How We Talk About Trans Inclusion Matters
Feminist spaces are increasingly focusing on trans inclusion, but many lack the theoretical ability to justify inclusion in a way which does not reiterate outdated and dangerous conceptions of identity.
As a trans woman with radical feminist sympathies, I often find myself in a strange situation when it comes to social justice oriented discussions of trans women in feminist causes and movements. On the one hand, I am encouraged to see many people on the left standing up for our right to participate within these movements. On the other hand, I fear that many of the justifications put forth for our inclusion are less than compelling at best, or predicated on outdated notions of gender at worst.
It is difficult to navigate this situation. I don’t want to push back against those arguing for our inclusion because I do not want them to back off their position, but I also do not want our inclusion to be predicated on ineffective or counterproductive arguments. And so, I’ve decided to try to unpack whats wrong with common justifications for trans inclusion, as well as to provide some better justifications grounded in materialist feminist analysis.
A common argument for trans inclusion is built around a model of gender identity. This model generally suggests that sex and gender are two separate things, and that while you may have sexual characteristics which fall into the categories of male and female, you might have a gender identity which falls into woman or man. This model often presumes that this gender identity is a long standing and stable sense of self as man or self as woman, which trans people have held most their lives. Furthermore, those who make an appeal to gender identity argue that the reason to include trans women in feminist and women’s only spaces are that trans women identify as women, and are therefore women.
There are two problems with this argument. First, the concept of gender identity and the model upon which it is built does not hold up to scrutiny. Second, is because it is a weak justification for inclusion. This argument often gets met with the response: “well what if I just changed how I identified whenever I wanted to be included somewhere?” Critics of this justification fear it would eliminate the ability to point to groups with shared experiences, interests, and ideas. I will unpack both of these objections separately.
Gender identity is quite simply predicated on an incorrect model of gender and sex. It relies on a clear distinction between gender and sex which is ultimately untenable. Judith Butler tackles the distinction between sex and gender in her famous book Gender Trouble by problematize the notion that sex is a natural reality while gender is a social construct. Butler argues that:
if the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all
While this argument is somewhat jargon laden in her explanation, she is simply suggesting we might understand sex to be equally socially constructed as gender, and might unpack the ways in which the distinction between sex and gender is an artificial distinction designed to make us see sex as more natural. There is of course, a sizable amount of scientific literature which contests the the “immutable character” of sex.
So if the distinction between sex and gender is false, then the model of gender identity as some other sense of self which diverges from our sex is not a very accurate model. We cannot separate our sense of our gender from the social forces which construct both sex and gender and which influence the ways we think of ourselves. If both gender and sex are constructed, then we can imagine a world where we didn’t have a gendered or sexed idea of ourselves. This would indicate that the concept of gender identity is not a stable and unchanging concept, but is contingent and dependent on socially and culturally prevalent notions of gender.
It is not enough to simply note that the gender identity justification is built on a faulty model. We must also recognize that it poses some serious political problems for feminist politics. Feminism as a movement is built around the liberation of women, and is a movement driven by women. Feminist critics of the gender identity model fear that if womanhood is reduced to self identification we will lose the ability to define womanhood as a set of shared political and social experience and realities. These critics are concerned that we would not have a concept of woman we would be able to organize around for the sake of women’s liberation.
While I have some concerns about these criticisms, it seems obvious to me that we need a notion of womanhood to organize around, and these concerns are grounded in genuine fear that we might lose this notion. Later in this article, I will suggest how we can build a trans inclusive conception of womanhood without appeal to identity.
A somewhat less common argument (but still occasionally deployed) is the argument that trans women have women’s brains and are therefore in some way physiologically female. This argument contests the stability of sex by arguing one might have a “female brain” while having a “male body” but ultimately fails to provide a solid justification for trans inclusion, and reiterates harmful notions of gender and sex.
The concept of brain sex is quite simply false. The majority of reputable scientific studies failed to demonstrate meaningful differences in brain anatomy between men and women. A 2015 Tel Aviv University study analyzed brain scans from nearly 1500 individuals and concluded that despite some size variants in certain regions of the brain based on gender, they could not separate the brains into a distinct male or female group.
