© Evie Embrechts. This article was first published in the trilingual Belgian magazine Scumgrrrls, #19, Summer 2012.
If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
What unites us is not a common sexuality or experiences or identities or self-expression. It’s that we’re up against a common enemy.
Growing up, I slowly gained an understanding of oppression. I still remember when I first joined an anti-racist group, sitting in a student restaurant and suddenly grasping the idea of a structure that oppresses us, that it is not just “bad people” that are the problem.
Later, sometimes slow and sometimes with sudden bolts of understanding I gained some gender awareness. I became a member of a gender action group. I was very happy to be a part of that group, I thought we were a cool bunch of people and I learned a lot from them. Still, I wanted to do more actions, more politics against the establishment, I had a different view about a lot of things.
Unfortunately for me, I soon discovered that the Anglo-Saxon feminist world seemed split in two camps, both problematic: one side had the queer politics, individual gender stuff, everyone is welcome policy; but they were usually also in favour of pornography and prostitution – which they call “sex work”. Then, there’s the other side, radical feminists who have amazing views on oppression, porn culture, prostitution, etc; however some of them seem to really hate trans people. I asked if I could attend a radical feminist week in Austria but was refused because “We only allow women and trans women are actually men”. Friends said that I should just go, “under cover”. I felt really afraid at that thought. In Belgium, I haven’t encountered these things yet. I joined the women’s committee and asked them if I had to do a new version of the famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, but that wasn’t necessary and I was very much welcome there.
Let’s start with a few important remarks. The fact that someone is very knowledgeable, ethical, courageous in one domain does not automatically make them so in other domains. We all know progressive men who are dedicated to the revolution whose personal behaviour and politics towards women, people of colour, etc is terrible. Easy to see from other people, not so easy from ourselves. We should also realize that e.g. most white people are quite racist and often in ways we don’t see. And the same goes for other forms of oppression. We have to realize that if we haven’t spend a lot of time thinking, feeling, discussing about something that we don’t know anything about it and also that our gut feelings (“instincts”) are sometimes wrong, because they have been conditioned by the oppressive systems around us.
Also, when a theory doesn’t fit with any evidence, it is wrong.
Let’s take a short look at Janice Raymond, one of the persons responsible for the first infamous attempt at putting some theory behind the trans-hatred that you can see even today on too many blogs. Raymond is author of the most ludicrous conspiracy theory book I’ve ever seen, called The Transsexual Empire: the making of the she-male. She actually makes the argument that trans women are patriarchal agents, created to destroy the women’s movement from within. Yes. Yes, that is what actually happened: a group of powerful rich white men drafted a bunch of people, forced them to undergo hormone treatment and surgery and unleashed this army upon the feminist groups. Being very numerous, they were able to bring feminism to its knees. Seriously, why would they? The feminist movement was already crashing down after the second wave, no “infiltration” was necessary. Let alone this shows an extremely simplistic view of patriarchy, let alone that I don’t believe men would ever willingly undergo surgery like that.
And she wrote this book after years of careful observation and empirical study… no, wait. She just talked to, oh, thirteen trans people (though whether she did even this much is contested). She wrote that “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves”. I’m sure that many feminists will agree that we see rape as one of the worst, if not the worst, crime. Most of us also agree that rape should not be compared with something else, e.g. some ecological activists have told me that humans “rape the earth” by cutting down the trees, now ecology is very important but this is for me a problematic comparison: rape should not be “used” to score points in another struggle. So this is possibly the worst insult Raymond could find.
Women were in 1979, therefore justified in thinking transsexual people were not innocent victims of oppression arising out of patriarchy’s controlled gender and sex roles (which would have been one alternative reading), but rather were co-conspirators in an attempt by men to possess them and to remake them in a mould that suits them.
– Stephen Whittle (1)
Never mind that trans people have even higher suicide rates than e.g. cisgendered women and people of colour. Never mind that there is only a very small number of trans people in the feminist movement – which is very unfortunate because some contact would do a lot to dispel the ridiculous myths surrounding trans people. Myths. Sound familiar?
Suppose a man would write a book about “all women” based on what he’d seen on tv, would that be very insightful? What would that teach us about women? Or how about he goes to a straight bar, talks to a few people, then writes his book. Presumably, this kind of book would contain precisely this: a collection of sexist clichés presented as timeless truths about the feminine person. Weak. Poisonous. Treacherous. Wily. Majestic. Mysterious.
