If that’s what a feminist looks like…

December 17, 2008

For some little while now, I’ve had something of a ‘crisis of faith’ about my relationship with feminism. I believe in the basic principles, as far as they go: the right of women to have political, social, and economic equality with men, according to Wikipedia. That women are inherently equal to men and deserve equal rights and opportunities, in other words. And that those same restrictions on women must be removed in order to bring about the equality of both sexes (via Wiktionary). Which is all well and good – as far as it goes.

I add that disclaimer – as far as it goes – because I disagree with the inherent assumption that the status of men is the ideal to which everybody else should aspire. Undoubtedly my being a trans woman gives me a particular bias, but even so, I’m really not comfortable with an equality which takes cis men’s point of view as its benchmark. I only have to read the statistics about the murders of trans women to know that it’s exclusively violence by cis men that kills my trans sisters. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where that particular solution to the question of cis people’s integration with the trans community was accepted as equally valid by cis women and cis men alike.

I’m also concerned that all the definitions I’ve found online, without exception, uphold the gender binary by referring only to women and men. I assume this to mean cis women and men – and I’m not sure where that leaves me as a trans woman. Excluded as usual, I suspect.

I was recently told, in no uncertain terms, by a cis woman feminist that I shouldn’t be so precious about the prefix ‘trans’. In the time-honoured and privileged way that too many cis women feminists have, she explained to me that I am a woman, nothing more, nothing less and, in effect, should shut up about being trans because she interpreted that as asking for special treatment.

To put it another way, she was telling me to subsume a major part of my identity – my ‘transness’ – and settle for being simply ‘a woman’. Because, obviously, if it’s good enough for her, then it should be good enough for the likes of me, and I should be glad that she even considered me a woman at all. At a stroke she not only recentred discussion away from the specific privileges from which cis women benefit, and which trans women are denied – but also regurgitated the timeworn trans women aren’t real women trope.

And never mind that not using the prefixes ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ further deflects attention away from that particular oppression. Why examine your cis privilege when you can just lash out at the trans woman and instead suggest that, clearly, she’s getting ideas above her station and must be taken down a peg or two?

I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised, by her inability to see past her own privilege: she does not own feminism – although, to witness how aggressively she policed its borders, it was difficult to think otherwise.

She didn’t seem to understand that it’s not her place, as my oppressor, to tell me how I may or may not self-identify; it’s not her place to tell me that the way she identifies me is the only way, the right way. Doing so is akin to telling me to eradicate a fundamental part of my identity and personhood – and she expected me to sit there quietly and put up with her attack. Which, I’m sorry to say, I did, as always. I’m cross with myself now, as always: I dearly wish I was better at thinking on my feet when I’m subjected to onslaughts like this. But I’m not: I need to take things away and think them over, reflect on them – and, perhaps belatedly, this is what I think. Frustratingly, the cis woman feminist is a hundred miles down the road with her privileges and prejudices intact and is unlikely ever to see this. But I need to work through it.

Yes, I am a woman, but I’m also trans – a trans woman. I live with those intersectionalities day in, day out – and I don’t see why I should have to deny such an important part of who I am, just because some random cis woman feminist is uncomfortable with my being trans.

It’s not as if I was asking for special treatment – her disdainful treatment of me showed quite emphatically that she viewed me as an inferior person anyway; I don’t believe for one moment that she even considered me as an equal, let alone a ‘special case’. I also understand the argument that ‘separate is not equal’ – and I’m certainly not interested in tokenising or marginalising myself either.

I ask only this of any cis woman feminist: respect for my right to be trans, to be open and honest about who I am and still be afforded the same rights and liberties as any other woman, be she a lesbian woman, or a black woman, or a Jewish woman, and so on. Quite simply, it’s about acceptance – or rather, a lack of it. Why is it unacceptable for me to self-define as a trans woman? Just what, exactly, is the problem here?

