The roots of trans oppression

One of the reasons that Leslie Feinberg researched the history of trans people is to find out whether they have always been oppressed and why their oppression began. She discussed the historical examples she found of cross dressing or sex change in her book Transgender Warriors  and traced the rise of discrimination against such people. Page numbers in this post will refer to the book Transgender Warriors.

Feinberg searched for trans people in history by looking for any mention of cross-dressing or sex change in historical texts. She did find lots of mentions of cross-dressing, but I’m a bit skeptical about whether anything she found actually constitutes sex change.

Here’s an example of something I’m skeptical about. She quoted Deuteronomy as an example of early bigotry against male-to-female transgender expression. “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter the congregation of the Lord” (p 50). This quote displays bigotry toward men who have lost their genitals, but does this have anything to do with transgenderism? In early societies men could have lost their genitals due to illness or accidents. They were doing physical labor and didn’t have modern hospitals. I don’t think we can know whether the writer of Deuteronomy had male-to-female expression in mind while writing this, or whether feminine men in this time period ever removed their genitals for transgender reasons. I am always skeptical of modern people taking these historical texts and interpreting them in terms of our understanding of transgenderism today. It seems like that is likely to turn out inaccurate.

I don’t doubt that there have always been cross-dressers and people who have been different from what we normally expect from men and women. I also don’t doubt there have always been people born intersex. It’s the way modern people interpret these things that draws out my skepticism. I do agree with Feinberg on one important point here, and that is that patriarchal societies discriminate against cross dressers and people who have a different gender expression than expected.  I view this through a feminist lens and I would describe this as patriarchal systems enforcing rigid gender roles on people and punishing those who deviate from the norm in order to reinforce patriarchy.

In addition to using religious texts and historical accounts, she also drew from communist theory for her theory of the development of trans oppression. This means that she blames the class division and patriarchy for trans oppression, which comes pretty close to my own theories.

“The accumulation of wealth in the form of herds, agriculture, and trade led to deepening class divisions among the Hebrews, so no wonder the religious beliefs and laws began to reflect the interests of the small group who owned the wealth and their struggle to strengthen their control over the majority.” (p 50.)

The invention of private property led men to need control over their wealth and their wives and children and this also led to strict divisions between the sexes.

She draws on the work of Frederick Engels to describe the overthrow of communalism and the rise of private property.

“In every society in which human labor grew more productive with the use of improved tools and techniques, people stored up more than what they needed for immediate consumption. This surplus was the first accumulation of wealth. Generally, men, who had primarily been wild-game hunters, domesticated and herded large animals, which represents the first wealth. Men, therefore, were in charge of stockpiling this abundance: cattle, sheep, goats, horses, and the surplus of dried and smoked meats and hides, milk, cheese, and yogurt.

Prior to this surplus, tools, utensils, and other possessions were commonly owned within the matrilineal gens. As wealth accumulated in the male sphere of labor, the family structure began to change, and men began to pass on inheritance to their male heirs. Those who had large families and other advantages gathered and stored more surplus. These inequalities, small at first, became the basis of the enrichment of some male tribal members over the women and the tribe as a whole.” (p51-52.)

“Shackling a vast laboring class meant creating armies, police, courts, and prisons to enforce the ownership of private property. However, whips and chains alone couldn’t ensure the rule of the new wealthy elite. A tiny, parasitic class can’t live in luxury off the wealth of a vast, laboring class without keeping the majority divided and pitted against each other. This is where the necessity for bigotry began.

I found the origin of trans oppression at this intersection between the overthrow of mother-right and the rise of patriarchal class-divided societies. It is at this very nexus that edicts like Deuteronomy arose. Law, including religious law, codified class relations.” (p52)

She even names some points about the development of patriarchy that agree with radical feminism.

