The continuing liberation of transgender people is a marvel to behold. We are witnessing history, as trans people and their issues become part of the mainstream. From Chelsea Manning to "Transparent" to Laverne Cox, and of course Caitlyn Jenner, transgender people and issues have never been so front and centre. I don't do celebrity gossip so I don't know anything about the lurid lead-up to Jenner's coming out, but when the woman who cuts my hair asks me what I think about transgender people, I know something big is going on. There is more than one out trans person in the larger circle of my own life, something most of us never could have said throughout human history.
Of course the Vanity Fair
cover reflects the reality of most transgender lives the way the Cosby Show reflected most African American lives. This New York Times article
is a good wrap-up of where things stand - and where they don't - in the mainstream.
Naturally I consider myself an ally of trans people, as I would for any people asserting their own humanity and equality. For a feminist, a socialist, and someone who identifies as LGBT, this defines "no-brainer". So I find the current clash between different schools of feminist thought and the trans movement very sad - although predictable, and I think, temporary.
Apparently there are people who call themselves feminists who actually believe that trans women are not "real women" and should be excluded from the movement. That attitude is bigoted, offensive, and dangerous. As a general rule, anytime you agree with the anti-woman, anti-abortion, anti-gay crowd, you might want to re-assess.
There are also feminists who feel that some of the language - and the policing of that language - around trans issues denies the reality of their own lives, and denies the struggle of women's own liberation. When they have stated this publicly, they've been accused of transphobia.
Abortion access organizations - small grassroots networks that help low-income women who want abortions - have changed their language to be inclusive to trans people. Instead of referring to "women who need abortions", they now say "people who need abortions". A transgender person in any stage of transition might become pregnant. If that person identifies as a man, he may also be a rape survivor. He deserves care that treats him with dignity and respect.
In the abortion-rights movement, not everyone is comfortable with this. I know from personal conversations that some felt pressured - even bullied - into making this change, rather than educated and supported. That's not the road to inclusion, either.
Katha Pollitt, writing in The Nation
, asks "Who Has Abortions?".
I’m going to argue here that removing “women” from the language of abortion is a mistake. We can, and should, support trans men and other gender-non-conforming people. But we can do that without rendering invisible half of humanity and 99.999 percent of those who get pregnant. I know I’ll offend, hurt and disappoint some people, including abortion-fund activists I love dearly. That is why I’ve started this column many times over many months and put it aside. I tell myself I might be wrong—it’s happened before. “Most of the pressure [to shift language] comes from young people,” said one abortion-fund head I interviewed, whose fund, like many, has “Women” in its name. “The role of people in our generation is to give money and get out of the way.” . . .
From the perspective of providing care, I understand it. “The focus should be on access,” NYAAF board member Rye Young told me over the phone. The primary purpose of abortion funds is to provide immediate financial and other help to individuals in crisis, whom funders usually know only as voices on the phone. If wording on a website makes people feel they can’t make that phone call, that’s not good. We women have had enough experience with being disrespected by healthcare and social-service providers not to wish that on anyone else. Does presenting abortion as gender-neutral need to be part of that welcoming procedure, though? The primary sources of abortion data in the US—the CDC and the Guttmacher Institute—don’t collect information on the gender identity of those who seek abortion, but conversations with abortion providers and others suggest the number of transgender men who want to end a pregnancy is very low. I don’t see how it denies “the existence and humanity of trans people” to use language that describes the vast majority of those who seek to end a pregnancy. Why can’t references to people who don’t identify as women simply be added to references to women? After all, every year over 2,000 men get breast cancer and over 400 die, and no one is calling for “women” to be cut out of breast-cancer language so that men will feel more comfortable seeking treatment. If there was such a call, though, I wonder what would happen. Women have such a long history of minimizing themselves in order not to hurt feelings or seem self-promoting or attention-demanding. We are raised to put ourselves second, and too often, still, we do.
The column was vilified as transphobic and hateful. Pollitt was attacked on the internet as if she were Fred Phelps. Did most of the people tweeting and re-tweeting read the column in question? Were they seeing the full context?
This response was more helpful. In "Cisgender Women Aren’t the Only People Who Seek Abortions, and Activists’ Language Should Reflect That", Dr. Cheryl Chastine points out that the claim "99.999 percent of those who get pregnant" are cisgender women is not unlike an era that thought gay people were extremely rare - or, I would add, a culture that claims there are no gay people within it.
