You may recall I ordered several books at once and that I’m reading “all of them first.” Two of them are by Leslie Feinberg. I’m not going to review them each separately because to be honest I have indeed been reading both of them at the same time, (along with Hannah Hart’s book, and some more books I just signed out of the library yesterday because apparently I need to be reading like six books at the same time because I’m a nutcase.) I’m just going to tell you my thoughts as they come to me, and these thoughts might be inspired by either book.
Reading Leslie Feinberg has been setting off lots of fireworks in my brain, and by fireworks, I mean thoughts, questions, and realizations. One of these questions brings me back to the very basics of the issue, which is what does it mean to be trans?
Feinberg offers two definitions of trans in her book Transgender Warriors, (page x of the preface):
- Everyone who challenges the boundaries of sex and gender; and
- Those who reassign the sex they were labelled at birth
The definition #1 is fascinating to me because it’s so broad and vague that it could include almost anyone. To even begin to understand this definition, we’d have to agree on the definition of ‘gender’ (a word which has many meanings) and then once we’ve agreed on a definition of gender we’d have to agree on what it means to challenge gender.
John Money, who coined the term gender, defined it as: “the overall degree of masculinity and/or femininity that is privately experienced and publicly manifested in infancy, childhood, and adulthood, and that usually though not invariably correlates with the anatomy of the organs of procreation.”
Knowing that gender corresponds to how masculine or feminine a person is, and knowing that the concepts of masculinity and femininity are largely based on stereotypes about what men and women are like, feminists have taken “gender” to mean a set of culturally-constructed sex stereotypes. As we feminists note on a regular basis, the culturally-constructed sex stereotypes limit both sexes but primarily harm women, who are at the bottom of the sex hierarchy.
The feminist movement is, in part, a movement to abolish the feminine gender role—to abolish the limitation of women to the role of wives and mothers whose job is to stay in the kitchen, to abolish the sexist beauty standards that reward women for wearing uncomfortable clothes and makeup, and to give us the freedom to express ourselves as we see fit. (Of course, the feminist movement is also about ending male violence, which is related to changing the masculine gender role and restructuring society so that men and women have equal power.)
So, from a certain standpoint, feminists as a group can be lumped into the category of “trans” on the basis that we challenge the concept of gender. So many times I’ve read some writing by a human female who says she doesn’t identify as a woman because she doesn’t want people looking at her breasts instead of treating her like a person, and I’m like “DUH. That doesn’t mean you aren’t a woman, that means you’re a feminist.”
This isn’t usually what transgenderists mean when they talk about challenging gender. They aren’t usually talking about abolishing stereotypes. Usually their focus is on treating ‘gender’ as a social category of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ or other categories, that are divorced from biological sex, where ‘challenging gender’ means challenging the idea that there are only two possible ‘gender categories’ for people to identify into. Transgenderists are a wide variety of people, and some of them do want to abolish sex stereotypes while others want to reinforce them because that’s what props up their identities.
With a definition of trans that is so wide open as to include anyone who challenges gender, which is itself a wide open concept, you can argue that radical feminists are inherently trans. It’s a hilarious thought, I know.
Magdalen Berns has an excellent video where she explains some of what the issue is with the definition of trans being so wide open. I’m throwing this in here because I like the video and it’s related to this topic.
Feinberg offers a list of the possible people who could be included under the trans umbrella:
Transsexuals, transgenders, transvestites, transgenderists, bigenders, drag queens, drag kings, cross-dressers, masculine women, feminine men, intersexuals, androgynes, cross-genders, shape-shifters, passing women, passing men, gender-benders, gender-blenders, bearded women, and women bodybuilders. (Transgender Warriors, preface, page x).
This is a really varied group. I have the same problem with this group as I have with lumping Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals under the same umbrella. We have different interests and different needs, sometimes our ideas conflict with each other, and we cannot speak with one voice. For example, gay men will sometimes adopt babies via surrogacy, and lesbians don’t require the “right” to purchase children birthed by other women. In fact, lots of us are against surrogacy on the grounds that it exploits women’s bodies. Gay men and lesbians can’t be said to always have the same interests or even that our interests are always compatible with each other. In addition, bisexuals often accuse lesbians of “biphobia” and the reverse happens too; lesbians feel that bisexuals are homophobic for some of the things they say. I don’t see how all these groups can be under the same umbrella when we often find ourselves against each other. We can all work together on broad issues such as same-sex marriage, but we don’t often have much in common.
