Last Sunday saw the Thirteenth International Day of Remembrance for victims of Transgender violence. It is thus worth reflecting on the sometimes strained relationship between the feminist and transgender activist communities. Although many feminists, particularly of the third wave, embrace transwomen and transfeminism, there is a substantial community of primarily second wavers who are at best ambivalent, and at times outrightly hostile to trans* activism.
The origins of this hostility can be traced back to Janice Raymond, who published “The Transsexual Empire” in 1979 at the height of the second wave, famously stating
All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves …. Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.
Mary Daly takes up this theme in Gyn-Ecology, quoting Raymond approvingly, suggesting that (M2F) transsexualism is necrophelic and that the “boundary violation” of transex surgery is a plot by men to invade the spirit of women and ultimately eradicate them. More recently Julie Bindel, has took up the anti-trans vanguard pitting feminism against trans* activism. While Sheila Jefferies has spoken up of the McCarthyism of the transgender movement – which she believes reinforces the gendering which women have struggled against.
While theory is all very well – it is worth noting how this discourse plays out in practice. At the first Feminist Blether held in Glasgow, questions were raised over our policy towards transwomen – with some opposed to the inclusion of transwomen and refusing to partipate in an explicitly trans-friendly space, while others equally opposed to the exclusion of transwomen and refusing to participate in a trans-hostile space. The approach we adopted in the end was an uneasy compromise of “Dont ask, dont tell” – where we stated that we welcomed all women. Somewhat sidestepping the issue.
The most notorious conflict between the feminist and trans communities has occurred at the Mitchegan Womyn’s music festival, where an ongoing debate rages over the inclusion of transgendered people. After a pre-op male to female trans-sexual was thrown out of the festival in 1991, a policy of “womyn born womyn” was introduced. In response to this Camp Trans was established, yet even among those arguing for transsexual inclusion, there was not unity, with the post-ops arguing that they should be included while agreeing with the exclusion of pre-ops. The festival eventually bowed to this pressure to include post-ops while excluding pre-ops, introducing a level of economic discrimination – as it is generally the more affluent members of the transsexual community who can afford the extensive and expensive surgery required to “pass” as female.
This gradualised policy shift, reflects the dangers of what Moraga described as “ranking the oppressions”. Although she was speaking in particular in relation to primarily binary notions of gender and race (men/women vs white/black) this risk is real within the deeper complexities of gendered identity. Clare Flourish wrote an excellent piece on the divisions within the gender activist communities, noting that even within their ranks there is division and distain. Ciswomen looking down on non-cis women; intersexed people looking down on post-op transsexuals and post-op transsexuals looking down on pre-op transsexuals. All seeking to establish that *they* are “real women” – not like those pesky transvestites and cross-dressers who give them a bad name.
De Bourvoir famously stated that women are not born but made. That the concept of “woman” is one which is constructed and enforced. Judith Butler identified that there was no single test which defined sex, which would clearly demarcate a woman from a man.
Reproduction is the essence of womanhood – the ability to bear, conceive, birth and suckle children. Not all women do any or all of the above. Sometime through a lack of capacity – despite technologies such as IVF, incubators, caesarians and formula feed which assist some who cannot fully fulfill their biological destiny; sometimes through choice, using technology such as contraceptive implants, abortion and sterilization to undermine the call of Mother Nature. Until technology moves on apace, enabling the wholesale transplanting of ovaries, wombs and duct tissue, transwomen lack the capacity for the above, just like many other women, yet by presenting in female form they are assumed to have the capacity …just like the others. In that sense transwomen are no different to many women – lacking capacity for reproductive functionality, yet reacted to on the basis of its assumption.
Yet there is a critical difference between transwomen and other women. They do not grow up socialised into a female role. They spend their formative years being responded to as male. However much trans-sexuals may consider themselves to have a fixed and unchanging gender identity which they are then forced to modify their bodies to conform with, it is necessary to remember that we are constantly produced and re-produced in the minds of others. Our identity is not only something which we hold internally, but which we present to the world – the world then reflects it back at us, shaping our internal vision. Although trans-sexuals may be of-woman-born, they are re-birthed into their target sex following transition and to deny their woman-birth is to do a disservice to the essence of womanhood.
