6.21.2015

my feminism includes trans people. all women need to listen to each other.

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 Media

On Trans Issues with Feminism and Strengthening the Movement's Gender Analysis, Jos Truitt, Feministing

Trans Women Are Women. Why Do We Have to Keep Saying This?, Leela Ginelle, Bitch Media, an analysis of Burkitt's essay

Who Has Abortions?, Katha Pollitt, The Nation

Cisgender Women Aren’t the Only People Who Seek Abortions, and Activists’ Language Should Reflect That, Cheryl Chastine, RH Reality Check

What Makes A Woman, Elinor Burkett, New York Times

Responses to Burkett's piece published in the Times. I'm using this because it represents multiple points of view.

6 comments:

johngoldfine said...

This retired English teacher, old and futzy, has only one problem: 180 degree pronoun shifts. When a colleague came back from Thailand with a new name and wardrobe and gender, that was none of my business. But it took me years to remember to consistently refer to the colleague as 'she.' And even then, it was always with mental scare quotes and an infinitely fast internal syllogistic pep talk ("If Jack is now Jill, then 'he' must be 'she'--got it?")

laura k said...

Ha! How did she fare in community-college Maine?

johngoldfine said...

Surprisingly well. That's how it seemed to me from the outside at least, but perhaps she would disagree.

Maine had a TG college pioneer in Jennifer Finney Boylan at Colby who might have helped to smooth the way for my colleague.

What some people used to call 'Redneck Tech' has pretty much entered the 21st Century. Whatever students might think on their own time, they are all now sensitive enough to the Real World (as we refer to the area south of Kittery) to know to save their more bigoted opinions until they have had a few Jager shots.

It wasn't always that way. Thirty years ago, I occasionally had to deal with "nigger-rigged" (bad but interesting to me: synonym for 'jury-rigged'), "faggot," "queer," and "jewy" (this from a very naive young woman from what Mainers call East Gish or, more rudely, East Bumfuck; when I talked to her about it, she clearly had no idea that it could possibly be offensive or, for that matter, that my name was an obvious tipoff to my ethnicity, despite my lack of yarmulke and tzitzit; she was using "jewy" to simply mean 'bad, undesirable.')

My student didn't bother me at all, unlike my union colleague who once boasted of "making out like a jew in a junkshop" and got all angry when management tried to "jew us down" at the table. Him, I had to snarl at and tell to stfu, a lot less tenderly than I would talk to students.

johngoldfine said...

Might be relevant to attitudes, changing and unchanging. From my blog a few years ago:

Jan 18. Last September I wrote: "In class yesterday, I learned that our public school teachers who, presumably, have heard something about diversity and sensitivity to differences, encourage in some of our local high schools both a Slave Auction and official cross-dressing days.

I try to imagine how it might seem to a descendant of slaves to have official Slave Auctions at school. I try to imagine how it might seem to a woman a few years into puberty when the guys arrive at school wearing hilarious smeary lipstick, wobbly heels, and bouncing bazoombas.

But my imagination does not run that far, alas."

I bring it up because in today's Bangor Daily News there's an article about a male beauty pageant at Oxford Hills HS, the winner being named 'Miss Womanless,' much like the 'Miss Ugly' contest Eastern Maine Technical College used to hold.

I want to confess that, before my inner puritan kicked in, I'd probably laugh as loudly as anyone at the sight of strapping lads teetering around in heels, dressed in drag, and taking an "exaggerated feminine attitude." But I recognize there are many things that might lift my spirits that I cannot allow myself, if I can possibly resist temptation, because those things are wrong, stupid, hurtful, cruel, selfish, destructive, nasty.

Temptation--it's there to be resisted.

Oxford Hills doesn't see it that way.

Will Oxford Hills hold a reverse pageant? The gals would dress up and act like guys: scratching their crotch, strutting around and showing off anytime they get within a thousand yards of a whiff of estrogen, belching, farting, cursing, unshaven, unwashed, overeating, out of shape, watching football, getting drunk, crying, fighting, forgetting to wash their hands or put the toilet seat down, loud, inconsiderate, insensitive, arrogant, horny, driving to endanger, risk-taking, shouting, angry, cheating, controlling. Typical guys, right?

Guys, does that description of stereotypical male behavior offend you? But that's what the Miss Womanless pageant does to women: it tells us that women are flighty, flirty, lightweight, clothes- and image-obsessed, flamboyant ditzy dames.

Strangely enough, the beauty pageant article shares the page with the obituary of Mary Daly, who refused to let men into her classes at Boston College because "men have nothing to offer but doodoo." She thought that once men were around, women couldn't freely exchange ideas.... In other words, this so-called "first feminist philosopher" pretty much thought women needed to be protected since Everyone Knows they are flighty, flirty, lightweight, clothes- and image-obsessed, flamboyant ditzy dames.

laura k said...

What some people used to call 'Redneck Tech' has pretty much entered the 21st Century. Whatever students might think on their own time, they are all now sensitive enough to the Real World (as we refer to the area south of Kittery) to know to save their more bigoted opinions until they have had a few Jager shots.

It wasn't always that way.


Progress. Any and all is good. It's possible that their minds have followed their language, at least a little.

As for your examples... I guess people speaking that way is always amazing but unsurprising. Somewhat surprising from a colleague, though! Yeesh. Double yeesh.

laura k said...

Just read your other comment and old post. Great stuff.

Mary Daly, advocates for all-girl schools (because girls have "different minds"), and those ilk, they drive me crazy. I put them with those who say we shouldn't fight for gender equality in the military, because why are women going into the patriarchal, sexist, hierarchical, killing, soul-destroying military anyway?

Mary Daly's writing was helpful and eye-opening to me at one point in my development, as was Andrea Dworkin's (a woman often written about by people who haven't read her). I appreciate how their work challenged and tested my thinking. And I'm sure there are many things on which I'd agree with them. I don't mean to throw out Mary Daly wholesale.