The relationship between the trans community and the feminist one has been riddled with frustration, anger and accusations of exclusivity. Despite myriad challenges, however, there are those who feel that trans issues and feminist issues can co-exist and even that they naturally intersect. I recently conducted a roundtable with four trans feminist bloggers on this topic; here’s the first part of that discussion.
Meet the bloggers:
Emily Manuel, 31, lives in U.S. and Australia
Emily Manuel is a Greek-Australian becoming-Jewish writer, editor and sometime academic. She is editor-in-chief Global Comment and her work has also appeared at Questioning Transphobia, Tiger Beatdown, Billboard magazine, Bitch magazine and elsewhere.
Blogging for: Most of a decade.
When not blogging: Works as an adjunct academic, freelance journalist and does housework.
Post Pride: Post on Breanna Manning, and a story she did for Alternet on the stealthy privatization of Medicaid.
Monica Maldonado, mid-late 20s, lives in U.S.
A Latina & queer trans woman, she writes on trans feminism “from my lens, sometimes in a critical theory kind of way and sometimes very informal and casual tone.” Read her work at TransActivity and Cisnormativity.
Blogging (about trans feminism) since: February 2012
When not blogging: She does things. Also, a former sex-worker.
Post Pride: Democrats: “Shhhh, Don’t Mention The Trans Women!”
Avory Faucette, 27, lives in Baltimore and works in Washington, D.C.
“Radically Queer is an opinion blog where I talk about queer/trans identities & movements, intersectionality, law, policy and human rights. Queer Feminism is a collaborative website that frames feminism as radical opposition to patriarchy and challenges “feminist” positions that actually support patriarchy by engaging in oppression against various groups.
Blogging for: About four years in the social justice sphere.
When not blogging: Director of Operations, National Center for Transgender Equality (any opinions expressed in this round table are not NCTE’s)
Post Pride: Day of the Girl: The Right of Trans* Girls to an Education & Queer 101: LGBT Terminology and Saying What You Mean
Stephen Ira, 20, lives in Yonkers, N.Y.
“I write about power structures and privilege as they relate to gender and sexuality and I’m committing to being intersectional or being bullshit! Since I’m an anthropology and literature student, I try to bring analytical tools from those disciplines as I look at trans bodies and voices in media and various social spaces. I bring my perspective as a gay trans man, often talking about the alienation gay trans men experience from cis gay male spaces and communities. I also speak about my efforts to work in solidarity as an ally with people of color, physically disabled people and many other marginalized groups whose oppressions I do not share. Right now, I am spending a lot of time asking my fellow trans men to check their male privilege within the queer movement.” Stephen writes for Supermattachine! and blogs for the trans male quarterly, Original Plumbing.
Blogging since: About 2011, but it was his piece criticizing Chaz Bono for misogyny last November that drew attention to his writing.
When not blogging: He writes poetry and fiction, with poems forthcoming in Specter Magazine and the online component of an anthology of trans and genderqueer poetry. Also a full-time college student studying anthropology and literature.
Post Pride: This post on alienation and estrangement between gay trans men and gay cis men and this one about why trans men shouldn’t try to reclaim the word tranny.
Ms. Blog: How did you come to call yourself a feminist, and what challenges have you found in identifying as both a feminist and somebody outside the traditional gender binary?
Emily: I honestly don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel outraged by the inequitable treatment of women in this world, but I grew up when the backlash was already full in swing so I don’t remember calling myself a feminist until I went to university and met other badass feminists.
Monica: It took me a very long time to feel comfortable with the feminist label. Feminism’s long history with being transphobic, cissexist, heterosexist, racist and ableist put me into a position for quite some time of feeling that it “wasn’t for me,” and besides, I’d rationalize, all [feminists] wanted to do was live on some lesbian-only island and reassert old power dynamics with them at the top! Sure, I was outraged at the way that not only I was treated as a trans woman, but how all women were treated. But I wasn’t going to go that far! I’ve never had formal higher education, so I was never afforded the opportunity to engage with feminism in that context. My context was through my library card. Being a lone girl, with no family, and resources on the streets can kind of lead one to curse the entire world rather than just one subset of it. (Hey, I was already thinking intersectionally and about the kyrarchy and I didn’t even know it!)