“Once property-owning males ascended to a superior social position, those categories could not be bridged or blurred without threatening those who owned and controlled this new wealth.” (p62)

“The heterosexual family, headed by the father, became a state dictate because it was the economic vehicle that ensured wealth would be passed on to sons.” (p62)

“Males who were viewed as “womanly” were an affront to the men in power.” (p62)

“Hatred and contempt for women partly accounts for the growing hostility of the ruling classes toward men they considered too feminine.” (p62)

While reading these chapters I found that Feinberg had described the rise of capitalist patriarchy and named that as the source of trans oppression. She gave considerable attention to the way the European Catholic Church eliminated matrilineal belief systems and communal living. These earlier cultures tended to accept and even celebrate cross-dressing and include it as a form of expression in cultural and spiritual ceremonies, but the Catholic Church, representing the interests of ruling class men, eliminated these cultures and outlawed cross-dressing in order to protect its own power. I agree with her about this, although I would use slightly different words to describe it.

In my own words, the rise of capitalist patriarchy led to the discrimination against people she describes as “trans” because it created a hierarchy between men and women and separated the sexes into distinct roles. This means that people who blurred the lines by taking on roles not allowed to them by capitalist patriarchy were subject to corrective violence. This corrective violence was done to protect the patriarchal system and the ruling classes—both the economic ruling class and the ruling sex class (men).

Feinberg doesn’t specifically name the enforcement of gender roles as a method of protecting patriarchy, although I think she did understand this, she just didn’t put it into focus. Rather than focusing on the female sex class she focused on all cross-dressers as a group. I think it’s a mistake to consider both males and females to be part of the same oppressed group, since this disappears the sex hierarchy. Both male and female cross dressers are discriminated against, but they still have different places in the hierarchy. Men are expected to take their place as head of the family, husband and father, while women are expected to take their place as domestic servant and breeder. Both groups aren’t subject to the same discrimination.

To repeat a quote that I mentioned above:

“A tiny, parasitic class can’t live in luxury off the wealth of a vast, laboring class without keeping the majority divided and pitted against each other. This is where the necessity for bigotry began.” (p52)

It looks like she saw bigotry against cross-dressers and gender variant people as a deliberate strategy by the ruling class to keep the working class fighting each other so that they wouldn’t overthrow their economic oppression. This is a decent theory, because the ruling class does indeed introduce social issues in order to distract the proletariat from forming class consciousness and working together to fight for their own class interests. We can still see this happening today. However, I see the bigotry against gender variant people as rooted in the need for sex hierarchy between men and women and the enforcement of cultural beliefs  about men and women that are used to protect that hierarchy.

It’s important that communists, particularly communist women, analyze oppression on the axis of biological sex as well as economic class. Just as we need to create class consciousness among the proletariat, we need to create class consciousness among women, and we need to see ourselves as a class of people with a common class interest. I think it was a mistake for Feinberg to focus on both male and female cross-dressers as a group, rather than identifying with her sex class. All women are harmed by the enforcement of gender roles coming from capitalist patriarchy, although that harm will look different depending on whether we conform or not to feminine gender expression.  Women whose political analysis doesn’t come from viewing the female sex class as a distinct group will ultimately create politics that don’t support women’s best interests.  For example, Feinberg was against Michfest, even though it was created with women like her in mind, because she considered her political allies to be cross-dressing males rather than the female sex-class. Of course, feminists need to also be cognizant that they are listening to butch women and not doing things to alienate them from the movement.

One of the biggest failures of the left is the failure to recognize sex-based oppression and that other forms of discrimination flow from it. I think Feinberg’s analysis came close to the truth but just stopped short before getting there.

Compulsory heterosexuality

Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence is an essay by Adrienne Rich published in 1980 that challenges the assumption that women’s innate sexual orientation is toward men, points out how heterosexuality is institutionalized, and presents lesbianism as a challenge to this institution. This essay is a part of the ‘lesbian feminist’ theory that lesbianism is a political choice made by women to challenge patriarchy. Although it is true that heterosexuality is institutionalized, and although many of the points made within the body of the essay are true, the basic premise that sisterhood between women is a part of lesbianism is incorrect.

My blog post is written with the assumption that you have read Adrienne Rich’s essay. If you haven’t, the full text can be found online.

