Trans Feminism Is Real Feminism

marsha-p-johnson1

Marsha “P” Johnson – Civil rights activist who famously started the Stonewall Riots which led to the modern LGBT+ rights movement

Trans feminism sometimes gets mistaken as feminism’s little cousin, a mere side show to the Main Event: Cis Feminism i.e. feminism written by and for other cis women.

On a superficial level, this seems fitting. After all 99% of women on this planet are cis so it makes sense that “feminism” is largely concerned with the perspective of cis women. According to this logic, “trans feminism” is merely “feminism light”, a pale shadow of the real thing.

But I want to argue that not only is trans feminism real feminism, real feminism *must* incorporate the insights of trans feminism if it is to be complete, to the extent any feminism can ever be complete.

Intersectional feminism is basically the idea that if you are a black woman the oppression you face as a black woman intersects with the oppression you face as a black woman. Gender and race also intersect with socio-economic status, disability, orientation, etc.

Being trans is just another axis along which intersectionality functions. Any feminism worth its weight recognizes this. Trans women have experiences that overlap with cis women as well as experiences that don’t. But that’s not inherently different than black women having experiences that overlap/don’t overlap with white women.

In my opinion it’s a fool game to try and find the experience or set of experiences that is universal among all women. But that doesn’t entail the concept “woman” is without meaning. Philosophers have noted it’s surprisingly difficult to give necessary and sufficient conditions for simple concepts like “chair” – yet I know a chair when I see one.

Why should we expect complex concepts like “woman” are any different? I might not be able to define womanhood precisely in such a way that will correctly sort billions of unique individuals into two mutually exclusive classes: women and not-women. It’s not so easy! Yet I know a woman when I see one. And “seeing” here is of course a metaphor for understanding. A pre-transition trans woman can radiate her womanhood without necessarily “passing” as a woman. “Passing” as a cis woman is such an arbitrary standard anyway because there are cis women who get misgendered on a regular basis.

Why will feminism never be complete without the inclusion of trans people? Because feminism has inputs. It’s not just done completely a priori. It operates with experiences and narratives as data to be explained. Traditional feminism started with only the experiences of white middle-class women as the inputs and got quite a bit done. But it was far from complete. Then black feminists started feeding in their inputs. And through similar processes the voices of people from diverse backgrounds have given their inputs.

Trans people represent 1% of the population. That might not sounds like a lot but that’s millions and millions of data points. And furthermore, they are data points that are highly relevant to feminism insofar as trans people have unique insights into the dynamics of gender, which should be of special interest to feminist theory. So not only does trans feminism bring the experience of millions of trans women, trans men, and non-binary folks, it brings it in such a way that has the potential to reshape the very concepts central to feminism.

Some prominent feminist theorists such as Judith Butler have recognized this conceptual potential and have started to work through those insights. And of course trans feminists themselves have been dissecting this stuff for decades.

 

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But feminism has yet to fully digest the trans experience. Though a mere “1%” trans folks have so much to bring to feminism, with spectacular proclivity to keep pressuring feminism to remain intersectional.

A common phenomenon in intersectional feminism is a feminism that believes itself to be fully intersectional yet is missing the perspective of important class(es) of people. To me it seems the best tactic is to remain humble about the intersectional reach of our feminism. There are probably voices feminism has yet to hear, stories that are important for understanding the full operation of intersectional semiotics.

Any feminism without trans experience is partially blind. This is why trans feminism is real feminism. Real feminism is spongelike in its absorption of different perspectives. Any feminism that fails to uptake the experience of trans people is incomplete at best and actively harmful at worst.

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7 Comments

Filed under feminism, Trans studies

7 responses to “Trans Feminism Is Real Feminism

  1. Beautifully stated. When I was first delving into feminism, I was still unaware of transgender rights. Oh, I had seen plenty of portrayals of transgender people on television, but they were unflattering at best. I have since learned much, but I know there is so much more I do not know. I have laughed and cried with my transgender friends, and my mind has been confused by all of the hate thrown at them.

    Still, even if I did not have transgender friends, I would want my feminism to be intersectional, a trans feminism that says trans rights are human rights. These barriers between people need to be knocked down, and turned to dust. I know there is so much more that needs to be done, and I want to help in every way I can. So I always appreciate your perspective on things, because it helps me stay focused.

    On another note, every time I see a picture of Marsha, I want to smile at the joy and love she radiates, but also cry at the same time for what was done to her. May she rest in power.

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  2. I think pregnancy and childbirth is one real area of Intersectional Feminism where there is genuine contention that’s possibly not rooted in transphobia. I say this because much of the progress towards giving back women control of childbirth has been around solidifying their identity as women but changing societal attitudes towards women and their capabilities as autonomous adults. So, when a group of women who largely identify as childbirth advocates and (intersectional) feminists hear that trans groups have been instrumental in getting doctors and midwives to rethink how they address people who are pregnant but are not women, or assigning gender/sex at birth, it *feels* like they (the patriarchy) are trying to remove childbirth as a women’s issue and claiming they should have an equal voice.
    Generally, these women are either indifferent or oblivious to Trans issues. Some might be openly supportive of Trans people. Most don’t care who uses what public toilets. But this particular issue seems to create a particular divide which has people who usually would be for the inclusion of Trans people in Feminism taking an opposing stance.

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    • Rachel Williams

      I see cis women policing language all the time too. In fact there are probably more cis women policing language out there than trans women.

      Besides, what would it mean to have an equal voice? Childbirth is clearly a woman’s issue: the vast majority of women have to deal with reproductive issues. The question is really whether it’s only a women’s issue. Trans men have long sought for more inclusive language that describes their reality. It’s not just a woman’s issue. It also affects people who are not women.

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  3. That’s exactly the point. Women have fought long and hard for childbirth to be seen as a women’s issue and take back control of it from men. For some women, now suggesting that it “isnt only a women’s issue” is exactly what they have tried to protect… childbirth as a women’s issue of which men need to let them take the forefront. That’s why the suggestion of people who identify as men having an “equal voice” is threatening. It’s not that I agree, but it is an issue where I can see why women are so opposed to budging due to the history of childbirth.

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  4. It’s amazing how many “feminists” are willing to omit trans women because they believe we lack some form of vague “female experience.” Not only are these feminists not truly intersectional, they misses the whole point of intersectionality by positing the idea of an essential female experience. If by this they mean patriarchal oppression then they are viewing trans women as a monolith, where in truth there is only heterogeneity of experience. What really strikes me as negligent in their withholding of membership in the club womanhood is the failure to recognize that some young transitioning trans women experience a lifetime of misogyny, but also transphobia, and transmisogyny. Thus, by the metric of some feminists, are trans women not more “woman,” if we boil womanhood down to oppression—especially trans woman of colour? Sorry—ranty— I just finished doing research for a paper and this issue comes up again, and again. It’s very bothersome.

    Glad to see you publishing more 🙂

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