Friday, November 20, 2009

Trans Women & Feminism - International Trans Day of Remembrance

Special thanks to Queen Emily who helped me out with some aspects of this post, even though I'm not sure how well I'm currently able to use what I learned from her.

Today is International Trans Day of Remembrance, a day which remembers the horrific number of transgender people who have been murdered because of who they happen to be. Many more transgender people suffer discrimination, harassment and abuse. Transgender people experience the full brunt of homophobia, misogyny and disablist hate and seem to be far more vulnerable to violence than any other global minority.

I'm not sure there can be an adequate response to the roll call of murdered men and women, but for a long time, for various reasons, I have wanted to write about trans women and feminism. Given where my head is and has been lately, I realise I'm not going to do this subject anything close to justice today, but I thought I should give it a go.

Trans women aren't being murdered by cis (non-transgender) feminists, but some mainstream feminists have attempted to wash their hands of trans women, who are among the most vulnerable of our number. By leaving them out, feminism is in danger of losing their contribution as well as failing to support and protect our sisters. Much as I worship the ground she walks on, Germaine Greer is pretty appalling on this subject. She's not the only one, but as by far the highest-profile feminist in the UK, this is big problem. Only this summer, on the fuss about whether runner Caster Semenya was too fast to be a woman, she wrote the following:
Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women's names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn't polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man's delusion that he is female.
This is not part of a debate about what sex and gender are – important stuff for feminism. This is just nasty. And all the feminist writings I have ever read which question the authenticity of trans women's feminine gender, also question the legitimacy of trans women's voices and wind up calling them names. These people are disgusting. These people are crazy or just plain funny. In The Whole Woman, Greer, peace be upon her, has a chapter on the subject is entitled Pantomime Dames. Ouch.

So why do some cis feminist insist that trans women are not women? And why does it matter to them so much, when however you understand a person's identity, the problems of transgender people are all about our cultural ideas about gender and sexual inequality?

In my youth, before I'd thought about it for more than two minutes, I imagined the whole concept of transgender was based on a sexist gender binary – the idea that anatomy was destiny and the only way to change your destiny was to change your anatomy (imagining all transgender people did just that, which they don't). Naively, I couldn't imagine anyone else's body could be more ill-fitting as mine seemed to be! I'd also agree with Greer's and other's assertion that a woman is something more than a man without a cock (if that's what anyone was suggesting, which they're not). But if this "something more" is physical, hormonal or genetic, then we're back to only a slight variation on anatomy is destiny.

I'm not at all well read on trans matters, but disability helps me sort this out a little. The only thing disabled people have in common is a social experience. Some of us have other problems, do to do with our bodies or minds. Some of us have conditions which aren't problematic to us but invite differential treatment from others. Some disabled people have no functional difference, but perhaps have a diagnosis which attracts stigma even when there are no symptoms of ill health. Whether a person is disabled or not is not a medical matter, but all about the way society reacts to some physical, mental, sensory or intellectual difference a person has.

This, the social model, ends arguments about who is and is not disabled. When disability is something medical, then there is doubt. What diagnoses count? What if there is no diagnosis? How severely ill or injured must a person be? But that's just daft. And it promotes hierarchies and people – often the most marginalised disabled people - being left out in the cold.

So to woman. As with disability, medical markers are dubious and problematic - sex is a muddle. The only thing feminism should be concerned with is the nature of a person's experience of gender in a sexist society. Do trans women suffer the kind of sexual discrimination familiar to other women? Are trans women, like other women, looked down upon because of their physical, social or sexual deviation from our culture's feminine ideals? Are trans women vulnerable to sexual violence or murder at the hands of men who hate women? Are trans women accused of not being proper women because of social, sexual, reproductive and political choices they make, or because of superficial things about themselves - sexuality, disability, physical apperance - they can't help?

Trans women perhaps have an even greater stake in sexual equality than most cis women, because they typically suffer more than most of us. If there were degrees of womanliness based on negative social experience, trans women would be uberfrauen!

Some cis feminists argue that women are an oppressed group, and nobody can choose to belong to an oppressed group, ergo trans women who started off with (at least some) access to masculine privilege, cannot choose to become women. But of course, this argument merely demonstrates the absence of choice in these matters.

Then there is the argument that women are created by social experience, but trans women didn't get the negative conditioning cis women experienced as children and are therefore not real women. Queen Emily put it very nicely by explaining that it's not a matter of whether or not she had a girlhood, but what kind of girlhood she had. Little boys and little girls might be given slightly different experiences, but we all receive the same gender programming - boys are this, girls are that. If you are a little girl, even if you have a winkle and people treat you like a boy, you still get the message. Even if someone cast a magic spell on any one of us and we woke up as a different gender, we'd have a pretty good idea of what would be expected of us.

