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A History of Division: Can Trans Women and Feminism Intersect?

A message that feminists and transgender women both struggle with is that they demand to have control over their own bodies.

Chelsea Gingras | August 8, 2018

Editor’s note: We originally posted this article in 2013, but it feels more relevant than ever in light of recent developments relating to the relationships of feminists and trans women around the world. Therefore we’re giving you an encore version of this article, with some terminology from the original updated to reflect current editorial guidelines.

Robyn Deane was assigned male at birth, 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 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 [it as], ‘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 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 ongoing for over 100 years, and is far from complete. Originally named the Suffragettes, first-wave feminists fought for the right to vote, but since receiving the vote in 1920, feminists have continued to push for further economic and social equality. This includes being able to choose not to get married and have a family, and instead pursue a career in the business world.

Even after the right to hold a job in nearly any field was guaranteed, feminists then had to battle for equal pay. Meanwhile, feminists were also attempting to gain social rights: 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 for the rights to their own reproductive systems.

Many of these social and economic battles were won by the women of the past, but there are new barriers to be broken down, and the feminist movement has grown. The once-unified group has developed, like many other social movements, into a variety of branches and subsets to help better explain the differing concerns of different women.

As the LGBTQ movement grew, the emergence of known, out, and proud lesbians formed another demographic within the feminist movement. Early attempts to gain lesbian acceptance within 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. Soon, a group of lesbian feminists had formed a group bearing that phrase as their title — a type of reclamation that has become widespread in the LGBTQ community.

At the Second Congress To Unite Women, the women of Lavender Menace got on stage and asked the audience if they had any questions about lesbianism. The audience eventually agreed to hear the women of Lavender Menace out. 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,” said Susan Brownmiller, another member of the movement.

Today, feminists have embraced, and even celebrated lesbianism, and rejoice in having another group of empowered women to add to their rank. Now, like the lesbians of the past, transgender women are not only striving to gain the acceptance of the population at large, but also trying to figure out where they fit into the feminist movement.

Transgender people, who make up about 2-5% of the population, have faced opposition since they first emerged into public life. According to a nationwide survey of violence against those on the LGBTQ spectrum, transgender people made up 20% of all LGBTQ murder victims and 40% of all LGBTQ victims of police-initiated violence.

Due to the rise of informed-consent clinics for trans health care and an increase in insurance plans paying for transition-related care, the medical side of a transition is infinitely easier to access than it was in past years. However, for trans women seeking to be fully embraced as women, the next step is to be accepted by cis women. Being admitted into all-female 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.

Robyn Deane has done her best to breach this barrier for herself and for her 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,” Deane said. ”The message that they were putting out there was a message that I fervently believed.”

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Dean at the 2013 Transgender day of Remembrance, (right side, above Major Johnson)

One struggle that unites cisgender feminists and transgender women is that both demand to have control over their own bodies. Cis women want to have the right to take birth control and to have the option of abortion. Trans 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 transgender [women]. 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.”

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,” Kim said. ”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.”

Rights and acceptance for the trans community have a long way to go, but can be advanced with the help of the feminist community. Transgender women currently face civil rights issues that feminism has addressed in the past. For example, transgender women don’t have the same employment protections as cisgender woman. This can hinder them from living normal lives. “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. Only 16 states and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting employment discrimination against trans people; Virginia is not one of them.

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, saying, “Transgender people could easily be fired and they would have no legal recourse.” Witten is highly educated and involved in the trans community. “Trying to nail down a definition of transgender is difficult,” Witten said. “It can mean different things to people in different generations, and can depend on when they came out.”

Along with the large number of labels under the umbrella term  “transgender,” there are just as many sub-headings under the umbrella of “feminism.” The differences between 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.

Some branches of feminism are highly accepting of the trans community, and others have chosen to exclude them. Kim pointed out that 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.”

One group that is openly excluding transgender women is the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF). In 2013, transgender women were excluded from the event. The festival allowed only what they called “women born women,” much to the dismay of many of the participants, as well as the main performers, the Indigo Girls. However, this stance by the Festival is nothing new, and had brought the MWMF into conflict with trans women on multiple occasions as far back as 1991.

“I think the most explicit clash between feminism and transgenderism is illustrated by the MWMF,” Kim said. “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.”

The MWMF ultimately ended; its last event took place in 2015. However, it is not the only example of feminist groups that 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 the difficulty of changing perceptions. “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. 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.

Seward believes feminists and the rest of the world need to be respectful and accepting of trans people. “We need to look at each others issues and problems and obstacles as part of our own,” Seward said. “No one resides in their own little specific box anymore, everybody can identify with each other on some level if we really look at it and try and understand.”

The gay community has made it a long way in terms of acceptance. However, transgender people still have a long way to go. “We are now in the trans community where gays were 50 years ago,” said Witten. However, feminist acceptance will certainly help trans women in their fight for equality. “I have a lot of sisters who think like I do,” Deane said. ”It’s amazing how many women are out there that really get it.”

Top image by Jakrit Patchimanon