When I discovered feminism, it felt like coming home. I grew up in an insular fundamentalist Christian culture which glorified patriarchy, and even when I moved out of that culture, I found that patriarchy continues to infect the whole of Western society. So to discover a movement that affirmed my femininity as good, that uplifted my body as a good thing that belonged to me, meant everything.
And then I discovered the rampant transphobia throughout feminism and feminist spirituality. I was so upset by this. My own journey of feeling so wrong and so lesser-than for so long had ended in a safe space, and the thought that trans women wouldn’t have that feeling when they entered feminist spaces was rage-inducing.
As time went on, I realized that perhaps I didn’t really fit on the gender binary. I couldn’t make it apply to myself, not really. Saying “I am a woman” always felt like sort of a lie. But where was my place in feminism then? As someone who doesn’t visibly fuck with gender norms very often, as someone who still exists in a more feminine area on the spectrum, I would still be welcome in feminist spaces, but that could never speak to the totality of who I am. Bisexual people are often expected to use resources for straight people and for gay people to address their “two halves,” but my sexuality isn’t two halves, it’s one whole that is different from being straight or gay. Likewise, feminism speaks to the feminine parts of me and is important for my body (although as someone who is not going to have children, the affirmation of wombs and menstruation as fertile often misses the mark for me), but what about when I feel more masculine, or just outside of gender altogether? I am not a bunch of disjointed parts that can be labeled, this is feminine, this is masculine, and so on. I’m a whole person.
What are the things we are really saying to trans and genderqueer people when we exclude them? What are you saying to me when you need me to pretend I’m cis in order to be accepted in your space?
Trans Exclusion is the Denial of Multiplicity
Feminists would not deny the following statement: women are different from each other, based on class, race, ability, region, and a whole host of other factors that come together in an individual’s life to create a unique life journey. So why do we draw the line at trans women? Why is the way in which they are different from cis women grounds for excluding them? Why police the borders of a movement against other women whose life experience is different from our own? Denying trans women the right to access women’s spaces is an arbitrary decision about what factor of difference is acceptable.
Replacing a cis-patriarchy with a cis-matriarchy helps nobody. Exalting one way of being as the only real way to be creates false choices. When we look to nature, we see that diverse ecosystems and variation within a species leads to greater overall strength of the community. Although nature does not always provide a perfect one-to-one example of how human society should be conducted, in this case everything around us is constantly reminding us that monocultures are innately inferior to a richly diverse community (and monocultures are viciously destructive of everything around them; if you don’t believe me, read up on the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture).
By denying the goodness of multiple possibilities and multiple experiences and multiple ways of being, we are not only reducing our own ability to function, we are incredibly destructive toward everyone who deviates from the accepted norm. Trans people are not “unnatural” and diversity is not some secret plot to tear down everything we’ve built. Difference is the most natural and common thing in the world. When we block trans women from feminist spaces, when we brand trans men as traitors, when we ignore genderqueer people because we just don’t know what to do with them, or we force them to pretend to be cis, we are denying the goodness of difference. Not only is a world devoid of difference one that I don’t want to live in, it’s a world that is completely unsustainable and destructive.
Trans Exclusion is a Form of Authoritarian Determinism
To return to the question of why feminists often decide that being trans is an unacceptable factor of difference, many feminists begin to talk about genitals. Despite our understanding that vaginas and uteruses should not force us into a life centered around bearing and raising children, we have decided that the genitals we are born with should determine what gender we are. In the case of intersex people, this anxiety surrounding what genitals we are born with is so intense that doctors often perform surgery on infants who are unable to consent to the operation just to make sure that they fit into some binary idea of what genitals “should” be.
There is no reason to believe that genitals should determine gender. The only thing genitals determine is one’s potential role in reproduction, and with the progress of medical science even that is no longer always the case. Perhaps someday I will be able to donate my working uterus which I’m not planning to use to a trans woman who wants to bear her own children.
Society continues to change, as it always has (and for the record many societies in the past or in different places are not as trans-exclusionary as Western society is). As the space is opened up for more and more possibilities surrounding gender, often pushed forward as trans and genderqueer people make their stories known, the only way to continually enforce a cisgender binary normativity is by appeal to authoritarian structures. Because who decides that my life experience is invalid and that what a doctor said when he looked at my naked, squirming, just-born body should determine my entire life? Necessarily that invalidation of personal experience has to come by some kind of authority. If we believe in autonomy, we have to accept that a trans woman is just as much of a woman as cis woman.
Authority and determinism are two of the things which leftists fight against all the time. If you are against both, you have to accept that trans and genderqueer people have the right to autonomy over their gender. Is gender any more fraught or deeply rooted than a system of government or economics? I would contend that it is not. So why fight the government’s attempts to control uteruses if you in turn try to control trans women by telling them they’re wrong about their gender?