All of this is a fairly roundabout way of saying that the cis woman feminist in question, by virtue of her outburst, seemed to position herself a mere cat’s whisker from the more obnoxious radfems that it has been my misfortune to meet online. In doing that, she reminded me once again that any cis women’s space online can turn dangerously unsafe for a trans woman in a heartbeat.

Which in turn makes me think that a feminism which only includes trans women as long as we stop self-identifying as trans women, as long as we do as we’re told and question nothing, is an exclusive and conditional feminism, in which equality is defined by the oppressors – and I have a big problem with that.

And a cis woman feminist, any cis woman feminist, who can’t – or won’t – accept me as the trans woman I am, effectively bars me from identifying as a feminist – even though that decision is not hers to make. From where I stand, she is not espousing any kind of feminism I can support. Her primary concern, and that of others like her, would seem to be the perpetuation of an ideology which is so grounded in an insidiously toxic transphobia that it creates, by its very existence, a space so hostile to me, that I do not feel able to spend any length of time there. It is not a question of whether or not she will ‘allow’ me to be a trans woman (or a feminist): that’s not her decision, either. Nevertheless, on the one hand, she tells me I am a woman, but on the other hand I’m apparently not woman enough to be a feminist. On my planet, we call that trans-misogyny.

And if that’s what a feminist looks like, it’s not a face I would want to see in my mirror…

Given that I feel unable to identify as a feminist on those terms, I’m now beginning to re-examine what I understand as feminism, and consider whether it has a place in my life; whether it’s an ideology to which I want to subscribe. On the basis of my experience, I can’t help but feel it looks increasingly like a very exclusive club whose main aim is to uphold the status quo for privileged cis women until they gain the same power as (‘equality with’) cis men. But as the truism goes, “A woman is a second-class citizen, but a trans woman is a second-class woman” – and, if cis women get that parity with cis men, then it’s hard to see where equality for trans women comes into the picture if we insist on openly identifying as trans.

I realise that some cis women feminists will tell me that there are as many forms of feminism as there are women, trans and cis; that I’ve just had a few bad experiences with cis women feminists who don’t represent the silent majority, and that everything’s fluffy and lovely if I’d only give it a chance and stop being so mean.

Which leaves me wondering why the majority remains silent; why so few cis women feminists are prepared to vocalise their solidarity with trans women by calling out those cis women who persist in exercising their privilege. Because it seems to me that the constant looking the other way of our allies, at the times when their support would be most useful, helps neither trans women nor feminism.

I need to give this matter a lot more thought, and perhaps I’ll make another post at another time. Meanwhile, I’m bumping up these earlier posts which have some bearing. For reference, so to speak:

ETA: Actually, skimming these older posts as I compiled the list above, there are things I wrote only a few weeks ago that I no longer agree with. It’s a good example of why I consider transitioning to be an ongoing process rather than a finite journey. It may also offer some insight into my antipathy towards cis women feminists who insist that I fit only into categories they define for me and, as a consequence, deny me my own right to self-identification.

Second ETA: Also, while I’m bookmarking things, a few words on the language around trans oppression. Time and again, I have witnessed, and experienced, a variety of verbal attacks by cis women feminists and it has become very easy to fathom the nature of these attacks by considering – from a trans perspective – some of the race-related examples set out by the Unapologetic Mexican in the Wite-Magik Attax section of his Glosario resource pages.

It seems to me that cis privilege and white privilege manifest themselves in very similar ways (this is not to say that one is worse than the other). As an oppressed group, trans women need a language to describe our oppression. UM’s Glosario gives trans women some language that’s based on race, but is applicable to being trans, and Nezua (UM) himself explains this far better than I can in this comment on an earlier post at Lisa’s:

nezua limón xolagrafik-jonez Says:
November 6, 2007 at 12:41 pm

i love that you took my definition and used it in a different way that still applies. others have said the same thing “this could apply in another situation.” what’s great about this is that it shows something
i’m trying to show in a few other places. that WHITE is an illusion, its something anyone can choose to be (even michelle malkin or alberto gonzales), it is not a color, like gold, or peach, or sienna, or amber, it is a mindset, it is a way of seeing and being. so this WHITE i speak of could also apply to a male’s mind, a cisgendered person’s mind, a “brown” person’s mind, any person’s mind. sometimes i try to take the word “WHITE” and show it for what it is, a harmful mindset that devalues the Other. not a color of anyone i know. so i’m happy to have taken part, even not knowing it, in what you have to say, in your own fight for justice.