Additionally, there is no evidence that the regional size differences which some studies have noticed result in a stable sense of male or female identity. As such, we cannot conclude that brain sex provides a biological reason that trans women are “really women.”
In addition to being an inaccurate reflection of contemporary scientific consensus, the notion of brain sex is actively harmful and grounded in dangerous notions of biological essentialism. By arguing that trans women identify as women or behave like women because of brain structure, those who defer to brain sex reinforce a whole set of antifeminist theories that women have worse spatial processing, worse reasoning skills, and so on. More broadly, this theory and appeal for inclusion assumes that sex is a stable and meaningful explanation of gendered behavior, and cuts against decades of feminist analysis of the social constructedness of both gender and sex.
For both of these reasons, we should not make arguments for trans inclusion on the basis of brain sex. We need a better theory to explain trans inclusion.
In order to make a more compelling argument for trans inclusion, we must first understand exactly what the concepts of “Woman” and “Women” mean and how we can define woman in order to neither abandon an identity for feminists to organize around, or to construct an identity which excludes some people who have genuine reasons for being included in feminist struggle.
Without getting too theoretical, I want to suggest that the group of people who we call Women does not have to mean a group with entirely identical experiences. After all, the experiences of cis women are varied. Any given cis woman’s race, class, and ability will vastly change the forms of social oppression they face. Black women are subjected to unique forms of misogyny which white women will simply never experience. Rich women are insulated from some of the worst and most violent forms of misogyny on the basis of their class. Able bodied women are protected from a whole host of experiences of medical neglect and mistreatment that disabled women experience. It is obvious that women do not all have the same experiences, and that different women face different oppression and forms of misogyny.
Despite these differences, we still see women organizing together for collective liberation. Women still find moments of commonality, find shared interests, find reasons to fight together as women. Just because some women do not experience certain forms of misogyny does not mean they are not women. Just because some women experience greater levels of misogyny does not mean they are more woman than any other. When we think through the radical differences between women’s experiences, it begins to become clear that any organizing and activism which is done as women in the name of women is in fact a coalitional strategy that brings together people with radically different experiences, but shared goals. Feminism is always already a coalition.
So, we can recognize that woman and women are not concepts which refer to a homogenous group, and more importantly that understanding feminism as a coalition strategy allows us to recognize differences between various women while uniting for a shared goal.
The recognition that feminism and all organizing around womanhood is a coalitional strategy is not new, nor am I the one to first suggest it. Black feminist like bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberle Crenshaw, and many third world feminists such a Chandra Mohanty have all recognized that race means that there is no unified experience of womanhood, but that women might want to form feminist coalitions despite their differences because they have goals that can only be achieved by working together.
So when we think through the concepts of woman and women, we realize that we need to reconceptualize these ideas not as stable and unified identities, but as coalitions which can be strategically deployed for collective liberation.
A Materialist Argument for Trans Inclusion
Now that we can see the ways in which feminist organization around womanhood is always already a form of coalition, I want to put forth an argument for why trans women ought to be included in this coalition. Put simply: trans women ought to be included in the feminist coalition because we share some experiences of misogyny with cis women, because we share liberatory goals with feminism, and because our exclusion makes feminism weaker.
It is obvious that trans women share some experiences of misogyny with cis women. There are many cases which can be pointed to here. Trans lesbians are subjected to lesbophobic and misogynistic treatment by many therapists and doctors who support the autogynephilia theory of transsexuality and who argue that trans women who are not attracted to men are not in fact really transsexuals but are fetishists. While the specifics are different, this is a similar experience to many cis lesbian’s experiences of being told their sexuality is deviant and needs to be reoriented. Additionally, trans women are over-represented in sex work, which is a particularly gendered social phenomena. Trans women are subjected to increased levels of intimate partner violence and subjected to increased levels of gendered harrasment. Trans women, quite simply, experience many of the same forms of misogynistic violence that cis women do.
