Book Review: Tomboy Survival Guide

Last weekend I went to the library to browse through the queer books and I came across Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote. I’ve heard other people say this book is good so I thought I should check it out. Coyote is an accomplished writer and speaker and a queer Canadian icon. Tomboy Survival Guide is their latest book, published in 2016.

Coyote is a talented storyteller who writes in a vulnerable way, heart exposed, and I was drawn in immediately. By the second chapter I already had tears running down my cheeks. The title suggests that this book is a guide for tomboys, but what it actually is is a memoir that is as much about family as it is about gender. The stories are about growing up as a tomboy, being a butch lesbian, and being a trans person, and they are also about being from a loving family from Whitehorse, Yukon—a family that remains important and valuable throughout the author’s life. Western Canada provides a beautiful backdrop for Coyote’s stories, whether it’s the Yukon or British Columbia.

I have been enjoying the book immensely over the past week while simultaneously struggling with the question of how I can review a book by someone who I support on some levels but who has very different political beliefs from me. Coyote is pro-trans, and is against my kind of feminism. Reading through their twitter account recently told me that Coyote calls women “TERFs.”  I cannot discuss this book without addressing this political divide and I can’t get very far into a discussion of their work without making a decision about pronoun use.

Coyote’s pronouns are “they/them” but I do not agree that a butch lesbian should be called ‘they.’ Calling a female human ‘they’ is supposed to imply that she is not female, but is instead somewhere in between, and it disappears the difference between gender and sex. A butch lesbian is biologically female and has a masculine gender. I don’t believe it’s right to imply that a non-feminine woman is not a woman at all—that reinforces the idea that all women must be feminine or else they aren’t women. The idea that all women must be feminine or else they aren’t women is one of the things that harms all of us. I think that when you agree that a masculine woman isn’t a woman, you are agreeing with the bullies who think she’s not okay the way she is.

I believe with all my heart that the way to support a butch lesbian is to respect her masculine gender and her femaleness, and to appreciate them both as integral parts of her that are both significant in making her who she is, and to maintain that being female and masculine isn’t a contradiction that needs to be resolved but something to honour and respect as it is. I think that calling her “they” to erase her femaleness does the same thing that straight women do when they tell her she doesn’t belong in the women’s washroom: it’s kicking her out of womanhood because she doesn’t fit the feminine standard.

With all that in mind, I know that if I were to support Coyote by calling her “she” it would be taken as me not supporting her because she uses “they.” Therefore I am going to use a mix of pronouns to acknowledge both my position and hers. It is my intention here to promote their work and their voice without letting go of my own perspective.

Whenever I read a book written by a butch, I see my own partner among the pages. Coyote’s book really hit home for me because she is a Canadian lesbian and so are my partner and I. In fact, I know that we have mutual acquaintances and some of my friends have seen her perform.

One of the first stories Coyote told of her tomboy nature was being in swimming lessons as a kid and wearing only the bottom half of her bathing suit and allowing everyone to think she was a boy. My partner did the exact same thing when she was a kid, wearing swim trunks to the community pool because that’s what she felt comfortable in, and she kept doing that until the boys were harassing her and the lifeguard told her she had to put a top on. She was not happy about this.

Near the opening of the book Coyote wrote a wonderful description of being a tomboy. It’s not about consciously rejecting the feminine and trying to be masculine, it’s about having something different about you that exists in your personality and in your very bones that you would not be able to change even if you dressed in women’s clothes.

“I didn’t not want to be a girl because I had been told that they were weaker or somehow lesser than boys. It was never that simple. I didn’t even really actively not want to be like the other girls. I just knew. I just knew that I wasn’t. I couldn’t. I would never be. (p14)”

Later on when they described attending college to learn Electricity and Industrial Electronics I saw my partner in the pages again. One of the only two women among hundreds of men, they endured harassment from their classmates despite being excellent in the program.

It can be a minefield navigating the world as a masculine woman because you never know how people are going to interpret you or treat you. Coyote wrote about times when she was “one of the guys” and times when she was “one of the girls.” Although some of their college classmates harassed them horribly, they recalled a positive memory of one classmate asking their advice on how to do something nice for his wife. In that moment, Coyote was not a failure of a woman but an expert on womanhood.

Although it wasn’t the least bit funny for her at the time, I laughed when she recalled the time when a guy managing a tourist destination, hot springs in a cave, made her wear a women’s swimsuit while calling her “sir.” Sometimes people get hilariously mixed up when they encounter an ambiguous-looking person.