Trans Exclusion is a Denial of Humanity
Humans make choices. Humans evolve. Humans have a strong drive to express what they know to be true about themselves. Humans want to be in community with other humans.
When we exclude trans people, we deny both their humanity and ours.
Trans people show more courage in expressing the truth about themselves than most other people ever have. It is simply unfair and inconsistent to affirm the rights of cis women to do the same and then turn around and tell trans people that they need to shut up, go away, and pretend to be cis. The mind boggles.
Trans exclusion denies trans people the right to their own life story, their own expression of who they are, and their right to be in community with others. Trans women are women, and casting them out of women’s spaces is telling them that they are less than, that they aren’t really a person like cis people are, that they don’t deserve to be a part of a community of other women. Cis feminists who fought for their own right to be believed and heard often do not listen to or believe trans women, thus attempting to separate trans women from the very flow of human communication. In society, we only get things done, exist as a community, and advance our search for truth through communication. Some theorists have posited that human society is entirely communicative, that actions and cultural artifacts as well as words are all ways of communicating certain truth claims and values. If we refuse to allow trans people a part in that communication, we are ourselves communicating that we don’t think trans people are really people, that we think their identity is a crime so heinous it deserves banishment from human society as though the moment someone steps outside the cisgender determinist binary they have stepped outside what it means to be human.
Trans exclusion also denies the humanity of those doing the excluding. To be human is to change, to evolve, to interact with other humans and to learn from those whose experience is different from our own. By entrenching ourselves in some weird, boring anti-trans bunker, we refuse to participate in what it means to be fully human. We throw our resources not toward evolving into a better world, but into ensuring that society stagnates and remains hateful and exclusionary toward all who are different from some tiny arbitrarily determined list of acceptable norms. We begin to see humanity as that little checklist rather than as an exuberant, dynamic, constantly evolving group effort toward some brighter future. And yes, I am aware that as humans we usually do fall short of that group effort toward a better future, but there is a huge difference between admitting to ourselves that we’re not doing so well and actively attempting to stop the evolution of humanity.
By denying trans people’s identities as true, we strike at the heart of what it means to be human and to be part of this glorious universe of multiple possibilities that we live in. We trade freedom for authority. We make our own movements incoherent and contradictory.
We also settle for a startling imprecision of language. We use the word “women” to mean “people with uteruses,” thereby replacing an accurate description of people who need access to reproductive justice with a vaguer term that encompasses an entire cultural construct around gender. We use the word “men” when we are talking about the toxic masculinity reinforced by society and usually enacted by masculine people. We throw around cheap jokes using genitals as punchlines because social shame around sex guarantees a laugh when you say “penis” or “vagina”, never considering that a single genital organ cannot be used as shorthand for an entire gender. I have no experience with formal medical training, but popular medical literature frequently talks about “men’s health” and “women’s health” in generalized ways which give no helpful information about whether the medical information in question is for people with specific genitals, specific hormones, or what. No one bothers to ask whether a medicine designed to support “women’s health” is for people with uteruses or vaginas or breasts, or how it might interact with hormonal therapy a trans person might be undergoing. There are “women’s spirituality” groups which use so much gendered language surrounding bodies, using uteruses as their only symbol of nurturing femininity and phalluses as their only symbol of the worst impulses of toxic masculinity which they often assume is the only way to be masculine, that non-cis people of any gender would find it difficult to engage with these groups at all.
When we are engaged in a social movement that seeks to create a better future, such as feminism, separating ourselves from trans people and ignoring genderqueer people says a lot about what future we actually want to create. When you envision a good future society that you would like to work toward, does it include people who have very different life experiences from you? Does it include mechanisms meant to enforce a cisgender binary, and if not, is it because you see a lot of trans people in this future or do you just unconsciously assume that there will be no trans people?
Trans exclusionary feminism is a dead end. It speaks to an ever-shrinking number of people who become more concerned with putting up boundaries and fences than smashing structures of oppression. It is essentially a conservative movement, a movement that believes it has learned all there is to be learned and needs to go no further. It fails to teach us anything new about the world. It fails to liberate all women or all feminine people or all people with uteruses, instead opting to control those deemed too far outside the norm. Is that really something you want to be a part of?
Note: as I re-read this post I realized that in speaking of “we” I often classed myself in with cis people. Not only is that because, as someone who was assigned, raised as, and still presents as feminine, I’m easily accepted as part of a cisnormative society, but it is also because I do identify as feminist and this is me speaking from within the movement. I have not experienced exclusion on the basis of being genderqueer, only internal anxiety and stress surrounding cisnormative language and all those times I don’t speak up to correct people who assume I am cis.