Feminists like Pollitt who argue against inclusive language assert that because “99.999 percent of the population” seeking abortions are cis women, it is inaccurate and inappropriate to use gender-inclusive language. So how many trans people are we really talking about? It’s more than 0.001 percent. Suppose you time-traveled back to the 1950s and asked the average physician how many of his or her patients were gay. They would probably respond, “None” or, “Maybe one or two.” It’d be easy to conclude, therefore, that 99.999 percent of all people were straight, so there’d be no need to include any forms of non-heterosexual orientation in language or activism. Assuming the proportion of non-heterosexual people has stayed roughly constant, though, our 1950s physician likely did have a number of gay, lesbian, or bisexual patients. The doctor simply took them to be heterosexual. They may have even presented themselves as such, out of a legitimate fear that the physician would behave prejudicially toward them.
Excellent article. Helpful. Calling Katha Pollitt a bigot on Twitter, not helpful. (No need to point out that uninformed bashing on Twitter is the norm. I'm aware.)
Another piece that was trashed as transphobic was Elinor Burkett's essay, "What Makes a Woman" in the New York Times
. I can understand that. I was uncomfortable with some of it, too. At the same time, much of that essay resonates with me.
Do women and men have different brains?
Back when Lawrence H. Summers was president of Harvard and suggested that they did, the reaction was swift and merciless. Pundits branded him sexist. Faculty members deemed him a troglodyte. Alumni withheld donations.
But when Bruce Jenner said much the same thing in an April interview with Diane Sawyer, he was lionized for his bravery, even for his progressivism.
“My brain is much more female than it is male,” he told her, explaining how he knew that he was transgender.
This was the prelude to a new photo spread and interview in Vanity Fair that offered us a glimpse into Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup. Ms. Jenner was greeted with even more thunderous applause. ESPN announced it would give Ms. Jenner an award for courage. President Obama also praised her. Not to be outdone, Chelsea Manning hopped on Ms. Jenner’s gender train on Twitter, gushing, “I am so much more aware of my emotions; much more sensitive emotionally (and physically).”
A part of me winced.
I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.
That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries. But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.
I, too, feel that much of the discourse around trans issues reinforces gender stereotypes. We've struggled against these stereotypes, and we've spent a lifetime asserting our right to be women and to be people, even as we reject them. So it can hurt to hear women, whether cis or trans, embrace these stereotypes and define their womanhood and their personhood through them. This is what I took from Burkett's article.
Burkett also asserted that Caitlyn Jenner has benefited from male privilege most of her life, and that privilege comes into play now. I agree with that, too.
The fact that some of Burkett's essay resonated with me doesn't make me transphobic. My observations come from my own reality. I've had my own struggles to define myself and accept myself in a sexist world. My journey is different than that of a trans woman, and I'm sure in many ways it has been infinitely easier, but it is still my reality. Any cis woman finds herself agreeing with this essay needs space to assert this, without being accused of a bigotry that isn't (necessarily) there.
Trans people have every right to demand inclusion. But inclusion gained through silencing discussion is not really inclusion at all: it's separatism. At a certain stage in a movement, separatism may be what's needed. But for the road ahead, I hope to see us aim for understanding and solidarity - among all feminists, all LGBT people, and all allies.
These types of conflicts within and among social movements have a long and rich history. The second-wave feminists clashed with the pioneers of gay liberation. Going back further to the earliest days of the women's movement, in the 19th Century when women were fighting for basic civil rights, there were conflicts between feminism and the abolitionist and temperance movements. All movements have growing pains, early conflicts, and questions that can only be settled over time, through people's own lived experiences.
Experiencing these growing pains in the internet era
amplifies and escalates the conflict. When someone publishes an essay, and one sentence of that essay ignites a Twitter storm - and it's reasonable to assume that many (most?) people retweeting have not read the essay, merely the offending sentence and the claim of bigotry - then there is no education. There is only noise.
I'm not equating Twitter attacks on Pollitt or Burkett with the struggles of transgender people for full acceptance and equality. I'm not suggesting cis feminists who are uncomfortable replacing the word "women" with "people" are victims.
I am merely suggesting that true inclusion is not about who can generate the most tweets - that is, who can yell the loudest. Feminists of all ages and eras have a lot to learn from this exciting wave of trans liberation. Trans women and their allies may have something to learn from previous waves of feminism. We'll only find out if we listen to each other.
* * * * *
Some good reading on this topic:It's Time to End the Long History of Feminism Failing Transgender Women
, Tina Vasquez, Bitch MediaOn Trans Issues with Feminism and Strengthening the Movement's Gender Analysis
, Jos Truitt, FeministingTrans Women Are Women. Why Do We Have to Keep Saying This?
, Leela Ginelle, Bitch Media, an analysis of Burkitt's essayWho Has Abortions?
, Katha Pollitt, The NationCisgender Women Aren’t the Only People Who Seek Abortions, and Activists’ Language Should Reflect That
, Cheryl Chastine, RH Reality CheckWhat Makes A Woman
, Elinor Burkett, New York TimesResponses to Burkett's piece
published in the Times
. I'm using this because it represents multiple points of view.