Four years before writing this book, and already in their forties, Coyote had top surgery. They called this decision “the healthy, happy thing for me to do,” (p170) even though it caused them to completely lose feeling in their nipples. They describes the numbness in a very poignant paragraph:

“They are beyond numb. They feel nothing. Sometimes I think I can feel the flesh underneath them, maybe I can feel pressure there, maybe. But I can’t feel her fingertips or her tongue, or her teeth. I can’t feel the cold lake or the warm sun either.” (p151)

Is it really a fair trade, to get the chest you want but lose feeling in your nipples?

It’s interesting that Coyote says the following:

“But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. I am not trapped in the wrong body. I am trapped in a world that makes very little space for bodies like mine. (p170–171)”

I fully agree with this. No one is trapped in the wrong body. It’s not their bodies that need to change, it’s the way they are being treated that needs to change. It’s important to locate the problem correctly. Don’t blame something on your body when it’s not your body’s fault.

Throughout much of the book, Coyote doesn’t mention being trans, because in her childhood and young adulthood she didn’t have a trans identity yet. Near the end of the book, the trans issue starts to come up. She wrote about getting hate mail from both conservatives and radical feminists regarding her writing on transgender bathroom use. She reports both groups of people saying the same thing in their hate mail, which is:

“No offense, but, if I had to share a woman’s washroom with someone who looks like you, I would feel…uncomfortable.

And…

“Why don’t you just use the men’s room? (p224)”

Although I am a radical feminist, this quote does not represent my position at all. It’s not what anyone in my own circle of feminists says, either. We don’t want to see butch women kicked out of the women’s washroom, we think all women belong there. We aren’t uncomfortable around butch women. Some of us, like me, love butch women. We also think that single-occupant washrooms are a good idea in order to accommodate gender nonconforming people, or anyone who wants to pee alone. We don’t think that trans people should be kicked out of all the bathrooms. We don’t think women should be forced into the men’s room. I don’t know who emailed her, but they didn’t say anything close to what I would have said. My position is that everyone should be accommodated in washrooms, without forgetting that allowing the entire world into the women’s washroom does not properly accommodate women. Overly-broad gender identity laws that are based on self-declaration and no objective criteria allows anyone to announce they’re a woman and enter the washroom. This is not good policy.

There is another part of the book where Coyote’s pro-trans position bothers me. She printed a letter from a mother whose teenage daughter is transitioning to male. The teen first identified as a lesbian and then identified as trans. Coyote wrote a response to the mother which spoke of her daughter as if she were truly her son and would grow up to be a man. She didn’t leave any room for the fact that this teen could actually be a lesbian. That’s what you do when you believe in transgender politics, is immediately affirm someone’s trans identity and ignore the fact that the person is actually homosexual. Only a so-called “trans exclusive radical feminist” like me can see what is really happening here. An adult lesbian is refusing to call herself a lesbian, preferring to label herself as something other than a woman, and is affirming a younger lesbian who is doing the same. This is absolutely tragic. This is not what I want for the lesbian community. I want lesbians to be able to proudly declare their lesbian identity without falling prey to the ancient homophobic idea that lesbians are really men or that we’re failed women. I want us to carve out space for all different kinds of women to be ourselves without shame, and to show the world that women are diverse and beautiful in our differences. If it were me giving advice, I would have left the door open to this young woman actually being a lesbian and validated what she is probably feeling without jumping right onto the trans train.

For the most part, I loved Tomboy Survival Guide, and I would definitely recommend it. I was very moved by her stories and I thought the book was exquisitely written. I always appreciate hearing about what life is like for little tomboys who grow up to be butch. My criticism is that because of her pro-trans position, her writing is not as lesbian-positive as it could be. What I always hope to see in any book written by a lesbian is a positive lesbian identity and a pro-woman stance.

A conference for lesbians*

This year there is going to be a European Lesbian* Conference! Yeah!

…wait, what is that asterisk for?

“Our aim is to hold an inclusive European Lesbian* Conference. We insist on calling it a lesbian conference although we recognize that, as with any category or label, it may be contested and insufficient to describe the diversity of our communities. We are aware that many previous lesbian gatherings have struggled with issues about who should or should not be included at the conference. However, using the word “lesbian” is part of the political struggle for visibility, empowerment and representation. Therefore we will use “lesbian*” with an asterisk, so as to include anyone who identifies as lesbian, feminist, bi or queer, and all those who feel connected to lesbian* activism.”

Oh, for fuck sake. Just as I suspected, spelling Lesbian* with an asterisk is sorta like putting a footnote with the fine print underneath. You see the title “Lesbian” and you’re like, “Yeah, lesbians!” and then you read the fine print and it’s like “This is not actually for lesbians. This is actually for everyone in the goddamn world.”

The “queer” community must have taken their cue from advertising, where companies will advertise that a product can make you lose 40 pounds in 1.2 seconds, become magically 10 years younger, and walk on water, but then you read the fine print and it’s like “This product may not bring any results whatsoever and fuck you.”

