This piece has been substantially edited from its original version. It was written during a time of widespread discussion of transgender politics on radical feminist blogs. For example, you can see a thoughtful, interesting, and calm thread here.
I’m thrilled that this controversy has exploded into the mainstream feminist blogosphere; it had so long seemed a focus only in the “queer” “community,” and since I think it has serious implications for feminism as a whole (or for the various feminisms, depending on your perspective) I’m really glad that straight/liberal feminists are getting exposed to the questions it raises.
A parenthetical note on terminology:
Since naming is part of what is so contested in this debate, I’m going to briefly define the terms I use. This should not be read as an attempt to impose these definitions on anyone; nor do I believe that my definitions necessarily agree with the way other people use these terms. I’m not even going to claim they’re necessarily scientifically or politically correct. My purpose here is simply to ensure that readers are as aware as I can make you of what I mean when I use these terms.
Sex: The biological reproductive capacity and chromosomal makeup of an organism. Mammalian sexes are female, male, and ambiguous or intersex.
Sexuality: The capacity and desire of humans to engage in mutually pleasurable and intimate physical contact. This activity may or may not lead to reproduction.
Female: A mammalian organism that has a vagina, uterus and ovaries, produces ova and at sexual maturity has the capacity to nurture live young within her body and give birth to live young.
Male: A mammalian organism that has a penis and testes, and at sexual maturity produces sperm.
Woman: An adult human female.
Man: An adult human male.
Sex roles: The social and sexual attitudes and behaviors expected of individuals based on being categorized at birth as male or female; western patriarchal sex roles are “masculinity” for men and “femininity” for women. (Note, please, that this is the term I use for what other folks call “gender.” “Gender” has gotten its definitive edges so rolled off in the pomo polisher that it is not useful for my purposes.)
Transwoman: A male human who voluntarily and purposefully takes on the sex role expected of a female (i.e., femininity), and/or who undergoes cosmetic and/or physiologic changes to display secondary female sex characteristics.
Transman: A female human who voluntarily and purposefully takes on the sex role of a male (i.e., masculinity), and/or who undergoes cosmetic and/or physiologic changes to display secondary male sex characteristics.
lesbian-feminist: A woman whose emotional, social, political and sexual life is centered on women/lesbians.
Let it also be said up front that I recognize the transgender and transsexual movements are composed of many different ideologies, which do not necessarily agree with each other any more than they agree with me. I’m aware that there are minority viewpoints within the transgender movement (as there are within radical feminism and among lesbians). I’m aware that there are transgender and transsexual people working in many movements for liberation. So if you’re a transgender activist and you don’t do X or Y thing that I’m critiquing, don’t bother sending me a cranky email about how I can’t characterize your movement that way because you don’t do or believe or think X or Y. I’m not pulling this out of my ass, people. I’ve been talking and reading about feminism and transgender for years now. I’ve read Feinberg and Califia and McCloskey and Morris and Wilchins; I drove an hour each way to see “Beautiful Daughters” and “Toilet Training.” I’m a veteran of the Michigan boards circa 2003-2004, and “veteran” is absolutely the right word for those of us who participated in those debates. If we act like we have PTSD when this topic comes up, well, there’s a reason for that.
I also don’t want to hear how any of this is so easy for me and I don’t know what I’m talking about, because don’t forget, I am a 400-pound bearded lesbian. I am about as freakish as they come in this culture, and I live that every day. I know how people react to people who are different, what they say, how they point and laugh, how confused or snide or hostile they get when they think they know what to call you, and then they don’t. I know what it’s like to be endlessly ostracized, taunted, and ridiculed by peers as a child. I know what it’s like to be criticized and found wanting day in and day out within one’s own family. I know what it’s like to be told, and believe, that your body is wrong. I know what it’s like to not get a job because you don’t have “the right look.” As a woman, even if an “unsuccessful” one, I also live every day with the same threat of male violence and rape that every nonmale, including transwomen and transmen, lives with. So believe me, when I talk about sex role nonconformity, I know where-fuckin-of I speak.
The pith: I am a radical lesbian-feminist separatist. This is not an identity. Lesbian-feminism is a political orientation. That is why, when I want to be super-clear, I sometimes talk about “advocating” or “practicing” radical lesbian feminist separatism. But maybe, for now, you’d be willing to read “I am a lesbian-feminist separatist” as “I’m practicing, and advocating the practice of, lesbian-feminist separatism to undermine women’s oppression.”
