Beyond Inclusion: Trans Women as Equal Partners in Feminism is an essay I wrote in April 2008 but have been continuously updating. It’s rather long–28 or so pages–and took a very long time to write (including a sick day and two all-nighters). It was originally written for submission to an academic journal.
I preface this that way because I feel awkward asking for a donation for this paper, since I’d very much like it to be available to everyone. However, in order to write theory sustainably, I need economic support from my community.
This essay starts from the assertion that trans and cis women are equal in their determination of feminism, yet trans women’s agency is systemically marginalized within it. It critiques cissexual feminist entrenched positions about the relations between trans women, male privilege, and women’s space, showing how taking trans women’s perspectives and herstories seriously dramatically alter the terms of debate, providing new insights and making room for a new generation of feminists.
A few exerpts:
When I listen to people ‘debating’ ‘letting’ trans women, trans men, and/or trans people as a whole into women-only [sic] spaces such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (Michfest) and domestic violence shelters, the experience is profoundly frustrating, even when it’s my allies I’m listening to. It’s the wrong structure, the wrong conversation, and the wrong participants. When a cissexual1 woman or a trans male spectrum person says “all woman-identified women/all trans people should be allowed into women’s space [sic],” I feel almost as disempowered and silenced as when they say that we shouldn’t. Though well intentioned, they represent independent moral/political judgments and statements of principle—not the voices of trans women.2 Do their statements correspond to the wishes, needs, and priorities of trans women? Do they empower trans women’s voices, or contribute to their erasure? More to the point, do cis women (let alone trans male spectrum people) legitimately have that power, to decide whether or not trans women should be allowed into “their” spaces?
Inclusion is important, and I’m happy for every voice that demands it. But the fundamental problem is not the exclusion itself. Trans women are regularly the targets of [cis] feminist misogyny (Serano 2007, 16-7; Califia 2003, 86-119) and misogyny against us is frequently tolerated in “women’s,” “women & trans,” and “queer/trans” space (Serano 2007, 352); even in so-called transfeminist work, anti- trans woman sentiment may be seen as a legitimate expression of diversity within the transfeminist movement, and not inherently anti-feminist (ex. Scott-Dixon, ed. 2006, 154-160; 170-181.) Even the term “transfeminism” itself frequently marginalizes and erases trans woman feminists.3 The problem is that even when trans women’s participation is allowed or encouraged, our concerns, comfort, and safety are almost universally secondary.
Let’s make the record clear: there is virtually no women’s space extant today. Michfest is not women’s space, nor would it be even if trans women were allowed—it’s cis, white, middle class, able women’s space. When one group controls a space or institution, when only its members’ voices, concerns, and perspectives are relevant to the determination and organization of that space—that is to say, when that group ‘owns’ the space—it is their space, regardless of who else may enter. So when allies to trans women demand our inclusion without simultaneously demanding that that space be accountable to us—including that trans & cis women be equally in charge of what constitutes women’s space and feminism—they are not demanding fundamental change, only a softer supremacy.
From ‘Rethinking Male Privilege: Dismantling Internalized Dominance’:
Non- trans woman feminists (including both all men and all cis people) argue amongst themselves about whether or not trans women have male privilege. Some who claim we have male privilege use it as an accusation and a justification for discrimination, as mentioned by Koyama; others state it more neutrally. There are also many non- trans woman feminists who argue that we only had male privilege before transition and have since given it up, or, rarely, that we never had it at all. All have different reasoning, but there lies one commonality among them all—trans women’s perspectives on the subject are deemed irrelevant or at best secondary, not to be considered at anything near an equal level to those who are not trans women, be they transsexual men or cissexual women. Any argument on our part is inherently denial; only those such as Koyama and Bornstein (Califia 2003, 253.) who “accept” these arguments and “admit” to their privilege are given any credibility—and their ‘acceptance’ is used against those of us who challenge these arguments.
… the discourse as a whole is an active, effective, and frequently intentional silencing tactic. We don’t dispute the ‘accusation’ of male privilege because we’re dumb, bad feminists, or incapable of interpreting our experience. We don’t have different opinions out of a lack of knowledge about oppression. We know our own lives, and have more options as feminists than to submit to non- trans woman authority and do its bidding.
Cis women’s and trans male spectrum people’s repeated and patronizing explanations of what our experience clearly must have been and is like bears a striking resemblance, both in form and effect, to patriarchial dominance:
Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I mean. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.
