The challenges of transfeminism

There has been substantial discussions over the RadFem 2012 conference all over twitter and facebook (see #radfem #radfemscum for more details), over their decision to invite Sheila Jefferies to speak and their policy of welcoming only people born as women who currently live as women (ie ciswomen).  As might have been expected that was a controversial decision.  Feminists have tied themselves in knots trying to explain why this isnt transphobic mainly with the view that oppression is on the basis of sex not gender, yet I don’t see them breaking down the barriers to include transmen.

The transphobia inherent in welcoming only ciswomen is obvious,  and there has been a great deal of heat and very little light shed on the issues behind it.  Trans is difficult for the feminist movement for a number of reasons.  Fertile heterosexual bio-sexed women are the most vulnerable to the patriarchy., but the patriarchy works in very many ways – it not only operates to control women, but also to control men – to demand that they exercise their privilege.  Het-women, fertile women, and people with a female bio-sex have particular issues with patriarchal control which do not apply to lesbians, infertile women and those with a male bio-sex.  Whittig asserted that lesbians were not women.  In overcoming compulsory heterosexuality and refusing to be available for male sexual and domestic servitude they had transcended the category of “woman” by their choice of sexual partner.   Whittig was very influential among the political lesbian movement, yet there was no suggestion that lesbians should be excluded from feminist space.  On the contrary, within some feminist groups, lesbianism was a privileged sexuality, with het-women seen as suffering false consciousness or actively betraying the movement by continuing to sleep with the enemy.

There are however issues with the inclusion of transwomen within feminist spaces.  The debate has become so polarised with hate speech abounding, that it is difficult to have a sensible discussion without it descending into abuse.  But this discussion is critical.  Transwomen are problematic within feminist spaces for a number of reasons.

Unacknowledged Male Privilege

Many transwomen, particularly those who transitioned later in life, have spent the majority of their lives as men.  They have gained all the advantages and socialisation accorded to males.  They have been encouraged to speak up, talk over women, listened to more and taken more interest in because they were men.  When they transition to being women that male privilege doesn’t simply evaporate, it requires the woman to actively review her past experiences.  Where transwomen exude male privilege within women only spaces – talking over women, disregarding women, taking up physical and emotional space, it jars.

Male privilage is an issue for transwomen to overcome.  The feminist community must be patient while they adopt to not having the privilage that they are used to, but at the same time, identifying manifestations of that privilage is not transphobia.

Trans is not a feminist issue

It is an intersectionality.  Some transwomen see feminist spaces as a place where it is appropriate to discuss issues of trans activism, and sometimes that’s appropriate…and sometimes its just not.  A Black woman turning up to a feminist group, seeking to discuss race as a generalised issue would be gently steered back to the gender based oppression that the gathering was designed to address.  That’s not to say that trans and race are not issues within the feminist community, but they are not issues within it any more than they are issues out in the wider world.  Not all male biosexed trans* people identify as women, and that’s fine, but the primary identity that gives you access to a woman only space is that of woman.  If you don’t identify as a woman, being an unman isn’t sufficient to gain access.

 If cis-feminists would stop excluding transwomen that would go a very long way to transwomen recognising their oppression as women rather than continually finding themselves oppressed as trans within feminist spaces, and recognising for themselves the need to protect women only spaces.

Not all transwomen are feminists

In a feminist space it is important that sexist notions are not allowed to take root, and unfortunately many transwomen are incredibly sexist.  Growing up as men, many have an idealised notion of what it means to be a woman, many have had pressure on them to be as girly as possible in order to “pass” as women and many over-emphasise their gender as a method of being accepted.  In a space devoted to overcoming patriarchical oppression, seeing women adopt the trappings of a patriarchal culture (high heels, heavy make up, highly feminised dress) makes women uncomfortable.   Many cis-women have felt out of place at feminist meetings because they don’t fit in with the more androgynous look favoured within the community.  When those trappings are displayed by someone who has not had the social pressure to conform that cis-women have many women find that very alienating, and almost mocking.   

You don’t have to wear dungarees to be a feminist, a dress will do just fine, but at the same time heavy gendering within a feminist space leads other women to question how much of the patriarchal bargain has been entered into, when that heavy gendering comes from someone who has had a different experience of gender pressure, it is difficult for ciswomen to understand its manifestation.

Transfeminism is one of the greatest challenges to the patriarchy, but as with all challenges, the patriarchy seeks to undermine them.

– it gets rid of gender essentialism, biology is not destiny

The patriarchy tells them that they are “in the wrong body”, that they require surgery to correct their bodies to fulfil their gendered destiny as much as is possible for such a freak.

– it develops a community of women who  create “woman” from anew

The patriarchy tells them how women are supposed to be, how to simper, to flirt, to dress sexily.

– it challenges the binary between men and women which is the basis of patriarchal oppression

The patriarchy tells them that if they are not men, then they must be women, there are no other choices.

Transfeminism challenges all of the above manifestations of the patriarchy.  By embracing their bodies, creating their own femininity and exploring gendered identities beyond that of wo/man, strength can be gained for the feminist movement.  Rejecting transfeminists only reinforces the above.  It encourages ciswomen to think that their bodies, its orifices and reproductive capacities are the essence of what it means to be a woman – a “real woman” has a vagina, a womb, can conceive and carry a baby to term; to think that femininity is imposed not constructed, denying them the opportunity to explore other choices; to demand that they stay in the category of woman, with all of the constraints that Whittig and others have stated.

Just as “lesbian” was once seen as a chosen alternative to the socially imposed category of “woman”, there are now a myriad of self-chosen gender/sex/sexualities possible.  Some of these are closer to woman and some closer to men.  The patriarchy will still put some of us into the category of woman tho, and it is on this basis that we should unite to fight the gender based power-structure which supports the exploitation of labour.

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