Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Transgender Activism and Feminism: An Uneasy Coalition of Ideals?

So I had a rather heated exchange last week with a fellow transgender (male) activist about the place of feminism within the transgender community. I've read what seems to be an alarming basket full of  brazenly defensive articles proclaiming that "transgender activism and feminism cannot co-exist".
For me, I have always felt as I've dissected and analysed various elements of traditional 2nd Wave feminism (such as Germaine Greer's proclamation that transgender women need to be equivocated to "Christopher Biggins's Panto Dame standards" and cannot be taken seriously when trying to enter the feminist movement) and radical 3rd Wave feminism (based on moving towards a gender/queer analysis akin to Judith Butler's ironic gender as performance theory) to the creation of a trans variant of feminism (what Robert Hill defines as Transfeminism) where there has to be a place for trans women within the mainstream feminist community and beyond that, that trans men have to realise that trans women should be allowed to espouse feminist values without recourse to being called "traitors to their biological sex". I'd have thought rather than arguing regressively towards an essence of "biological determinism" that is still part of Catholic doctrine (traditionally seen as restricting feminists because of their views on abortion and contraception) we should be embracing the need to recognise that gender identities shift and are of equal worth. I'm not saying that biological cis women should not celebrate their uteruses and have "womb prayer parties" a la Ab Fab Episode 4 with Beth De Woody taking the lead but do not feel the need to destroy trans women in the process of celebrating these differences; most trans women appreciate that cis women go through the menstruation cycle and wouldn't proclaim that they know how it feels to have to buy sanitary towels on a regular basis to soak up the bleeding. After all I've bought sanitary products for my Mum on a regular basis. Equally, feminists must be careful not to denigrate the choices trans men have made if they have chosen to take testosterone and go for the removal of their breasts and uteruses and ovaries. In fact until they get to that point trans men still have to buy sanitary products and use femidoms and contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancy, issues that many self-proclaimed radical feminists have to deal with daily. So what sorts of theories have abounded about transgender people within feminism and what have transgender people done to try and change those feminist's minds, if anything?

Second Wave Feminist Critics against Transgender Activism:

Germaine Greer has been a vocal opponent of trans women trying to enter the mainstream feminist debate. In 1997 for example Greer voted against the offering of a fellowship to the trans physicist Rachel Padman to the all female Newham College because she had been born male. In her follow up to her seminal work The Female Eunuch, The Whole Woman (1999) Greer lamented the progress second wave feminism had made within Western European society. Part of her lamentation related to the fact that feminists had been unable to "shake off" transfeminists (see below). In a chapter titled "Pantomime Dames", Greer blasted trans women as pitiful parodies of sisterhood. Trans women have a desire to "castrate themselves" because they want to prove women are "non sex." They don't ask for a "uterus and ovaries transplant" and if made mandatory demand for sex reassignment surgery would "disappear overnight". Not true because I'd be more than happy to undergo that kinda transplant even if it led to me starting to go through menstruation but Greer seems keen to pass blanket judgement on men without fully realising the nuances behind gender identification. This is evident from Greer's assertion on BBC's Newsnight in 2015 that she does not "regard transgender women as women."

Julie Bindel, founder of Justice For Women an organisation that opposes violence against women and helps women prosecuted for murdering their violent male partners in self defence and self-proclaimed radical feminist has repeatedly campaigned against transgender women being offered the same rights as cisgender women. In her May Guardian 2007 article Mistaken Identity Bindel interviewed MTF trans "Claudia" who regretted her decision to go through sex reassignment surgery and blamed the male psychiatrist for not guiding Claudia through the process effectively. Bindel goes as far as to say these male psychiatrists want to diagnose men as having Gender Dysphoria to normalise them into fitting with traditional gender stereotypes. This view comes admittedly from Bindel's self-representation of radical lesbian feminism which may colour her interpretation of sexual psychiatry. Claudia was recently found dead but her suicide may have resulted from underlying mental health issues that had been neglected by CAMHS (NHS's Mental Health referral service) but important to emphasis Claudia is not representative of the trans community. A month after this article was published, Bindel published Gender Benders: beware where she criticised a transgender rape councillor's dispute with a rape crisis centre and used the article to attack trans people. In the article Bindel contends that readers think of a world wholly populated by transgender people because it would "look like the set of Grease" and "jokes" that "I don't have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way shoving a bit of hose down your 501s doesn't make you a man".
The Guardian  article attracted over 200 complaints from trans individuals, doctors and the UK trans activist group Press For Change have designated the article as a key example of transphobia. Bindel has continued to court controversy by positing sex reassignment surgery as society's way of "reinforcing gender stereotypes" citing Iran's status as the "most numerous sex change country of the world" as proof of this.
Bindel feels uncomfortable with the ever expanding LGBTQIA community- she says the tongue-twisting acronym helps to silence discussion within the lesbian section of the community: "the mantra at "gay" all a bit of an unholy alliance. We have been put in a room together and told to play nicely". Well I say Bindel needs to try harder to understand the changing face of gender and sexuality studies and show the compassion and respect for those who are feeling just as oppressed as she is instead of trying to disrupt and dissect the community. Perhaps she'd feel right at home with the "Free Milo" #ArmTheGays crowd who argue the LGBTQIA community needs to be separated and yet also argue "Feminism is Cancer". What a crowded room that would be ;)