Opponents of trans inclusion often argue that trans women do not experience all the same experiences that cis women do, and that many trans women who transition later in life have not lived a whole lifetime of being subjected to misogyny. While it is true that trans women do not experience all the same forms of oppression (denial of abortion access, use of pregnancy as reproductive labor, etc), this does not mean that we have no place within feminism. After all, poor women experience forms of misogyny rich women never will, but feminists recognize that their experiences still stem from male domination and that they can have a shared goal of overthrowing patriarchy. As such, it is not relevant that trans women do not experience some forms of oppression, or have not experienced them for our whole lives, as we still face oppression stemming from male domination, and share the goal of ending patriarchy.
It is not only important that we are subjected to some of the same forms of violence; it is also of crucial importance that we are subjected to this violence because of patriarchy and male domination. The demand for trans bodies in sex work is driven by men’s desires. The majority of the people who harass and abuse trans women are men. The majority of the doctors and psychologists who mistreat us are men. We experience violence from men because we are women. This of course means that we have a shared interest in the overthrow of male supremacy and patriarchy. Our liberation can only come through the destruction of patriarchy. This would of course indicate that we share goals with feminism.
When we start to think about trans inclusion from this perspective, we begin to recognize that trans women should be included in feminism not because of an abstract notion of gender identity, or because our brain structure makes us women, but because we share material experiences and goals with other women. Women as a class share the experience of being shaped into the kinds of people who are exploited, subjugated, and oppressed by the interests and domination of men as a class. As Beauvoir says, “one is not born but rather becomes a woman.” Woman is then a materially constructed position which emerges from the class struggle between men and women. And trans women are thoroughly on one side of that struggle. The side of women. We share the same class position within patriarchal society and the same goals of the overthrow of men as a dominating class.
Women are also, under a materialist framework, not simply people who share a similar anatomy or sexual characteristics. Materialist feminist Monique Wittig explains that sex is not a naturally occurring division but that it is a justification for constructing women as a group of exploitable bodies. “a material feminist approach shows that what we take for the cause or origin of oppression is in fact only the mark imposed by the oppressor: the myth of woman plus its material effects and manifestations in the appropriated consciousness and bodies of women.” As such, to be a woman is not to have a certain body, it is not to have always been a woman, it is not to have uniquely identical experiences of violence. It is to be a member of the class which is oppressed and exploited by men as a class. Under such a materialist paradigm, the necessity of including trans women in feminism is obvious.
Reasons To Prefer This Argument
I have argued that we should reconceptualize feminism not as built around a shared set of experiences or a shared anatomy, but as a coalition between those who share some experiences of oppression at the hands of men, and who seek the overthrow of patriarchy as a result. To conclude, I want to provide three reasons I think this is a preferable argument for trans inclusion.
First, the exclusion of trans women hurts feminism. Excluding women with varying experiences means that those who are theorizing and working towards women’s liberation are in fact excluding important perspectives. bell hooks has argued that the white feminist obsession with and the disappointment at the inclusion of women into the work place could have been prevented by including black women in feminist organizing. After all, black women have spent years in the workforce and already knew that inclusion in the labor pool was not sufficient for liberation. Similarly, trans women can uniquely testify the the dangers of gender essentialism and static notions of identity. Our absence is a loss of knowledge for feminism to draw on.
The second reason I think a materialist justification for trans inclusion is preferable, is that it does not rely on an essentialist concept of womanhood. Rather than argue that women are defined by a shared essence, this argument leaves room for recognizing the differences women have, and for understanding womanhood as a coalition between people with radically different experiences. As a result, this approach to trans inclusion avoids the pitfalls of both the gender identity and brain sex arguments for inclusion.
The third and final reason I think we should prefer this argument is that it leaves woman as a useful category to organize around. We can understand womanhood itself as a coalition, but one which shares some experiences and goals. We do not make it a meaningless term, rather, we make it a term which can include differences and which allows for greater inclusivity. This justification for trans inclusion offers an approach which neither makes the concept of womanhood meaningless, nor defines it so strictly that we would ignore or exclude difference. Rather, this theory reorients womanhood to a matter of solidarity.
I hope that this article has been a useful intervention into contemporary feminist debates about trans inclusion. It is my strong hope that those who support trans inclusion will use the justifications laid out here instead of the notions of gender identity or brain sex. I am glad to see trans inclusion increasingly highlighted and emphasized in feminist spaces; I only hope that we can better justify and defend this emphasis.