On adopting a more gender-critical transgender activism
Note to the reader: This post is intended as a contribution to addressing the current tensions between transgender activism and gender-critical feminism. The way I see myself in relation to female identity, and the ideas I express here, are not a prescription for other trans women.
The title of this post may seem like a paradox in view of current hostilities, and it might be truer to say that I'm a trans woman with a perspective which is becoming increasingly sympathetic to gender-critical feminism. This will appear heretical to many supporters of trans rights, but I ask for patience: I'm a trans woman who wants to do what trans activism generally avoids, and include in my thinking the experiences and needs of (natal) women.* To disregard (natal) women on issues which involve women's rights, I think we can agree, is misogynistic, and who wants an activism based on misogyny? But also, this is about how I feel on being aligned via trans activism with a historically oppressed identity, which I've come to realize is, firstly, not mine to claim, and secondly, unnecessary in order for me to be a trans woman or to express myself and live as a trans woman. However, more of that later. As I said, I want to start by taking into account the people whose needs and concerns we usually ignore in trans activism.
My perspective then starts with a consideration of (natal) women and the oppression they are born into. I think we can all agree that their biology marks them, irrespective of the intersectional factor of diversity, for a universal experience within a patriarchal world. For the rest of their lives, regardless of class, race/ethnicity or nation, (natal) women will either directly or indirectly be undermined, patronized, brutalized, intimidated and taught to believe in their inadequacy in comparison to men. I don't think I need to clarify the distinct, universal experience in terms of biology as a girl becomes a woman, or the contrast against men and the implications in terms of male violence against women. This last part is especially important for trans activism to acknowledge, and I mean this in the sense of properly listening and adapting accordingly, rather than noting and then dismissing with the muttered aside of 'bigotry.' Overall, these oppressions are both global and historical and it is understandable that spaces should be designated for (natal) women, and which fortunately do exist in the form of women-only spaces. The very recent, generalizing mantra of 'trans women are women,' and its associated claims and concerns are to be contextualized with this history.
By contrast and of my own history as a trans woman, I grew up male with gender dysphoria, in an extremely transphobic society. Much later, in my late thirties, and without the desire to continue living otherwise, I came out as a trans/transsexual woman. At this point, it would have been good to have some options. In the Anglophone Global North, thanks to the impact of the transgender movement that developed in North America since the 1990s, the constructed, monolithic route for those coming out as a trans woman involved the acknowledgement that you are a woman with the right to access any and all women-only spaces. As I've already mentioned, and accepting the historic fact that trans/transsexual women have accessed some of these spaces in the past, these are spaces designated for the distinct, historically oppressed group, whose experiences I have never shared and where my presence, depending on how well I pass, may be traumatic for some of its members. What's interesting is how this position of the Trans movement in the Anglophone Global North contrasts with elsewhere in the world. There are similar conceptions of trans female identity in many countries and regions in the Global South, and trans activism frequently cites them. These identities, however, do not insist that we accept trans women trenchantly as being treated equivalent to (natal) women including in terms of accessing women-only spaces. Brazilian travesti actress Renata Carvalho for example highlights how the use of female pronouns as well as female-aligned appearance and manner do not mean a claim to female identity: 'we are not women, let alone men. We are Travesti. I say this because the gender in language for a travesti is very important … We are SHE' (2019). This kind of interpretation and expression of a feminine/female gender by people born male but who reject male identity underscores the U.S.-Eurocentred nature of trans female identity in the Global North in the current time. Gender-Critical feminist Maya Forstater acknowledges this geographical exceptionalism when describing trans female identity outside of the Global North, as she says of her work in international development,
'When I talk to people who work with transgender communities in different countries and different cultures, they don't say 'Trans women are women,' as is the case in the debate here. They say these are specific communities, with specific vulnerabilities, specific needs, in relation to healthcare, in relation to HIV and in relation to discrimination and violence, and they need specific protection. But what they're not saying … is that these are the same thing, that trans rights are women's rights, as we hear here' (10.40).
