Radical Feminism and the Transgendered

by Jane Doe, 05/15/2006

Please note: This essay was removed from its original home because of the harassment of its author by “transgender activists.” It is published here by permission; the author has asked that her name not be used in order to avoid further harassment for her views.

I’ve seen a lot of transphobia (prejudice, misunderstanding and deliberate hurtfulness directed towards transsexuals and transgendered people) flagrantly displayed by some radical feminists. I’ve also seen some distinctly anti-feminist opinions held by transfolk. Both of these attitudes are counterproductive, hurtful, and divisive. Neither of them make much sense. I don’t even think they are topics worthy enough of serious discussion to have people spend the amount of time and energy on them that they do, and maybe the time and energy I am putting into this post is also part of that wasted energy.

Why do I say these topics are a waste of the energy spent on them? I guess I just have to start off playing hardball here. Dear sisters in radical feminism – there is a tiny percentage of the population that feels they were not born into the right body and wishes to change their gender presentation. They are not your enemy; they are not the founders of the patriarchy; they are not the masses of men who are beating and raping women; they are not, as a group, supportive of violence against women or unequal pay or the anti-abortion movement. Dear transpeople – radical feminist groups that do not let MTFs into women only meetings or gatherings are not the defining issue of your oppression. I have yet to see any radical feminist say it is okay for you to be discriminated against in jobs and housing and beaten to death by roving packs of homophobic/transphobic men.

Yet to hear the rhetoric from both sides, you would think, sometimes, that this is a life or death issue. And as the characterizations of those on the opposing side become more and more ridiculous, I feel more and more hurt and silenced because it is obvious nether of you are is listening to one another.

My girlfriend is a transgendered woman. She is currently in the process of coming out at work, living full time. I also have several good friends who are transgendered. Contrary to the accusations I see on the part of some radical feminists, they seem to have no interest in doing this in order to “colonize” womanhood, or to show off how much better they are at being female than women born women, or any of the other reasons I have seen some radical feminists purport for their decision to change their gender presentation. After seeing some of the things written about MTFs, I have to wonder if those who wrote them have ever had an actual conversation with a transwoman about why she is doing it or what her experiences are. Every single transperson whom I have ever talked with about their transition says the same thing over and over – that they just don’t feel right living their life in the gender role prescribed to them at birth.

Now, my girlfriend and I have long conversations on this topic, ranging from trying to imagine if transgenderism would be a phenomenon in a world where gender stereotypes were not handed out beginining with either pink or blue blankets at birth, to questioning the official psychological model of transgenderism (which they label as a mental illness – “gender dysphoria” – and offer surgery and hormones as a “cure”) which supports a strong gender dichotomy, to the different levels of being physically intersexed, which can range from non-normative DNA to amorphous genital presentation to hormone imbalances which cause someone who is sexed one way through DNA to appear to be a member of the opposite sex, but they may not find out until they are unable to have children as an adult. There’s a lot to question and a lot to think about. In this way, the idea that being transgendered is “transgressive” of our society’s gender roles is very true.

But in other ways, many transgendered people fall prey to patriarchal ideas and attitudes, just as many non-transgendered people do. FTMs in particular seem so anxious to identify themselves as men that they sometimes throw out sexist stereotypes or behave in a very anti-feminist way, perhaps in order to prove they are “one of the boys”. I have seen the very good point made that of course FTMs have “gender dysphoria” – and so do almost all other women, because our culture, as a whole, hates and reviles women and femininity. What woman doesn’t hate being female for at least part of her life? Where is the line between really feeling you should have been born a man and wishing you had the privileges accorded to men in our society?

I have seen many MTFs get extremely excited about getting to be “real women” who can – go SHOPPING! and wear frilly things! And heels! Until I sometimes wonder if to them, being feminine is nothing more than a fashion statement. I have known FTMs who explain that they knew they were really boys because they wanted short hair as children, hated Barbie dolls, and were very athletic. These kind of statements reveal that they don’t think girls or women who behave in this way are “real women”, and you can’t really get much more anti-feminist than that.

I do think it is a real problem that the only way little boys are allowed to express the softer and gentler sides of themselves is if they are seen as “not real men”. And it is definitely a problem that little girls are supposed to be shy and retiring and obsessed with their looks or “something is wrong with them.” I do not think these things alone are at the root of transgenderism. But I think in some cases, these cultural attitudes have pushed people into surgery and other medical treatments because behaviors outside of the strictly gender normative are seen as literally “sick.” I have had some transpeople become very upset with me for daring to say these things, and while it is not my desire to hurt them by reiterating this, I have to call it as I see it.

But the fact remains that it *is* easier to get along in life if one appears to be what others expect. In this regard, FTMs have a bit of an easier life, as the taking of testosterone makes them indistinguishable from men born men in a fairly brief amount of time, at least in public settings, or while clothed. Their masculine behavior will then pass unnoticed by society unless they wish to make an issue of having been born female. MTFs face a different set of variables, however. Depending on several appearance factors, some MTFs can be taken as a woman by most people without comment, but some will never succesfully “pass” as female, but will be seen as “a man in a dress.” While feminism has made some avenues open to women which were never open before, such as the freedom to wear either pants or a skirt/dress, men as a group have clung to the idea of dresses as women’s clothing and go out of their way to torment any fellow male who dares break the masculine code of dress and behavior. When an MTF, or for that matter, any crossdressing man, hippie boy, or goth boy, goes out wearing a skirt, s/he is exposed to, at best, whispered mockery and ridicule. At worst, men will beat him/her to death for breaking the male code of behavior. Male privilege comes with a high price, and those who visibly reject this code, even with something as petty as changing one’s clothes, sometimes pay that price with their lives.

