Human Rights Office: Transgender/Transsexual: Contents: Women's Movement
Feminism has done a great deal to free up our notions of gender. It challenged the assumption that biology is responsible for most differences between women and men. It was not biology that kept women "pregnant and in the kitchen," but a patriarchal system that benefited from women playing a particular role in society. The belief that biology predisposed us to be submissive was replaced with the knowledge that women are reinforced for being passive and punished for being assertive. The role of the family, school and popular culture in teaching gender was established. Feminist research also revealed that the differences between women and men were not as great as had been assumed. The conclusion reached by those investigating gender (sex) differences is that there are more similarities than differences between women and men. So biology, it seems, does not determine gender. Most gender differences appear to be socially constructed and imposed by a system that has valued men and devalued women.Trans Accessibility Project:
Transphobia In The Women's MovementFeminist politics begins with the rather common sense notion that there exists a group of people understood as women whose needs can be politically represented and whose objectives sought through unified action. A movement for women - what could be simpler? But implicit in this is the basic idea that we know who comprises this group since it is their political goals we will articulate. What if this ostensibly simple assumption isn't true?
- Riki Anne Wilchins (1997, p. 81)
Given feminism's understanding of gender, we might expect feminists to be natural allies of transgendered people. However, this has not been the case. In the past, transgendered women and men have been routinely alienated, if not ridiculed, by feminist and lesbian feminist groups. Many of us scorned (what we assumed to be) the traditional femininity of transgendered women and gay drag queens. Many of us have also distanced ourselves from, and felt ashamed of, the masculinity of some butch women.
Feminists, in general, have made it clear that transgendered women were not welcome in social and political groups. It is interesting that many of us had problems with the conventional appearance and mannerisms of some transgendered women while accepting, and even celebrating, those same characteristics in a favourite aunt, the friendly cashier at the local grocery store, or a "lipstick" lesbian1.
Although feminism has a long history of fighting discrimination based on gender, the concept of gender identity is relatively new for most people. In the past, it seemed so straightforward. Most of us thought we knew who the women were. Even as we learned about the natural variations in women's biology (e.g., that some women have facial hair as plentiful as any man), and experimented with gender presentation, we did not question a woman's self-definition. We did not need legal documentation and we did not look for female genitalia. Now the question, "What is a woman?" has become more complicated and is at the heart of the problem for many women's organizations. Are transsexual women really women? How could someone with a penis understand herself to be female, or someone with a vagina understand himself to be male? In 1979, Janice Raymond wrote "The Transsexual Empire" in response to the presence of transsexual women in women's communities. Raymond has been referred to as an "anti-transsexual crusader"2 and has made arguments over the last 20 years to justify excluding transgendered women from the women's community. Similar arguments are also heard in shelters to justify denying services to transgendered women.
As Califia (1997) notes3, Raymond asserts that transsexualism is a recent phenomenon and one created by the medical profession. This new, unnatural thing has been constructed by men for misogynist purposes. Raymond believes that transsexual people have no history and are artificially created. The reality is that transgendered people have existed for as long as anyone else. There are reports of transgendered people among indigenous peoples, in ancient societies, and in modern societies around the world. What is new is the medical technology that can alter aspects of a person's biological sex and presentation.
For Raymond, biology defines us and, therefore, transsexuality does not really exist. She writes that,
it is biologically impossible to change chromosomal sex. If chromosomal sex is taken to be the fundamental basis for maleness and femaleness, the male who undergoes sex conversion surgery is not female....Transsexuals are not women. They are deviant males.. (p. 10, 183)As we have seen, there are several elements to biological sex, not just chromosomes. In fact, gender verification for female athletes has been a contentious issue for some time in competitive sport, in part, because the tests for chromosomal sex are not always accurate. The test currently used by the International Olympic Committee, the buccal smear, identified approximately one in every 400 female athletes in Atlanta as male (they were later cleared by physical examinations). More importantly, our society has always defined gender much more broadly than just on the basis of chromosomes or other aspects of sex. Gender roles and presentation have always been assumed to be a part of one's gender, regardless of whether biology or socialization was believed to be the cause.
Although it is believed that there are equal numbers of male and female transsexuals, Raymond refers only briefly to transsexual men and considers them to be "the token that saves face for the male transsexual empire" (p. 27). Greater numbers of transsexual women exist, she believes, for the following reason:
Most significant is the male recognition of the power that women have by virtue of female biology. This power, which is evident in giving birth, cannot be reduced to procreation. Rather birthing is only representative of the many levels of creativity that women have exercised in the history of civilization. Transsexualism may be one way by which men attempt to possess female creative energies, by possessing artifactual female organs. (p. xvi)Certainly there many wonderful aspects of women's culture and social relationships that men could enjoy and benefit from, but the symbolic "possession of women's creative energies" is achieved at a very high cost for transsexual women. They are, presumably, trading male privilege (that Raymond would insist that they enjoy) for lowered social status, suffocating transphobia, and the sexism experienced by all women (transgendered or biological). Without a female gender identity, it is unlikely that any male would see the benefit of this exchange.