Then as I came of age, I slowly was exposed to more of the human side of feminism vs. the straw-feminism that “outsiders” often see. Ultimately, I became ambivalent towards it, still feeling that the movement wasn’t for me. [I felt my] intersecting placements put me squarely outside [the feminist] mission. But, Emi Koyama’s “Transfeminist Manifesto” kind of changed all that for me. When I read that, I’d say, is the moment I became a feminist. Once I realized it wasn’t as monolithic, that feminism could be for me too, I began calling myself a feminist.
These days, however, I’m far more likely to call myself a trans feminist than a feminist, as it helps to clarify that I think about intersectionality, trans/gender theory, social context and pressure, and other areas of interest from a point of view of inclusion rather than exclusion. I feel that if I call myself a trans feminist, people are more likely to understand [what] I mean and that helps me distance myself from the trans-exclusionary feminists or just that history in general (history that is still very fresh, and we still experience repercussions from).
Emily: I’m going to be difficult here and state that I am not outside of the gender binary. I’m a woman, a woman who is trans. I occupy a different space in the cultural imaginary than that of a cis woman, but I am a part of that binary nevertheless. That my female life/body/psyche is invalidated and placed outside of the binary is an effect of relative powerlessness, not of the truth of my sex-gender. So to answer the question of challenges, I think that combating the vast amount of misunderstandings about what transness is and is not is first and foremost. These misunderstandings reach right to the heart of how we imagine sex, gender, culture, biology and sexuality. So it is a long, painful, but necessary work.
Ms. Blog: I struggled with how best to frame/word that question (and clearly did not achieve success with it!). I ended up wording it “traditional gender binary” with hopes of focusing more on the “traditional” part, but I can see how even that isn’t the best way to phrase it. What would be a better term/phrase to use?
Emily: Well I think “trans*” would cover it adequately–that covers transgender and transsexual, and hence both binary and non-binary positions. I can see where you were going with the emphasis on traditional, but the assumption that trans men and women are outside the binary (nonconsensual third-gendering, as Julia Serano calls it) is itself a common enough idea that I definitely want to redirect away from. But hopefully productively so.
Monica: Just like Emily, I’d like to mention that I as well have a placement that fits within the di-gender system. I place myself as a woman, and I, typically, am placed there by others. Though I’d disagree that “trans*” necessarily includes non-binary identities, as I’m loathe to coercively label anyone, or at the very least the little star doesn’t seem to add much inclusion as without, since it all seems largely contextual.
I’d also like to mention that I have a contention with the term ‘identification.’ For example: I’m loath to make racial analogies. I don’t identify as Latina, I am Latina. Even [if] not a single person in the world recognized me as such (or placed me as), it wouldn’t change the point of fact that I am Latina, and I place myself as Latina. It is, perhaps, the fuzziness of the term “identify” that makes it a bit contentious to me.
My earliest exposure to feminism was some awfully transphobic and cissexist stuff. And many of the writers of that content are not only still active in writing but still very active in being listened to as feminists and authorities on trans lives and experience. So I have a lot of internal struggle with that. My placement as a woman demands I’m a feminist, but my placement as a trans woman facilitates and sometimes necessitates my exclusion from it.
There are remarkable obstacles to overcome as a trans woman in this world, and reduced access to financial liberation, education, academia [and] ownership of one’s own body often times creates a systemic and institutional exclusion of trans women from the feminist conversation before we can even say the word. So, since so many cis feminists have politely and not so politely asked me to leave ‘their’ feminism, I’ve become fairly content fighting to smash the kyrarchy and root for all women, cis and trans, from the lens [of] trans feminism.
Stephen: I was raised by a staunchly feminist mother! From when I was very small she and my dad talked to me about feminist heroes like Abigail Adams and Emma Goldman. So I’ve been calling myself a feminist from day one. While I’m grateful that I knew from a young age about the evils of patriarchy, I’d like to note that the ability to have identified uncritically as a feminist is a sign of privilege, considering the problems with white privilege, able-bodied privilege and various other oppressive tropes in feminism.
When I came out as a trans man I briefly felt alienated from feminism–but keep in mind, I was 14 and was thus feeling alienated from pretty much everyone! I saw people out there who believed that I hated myself and had internalized misogyny sheerly by virtue of my identity. Nonetheless, the belief that feminism had ideals of justice at its core carried me through that time. Nowadays, I describe myself as a trans feminist because, well, I’m trans and a feminist, and also to make clear that I’m not one of those dodgy female-assigned trans people who’s cool with playing Mich Fest. By saying “trans feminist” I align myself with the people who are fighting cis supremacy in feminism.
