Why Feminism Can't Afford To Ignore Transgender Women
"I often feel failed by feminism," says a trans activist. It's about autonomy.
The British feminist Julie Burchill this week accused transgender activists of being interlopers who "have your cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women," prompting a backlash so fierce that London's Observer newspaper removed the piece from the web.
But while Burchill cast trans women as a threat to feminism, the real threat is attitudes like hers, which could weaken the entire movement.
A subset of radical, essentialist feminists have for decades believed that transgender people are merely deluded or mentally ill for decades. Germaine Greer, whose The Female Eunuch electrified the movement in 1970, complained in 2009 that "other delusions may be challenged, but not a man's delusion that he is female." Sheila Jeffreys, an Australian feminist who has long criticized sex reassignment surgery, told BuzzFeed Shift that "being a woman is not a matter of gender identity. It's not a matter of what's in the head." To her, womanhood comes from being born in a female body "and experiencing the harms of being a woman in a patriarchal society."
Their views would mean less if feminism were simply a niche movement for a certain subset of women with particular views on biology and identity. But it has come to stand for gender justice in general — and, crucially, for bodily self-determination. It can't do that with any legitimacy if it tries to keep trans women out.
"I often feel failed by feminism," says writer and trans advocate Janet Mock. She adds, "Any woman's right to self-identify is a personal freedom I fight for, and those women who claim trans women are not women are perpetuators of gender-based oppression, and all feminists should be upset and moved to action against this."
She believes that all the issues feminists care about, including abortion, matter greatly to trans people too: "Reproductive rights are about body and medical autonomy, our collective and deeply personal right to choose what we want to do to/with our bodies. Trans people and feminists should be building natural alliances here."
This is an issue of consistency as well as inclusion. A central tenet of feminism has long been that a woman and she alone should have control over her body. To argue that the gender of said body isn't covered by this — that it should instead be determined from the outside — is an increasingly untenable position.
Many younger feminists seem to grasp that the movement can't move forward if it ignores trans women's concerns. Caitlin Moran, whose 2012 book How to Be a Woman has already become a central text of a certain strain of feminism (and who has been criticized herself for using the word "tranny"), says, "Someone saying to a transgender woman, 'You're not a proper woman because you weren't physically born a woman' is like someone saying to me that I'm not a proper woman because I've had an abortion, or have a job, or can't walk in heels, or think Ryan Gosling looks like a bit of a donk." She adds, "I think the relationship between feminism and transgender women should be absolutely sympathetic, arms-slung-around-shoulders and all-on-the-same-side. We're all gunning for the same thing — equality, feeling comfortable in our own skin, not automatically cringing or feeling unworthy or 'other.'"
Still, s.e. smith, a writer on gender and disability issues, points out that discrimination against trans women "is hardly 'just' an old guard problem" — as long as feminists are still slamming trans women and being published in major newspapers, the issue will remain current.
And it won't be enough for feminists to make a few token gestures. Says Mock, "When I hear discussions centered around 'How can we be more trans-inclusive?' (and this goes for the mainstream gay movement as well) or 'How can we involve more women of color,' I honestly get irked. [...] Why aren't we intuitively in the fiber of gender justice? Trans people shouldn't be a vain add-on to your movement."
She offers a prescription for what feminists can do instead: "When you hear anyone policing the bodies of trans women, misgendering and othering us, and violently exiling us from spaces, you should not dismiss it as a trans issue that trans women should speak out against. You should be engaged in the dialogue, discourse, and activism that challenges the very fibers of your movement."
Otherwise, they risk a fragmented, weaker feminist movement.
"I think few people take the stance of leaving feminism altogether, but there might be more of a rise in smaller feminisms and a turn away from a very specific vein of mainstream feminism," warns smith.
And mainstream feminism has come to feel exclusionary to a lot of people. Trans feminist writer Paris Lees writes, in a response to Julie Burchill's piece, "Most of my female friends in their 20s are feminist too, though few call it that." Not all young women who refuse to identify as feminist do so because the movement's too narrow, but the idea that there's one way to be feminist is a major culprit. Says Moran, "Arguing for the 'right' kind of feminism is what's put the last two generations off."
Meanwhile, trans activism, though it still struggles against widespread discrimination, has been moving towards the mainstream. High-profile trans celebrities like Lana Wachowski and Laura Jane Grace may not have changed things for all trans people, but, Mock says, their transitions have helped "place well-known, familiar faces and stories on the movement."
So while feminism's acceptance of trans women is an issue of simple justice, it's also key to the future of the movement.
"As far as I'm concerned, everyone's welcome in the Lady Party," says Moran. "Pull up a chair."
But it will take more than words to make that a reality. If feminists want to keep a big tent, they're going to have to directly challenge those in its midst who want to keep some women out.