Yes, we all saw the news about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s unfortunate remarks about trans- people. To combat such myths, here are 6 affirmative statements about trans people to challenge transphobic prejudice within feminism and beyond.
- Trans People are Not Faking It
Trans-exclusionary feminists often harbor a deep doubt and suspicion about the “truth” of trans identity, a perspective that leads them to make extremely offensive and insensitive comments. Julie Burchell described trans women as “bedwetters in bad wigs,” an outrageous description which views trans identity as dressing-up, and which infantilizes transpeople with the implications of bedwetting.
Burchell’s comment is offensive in the extreme, but less obvious transphobic language has a similar effect. When Meghan Murphy criticized Juno Dawson’s Glamour column, she sought to undermine Dawson’s voice as a woman, noting that Dawson came out as trans “only” last year, as if that makes Dawson’s comments less relevant. Murphy added that “feminists who’ve been at this for many decades now have thought this through a little more than Dawson has.” Framing Dawson as new to being a woman and to feminism is a way of devaluing her voice, despite the fact that Dawson describes herself as a life-long feminist.
Trans-exclusionary feminists disenfranchise trans people by representing them as fake, silly, and misguided. In reality, trans people rarely make decisions about their identities lightly, and far from being immature, their experiences are often sobering, difficult, and even dangerous. To suggest that they are fakes in the light of these experiences is insensitive and offensive.
- Trans Women are Not Men
Tran-exclusionary feminists often resort to describing trans women as men. Julie Birchill has labelled trans women as “a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing,” and she repeatedly uses the slur, “shemales,” to refer to trans women. Germaine Greer claims that trans women do not “look like, sound like, or behave like women.” Ironically, by refusing to recognize trans women as women, Birchill and Greer reinforce patriarchal ideas of gender as binary rather than fluid or flexible. In this view, you can be a woman or a man but you cannot move from one to the other – you are always defined by your original gender, and traditional ideas of what that should be.
Murphy shows this deep suspicion of trans people too when she argues for the legitimacy of excluding trans women from the feminist movement, because “this movement is not for men — it is for women,” and if men feel excluded, it is “Not our concern.” Murphy’s argument is offensive, because to turn the conversation to men here is to question the identity of trans women in a violating way.
- Women are More Than Their Biology
Feminists have argued for years that women cannot be reduced to their biology, yet in discussions of trans identity, some radical feminists fall back on women’s status as child-bearers to defend the category of women. In a critique of the term TERF, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper emphasizes that for many radical feminists, the definition of women is a human being who can menstruate, ovulate, and give birth. Common sense tells us that pregnancy and menstruation will always be intimately connected to womanhood, and it is only right that feminism should unpack the experiences of living in a sexed body that menstruates and gives birth.
What is more difficult to accept is this biological definition of womanhood being the only mode of a being a woman. In fact, many different types of women are excluded by a definition based on menstruation and childbirth – including infertile women, an omission that is particularly politically charged and insensitive.
- The Category Woman Can Include Trans Women
One flashpoint in the discussion of trans rights has been the so-called “Bathroom Debates,” where a number of US states have proposed exclusionary bills to force trans women to use men’s restrooms, and vice versa for men. Trans exclusionary feminists like Murphy agree with the prohibitive laws, suggesting that the word “woman” should not include trans women.
Murphy excludes trans women, because she wants to challenge “the idea that gender is innate” or that “one becomes female simply by saying so.” In the light of trans women’s moving testimony, however, it makes no difference why the trans phenomenon exists. If you take on female identity, if you are treated as a women, if you live your life as a woman, if you experience the disadvantages that women do, if you radically alter your body to be a woman, if you suffer similar obstacles and difficulties to all women, then surely you can be a woman, regardless of whether gender is innate or constructed.
- Trans People are Not Sexual Predators
Returning to the “Bathroom Debates,” some feminists support the exclusion of trans people from women’s spaces because, they argue, it is important to create safe spaces for women and girls. The threat of male violence is no joke, but the implication still seems to be that trans women are not just men, but predatory men.
Murphy for example claims that the trans peoples’ exclusion is not transphobic but based on “women’s fear of males.” Exaggerating the extent of trans violence, Murphy tells us: “The amount of time men who identify as trans have abused or raped women should tell us as much,” and she links to two stories of trans violence in British tabloids. These stories, however, (like the case of the Calgary sexual predator who claimed to be transgender) are outliers.
What is clear is that trans women have to face atrocious levels of abuse. The Office of Justice Programs estimates that 1 in 2 trans people will experience sexual assault or abuse at some point in their life, and they experience extremely high levels of intimate partner abuse, and assault. The violence is also particularly bad for specific groups like black trans women.
It is unacceptable for trans women to be lumped into the same group as male predators, because this myth condones and perpetuates violence against trans people which happens via institutions, for example in court cases where violence against trans people is justified by the so-called “trans panic” defense.
- Trans People are Not the Enemy
Very often, trans-exclusionary feminists portray trans people, especially trans women, as an enemy within trying to bring down feminism. Murphy sees trans women as “dictating” what feminism should be, showing “deep disrespect for women and our rights,” and supposedly they have a “deeply troubling lack of understanding and empathy towards women and girls”. In Murphy’s view, trans women’s demands are forcing feminists to “sit down, shut up, move aside, and quite literally deny our realities in order to accommodate people’s new ‘identities’.” The trans woman is not a real woman then, according to Murphy, but an irreverent and duplicitous dictator.
Hollywood star Rose Byrne showed a similar tendency to make the trans woman the enemy, when last year, she criticized Caitlyn Jenner’s speech at being nominated woman of the year by American Glamour. Byrne reacted particularly strongly to a comment by Jenner at the award ceremony stating: “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear.” Writing on Facebook, Byrne questioned Jenner’s nomination (“Women of the year? Not by a long fucking shot.”), and she accused Jenner of not understanding women’s experience, while having lived a life of “male privilege.”
Jenner is a controversial figure, but to do her justice, the comment was a self-deprecating joke drawing attention to her trans identity, and she followed it up by saying that being a woman is “more than hair, makeup, clothes, all that kind of stuff.” What Byrne fails to register is that though Jenner received many privileges through her original gender, the picture is more complex than that. Black feminists have demanded that white feminism recognizes experiences of sexism and misogyny beyond the limits of their privileges, the point being not that white women do not face prejudice, but that feminism should encompass the racism faced by black women, the homophobia faced by lesbian women, and at last, the trans-misogyny faced by non-cisgender subjects.
The doubt and mistrust from some feminists towards trans women is not only distasteful but dangerous, because it is these very tropes – the trans woman as predatory, as dubious, as infantile – that reinforce negative attitudes towards trans people, and justify violence against them. The difficulties faced by trans women should not be a fringe issue. The violence against them is a symptom of a dysfunctional patriarchy that cannot accept a world where gender is less rigidly defined. Trans women need to be championed and defended, and given that 2015 saw the highest levels of trans murders ever recorded, they need feminism’s support not in some distant future, but right now.