How to address transgender issues has long been a sticking point in feminist circles. Trans women, especially, often find themselves with a conundrum: Not always welcomed into the women’s movement with open arms, they are nevertheless confronted with many of the same sexist and misogynist institutions all women face–sometimes more so because of the extra layer of stereotyping that goes along with identifying as trans.
The issue of transfeminism and what it might mean really sparked during the 1991 controversy over the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival’s “womyn-born-womyn”-only policy. But the debate over the inclusion of transgender women in the feminist movement goes back to the early 1970s and has been waged in both academic theory and all over the blogosphere. While there’s no hope that I can resolve this debate in a few hundred words, there’s no doubt that defining transfeminism and, more generally, articulating how trans and queer issues fit into the movement, should be central concerns of our feminist future.
Here’s a brief, somewhat reductive overview, focusing on three issues that seem central to the trans/feminism discussion:
- Sexism is institutionalized at birth. As Asher Bauer explains in “Not Your Mom’s Trans 101,” “Let’s start at the beginning. A baby is born. The doctor says ‘It’s a boy’ or ‘It’s a girl’ based on the appearance of the child’s genitals. […] the child is then raised as whatever arbitrary gender the doctor saw fit to assign.” On the one hand, this is often the setup for trans identification later in life, with the individual realizing that her gender doesn’t match up with her biological sex (as designated by the doctor and social conventions that elide sex and gender). On the other hand, some argue that girls face sexism from birth while boys, even if they later identify as women, do not, signifying a fundamental difference in terms of privilege and upbringing between cisgender and trans women.
- Gender is socially constructed. Expounding on an idea most famously discussed by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, Laurie Penny writes, “Not a single person on this planet is born a woman. Becoming a woman, for those who willingly or unwillingly undertake the process, is torturous, magical, bewildering–and intensely political.” Trans women have to function in the same patriarchal culture cisgender women do, so it’s not a huge leap to say that all women can stand together against inequality. However, even the term “cisgender” is a contentious one, as it suggests ciswomen have privileges (by “being able to” conform to the sex/gender binary) that transwomen do not. According to Miska, “cisgender privilege” is a fundamental misnomer because “we do not have gender privilege to begin with.”
- Feminism is about equality. This last one is the kicker. If feminism at its root is about equality between men and women, then looking out for the interests of transgender women and men should be well within the spectrum of foundational feminist concerns. For example, trans women are at a great risk of violence despite not being referenced in much of the research and programs designed to combat violence against women. Perhaps transfeminism and feminism cannot be so easily lumped together, or perhaps the controversy really revolves around theory and practice butting up against each other in an eternal struggle. On paper, trans women and cisgender women may not be ideologically the same; in life, though, don’t we face a lot of similar hurdles?
It’s important to acknowledge the potentially controversial nature of transfeminism, but if feminism can’t find a way to embrace difference while finding common ground, then what’s the point?
Part Twenty in a Women’s History Month series celebrating organizations and ideas that represent the future of feminism.