Feminist views on transgender and transsexual people
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Feminist views on transgender and transsexual people have evolved over the years from fairly critical to more accepting. Some feminists such as Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys believe that transgender and transsexual people uphold and reinforce sexist gender roles and the gender binary, while other feminists, such as Judith Butler and Jack Halberstam, believe that transgender and transsexual people challenge repressive gender norms and that transgender politics are fully compatible with feminism. Additionally, some transgender and transsexual people, such as Julia Serano and Jacob Anderson-Minshall, are feminists.
In 1977 Gloria Steinem expressed disapproval that the heavily publicized transition of tennis player Renée Richards (a trans woman) had been characterized as "a frightening instance of what feminism could lead to" or as "living proof that feminism isn't necessary". Steinem wrote, "At a minimum, it was a diversion from the widespread problems of sexual inequality." She writes that, while she supports the right of individuals to identify as they choose, in many cases, transgender people "surgically mutilate their own bodies" in order to conform to a gender role that is inexorably tied to physical body parts. She concludes that "feminists are right to feel uncomfortable about the need for and uses of transsexualism." The article concluded with what became one of Steinem's most famous quotes: "If the shoe doesn't fit, must we change the foot?" Although meant in the context of transgender issues, the quote is frequently mistaken as a general statement about feminism.
In a 2013 interview with The Advocate, Steinem repudiated and apologized for her previously stated views. She stated that "I believe that transgender people, including those who have transitioned, are living out real, authentic lives. Those lives should be celebrated, not questioned. Their health care decisions should be theirs and theirs alone to make. And what I wrote decades ago does not reflect what we know today as we move away from only the binary boxes of "masculine" or "feminine" and begin to live along the full human continuum of identity and expression."
In 1979, Janice Raymond wrote a book on trans women called The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, which looked at the role of transsexuality–particularly psychological and surgical approaches to it—in reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes, the ways in which the "medical-psychiatric complex" is medicalizing "gender identity", and the social and political context that has helped spawn transsexual treatment and surgery as normal and therapeutic medicine.
Raymond maintains that transsexualism is based on the "patriarchal myths" of "male mothering", and "making of woman according to man's image". She claims this is done in order "to colonize feminist identification, culture, politics and sexuality," adding: "All transsexuals rape women's bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.... Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive." Several writers have characterized these views as extremely transphobic, and indeed constituting hate speech.
In The Transsexual Empire, Janice Raymond includes sections on Sandy Stone, a trans woman who had worked as a sound engineer for Olivia Records, and Christy Barsky, accusing both of creating divisiveness in women's spaces. Ruth Hubbard criticized these writings as personal attacks on these individuals.
In 1997 Sheila Jeffreys published a paper that stated that "“transgenderism” is... deeply problematic from a feminist perspective and that transsexualism should be seen as a violation of human rights" In 2012 she wrote in The Guardian that she and others who "criticised transgenderism, from any academic discipline," had been subjected to internet campaigns to ban their speaking because of alleged "transhate, transphobia, hate speech". She writes that the "degree of vituperation and the energy expended by the activists may suggest that they fear the practice of transgenderism could justifiably be subjected to criticism, and might not stand up to rigorous research and debate, if critics were allowed to speak out." Jeffreys is co-author with Lorene Gottschalk of the 2013 book Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism.
In 1999, in the book The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer published a sequel to The Female Eunuch. One chapter was titled "Pantomime Dames", wherein she states her opposition to accepting trans women who were assigned male at birth as women:
Governments that consist of very few women have hurried to recognise as women men who believe that they are women and have had themselves castrated to prove it, because they see women not as another sex but as a non-sex. No so-called sex-change has ever begged for a uterus-and-ovaries transplant; if uterus-and-ovaries transplants were made mandatory for wannabe women they would disappear overnight. The insistence that man-made women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males.
