What is transfeminism?
Helen G // 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In Menacing Feminism, Educating Sisters, an unpublished document is referred to (‘The Transfeminist Manifesto’), which suggests that transfeminism has at least two aspects.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.