With that in mind, it is illuminating to re-read Nezua’s definition of Wite-Magik Attax through the lens of being trans:

A predictable series of non-arguments that attempt to denigrate, negate, or invalidate ideas, feelings, or experience as related by a [trans] person. These attacks take many forms, and while each person making the attack thinks their (dys)logic to be unerring, they echo timeless and faulty cognitive patterns. These Wite-Magik Attax invariably escalate in intensity, however, the longer the [trans] person attempts to assert their reality.

I begin to think that the cis woman feminist’s overt hostility towards me was a manifestation of her use of cis privilege as a tool of oppression. How that behaviour relates to transphobia, trans-misogyny and cissexism – and why so many cis women feminists silently condone their sisters behaving in that way – is something which I need to consider further.

9 Responses to “If that’s what a feminist looks like…”

  1. GallingGalla Says:

    I’ve not got much to say except that this post is SPOT ON.

  2. queen emily Says:

    Great post. The fact that a lot of us start out very friendly to feminism–hey, I’m a woman, this must mean me–and then at the very least get very ambivalent about it is clearly indicative of something much larger going on (and duh it’s not our invisible male-privilege getting the best of us). It’s very much about power dynamics and making sure that everything, *especially* conversations about trans issues, centre the comfort and speaking position of cis women.

    Like I said to you earlier, “trans” is taken to negate “woman,” and we get that enough in regular life without seeking it out further from “progressive” movements that are *supposed* to do better. I’m not divorced from feminism, but we’re certainly estranged and having dinners with lots of long awkward silences.

  3. HelenGB Says:

    Great post, I’ve been trying to write that very essay for the last week, but I’m nowhere near as elequent or capable of stringing the strands together.

    My main concern was that, it doesn’t matter how many individual feminists claim to be allies, y’know the whole 3rd wave thing, it’s that so many feminist organisations seem to have an operating default of cis-only. I’m told that most rape crisis centres are cis-only, we know all about the Feminist groups, “women”-only events and Reclaim the Night marches which are trans-unfriendly. It’s not all of them, but just enough to feel I have to ask permission to be accepted as a woman within feminism. I’m always left with the impression that the doubts of any cis-woman in any place are privileged over the possibility of acceptance of a trans-woman. So we end up feeling that much of the time we are not accepted as women, but are just negotiating a temporary privilege of being tolerated, a day-pass that might be rescinded if a cis-woman objects. Which is why we can end up feeling defensive around feminists, always listening out for the “excuse me, but..” moment.

    And because of that group disdain the acceptance of individual feminists, however much they may be the majority, is felt to be the aberration rather than the norm.

  4. HelenGB Says:

    I know you post at F-Word. What’s their view ? I’ve recently had a short dialogue with Laura there on this subject and I’m not sure it went anywhere.

  5. Helen G Says:

    HelenGB: I know you post at F-Word. What’s their view ? I’ve recently had a short dialogue with Laura there on this subject and I’m not sure it went anywhere.

    First of all, I only speak for myself, not for The F-Word.

    Second, you should know that I consider Laura to be a friend as much as a TFW co-blogger. She’s always been very supportive of me when I’ve run into difficulties over trans-related posts and, from posts she’s made – like this one, for example – I think it’s clear that she’s more of an ally to trans women than not.