More recently, Julie Bindel wrote several articles critical of sex reassignment surgery, transsexualism and transgender issues. Bindel's first published article on transsexualism appeared in The Guardian, in May 2007; it was the first example of coverage of a narrative of 'transsexual regret' in the UK media. Bindel interviewed 'Claudia', a post-operative transsexual, who regretted her decision to have surgery and felt that the psychiatrist involved did not take sufficient care in reaching a diagnosis. Bindel questioned the medical approach in the article.
A month later a piece titled "Gender Benders, beware" was printed in The Guardian concerning her anger about a rape crisis centre's dispute with a transsexual rape counselor; the article also expressed her views about transsexuals and transsexualism. Many considered the language used to be offensive and demeaning. The Guardian received more than two hundred letters of complaint from transgender people, doctors, therapists, academics and others. Transgender activist group Press for Change cite this article as an example of 'discriminatory writing' about transsexual people in the press. Complaints focused on the title, "Gender benders, beware", the cartoon accompanying the piece, and the disparaging tone, such as "Think about a world inhabited just by transsexuals. It would look like the set of Grease" and "I don't have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s [jeans] does not make you a man."
As of 2009, Bindel reportedly still maintained that "people should question the basis of the diagnosis of male psychiatrists, 'at a time when gender polarisation and homophobia work hand-in-hand.'" She argued that "Iran carries out the highest number of sex change surgeries in the world" that "surgery is an attempt to keep gender stereotypes intact". Bindel responded to the protest in a piece in the Guardian which covered the way the LGBT movement had developed since her early days as a radical lesbian feminist. She suggested that the protest was as much about "Stonewall for refusing to add the T (for transsexual) on to the LGB (for lesbian, gay and bisexual)." and that "the idea that certain distinct behaviours are appropriate for males and females underlies feminist criticism of the phenomenon of 'transgenderism'." Following the Stonewall protest Whittle invited her to debate these issues again with Susan Stryker, a trans academic and activist from the USA, in front of an audience at Manchester Metropolitan University on 12 December 2008. The debate was broadcast live on the internet.
In 2011 Camille Paglia criticized transsexualism as a current fashion and claimed that transgender celebrities such as Chaz Bono are "mutilating" their bodies and "popping their pills and shooting themselves up with male hormone every day."
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In Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality, published in 1974, radical feminist writer and activist Andrea Dworkin called for the support of transsexuals, whom she viewed as "in a state of primary emergency" due to "the culture of male–female discreteness". Dworkin asserted that "every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions." She further opined that the phenomenon of transsexuality might disappear in a free society, giving way to entirely new identities.
In a 2014 interview, Judith Butler argued for civil rights for trans people: "[N]othing is more important for transgender people than to have access to excellent health care in trans-affirmative environments, to have the legal and institutional freedom to pursue their own lives as they wish, and to have their freedom and desire affirmed by the rest of the world." Moreover, she responded to some of Sheila Jeffreys and Janice Raymond's criticisms of trans people, calling their criticisms "prescriptivism" and "tyranny." According to Butler, trans people are not created by medical discourse but rather develop new discourses through self-determination.
Feminist exclusion of transgender and transsexual males
Transgender women such as Sandy Stone challenged the feminist conception of "biological woman". Stone worked as a sound engineer for Olivia Records from about 1974 to 1978, resigning as the controversy over a trans woman working for a lesbian-identified enterprise increased. The debate continued in Raymond's book, which devoted a chapter to criticism of "the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist". Groups like Lesbian Organization of Toronto then voted to exclude trans lesbians. The Lesbian Organization of Toronto was for womyn-born womyn only. A formal request to join the organization was made by a trans lesbian in 1978; in response, the organization voted to exclude trans women. During informal discussion, members of L.O.O.T. expressed their outrage that in their view a "sex-change he-creature...dared to identify himself as a woman and a lesbian." In their public response, the Lesbian Organization of Toronto wrote, "A woman's voice was almost never heard as a woman's voice – it was always filtered through men's voices. So here a guy comes along saying, "I'm going to be a girl now and speak for girls." And we thought, 'No you're not.' A person cannot just join the oppressed by fiat."
