Trans women in feminism: nothing about us without us

In a reply to Rahila Gupta, Celeste West argues that we can’t have meaningful feminism or a meaningful democratic project without ensuring that people have a chance to speak for themselves

Celeste R West
29 April 2013

It is difficult to know where to begin in replying to Rahila Gupta's article ( 16 April)  which positions "Transgender" as a challenge to feminist politics. I appreciate that its intent is good, however that alone does not mean that it is accurate, and does not mean it is not harmful. I hope she appreciates that my response is also in good faith.

The previous article assumes at its core that trans women are not women, and are either men or some "third sex". No interrogation is made of this belief; it is instead taken as a natural certainty.

Thus, no direct reply to it is possible. As a trans woman, I am assumed to be deluded, lying implicitly about my own gender. I am assumed, too, to never be meaningfully treated as a woman by society, despite the sexist street harassment I receive, the rape threats, the unconscious silencing in mixed-gender discussion, the sexism from male doctors, and the compulsory heterosexuality that affects me just as acutely as a woman who can bear children, albeit in different ways. None of this exists, or if it exists, none of it is meaningful.

 So, what can be said. The points Rahila relies upon in her argument have been raised time and time again since the 1970s. Time and time again they have been unpicked and refuted, and by better writers than me. I shall précis the points here, and link to the debunkings done by others:

"At the end of the day, it is about a shared politics, rather than identities per se" - "Trans women are really men” trope. Debunked here.

“…men transitioning to women, another example of male privilege… patriarchy gives men…” - “Trans women possess male privilege/ are handmaidens of patriarchy”. While it is clear some trans women benefit from some elements of male privilege before transition, others are unable to fit well enough into the proscribed gender role to be able to do so. All lose all male privilege on transition. Rahila’s assumption is ably debunked here. The Scottish Trans Mental Health survey shows similar systemic discrimination in the UK.

“Men who transition to women often adopt a hyper feminine style of dress and appearance” – Trans women are “Men in dresses” who “reinforce gender stereotypes”; debunked here and here.

“It is this history of lived experience as a different sex and gender…” – “Trans women will always have been socialised as men”, as well as “Our group’s theories trump your group’s experience”. Debunked here and here.

“Jenny Roberts”, “genderqueer politics holds that … the binary system affects men and women equally”, and “I checked to see whether the numbers were greater than women to men (FTM ) transitions, and they are.” Jenny Roberts, while trying to build bridges in good faith, holds very much a minority view among trans people. All three points are rebutted in this comment.

And if you can make time to read just one link here, please read this beautifully nuanced unpicking of how the socialisations of trans and cis (non-trans) women are both different and the same.

Why does this keep happening?

Why do trans people have to keep repeatedly challenging these assumptions? I loathe doing it. I hate publicly arguing with other feminists when I could be attending an abortion rights demo, protesting against gendered cuts which threaten the lives of disabled people, talking and listening about racism in feminism, or, frankly, doing a huge number of things other than steeling myself to write this and then to deal with the media fallout.

Really, though, the positions of many feminists on trans people, or “transgender”, have not changed since the 1970s, only the language has, although not in all cases, as Julie Burchill’s recent Observer/Telegraph article blasting “shemales” shows.

Why are we not having debates within feminism that at least accord trans people, particularly trans women, the respect of our identities and experiences? Why must each debate be restarted from scratch each time? Rahila’s piece relies on one googled statistic, a trans woman who supports her own position, and her own beliefs and prejudices about trans people.

This rejection of research reminds me very much of the first feminist text I read, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, first published in 1970. The epitome of the male castrate is said to be April Ashley, a trans woman. Greer’s writing embraces the same ideas about trans women that are debunked above. Later Greer dedicated a chapter to trans in The Whole Woman, which I read next. Unlike every other chapter, her references for this chapter consisted of one citation, of the right-wing tabloid Daily Mail.

This keeps happening because unthinking prejudice is continually given weight, not only above both trans experience and statistical evidence, but also above accounts by any communities which include trans people.

Why am I here?

I always considered feminism, dismantling the oppression of women as a class, to be more important than my own subjectivity or desires. I first read Germaine Greer at 17; embracing her positions caused me to delay my own medical transition by another two years. When I felt I had to, I hated myself for it. Since then I have shied away from both being publicly out as trans, in case my transness upset or triggered other feminists or somehow damaged feminism.

When Julie Burchill published her January article, I had continual panic attacks. I was lucky to be surrounded by supportive feminist women, so I told them, and came out against Burchill’s positions which attacks endanger the lives, rights, and the access to healthcare of trans people.