As a radical lesbian feminist separatist, I claim as my heritage lesbian-feminist politics and culture. And I want to be very clear that what is contested here is the existence of that culture, and who will define the terms of its existence. This is demonstrated, perhaps most clearly, by the relentless protest targeting the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and the fact that a major source of the momentum behind that protest comes from (to use the festival’s terminology) “women-born-women.” To some extent, the transgender movement is being used by certain lesbians in an attempt to gain control over the definition and future direction of lesbian-feminist culture, to continue the trend of focusing away from women- and lesbian-identified lesbians and our interests.
This disregard for and denial of lesbian-feminist culture is demonstrated by the demands of Camp Trans, and others, that artists who perform at Michigan should be banned from “queer” events throughout the rest of the year–artists who, in many cases, have dedicated their lives to feminist activism and the creation of lesbian-feminist music, writing, and art. Their lesbian performances, and their lesbian-feminist perspectives, are not welcome at “queer” festivals unless they toe the transgender party line.
This is demonstrated by the fact that the entire current internet brouhaha was begun by someone criticizing the posting of a quote by Sheila Jeffreys having nothing to do with transgenderism. Whenever a lesbian is accused of “transphobia,” any work that she may have done on behalf of women or lesbians is crushed underfoot and trampled into the dirt. Any positive effect on behalf or women and girls is completely discounted, considered valueless; it’s as if it doesn’t even exist. The fact that Michfest has for 30 years provided a refuge for lesbians to express our sexuality openly in a world where sexual love between women is still punishable by death–not to mention a space in which women and girls are safe from male violence–means nothing in the terms that have been used to frame this debate. The fact that Alix Dobkin has spent her life traveling the world performing for women/lesbians only, singing and writing about the lives of lesbians, means nothing. The fact that Sheila Jeffreys is a brilliant feminist historian instrumental in the feminist movement in the UK, who has traced the repression of female sexuality by men through history, is absent from this controversy.
These facts and many more like them illustrate nothing less than an attempt to erase an entire culture–which is ironic in the face of transgender activists’ endless assertions that women and lesbians try to define the experience of transwomen. Given the continual denial of the value of lesbian-feminist efforts for lesbians and women, it sure looks like the transgender movement is trying to define, if not outright destroy, lesbian-feminist culture as an autonomous free space created by lesbians, for lesbians. This amounts to sexism within the “LGBTQ” “community” and in this sense, this conflict is part of the greater backlash against feminism. This blatant sexism is one reason why this controversy is, or should be, of concern to “mainstream,” straight, and liberal feminists.
I am the inheritor of lesbian-feminist culture. I am one of those the women who started Michfest in 1975 were dreaming of–a generation of lesbian-feminists who might come along behind and build on what they started. So many of those women did not have children of the body, but I am nevertheless their sister-daughter; perhaps I am also their sister-lover, for I surely love them and what they built, passionately, with my whole self, heart/mind/body/soul. And I am here to tell you that, as the creative bloom of an oppressed group, lesbian-feminist culture is valid, on its own terms. It has the right to exist as it sees fit. It has the right to define itself in any way it chooses. It has the right to a political analysis that makes sense from where it, we, I stand. I am here to tell you–if you are not living in the world as a lesbian, as a woman who loves women, who puts lesbians first, lesbian-feminist culture is not yours. If you are attempting to appropriate lesbian-feminist culture for the purposes of destroying all it has tried to build, your claim to it is not legitimate.
I have spent countless hours of my time and a pretty nice chunk of change building an archive to preserve some of the political writing of lesbian-feminist culture–not because I approve of everything that’s in it, but because I think the history of my people and their struggles is important, and deserves to be known and understood by all people who claim to want justice.
I don’t agree with everything that’s part of lesbian culture. Lesbians can be sexist, racist, fat-hating, ageist, ableist, classist, violent and stupid. But where I differ from some is in not allowing any one whiny, cringing, confused, or racist piece of writing to discredit, let alone define, an entire movement. I’m working within the (counter)culture I claim, and that claims me, to build on its rich history, to add my voice to those within it who have always worked for liberation.
No matter how much transgender activists dislike it, lesbian-feminism is grounded in a particular understanding of sex roles:
- Lesbian-feminists do not have “wives”–because we understand that the institution of heterosexual marriage, from whence the very meaning of the word “wife” derives, is about male ownership and control of women and their children.