So this “lesbian” conference is actually a conference for anyone who is a lesbian, a bisexual, a feminist, a “queer” (which can mean anything), and anyone who “feels connected to lesbian activism,” and who knows what the hell that last part means. How can anyone “feel connected to lesbian activism” unless they are actually a lesbian and doing activism?

Here’s the background on the conference:

“European lesbians* lack the fundamental structures, tools and mechanisms to fight lesbophobia, sexism, misogyny, transphobia and interphobia, racism and all other types of discrimination experienced daily by members of the community. For the past five decades, outstanding lesbian* activists have dedicated a great deal of their energy to struggles indirectly related to their own needs and thus contributed to social change. With that, they have paved the wave for us today. Whereas all minorities included in the LGBTI community have managed to gather and structure their own forums, councils, and meetings in addition to the general LGBTI organizations in Europe, this has not been the case for lesbians*. Last Fall, at the 2016 annual ILGA Europe Conference held in Cyprus, a specific lesbian* workshop took place for the first time in years. More than 70 lesbian* activists from all over Europe had the opportunity to come together and realize that, despite differences in political, legal and financial status within the European lesbian* movements, there is a common and urgent need to focus on lesbians* needs, struggles and oppression, to empower and to increase our visibility and broaden networks.”

Ugh. The only way it makes sense to say that lesbians have to fight transphobia is if we’re talking about masculine lesbians who get mistaken for men and if “transphobia” in this context refers to the fear of women who look ambiguous and unfeminine and impossible to categorize. I wouldn’t call that transphobia, I’d call it sexism and homophobia, but if someone is actually a lesbian and wants to call this transphobia I won’t put up a fight about it, she can name her own experience. However, what “transphobia” probably means in this context is that men who wish to call themselves lesbians are rejected by actual lesbians, and no, lesbians shouldn’t have to stop rejecting such men. Lesbians are not interested in men in any form, even if they get cosmetic surgery and make themselves look like Barbie dolls, we are still not interested. Female homosexuals are interested in females. We are homosexuals, not homogenderuals. And you know what, men who make themselves look like Barbie dolls are not the same “gender” as lesbians, either. Actual lesbians are not a caricature of gross, disgusting, male-defined pornified femininity. To think that not only are female homosexuals interested in men, but that we also should be particularly attracted to men who have a fetish for our oppression, is fucking insane.

To continue on with the background of the Lesbian* conference:

“Because our voices are not loud enough, our stories are not heard and we are losing the track of our own history; because positive lesbian* visibility still scares even homosexual women; because lesbians* at the forefront of change are still invisible; and because we have never had the opportunity to articulate our lesbian* needs in structured approach on European level, this lesbian* workshop led to the decision to organize a European Lesbian* Conference on October 6-8, 2017, in Vienna, on International Lesbian Day. This conference is the first step in the long-expected and needed construction of a strong lesbian* movement in Europe that will bring together a diverse team in the organizing committee by making it as inclusive and representative as possible. The conference will offer a platform for the empowerment of lesbian* communities, will open discussion on the needs and struggles, the successes and achievements, will create space for the lesbian culture and the history of lesbian activism and with all of that it will set a foundation for building of a strong lesbian* movement in Europe.”

Did you see that sentence that says “because positive lesbian* visibility still scares even homosexual women”? What the fuck does this mean?? Almost every time they mention lesbians on this website they put an asterisk next to it, and this is the only time they say “homosexual women.” Apparently homosexual women get a special mention for being a subgroup of the “lesbian*” community who are afraid of positive “lesbian*” visibility? Man, that is super suspicious and weird. I looked for some contact information on the site but there wasn’t any. Someone needs to ask these clowns what the hell they mean by homosexual women being scared of positive lesbian* visibility, because that is fucked.

You know what I love more than anything? POSITIVE LESBIAN VISIBILITY. I love it without the asterisk, because I love when female homosexuals are visible– you know, those of us who are female and attracted to females?

The wording of this conference makes it sound as though lesbian voices just aren’t loud enough. But lesbians are speaking. Lesbians are protesting, we are blogging, we are writing books, we are making videos, we are organizing spaces for lesbians to talk to each other. The reason we are made invisible and not heard is because lesbians are hated in society and because we are being silenced and marginalized by people who don’t want female homosexuals to be able to gather together or even name what a female homosexual is. The incorrectly-named “LGBT” and “queer” communities are some of the worst offenders in this silencing. That is the FIRST thing I would talk about if I was making a lesbian conference.

It shouldn’t be the least bit difficult to figure out who to include at a lesbian event. Only lesbians should be included at a lesbian event. DUH. It’s time for lesbians to get exclusionary. Special snowflakes and men of any stripe get the fuck OUT.

