from their own shortcomings? In the process of his query, the questioner made his own opinion all too clear (an unambiguous yes), and in that, he was not alone, as indicated by the reaction of others in the crowd, as well as survey data confirming that the belief in black malingering about racism is nothing if not ubiquitous.
It’s a question I’m asked often, and which I answered this time in much the same fashion as I have done previously: First, by noting that the regularity with which whites respond to charges of racism by calling said charges a ploy, suggests that the race card is, at best, equivalent to the two of diamonds. In other words, it’s not much of a card to play, calling into question why anyone would play it (as if it were really going to get them somewhere). Second, I pointed out that white reluctance to acknowledge racism isn’t new, and it isn’t something that manifests only in situations where the racial aspect of an incident is arguable. Fact is, whites have always doubted claims of racism at the time they were being made, no matter how strong the evidence, as will be seen below. Finally, I concluded by suggesting that whatever “card” claims of racism may prove to be for the black and brown, the denial card is far and away the trump, and whites play it regularly: a subject to which we will return
I’m not claiming that transphobia is identical to racism here, but there are parallels from one oppression to the next. One of them is denial when faced with the evidence of your own privileged actions. When people are faced with evidence of their own privilege, their first reaction is to deny it, and attack the person confronting them.
On the other hand, it’s a false analogy to equate manhood and womanhood to blackface, as if our gendered bodies are something we can take off every day when we finish with them. Second, you’re trying to appropriate racial oppression into your objections to transgenderism. Third, the blackface comparison silences trans people of color, as it denies their insights regarding race and gender.. Queen Emily covers this in more detail on Sexual Ambiguities.
Here’s my guide for cisgendered and cissexual people on how to not be defensive when accused of transphobia:
1) “Cisgender” and “cissexual” are not slurs. Many people who are known for expressing the most transphobic views in public, react very badly to the term “cisgender,” claim that it is a slur, that it is imposing gender on them. It’s none of these things – it simply means “someone who is not a transgender person.” However, saying that it is a slur is transphobic, because if “cisgender” is a slur, then how can you justify “transgender” as anything else? Imagine if “heterosexual” or “white” were considered slurs.This is an othering tactic – by claiming that “cisgender” is an offensive slur, you’re saying outright that you’re unwilling to allow trans people to stand on equal footing with you. That you’re normal and they’re deviant. They need a label to define who they are, while you should be free of labels, because not being transgender is assumed, in just the same way that not being homosexual is assumed in straight society. Also, notice how we can say “straight society” without being challenged?
2) Breathe. Stay calm. Stay civil. Don’t assume that because someone criticized your action as transphobic that this means they’re saying you’re a bad person through and through. Your first reaction is probably from your defensiveness, not your brain. You probably should not respond with whatever first comes to mind. If you immediately try to shut down the conversation because of the criticism, you’re attempting to silence the person making the criticism, rather than listen.
3) Take the criticism seriously. Do not dismiss it out of hand, especially if the criticism comes from a trans person. Trans people tend to be more aware of transphobia than most cis people are. This is because transphobic attitudes are often a matter of life and death – the ability to find a job, get housing, not get murdered, that sort of thing. Trans people do not find great enjoyment in randomly accusing people of transphobia, and would rather not have to bring it up. On the other hand, please do not appeal to other trans people to justify your words.
4) Don’t Make It About You. The best thing to do is apologize for what you said and move on. Resist your desire to shift the conversation into a lecture on How Against Transphobia You Are or How Accusations of Transphobia Are Just Silencing Tactics to Shut You Up The subject of the conversation is probably not the many trans people you know, and your deep and abiding acceptance of their life choices.
5) Don’t Make It About Your Accuser. Just as you shouldn’t try to defend how you’re not transphobic, you should not also try to turn the criticism around and attack the person who accused you. Don’t tell them they’re trying to silence you – they’re not, they’re trying to tell you how your words and actions hurt them. Don’t tell them they’re driving you away. Don’t make the accusation that “any disagreement with a trans person is labeled as transphobia.” None of these things are true, and trying to claim they are is simply an attempt to stop others from pointing out your transphobic behavior. This ties back into point #2.
6) Don’t Hate the Sin, Not the Sinner. Don’t try to justify your actions by claiming you’re opposed to transgender politics. Just don’t. You’re rationalizing your transphobia and imposing your worldview on trans people, by assigning motives and politics to them that they may not themselves have. Don’t say that the very existence of trans people is offensive and traumatic because they supposedly defy the idea that gender is a social construct, or something imposed upon you, or whatever your particular theory is. You’re not dealing with theory, you’re dealing with human beings, and their lives. To you, the question as to whether trans people have valid identities may be a matter of theory. For trans people, it’s a matter of life and death.
7) Let Occasional Unfair Accusations Roll Off Your Back. Sometimes, even after serious thought, you’ll decide that the criticism was unfair. Great! Now please let it go. Don’t enlist trans people to certify you as Officially Non-Transphobic. Don’t bring it up again and again, weeks or months after everyone else has moved on forgotten about the original incident. In other words, see point #4.
Don’t make an epic confrontation out of the fact you were criticized for transphobic statements. Apologize, move on, and consider the criticism seriously so that you can improve your thinking if necessary.
Final Note: This is a work in progress, and some of the rules are a bit close to Ampersand’s rules. I would love suggestions on improving this essay.
Other Final Note: If anyone would like to reproduce this, please feel free, but link back to this page and give me credit.
Other Other Final Note (Edit): Removed ableist language.