Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Feminism and Transphobia

I used to be a feminist.  There, I said it.  I've been putting off writing this post, because to me people who say "I used to be a feminist" have always seemed ungrateful.  But the plain fact is that feminism does not meet my needs as a trans person. 

Feminism has always been about questioning traditional notions of gender. I believe it's not going too far to say that the fundamental axiom of feminism is that everything society teaches us about gender is wrong.  And yet most feminists, upon encountering the word "transgender," suddenly become extremely conventional.  Suddenly society's definitions of gender are not to be questioned.  Why is that?

It occurs to me that feminism doesn't appear to have any concept of "gender identity."  I never heard that phrase until I started learning about trans stuff.  Gender identity is one's internal sense of one's own gender.  But feminist definitions of gender, as far as I know, focus on socialization, and to a lesser extent on biology.

Probably the reason feminism ignores the concept of gender identity is that in the past, it was used to denigrate women.  Our socially-constructed gender roles were believed to be innate and instinctual.  Moreover, one's genitals influenced everything.  To be born with a penis didn't just make you physically stronger, it also made you smarter, more honest, and more courageous.  Meanwhile, if you were born with a vagina, then the only thing you ever wanted to do was stay home, have babies, and cater to your man.  That is what "gender identity" used to mean.  No wonder feminists don't want any part of it.  And indeed, as a modern trans person I would be reluctant to base my gender identity on any particular characteristic.  Like everyone else, I am a mixture of "masculine" and "feminine" traits.  But I still maintain that gender identity exists.

The impression I got from years of feminist studies is that society teaches people how to be male or female, that fundamentally we're all just human and gender is only a set of learned behaviors.  There is some truth to this, of course.  But it does erase the notion of gender identity.  Furthermore, it erases the existence of trans people.

Feminism taught me transphobia.  It taught me that trans women are really "men who want to invade women's space." It taught me that trans men either don't exist, or that they're women who disguised themselves as men in order to benefit from male privilege.  The truth is that I was unaware of the existence of trans men until quite recently.  Everyone has heard of Christine Jorgenson and drag queens.  No one has heard of men like Michael Dillon or Alan Hart (whose stories I link to in the sidebar.)

There is a certain kind of anger which sweeps over women when they find that men are trying to get into women's space.  I've felt it.  It's not entirely unfounded.  It goes like this: "You want to have the best of both worlds.  You've had all the privileges which I was denied and now you want to come into our ghetto and pick up whatever little scraps of treasure we've managed to accumulate.  Is this another aspect of men's sense of entitlement? You think you can just take whatever you want?"

There's no question in my mind that people who were socialized to be male don't really understand what it's like to be female in this culture.  One can find examples of this in the memoirs of trans women - Jan Morris and Jennifer Boylan have both mentioned it. 

And yet, feminists are wrong when they say that trans women are not really women.  They're wrong when they say that trans women are a threat to other women, or to women's space. Trans women's experience is radically different from cis women's experience - and feminism has often had trouble processing differences between women.  More work in this area is called for.

As for trans men - I don't know where they fit into feminism.  I don't know where I, as a transmasculine person, fit into feminism.  I've always believed that feminism was "the women's movement."  It's not that I object to feminism - it's a great thing for women.  Well, right now it's a great thing for cis women and maybe someday it will be a great thing for trans women too.  But it's not for me, and even if I were allowed into the club I would think of my trans sisters who are excluded.

The sad truth is that women who campaign viciously to keep trans women out of feminism are often silent on the question of trans men.  Some of them are imaginative enough to condemn trans women on the grounds that they will always be male, while simultaneously arguing that trans men should be kicked out of feminism because we've stopped being female. But generally it seems like feminism hasn't figured out the whole trans male thing at all.

Feminists are wrong when they say that society creates gender and we have no choice but to stick with the gender we were assigned. It is the last holdout of traditional gender rules.  No feminist would say that a little girl can only do girl things and a little boy can only do boy things.  They would say that we all have the right to act in whatever way feels natural to us.  And yet traditional feminists deny us the right to name our own gender, the right to assert a gender expression which feels natural to us.

I want to hammer down on this one more time:  feminists have always argued that women can't be defined by their biology.  "Don't judge people by what's between their legs," they say.  Trans people say the exact same thing.  Don't judge me by my genitals.

Why do cis feminists cling to gender essentialism and biological determinism?  Part of it is sheer ignorance - and yet that's not good enough, because trans people have been associated with the feminist movement since at least the 1970s.  Part of it, I honestly believe, is pragmatism.  Trans people are the minority.  Feminism has always tried to focus its efforts on things which would benefit a majority of women.  But on the other hand, lesbians are a minority too and they've definitely taken over feminism.  I don't know.

There is one aspect of feminism which has stayed with me, which I still consider to be valuable.  Ironically, it's what feminism taught me about the body.  Most trans people have issues with their bodies.*  I was in denial about my gender for a long time, but once I came out it took a surprisingly short time for me to realize that my gender identity doesn't match my perceived biological sex - and I'm fine with that.  I don't see why they have to match.  Feminism didn't teach me this, obviously, but it did teach me that we live in a body-hating culture.  For me, the next logical deduction is that it's not my body that's the problem.  It's society.

Feminism also revealed to me that in our culture, if you inhabit a female body it doesn't matter what you are on the inside.  You could be smart, courageous, aggressive, talented in one way or another.  You could even be a guy.  None of that matters, because society defines women in terms of their bodies alone.  So in a back-handed way feminism did help me to understand:  there's something inside me which is the real me, not what anyone sees on the outside, and the best thing I can do is to be true to the real me.  I'm sure it wasn't on purpose.

* Note: the official medical terms used to describe transgender/transsexuality are "gender dysphoria" and "body dysmorphia."  (I mention these terms here because I got confused about them while writing this article.) Body dysmorphia means that you feel there's something seriously wrong with your body, with the shape of your body.  "Dysmorphia" means "wrong shape" in Greek.  It doesn't apply only to trans people - people who believe they're too fat, for example, often suffer from dysmorphia.  There are even some people who take a dislike to one of their arms or legs and want to have it amputated.

"Dysphoria" is the opposite of "euphoria."  Someone with gender dysphoria feels that their gender is wrong.  This is actually kind of a problematic diagnosis.  If you have "body dysmorphia" then your body is wrong.  If you have "gender dysphoria"then your gender is wrong.  So which is it?

Moreover, I personally do not have gender dysphoria.  I have gender euphoria: the awareness of my true gender makes me feel happier than just about anything else in the world.  In fact I think I have social dysphoria.  Because society has messed with me an awful lot.

Here is some stuff other people have written about gender euphoria.  Unfortunately, whoever owns "" does not seem to be doing anything constructive with it.

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