Update June 8, 2020: I wrote this piece in 2016. And when I wrote this piece I was still struggling with my gender identity. In 2019 I came out as Genderqueer Femme.
The 2016 Republican Platform reads like a white-supremacist’s fever dream. It challenges the hard-won civil rights of people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community. Republicans have made it clear that the party is committed to destroying the gains made in marriage equality, adoption, and the civil rights of transgender individuals.
The platform referred to the Obama administration’s inclusion of gender identity in the enforcement of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 as “an ideology alien to America’s history and traditions.”[i] There is so much to lose. There has never been a time when it has been more important for the groups who are being targeted by the RNC to join together and face the threat to our freedoms as a united front.
A threat to one is a threat to all, right?
Apparently not. There has been a rift between the feminist community and the transgender community for decades. It is rearing its head in light of the evangelical Christian and political right attacks on transgender individual’s right to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity. Some feminists, in a strange turn of events, have aligned themselves with the political right, and made unequivocal statements about woman-hood and the transgender rights movement, going as far as supporting the “predator myth” that is a favorite among Alt-Right “Bathroom Bill” proponents.[ii]
Feminist leaders, like Germaine Greer, have issued statements indicating that only women born with female sex organs are “real” women and that “lopping off your dick” does not make an individual a woman.[iii] Another criticism is that when transgender women call themselves women, they erase the oppression of biological women by using a gender designation they have not “earned” through their suffering. Elinor Burkett, a journalist, women’s studies professor, and Oscar-winning documentarian wrote that
“For me and many women, feminist and otherwise, one of the difficult parts of witnessing and wanting to rally behind the movement for transgender rights is…their disregard for the fact that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.”[iv]
This bias toward transgender women and defense of protecting the gender identity of “natural born women” within the feminist community is nothing new. Janice Raymond is a long-time critic of the gender identity movement. Raymond, a feminist activist whose decades of work have focused on women’s health, medical ethics, and violence against women, published The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male in 1979. The book argues that “transsexualism” is a moral question that the transgender community is attempting to respond to with a “medical-technical” answer.[v] Raymond posits, in an essay defending The Transexual Empire, that a transgender individual’s desire for gender-affirming surgery is the product of medical and social systems that support a gender-defined society. Raymond goes on to write “I contend that the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.”[vi]
The narrative of women is as long as history itself.
Our perceptions of ourselves and our place in society have changed over thousands of years and will continue to change as we continue to define what it means to be a woman and be human. It’s alarming the number of feminists who support the exclusion of transgender women from the narrative of our history and the possibilities for our future.[vii] The arguments seem to all circle back to the idea that only “natural” women deserve to call themselves women. It begs the question, who gets to define what being a woman means and what does that answer say about us, as feminists?
Who gets to define what being a woman means and what does that answer say about us, as feminists?
If you posit that being a woman is simply the presence female sexual organs at birth then aren’t you stripping away the value of womanhood by reducing a woman to a vagina for pleasure and womb for reproduction. That reasoning sounds suspiciously close to North Carolina’s HB2 thinking that purports that only those with womb-grown vaginas are allowed to urinate in the women’s restroom. What about the argument that living as a woman is the only way to earn the badge of womanhood?
Transgender women have their own unique experience of suffering to add to the narrative of misogyny and oppression. Do we discount them because they once were forced to live as men even though every single moment of their lives was a struggle because they knew they were women? Is it right for anyone to judge another’s experience? Is someone less of a woman because they never menstruate? I’ve never been pregnant or mothered a child, does that negate my experience? What about people born with Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome, is their surgically created vagina and uterus more valuable than a transgender woman’s? How many crumby experiences do you have to have endured to finally be considered a woman?
That sounds a lot like patriarchal, dichotomous thinking to me.
Is that really the banner that 21st-century feminism wants to fly? I don’t pretend to know what makes me a woman. I am a cis-female. I was born with the privilege of my sex organs agreeing with my gender identity, but I also don’t feel that a trans woman’s assertion of her woman-hood threatens mine or erases the oppression I’ve experienced in any way.