So this article of faith that I bought into, that trans women are women, if it's not universal, where did it come from? Going back to the transgender movement that began to form in the 1990s, many of the protagonists were far less trenchant in the current binary idea of trans people. Leslie Feinberg, whose 1992 essay 'Transgender Liberation: a movement whose time has come' is seen as one milestone in establishing a transgender movement, was a detransitioner who ultimately occupied a middle space involving the identities of 'transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist' (lesliefeinberg.net). Feinberg's emphasis was on fluid possibilities for trans expression: 'there are many ways for women and men to be, everything in nature is a continuum' (5). In 1994, Kate Bornstein produced her own seminal manifesto, Gender Outlaw, and warned of the danger of trans people trying too hard to belong exclusively to one gender or the other:
'A viable solution to such a "choice" is to disentangle oneself long enough from the culture [involving] … two alternatives, so that you can explore some other options' (120).
Perhaps trans activism since then has tried too hard to have trans women fit into a patriarchal-constructed gender binary. Neither Feinberg nor Bornstein were responsible for the mantra 'Trans women are women, trans men are men,' nor for that matter, the vocabulary such as 'cisgender,' as popularized between Emi Koyama's Transfeminist Manifesto in 2001 and Julia Serano's book Whipping Girl in 2007, and which is resented by many (natal) women.
Movements can develop a life of their own, while clearly being in alignment with the dominant paradigm. I understand this, the gender binary has dominated my own conception of myself too, and it continues to. But in looking back to Bornstein and Feinberg, and before them, to the iconic Stonewall rioters Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were self-described transvestites in an era with different discourses concerning gender-nonconformity, it is important to note the absence of a single orthodoxy, and also important to acknowledge the way things can change. We have an orthodoxy today that serves policy-making purposes, and it can be helpful to some, but honestly, I'm ready to distance myself from the mantra 'Trans women are women' in relation to my personal experience. It has brought for me, as someone with plenty of male baggage as I began transitioning at the end of my 30s, an anxiety, connecting me to a distinct historically oppressed identity that as I've said, isn't mine to claim, and which is not sufficiently connected to my own life experience, or my bodily reality.
So I'd like to address this personal experience and the gap it exposes in current trans activist orthodoxy. Over these past four years as a trans woman, I've never lost this anxiety on entering women-only spaces. Partly it's out of empathy: in not passing, I know my presence can trigger discomfort, anxiety, or even trauma in those who see women-only facilities as a safe space. To say as a trans activist that you accept these concerns but that (natal) women should really just get over themselves is, with the context of history and their life-long experience, to really miss the point. We are engaging with (as opposed to dictating to) a historically oppressed group who know what being ignored and dictated to looks like. They have seen it a million times before, and before them, their mothers and their grandmothers.
I have felt anxious for myself too, though: at being called out, shouted at, dragged out, attacked. In my fragile connection to an identity based around life-long oppressions I've never experienced, I've always preferred gender-neutral facilities, where I don't need to go through all these anxieties and guilt and concerns for others as well as me. Elsewhere at Women's discussion groups at university, I sometimes felt like an impostor: sometimes my experience as a trans woman aligned (e.g. fear of male groping and general violence), but other times not, and always with the awareness that our life-long experiences were different.
I think, apart from the obvious disconnect between different life experiences, that my impostor syndrome is also in some ways the result of the pressure of conformity to the kind of trans identity that is made respectable by a patriarchal society. We see images of beautiful, natal-looking trans women like Janet Mock, with the idea that this is what trans women look like, and how assimilation into women-only spaces and female identity and experience can be yours once you start transitioning. With such models, it's possible to equate trans women with (natal) women. But Mock herself has warned of how the media only chooses those relatively few trans women who look like (natal) women:
'I have been held up consistently as a token, as the "right" kind of trans woman (educated, able-bodied, attractive, articulate, heteronormative)' (2014: xvii).
Mock's transness, like the transness of Munroe Bergdorf and Paris Lees in the UK, is invisible in public spaces, which makes their position as models of an acceptable form of transness unhelpful to non-binary femmes or trans women like me. It is in fact part of a pattern that ultimately lures some or many of us into thinking that an originally male-bodied person can turn effortlessly with the help of hormones and some surgery into a perfectly passable equivalent to a (natal) woman, and accordingly navigate women-only spaces. As a transitioning, trans-female-bodied person, I can say this experience is likely to be extremely variable depending on who is transitioning, and this has implications in women-only spaces that we should be talking about in terms of impact on (natal) women. It also doesn't help transitioning transgender women who must demonstrate living as a woman at the beginning of their transition. A transition space, or gender-neutral third space, has in this sense a lot to recommend it for many different types of trans people, as opposed to the demand that all trans women are suited to women-only spaces.
