Will the last trans person to leave feminist Blogdonia please turn off the lights?

September 11, 2008

The Bear Garden in Southwark, AD1574It’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.

20 Responses to “Will the last trans person to leave feminist Blogdonia please turn off the lights?”

  1. Emily Says:

    I know exactly how you feel… I’ve found myself in too many situations in the feminist and lesbian worlds where the animosity towards transsexual women is so strong that I’ve left, wondering if I will ever dare to try to be accepted in a female-focussed space again. However, there are some trans-friendly feminist spaces, the Hoyden About Town and the Finally a Feminism 101 Blog sites are openly against trans-exclusion.

    I’m trying to build a list of trans-friendly female spaces and am slowly putting it onto a post on my blog, but as a newcomer to the blogging world I’m finding it difficult… Is this not something that more of us can colaborate on?

    I need to find some safe spaces and I need to get my sense of faith back that female spaces can be trans-inclusive. I guess there are plenty of us out there who feel the same.

  2. Emily Says:

    (Sorry for the bad grammar and typing in that last post… I’m writing all this whilst trying to pay attention in a boring meeting!!!)

  3. Helen G Says:

    Hello Emily, thanks for stopping by…

    I hate to sound twitter and bisted ;) but I’m less and less sure that any cis women’s space can ever be entirely trans friendly, all the time. And it only needs one transphobe to start and all hell will inevitably break loose…

    Also, more often than not it seems to me, transphobic attacks are likely to come from commenters (although blog authors do say provocative things from time to time) – which leaves us dependent on a site’s commenting policy for our safety. And if comments are published automatically, or if there are no moderators, or they aren’t especially skilled, or if it’s simply the case that the troll circus is in town, then we are, as they say, dogmeat.

  4. Emily Says:

    Yes, you’re very right indeed, but maybe I’m just being overly optimistic… I’d like to encourage those sites that do make some sort of stance in our favour. I’m tired of fighting the same old battles and when a site owner or a location owner decides to be actively trans-inclusive that is a first step in getting open support from cisgendered people.

    The transphobic attacks will undoubtedly continue, but at least we can fall back on the fact that these attacks go against the ideals of the site.

  5. Helen G Says:

    Optimism is a Good Thing :)

    But it’s telling that we need to refer to a fight: that simply shouldn’t be so. Trans and cis, our aims are broadly similar (IMO) and the fighting and backbiting, the talk of reification and the table-thumping demands that we justify our existence – these are all merely tactics to keep us marginalised and oppressed. And that needs to stop.

    There is no need for it and certainly no justification that I can see. But given that the transphobes are not interested in a word that trans people say, then it would be useful work for cis allies to do, to help the transphobes understand that we can co-exist.

    The debate needs recentring, refocusing, to bring it into line with attitudes appropriate for this century, not the last.

    Whatever happened to the Third Wave? ;)

  6. Emily Says:

    You’re right… We need to go beyond the discussions we’re having now, but are the radical wing of the cissexists going to allow that to happen? Are we ever going to have a space where those characters won’t creep in with their black, bigoted view of the world.

    Shouldn’t we be working with those who are publically supportive of us to encourage them and thus give less of a ground for the bigots to play in?

    As for the Third Wave, I think it got hijacked and it’s a bunch of people who don’t like us who are surfing it.

  7. Helen G Says:

    I agree that we need to move the discussion on, and also that those cis feminists who have voiced support need to get onboard with us sooner rather than later.

    As regards the transphobic cultural feminists (I don’t consider them ‘radical’ in any shape or form), I don’t actually see it as a question of whether they’re going to allow us – trans women and our cis feminist allies – to work together or not. They seem to be overlooking the simple fact that we don’t actually need their permission. For anything.

    It seems that the obvious thing would be for trans women and cis feminist allies to get on and ‘just do it’, to coin a phrase. Unfortunately cis feminist allies don’t seem to realise that they must start making a contribution which is more than just lip-service. Mere words are not enough: for starters, cis feminist allies need to understand that they stand to benefit from a meaningful and constructive alliance with us – it’s not a question of them doing us some big favour for which we should be eternally grateful.

    And I have to say that many of them still have a lot of work to do on their cis privilege if they really expect us to view them as our equals.

  8. Helen G Says:

    Drakyn (whose comment I’ve just stupidly deleted) – thank you for the kind words; it’s really great that there are people like you around.

    Thank you
    (((hugs)))

  9. Emily Says:

    And I have to say that many of them still have a lot of work to do on their cis privilege if they really expect us to view them as our equals.

    No arguing from me there!!! :)

  10. queen emily Says:

    Absolutely, Helen.

    I think why I largely feel pessimistic about allies is I can only think of a very small handful who have anything to say about trans issues besides the occasional post about whatever round of the Trans Wars it is. It’s a hard slog trying to avoid getting constantly bogged down in 101 bullshit.

