What is transfeminism?

// 28 March 2008

My gender dysphoria, transsexualism and consequent transitioning have informed many aspects of my opinions on Life, the Universe and Everything, including my still-developing views and beliefs about feminism. Yet there is still much for me to learn. For example, what are the natures, extents and effects of the overlaps and intersections between my lived experiences as a trans woman, and my views, beliefs and principles as a feminist? Is it possible to combine the two into a symbiosis: a wider transfeminist narrative that works for me – if that’s even possible/desirable? These are the sorts of questions that preoccupy me at the moment.

I do not have the benefit of further education, neither am I one of those fortunate people who are able to learn by osmosis. I’m just an ordinary, middle-aged woman, trying to come to terms with, and make sense of, some momentous personal changes in my life, and to place them in a context that I can carry with me in my everyday existence.

And it’s a struggle, I have to say. All my life, when I’ve wanted to learn about something, I’ve started by reading a book (or two) on the subject. Books have invariably given me a grounding in the basics of whatever my chosen subject was at the time, sufficient for me to ‘take it from here’.

But books on transfeminism? Well, it’s not that easy to find any in plain English. There are plenty on feminism and transsexualism but comparatively few on transfeminism. And many of the books, in all three categories, seem to be scholarly, academic reference books, which look as though they would probably be way over my head.

Okay then, what about online? Are there even any definitions of the term that might at least give me a starting point of sorts? >clickity< Oh look: just the one search result – and, what a surprise, it’s over at Wikipedia… Actually, it’s quite interesting reading, if a little terse – and at the bottom of the page are links to three other documents, here, here and here. Although, at the time of writing, I haven’t been able to translate the third page into my one and only language, I have found plenty of food for thought in the other links, particularly in Menacing Feminism, Educating Sisters. But they also raise questions, at least for me, and some of those questions I’d like to ask here, in the hope that some of The F Word’s readers may have some answers that make sense to me.

In Menacing Feminism, Educating Sisters, an unpublished document is referred to (‘The Transfeminist Manifesto’), which suggests that transfeminism has at least two aspects. "One is the application of feminist perspectives to trans discourse, aptly called ‘transsexual feminism’. Transsexual feminism is premised on an extrinsic acceptance of transsexuals as women". The second strand is transfeminism itself, which is "about establishing transfeminism within the mainstream of feminism with specific content that relates to transsexuals’ experiences, but which is applicable to all women".

The first point (acceptance of trans women) I have no argument with, indeed, I’m generally in favour of it. But I am aware that some people who identify as womyn-born-womyn (WBW) may disagree with the idea and that, in turn, may lead into the separate but linked discussion about women-only spaces (see also Laura’s recent post on this subject).

The second point (establishing transfeminism within the mainstream of feminism) I’m not so sure about: it sounds almost – dare I use the word? – essentialist in tone if not meaning. What are the experiences that trans* people have, which are applicable to all women? Can our common causes with feminism, for example, fighting against the idea that biology equals destiny, or wanting to be judged on our character and merit, not gender (Wikipedia) really be called "experiences"? I’m not sure they can – although I believe they can help to answer the notion that trans* issues have no place in feminism. What, then, are these shared experiences? To my mind, and maybe I’m wrong, but wouldn’t the most blindingly obvious example of a commonality be the injustice and inequality that women suffer, simply by living in a patriarchal society? And is that the only link between us, or are there others?

Education, perhaps not surprisingly, has been an important facet of my transitioning, mostly in terms of things I’ve learned from others, and to a lesser extent, what I can bring to the debate. This quote (from Menacing Feminism, Educating Sisters again) is striking: "The women who socialized me taught me that sisterhood is fierce, not demure". I wonder if that received wisdom is in any way responsible for the claim by some radfems that ‘trans women take up too much social space’? Or is it simply a form of self-belief, self-confidence, self-reliance that is a necessary part of surviving transition? If so, then does that experience have a place in feminism which the majority can find useful, or is it too specific to a trans woman’s experience, to translate into something more widely useful? Can a survival tactic be said to be a form of self-determination – after all, self-determination is something almost fundamental to feminist beliefs, isn’t it?

