Ms. Blog: How do we navigate trans issues within feminism, and how can we better deal with those who ascribe to cisnormativity/cis dominance within the feminist movement?
Emily: It’s not just about respecting trans people’s identities, which is important, but that the language that cis feminists use has institutional consequences. Feminism is a discourse that appears in the university, in the health care sector, in violence shelters, and so on. Organizations frame their policies in relation to [language], drawing the line between the included and excluded. So it matters if our language suggests trans people are outside of the remit of feminism, because then we frame trans people as being outside of the university, the homeless shelter, the shelter from violence. Trans people become constituted outside of the field of worthiness of feminist employment, protection and care (and this is of course intensified by sexism against trans women and by racism against trans people of color).
So because of the historical burden of transphobic exclusion from institutions, it’s not enough to just use “woman” in an unmarked sense and expect that trans women, for instance, will automatically know that it includes them. Why would we? So often it hasn’t. And similarly, “women and trans” has quite often meant in practice “cis women, trans men and female-assigned genderqueers.” It doesn’t matter to me whether a shelter uses “transgender” or “transsexual” women in the way it describes inclusivity, but it matters that it is made explicit.
Monica: Yes, all of this Emily! In a recent piece I wrote that “women and trans” often means “women or trans.”
I think it’s important for us to note that for trans women [there is] staggering unemployment; exclusion from academia; exclusion from higher education, period’ and harassment from law enforcement, medical professionals, legal professionals. We have wildly high rates of poverty and attempted suicide. Homelessness rates are absolutely high, wildly high assault/violence rates and our reported sexual assault rate is off the charts at 3 in 5. With such organized, institutional, systemic and social oppression and exclusion, and with so much cultural enforcement (and violent enforcement) keeping the system the way it is, it’s troubling when feminists do not listen to trans people, and trans women especially, when we tell them these things.
I think the problem for a lot of cis people in general and cis feminists especially is that trans feminism is still really young, and so [the] discourse is really heavy. Debates get heated over language use and the words we use, and the discourse changes directions in ways that to cis people can feel like the wind. But I kind of feel like trans feminism is trying to mature as a movement, and part of that is sometimes a lot of theory-heavy stuff that focuses on the words we use and why we use them. When I mention casually to a cis feminist my dislike for certain words, or my preference for others despite popular usage even among other trans feminists, I usually get a lot of pushback and discomfort. Whereas from trans feminists I usually get interest and fascination.
Emily: We should note the role of the cis expert in this–the Cis Person Who Knows About Transness–who ventriloquizes us, who translates for us, who speaks for and over us. We need all the allies we can get, but there’s a danger of having cis people only talk to each other, and of cis ideas and research remaining definitive and agenda-setting.
But it’s not just about whether our voices are being heard. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides said the highest form of gift is to give someone the means to strengthen themselves so they no longer need help. Are cis feminists employing trans people? Commissioning writing? We very definitely need some material support. Oh, and I wanted to add that it shouldn’t just [be]: Get a trans person to talk trans issues, niche filled. Many of us have been involved in reproductive rights activism, or disability activism or all kinds of intersections. We can do much much more than just talk trans, you know?
Avory: I think that there are a lot of cis feminists who “support trans rights,” but that’s very much surface support. Trans people aren’t being included in many feminist discussions. We need to get to a point where trans people are talking about feminist issues as valid participants in every conversation, and it’s not just about our gender identity. Priorities also shift for people with many identities, depending on the situation. So just as feminist women of color have frequently spoken up against young white college-educated feminists who try to push anti-racism struggles to one side of feminism, it’s valid for trans women of color to criticize feminism for not including trans women, white trans people for not including people of color, etc.
Monica: I’ve said this before–I can’t stop being any of my intersections. I’ll always be Latina, I’ll always be trans, I’ll always be a “former” sex worker. That means that when I speak on any issue I’m speaking from a lens that has been shaped by the whole of my experience, just like everyone does. So when a cis woman of color speaks on anti-racist stuff, she is speaking as a cis woman of color; when a trans woman of color does it, she’s speaking as a trans woman of color.
I think if we recognize that there is no “unbiased” point of view, that there is no “objective” perspective on any of these subjects, then we can approach things with the recognition that many of us have many things to say on many subjects. I’m not defined by my oppression, and neither is anyone, but all of those things, all of my intersecting placements, are a part of me. And to deny that, as many of us do, is to erase the whole of me.
This is Part 2 of a three-part discussion of trans feminism by trans feminist bloggers. You can find Part 1 here; stay tuned for Part 3, on whether gender is a spectrum and how cis feminists can be allies.