It's been a long time since I wrote a blog post. And, I guess if I'm honest here, I'm not writing one now. I don't know when, or if, I'll ever blog regularly again. But, that's not the point of this post.
I came across this article nearly a week ago. But, I've been crazy busy with work and only just now found time to read it. It's quite long, and it takes a fair amount of critical thinking to get through it. But, it's really worth it. I don't agree with everything she says here. But, her main points are essential, in my view. Take some time and read this. It really is more than just a re-hashing of this decade-long debate.
According to this view, trans women lie at the intersection of (at least) two types of sexism. The first is cissexism, which is the societal-wide tendency to view transsexual gender identities and sex embodiments as being less legitimate than those of cissexuals -- that is, nontranssexuals. (Note: the word "cisgender" is similarly used as a synonym for nontransgender.) Cissexism functions in a manner analogous to heterosexism: Transsexual gender identities and homosexual/bisexual orientations are both typically viewed as being inherently questionable, unnatural, morally suspect, and less socially and legally valid than their cissexual and heterosexual counterparts. Not only does cissexism institutionally marginalize transsexual individuals, but it privileges cissexuals, rendering their genders and sexed bodies as unquestionable, unmarked and taken for granted (similar to how heterosexual attraction and relationships are privileged in our culture).
While all transsexuals face cissexism, trans women experience this form of sexism as being especially exacerbated by traditional sexism. For example, trans women are routinely hyper-sexualized in our society, especially in the media, where we are regularly depicted as fetishists, sexual deceivers, sex workers and/or in a sexually provocative fashion (trans men, in contrast, are not typically depicted in this way). The common presumption that trans women transition to female for sexual reasons seems to be based on the premise that women as a whole have no worth beyond their ability to be sexualized. Furthermore, most of the societal consternation, ridicule and violence directed at trans people focuses on individuals on the trans feminine spectrum -- often specifically targeting our desire to be female or our feminine presentation. While trans men experience cissexism, their desire to be male/masculine is typically not mocked or derided in the same way -- to do so would bring maleness/masculinity itself into question. Thus, those of us on the trans feminine spectrum don't merely experience cissexism or "transphobia" so much as we experience trans-misogyny.
Given the violence and extreme poverty that afflicts many trans people, some have suggested that the MWMF trans woman-exclusion issue has received an undeserved amount of activist attention. And the fact that tickets to this weeklong festival cost several hundred dollars -- a luxury many trans folks cannot afford -- is often cited by those who view MWMF's policy as primarily a middle-class trans issue. While MWMF is not the most pressing trans-related issue out there, such critiques miss the larger picture. This is not about the desire to simply attend one music festival. Rather, for lesbian and bisexual trans women, this is about us being able to participate in our own queer women's community -- a community in which we face anywhere from antagonism to irrelevancy on a regular basis.
Rethinking Sexism: How Trans Women Challenge Feminism
"The grudging admiration felt for the tomboy and the queasiness felt around a sissy boy point to the same thing: the contempt in which women -- or those who play the female role -- are held."
In 1991, Nancy Jean Burkholder was expelled from the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MWMF), the world's largest annual women-only event, because festival workers suspected that she was a trans woman -- that is, someone who was assigned a male sex at birth but who identifies and lives as female. That incident sparked protests from a burgeoning transgender movement to challenge what eventually came to be known as the festival's "womyn-born-womyn"-only policy, which effectively bars trans women from attending. The protests evolved into Camp Trans, which continues to take place just down the road from MWMF each year, and which has become a focal point for a much broader push for trans-inclusion within feminist and queer communities. Despite more than 15 years of petitioning, and a growing acceptance of trans identities in both mainstream society and within queer, feminist and other progressive circles, the festival still officially maintains its "womyn-born-womyn"-only policy, and countless other lesbian- and queer-woman-focused groups and events continue to harbor dismissive, if not outright disdainful, attitudes toward trans women.
The history of the MWMF trans woman-exclusion debate has been retold countless times -- often in an overly simplistic, cut-and-dry manner. The controversy is usually depicted in one of two ways: either pitting the supposedly out-of-touch, transphobic lesbian-separatists who run the festival against a more politically progressive transgender minority, or portraying transgender activists as bullies who selfishly seek to undermine one of the few remaining vestiges of women-only space with their supposedly masculine bodies and energies. In addition to being obvious caricatures, these sorts of us-versus-them portrayals obscure one of the most important aspects of the story: the fact that there are actually three "sides" to this debate, each driven by a different take on feminism.
Rather than rehash the history or delve into all of the details about the festival and the controversy, I will attempt to describe these three differing feminist perspectives and discuss how they have played out with regard to the issue of trans woman-exclusion at MWMF, as well as in lesbian/queer women's communities more generally.
For those unfamiliar with the subject, I will start by defining some of the trans-specific language that I will be using. Transsexuals are individuals who identify and live as members of the sex other than the one they were assigned at birth. A trans woman is someone who has socially, physically and/or legally transitioned from male to female, and a trans man is someone who has similarly transitioned from female to male. While the medical establishment (and the mainstream media) typically define "transsexual" in terms of the medical procedures that an individual might undergo (for example, hormones and surgeries), many trans people find such definitions to be objectifying (as they place undue focus on body parts rather than the person as a whole) and classist (as not all trans people can afford to physically transition). For these reasons, trans activists favor definitions based on self-identity, that is, whether one identifies and lives as a woman or man. "Transgender" is an umbrella term for all people who defy other people's expectations and assumptions regarding gender, and can be used to refer to transsexuals as well as people who are gender nonconforming in other ways -- for example, cross-dressers, drag performers, feminine men, masculine women, and genderqueers (who do not identify exclusively as either women or men), to name a few. Transgender people who defy gender norms in the male-to-female/feminine direction are said to be on the trans feminine spectrum; those who transgress gender norms in the female-to-male/masculine direction make up the trans masculine spectrum.
-- Radicalesbians (1970)