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Hypocrisy of anti-trans “feminism” at National Women’s Studies Association

Date: July 4, 2007

(Continued from yesterday…) Another panel I attended at this year’s National Women’s Studies Association meeting in St. Charles, Illinois was on trans people’s relationship to the contentious boundaries of “women-only” space. As many readers would know, this is a topic I’ve written a lot in the past. The panel was organised by transwoman activist and Ph. D. student Joelle Ruby Ryan from Bowling Green State University, but included Eileen Bresnahan, director of feminist and gender studies at Colorado College, who has a history of making anti-transsexual statements (see here, here, and here for my past arguments with her).

I’ve actually visited Colorado College at the invitation of the Queer-Straight Alliance several years ago, and I was shocked to learn how Women’s Studies Department (headed by Bresnahan) and Queer-Straight Alliance were in an open war over the former’s refusal to honour preferred names and pronouns of trans students. Of course, I only heard Queer-Straight Alliance’s side of the story, so I’m sure that Bresnahan has her side… but nonetheless, the hostility between the two was obvious and astounding. So I was wondering what she was going to say, and how the panel would deal with it.

Bresnahan’s presentation was actually quite informative: I still find it offensive and transphobic, but it was surprisingly valuable, as she discussed why radical feminists reject transsexual women’s self-identification as women. I thought it was valuable, because too often trans activists and allies do not understand where radical feminists are coming from, and unfairly characterise their position as biological determinism.

Many (not all) radical feminists (and here, I’m not talking about feminists who are radical; I’m referring to those subscribe to a specific set of beliefs and assumptions that are the hallmarks of radical feminism) indeed reject trans women’s self-identification as women, but it is not because they view biology as destiny; rather, they challenge the notion of “true” gender identity, or the innate and core sense of being male or female, as deterministic. Radical feminists take for granted that the distinctions between male and female are socially constructed, and seek the liberation of the members of the constructed category of “women.”

Radical feminists believe that sex is socially constructed, and as such there are no such thing as “true” gender identity. To them, transsexual women are not really women because there isn’t such thing as a “real” woman beyond how one is socially categorised and raised in the patriarchal structures. While I don’t agree with much of their politics, I do think that the only logical justification for excluding transsexual women from “women-only” spaces is that they are not women. I actually have more respect for someone like Bresnahan who take this logically stellar position than those who accept transsexual women as women but still manage to find excuses to exclude them from “women-only” spaces.

Joelle Ruby Ryan spoke about the debate between the campus women’s group that hold “women-only” Take Back the Night march and rally and the trans students’ group that criticised it for excluding trans men and genderqueers. Ryan stated that TBTN should create a feminist space rather than women-only space, while the organisers insist that it won’t be a “safe space” for women to speak out about sexual violence they’ve experienced if men were allowed to participate.

Ryan rightfully critiques this argument by pointing out how such “women-only” environment would be safe for women who have been harmed by their mothers or female partners, but contradicted herself when she praised the compromise reached between the two groups that would allow everyone to participate in the march, but the rally would remain women-only for allowing some level of participation for trans men and genderqueers while preserving safety for the women in the speak-out. But what happened to the concern for the women who have been harmed by other women? It appears that they were treated as means to advance trans and genderqueer people without regard to actually making the event safer for them.

Amy Barber of University of Wisconsin is writing her dissertation on the various controversies at Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and her presentation came from a chapter that dealt with the festival’s “women-born women” policy. Barber criticised the policy specifically and deliberately designed to exclude transsexual people, and argued that it is problematic to exclude transsexual women for having different experiences or privileged position because women do not universally have the same experiences or same privileged or disadvantaged position. According to her, the boundaries of “women” is fundamentally ambiguous, and any clear boundary regardless of how it’s defined would be insufficient and problematic. So far so good, but she goes on to propose yet another clear boundary of her own, which is that “everyone who identifies as women should be able to enter.”

In the paper I wrote five years ago (“Whose Feminism is it Anyway? The Unspoken Racism of the Trans Inclusion Debate,” now part of The Transgender Studies Reader ed. by Stephen Whittle and Susan Stryker) I used the analogy of the U.S.-Mexico border to illustrate the arbitrariness and violence of drawing clear and unambiguous boundaries. Even though many people talk about “Mexican immigrants” crossing the national boundaries to enter the U.S., but I feel that this whole discussion needs to be thrown upside down.

Chicano/as have been the native inhabitants of the entire southwest U.S. region as well as Mexico long before the national boundaries were drawn, and it was only after colonial invasions and wars that white people seized north of the Rio Grande. In other words, it is the border that crossed Mexicans, not the other way around. If the border has to be drawn there, I believe that native inhabitants of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands have the moral right to cross the border freely to be on either side of the border at any time with or without papers to prove visa or citizenship. But in reality, of course, hundreds of immigrants die from dehydration in the desert when they avoid heavily militarised parts of the border that are easier to cross, and are blamed for their own death because they were “illegally” crossing the border.

Trans people are also excluded, persecuted for not carrying appropriate documents, and blamed for their own death when they are murdered for crossing the naturalised and militarised boundaries between male and female. But I believe that it is not trans people who cross borders, but borders are crossing trans people’s flesh. As such, I argue that trans people have the moral right to cross the boundaries of sex categories and be on the either side at any time with or without medical diagnosis of “gender identity disorder” or hormonal and surgical treatments.

I do not negate the need for “women-only” space like Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. However, if they insist on drawing a boundary between male and female, I believe that trans people can decide for themselves which side they would be in at any given moment. Barber’s proposal is only a slight improvement over the current policy in that it excludes trans people and genderqueers whose identities are more complex than just “woman” without paying attention to the specificities of each individuals’ experiences and identities, and also functions to exclude people outside of the class and ethnic culture in which the concept of “gender identity” has currency (that one “identifies as a woman” is a notion specific to certain class/race segment).

During the Q&A, someone asked about the implication of this discussion in the context of National Women’s Studies Association. Eileen Bresnahan argued that some people in the lesbian caucus feel invisibilised and feel that there is a need for a “lesbian-only” space. I raised my hand and asked: let’s say that NWSA created a lesbian-only space, and which lesbians are allowed to participate in it? Is it only open to “lesbian-born lesbians” who have always been lesbian, or does it include someone who once had straight relationships and enjoyed heterosexual privilege and later became a lesbian? And if she is allowed to participate, would someone who once lived as a man and later became a lesbian?

If someone who once received heterosexual privilege can be included in a “lesbian-only” space, then there is no reason to exclude those who once received male privilege from a “women-only” space. “They are not parallel,” Bresnahan insisted, but the laughter broke out in the audience as they recognised the contradiction in between Bresnahan’s acceptance of lesbians who are not “lesbian-born lesbians” and her rejection of women who are not “women-born women.” I’m sure that trans people and allies in the audience enjoyed witnessing the public exposure of feminist rationale for anti-trans sentiment as hypocritical…

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