I think I can best relate to this when it comes to my bisexuality. I didn't finally work out that this is what I was until my twenties, but I was queer ever since I first fell in love with a girl, aged eleven. Without pointing the finger at me, people around me and society at large made it very clear how they felt about people who deviated from the heterosexual norm and I knew, whatever my exact complaint might be, I deviated. Stephen Fry writes very well about this in Moab is my Washpot, where even at a boarding school where everyone was at it like... rabbits in the absence of lady rabbits, Fry still knew that he was queer and queer was a problem.

If someone comes out of the closet at forty, we don't say, "Sorry mate, but if nobody called you a pouf at school, you just don't count."

And even with disability, getting to fifteen as a non-disabled person didn't mean that I was free from the cultural baggage of disability - on the contrary. There's nothing magic about gender. The only major difference between the childhood of trans and most cis women - apart from possibly the agonies of having long hair combed threw after you had a fight with a gorse bush - is the anatomical stuff. The whole point of feminism (and egalitarian movements in general) is to stop judging one another according to superficial nonsense like what someone has or has once had in their knickers.

Finally, since I do seem to have made this as much about disability as about gender (sorry, head all over the place), a word about gender reassignment treatment. What treatments a transgender person may have and whether these treatments are effective at alleviating mental distress have nothing to do with the authenticity of a person's experience and their value as a human being. The medical side of the transgender experience is nobody's business but individual's and their healthcare worker's.

As long as trans people are treated as badly as they are in wider society, these treatments will remain controversial; many transgender people experience depression, anxiety and remain vulnerable to suicide even after treatment. But this is not surprising. In order to get gender reassignent surgery on the NHS, you need to have a mental illness - not just be trans, but experience clinically significant levels of distress. Depression and anxiety which has built up over a period of years is not instantly cured the minute you take away the source of distress and in the case of these treatments, only one source of distress is being removed (and then rather slowly). Getting treatment doesn't make one immune from discrimination, from relationship problems and social isolation. Even in the UK, trans people are sometimes forced to pay for treatment, which adds massive debt to that mix.

But crucially, even if gender reassignment surgery was a long-winded and intrusive form of homeopathy, it ought not make any different to the way that trans people are treated by the rest of us. No person should be defined by their medical history.

There are far superior and more appropriate posts up about the Day of Remembrance at Questioning Transphobia and the FWD/ Forward blog.


R said...

Fantastic post. Thankyou. Are you okay with me linking to it on Facebook and/or LiveJournal?

Terri said...

Much to think about... these are not familiar issues for me, but I come back to "Fight for all or fight for no one."

I cannot get over that cruel and excluding tone from a feminist leader. So, a group meant to empower marginalized people is now all about codifying who is 'in' and who is 'out,' and enforcing that through nastiness and marginalizing...

That cannot be right.

The age old truth remains: if one group of people can be persecuted... any can.

The Goldfish said...

Thank you both,

Of course Becca - sorry I didn't say so sooner, but for some reason my e-mail program filtered the comment notification and I only saw your request just now.

Terri, thank you. Like you, this isn't something I know a great deal about in theory - not like I know about disability or feminism, queer theory and so on. If people disagree, it's one thing. But disrespect towards people who are so marginalised through no fault of their own makes me very cross.

pratishtha said...

excluding tone from a feminist leader. So, a group meant to empower marginalized people is now all about codifying

caring discus fish

Elizabeth McClung said...

Great post, Greer is notoriously bigotted when it comes to trans women but strangely as much or more so when it comes to intersex. Which she refuses to acknowledge as female, or a gender at all, and thus dehumanizes someone like Caster Semenya (who I think is intersex, not trans? But then, ever since the 'gender test' only applies to one of the two genders, I don't follow it, since it is not a 'gender test' but a 'social conformity' test).

Yes, feminism has fallen into that trap of those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it - the ERA feminist dropped the Queer, particularly bisexuals and lesbians as 'being too much' for people to accept 30 years ago (lavender menace), and they are still drawing a line in the sand. It is easy to draw a line when a person stands, sits or wheels on the side which decides to make that line.

I like that statement about the line of what type of girlhood. That explains a great deal, puts it in a schema that I can understand and can be easily made understandible. Thank you for that.

One day, I would say we will look back in shame at the way trans people are talked about and treated. Except if history says anything, one day, we will just pretend the horrible things we said and did, the way we turned away will simply be not talked about at all.

bha said...

Brilliant post--I'm trying to get more acquainted with trans issues (not to mention getting interested in blogging about my own impairment), and this was a really good tie-in to both disability and feminist thought.

And in general, I'm really enjoying your blog posts!