Rethinking Sexism: How Trans Women Challenge Feminism

August 5, 2008

The world’s largest annual women-only event excludes trans women, sparking a debate among feminists about sexism and privilege.

By Julia Serano, AlterNet. Posted August 5, 2008

6-page article.
The comments section should be approached with caution.

(I’ve since discovered the print version, which is just the essay in plain text, no adverts – and best of all, no comments section. Link here)

ETA: Having re-read Laura’s uplifting and very perceptive/pertinent post at TFW – called In which a cis feminist has a serious and long overdue rethink – over lunch, I took a print-out of Julia Serano’s essay with me for company on my journey to my appointment with the speech therapist this afternoon.

And if ever a blockquote leaped off the page at me, it was this one:

Over the last five years, trans feminine feminists have begun to articulate a new perspective on feminism and trans activism that better captures our own experiences dealing with sexism. This approach is not so much rooted in queer theory as it is in intersectionality — a theory that grew out of the work of feminists of color, most thoroughly chronicled by Patricia Hill Collins, and perhaps first discussed in relation to the MWMF trans woman-exclusion issue by Emi Koyama. Intersectionality states that different forms of oppression do not act independently of one another, but rather they interact synergistically. Unlike queer theory and lesbian-feminism, intersectionality focuses primarily on the ways in which people are institutionally marginalized, rather than fixating on whether any given individual’s identity or behaviors “reinforce” or “subvert” the gender system.

According to this view, trans women lie at the intersection of (at least) two types of sexism. The first is cissexism, which is the societal-wide tendency to view transsexual gender identities and sex embodiments as being less legitimate than those of cissexuals — that is, nontranssexuals. (Note: the word “cisgender” is similarly used as a synonym for nontransgender.) Cissexism functions in a manner analogous to heterosexism: Transsexual gender identities and homosexual/bisexual orientations are both typically viewed as being inherently questionable, unnatural, morally suspect, and less socially and legally valid than their cissexual and heterosexual counterparts. Not only does cissexism institutionally marginalize transsexual individuals, but it privileges cissexuals, rendering their genders and sexed bodies as unquestionable, unmarked and taken for granted (similar to how heterosexual attraction and relationships are privileged in our culture).

While all transsexuals face cissexism, trans women experience this form of sexism as being especially exacerbated by traditional sexism. For example, trans women are routinely hyper-sexualized in our society, especially in the media, where we are regularly depicted as fetishists, sexual deceivers, sex workers and/or in a sexually provocative fashion (trans men, in contrast, are not typically depicted in this way). The common presumption that trans women transition to female for sexual reasons seems to be based on the premise that women as a whole have no worth beyond their ability to be sexualized. Furthermore, most of the societal consternation, ridicule and violence directed at trans people focuses on individuals on the trans feminine spectrum — often specifically targeting our desire to be female or our feminine presentation. While trans men experience cissexism, their desire to be male/masculine is typically not mocked or derided in the same way — to do so would bring maleness/masculinity itself into question. Thus, those of us on the trans feminine spectrum don’t merely experience cissexism or “transphobia” so much as we experience trans-misogyny.

Trans feminine perspectives on sexism have shaken up the dynamics of long-standing feminist debates about trans individuals and inclusion. For example, lesbian-feminist critiques of queer theory and transgender activism have charged that focusing primarily on transgressing or blurring the distinction between “woman” and “man” does nothing to address the affect that traditional sexism has on women’s lives. Trans feminine feminists typically agree with this lesbian-feminist critique and further extend it to address the many ways in which traditional sexism impacts our own lives, both as women and as trans women.

Trans feminine feminists have also taken issue with the ways in which others have defined and positioned us in the MWMF inclusion debate. For example, queer theorists and transgender activists often argue for inclusion on the basis that transgender people transgress or subvert the gender binary. Trans women have challenged this approach for being both masculine-centric (as it favors trans masculine individuals) and cissexist (as the presumption that we blur or subvert the gender binary is the direct result of people viewing us as “fake” and “illegitimate” women in the first place). Lesbian-feminists, on the other hand, typically argue that trans women should be denied entrance into women-only spaces such as MWMF because we were born and socialized male. These claims are also masculine-centric (as they emphasize supposedly “male/masculine” aspects of our history over our female identities and lived experiences as women) and cissexist (as they presume that our female identities are less legitimate than those of cissexual women).

I really do recommend reading the whole thing.

Even later edit: Nexy spotted the the perfect comment.  I <3 Drea ^_^


One Response to “Rethinking Sexism: How Trans Women Challenge Feminism”

  1. […] it. I’m going to blame a silly digression on Julia’s LJ for forgetting. Helen G has quoted a particularly relevant section in her post about the article about cissexism and sexism and how it affects trans women, which […]

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