    And I’m not even talking about the hardcore rad-fem “trans people shouldn’t transition/talk/exist” contingent…

  11. Lisa Harney Says:

    but are the radical wing of the cissexists going to allow that to happen?

    It won’t happen on my own or at least some other trans blogs.

    When they do this on other not-radical feminist blogs, it’s not because they had the power to stop us from conversing, but because the person or people managing the blog didn’t put a stop to it. They don’t have the power to allow us.

    This is part of the problem of talking about “inclusion” for the past forever, is that many of us implicitly accepted the radfem framework and justify ourselves within it: Reassure we’re just like them, deal with their silencing “You have male privilege” tactic, argue with them whether we’re really women, justify ourselves in their gender-as-a-social-construct model which is I might add just plain wrong. Not that gender isn’t a social construct, but the way they describe it (that is, when discussing trans women, they explicitly link gender to birth sex).

    Everything they argue is from a cissexist framework and thus wrong, and we need to make our own arguments and blow them off. No point in dealing with them until they accept some accountability for the violence they’ve done to trans women.

    Also: I call them radical feminists because they call themselves radical feminists. If they want that label, they should be accountable to it.

  12. Helen G Says:

    Queen Emily: I’ve pretty much given up on the cultfems now, I don’t care which brand of feminism they’re peddling. They’re a waste of time and energy and I’m having none of it; it’s time to sideline them. They have no credibility and are ideologically bankrupt to boot. I have nothing more to say about them at the moment.

    And those who would be our allies need to buck their ideas up; there’s been too much dilettante faffing about for too long – it’s no wonder trans people are disengaging from the debates. Possibly the most frustrating part is that the majority of cis feminists don’t even seem to have noticed – or if they have, I suspect they’re quietly relieved.

    “Honestly, those weird incomprehensible trans people with their… ideas, complicating our nice simple theories with their inconvenient, messy realities and having the nerve to be so different from us, well, I mean, really…”

  13. Helen G Says:

    Lisa: yes, absolutely, I couldn’t agree more – it’s not their prerogative even to define the terms of engagement, let alone trans peoples’ existences.

  14. Helen G Says:

    Lisa: I wonder why those who have the power to put a stop to the disruptive interruptions of the transphobes fail to do so. If it’s the old cliche about “disagreeing with what you say but defending your right to say it”, well then, Houston we have a problem.

    Historically that kind of woolly liberal thinking is hijacked by neo-fascist elements to justify expressing their bigotry and prejudice – admittedly allowing hate speech on the grounds of freedom of expression is an untenable position – but the transphobes are nothing if not disingenuous: “Oh you didn’t let us vent our hate speech on the gender traitors, those dreadful trans people, therefore you’re censoring us”.

  15. Lisa Harney Says:

    But, that’s just it, they do have the right to vent their hate speech somewhere. No one is obligated to let them do it in their living room, though. Or their blog. And some service providers have TOS that disallow any kind of hate speech at all.

    That whole “You’re censoring us” thing is bullshit, because they can go back to Witchy’s, or m Andrea’s, or Heart’s, or Sparklematrix, or Polly’s when she has a blog up, and say whatever the hell they want about trans people. They can vent their misogynist spleens to their hearts’ content.

    No one should be letting them spout this elsewhere, though. It’s not a difference of opinion over which reasonable people can disagree – it’s a declaration of war on our bodies.

    But we’re not unique, it happens with racism and ableism, too. And strangely, the anti-trans radical feminists tend to be racist, ableist, and misogynist in equal parts.


  16. Incremental success is happening. After my recent post about racism/transphobia, I got two *vicious* emails from radical feminist-cissexists, but I am encouraged that neither felt comfortable in posting the comments publicly on my blog! HA! Busted. They do not want to be held accountable for their shit, do not want it quoted. The cissexists are going stealth!

    And its interesting that was one of the points I made in my post, that it was still publicly acceptable to be transphobic… Well, maybe I was wrong, and at least in progressive circles, you can’t do that anymore without some serious repercussions.

    I just wish they would go away and stop bothering everyone. Excellent title! :)

  17. Helen G Says:

    Daisy: Un-fucking-believable. Only in Blogdonia, eh? ;)

    Seriously, they’ve had their fifteen minutes, and their credibility is in tatters.

    Lights out in 5.. 4… 3… 2…

  18. polerin Says:

    It’s funny, I’d posted several times at polly’s on non-trans subjects, and she marked me as not needing moderation moderation, but as soon as she posted a trans article, and I commented on it I needed moderation again. Because I’m such a vicious evil ugly troll. I never even managed to get a comment live on Heart’s or mAndrea’s.

    Time for me to go back to my bridge. I hear there’s a couple goats running around.

  19. Lisa Harney Says:

    It takes work to chill the public stuff down, and really, it is still acceptable in a lot of venues. It doesn’t make it worse, but it removes accountability.

  20. Lisa Harney Says:

    Well, polerin, if you were a well-behaved tranny like Steph, and willing to participate in bashing the rest of us along with Polly, I bet she’d take you off moderation again.


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