If you’re not sure what I’m talking about when I mention “radfem” or radical feminism, I urge you to take a look at this. The short and sweet version is that radical feminism holds that gender – our socially constructed roles and identities as men or women – is a bad, bad thing. That it bends and shapes our lives and identities, our society, our opinions and actions and choices in negative ways, and that the bulk of the really negative stuff lands on women. I would agree with that.
Radical feminism is for “women who were born biologically female, and who live as women” (and what they mean by this, I think, is that if you were born biologically female and now live as a man, you ain’t getting through the radfem door). So the distinction between sex (ie your physical femaleness or maleness), and gender (ie how you are expected to act and what your priorities in life are expected to be, based on your sex) is a very black and white one.
Consequently, radfem is very, very down on transsexual/transgender women. They view TS/TG women as basically being men who are muscling in on femaleness. And in this area, I have beef with radical feminism, and I’m going to pop open the Tupperware and show you that beef, right now.
I suspect that radfem doesn’t understand the core identity of TS/TG people. It’s not about wanting to be accepted as a woman (I mean my comments to apply as much to trans men as to trans women), I think it goes deeper than that.
If you removed the issue of gender from the world – and by “gender” I mean “how we are socialised to behave as an expression of our biological sex” – there would still be a sense of physical identity unique to and shared by women, and a sense of physical identity unique to and shared by men. That physical identity is how radical feminism defines women. That identity is not about how we interact with the other sex. It is a discrete thing, about the rhythms and cycles and experiences that go along with having an XX or an XY body.
It’s very easy, if you haven’t ever been close to anyone who is TS/TG, to imagine that trans women want to put on a frock and some lippie, and look feminine and be called “Brenda” and be accepted, and that’s the end of it, but what you’re thinking about is transvestites. What transgender/transsexual people want (and I’m generalising hugely and there are an awful lot of shades of grey I’m not going to address here), is to participate, fully, physically, in that sex identity. Transsexualism/transgender isn’t about gender. It’s about SEX.
What happens is that trans people get so much shit for how they look, that they are pushed into conforming in the strongest possible way to cultural gender stereotypes in order to “pass”. Look at the requirements for getting any medical assistance to transition: the first one (I’m looking at the UK, I have no doubt it differs elsewhere), is that you have to live as the sex you feel you are. You have to do that with boobs and the wrong bone structure, if you’re transitioning F2M, and with a growing beard and the wrong bone structure if you’re transitioning M2F.
The desire to appear to be the sex you feel you are becomes confused with the desire to conform to the gender norms of that sex. The confusion is imposed. It is a requirement. Gender identity is a flag forced into the hand of trans people, whether they like it or not.
Be that as it may, by its own definition, radical feminism excludes trans women. In my view, that is wrong of them. The recognition of trans women strikes me as important, because they face a battle against a patriarchal society, the very difficulty of which serves to highlight precisely how loathed femaleness is. Not only are trans women subject to many (not all) of the same risks and abuses as biological women, they’re also subject to a specific hatred from those who cannot understand why someone would ditch male privilege in favour of becoming that most hated and worthless thing – a woman.
To my mind, Sheila Jeffreys attempt to “debate” trans women at #radfem2012 is indistinguishable in principle from abortion laws being “debated” solely by men. “Nothing about us, without us, is for us” and all that – it is a particular irony that an organisation committed to fighting the patriarchy does so by co-opting its methods of “othering” and talking behind closed doors.
I will continue to read up on radfem, and to have conversations with radical feminists on this and other topics, because a great deal of radical feminism chimes with me, and I want to like it, and even if I can’t like it, I want to understand it.
However, I can’t get past this hump because I know TS/TG women. And they are women.
I have a fundamental – one might say radical – issue with anyone who bullies a woman for having the courage to be a woman.