I identify with Solnit’s account of her experience strongly, both with respect to my conversations with men, trans or cis, and in the context of discussing feminism with people of all genders, though both are complicated in ways I describe below. Until reading Julia Serano’s work on trans misogyny, I was unable to name or believe in the implicit personal and instutional misogyny directed at me from assigned female feminists every day, despite feeling it keenly, precisely because I had learned so powerfully that my own perspective was only valid or real subject to non- trans women’s approval. It’s a message that’s enforced subtly, as in Koyama’s “The Transfeminist Manifesto”, and forcefully, as on Michfest discussion boards5 and the groundless accusations of plagiarism leveled at Little Light for her blog post “A Seam of Skin and Scales.” Even writing this essay, I have to fight against the notions that I must be in denial, that my perspective isn’t valid, that cissexual women have universal and ‘objective’ naming authority, and that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I do.
… … …
Ultimately, the definition of male privilege that non- trans woman feminists are working off of is hopelessly ciscentric. Does it make any sense to say that trans women ‘have’ male privilege because we didn’t experience certain aspects of sexism that cis women experience, or did not experience it as intensely, without also saying that cis women ‘have’ male privilege because they don’t experience certain aspects of sexism that we do, or not as intensely? If we benefit from sexism against cis women, then cis women benefit from sexism against us. Cissexual women’s privilege compared to transsexual women isn’t just about being cissexual in a vacuum—their cissexuality also mellows misogyny directed at them. The only way to realistically argue that post-transition trans women have male privilege is to silence our own herstories and hold cissexual lives as the true standard of reality—which is exactly what the accusation of male privilege is intended to do.
From ‘Creating Women’s Space that Works’:
When cissexuals say “Cisgendered women-only space proponents and the spaces they have worked a lifetime to create should be respected and supported on principle” (Jennifer Wildflower in Jervis 2007.), that the people who “worked so hard to create that space” get to decide who can come because it’s “their space”, what they are saying is that they took our part of it from us with physical, economic, and rhetorical violence thirty years ago, (Califia 2003, 92-119.) and that as a result they had the right to what they had conquered all along; the further violence necessary to enforce its [unnatural] borders becomes the fault of those trying to enter. The fact that the group of feminists that is invested in this erasure of their past violence is overwhelmingly white is purely accidental. When cis women such as these say, in all seriousness, “I couldn’t think of a practical way Michfest could even enact a more inclusive space that … kept women in those spaces feeling free and safe—what’s to stop men with an eye towards violence from saying they’re mtf [sic]?” (Heather Corinna, in Jervis, 2007.) they must be reminded first of their own community’s violence, and then second of trans people’s ability to think on our own. Reminding them only of the possibility of women doing violence to other women by analogy to [cissexual] women of color, and not the actuality of their violence towards us, is dehumanizing, implying that the violence perpetrated against us to maintain this illusion of peacefulness was and is not done to real human beings with equal rights to safety. In the twenty five years there have been transgender inclusive human rights statutes in Minneapolis, twenty two years in Seattle, fifteen years in Minnesota, and accumulated years in dozens of other states and municipalities, there is not a single reported instance of a trans woman or cis man attempting to use the statute to gain access to an area designated women only (such as a bathroom) in order to assault cis women. (Motett, Minter, and Kiesling, address delivered April 14, 2008.) But there have been untold instances of cis women harnessing the state to do violence to us on behalf of their “safety.” Who is really at risk when trans women enter [cis] women’s space? When others claim we haven’t made many contributions to [cis] feminist organizing in general or within a specific group, without acknowledging the cause, it’s a slap in the face to trans women’s communities, and tells us that we are nothing more than tokens.
So when we create that space to unfurl our wings, all of us have to remain accountable to each other, all of us have to learn how to spread our wings without preventing others from doing so. And if we make that assumption—that women’s space still has a point in remaining as such, but that it is still inherently dangerous, and that there will inherently still be internalized domination that needs to be watched out for and checked—issues like whether someone from outside is going to try to sneak in to hurt us; whether this person has internalized male privilege or the other person isn’t lesbian enough—fall away like the pointless clutter they are. We have to establish systems of accountability, not police borders, and only when someone is genuinely unwilling or unable to be accountable can we kick them out, whether it’s because ze won’t stop dominating conversations, or repeatedly marginalizes trans women through accusations of dominance, or refuses to interrogate his growing external dominance as a transitioning man. Accountability cannot only be about gender, but simultaneously race, class, ability, age, and whatever else may marginalize or privilege anyone within that space. With a determination to accountability and equality, we will collectively form structures to create women’s space that works for everyone who needs it.
So, now that you’ve read pieces of the essay, I hope you’ll feel moved to donate, and I’ll send you the whole shebang in the mail. Yes, the USPS, I’d much prefer to keep it offline. I’m asking for $5 plus postage, roughly, but it’s also pay-what-you-can.