The cognitive dissonance that plagues the thinking radical feminist when ruminating over trans people matters and needs to be confronted, discussed, and theorized about, but it needs to be done in such a way that some good might come of it. Radical feminism, at a bare minimum, is characterized by the rejection of essentialism, of the idea that reproductive organs and secondary sex characteristics come packaged with sets of social behaviors termed “feminine” and “masculine.” Gender role performances are simply a load of bullshit posturing forced on us by a male supremacist society that requires symbols of difference, no matter how fictitious, in order to continue to operate unchallenged. When we argue that plastic surgery exists to aid those who seek to more closely adhere to a gender role concocted by the partnership between capitalism and patriarchy, it’s easy to assume that the same impulse is at work when someone claims to identify with one gender role or the other and pursues sex reassignment surgery. It’s a very simple logical progression; having parts of one’s body surgically removed or having foreign objects inserted into one’s body as a result of a warped obsession with gender conformity illustrates the deleterious effects of socially enforced gender roles on the human body and mind in the case of the “beauty” industry, so the same must hold true for sex reassignment surgery.
The thing is, none of the radical feminists I know are trans, nor am I. I have no way of knowing whether my battle with what society wants out of me as someone born with a vagina resembles in any way the conflicts that occur in the mind of someone with male genitalia who feels a desperate need to undergo reassignment surgery. I’m guessing, however, that it doesn’t, and I’m thus not going to tell trans people how their minds work, nor am I going to make the outrageous and dehumanizing claim that they must be mentally ill. (Let us please not forget the history of the use of psychiatric authority as a justification for the marginalization, institutionalization, sterilization, rape, and murder of women.)
An even more difficult aspect of this issue is the relationship of male privilege and what society teaches male children about women and what it means to be female. Some radical feminists are offended at what they have perceived as a caricature of womanhood, or a reduction of the experience of being female to whatever a misogynistic society tells us womanhood is about (e.g., boots, bitchiness, and boobs). If all transwomen all the time interpreted and expressed femininity by channeling Bugs Bunny’s take on womanhood and ran around exclaiming that all one needs to be a woman is a facsimile vagina, a sense of fashion, and the ability to gossip, that would be the end of it. But that isn’t the case, and reality requires that we approach this discussion a little more thoughtfully and adhere to our own professed ethics and logical proclivities.
Transwomen, it is argued, cannot ever understand what it means to be female in a male supremacist world in the exact same sense that women who were born female do. That is almost certainly the case, but who cares? Is anyone even claiming that they can? It would appear to be the opposite, in the cases in which transwomen enter into discussions with female-at-birth women and urge that their unique concerns as transwomen be taken into consideration. That leads to another problem. Some trans-critical radical feminists argue that transwomen display that most unseemly of male characteristics, the sense of entitlement to absorb all available discursive space and the totality of the available focus. Seeing as women have so few opportunities to discuss our own issues without men’s obnoxious intrusions, and seeing as there seems to be no space men do not feel entitled to intrude upon, I see the point. The problem lies, however, in whether we want to lump transwomen in with men. I don’t feel comfortable doing so. For one thing, the fact that many transwomen did not adhere to male gender norms even as children likely drastically altered the experience of male gender conditioning, and probably also sharply decreased the ability to relate to other boys and men as allies in the preservation of male privilege. Men perpetuate male privilege by “having each others’ backs” and bro-ing down in their shared misogyny and homophobia/transphobia (being unthoughtful dudes, they can’t distinguish between one kind of person they call “faggots” and another). How many little boys do you know who wouldn’t shun a little boy who displayed characteristics they’ve been taught to disdain since birth? And how many little boys who are shunned by other boys feel invested in upholding a male privilege that they feel fundamentally excluded from? Maybe some transwomen lived as boys long enough to absorb the idea that they are entitled to talk over women and that their concerns come first, simply because parents and society treat children with penises in such a way that they come to expect that. Or maybe the individual transwomen some of the radical feminist community has problems with are just self-absorbed, abusive assholes. In either case, we aren’t dealing with men. We are dealing with transwomen, and it is important when discussing something as complicated as conflicting gender theories to be very specific and delineate exactly what it is we’re talking about.