Big Boo Butch banned from a lesbian site

Please read this post by Big Boo Butch on being banned from a butch/femme site for “transphobia.” She writes about how this site used to be for butches and femmes but over time the trans borg took over and by the time she was kicked out, it looked more like a FtM/femme site. Big Boo wrote about how ridiculous it is for a supposedly lesbian site to cater to trans people instead of lesbians, and of course I’m going to rant about this too.

I get so angry when formerly lesbian spaces become no longer for lesbians when everybody decides to identify as something other than a woman. First of all, it’s stupid that women ever identify as not-women, because, you know, reality exists, and women are women. Secondly, if you are such a special snowflake that your “identity” makes you “not a woman” (despite your female body), then get the hell out of a space meant for women. Don’t try to take it over and make it a space for special snowflakes instead of for women. Women are allowed our own spaces and we don’t have to be inclusive of any of these clowns who choose not to believe the facts of human reproductive anatomy.

I get angry when women decide their degree of masculinity or androgyny makes them something other than a woman. All women are women, regardless of what kind of outfit or haircut they have on, and the idea that only feminine women are women is called sexism.

I also get angry when lesbians who identify as trans men want to have their cake and eat it too. If they think they are men, then what are they doing on a lesbian-only site? And if they are on a lesbian-only site, why do they want to be called men? Get your story straight, people! Which is it? Doesn’t the cognitive dissonance hurt, when you want to simultaneously be a lesbian and a “man”?

And another thing. Why are the femmes on this site putting up with this? I’m not putting up with butches calling themselves men for even one second. Butches are women, and they are particularly hot and sexy women, and they are the ones femmes love. Femmes love butches as women and we are lesbians, therefore we are not interested in men. The only reason I can think of that a femme would ever be with an FtM is because she is homophobic and wants to be seen as straight, but even that theory sounds pretty far-fetched. I would never call my female partner a man, I would never call her “he,” I would never pretend I was straight or bi when I only love women. If lesbians who hang out on a lesbian site decide they’d rather be men then they should get kicked out. First they should be told that it’s homophobic to claim that lesbians are really men, and then they should be told that if they cannot proudly call themselves lesbians then they don’t belong in lesbian space.

I’d be super compassionate toward them if they identified as lesbians struggling to deal with body hatred or butch shame, but not when they start lying and claiming that these inner struggles make them inherently male. That’s a load of BULLSHIT.

It’s hard for butches and femmes who haven’t had their brains sucked out by the trans cult to find anywhere to go. Some of us find refuge among radical feminists, but sadly the radfems sometimes believe that butch and femme are a BDSM role play situation that deliberately and artificially reenacts heterosexual power dynamics, and they don’t always listen to us when we tell them we are expressing our actual personalities and not imitating anything. I’m going to have to write more on that another day.

In this era of lesbian spaces being erased to make room for every identity under the sun, those of us who actually know what a lesbian is are cast to the margins. It’s so simple, people. A lesbian is a female homosexual. That’s it!

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.

Video: Big Boo Butch on ‘misgendering’

Big Boo Butch makes the same points I once made about misgendering. Butches get called ‘sir’ all the time and they don’t sue anyone or have a fit. And by the way, getting someone’s sex wrong should be called ‘missexing.’ She really tells it like it is, and she had me roaring with laughter because she’s so blunt and direct.

FtM Transsexuals in Society—Conclusions

This post is the final post in a series of posts based on the book Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society by Holly/Aaron Devor. My introductory post on the series can be found here.

The reason I read this book is that I saw it cited as a source in another book I was reading, and I was intrigued by the fact that a study had been done on 45 female-to-male transsexuals and had found that most of them were attracted to women. I didn’t know what I was going to find in this study other than that. As I read through it, I took notes and copied important quotes. Generally the reason I found a quote interesting is because it was homophobic or because it demonstrated social and emotional reasons why women develop a desire to be men. Therefore the blog posts I wrote about the book were biased toward my previous belief that gender dysphoria is caused at least in part by internalized homophobia and sexism. Although I had a biased selection process in choosing quotes to write about, I couldn’t have written about them if they weren’t there. The internalized homophobia displayed by the participants of this study was quite blatant and should not go unnoticed. The fact that they often reported their distress as coming from social factors (such as women being limited by what they can do in life) is also important.