But perhaps education is not only about what I as a trans woman have learned, and continue to learn, of feminism. Surely other trans women’s issues and experiences can help to educate feminists? For example, the notion of passing – "the ability of an individual to be successfully accepted by others as belonging to a gender opposite to that of their biological sex" – may well be seen by some feminists as reinforcing a stereotypical element of the gender binary and therefore by default supporting patriarchal oppression. The question of "feminity vs. feminism" is considered at length by Julia Serano in her book Whipping Girl. And I would like to quote Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, from her book Crossing: A Memoir, where she gives a simple and heartfelt response to why some trans women learn stereotypical feminine gestures: "It’s to keep from getting murdered, dear". I for one am quite open about my transsexuality; I have nothing to be ashamed of, even though I don’t ‘pass’ all that well – my condition is first and foremost about my relationship with my body. Nevertheless I can definitely empathise with the statement that "[just walking down the street] is like educating the public". Perhaps, then, trans women do have insights to offer in the debate as to why our issues have a place in feminism: if nothing else, we must surely agree that gender variance, and how we express it, should be a right common to all if we are serious about ending discrimination.

I’m beginning to realise what a huge subject this is: I haven’t even begun to think about how class and economic issues affect transfeminism. This quote (from Menacing Feminism, Educating Sisters) really hits home: "For the economically disadvantaged, seemingly a disproportionate number who are people of color, money for identity and body reconstruction is often out of reach. As one interviewee wrote, ‘economics is a central theme in any trans activism’".

I’m currently in a place where I’m acutely aware of my own lack of knowledge of so many aspects of the politics of identity and gender, of feminism and trans people’s issues, and this makes it difficult even to begin to think it all through, let alone formulate any kind of Unified Field Theory Of Transfeminism. So this piece is a simple request to help me to learn more about these subjects in the hope that, along the way, I – and maybe even some of The F Word’s readers – can start to see our commonalities more clearly, and perhaps even start to break down some of the barriers that seem to exist between us.


Comments From You

Kirsty // Posted 29 March 2008 at 10:58 am

Hi Helen,

I just wanted to say how much I have been enjoying your posts, and that I think your frankness about your transitioning is both brave and timely.

I have never known or met (or knowingly met) a transexual, and it is something I have known next-to-nothing about. I am learning so much from your writing.

Thank you,


Steph Jones // Posted 29 March 2008 at 1:17 pm

Thanks for an interesting piece, Helen. Perhaps I could offer my own take…

My transfeminist experience…

is knowing exceptionally young that I had been born with a body and genitals that I could not relate to.

is as a young boy, seeing how society around me treats women lesser than men.

is being bullied all the way through school by my peers, for being ‘different’.

is being the sexual interest of a male teacher who suggests innuendo at every opportunity.

is realising that many people suddenly start to treat me less respectfully when I come out as transsexual female.

is now treated as a woman by society.

is almost dropping out of school before exams even though I am intelligent, because of the attitudes surrounding me.

is being treated as a sexual object by men because by implication of being a transsexual female, I must be ‘up for it’.

is being shouted ‘freak’ in public because I do not conform to societal and cultural expectations.

is losing out on jobs that I could do blindfolded, because I am discriminated against as a female and as a transsexual.

is being pathologised by the male-dominated medical establishment.

is seeing other transsexuals treated like shit by the male-biased press and media.

is being mentally and physically abused and raped in every single way by patriarchal society.

is being violated as a woman by a man who didn’t take no for answer, then when he realised I was transsexual, attacked me because it was somehow ‘my fault’.

is despite being born male, not being afforded male privilege.

That is my transfeminist experience.

Jess McCabe // Posted 29 March 2008 at 1:31 pm

There’s a lot to think about, here, Helen!

However, one thing strikes me immediately:

“What are the experiences that trans* people have, which are applicable to all women? Can our common causes with feminism, for example, fighting against the idea that biology equals destiny, or wanting to be judged on our character and merit, not gender (Wikipedia) really be called “experiences”? I’m not sure they can – although I believe they can help to answer the notion that trans* issues have no place in feminism.”

I don’t think it’s particularly necessary that *all* women have to experience something for it to be a relevant concern for feminism. That would be impossibly narrow, in my view. Would that make the experiences of women in prison irrelevant to wider feminism, for example? What is there that all women experience, except for being on the wrong end* of a structural power imbalance?

Feminists has to be concerned with more than how the patriarchy harms us in our individual circumstances, although that is obviously a way that many of us come to feminism, and important.

* Not that I think men wouldn’t/don’t already benefit from a feminist rebalancing of society, with the erosion of rigid expectations of upholding one sort of masculinity/gender roles, being just the beginning…

Helen G // Posted 29 March 2008 at 2:25 pm

Kirsty – Thank you for your kind words; I think I’m learning a lot from these posts, too! :)

Steph – Thanks for commenting and for being so open, I appreciate it. It seems our experiences have many things in common, as well as some differences – which is perhaps what one might expect. I would be interested to know how you have processed these experiences to arrive at a transfeminist viewpoint.