Perhaps the most visible site of conflict between feminists and trans women was the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. The festival ejected a transgender woman, Nancy Burkholder, in the early 1990s. Since then, the festival has maintained that it is intended for "womyn-born womyn" only. The activist group Camp Trans formed to protest the "womyn-born-womyn" policy and to advocate for greater acceptance of trans women within the feminist community. A number of prominent transgender activists and transfeminists were involved in Camp Trans including Riki Wilchins, Jessica Xavier, and Leslie Feinberg. The festival considered allowing post-operative trans women to attend, however this was criticized as classist, as many trans women cannot afford sex reassignment surgery. The festival ended in 2015.
Kimberly Nixon is a trans woman who volunteered for training as a rape crisis counselor at Vancouver Rape Relief & Women's Shelter in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1995. When Nixon's trans status was determined, she was expelled. The staff decided that Nixon's status made it impossible for her to understand the experiences of their clients, and also required their clients to be genetically female. Nixon disagreed, disclosing her own history of partner abuse and sued for discrimination. Nixon's attorneys argued that there was no basis for the dismissal, citing Diana Courvant's experiences as the first publicly trans woman to work in a women-only domestic violence shelter. In 2007 the Canadian Supreme Court refused to hear Nixon's appeal, ending the case.
Germaine Greer was appointed as a special lecturer and fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she unsuccessfully opposed the election to a fellowship of her transgender colleague Rachael Padman. Greer argued that Padman had been born male, and therefore should not be admitted to Newnham, a women's college. Greer resigned in 1996 after the case attracted negative publicity. An article concerning the incident was published on 25 June 1997 by Clare Longrigg of The Guardian. Entitled "A Sister with No Fellow Feeling"; it disappeared from websites after print publication, on the instruction of the newspaper's lawyers.
Many of those opposed to the exclusion of trans women from the feminist movement or the definition of "woman" refer to those who do as trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or "TERFs". The Transadvocate has criteria pertaining to what is considered "TERF" ideology. Another set of criteria are offered by the website TheTERFs.com, stating that "TERFs" "[exclude] trans people from housing, employment, education, and accommodation equality as well as local, state, national and United Nations protections." The term is considered a slur by those at whom it is directed, as it is often accompanied with abusive language and imposed on the target group against their will, among other reasons.
On February 3, 2017, a small group of protesters appeared during the opening celebration of the grassroots volunteer-led Vancouver Women's Library, harassing attenders and causing property damage including the ripping off of a poster from a wall and pouring wine on books. The cited reason was the library's supposed exclusion of trans women and sex workers. Prior to the event, a group called GAG, Gays Against Gentrification, allegedly released a list of books they wanted banned from the library, among them many feminist classics, including works by former sex worker and radical anti-pornography feminist Andrea Dworkin. Days after the opening, the library's exterior was vandalized, with the words "SWERF" and "TERF" written on the walls.
Robert Hill defines a more recent development, "Transfeminism" (also written "trans feminism"), as "a category of feminism, most often known for the application of transgender discourses to feminist discourses, and of feminist beliefs to transgender discourse". Hill says that transfeminism also concerns its integration within mainstream feminism. He defines transfeminism in this context as a type of feminism "having specific content that applies to transgender and transsexual people, but the thinking and theory of which is also applicable to all women".
Despite its relatively late introduction as a term, transfeminist work has been around since the early second wave in various forms, most prominently embodied by thinkers such as Sandy Stone, considered the founder of academic transgender studies, and Sylvia Rivera, a Stonewall rioter and founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Other influential transfeminists are Julia Serano, Diana Courvant, and Emi Koyama. In 2006, the first book on transfeminism, Trans/Forming Feminisms: Transfeminist Voices Speak Out edited by Krista Scott-Dixon, was published.
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The second edition includes a new foreword that describes her anti-trans work after the publication of her thesis project as the first edition in the late 70s.
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- Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues
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- Help Hindrances and the Indifference of Feminism