Last Thursday I was with 150 other people at a protest outside an awards ceremony taking place at the V&A Museum in London. It strikes me as being entirely appropriate that Stonewall UK – an organization with a positively prehistoric attitude to trans people – should hold, in a museum, an event which some might see as a celebration of its dinosaur-like irrelevancy.
At the same time, on the other side of the entrance, a counter-protest was held by a dozen supporters of one of the nominees – a lifestyle columnist whose recent claim to fame has been the volume and intensity of the transphobic hate speech encapsulated in her published articles.
The self-styled fan club, and the celebrity journalist herself, had at least two things in common: they’re cis (non-trans) women, and they’re feminists. And therein lies the rub. Because I’m a trans woman – and I also believe in the basic principles of feminism. So how come that small group of cis women feminists ended up standing opposite our rainbow alliance of people from across the gender spectrum, resolute and implacable in their hostility towards us?
Surely we all want the same thing, don’t we – equality for all?
How did we end up at this impasse? Maybe I misunderstood, but I thought that feminism was about ending the oppression of women – all women – not perpetuating it. And that simple phrase offers a clue to one of the causes (if not the central cause) of the problem: “all women”. Because, according to the journalist, trans women aren’t real women. We’re just men in dresses.
Except we’re not. I identify as a woman, and I live as a woman. And although I was assigned male at birth – I have never denied or made a secret of that – I have transitioned legally, socially and medically. To all intents and purposes, and in every practical way that society can think of, I am a woman. And I don’t need the approval of thirteen cis feminists for that. Sadly, those cis feminists – and there are others – believe in an essentialism best summed up as “biology is destiny” (whatever happened to “our bodies, our choice”?). “Once a man, always a man”, or so they would have us believe. That they cannot prove that I’m not a woman is clearly a source of vexation for them. Yet they persist with the propagation of an intense hatred of trans women which, if it was instead the manifestation of, let’s say, racism, would not be tolerated by any right-thinking human. Indeed, it would be illegal. (For clarity: I’m not saying that transphobia is worse than racism, or vice versa). But their cissexual supremacist attitudes raise questions which are routinely ignored by many, perhaps most, other cis feminists.
I now think that the silent majority of cis feminists should no longer continue looking the other way and excusing hate speech as an acceptable part of the ‘diversity of feminism’. To do so positions the feminist in the same place as Stonewall, with its self-promotion as a ‘diversity champion’ professing to work against transphobia at the same time as it condones one of the UK’s most prolific writers of transphobic tracts.
Important decisions need to be made: if a cis feminist is truly an ally to trans people, then she needs to decide what she’s going to do about the transphobia which informs the writings of the journalist in question, and others like her. But to do that, the cis feminist first needs to examine her own attitudes to trans people. She needs to recognise, and come to terms with, her own cis privilege(s) and potentially cissexist and trans-misogynist attitudes.
What I’m interested in at the moment, what’s been preoccupying my thoughts since the protest, is why the many other cis feminists who profess not to hold the same transphobic views of that minority in their midst, and who say that they are our friends, allies and supporters continue to tolerate the oppression of trans women by a minority of their sisters in feminism.
Some cis feminists will argue that the journalist has, in her time, said and done good things for feminism, but as far as I’m concerned, any good work she may have once done is far outweighed by the oppression of trans people that she has meted out so relentlessly for so many years. We cannot, must not, overlook the fact that she continues to argue against civil rights for trans people; she continues to argue against our rights to change our bodies – actions which keep many of us alive. This is hate speech, pure and simple, and should not be condoned in the name of any creed – and particularly not in the name of feminism.
The message of her most recent post seems to be, to quote Greta Garbo, “I want to be alone”. I suspect that she has, once again, misinterpreted the situation and is now confusing solitude with self-imposed isolation. And the irony of a woman who appears to court publicity at any cost, using the platform of a national newspaper to voice a request to be left alone is not lost. But, it must be said that, given the hurt and distress she has caused many trans people with her ignorant and spiteful words, it is tempting simply to wave her off as she packs her spotted hanky on a stick and walks into the sunset.
However, I am not convinced that such a dramatic exit is an acceptable end to the matter. The subject is far from closed and there are too many loose ends left untied. So I propose an alternative course of action: I suggest that she stays and – finally – enters fully into the debate, as she has so often indicated she wants to do. And it seems to me that this would be the ideal opportunity for our cis feminist friends and allies to meet the challenge and join with us to ask her, once more, the hard questions to which she has singularly failed to respond in the past.
Photos are taken from onequeerone’s Stonewall Protest photo set and used in compliance with the Creative Commons License for non-commercial use.
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