It’s clear that – if they even think about it at all – many cis feminists will put the onus on trans people to find a way to break down the continuing essentialism and transphobia emanating from some areas of feminist Blogdonia. Given the numbers of trans people (the NHS estimates 1:4000 in the UK, whilst an earlier statistically-based calculation suggests a figure nearer 1:1400), it’s obvious we cannot do this work entirely on our own – assuming we even decide to drink from that particular poisoned chalice in the first place. Trans-hostile attitudes as entrenched and institutionalised as those propagated by many internet-based cis feminists, will not be changed overnight, and that is quite a dispiriting thought to start such a colossal undertaking with.
However, in theory, allies have much to offer, and there’s no reason why cis feminists shouldn’t be substantively supportive of trans people, even though it seems that most potential allies will inevitably request that, first of all, trans people educate them. Although such requests are underpinned by issues of privilege and entitlement, if the allies are sincere, then time spent educating them may actually be more of an investment than an overhead. Having said that, there are plenty of resources available online – JFGI and type in trans 101. And Gauge’s post Can We Stop Using the Term Ally? should be compulsory (and salutory) reading for any would-be ally.
As should the essay Whose Ally? by Michelle O’Brien, in which ze highlights the following three problem areas that ze has encountered while running trans 101 workshops:
- definitions: most trans 101 workshops include some list of definitions of words like ‘trans’ ‘assigned gender’, ‘transgender’, etc. obviously this is necessary – many people don’t have any idea what I’m talking about. Unfortunately, this can have a hidden oppressive cost. all trans people have spent parts or all of our lives grossly misdefined, mislabeled, misrecognized. we are an especially sensitive lot to the violence of defining. I know that as transsexual is mostly defined, I wouldn’t qualify — and I know the pain of that translating into questioning *(being used to question? This phrasing is awkward) my legitimacy, my worth, my right to healthcare. So it’s really crucial to both define these words, and recognize everyone’s right to self-definition. I’ve come up with some vague solutions: having all the trans people present self-label themselves as they see fit, and then give their own definitions to each word, for example. But I’m still struggling with it.
- freaky curiosity. I think trans people primarily function in our society as freaky spectacle. everyone is curious what trans people’s genitals look like, what sort of sex we have, how we could possibly have gotten this weird. mostly, I think such curiosity functions as a violent form of transphobia, a constant assault on the bodies, privacy and lives of trans people. some trans people, in doing such workshops, choose to show their genitals (!) and answer very personal questions. I respect this as their choice. I also think something is very wrong with the context that would ever ask them to do so. the main way that I deal with this is to call on people to be honest about their questions, but also to think about appropriateness. it isn’t okay to ask trans people questions about their bodies you wouldn’t ask of a non-trans person.
- tokenization. There are so few of us out in a public view, and our society is so transphobic, that I think every trans person faces this intense pressure to be a visible token, a representative of all trans people and the experiences of trans people. Many notable trans writers, artists and intellectuals fall into this trap – using their own experience as a way of forging a whole politics of gender identity. These dynamics of trans people standing in for other trans people get especially horrific when one looks more closely at issues of race and class. Black, working class trans women in Philadelphia, for example, are publicly visible only after they are dead. I think this is true of many poor trans people of color. Meanwhile white, privileged trans people end up in jobs like mine or writing books, visible public representatives. Such colonization of people’s experiences in the interests of white supremacy is totally not okay on any level. Again, I’ve found small ways of trying to at least explicitly recognize this in workshops, but mostly think it’s a central impasse in the structure.
Michelle adds that, although it should be possible to resolve all of these issues, hir experience has made hir realise that workshops on their own don’t necessarily challenge anyone. It’s not enough just to provide definitions and relate one’s personal experience as a trans woman. As Michelle says:
[…] any non-trans person is capable, in each and every moment, of letting go of all their transphobic exoticizing bullshit. Capable of just showing me genuine respect, listening to what I have to say, and changing something profound in themselves.
It seems to me that this letting go just isn’t happening, and neither is the listening – to be blunt, if a cis feminist wants to be an ally to trans people, then be an ally. Fine words and empty promises mean nothing if they’re not backed up with words and/or actions of substance – and, crucially, those words and/or actions must be as timely as they are appropriate.
On more than one occasion I have seen trans women venture into feminist spaces online, in good faith, only to find themselves almost immediately under attack from transphobic cis feminists – and I, too, have experienced this first-hand. The thought occurs that these would have been appropriate times for cis allies to join the debate in support of their trans sisters. But time and again it is left to trans people to look out for each other in these sort of exchanges. It’s impossible not to notice that cis feminist allies are scarce, and the support they offer is often too tentative to be effective.
For me, the outcome of these verbal batterings is that my self-confidence has diminished to the point where I’m now reluctant to engage in almost any cis feminists’ spaces online, because it feels like the only ‘safe’ option is to consider those spaces to be trans hostile by default, and to act accordingly. So I’m on the defensive from the moment I enter such a space, and that is an attitude which is not exactly conducive to calm, reasoned discussion – but perhaps that’s the intention.
Lisa really hit the nail on the head in this comment:
Of course, I do feel safer in women-only spaces, so I don’t think safety is a complete illusion, but the fact is that my safety is conditional: If someone decides she doesn’t like me for being trans, that safety can be swept away in a second. I assume any space will turn drastically unsafe at any time.
I’ve heard it said by a couple of non-trans people that it’s only a minority of cis feminists who are transphobic, but I feel this misses the point – and how can you tell anyway? As Lisa points out, it only takes one hostile cis person to make a space unsafe for all trans people. And we shouldn’t forget that each and every one of that transphobic minority has, at one time or another, made it very clear that they do not want trans women in what they consider to be “their space”. With attitudes as hard-faced and intractable as that, I can only wonder if there is any point in a trans woman even trying to engage – anything we say will simply aggravate the transphobes and make an already hostile space too uncomfortable to remain in.
It is in circumstances like these that assistance from allies would have been helpful. But recently, it seems to me – and I surely can’t be the only one to notice – that there has been a significant withdrawal of trans women from cis feminist spaces online. This is extremely disheartening, but from my point of view it’s also entirely understandable given the lack of support we get from cis allies. The underlying assumption of many cis feminists appears to be that there is an entitlement to cis privilege above all, and the outcome of that attitude is the further and continuing oppression of trans women. It is an entirely natural, and valid, reaction for trans women to disengage from spaces where we are so obviously not welcome. Marginalisation, oppression, abuse, hate speech, discrimination, bigotry – all of these things, and more, are readily doled out to us in our daily lives. We don’t go out looking for it, and we certainly don’t need more of it online. And surely, we cannot reasonably be expected to stay around for that kind of treatment.
So now I find myself caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place: although I’d like to continue my attempts to communicate with cis feminists online, I’m simply not interested in finding myself in yet another pointless fight with people whose minds are already made up.
I don’t especially want to disengage, but if I’m going to be left to fend for myself in a Blogdonian bear garden, then I must ask myself why I would even want to expose myself to verbal attacks of that sort of ferocity. It’s tough enough that so many other trans women seem to have disengaged, but add to that the apparent scarcity and complacency of cis allies, and it becomes very hard for this trans woman to find anything positive to say about the current state of internet feminism.