Of course some trans women may feel so aligned to female identity that they will want to stay there. The medical and administrative checks are there to support those trans women who wish to transition and assimilate into female identity, while simultaneously protecting women-only spaces. With the safeguarding of women-only spaces in mind, though, I understand why self-identification is problematic for women's groups, especially with the emergence of non-binary identity, with its vast range of possibilities. The uncertainty of women's groups as to who is likely to enter their protected space is, in this sense, something to be acknowledged rather than deflected by trans activism.
To this end, in fact, I would like to push for the consolidation and development of a third space, conceptually and literally, in the latter sense in the form of gender-neutral spaces in public places where those who are non-binary or those trans women like me can use. This could include public bathrooms, hospital wards, and so on. I would like this space for the sake of the peace of mind of (natal) women, and I would like this space for myself and the many others who see themselves as occupying the gap between man and woman, even as, in my case, I identify with female identity in many ways and live my life as a trans woman. At a rhetorical level, I would also ask if trans activism could find a better article of faith than 'Trans women are women.' The calcification of this blanket statement, in alignment with the concept of de-medicalized self-identification, has, I think, caused a great deal of anxiety for many (natal) women, as the recent emergence of gender-critical feminism attests. We should see this emergence not as a threat, but as a wake-up call, to re-think our young, 25-year-old movement and the missteps we may have made in the past ten-twenty years. Going back to the 1990s when the transgender movement started, it feels like of the many possible paths we could have chosen as a movement in the twenty-first century, the one we took - dogmatic, binary-focused, and to different degrees in our dismissal of the reactions of (natal) women, misogynistic - has failed to capture the spirit of that formative period. But course, we're a young movement, still working things out. New pathways and outlooks are there if we want them, which can include respecting the specific needs and differences of (natal) women.
So to conclude, I agree with gender-critical feminists that (natal) women need their own spaces. I agree that trans people should have their own space as well. And in between these two spaces, and accepting the checks that already exist for women-only spaces, trans women will work out which of these places to go to, in consideration partly of their own needs and alignment to female identity, but also, and this is really the factor we need to consider more thoughtfully, the needs of (natal) women. Empathy and self-awareness are important here, and with it, the acknowledgement of both the distinct, historical oppression experienced by (natal) women, and separately, by transgender people. We both need our spaces. As a trans woman and an ally of (natal) women and gender-critical feminism, I am in solidarity with both.
*For the sake of clarity and compromise between two different perspectives, I will avoid the term 'cisgender,' which many women find offensive (see Paula Blank's article "Will 'cisgender' survive?" in The Atlantic, 24.09.2014). Instead, I will adopt the advice of a gender-critical feminist and colleague at the University of Edinburgh, who in written correspondence with me stated that while any pre-fixed label in front of 'woman' is offensive to gender-critical feminists, the less offensive, compromise term is: '(natal) women.'
**the collage image accompanying this post includes images taken from youtube of (front) Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, and Maya Forstater. (Back) Me and my friend Valentina, working together in heroic, mutual support as trans woman and (natal) woman at the conference Transgender:Intersectional/International (28-29 May 2019). In solidarity with trans women and (natal) women everywhere.
Blank, Laura. "Will 'Cisgender' Survive?" The Atlantic, 24 September 2014. theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/09/cisgenders-linguistic-uphill-battle/380342. Last visited 11 October 2020.
Bornstein, Kate. Kate Bornstein: Gender Outlaw. Routledge, 1994.
Carvalho, Renata. Transgender: Intersectional/International. Transgender-intersectional-international.com/conference-details/keynote-address/. Last visited 11 October 2020.
Feinberg, Leslie. Lesliefeinberg.net. Last visited 11 October 2020.
Forstater, Maya. 'A Woman's Place is Back in Town: Maya Forstater (20 May 2019).' A Woman's Place UK. youtube.com/watch?v+LToFWj6skvE. Last visited 11 October 2020.
Mock, Janet. Redefining Realness. New York: Atria, 2014.