The original text above reflects where I was in my gender identity in 2016. I look back at the sentence, “I don’t pretend to know what makes me a woman” and I see, with the benefit of hindsight, my own confusion at the fluidity of my gender. I recognize the ways in which the binary experience of “womanhood” constrained the full breadth of my experience of my gender.
The narrative of transgender women enriches our global story and refutes the political right’s assertion that our sex organs define not just ourselves, but our role in society.
Regardless of how we define ourselves, while we are debating what makes a woman, the rights of those who do not fit into the white, Christian narrative are under attack. When we confine ourselves to narrow definitions that are designed to protect our self-perception then we deny ourselves the opportunity to form powerful bonds where our lives intersect. Intersectionality, Kimberle Crenshaw’s theory that oppression is not a single-axis experience, for example, proposes that a Black woman’s gender oppression is impacted by her race and her experience of racial oppression is impacted by her gender identity.[viii] When we acknowledge that a transgender woman’s experience as a woman and a transgender individual has impacted her suffering, then we open the door for the expansion of our own narrative and create a strong relationship between our communities.
An inspirational model of the strength that arises from Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality is the Black Lives Matter movement.
Black Lives Matter is a revolutionary movement that is focused on validating Black lives and confronting the ways in which the state has left Black people “intentionally powerless.”[ix] It is an inclusive movement that recognizes the intersection of race, economic class, gender identity, education accessibility, and disability. The movement is making a difference, take the Black Lives Matter protest that brought the Toronto Pride Parade to a halt this past July. The movement’s protest stopped the parade in an effort to increase the validation and voice of Black queer youth, Black queer people, Black trans women, Indigenous peoples, and other vulnerable communities.[x] The experience lifted Black voices that carried multiple narratives of oppression to the forefront. It was a powerful example of the ways in which intersectionality can make a community stronger.
The power that the evangelical Christian lobby and the Alt-Right hold within the Republican Party threatens the progress that people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community have made over the past 50 years. We make it that much easier to entrap us in the snare of oppression when we create a narrative of woman that restricts and excludes. Our fight for social justice is meaningless if we do not examine our own actions with the same rigor we apply to others. We become an unwitting voice for the oppressor when we justify denying acceptance to our trans sisters because their path to becoming a woman was different than our own.
About the Author: Jenn Kowalski is a Licensed Social Worker with a Masters in Social Work from The Ohio State University. They write about living with chronic illness, politics, health, and social issues in her blog jkkowalskwrites.com. They are a white, Genderqueer Femme, pansexual. For more about them please click here and for more about Jenn’s experience with Lupus & Fibromyalgia click here
[i] Republican National Committee, “Republican Platform 2016,” GOP.org, p. 35, July 18, 2016. Retrieved September 9, 2016, p. 35.
[ii] Amanda Prestigiacomo, “Feminist: Transgender Propaganda HURTS Women,” The Daily Wire, June 24, 2016. Retrieved September 11, 2016.
[iii] Nick Duffy, “Germaine Greer: Lopping off your d**k and wearing a dress doesn’t make you a f***ing woman,” Pink News, October 26, 2015. Retrieved September 11, 2016.
[iv] Elinor Burkett, “What Makes a Woman?”, The New York Times, June 6, 2015. Retrieved September 11, 2016.
[v] Janice Raymond, “Fictions and Facts About the Transexual Empire,” Janiceraymond.com, 2016. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
[vi] Janice Raymond, “Fictions and Facts About the Transexual Empire,” Janiceraymond.com, 2016. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
[vii] Emma Allen, “Unpacking Transphobia in Feminism”, The Transadvocate, 2013. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
[viii] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8. Retrieved September 11, 2016.
[ix] Black Lives Matter, “About the Black Lives Matter Network,” Black Lives Matter, nd. Retrieved September 11, 2016.
[x] Julie Craven, “Black Lives Matter Toronto Stands By Pride Parade Shutdown,” The Huffington Post, July 6, 2016. Retrieved September 11, 2016.