Yet, according to Raymond, both transsexual women and men are seeking to appropriate creative energy and power; and apparently, both are deluded in this quest:
If one reason men become constructed women is to capture female creative energy and power, women may become constructed men to attain what is perceived as male creative energy and power, patriarchy having deceived women into believing that maleness is necessary for real creativity and power." (p. xxiii)If this is the motivation for male transsexuals, it seems odd to us, that there are not more women (perhaps hoards of us!) seeking access to male creative energy and the power-base that is so evident in most societies.
Raymond (and some other feminists) assert that transsexual women are not real women because they do not share women's socialization. The argument is that transsexual women have not been treated as females from birth and have not experienced women's oppression; in fact, they have been socialized as men and share a male perspective on the world. It is true that transsexual women have generally been raised as males but transsexual women report that they have never felt male, they did not fit in with other males, and they did not want to be treated as males. They identified with the girls and women, not the boys and men. They wanted to play with the girls as children and many experienced disbelief and betrayal when, at puberty, the additional indicators of their male biology could not easily be ignored. Transgendered women and men describe rejecting attributes that did not fit with their identity and refusing to relinquish, despite strong opposition, characteristics that felt more consistent with who they were.
If a transgendered female did not express her gender identity in obvious ways, she probably did avoid the discriminatory treatment to which girls and women are subjected. However, the slightest show of her female identity likely resulted in severe punishment (for example, dressing in female clothing). The brutality of transphobia easily matches that of sexism. Although the rest of the world treated them as male, transsexual women do not speak of enjoying their male status; rather, they report detesting it.
Unless one believes, as Raymond seems to, that women's and men's very natures are fixed and not open to change, then presumably there is some room for a person with a cross-gender identity (in this case a woman-identified-woman) to learn gender-related behaviour. There are few feminists who would maintain that neither women nor men are capable of change. If so, we would not be providing support for women to leave abusive partners, we would not be taking assertiveness classes, and we would not be trying to create different types of personal relationships with both women and men.
A final concern expressed is that transgendered women will bring "male energy" into women's organizations. Male energy is difficult to define and certainly discrimination cannot be justified on the basis of such an intangible concept. However, male energy may refer to both subtle and overt behaviour that is typically associated with males or masculinity. Behaviour that is aggressive, domineering or intrusive cannot be tolerated when the emotional and physical safety of abused women and children is at stake. However, if such behaviour is evident, it should be dealt with as a behaviour problem, whether the woman is a biological female or transgendered. As we have painfully learned, biological males do not hold a monopoly on aggressive or abusive behaviour.
The tone and arguments of Janice Raymond were widespread within the women's movement in the 1980s and are still evident today. The Michigan Women's Music Festival developed an anti-transsexual policy some years ago that excluded all but "women-born-women." While the Festival has since made some changes to this policy, we must question what was accomplished by barring transsexual women who did not pass (and were therefore identified as transgendered), while transsexual women who passed easily attended the festival unnoticed. Ironically, a policy presumably based in biology, in practice, relied heavily on self-identification. The Festival admitted both transgendered men and women whose identity was assumed to be female, and excluded transgendered men who identified as male (even though they were "woman-born").
Shelters, crisis lines and sexual assault centres were developed to meet the needs of women abused by men. The fight for women-only services and spaces was long and arduous. While the demand for our services steadily grew, we had to fight for funding, were viewed with suspicion, branded as unprofessional, subjected to lesbian-baiting and charged with man-hating, year after year. And yet, we challenged ourselves to provide services for all women and to include all women in our organizations.
Providing services to lesbians who had been abused by their female partners required a great deal of work by many women's services. For years it had been assumed that only men raped, battered and stalked. It was difficult for feminism, and individual women, to incorporate the fact that some women commit these crimes as well. Similarly, we have worked to understand and challenge the classism and racism evident in our services and politics.
All of the questionnaires returned to the Trans Accessibility Project indicated that the mandate of the organization is to provide services to all women. The strength of this movement has been women's demonstrated willingness to change in order to achieve this goal. Our awareness of transgendered women now forces us to reconsider the definition of a woman and to work with the political, social and personal ramifications of the existence of a gender continuum.
1 MacDonald, E. (1998). Thoughts on transgender and transphobia (Part II). The Vine, 6, 6.
2 Califia (1997, p. 92)
3 Much of our discussion of Raymond's work is drawn from Pat Califia's (1997) chapter, "The backlash: Transphobia in feminism."
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