Myths. Myths about trans people exist for several reasons: people don’t do a good job of informing themselves about trans people, and our society requires a binary gender system that cannot accept anyone that crosses the lines. Many people inquire about the reason why trans people exist, the only voices heard are those of straight white men. The same sort of men who told us that lesbians and gays had an inverted sexuality, covering their hatred with lots of psycho-analyst fake science. Even today, some well-known doctors are advocating corrective therapy for lesbians, gays and trans persons.
Media and pharma industries
Question: do we believe the image that the mainstream media paints of feminists? No we don’t. But a lot of people unfortunately do. Without the media creating such a negative image we might find our struggle somewhat easier. The same goes for trans people: e.g. trans women are all painted either as deceivers or pathetic men. The deceivers are used for comic relief in movies: one of the characters has sex with a woman and then finds out that – gasp – she “used to be a man” or “actually is a man” or whatever. Big crisis for the guy.
Unfortunately this is a reality for many trans women: sometimes men who sleep with you get violent afterwards, as if some part of their brains is kicking in to tell them that they absolutely have to protect their really-really-really-straight image by insulting or assaulting the trans person – and often killing them. They can switch from drooling to violence really quickly. This shouldn’t be a surprise: women aren’t seen as human in this society, trans people aren’t either.
The message in the media is always the same: they are not “real women”, the focus is on the transformation – complete with slow shots of applying lipstick and underwear. Julia Serano is a transfeminist who wrote about this in her very interesting article Why the media depicts the trans revolution in lipstick and high heels (2). She tells the story of a trans activist – they wanted to photograph her “getting ready to go out”, and she replied that it wouldn’t be that interesting: her jumping out of bed into jeans and a shirt and running to catch the bus. That’s not what they wanted of course – and she was omitted from the article.
While Janice Raymond contended that there were almost no trans men because they had no use for the patriarchy, Sheila Jeffreys was here to correct her and tell us that the butch flight is a terrible thing, radical lesbians giving in to the oppression and becoming men to escape sexism – the feminist movement is losing its fiercest warriors. Yes, truly. If that would not be the case, thousands of misguided transgender butches would throw off their penis-shaped chains and flock back to the movement. Here’s a tip: if you have no idea why people transition, perhaps listen to those people first instead of throwing around deranged and dangerous theories. The Freudians have another theory: that trans women have such deep masochistic tendencies that they want to identify as women. Horribly wrong and at the same time strangely insightful, if you recast it as a feminist view about social conditioning and status of men and women.
The Lavender Menace (lesbians, at first not welcome in the feminist movement because they were considered a threat). Ain’t I a Woman (black women explaining that feminism for them was something different, that the mainstream movement was white and didn’t realize the problems with that yet). And now trans women, the next group that should be welcomed but instead has to work really hard to be able to join the movement.
Sometimes people complain that most trans people are not very feminist. Well, let’s see, if the feminist movement doesn’t welcome you… why join it? Yes, out of principle, true, but it is hard to stay active in a movement wherein a lot of people hate you or would rather do without you. Maybe about the same percentage trans women is feminist as non-trans women, which is to say not very much.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Sexism directed to trans women, which is sometimes called cissexism, means: most women in general are not feminists. Many women behave in a stereotypically feminine way. But trans women are disliked as a group because some of them behave like this. But many women have to dress differently because their work, their peers, expect it from them and we all know that it is hard to keep resisting. Many trans women are forced to behave and dress in certain ways by their peers and the medical establishment because otherwise they don’t get access to medical treatment and other needs. In Belgium, trans people are required to undergo sterilization if they want to change the sex on their passports. This means e.g. trans men / male transgenders are required to have their uterus and ovaries removed to get this passport change even if they don’t want to undergo such serious surgery. We fought this law. We used the slogan boss over our own bellies (baas over eigen buik, a famous feminist slogan).
And yes, many of us dislike Pat Califia or other “anything goes” advocates of sex work etc etc. But we’re not hating all women because of Margaret Thatcher and Sarah Palin, right? Right?
[all is silent – a few crickets chirp in the distance]
Some thoughts on combining radical feminism and trans feminism
A complete analysis on how to combine these will be the subject of another article. I believe that the basic systems can be combined, because in the end we do want the same thing – even though the words are different. Eliminating the binary gender system is something we all can agree about, some express it as a society without gender and others as a society with infinite genders, but I think beyond the words we want the same thing: freedom from the oppressive systems around us, freedom to be(come) ourselves.
2 http://www.juliaserano.com/outside.html#skirtchasers – the article is also in her book Whipping Girl [whipping girl as in “scapegoat”, not “middle class bdsm story”]