Heterosexuality is institutionalized, but it’s also a real sexual orientation. We can separate the institution from the sexual orientation by separating aspects of culture from people’s personal feelings. The institution of heterosexuality can be found in religion, law, language, and the arts; it’s located in many patriarchal institutions that give men power over women, such as forced marriage, prostitution, and the lower wages given to women for paid labor. These are some of the things Adrienne Rich gets right. However, the romantic and sexual feelings that straight women feel towards men are real feelings, they are not mere products of socialization. Socialization influences our behavior but it cannot construct a sexual orientation. Neither can women construct a sexual orientation by changing their politics. Most women are indeed heterosexual; homosexuals are a minority group. Stating this fact does not limit straight women to a life of being abused by men; male violence against women is a product of patriarchy, not a product of legitimate human sexual orientation. After the feminist revolution, women and men will likely still bond together in love relationships, but they will do so on equal footing.

For most of the history of marriage, divorce was rare. A woman was literally a man’s property and the way he treated her was considered his private business. Women were strongly encouraged to marry men by everyone in their community, and they were stigmatized and discriminated against if they remained unmarried. Marriage itself is an institution; it is maintained by both government and religion, it is celebrated by entire communities and entire industries have developed around it (the wedding dress industry, the wedding cake industry, wedding planners, florists, etc). Until very recently, marriage was only for heterosexuals. The fact that heterosexual marriage is presented culturally as one of the most significant achievements of a person’s life, that their church, their government, and their community have an interest in validating, is part of the institution of heterosexuality.

When I attend a heterosexual wedding, I am amazed at how institutionalized it all is. The tradition of the white dress, walking down an aisle, formal dress, expensive flowers and decorations, and endless pomp and display, all seem to say “Look at us. We are heterosexual. Everyone celebrate and validate our relationship!” I find weddings pointless and frivolous. I have never expected nor asked for validation from my community for who I love; I don’t care what people think and I don’t need their opinion. My partner and I are legally considered common-law spouses; this is an arrangement that works for us because we are considered a couple when it comes to financial arrangements such as health benefits, but without engaging in the tradition of marriage. Thank you Canada for progressive laws recognizing same-sex partnerships! I have attended one lesbian love ceremony; it was more creative and individual and it didn’t follow the heterosexual traditions. I am guessing a lot of lesbian love ceremonies are conducted that way. Our love is not institutionalized, and our culture is created from scratch.

Women have traditionally been either kept out of the workplace, or paid lower wages for the same work, or kept in low-paying service positions (secretaries, waitresses, etc) because society as a whole regards women as wives for men, and therefore we do not need good wages or careers of our own. Our role is to be wives and mothers and any paid employment is seen as secondary to that role. This economic situation is oppressive to all women; it keeps heterosexual women dependent on men, which leads to their abuse, and it makes life difficult for lesbians, who do not marry men and instead support ourselves.

Not only does this economic structure presume that lesbians either don’t exist or don’t matter, but heterosexuality is often one of the requirements for female workers. Women have often been required to dress in a feminine manner, where the requirements for what ‘feminine’ means are dictated by men. Compulsory dress codes for female workers have often included high heels, skirts, and makeup, all designed to mark us as man’s “other” and to market us as sexually attractive to men. Thanks to the feminist movement, dress codes have been relaxed and many workplaces allow women to wear pants and comfortable shoes and to skip the makeup. Nevertheless, some workplaces still have such dress codes and women often feel obligated to dress ‘feminine’ at work as a part of a professional appearance.

When women are working in low paid service jobs, such as receptionists, secretaries, store clerks, waitresses, and the like, they are expected to behave in a pleasing manner at all times, they are expected to put up with sexual harassment, and flirting with male bosses and customers often results in advantages such as more tips or not getting fired. Sometimes women in higher-up positions are also subject to sexual harassment, and they are often expected to put up with it silently and are discouraged from fighting back. Women in the workplace will often have to behave as if they are heterosexual in order to get by.