I believe the interests of transsexuals and cross-dressers are very different and often contradictory, to the point where they cannot be under the same umbrella. A transsexual wants to change his or her body and permanently live as the opposite sex. A cross-dresser isn’t trying to change his or her body but just likes dressing up. Whereas transsexuals want the right to modify their bodies, cross-dressers want the right to cross-dress without modifying their bodies. How to accommodate transsexuals and cross-dressers in washrooms is very, very different. Whether or not “being trans is a choice” or whether it should be a protected category of people is a very different conversation whether you’re talking about transsexuals or cross-dressers.
How many times does a person have to cross-dress in order to be considered “trans”? I have worn men’s clothes before, so am I trans? My partner often wears men’s clothes so is she “trans”? Am I a TERF with a trans partner then?
Also, I wrote a fairy tale with a cross-dressing character. My character Noble is someone who “challenges the boundaries of sex and gender,” and I celebrated this character as a hero. Am I a TERF who celebrates trans people in fiction in addition to having a ‘trans’ partner?
Another thing. One of the groups listed in the umbrella up there is “masculine women.” I’m attracted to masculine women, so am I ‘exclusionary’ of the people I’m attracted to?
When you leave the definition of trans wide open like that, all sorts of interesting interpretations are possible. This really sheds light on both the need to define trans in a coherent way, and the meaninglessness of the idea of “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.” If my partner and my friends and my fictional characters and maybe even me, can fall under the umbrella of ‘trans,’ then how can I be trans-exclusionary?
A trans blogger once wrote a hit piece about me arguing that I am indeed trans-exclusionary, despite the fact that I listen to trans people (watch their videos, read their books), have a partner who is a gender-bender, interact politely with trans people in real life, and have never actually banned a trans person from anything. His argument was that I am exclusionary because I exclude transwomen from the definition of woman. I don’t think this is accurate, because it’s not me personally excluding transwomen from the definition of woman, it’s the definition itself. A woman is an adult human female, and a transwoman is a human male. Males aren’t females. All males are excluded from the definition of female for the same reason that cats are excluded from the definition of fish. They are two different things, so naturally they don’t fall under the same definition. This has nothing to do with me or my personal prejudices, it’s how language works.
I regularly celebrate people who challenge the limitations placed on us because of our sex; in fact, I even wrote a Manifesto for such people (with the help of a few friends, thank you!) so I am actually doing some of the work that Leslie Feinberg considered to be liberation for trans people. People on the Internet like to frame issues in very black-and-white terms with no room for nuance, they like to ignore what people are actually saying and argue against straw men, and they like to misrepresent their alleged enemies in order to make a big show out of hating them. Far from being bigoted and hateful toward those who are gender nonconforming; we feminists have many of the same goals as they do.
I find it very frustrating and disappointing when people prefer to argue against straw men rather than engaging with what someone actually said, and when people claim to disagree with someone whose position they have not even read or understood.
The question of “what does it mean to be trans” has not been settled. There is no answer; the trans community leaves this wide open on purpose. I think this is a bad strategy, because there are people who don’t have gender dysphoria and don’t make body modifications calling themselves trans and speaking for trans people and this is wrong.
Very much related to the question of ‘what does it mean to be trans’ is the question of ‘what is trans liberation, exactly’? Is trans liberation the liberation of people with gender dysphoria in order that they may treat their dysphoria the way they see fit, or is it the liberation of cross-dressers who wish to cross-dress in public? These two things are not the same at all. These are two different movements. One is a medical movement about how to treat people with an illness and the other is a movement to change social rules about appropriate dress and behavior in public.
I enjoy reading Leslie Feinberg. She writes from experience, and unlike the college students who claim that cupcakes are transphobic, she has experienced actual violence for living in a body that people can’t easily recognize as male or female. I value her perspective and I agree with her on a lot of things. For example, I don’t think that people with ambiguous gender presentations are ‘freaks’ nor should they be denied basic rights such as housing, employment, and health care because of people’s prejudices toward them.
I’m going to explore my next question, ‘what is trans liberation, exactly?’ in another post, since as usual it’s going to get long-winded.