    However, to my mind, the question of how Reclaim The Night – organised by the London Feminist Network – views trans women is problematic, to say the least. I have had lengthy, and difficult, discussions with several cis women feminists (including individual members of LFN and participants in the RTN march) and it seems to me that the primary difficulty arises because of the vague and nebulous organisational structure of LFN. I understand that LFN is a non-hierarchical group without spokepersons, so I think it’s extremely unlikely that it will ever make a definitive public statement (eg. on the LFN website, or on RTN flyers) because by definition it’s unable to take a representative stance on anything.

    From that interpretation I can only conclude that, while some supporters of RTN may well be allies to me as a trans woman, others will be hostile. It then becomes a question of risk management: if it can be shown that the march is effective, ie. that the levels of nocturnal street violence against trans and cis women have been reduced as a result of the march, then it may be worthwhile for me to attend and take the chance that I’ll be subject to hate speech from some of the participants.

    Finally, I would also repeat that I believe any cis woman feminist, if she truly wishes me to consider her as an ally, must begin to actively start calling her sisters on their cissexist, trans-misogynistic and transphobic views as a matter of urgency. I think this could be an effective way to help change feminism generally from its default state where – as Queen Emily said above“trans” is taken to negate “woman”.

  6. nexyjo Says:

    my first “real” exposure to feminism was during the throws of my transition, when i visited the mwmf message board. as such, i never really embraced it as a personal ideology. as i learned more about it, i found that many feminist tenets paralleled my own views. but i found myself resistant in using the word to define my own personal life. i’m not anti-feminist. i am a student of feminism. but i don’t see myself as a feminist, as i currently understand the term.

  7. Jane Says:

    “I was recently told, in no uncertain terms, by a cis woman feminist that I shouldn’t be so precious about the prefix ‘trans’. In the time-honoured and privileged way that too many cis women feminists have, she explained to me that I am a woman, nothing more, nothing less and, in effect, should shut up about being trans because she interpreted that as asking for special treatment.

    To put it another way, she was telling me to subsume a major part of my identity – my ‘transness’ – and settle for being simply ‘a woman’. Because, obviously, if it’s good enough for her, then it should be good enough for the likes of me, and I should be glad that she even considered me a woman at all…”

    I don’t see what she’s saying as like that at all. All my life, as a woman of trans history, I’ve only wanted to be regarded as a woman. Now, I am fortunate to realise that – my body and mind are as one. When another (non-trans – I hate that ‘cis’ word usage sometimes) woman and Feminist readily accepts me as a woman, then that should be applauded, not derided. One minute we are wishing to be considered women like all others, and don’t like Feminists seperating us as ‘trans women’ (like that’s some sort of invalidation of us as ‘women’), and the next, we’re moaning when they do consider as simply women and trying to lose the ‘trans’ part.

  8. Helen G Says:

    Jane: “I don’t see what she’s saying as like that at all. All my life, as a woman of trans history, I’ve only wanted to be regarded as a woman. Now, I am fortunate to realise that – my body and mind are as one. When another (non-trans – I hate that ‘cis’ word usage sometimes) woman and Feminist readily accepts me as a woman, then that should be applauded, not derided. One minute we are wishing to be considered women like all others, and don’t like Feminists seperating us as ‘trans women’ (like that’s some sort of invalidation of us as ‘women’), and the next, we’re moaning when they do consider as simply women and trying to lose the ‘trans’ part.”

    I identify as a trans woman – nothing more, nothing less and it makes me cross that other people are not prepared to accept me as such. I’m not trying to lose the ‘trans’ part; all I want is for my wish to self-identify as a trans woman to be respected and I don’t understand why that’s a problem.

    You talk about invalidation and as far as I’m concerned, a cis woman feminist who will not accept my wish is invalidating my self-identification by reframing the discussion in cis women’s terms.

  9. queenemily Says:

    Yeah. Well that’s not a clearcut thing, it’s all in the context yeah. It *could*–and has ime–sometimes mean “I accept your being a woman so you don’t call me transphobic as I’ve heard that’s bad. Now, STFU up on specific issues important to trans women (eg law reform for gender recognition, access to hormones) and don’t remind me of the ways I may be more privileged than you.”


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