The following is a quote from Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg, page 12–13
“When factories were humming with production during the war years – and many young men were being shipped to Vietnam – everyone was considered employable. But as the boom economy receded during the early 1970s, we stood in block-long lines just to get a job application. If I forgot for a moment just how “different” I was, the recession reminded me. I was considered far too masculine a woman to get a job in a store, or a restaurant, or an office.
I couldn’t survive without working. So one day I put on a femme friend’s wig and earrings and tried to apply for a job as a salesperson at a downtown retail store. On the bus ride to the interview, people stood rather than sit next to me. They whispered and pointed and stared. “Is that a man?” one woman asked her friend, loud enough for us all to hear.
The experience taught me an important lesson. The more I tried to wear clothing or styles considered appropriate for women, the more people believed I was a man trying to pass as a woman. I began to understand that I couldn’t conceal my gender expression.
So I tried another experiment. I called one of the older butches who I knew passed as a man on a construction gang. She lent me a pair of paste-on theatrical sideburns. After gluing them on, I drove to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. As I walked around, nobody seemed to stare. That was an unusual experience and a relief. I allowed my voice to drop to a comfortably low register and chatted with one of the guards about the job situation. He told me there was an opening for a guard and suggested I apply. An hour later, the supervisor who interviewed me told me I seemed like a “good man” and hired me on the spot. I was suddenly acceptable as a human being. The same gender expression that made me hated as a woman, made me seem like a good man.
My life changed dramatically the moment I began working as a man. I was free of the day-in, day-out harassment that had pursued me. But I also lived in constant terror as a gender outlaw. What punishments would I face when I was discovered? The fear moved me to make a complex decision: I decided to begin taking male hormones, prescribed to me by a local sex-reassignment program. Through this program, I also located a surgeon who would do a breast reduction. Shaping my body was something I had long wanted to do and I’ve never had any regrets. But I started taking hormones in order to pass. A year after beginning hormone shots, I sprouted a full, colorful beard that provided me with a greater sense of safety – on the job and off. With these changes, I explored yet another facet of my trans identity.”
What Feinberg is revealing through this quote is that she did not transition out of an authentic desire to transition on her part—she transitioned due to social coercion. The actual reasons for her transition are that she was having a hard time finding a job because people didn’t want to hire a masculine woman, and passing as a man made it easier to get hired and it made life easier in general because people treated her better.
Feinberg experienced oppression as a working class person, as a woman, as a gender nonconforming woman, and as a lesbian. The social institutions that oppressed her–capitalism, patriarchy, sexism–oppress all women.
In her activism she argued that transgender people have the right to choose a gender and to modify their bodies as they see fit. But I don’t think that what she needed was the right to “choose a gender” nor the right to modify her body. I think that what she needed was a stable job, to be treated well, to be respected for her differences, to be allowed to be herself with no negative repercussions. If she had always had a steady living and people didn’t harass her for being different (for being a masculine woman, for being a lesbian) then the reasons she states for transition wouldn’t have been there and I hypothesize that she wouldn’t have transitioned.
The problems with trans activism are the same as the problems with third wave “feminism.” People are looking at individuals instead of looking at society as a whole, they’re seeing people’s individual feelings and decisions but they’re not looking at the wider picture and the reason the individual starts feeling the way they do and the social forces that lead to them making certain decisions. People with these sorts of politics end up fighting for people’s right to engage in the defense mechanisms and strategies that people use to navigate oppressive systems without ever naming the oppressive system or challenging it.
I believe that what Leslie Feinberg’s story proves is that capitalism is a failed system that fails to provide for people and destroys lives, that patriarchy and sexism are very harmful to women, and that the path to liberation has to involve fighting sexism, homophobia, and the system of capitalist patriarchy. When we fight for women’s rights to modify their bodies in order to “fit in” to an oppressive system, we agree that the oppressive system is inevitable and that we just have to join it. This is a politics of defeat. I want better than this. I want the masculine women and feminine men of the world to be able to live safely as they are without having to conform.