Sharon Stone wrote a very interesting response to Raymond’s critique of transsexuality, describing how “the transsexual” as an object of study was constructed by the medical establishment in the 1950s using the discourses of femininity contemporary at that time, and conformed to by transwomen seeking surgery. In their quest to have their gender identity recognised, they conformed to the assumptions and presumptions that prevailed in the medical establishment. She documents how the standard reference book on transsexualism which provided the criteria for a diagnosis and consequently access to the surgery which transwomen desired was passed from hand to hand as people memorised the required “symptoms” that would establish their diagnosis. She pleads with the community for a counter discourse of transsexuality, one not grounded in the views of a kindly 1950s patriarch.
When Haraway led us out of the quagmire of gender essentialism, she promised us monsters. Through a coupling of human birth and surgical re-birth the trans-sexual monster is formed. The rage and pain of these monsters is easy to find, as they rail against both the common parlance that makes them male, and the medicalised and socialised demands made of them in order that they may be women. The truth is somewhere in between.
Grue is a colour adjective developed in 1955 by Goodman as a challenge to inductive logic. An object is grue if it is green up until time t and blue thereafter. At first sight the challenge seems weak and a simple “simplest argument” suffices, yet on closer inspection it is only an assumption that green is not grue up until time t and bleen thereafter. Trans-sexuals are grue-some. For all they may protest that their gender identity has been lifelong and stable, the change of sex, whether surgical, medical or simply social, is an event. Before time t, they were one sex; after time t became another. Grue objects may be indistinguishable from green objects prior to t, and share the same properties, they are fundamentally different.
Trans-sexuals are grue-some. As Stone points out, many transwomen do not start transitioning until their fourth or fifth decade, and the demands of “passing” mean that have to give up their histories. They must deny their grue-some nature, insisting ever more shrilly that they are blue, really blue, proper blue. But to do this is not only to deny their history, but to be complicit in the green/blue world which has no place for the grues.
The grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth. Its favorite diet is adventurers, but its insatiable appetite is tempered by its fear of light. No grue has ever been seen by the light of day, and few have survived its fearsome jaws to tell the tale.
Transsexuals in popular culture get a bad press. From Begbie in Trainspotting gagging on discovering the “secret” of the object of his affections to Ace Ventura being physically sick after discovering that the woman that he had kissed earlier was in fact transsexual. Similar themes can be found in Naked Gun 33 1/3 and Soapdish. All feature straight men “fooled” by a transwoman and then repulsed as they discover the “true nature” of the woman that they have been romantically engaged with. The transwomen are presented as having the deceitful wiles of women, yet the predatory sexuality of men. They are presented to us for amusement – transwoman as coyote; trickster and conman: pretending to be something she is not, for her true nature must be hidden at all costs, only revealed by an inopportune intimacy shedding light on the dark secret.
These grue-some monsters present the strongest challenge yet to the patriarchy. They do not demand equality with men, nor seek to establish their superiority, but to destroy the boundaries in which women are contained. In their quest, they are expected to conform to stereotypical behaviours, eroticised in porn, murdered for their transgressions and called She-Males – a term of abuse that used applied to intellectual women. No value can be extracted from their reproductive labour, and they challenge the very essence of womanhood. They are potentially an insurrectionary force in a battle in which both sides have now become entrenched.
It is time for the witches to make their peace with the monsters, for both are reviled. Just as nine million women were killed in the enforced domination of the Abrahamic tradition, now the Abrahamic countries murder the trans-sexuals – although nearly 1 in a thousand murders are of transgender people, only two are found outwith countries with an dominent Abrahamic religion. Just as the witches were once persecuted, now the monsters must be – for they are our natural allies in challenging the patriarchal regime.