This is a very large and comprehensive book, so I obviously did not cover everything in my reviews. Reading such detailed case studies about women with gender dysphoria gave me a better idea of what it’s like having that condition. Some people on “my team” (gender critical feminists) seem to think that gender dysphoria is the exact same thing as discomfort with one’s sex role. I have even heard a feminist say that most women suffer from dysphoria to the same extent as people who transition. This is not true; gender dysphoria is a distinct condition and although it overlaps with discomfort with the assigned sex role, it’s possible to have one without the other. If you take me for an example, I hate everything about the social construct of femininity. I hate makeup, high heels, fashion, prettiness, and dieting. I am not interested in having children and the idea of being a wife to a man makes me want to barf. I have never pictured myself as a bride and I don’t squeal over babies. I hate all the stereotypes about women and I usually hate anything that is marketed to women. (With the exception of chocolate, of course, I love that!) But despite my discomfort with the feminine gender role I still do not have gender dysphoria. I don’t feel uncomfortable about having a female body, in fact I quite enjoy my body.

It becomes clear what gender dysphoria is when you read about women who are entirely prepared to die rather than have another period. Although I find periods inconvenient I definitely don’t think it’s that bad. I don’t need to starve myself to stop menstruation until I can get a doctor to agree to give me a hysterectomy. It’s also evident a woman has gender dysphoria when she has a sex partner who she loves and enjoys being with but cannot handle being touched and goes numb instead of climaxing because she feels so strongly that her body parts are wrong. These things are not a mere discomfort with the feminine gender role, they go beyond that. What most women feel is a general dissatisfaction with their bodies because we feel we are “too fat” or “not pretty enough” when comparing ourselves to cultural ideals. That doesn’t mean we are dissociating from our female bodies to the extent that dysphoric individuals do. Everyone on “my side” should be taking a good look at what dysphoria is if they’re going to theorize about it.

My criticism of transition doesn’t come from a belief that dysphoria is not real, it’s primarily about the fact that dysphoria has social causes in many people and body modification doesn’t solve the real problem. Dysphoria is real and certainly needs to be treated; as I explain on a regular basis, women who are suffering from internalized homophobia, trauma, and sexism, should seek both individual therapy and women’s liberation rather than body modification. People who feel that nothing is going to work other than transition are free to transition; I’m not stopping them and I support their civil rights. The only transgender “right” I object to is the “right” to remove women’s rights.

The trans community’s party line is that trans people are born trans and cannot be any other way. Their innate nature makes them unavoidably dependent on medical intervention to construct their “authentic selves.” Reading this book did not convince me that people with dysphoria are born inherently needing to make body modifications. In this study of biological females with dysphoria, most of them were attracted to women and quite homophobic, and almost two-thirds of them were abused as children, twice the rate of abuse of the general population. They demonstrated many types of faulty thinking, most notably interpreting their sexual desire for women as being proof they were innately male, and believing that it was wrong or sick for two women to love each other. There are obvious social and cognitive factors here contributing to their desire to be male.

Childhood abuse and homophobia don’t directly cause an individual to develop gender dysphoria. The effects of abuse and self-hatred can cause all sorts of illnesses, including alchoholism, depression, and anxiety. Whatever particular illness an individual is susceptible to is likely the illness they will develop after being abused or as a result of hating themselves. It seems reasonable to say that some people are more susceptible to developing gender dysphoria than others due to their innate personality, but it doesn’t follow that there is a one-size-fits all cure for that, and it doesn’t follow that body modification is inevitable.

If we consider for a moment the position that gender dysphoria is something innate that some people just happen to be born with for no particular reason, then how does that look when we look at who has this condition? Lesbian and bisexual women are far overrepresented among FtM transsexuals. So are women who have personality traits that are considered masculine, and so are women who have been abused and who have homophobic beliefs. If gender dysphoria was just a random neurological condition that happened for no reason, then why would it tend to strike masculine lesbians who are homophobic and who have been abused? The evidence I’m seeing suggests that social, emotional and cognitive factors are involved in the development of gender dysphoria, at least some of the time. If these factors are involved some of the time, it casts doubt on whether dysphoria can ever be separated completely from social factors. Because masculine lesbians are highly overrepresented among women with gender dysphoria, the position that gender dysphoria is innate turns out to be effectively the position that large numbers of masculine lesbians are born inherently male. Even if you explain gender dysphoria as innate, the belief that masculine lesbians are inherently or essentially male is century-old homophobia. Lesbians are women, no matter their personality or presentation. Some lesbians have gender dysphoria; that makes them lesbians with gender dysphoria, not men.

Most of the women in this study believed that they were born innately transsexual, either for biological reasons or due to having something along the lines of a “male soul.” The author calls them “born as females who were destined to become men (p561).” I still cannot buy into this statement, because male and female biology is real, and females cannot become males. People who transition usually believe in innate transsexuality even if there are obviously social and cognitive factors involved in the development of their dysphoria. Even some people who believe they are “true transsexual” end up detransitioning later on.

