A History of Division : Can Trans Women and Feminism Intersect?
Headline image by Jakrit Patchimanon
Robyn Dean grew up in a male body, but always felt as though her body didn’t match who she was inside. In 2005, she made a change that would not only improve, but would save her life. “I am my authentic self, I’m lining up my physical appearance to who I’ve always been,” Deane said of her beginning her change from a male to female body. While many people view her change as a transition, Deane views it differently “I think a lot of people think about, well you were born a boy now you’re becoming a girl. I was always a girl, I just happened to look like a boy,” Deane explained.
Once Deane had aligned her body with how she had always felt inside, she was ready to take a stand for other transgender women, and help them find where they belong in the complex and multifaceted subject of feminism. Feminism as a movement and has morphed many times, had many different meanings, and has fought for a large variety of causes.
When first wave feminists emerged in the early 1900s, they focused heavily on achieving equal rights to the men that surrounded them. Their fight has been an ongoing one for over 100 years, and is far from completed. Originally named the Suffragettes, they fought for the right to vote, but feminists continued to push for further economic and social equality. This included being able to pick between getting married and having a family, or never settling down and instead pursuing a career in the business world.
After getting the right to hold a job in nearly any field, feminists then had to continue to battle for equal pay. Meanwhile, feminists were also attempting to gain social rights, like the right to not be beaten by their husband, the right to be recognized as a human being, not just a sexual one, and the ongoing fight to the rights of their own reproductive systems.
With many of these social and economic battles won by the women of the past, there are new barriers to be broken down and the term feminism has grown. The once recognizable group has developed, like many social movements, into many branches and subsets to help better explain the concerns of different women.
As the LGBT movement grew, the emergence of known, out, and proud lesbians formed another demographic within the feminist movement. Early attempts at acceptance of lesbians into feminism, however, were not met with open arms. The “Lavender Menace” as it became known, was the first example of mainstream feminism rejecting sexual minorities.In 1969, before the Second Congress to Unite Women, then National Organization for Women President Betty Friedan coined the phrase “Lavender Menace” to describe the growth of lesbianism inside the feminist movement.
The feminist movement at large, primarily due to ignorance, was discriminating against lesbians. The women of Lavender Menace got on stage and asked the audience of women if they would like to ask any questions about lesbianism. The audience deliberated and eventually agreed to hear out the women of Lavender Menace. An in depth discussion was held, and from that point on, lesbians could speak their minds among a group of feminists with out being looked down on or cast aside. “It really was a ground breaking event in that we were not ignored again,” said Karla Jay, who was part of Lavender Menace. “I think that action was more important than Stonewall,” Susan Brownmiller said, another member of the movement.
Today, some have embraced, and even celebrated lesbianism, and rejoice in having another group of empowered women to add to their rank. Transgender women are not only striving to gain the acceptance of the population at large, but are also trying to figure out where they fit into the feminist movement.
Transgender people, which make up about 2-5% of the population, have faced opposition since they first emerged and were recognized and placed in the LGBT spectrum. According to a nationwide survey of violence against the LGBTQ spectrum, transgender people made up 20% of all murders and 40% of all police initiated violence.
From transition surgeries to hormone treatments, the medical side of a transition is infinitely easier and more accessible than it was so many years ago. However, for those trans women seeking to be fully embraced for their womanhood, the next step is to be accepted by women who were born women.
Being admitted into all women groups, or women’s rights groups, is a big part of this quest for acceptance. But historically, women’s groups haven’t been as open minded about allowing transgender women to participate.
Deane has done her best to breach this barrier for herself and for her fellow trans sisters. She has become very active in the Richmond chapter of Unite Women, to the extent that she was asked to speak at a meeting. While Deane was not accustomed to speaking to activists, she found that her message and the feminist message were closely tied. “When you get right down to it, we had a lot in common. It was going to be a different group than I would normally speak to, but I had no doubt that I was on the same wavelength as they were, so I felt like my message would resonate. The message that they were putting out there was a message that I fervently believed,” Deane said.
A message that feminists and transgender women both struggle with is that they demand to have control over their own bodies.
Dean at the 2013 Transgender day of Remembrance, (right side, above Major Johnson)
Women born women want to have the right to take birth control and have the option of abortion. Transgender women want the right to change their bodies to match who they actually are. “Trans and feminist issues are so closely tied. I am representing the rights of transgenders. We are part of the women’s movement, we are part of the LGBT movement, but also I’m speaking to the point of the women’s side and the intrusion that’s being put in our lives as women,” Deane said. “We are both running issues that people are finding hard to get. Just a little bit different when you think about it. Stop messing with my body in both cases. I think we are very close,” she continued.