Compulsory heterosexuality can be found in the arts. About 99.99999% of all popular songs are about heterosexual love; characters in books and TV shows are nearly always heterosexual, and often when homosexuality is mentioned in popular culture it’s mentioned as the punch line of a joke. The end result of being socialized in our culture is a belief that normal people are heterosexual and that homosexuality is just something weird to joke about. This has been changing in recent years, but even TV shows such as The L Word present a view of lesbians that appeals to the male gaze and does not reflect lesbian reality.

Sexual slavery is an institution of compulsory heterosexuality. There is a global epidemic of female sexual slavery which is more obvious in some places than in others. Groups such as Isis and Boko Haram kidnap women and force them into sexual slavery; these men do not care about the feelings, sexual orientation, or humanity of the women they enslave; for them, anyone with a vagina is seen as a sexual servant for men, both for the sexual pleasure and the babies that she provides to her male captors. Female sexual slavery is present in rich countries too; in the form of prostitution (whether filmed or not), incest, rape, and wife-abuse.

All the above points are made in Adrienne Rich’s essay, and this is all true and expertly explained, with citations from other prominent feminists. These cultural factors all add up to heterosexuality being compulsory for women. Compulsory heterosexuality is real; it’s located in the way girls are socialized to believe that we will all grow up to be heterosexual, the way heterosexual love is romanticized but homosexual love is ridiculed and punished, the way heterosexual relationships are validated by religion and the state, the way heterosexual intercourse is considered the only kind of sex that is ‘real,’ the way lesbians are misrepresented in culture (either as objects of sexual titillation for men or as deviant, grotesque, and predatory) and because, in many countries, it is still illegal to be a lesbian. Attempts by transgenderists to enforce their belief that lesbians should be attracted to men who “feel female” is more compulsory heterosexuality.

Adrienne Rich makes a good point about the ideology of heterosexual romance being taught to girls as a form of grooming to prepare them for compulsory heterosexuality. This grooming is given to all girls; in straight women it can cause them to overemphasize the importance of male approval and relationships with men, leading them to put their own aspirations on hold in order to prioritize getting a husband. It also might make them vulnerable to abuse; because they are so eager for male attention, they are vulnerable to predatory men. In lesbian women it can cause them to doubt their own feelings for women, to push their feelings aside in an attempt to be ‘normal,’ and attempt heterosexuality even though they do not enjoy it.

Rich attempted to draw a parallel between women who refuse sexual slavery and institutions of male dominance with women who are homosexually oriented. This is a mistake. Women of any sexual orientation can refuse male domination and fight patriarchy. The sisterhood felt by women who are fighting for women’s rights is not homosexual in nature.

Rich describes women who are mistreated in sexual relationships with men who care for each other as sisters and provide each other the support they don’t get from men.

“It is the women who make life endurable for each other, give physical affection without causing pain, share, advise, and stick by each other.”

This sisterhood between heterosexual women is positioned as being a part of a ‘lesbian continuum.’

“If we consider the possibility that all women–from the infant suckling her mother’s breast, to the grown woman experiencing orgasmic sensations while suckling her own child, perhaps recalling her mother’s milk-smell in her own; to two women, like Virginia Woolf’s Chloe and Olivia, who share a laboratory; to the woman dying at ninety, touched and handled by women–exist on a lesbian continuum, we can see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify ourselves as lesbian or not.”

There is no such thing as a ‘lesbian continuum.’ Straight women who support each other are not in any way engaging in lesbianism, because lesbianism is the state of having a homosexual orientation, not the practice of supporting women. A political lesbian is defined as “a woman-identified woman who does not fuck men,” and actually having sexual desire for women is not required. Rich’s ‘lesbian continuum’ theory only fits into the theory of political lesbianism, it is not relevant to female homosexuals.

Those of us who feel romantic and sexual desire for women do not experience friendships or political alliances with straight women as being points on a lesbian continuum. Only romantic and sexual love between women who are attracted to women is lesbianism. Heterosexual women do not experience lesbianism because they do not experience romantic and sexual attraction for women. This theory that presents bonding between straight women as being ‘lesbian’ in nature disappears actual lesbians. It is ironic that in an essay where the author laments the erasure of lesbians from feminist theory, she promotes a feminist theory that erases lesbians.

