Inbetweeners – trans women in modern feminism

4 mins read

By Marina Dokken

It has been a productive few decades for feminism. Of course, some issues remain, but in general western women enjoy privileges today that our ancestors could only dream about. However, I write this as a woman who ticks off a lot of boxes in the bingo of privilege. This article will focus especially on the “cis” box, meaning those who identify as their biological gender. Being a cis woman and a feminist are, in my opinion, not only compatible; the latter is a natural extension of the former. Nevertheless, that is not true for everyone. Whilst the current wave of feminism has made life as a cis woman quite comfortable, we are left wondering if there is room for trans women.

Both sides of this debate have big players. In 2017, iconic feminist author Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie came under fire for her comment about trans women in an interview. Upon being asked whether it mattered “how one arrived at womanhood”, she answered that there is a fundamental difference between the experiences made by those who were born female and those who lived with male privilege before they transitioned. Her opinion caused an online storm that led to additional explanations about why she made this division, followed by a debate about whether trans women’s experiences are as misogynistic and harmful as those of cis women. However, a matter that was largely ignored was the categories Ngozi Adichie divided between. It was not cis women and trans women, but women and trans women. To understand why that difference matters, consider the following examples. In 2011, radical feminists wrote a letter in opposition of trans women being allowed into female public bathrooms, arguing that it would lead to more rapes. In 1996, feminist academic Germaine Greer opposed the offering of a fellowship to Rachael Padman, a trans woman, at Cambridge University’s all-woman Newnham College. Her argument was that even though Padman had undergone genital surgery, she, or “he” as she would have it, could never become a woman. The feminist Michigan Womyn’s Festival has since its inception in 1976 been open only for “womyn-born-womyn”. These are examples of a branch of feminism called TERF, or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism. It spurs from the same seed as Ngozi Adichie’s division – trans women may wear dresses and change their legal gender, but they can never escape the term “trans” and become simply, truly women. Only cis women can do that.

I previously mentioned a “bingo of privilege”. A more academic, less fun term would be “intersectionalism”. In short, the social groups we belong to – our ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. – do not work independently, but affect each other and our overall life quality. White women have a harder time than white men, but in some ways have it easier than black men, while black women are worse off than any of them. Why is this relevant? Because every large-scale social movement is coloured by the society it was created in, and the fewer “bingo points” you score the less likely you are to be accepted in that movement. That is why trans woman Sylvia Rivera was nearly booed off the stage while making her now-legendary speech at the Christopher Street Liberation Day in 1973, and why black trans woman Marsha P. Johnson’s death in 1992 was quickly ruled as a suicide by police despite multiple clues suggesting otherwise. If we assume that we live in a world that is fundamentally patriarchal, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and so on, even if it is progressing away from those ideas, it is natural that these ideas are stuck in even our revolutionary thinkers; we have been taught them from birth, after all. Sadly, transsexuality is one of the most discriminated categories.

However, trans women are also one of the groups most in need of feminism. Highly represented in murder and rape statistics, abused by both staff and cis inmates in prison and frequent victims of domestic abuse, trans women are overrepresented in most of modern feminism’s main issues. So why is the feminist debate not full of prolific trans activists who get to speak on our pedestals, write our books and speak on our and their own behalf? Once again, it is hard to invite people as key players into a social movement when we cannot even unequivocally acknowledge that they belong to its demographic. To do that, we can of course discuss what gender really means. We can debate nature versus nurture, sex hormones, crossdressing through the ages or how much young Clark always hated trucks and loved Barbie dolls. However, I consider these discussions redundant. As a cis woman, my gender is never up for inspection. Even though I do not wear make-up, Ernest Hemingway is my favourite author, my style icon is N’Jadaka in Black Panther and I take it as a compliment any time someone mistakes me for a man, it would be considered scandalous to question my gender identity. That identity is my own to ponder. I do not see how a biological roll-of-dice makes the matter any less personal for trans people, and especially not how it should affect these women’s place in feminism. As a movement essentially aimed at making gender irrelevant, it seems odd to imply that the binary categories of man and woman are that rigid and exclusive. If anything, by implying that we are chained to our genders by our genitalia, TERFs are enforcing the gender stereotypes they wish to eradicate.

The short version of all this is also a deadpan easy one. One should not believe that just because feminism is a movement working for equality between two genders, these groups are homogenous. A lesbian woman will have a different experience with sexism – and a different conception of feminism – than a straight woman, as will Japanese women, Lebanese women, dark-skinned women, working-class women and, of course, trans women. The differences between cis and trans experiences of sexism should not be exaggerated because of biological differences any more than one should differ between women’s perspectives based on their skin colour. Rather, in intersectional feminism, every perspective adds to the unified whole, that is our proximation towards a complete understanding of what it truly means to be a woman. Regardless of their past, trans women also struggle with sexism, and it is our duty to help them – as feminists, sisters and fellow human beings.

By Marina Dokken

Image: Merle Ecker

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