Sometimes I am terrified by feminism. That has been my biggest challenge–fear. For myself, I fear bloggers like Dirt, who outs (and violently bullies) trans men on her blog at great personal risk to them. And far more so, I fear for my trans woman sisters: I fear people like Mary Daly, Janice Raymond and their acolytes, who wish to morally mandate trans women out of existence. In the process, they undermine the feminist project for all women, cis and trans, by supporting biological essentialism and failing to recognize the fundamental right all humans have to control their own bodies. The dominance of this kind of thought scares me because in it I see the potential demise of a movement for justice through its refusal to grow, change and include everyone. It scares the hell out of me that I might one day have a daughter who would inherit a cissexist, non-intersectional, biologically essentialist feminism.
I’d like to problematize the term “gender binary” a little here. While I am a man, I am a trans man and I am a fag, and these identities impact and modify my maleness. So I feel that I’m located on a spectrum of maleness, rather than simply occupying one space in two categories. That said, I’m perfectly comfy checking the little “M” box on paper, and I do carry binary privilege! I just wish that we had an understanding of maleness that was more expansive, that’s all, because I don’t think I’m doing the same thing as other men gender-wise, with my ensembles of workboots, red lipstick, ties and lace gloves.
Avory: I didn’t identify as a feminist until I was 24 or so and in law school. I couldn’t relate to a movement I thought was mostly about things like equal pay between men and women. I started reading blogs like Feministing and I began to connect feminism with my passion for human rights and things like queer issues, immigration, prison reform and critically challenging all kinds of structural oppressions. I then had a couple of years of obnoxiously telling everyone that they were feminists because of their beliefs whether they liked the term or not, because I thought everyone was like me–they really cared about feminist issues but just didn’t realize it. It wasn’t until I got involved heavily with trans rights that I realized how completely valid it is for folks not to identify with that term, and how badly some feminists have treated people of color, trans people and others, particularly those with intersecting identities. I also realized that many of my third wave feminist heroes aren’t so heroic, and that it’s my responsibility as a privileged white person to make feminism better by addressing crappy behavior even when the perpetrators are my friends, prioritizing the needs of the most marginalized within and without the movement and addressing structural inequalities. Creating the Queer Feminism site is part of how I’m doing that, but there’s a lot more I need to do, and a lot of listening I need to practice.
I could answer this in either the original or the updated wording, since I do happen to be a nonbinary trans person. I’ll do a bit of both.
I’ve found that feminist cis women tend to forget about trans people a lot when it comes to language. Trans people are seen as allies, not an important part of the movement. To me, it’s very obvious that ending patriarchy includes ending strict gender roles–meaning that all genders are okay, from the high femme trans woman to the macho macho cis man to the loosey goosey agender androgyne. Part of that is thinking carefully about whom an issue actually affects. So when you’re talking about menstruation, not all women menstruate and not all menstruators are women. Nor are all feminists women. Feminists tend to get in trouble because we talk a lot about intersections but feminists are constantly saying things like “women and people of color.” We need to be very thoughtful and intentional when we think and talk about identity.
I also find that talk about gender inclusive feminism focuses a lot on men, or on battles of the sexes. That leaves nonbinary people like me out. It’s hard to know where I fit there. Not only do I feel excluded sometimes, but sometimes I feel inappropriately *in*cluded. If you hold a feminist party, tell me I’m welcome and then exclude trans women, I don’t want to be at your fucking party.
I, too, now always add qualifiers to feminist and say I’m a “radical transqueer feminist.” It pisses me off so much that I have to do that! It pisses me off that everyone doesn’t automatically hear “feminist” and think about trans people, queer people and “radical” things like prison abolition, socialism, fighting ongoing colonization and imperialism, disability justice, fat positivity, etc. It pisses me off that those topics are radical! And it pisses me off that the word “radical” has been co-opted in the feminist world by transmisogynists so that I have to put radical and trans back to back to avoid being misunderstood.
Stay tuned for Part 2, a discussion of cis dominance in the feminist movement.
Photos courtesy of the bloggers.