- Lesbian-feminists do not believe that changing the individual will end injustice. For example — while I have great compassion for women who have weight-loss surgery–and on really, really bad days I fantasize about joining them–I know that surgically mutilating fat women will not end fat hatred. And this is not just theoretical, it’s also real–women regain weight and so are still fat, and still are encouraged by medical professionals to focus endlessly on their diet and exercise regimens. They also risk, and often suffer, surgical side effects that make their lives as difficult as they were pre-surgery, only in a different way. This parallel was so apparent to me as I watched “Beautiful Daughters,” a very moving and compassionate portrayal of transwomen. But despite the rhetoric, I did not see people whose lives were transformed by transsexing. I saw people whose difficulties had shifted from the arena of self-acceptance to the arena of forming the social and romantic relationships they wanted. Like fat women post weight loss surgery, they still had troubles–just different ones. There is no magic bullet that allows individuals to transcend oppressive systems. When we pretend there is, we delude ourselves, and cheat ourselves of the opportunity to work collectively to overcome oppression together.
- Lesbian-feminists have been talking, writing, and acting for years against the patriarchal sex role that is enforced upon females, while at the same time rejecting patriarchal misogyny by embracing our femaleness and that of other women. Rejecting our sex role requires critiquing and rejecting femininity; while there are transwomen who do not embrace femininity, the pressure on them to do so both from other transwomen and the medicolegal system which “treats” “gender dysphoria” is intense and difficult to resist. Womanhood is defined in patriarchy by femininity; when patriarchal womanhood, acceptance “as a woman,” is what transwomen aspire to, resistance becomes even more difficult. To the extent that the transgender movement and individual transwomen make “womanhood” dependent on conformity with feminine sex roles, it is in opposition to lesbian-feminism.
- Because we name male violence, lesbian-feminists also critique and reject masculinity and especially its glorification of aggression and violence. This puts us in opposition to the transgender movement — insofar as it promotes masculinity as a valid “gender identity” — as well as those transmen who adopt, express and glorify masculinity, under the same pressures to conform and be accepted that transwomen face.
- The use of the term “cisgender,” the acceptance of it as a concept that describes the identification and experience of those of us who are not transgender, erases the feminist resistance to sex roles of non-sex-role conforming adult female humans, or women. The attempted erasure of our experience and political efforts makes us as mad as it makes you.
- Lesbian-feminists have critiqued the medical system, including the medical system that determines which transpeople will receive what treatment, and why, when, and how; which encourages people to become dependent on it for hormone shots and serial surgeries to conform more closely to their chosen sex role presentation. I critique the capitalism of lifetime dependence on a medical system that has a history of persecuting, drugging, and mutilating all kinds of women who are for whatever reason inconvenient.
- Lesbian-feminists, and separatists, demand the right to organize without men when and where we choose. To the degree that the transgender movement inhibits our ability to do this, it is opposed to lesbian-feminist interests. I am aware not all transgender activists make this argument, but for those that do, this is how it goes: Transwomen are women, because they feel like women. Surgery and/or hormones are not necessary; all that is necessary is self-definition, and besides, it’s classist to require medical treatment as a condition of access to women’s spaces, because some transwomen can’t afford it. In terms of the Michigan festival, the argument has been stated as follows: “I will continue to oppose the policy even if they changed it to [include] ‘everyone who identifies as a woman’ – to me, the issue is not just *where* the line is drawn, but also the fact that they insist on drawing a clear and unambiguous boundary where there cannot possibly be one…” The Michigan festival, and other spaces created by lesbians, for lesbians/women, is left with no mechanism by which to exclude genital males who may live their entire lives as boys and men except as necessary to gain access to lesbian-feminist spaces. This concern is routinely mocked by transgender activists, but lesbian-feminists know what lengths men will go to to regain control over women they believe they own. Shelters, rape crisis centers, and other organizations created by women, for women, therefore require, for their own security, autonomy in deciding who shall have access to their spaces and services, and how, and when. To the degree that the transgender movement opposes this, it opposes the interests of lesbians and women.
When I’ve raised these points in the past, transgender advocates have sniped, “Who says transgenderism has to be about liberation?” Lesbian-feminism is about liberation, and to the degree that transgenderism sets itself up in opposition to lesbian-feminism, it has a way to go in solidifying its revolutionary credentials.