A critique of the institution of heterosexuality is important for both lesbian and straight women. For lesbians, this critique names the systems that enforce homophobia and that limit or destroy lesbian lives. For straight women, this critique lets them see how they’ve been groomed to put men first, and challenges them to put more emphasis on sisterhood and female friendship. This critique can be made without erasing the reality of sexual orientation.

The idea that heterosexuality is being imposed upon women by men is a misleading way to explain that men have created power structures that oppress women. Heterosexuality is the romantic and sexual attraction that women feel for men, it is not the name of the power structures that oppress us. The power structures of patriarchy such as the institution of marriage, female sexual slavery, and the wage gap, put women in a position of servitude, but any number of these women in a position of servitude might have a true sexual orientation toward males. These women deserve to be liberated from systems of power and so they may experience their attraction to men as men’s equals and form healthy relationships with them. It is not an innate sexual and romantic attraction that is being imposed upon women—one cannot possibly impose a sexual orientation on people—it is the power relations between the sexes that are being imposed.

It’s in our best interest to describe compulsory heterosexuality accurately. There are social institutions that make women dependent on men and influence women to overemphasize the importance of their romantic attachments to men, and these institutions need to be named and dismantled, in order for heterosexual women to able to have healthy romantic relationships. There are social institutions that celebrate heterosexuality while erasing or belittling homosexuality, and that force lesbians into the closet, or cause violence against us, and they need to be named and dismantled, so that lesbians can live our lives as lesbians.

The process of becoming woman-identified, that is, putting women first in our lives and our politics, is a good thing for women of all sexual orientations, but woman-identification is not the same thing as sexual orientation. There are straight women who work tirelessly for women’s rights, but this does not make them homosexual. There are homosexual women who work against women’s rights, and they are not woman-identified.

It is important for feminist theory to accurately reflect the reality of women’s lives. Feminist theory is the way that women make sense of their situation so they can work on changing it. Disappearing sexual orientation is not compatible with good feminist theorizing.

What it means to be ‘woman-identified’ or ‘male-identified’

The idea of women being ‘woman-identified’ or ‘male-identified’ is a concept that came out of the feminist consciousness-raising of the 1970s and seems to have fallen out of use; I rarely hear feminists use this phrase. Currently, the word “identify” is only being used in the context of transgenderism where people ‘identify as’ a certain gender, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. ‘Woman-identified’ as it was used in the feminist consciousness-raising groups had to do with women’s identification with their oppressors—women seeing ourselves in terms of how we are defined by men.

In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks explains:

“In the early stages of feminist movement we used the phrase ‘woman-identified woman’ or ‘man-identified woman’ to distinguish between those activists who did not choose lesbianism but who did choose to be woman-identified, meaning their ontological existence did not depend on male affirmation. Male-identified females were those who dropped feminist principles in a flash if they interfered with romantic heterosexual concerns. They were the females who also supported men more than women, who could always see things from the male perspective. Teaching one of my first women’s studies courses in San Francisco I was confronted by a group of radical lesbian students who wanted to know why I was still “into” men. After class one day in the parking lot there was a showdown. At that time an older black woman lesbian student, who had worked in the sex industry, having much sexual intercourse with men even as she remained clear about her lesbian identity, defended my feminist honor by declaring “she’s a woman-identified woman who’s into sex with men—that’s her right, but she’s still down with the cause.” P95-96

So the woman who is male-identified requires male affirmation to confirm her existence, and she sees things from the male perspective.

In Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Adrienne Rich describes male identification as “the casting of one’s social, political, and intellectual allegiances with men.” She also quotes Kathleen Barry, who wrote in her book Female Sexual Slavery that the effect of male-identification means “internalizing the values of the colonizer and actively participating in carrying out the colonization of one’s self and one’s sex…Male identification is the act whereby women place men above women, including themselves, in credibility, status, and importance in most situations, regardless of the comparative quality the women may bring to the situation…Interaction with women is seen as a lesser form of relating on every level.”

