Gender Politics

February 15, 2009

Gender PoliticsFeminism and Trans

Transgender has been a divisive and volatile issue for the feminist movement, with disputes concerning the presence of transsexual women in women-only space taking place since the 1970s. Feminist debates about transgender have centred around the work of (mostly radical) feminists, especially Janice Raymond, Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys and also, more recently, Germaine Greer. Jeffreys, Daly and Greer broadly follow the work of Raymond, who argued that transsexuals who identify as women are really men, and that transsexuality is a patriarchal means of reinforcing gender sterotypes. Raymond saw MTF transsexuals as deceptively invading women’s space, minds and emotions. […]

The radical feminist stance on trans has had a profound and damaging impact on relations between trans people and the feminist movement. Since the feminist debates of the 1970s, typified by Raymond’s position on transsexuality, transsexual women have experienced a very considerable amount of exclusion from the lesbian and feminist communities. This has included, for instance, female transsexual employees in women’s organisations being forced to resign, transsexual women who have been raped being refused support by Rape Crisis Centres, and Women’s Centres refusing them access. […] the radical feminist position [is] seen as victim-blaming, abusive, erasing of trans people’s agency, and limited, given the many gender positions that trans people occupy. […]

Raymond’s work is seriously flawed in a number of ways. Methodologically, her research can be seen as unethical because she deceived her subjects when gaining access by failing to let them know she had an anti-transsexual agenda and misrepresented them by, for example by denying their experience of being female by referring to them as male. This goes against feminist methodological guidelines such as honesty and empowerment of participants. Raymond’s notion of transsexuals invading and taking over women’s space are largely unfounded: […] the thinking is irrational – transsexuals have not been known to rape women, and the use of rape as a metaphor is insulting to rape victims and denies the extent to which transsexuals are at risk of sexual abuse. Raymond’s account is problematic in other ways; theoretically and in terms of political strategy. She shifts between biologist and constructionist accounts of gender. She argues that transsexual women are unequal to genetic women because they are born male […] Raymond’s constructionist account is also problematic: she sees transsexual women avoiding experience of patriarchy because they are brought up as male. […] many transsexual women experienced themselves to be female early in their lives, and have acted accordingly, only to be sanctioned by the gender normative system. In addition, transsexual women experience sexism in the same way as other women. The idea that transsexual women cannot construct themselves as female is dangerous; it locks us into a gender determinist position where people are seen as being unable to change.

It appears that the issue at the root of the radical feminist attack on trans is the perceived threat that transgender poses to radical feminism. […] trans poses difficulties for this branch of feminism, because radical feminism rests on the notion of discrete male and female categories and an equation of men and masculinity with oppression. Trans scrambles gender binaries, because trans people cross genders, or exist between or outside of female/male categories. The difficulties that this raises for feminism have led to gender inconsistency being suppressed. […]

Why has the radical, separatist stance on transgender had such a purchase on the feminist, lesbian and trans communities? It is partly because of the historical context in which it was developed: a women’s community that was formed in reaction to women’s experiences of male domination and oppression and that perceived itself to be embattled. Non-trans women’s fears, grounded in the realities of women’s inequality, became manifest via the scapegoating of gender minorities. This was possible because the fundamental aspects of radical and separatist feminisms meant that people who transgressed gender binaries […] did not fit within a gender binaried worldview. Perhaps the impact that these types of stance had is also linked to the way in which they diametrically opposed the dominant medical construction of transsexuality. There was a lack of a middle ground, where the progressive part of Raymond’s work – the critique of a homophobic, sexist, gender-binaried medical establishment – could be utilised, but the transphobic part rejected. This has been compounded by the lack of feminist discourse that is supportive of trans people (including transsexuals), with the exception of the work of trans authors such as Feinberg and others such as Califia. The post-structuralist, postmodernist, and diversity oriented accounts of gender that have affected other areas of feminist thought have not yet fully impacted on feminist accounts of trans – or on feminist grassroots politics concerning gender diversity.


[…] feminist prejudice against trans people and bisexuals – and the resulting exclusion of these groups from women’s organisations and feminist politics – is unjustifiable for a range of reasons. Trans and bisexuality challenge the gender binarism that lies at the heart of radical and feminist separatisms, and feminists of this ilk reject these identities because they do not fit into a binaried analysis, even where people of these groups support gender and sexual equality – as many do.

From Gender Politics: Citizenship, Activism and Sexual Diversity by Surya Monro



3 Responses to “Gender Politics”

  1. queen emily Says:

    Wow. A feminist writer who talks about trans WOMEN, not transwomen, transmen, transpeople and transpolitics and our sparkley transaccessories. That whole piece is just right otm.

    Is she trans herself, do you know?

  2. Helen G Says:

    I don’t know if she’s trans or not; if she’s not, then her empathy and understanding is even more remarkable.

    ETA: But yeah, can’t think if I’ve seen a more concise deconstruction of the subject anywhere. I can almost understand what she says about Foucault/Derrida too :)

  3. […] Gender Politics (tags: feminism trans)   […]

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