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.