A small minority of three participants in Devor’s study believed they had become transsexual as a result of social factors. Ken said:

“What makes a person want to change gender? I wanted to be in control. Macho. Accepted. I didn’t want to live a lie anymore…I didn’t like my breasts. And I didn’t like having periods…It was a preoccupation. I wanted to be male. I wanted to take my shirt off and go to the beach. I wanted to get sun on my chest…I wanted to shave. Not my legs. My chin (p559).”

Brian said:

“I believe a very different parental interpretation of my childhood character could have changed how I defined myself. If my early creativity and expression had been reinforced for what they were, independent and undefined by traditional notions about body significance, I might not have found reason to despise my physical form so intensely…Some emotional scars are too deep to be overcome by pragmatic logic or psychoanalytic games (p560).”

Bruce said:

“It’s a mending of the ways for the emotional and psychological pain that I endured as a child. And that I think that…when I started to go through this…that was thirty years of my life of pain. That was long enough. That, obviously, no amount of therapy at this point was going to help me recover the loss experienced as a child over the loss of my body. That I needed to find a new vessel. I needed to create a new vesssel (p560).”

These three quotes demonstrate some of the points made by feminists about transgenderism. Ken is trying to gain the privileges only given to males in a patriarchy. Feminists wish to work together politically to free women as a group from oppression so that all of us can be accepted, taken seriously as people, and take off our shirts on the beach to feel the sun on our chests, because we are human beings and we deserve that, without being objectified by men who believe they have rights over our bodies. A few individual women “becoming men” doesn’t get us there, but us working together as women does. Real feminism means working on behalf of women as a class rather than looking for individual solutions.

Brian and Bruce demonstrate being severely harmed by abuse and female socialization to the point where they felt they had to opt out of femaleness in order to continue their lives. I believe that women who are traumatized need trauma therapy, not body modification. Body modification is a coping strategy, not a treatment.

The participants in Devor’s study, like many transgender people today, felt they could not continue in life without transitioning. Some of them described their “can’t take it anymore” moments, and the social aspects of their problems were evident.

Scott said:

“In the last five years…I was getting to a point where I was feeling so bad about myself…when somebody called me “she,” it just pissed me off, you know, maximum. Because I just didn’t want to play the game anymore. I didn’t want to have to sit with my legs crossed…I didn’t want to have to wear a bra…I felt awkward going out in public with my lover. People stare…I didn’t want to be identified as a lesbian. And it’s like it just finally came to a point where I was just really depressed and didn’t want to go out of the house (p376).”

Keith said:

“If I had remained living as a female…in that role and trying to fulfill the expectations people had of me to be a woman, I’m sure that I would have slowly killed myself (p376).”

Lee said:

“There’s absolutely no future in being a very masculine lesbian (p330).”

If women would rather kill themselves than continue to fulfill people’s sexist and heteronormative expectations of them, that is a sign that feminism is badly needed. Women should not have to fulfill sexist expectations at all. We should be able to stop “playing the game” and just be ourselves and know that we have a network of feminist comrades who will help us out when the sexists come along to punish us. This is where it becomes obvious that trans activists are working against the best interests of women with gender dysphoria. Trans activists are anti-feminist and are engaged in a never-ending quest to paint feminism as old-fashioned, bigoted, and dangerous, when actually feminism is the best strategy to end the sexism that harms women—the same sexism that drives dysphoric women into the “transition or die” position. Trans activists are homophobic—they disappear sexual orientation entirely and attempt to bully lesbians into beliving that their lack of interest in men is “transmisogynistic” and that they must include males in their dating pool. Knowing that homophobia contributes to gender dysphoria at least some of the time should cause trans activists to oppose homophobia, not to promote it. (Not to mention they should be against homophobia anyway, on the basis that homophobia is wrong!)

I truly believe that feminism is more helpful to dysphoric women than trans activism is, and I document the reasons why on a regular basis.

In a few rare cases, I have encountered women who don’t appear to have any issues with internalized sexism or internalized homophobia, and whose dysphoria appears to come out of nowhere. These people still represent a tiny minority among the dysphoric women I have read about. One person in Devor’s study, Simon, said:

“It probably would have been easier to have been a lesbian than it was to go through what I’ve gone through. If nothing else…surgically it would have been a whole lot easier to have been a lesbian. I still could’ve loved women, but that wasn’t the issue. The issue had more to do with my body and it not being the image that I wanted it to be than it had to do with loving women (p365).”

It was refreshing to hear from this ONE person who wasn’t obviously homophobic and who expressed that it would have been easier to be a lesbian. That actually tells me that there can be something to this that isn’t homophobia. I am completely willing to listen to women who would enjoy being lesbians if it weren’t for gender dysphoria, and who don’t believe that social factors caused their dysphoria. However, as long as the majority of trans people I encounter demonstrate sexism and homophobia, and as long as lesbians and bisexual women are overrepresented among transitioners, I am not going to believe that dysphoria is a neurological condition that people happen to be born with for no reason. That is not what most of the evidence suggests. The overwhelming evidence of social and cognitive factors makes me doubt that it’s ever an inborn neurological condition.