Second and Third Wave Feminist Critics supporting Transgender Activists:

Andrea Dworkin was one of the first radical second wave feminist to speak out against transphobia: in her work Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality (1974) Dworkin argues that transgender people were in a "state of primary emergency" because of the "culture of male-female discreteness" -i.e. the indoctrinated binary system of "man and woman" that had not been challenged in an effective way until the early 1960's. Dworkin contends that "every transsexual has the right to survive on their own terms" meaning they should be entitled to sex reassignment surgery and furthermore it should be provided free of charge by community health services. Optimistically Dworkin believed that the "phenomenon of transsexuality" might disappear, giving way to new (queer) gender identities.

Judith Butler - in an interview in 2014 showed her unfretted support for transgender people: "Nothing is more important for transgender people than to have access to excellent health care in trans-affirmative environments, to have the legal and institutional freedom to pursue their own lives as they wish, and to have the freedom and desire affirmed by the rest of the world.  Butler has also criticised the transphobic words of TERFs (see below) such as Janice Raymond who have used their biological essentialism as a form of "tyranny" over those who can only self-ascribe as female. Butler believes trans people have to go beyond their creation through medical discourse (i.e.  they become trans only when diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria) and focus on developing new discourses through looking at the commonality of their self-determination (i.e. removing the victim narrative and showing the strength of their freedom to choose the gender role in which they wish to be perceived.)

Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF):
TERFs believe in biological gender essentialism; if you are born with male genitals you remain male and if you are born with a womb and breasts you are a woman. Generally speaking they will disown any socially determined labels that challenge the essentialism they espouse. Some TERFs have argued that trans women are nothing more than "effeminate men" who have been relegated to the bottom of the patriarchal pile by machismo centric egotistical men, whereas trans men, (when they bother to mention them) are relegated to the status of wannabes "wanting to claim patriarchal privilege for themselves". TERFs go beyond calling trans women ideological rapists but to accuse them of using their transition to become actual rapists, hence the distinction I make between them and second wave feminists.

Key TERFs include:

Cathy Brennan believes trans women are de facto animals who cannot control themselves: "transgender women are in fact men using an artificially constructed feminine appearance to exert patriarchy from the inside of feminism and believe it or not, to gain access to women's bathrooms in order to rape them". Now I have a key issue with Ms Brennan's comment; some trans women are perceived as gay men before they transition and although the media may be saturated with examples of straight married men transitioning into women whilst still married it is unfair to blanket all trans women as heterosexual turned lesbian rapists.

Janice Raymond in her work The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (1979) refers to transgender people as transsexuals and maintains that transsexualism exists because it is based on "patriarchal myths" of "male mothering" and "making woman in man's image". Transgender women are only interested in creating a "perfect type of woman" for themselves which has none of the negative connotations traditionally associated with womanhood such as the lookism associated with slut shaming culture and plus size curve disapproval. I have heard several conservative trans women such as Blair White talk about only going through sex reassignment surgery to become beautiful so I can understand why such comments would rile some feminist's feathers. I would, however, disavow Raymond's distorted comments that all trans women "rape women's bodies by reducing the female form to an artefact". I'm certainly not going through the transition process in the vain hope of making myself more beautiful at the expense of destroying cis women's conceptions of beauty. I'm going through the transition process because I believe it is the best way of ensuring I feel happier emotionally in the future. I'm a size 20 at the moment and even after surgery the likelihood is I won't have a "svelte" figure for long, but that's my choice. Most feminists proclaim they have rights over their bodies so I definitely have a right over mine!