Jess – Your example of women in prison is very helpful; it’s a way of looking at it that hadn’t occurred to me and I’m grateful to you for the insight.

I now find myself beginning to wonder if transfeminism is solely about finding ways of surviving within a society which is based on, and structured around, such huge imbalances of power. I hope not, as I think I would consider that to be an almost impossibly bleak prospect.

For me, at least, there has to be a sense that there is more to one’s existence than just survival, there has to be growth of some sort (personal? political?), a sense of purpose (but not, I think, destiny) and, well, I don’t know what… To some extent, doesn’t one have to learn from from one’s own experiences to be able to grow as a person? ‘The brain comes free with the body, so you might as well use it’.

Maybe this is naive and egotistical, but I would like to hope that I can somehow, in my own small way, help in sowing the seeds of change which may perhaps, in the longer term help to bring about a fairer, more equitable and inclusive society (even though I’m unclear on how I might practically make such a contribution). Is that a feminist view? Transfeminist? Both, neither? Or am I simply verbalising my own form of a "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will", to paraphrase some old Italian guy?

Jess // Posted 29 March 2008 at 7:47 pm

“I now find myself beginning to wonder if transfeminism is solely about finding ways of surviving within a society which is based on, and structured around, such huge imbalances of power. I hope not, as I think I would consider that to be an almost impossibly bleak prospect.”

Bleak in some ways… I don’t think that anyone can expect the feminist project (revolution?) to be completed in our lifetimes. Ending domestic violence? Rape? Trafficking? Even cutting the numbers in half seems like a bit of a daydream. That doesn’t even get into the shift in thinking about gender, or the deep rooted, often seemingly subconscious, belief that women and girls are just less cool/interesting/funny/smart/fun/able/etc – just less – than men. Creating a substantive and deep shift away from a mode of thinking that has characterised our culture for thousands of years – well, that’s hard work.

But it’s not all negative! It’s not like there haven’t been gigantic leaps forward in a couple of decades, years.

And we know there are like-minded people out there, “doing” feminism, womanism, transfeminism, anti-racism, etc. I was a bit down on individualisation of feminism earlier (Earnestly asking “Is make up feminist?!” etc) I don’t think that can be the be all and end all of feminist activism, but it is important. One reason why, I think, is because this is what surely at least part of what makes up “living” feminism. Hopefully the point of all of this is to help create some room where survival can take a back seat and we can all just live a little…

Jess // Posted 29 March 2008 at 7:53 pm

Sorry, I think that came out a bit preachier than I was intending :) Feel free to just throw something (soft! virtual?) at me any time I do that. (Kittens?)

Helen G // Posted 29 March 2008 at 8:32 pm

Jess – Not preachy. Passionate, maybe – but that’s okay, passionate is good! ;) No kitten throwing though – they may be soft (and fluffy) but those claws? eep!

I agree with you about attitudinal changes being needed and taking a long time – but I’m (a) impatient, (b) no spring chicken and (c) struggling to find something meaningful that I can do to start bringing about that sea change. Other than letting My Life As A Trans Woman™ set some sort of example, that is. Because just living my life seems like such a small contribution, not to mention a cop-out: is that all I have, all I can do? I have an intuition that educating people, raising awareness of trans people and trans* issues may also be part of what I can do – even though I don’t know where to start – or feel especially educated myself…

The individualism aspect is interesting: I need to think about it a bit more, though – I just can’t quite piece together my thoughts about it at the moment…


Helen G // Posted 29 March 2008 at 9:22 pm

Okay, then, here’s a thought, on individualism vs. collective action – but I reserve the right to change my mind!

Transitioning is, for me, an intensely personal – individual – experience. And I’m not sure I’ll ever find the place where I will feel that I’ve transitioned, past tense, that it’s over, all done and dusted. It’s an ongoing process – more like a flowchart than a checklist – and therefore my sense of identity is always likely to be a factor as long as I’m in this state of flux, still trying to define myself from the inside looking out, at the same time as society in general is trying to define me from the outside looking in.

But perhaps coming down from my ivory tower and interacting with society might help me in finding a perspective. Yes, it would be great to interact with other trans people too, but we’re so few and far between – and I’m not aware of any real networking taking place between us wrt the politics of gender and identity. Or maybe it’s already there and I just don’t know it.

I still think that we need something like an international version of Stonewall for trans people, to give us a focal point about which we can rally and organise ourselves in a way that our individual voices can combine in a (loud!) collective voice which could really help advance our cause(s).

Which probably also need to be clearly defined.

Which brings me back to trying to understand the overlaps and intersections with feminism…

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