Which brings me to male privilege.

Many MTFs I know minimize the effect male privilege has on their behavior. I suppose it is like the proverbial fish who asks “what is water?” – being the beneficiary of male privilege during one’s formative years, even if one begins to question one’s identity as a man, confers benefits upon one that are invisible to the recipient (although obvious to women, who do not receive these benefits). Since MTFs do not want to be male, they would like to imagine they can just toss male prvilege away along with their unwanted boys’ clothing. The human mind does not work in this way, however. It is ironic that those resorting to violent, invasive tactics in order to enter the Michigan Women’s Music Festivial, for example, with the excuse that they are NOT men and should be accepted as women, are resorting to an ingrained male privilege which tells them they have a right to go anywhere they want to go. Also ironic in their insistence that they are no different from women born women is their seeming inability to understand, or their willingness to brush aside as insignificant, women’s very real fears of rape, from which follows the concept of a safe space for women being male-free. Thus the “cutting edge” protest method some have developed, that of passing succesfully as female until they get to the shower area and then showing everyone they have penises in a sort of “Neener, neener, I have a penis and you didn’t guess but I’m showing it to you now so you’re a hypocrite ha-ha-ha you’re wrong about transwomen!” sort of gesture really only proves the point that they DON’T belong in a women’s only safe place, as they have no clue how frightening it is for a vulnerable naked woman to suddenly be confronted by an angry naked man. This is something every woman raised female understands – I have only ever seen men or those raised as men question this and call it sexist. Transwomen – if you are serious about transitioning and serious about feeling like a woman, you have to stop insisting that female fear of men is sexist or unreasonable. Every time you do this it just proves the point of why women do need some women born women only space – so they don’t have to deal with you, as a newcomer to living as a woman, to tell us how we are doing it all wrong. Every time you think or say something along these lines, you are acting on male privilege, whether you like that idea or not. Question – if you are transgendered and pre-op or non-op, would you feel safe in a prison with men? Of course you wouldn’t – and for the exact same reason, in general women are not going to feel safe if you invade a space where they are naked and vulnerable. You can be as unhappy about that as you like – trust me, I am unhappy about it too – but until the epidemic of male violence against women ends, this is how it is going to be. You cannot blame feminists for this – they did not invent an irrational prejudice against men as violent rapists – the high number of men who are violent rapists is what is responsible for this very realistic fear.

Finally I want to tackle what I think is the most hidden issue in all of this but perhaps the root of it all – the question of “who defines womanhood”? I have seen the very good point raised that women ave never been allowed to define what makes a woman. Men have defined womanhood for us for centuries. When I see transgendered women questioning the refusal of some to refer to them as women, there is again an unexamined male privilege in their questioning at the same time as that there are some very good points. The unexamined privilege comes from them setting up patriarchal societal objections to accepting transpersons as they wish to be accepted and smashing those admittedly unfounded ideas, thus concluding that radical feminists are wrong to ever exclude them from anything at all. The good part comes from them actually questioning those patriarchal standards. Should a woman be defined by her ability to bear children? Should a woman be defined by whether or not she menstruates? Should a woman be defined by her DNA? What about people who are ambiguously gendered? But there is a lack of examination of the fact that women have never been allowed to define womanhood for themselves. It has always been about how well they fit into the tiny box allotted to them in patriarchal society. Men have defined various things in the past as unfeminine, including athleticism, wearing pants, even obtaining an education. Americans in general do not accept these things as “mannish” or “unwomanly” today. But there are other patriarchal standards and stereotypes of woman which feminists and women in general struggle with. To demand full acceptance into a group which has little power to define its own boundaries is invasive and insensitive. Furthermore, if you are a transgendered woman, no matter how badly you may want it, unless you were incredibly lucky you were not raised as a girl in this society. There are some experiences you will never have, and there are some things that will never quite match up between your experiences and those of girls who were raised as girls. I understand well this is a sore point for many transwomen, who feel they have missed out greatly on something very special, and maybe they have – but the fact remains that they did not have these experiences and many of the bonds between women who are born women are based on the assumption of shared experiences.

So what is the answer? Well, it is becoming more common for many women’s groups to accept transwomen, and I think this is a good thing. At the same time I have no problem for women who wish to maintain a women born women only space, and my corollary suggestion is that if transwomen feel very slighted by this, they are equally welcome to form transwomen only groups to discuss experiences they have which women who have always been accepted as women would not ever have experienced. I think both sides need to listen to the other more. I think some radical feminists need to quit the obnoxious practice of deliberately being hurtful by refusing to call transwomen “she” in order to prove their point, and try to respect the ways in which transwomen were born men but have voluntarily given up a lot of male privilege in choosing to take the path they have taken. I think transwomen need to stop focusing so much energy on devising obnoxious protests aimed at one little one week a year festival which doesn’t allow them in, because whether or not they are allowed into the MWMF will do nothing for their status in the rest of society either way, and they need to realize why women need a few women born women only spaces and respect those boundaries. The MWMF does not control or influence this patriarchal world that discriminates against transpeople in housing, religion, and in which they are at a high risk of violence, and protesting it gains you nothing of benefit, it merely fuels the flames between the feminist and transgendered movement and reveals the transwomen who take part in it as being exactly what they protest they are not. I think some fabulous conversations about gender and society could take place between radical feminists and transwomen if these two petty issues quit being the source of so much dissent. Please – a little respect, a little listening. I don’t think this train is completely derailed as of yet. Divisiness hurts both of these movements, whereas together we can make a powerful indictment of the strict gender roles imposed on us by society.