Minjeong Kim Ph.D. is the Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Program in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech. Her research also indicates that there are many areas where transgender women and women born women can work together. “All of these categories are one way or another oppressed in our society so they have to sometimes work together and support each other as well. I really hope that as we talk about these differences between feminism and transgenderism, we can acknowledge their differences, and create a society where we respect the diversity and be more inclusive and that they can work together,” Kim said.
With the help of feminists, other problems can be worked out for transgender women. Another one of these problems takes place in the work place. Transgender women don’t have the same rights as a woman born a woman, and this can hinder them from living normal lives. “There are issues about workplace discrimination, not all states enforce anti-discrimination against transgender people whereas gender is included in the Civil Rights Act at the federal level so it’s automatically protected,” Kim said.
The transgender issues fact sheet shows that only 16 states and D.C have transgender explicit non-discrimination laws. In total, there are 143 cities and counties covered, which accounts for 119,041,592 individuals. Virginia is not included in any of the non-discrimination ordinances.
Tarynn M. Witten, PhD, the Associate Professor and Director of R&D Center for the Study of Biological Complexity at Virginia Commonwealth University, touched on this topic as well and said, “Transgender people could easily be fired and they would have no legal recourse.” Rights and acceptance for the trans community have a long way to go, but can be advanced with the help of the feminist community.
Witten is highly educated and involved in the trans community. “Trying to nail down a definition of transgender is difficult because there are different meanings and is very contextual. It can mean different things to people in different generations and can depend on when they came out,” said Witten. She compared transgender to a kingdom, under which there are species, including transsexual, cross dresser, and gender bender.
Along side of the large number of labels under the umbrella term “transgender,” there are equally as many sub terms under the umbrella of “feminism.” These branches of feminism play a large role in where trans women are accepted by their peers and communities. “It depends on which branch of feminism someone identifies with. Feminism emerged as women’s rights, and evolved to form many branches, one of which is radical feminism,” said Witten.
Many of the issues that separate the trans community from the feminist community at large are born from this division. Kim said radical feminists tend to stray away from supporting transgender rights, while “liberal feminists focus more on maternity leave and health care rather than other transgender issues.” Some branches of feminism are highly accepting of the trans community, and others have chosen to exclude them.
One group that is openly excluding transgender women is the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. As recently as April 2013, transgender women were excluded from the event. The festival allowed only women born women, much to the dismay of many of the participants, as well as the main performers, the Indigo girls. The exclusion of trans women at this festival was in accordance with an exclusion policy that was reconfirmed in 2006 by Lisa Vogel.
This stance by the Festival is nothing new. “I think the most explicit clash between feminism and transgenderism is illustrated by the MWMF. The mainstream women’s movement did not really include the transgender folks. The Michigan Womyn’s Festival is not an example of the mainstream women’s movement, which now has become more inclusive,” Kim said.
Aside from large festivals, others exclude transgender women as well. “I have run into members of the lesbian community that have not quite gotten transgender and I’ve met more than my fair share of gays that have not quite gotten transgender,” Deane said.
Some feminists, too, resist including transgender women. “For conceptual feminists, they feel reluctant to accept them in their own space because, for them in order to overturn the gender inequality or patriarchy, they really have to challenge masculinity,” Kim said. “I think that unacceptance is innately about fear, fear of the unknown,” Witten added.
Luckily, women’s groups right here in Virginia are not so afraid of the unknown. Brenda Seward is the Virginia State director for Unite Women, and she believes that much of this exiling comes from not only fear, but from a difficulty to change. “Some people don’t like to change their mode of operating and they get stuck in their latitude of old ways of thinking and it’s hard for them to readjust,” Seward said.
Unite Women is a women’s group that advocates for women’s rights. “We welcome trans members, we have a few as it stands,” Seward said. “One of our cornerstones is equality for all so we’ve been very supportive and receptive to that basic principle that equality is a basic standard that should apply to everyone.” Unite Women allow their transgender members to be as active in the group as they please, and asked Deane to speak at their anniversary event earlier this year.
They deeply support and advocate for marriage equality and anti-discrimination policies. Deane’s experience at unite Women has been a reassuring one for her. “If my little experience so far is any indication, the women feminist community is there with open arms,” she said.
Moving forward, feminist and the rest of the world alike need to be respectful and accepting. “We need to look at each others issues and problems and obstacles as part of our own because no one resides in their own little specific box any more, everybody can identify with each other on some level if we really look at it and try and understand,” Seward said.
The gay community has made it a long way in terms of acceptance, and transgender people are next. “We are now in the trans community where gays were 50 years ago,” said Witten. There is a long, daunting road ahead of the transgender community, but with the help and acceptance of feminists, maybe the rest of the world will catch on and realize that they are all just humans that deserve to be treated equally. “I have a lot of sisters who think like I do, it’s amazing how many women are out there that really get it. But on the passionate level, you can’t expect everyone in the world to have the same measure of passion,” Deane said.
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