My generation might also call this phenomenon “internalized misogyny.” We’re seeing a lot of male-identification in young women today as they actively embrace patriarchal culture while claiming it’s ‘empowering.’ The cause of these women becoming male-identified is their female socialization. We are trained to view ourselves as inferior to men, to seek male approval, and to submit to male demands.

Historically, and in many cases still, the cause of women becoming male-identified is necessity/survival. Women are forced to be male-identified by patriarchy, because the price of woman-identification is too costly for women to bear.

In Right-Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin describes how women conform to male desires out of necessity:

“From father’s house to husband’s house to a grave that still might not be her own, a woman acquiesces to male authority in order to gain some protection from male violence. She conforms, in order to be as safe as she can be. Sometimes it is a lethargic conformity, in which case male demands slowly close in on her, as if she were a character buried alive in an Edgar Allan Poe story. Sometimes it is a militant conformity. She will save herself by proving that she is loyal, obedient, useful, even fanatic in the service of men around her. She is the happy hooker, the happy homemaker, the exemplary Christian, the pure academic, the perfect comrade, the terrorist par excellence. Whatever the values [of the males in authority] she will embody them with a perfect fidelity.” P14

Dworkin was able to describe with compassion why women identify with the values of the Right. Knowing that the threat of male violence is very real, and knowing also that men on the Left are no friendlier toward us, conservative women adopt the paradigm that women belong in the home and married to a husband/protector. By adopting these values, she is at least provided room and board and protection for herself and her children from men other than her husband. Women adopt these values out of necessity; in a patriarchy, we are either the property of one man or the property of all men. Everything we need in life we have to gain through men; therefore we cast our allegiance with men and we internalize their values.

Returning to Female Sexual Slavery, Barry writes about the effects of sexual slavery on women, and the survival strategies they use to get through it. Women are trained by pimps to believe they are whores and that’s all they are good for. Pimps also remove women from their friends and families and impose new identities upon them. Those women who are unable to escape sexual slavery have to define themselves in terms of how their pimps define them in order to survive.

“Accepting the perception of others is taking the path of least resistance; that is survival for some women. It is the other side of madness. Those who are not broken either by seasoning or earlier childhood abuse, will be able to resist the definition imposed on them by others and even recognize their own unnamed victimization. But those who comply with their captors’ definition will take on their work in earnest. It becomes their only source of self-respect. Such a woman will try to prove that she is the best goddamn whore on the block and the toughest. She learns to roll tricks and shoplift for her pimp. In interviews with ex-prostitutes I have often noticed a lingering pride in their work. When they tell the rest of us that we are straight, judgmental and prudish, they are surviving by defending the definition they have accepted of themselves and making the most of it.” P102

In the case of the wife who has no choice but to depend on her husband, and the prostituted woman kept enslaved by a pimp, she absolutely must adopt the definition of herself that has been decided for her and the values of her captor. Her survival depends on it.

Even women who are able to live on their own and earn their own living will often become male-identified. Because our culture is controlled by men, women grow up learning male ways of thinking. Because men still hold most of the positions of power and own most of the wealth and property, the workplace is under male control and so women must still submit to male demands in order to earn a living. Women today are just as likely to have their minds colonized by patriarchy and to actively promote their own colonization.

The woman who is woman-identified is the radical feminist woman, the witch, the marriage resister, the rebel, the spinster aunt, or in recent days, the “TERF.” She is the one who can see the sexism around her and who insists on living life on her own terms. Her allegiance is to other women.

For a woman to become woman-identified is a journey and a process. It requires analyzing society and culture and looking at the ways in which men have controlled our beliefs, our thoughts, our activities (consciousness-raising.) It requires looking beyond patriarchal culture and imagining what the world would look like if women were in control of our own destinies. It involves resisting patriarchy and living on our own terms by our own rules. It involves putting women first and fighting to liberate all women. It is the work of the feminist movement to become woman-identified and to help all women become woman-identified, too. We must bring back the term ‘woman-identified,’ since becoming so is an important part of our work as feminists.