Sometimes I wonder if the radical feminist position that trans people should be “morally mandated out of existence”, or, to quote Richard Littlejohn, that we should “disappear quietly” is correct. I cannot posit a direct link between the high rate of suicidality in the trans community and articles espousing these views.  What I can say is that such public attacks on an entire community deeply strain the wellbeing of all of the many trans people I know. This group response is not an isolated case, either: we can also see patterns of extreme distress in the disabled community’s reactions to recent ATOS-implemented cuts, and, taking care to look back in history rather than to compare directly, a frequent recourse of Black slaves in the US south. As for me, I don’t want to die. Perhaps that is selfish. And since I came out other feminist women now choose to support me. I am lucky that they do so. Some of my trans sisters are not so lucky; this year has seen the suicide not only of Lucy Meadows (and her subsequent misgendering in the Daily Mail’s obituary) but of another of my friends. I cannot in good conscience dismiss so much distress by those who feel powerless as entirely divorced from situation in society, as entirely “irrational”.

And trans people suffer from other intersecting oppressions, too. It’s mostly trans women of colour (to use US/online terminology) who are murdered and imprisoned, and I can’t speak for them.

I don’t want to die, because I now believe that none of us shall be free while we leave our trans sisters behind.

This is not democracy

Let’s come back to the impersonal, though.

The thrust of Rahila's article is that trans women are not women, being either men or “transgender”.

This is a position that is almost a decade behind legislation in the UK.

Sometimes I despair when I see article after article, mostly from other feminists, taking the same positions on trans people. It’s been a constant for as long as I’ve been reading newspapers. But trans people aren’t alone in dealing with this; more than a few articles published by progressive publications have later came under fire from the people being discussed.

As far as I can see, such articles tend to rest on two unconscious assumptions. The first is that it is acceptable to look at only very basic research on some issues; on trans issues, this has not changed since 1970. The second is that it is entirely acceptable to speak for some groups and determine how they are treated without asking them about their experiences.

I’m going to take another example from a well-meaning feminist: “There are people in Britain who are not remotely transphobic but have no idea that “tranny” is not acceptable to many trans people.” – Helen Lewis

This is true in a sense, but is an absurdly reductionist view of language. I have indeed known people who haven’t known “tranny” isn’t acceptable. But the word is still diminutive. It sounds like a slur. When my friend called me “tranny” in a gay club, I saw him realise this half-way through, try to catch the word as it left his mouth. This has happened time and time again, usually with gay men. If they don’t realise it’s not acceptable on some level, albeit unconsciously, why do they always catch themselves before speaking? Why do they realise that they sound like a homophobe or like their dad, without anyone having to tell them?

In my opinion it’s because saying something to someone’s face is different from saying it online. Words matter, but so do contexts and subtleties we can’t pin down to exact rules, only realise when we think of ourselves as more than an isolated individual speaking into the void.

Unconscious assumptions are to blame for a lot of oppressive dynamics, a lot of the arguments we still have within feminism. The other part of all this is far more frightening. It’s systemic erasure of history.

Take the term “intersectionality”. Like the seemingly controversial “cis”, it’s a word which had its origin in grassroots activism, in the case of intersectionality in a feminist movement led by women of colour. When we dismiss the word without taking into account its historical and cultural context, we strip language of a lot of its meaning. “Cis” (meaning not-trans) was coined in an online message board, in the 1990s, presumably from half-remembered high-school chemistry classes. Perhaps these words should sound less clinical, and then more feminists would pick up “cis”, would realise that it offers a whole different analysis to the non-intersectional one of Rahila Gupta or Julie Burchill.

But if these words sounded less precise, who would take them seriously? They sound like they come from the university, spoken by someone with authority. Yet they were not created in such circumstances at all.

Something similar has happened with “intersectionality”. It has been embraced by sociology since the 1970s, yet grassroots feminism is still often divided on its use. There’s something structural here in the way the word and concept has been taken into the university system in such a way that when a working class black woman says it today she’s accused of being “elitist”. All the while, supposed expert commenters can get away with citing only the Daily Mail in evidence.

I don’t want to write any more about trans people; Juliet Jacques went into far more depth on the structural reasons for ongoing media transphobia in her excellent New Statesman article, so, if you have time, read that.

What I’d like to emphasise is that “intersectionality” isn’t new either. It comes out of black women’s experiences within the kind of radical feminism that Rahila’s analysis also comes from.

The Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist Lesbian organisation, termed it simultaneity, and wrote on it in the Combahee River Statement, published in 1979. I’d love if you could read the whole thing, but here’s two key statements.

“The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions.”

And “We are committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our practice.”

Both these points are still being continually shouted down today, because so many of us still feel it’s fine to speak for and over other people rather than respecting their subjectivity as a starting point.

This is 2013. Let’s stop speaking for people, and start working together on unpicking the unconscious assumptions that mean we keep on doing it, even when we don’t mean to.

Anything else is profoundly anti-democratic. We absolutely cannot have a true democracy until each of us is free to speak.


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