Born what way?

This post is a part of a series of posts based on the book Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society by Holly/Aaron Devor. My introductory post on the series can be found here.

This is the second-last post about this book, and it discusses their post-transition life. My final post will summarize what I learned.

One of the interesting things about their post-transition life is they didn’t all see themselves as men. Sure, lots of them did, but below I’m going to quote those who didn’t, because this makes an interesting discussion. Although most of them said they were “born this way,” in regards to being born transsexual, I started wondering, if you’re “born that way,” what way were you born, exactly? Because they weren’t all in agreement about whether they had become men. Some saw themselves as some sort of third sex. I don’t think it can be said they were all born male or transsexual, as I will demonstrate below. They just seem to have been born themselves, as unique individuals. As people are.

Devor says “Ed, Walter, and Peter saw themselves as belonging to an intermediate sex called transsexual (p448).” About her participant Bruce, she said “Bruce appeared to have very mixed feelings about within which gender boundaries he wanted to live. He retained both a strong attachment to his lesbian past and a profound uncertainty about joining the ranks of men. As did Ed and Walter, Bruce would have preferred to have found a niche somewhere between genders and between sexes (p448).”

I’m going to give you this long quote by Bruce because it’s very interesting.

“I’m a lesbian man…I’m very committed to the lesbian movement. I’m very committed to women. And to their struggle in this life. I just happened to be born with tits. And I feel like, and I’ll be real honest with you, I feel like a third gender. I feel like I don’t have to have a penis to get through life. But I can’t have tits…I never used to look in the mirror. Now I shave every other day…I look in the mirror at myself, I’m proud of myself. I have something to do with my face besides put mascara on. So I feel like I’m a third gender. And I think that twenty years from now they will discover the third gender. There will be somebody that says, “Yes, it’s okay to have both sets of genitals, or to function normally in life or to have both identities.” But for right now, I have to be a transsexual man because there is no place for me as a third gender. I would like to be able to be a lesbian without tits. But I can’t. I would like not to be on hormones because they’re harmful to my body. I would like not to have lower surgery. I would like to keep my libido. I would like not to have tits which is what I don’t have. I would like to be able to shave. Although I can’t without the hormones. So it’s like I want the best of all these different worlds (p448–449).”

I know that comment about the mascara is going to make you want to tear all your hair out, but please focus on the fact that this person doesn’t feel male, because that’s the point here.

There is some talk of “living openly as men with female bodies (p450).” This is about them feeling like they only need to transition because society doesn’t accept “men” with female bodies and therefore they have to transition in order to be recognized as men. This is an interesting discussion but I wish people would distinguish between gender and sex when they discuss this. Do they mean living openly as masculine while having female bodies? Because it wouldn’t make any sense the other way, living as male-bodied while having a female body. That’s a direct contradiction. Here’s an example:

“Keith was able to credit that there were socially meaningful differences between men and women, but he argued that the only real differences between men and women were in the attributions made by others. According to his views, the only reason for sex reassignment was that it was the only way for females to live their lives legitimately in those ways which society reserves for people who are deemed to be men (p450).”

So in other words, Keith is disappearing biological differences between men and women and only identifying social differences (i.e. gender roles). He is saying that females have to transition in order to live in the masculine gender role. This is exactly what I’m against. Any female should be allowed to live in the masculine gender role if she wants to without having to change her body or deny her femaleness. The expectation that all females should be feminine is called sexism and feminists aim to eradicate sexism so people can be themselves. Keith says:

“The acceptance of other people of me as a male rather than as a female is the argument in favour which made me go through with it…That’s really the only reason for a sex change because if a person was biologically a female and had not gone through the sex change, and they were able to be completely accepted by society as a male, then there would be no reason for them to go through any physical changes to be accepted as a male (p450).”

Hey look, she does understand biology! So which is it, Keith? Do you want to be recognized as male even though you are female or do you want to be recognized as masculine? Because you cannot possibly be recognized as male when you are female, (that makes no sense), but you can be recognized as masculine any time, without modifying your body. Just go ahead and be masculine.

This is why transgenderists have turned “man” and “woman” into social categories that people belong to by virtue of being seen that way rather than biological categories that we are born into. It’s because they don’t want their biology to stand in the way of expressing the gender role they want to live in, and they cannot or will not see that the gender role is simply a collection of sexist stereotypes that should be abolished.

A couple of participants expressed being forced into a recognizable category and not being able to just live in the middle.