The argument goes that the existence of trans people strengthens the gender binary, but no one save the few trans activists who have attempted to force their way into female-only spaces truly considers transwomen to be women. The general public who consider themselves intellectuals because they read Time have even begun to evince an awareness, due in part to news stories regarding trans children, that there is a fundamental flaw in the gender binary. It is likely that, in a world without a binary gender hierarchy, gender roles would cease to serve a purpose and people would cease to feel the need to resort to dangerous medical procedures in order to feel at ease in the world, but we aren’t there yet. Even if everyone agreed at the stroke of midnight tonight to cease seeking out hormone therapy and reassignment surgery, trans people exist, and they exist in a no-woman’s-land between between the two ill-fitting gender roles male supremacist society has devised. We have to find ways to reconcile their existence with our mental frameworks and the physical world. Solutions need to be found to the problems that arise when people who do not fit the gender binary come up against it when standing in front of a public bathroom door sign, for example. “Fuck you, stay out” is not a solution. (Lobbying for single-user bathrooms — which make sense for several reasons not limited to trans people’s needs — is.)
The internet is probably the single most valuable recruiting tool history has handed us for ending the oppression of women, children, people of color, and the poor. If the sites people come across when looking for information on radical feminism revolve chiefly around esoteric denunciations infused with snotty, juvenile insults, how can we expect anyone to get on board with the cause? There are venues for the elaboration of theory and there are venues aimed at drawing in outsiders, but the proprietors of both have the responsibility to make themselves clear and accessible — rather than repulsive — to their audiences. That is not a request that women “play nice.” It is a request that feminists use the forums they have at their disposal responsibly.
The task at hand is not to define feminism in such a way that only eight people (of whom I am not one) qualify, it’s to figure out a way to create a world in which no one is beaten, raped, murdered, dehumanized, worked to death, devalued, or shat upon by men as a means for reinforcing male power. That will not be accomplished by using the master’s tools to try to tear down his house, i.e., using dehumanizing language that makes us sound like MRAs against oppressed people, even if some of them act like assholes. Transwomen are not in a position of power, they are not privileged over women except when women choose to efface themselves to give transwomen the stage, even if an individual transwoman feels entitled to talk over everyone. Is the claim that feminist blog discussions are a zero-sum environment in which transwomen’s issues are to be considered only to the ouster of women’s concerns? That’s ridiculous. The internet is a big place, and there is room for everyone who isn’t a complete dick to discuss their perspectives. If a site silences radical feminists (for illegitimate reasons), stop going to the site. There are places that won’t.
Transwomen who call themselves feminists are feminists, if we use the baseline belief that women are human beings as a basic definition of feminism. That some transwomen’s conception of feminism reflects their own experiences rather than those of radical feminists who were born female is to be expected. It’s time to move away from the Second Wave/Third Wave dichotomy and move past the fragmentation of the feminist movement of recent decades. We can find ways to work with feminists who have varying priorities without descending into a radically relativistic individualism that isolates us all from each other, but we’ll have to attempt to figure out how rather than spend our time coming up with clever ways to delegitimize other feminists. Picking someone else’s position apart is far easier than building one of one’s own, but it’s a fairly dead-end pursuit. If the argument truly is that trans people demand more intellectual and political space than is their fair share, why are radical feminists creating entire blogs about them? How much effort needs to be expended on deconstructing trans politics? Does doing so really build radical feminist theory? Or change individual women’s lives for the better?
Note 1: I realize I only discussed transwomen here, which I did because I am responding to discussions in which transwomen are the chief subject. I tend to agree with the view that women transitioning to become men evince internalized misogyny, but that isn’t for this post, nor is it that shocking of an idea, given that everyone in the world is a misogynist.
Note 2: I will be moderating the fuck out of comments.
To be continued…