So is the transgender movement feminist? Is it revolutionary? Well, you tell me. What do you want it to be?
I’m a radical lesbian-feminist separatist, not because it’s my “identity,” but because I agree with the values, goals, and aims of radical feminist theory and movement. Is the transgender movement about helping people maximize their comfort in a sexist system, or is it a radical liberation movement to end sexism? Just like you can’t simultaneously prevent and prepare for war, just like feminism can’t simultaneously say femininity oppresses women but it’s groovy if women choose it, a movement is either about ending sex roles, or it’s about defending individuals’ right to adopt the one they like best. You can’t have it both ways.
If you disagree with me, here’s what I won’t do:
- I won’t accuse you of oppressing me.
- I won’t write about how the only kind of feminist I can’t stand is a transfeminist.
- I won’t suggest that your opinions are the result of fear of “trans flight.”
- I won’t compare you to the religious right.
- I won’t insinuate that your bigotry and ignorance are solely responsible for the death of your movement.
- I won’t call you names, including but not limited to fascist, nazi, dinosaur, throwback, hairy-legged second-waver, bigot, hater, cave dweller, or bug eater.
- I won’t police your sites, blogs and discussion forums to continually tell you how wrong I think you are–but only when this controversy comes up, while ignoring what you write all the rest of the time.
- I won’t load your blog comments or forums with endless rhetoric until you give up in exhaustion.
- I won’t attend your events if you have specifically requested my absence.
- I won’t accuse you of discrimination if you request I not attend.
- I won’t picket your events and hand out leaflets to the attendees detailing how awful I think you are.
- I won’t play music I know will offend you loudly across the street from your event in the middle of the night while you are trying to sleep.
- I won’t suggest that events in my community disinvite artists who perform at your events.
- I won’t sue your organizations, diverting hard-won funds from raped and battered transpeople to the care and feeding of the patriarchal legal system.
- I won’t demand that you accept my description of reality at the expense of your own.
I don’t expect you to agree with me, but I do expect you to accept that my opinion is formed, not by transphobia or lack of understanding, but by experiences and analysis that are as valid as yours. If you’re not interested in my experiences and analysis, you’re welcome not to read my blog, and you’re welcome to create your own cultural spaces and events and leave lesbian-feminist ones alone.
It’s blatantly obvious to me that lesbian/feminists and transwomen could have significant common ground. As potential rape victims–whether rapists’ motivation is our perceived femaleness or our perceived sex-role nonconformity–we have an investment in ending male violence. Since so many transwomen are chewed up and spat out by the pornstitution industry, we have an investment in creating safe exits and viable alternatives to male sexual exploitation.
But to get to whatever common ground might exist–not to put too fine a point on it, but transgender activists who want access to lesbian-feminist cultural spaces need to sit down and shut up. I’m tired of the demand that I focus on other people’s interests to the exclusion of my own. I’m done defending my politics. Instead of these endless struggles to define what a “woman” is, to determine who’s right, we need to say, “We have a problem here. How are we going to solve it?” If you want lesbian-feminists to listen to you, to understand your experiences and your analyses, then you owe us the same courtesy. You need to be willing to hear, and work for compromises on, the issues that matter to us. You need to stop calling us racist-bigot-fascist-transphobe, and start to understand our position–even if you don’t agree. You need to start calling out bad behavior on your side, like you expect us to do on ours.
Because you know what? The powers that be don’t care who is or isn’t a real woman–they only care who’s a real man. Since none of us qualify, we might as well figure out how to work together to bring them down.
Revision Notes, July 2016
It continues to astound me how this issue, which at the time of this writing could arguably have been considered an in-group conflict, has exploded over the 9.5 years since this post was written, to affect almost all females, and many males, in the US, from the transing of kids to the Obama administration’s heavy-handed edicts to Target’s facility policy to the reorganization of sports into men’s and men’s. The advocacy of these and many other cultural changes, as well as the reduction of the analysis of sexism to gibberish, by wealthy, well-connected white autogynephilic males and the “genderqueer” social justice warriors they manipulate, has profound implications for the safety and human rights of females in the United States and elsewhere. On (trans)genderism, as on most everything else we have analyzed, radical feminist theory and activism has been the canary in the mine, and we are now in the agonizing position of watching all of our most horrible predictions come true.