TERFs tend to be anti Third Wave Feminism because they are angry that these feminists have taken the best aspects of the feminist argument, such as fighting rape culture and understanding health care and reproductive rights for all that self-identify in part as a woman and left behind the dogmatism and "one size fits all strategy" that is espoused by Second Wave and TERFs.

TERFs have also been known to collaborate with Conservative, evangelical and Alt-Right groups to harass and oppress transgender people despite holding themselves up as the "pillar of the feminist movement". Cathy Brennan collaborated with the Pacific Justice Institute to harass a trans woman using death threats. Janice Raymond has written a paper Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery to advocate for mandatory reparative therapy for trans people to prevent them from being diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria to access the hormone and surgical treatment they are entitled to access if they are to have a right over their bodies.

Transfeminism predominately concerns the integration of trans discourse into mainstream feminism. Robert Hill has stated that it "has specific content that applies to transgender and transsexual people but the thinking and theory of which is also applicable to all women".

Transfeminists try and dissect the view espoused by TERFs that biological essentialism eliminates trans people from advocating for all women's rights. For example they ask such questions as :
  • Is femininity an entirely socially constructed label?
  • Does taking oestrogen and having breast enhancement surgery make someone more feminine?
  • What is a woman?
  • What does the label "woman" actually mean?
  • What does the label "man" even mean outside of biological essentialism?
Key transfeminists include:

Sandy Stone who wrote the essay The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto in 1987 as a reaction to Raymond's article. A central tenet of Stone's essay is that transgender people shouldn't hide their status and should "read themselves aloud" or come out because that act leads to greater self-empowerment. By developing such a speaking position within mainstream feminism to prevent transgender people being automatically dismissed as "damaged, deluded, second-rate, or somehow internally compromised".

Sylvia Rivera who had been a prominent Stonewall rioter and founder of Street Transvestite Revolutionaries who took in homeless LGBT youth including black and Asian drag queens and trans youth and helped to give them a voice and promising future away from crime and prostitution.

Krista Scott-Dixon who edited the first book on transfeminism Trans/Forming Feminisms: Transfeminist Voices Speak Out (2006)

Julia Serano is a trans-bi activist and prominent biologist who wrote Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (2007) which argues that transphobia is rooted in sexism which is a twofold phenomenon- the idea that "maleness and masculinity is superior to femaleness and femininity" coupled with the belief that "female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories" that Serano calls oppositional sexism . Serano has coined the term effemimania to describe societal obsession with trans expressions of femininity and posits that it is just another example of oppositional sexism that lies at the root of homophobia as well as transphobia. Cisgender people (who are happy identifying with the gender in which they were born and have no experience of meeting those unhappy with their gender identity) propagate their experience onto other people and automatically assume everyone they meet will be cisgender like them. This is known as cisgender assumption. Such terms are now regularly used in gender studies courses.

Is Transgender Activism incompatible with Feminism?

Having conducted a wide ranging analysis and research of both transgender activism and feminism over my years as an English and Philosophy student and graduate I am yet to be dissuaded that trans people have a part to play in trying to improve equality of opportunity for both women and men, especially when it comes to the freedom to choice to identify in the gender in which a person feels most comfortable. I am sympathetic to radical feminist calls for women to try and dominate political discussion to enact changes which matter specifically to cisgender women such as ensuring sanitary products are available for women in third world countries and battling human trafficking to prevent sex slavery numbers from increasing in Europe. However I also believe that feminists must advocate for freedom of choice for all those who identify as female and that includes those who want to choose whether they want to have breast surgery to "look more feminine" for their own piece of mind. As a trans woman I certainly want to advocate for changes in the law to increase sentencing rates for male rapists and protect domestic abuse shelters from closing their doors due to lack of government funding. I also realise that females can be rapists too and that there should be domestic abuse shelter accommodation available for male victims and that includes transmen. If we are truly to improve women's rights even further in the UK we have to work together. That means stop focussing on purely biological issues and think of the battle as wide-ranging. If all those who identify as female work together on at least some of the issues mentioned, we can change attitudes and lives for the better. Positivity from all breeds broader, longer term success.