Participant Luther said:

“This gender stuff is just outrageous. Why must it be? Why must it really be? There are some of us, like myself, who are going to have to make that change, but some people are being forced into the change because no one has a place for them. They just can’t be. And so they’re forced either to be transsexual or homosexual or heterosexual. They can’t just be “sexual.” We just have to let folks alone to be what they want to be (p451).”

Participant Ron said:

“So basically, the way I feel about gender is, to me, there are no differences. For me, it’s just an emotional….and physical thing that I have to do. My feelings are, or my politics, are more androgynous. It was part of the change too. There’s just a realization that it doesn’t mean dick whether you’re a woman or a man. You know, it doesn’t mean anything to what’s in here… If society were a different place, we could be both at the same time. Like, just people (p451).”

What I’m seeing in all these quotes is not the idea that they are men, but the idea that they are trying to assert their personalities in a world that wants everyone to be either feminine women or masculine men. They are declaring to the world that they are “not women” but it’s not that they want to be men, it’s that they want to be themselves. There are a few moments in the quotes above when I see some of the gender rebellion that I know and love, but ultimately they all felt the need to conform to a category.

I’ve heard lots of lesbians say they feel like a “third gender.” There is a common feeling lesbians get of being “not women” and I think that feeling can either develop into a rebellion against gender roles or it can push her into an attempt to conform to the opposite gender role by passing as a man. I wish there was strong lesbian community where lesbians could discuss their feelings of being “not women” among other lesbians and decide what that means for us without getting caught in the trans cult. Maybe this is just the way it feels to be a masculine lesbian, and maybe the best cure for the discomfort is being around other lesbians who understand and can validate their personalities without trying to shove them into a box.

People should definitely be allowed to be ambiguous and somewhere in the middle. Since the publication of this book, it’s already become more acceptable to be somewhere in the middle—although I wish people could just be androgynous without having to label themselves as a “gender” other than their sex. You don’t have to redefine yourself and deny your biology just because you’re not looking the way people expect you to. Bruce said that she wanted to be a “lesbian without tits” but felt she couldn’t. She had to completely transition and look like a man. These days it’s becoming more common to be an ambiguous-looking flat-chested lesbian. I personally don’t support getting double mastectomies because removing healthy body parts is harmful and unnecessary, but I do agree that it’s okay to get a double mastectomy and then stop there—you don’t owe the world any other elements of transition just because you did that—you can just remain an ambiguous-looking person, and that’s okay. So in that sense, I support the “lesbians without tits.”

I really loved when Luther said “They just can’t be.” This is such a fantastic statement. People should be allowed to stop thinking about gender altogether and just be. This sounds like meditation to me, because in meditation you learn to let go of all the judgments and just be. Who cares what people think, who cares if they approve or not? People who think that “woman” is a performance that has to be performed a certain way are sexist and can fuck right off.

At the top of this post, I asked the question, “if you’re born that way, what way were you born, exactly?” Because it doesn’t look like these women were born men. It also doesn’t look like they were born transsexual, because they are saying they wouldn’t have to transition at all if they could be recognized for who they are without transition. I think the way they were born is just…they were born with their personalities. I don’t believe there is any such thing as having the wrong personality for your body and I don’t believe that at any point anybody needs to change their body to match their personality.

Even if you feel your degree of masculinity/femininity falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, (which honestly describes lots of people), I don’t believe you need to disappear your biological sex and refer to yourself as being neither male nor female, when you actually are one of those, as evidenced by your body. Further, I don’t think any living thing can be born inherently needing a type of medical intervention that has only existed for a short time period in human history and that is dependent on an exact set of social circumstances for its existence. We cannot be innately dependent on a recently invented social construct—that defies the meaning of the word innate.

All the participants had gender dysphoria, a condition that doesn’t appear to manifest the same way in each person or require the same treatment. But aside from that point in common, the most notable thing about their post-transition life is how unique they are, there is nothing to generalize across the group anymore at this point. They certainly are all biological females with a history of dysphoria and either a history of transition or a desire to transition, but the end result was very unique to each individual.

When they say they are men with female bodies, I always wonder what that means. What is it about the category of manhood that they believe they are? Is it muscles and hair, is it power and strength, is it being taken seriously as an authority figure? A few FtMs have attempted to explain to me what they think a man is, but I’m still not satisfied. They are always vague on purpose because giving a precise definition would leave someone out. But how can the definition of a man or a woman be vague? Surely if you identify as something then you know what it is? The participants in Devor’s study unanimously asserted that you can be a man without being born male. Some of them even talked about having a male spirit or soul. What do they think a man is, then? I remain convinced that the only coherent way to define a man is an adult human male, and therefore when females talk about having an innate maleness they sound silly and nonsensical and leave me frustrated.

I have finished the book now and there is one final post to come where I will summarize my thoughts on this.