I avoided reading it for days, only knowing about it because my feed blossomed with responses to it — from trans friends and from allies furious to see another hit piece on trans women. A Medium article by 24-year-old author Olivia Broustra spread like wildfire amongst so-called “gender critical” feminists, and then began circulating in the broader feminist Facebook ecosystem.
Warily, I engaged in a number of long conversations with friends of friends on Facebook. Sometimes the conversations were productive, sometimes not. People said terrible things, some out of inexperience in discussing the finer points of trans inclusive feminist politics and some out of malice. I was shocked to find someone I know sharing it in earnest and after I (calmly) pointed out the article is (heinously) transphobic, she asked why.
I was a bit stunned. After a few hours without any helpful ally jumping in to explain, I decided to dive in. Heart full of dread, I started skimming the article, and it read as a collection of every anti-trans woman talking point since the publishing of Janice Raymond’s Transsexual Empire. My brain spun out, as it is threatening to do as I write this, into spiraling shame, fear, self-loathing and doubt — not because I secretly think these assholes have a point, but because I am haunted by my friends dead of suicide and years wasted trying to have friendly conversations with these people.
THE ONLY TALL GIRL AT THE DYKE PARTY
I identify as queer, I’m definitely attracted to men as well, but from the second I saw a woman in Carhartts and suspenders I knew what I was: a dyke. The world feels like a pretty dramatically different place than it did when I started having this conversation twelve years ago. When I finally walked away from a life of smiling lies and tried to live my best gay life, I found an incredible, vibrant queer community to flourish in. George Bush was in office, my state had just passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and riotgrrl/dyke culture was an island in a sea of hatred and fear.
Even before I became a women’s studies major I was steeped in feminist thought. I worshipped Ani Difranco and Team Dresch. I read Dykes to Watch Out For and Hothead Paisan. I studied Judith Butler and Audre Lorde. My social life revolved exclusively around dyke/lesbian events in my city, and at almost all of them I was the only trans woman in the room (still a common occurrence).
My connection to lesbian culture led me to Michfest, and then quickly to Camp Trans — since Michfest had became ground zero for this ideological struggle between the inclusion and exclusion of trans women. A struggle that, like so many of the arguments made in Broustra’s article, cleaves right through the middle of my body. I spent hundreds of hours on forums and in person solemnly trying to build a culture that could be inclusive and supportive of everyone — and trying to avoid flame wars from both sides. I tried so hard to be the reasonable, “authentic” trans girl and it was a fucking waste of time, because you can’t reason with people who deny your humanity.
The arguments that built the mythos of the evil trans woman predator coming to ruin women’s community and that “justify” trans women’s exclusion from both social spaces and critical social services were exactly the same then as Broustra is attempting to make in her article today.
Dear reader, let’s bust some myths!
Women are Silenced by Men. Trans Activists Have Been Very Mean to me and my Friends in Response to our Ideas. Ergo, Trans Women are Men.
Broustra cites numerous examples of trans women behaving badly on the internet, and on some level I sympathize. Trolling sucks, and being targeted by trolls is a terrifying experience. That said, the vast majority of trans women are not trolls, and being a jerk doesn’t make you not a woman, it makes you a jerk.
Has Broustra ever stopped to consider that maybe people react with so much volatility because her positions and statements are hideously offensive?
Some Rape Survivors are Triggered by Seeing Penis. Trans Woman = Penis, Therefore Trans Women Should not be Allowed in Women’s Space.
(First off, did you know that the plural for penis is penes? I didn’t until this exact moment.)
Trying to accommodate the needs of survivors is an extremely important task. I’ve organized a lot of events, and these things do come up. If someone (or the team supporting someone) came up to me and said, “My abuser, whom we both know, might be here. If she comes, can you not let her in?” I would do everything in my power to make sure that this survivor didn’t have to come into contact with her abuser. This could look a lot of different ways, but survivor support strategies aren’t the focus of this piece.
If someone came up to me and said “I am triggered by the presence of brown-eyed people, can you guarantee that no one with brown eyes will be here?” I would tell them to fuck off. Attending to the needs of an individual survivor, especially a hypothetical survivor, is not a good basis for broad policy positions. You have to customize your response based on the context and community you work with.
Furthermore, and this should be obvious, not all trans women have a penis! Denying trans women access to women’s spaces (real life example: domestic violence centers) on the basis of the possibility that a survivor will be triggered by the sight of a hypothetical penis shows a pretty poor understanding not only of how most trans women relate to their bodies in public space, but also the myriad forms trans bodies come in. I can, and have, run around dyke spaces butt-ass naked because I was fortunate enough (read: sucked a gigantic quantity of penes for $$$) to get surgery really young. A surgery I paid, like, $14K for out of pocket for, because ten years ago this country was EVEN WORSE. #getoffmylawn #inappropriatehashtag
Trans Women Were Socialized Male, Cis Women Were Socialized Female — These Are Meaningfully Distinct Experiences.
I am so tired of this conversation.
Women have all kinds of different upbringings — some more or less empowering and more or less traumatic than others. Just ask anyone who isn’t able bodied, who isn’t white, who is an immigrant or the child of immigrants, who is working class, etc. Audre Lorde said “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” I think she had a point. I want us to celebrate our differences and build stronger feminist movements with all women (and gender non-conforming folks) working for each other’s liberation.
Feminism is not one distinct movement, it is many feminisms existing side by side, absorbing each other and splintering. This is not the first time that a group of women have been excluded from being “Real Proper Women™” based on physical and cultural differences.
Eventually, obviously, as if playing Transphobe Bingo, she brings up Caitlyn Jenner. Fucking Caitlyn Jenner! Would that I could never hear that name again! Show me your anecdotal evidence of a few famous, rich trans women “benefitting from male privilege” and I would counter by showing you the legion of dead women and girls who killed themselves or were murdered before getting a chance to “benefit from male privilege,” but I can’t, because your culture killed them. Pick a better mascot for your stupid culture war.
“Male privilege,” like all forms of structural privilege, isn’t a singular thing, it’s a map of many smaller privileges swirling amongst a lot of pass/fail gates. It’s hard to define where the privileging of maleness and the privileging of masculinity are delineated. The concept is useful in discussing cisgender men and their privilege relative to cisgender women, but it begins to break down when talking about trans people. None of us are itemized receipts of our entire history of privilege and trauma, and privilege isn’t an off/on switch that gets set at birth.
This argument also relies on the assumption that trans and cis children experience socialization identically. I can promise you that when I was a 5-year-old singing along to Little Mermaid songs, wishing I could be pretty like Ariel but also filled with a dark cloud of dread and self-hatred at the knowledge that I was full of satanic evil, I internalized messages about gender differently. I was socialized as female as anyone because of what I internalized, what I built my sense of self on, not my particular list of suffering.
But I don’t really have to explain that to any of you. It was my girlhood, however fraught, however invisible to your cis eyes. It is the suicide attempts I made half-heartedly because some tiiiiny part of me knew there might be a shred of hope. It is the horror and trauma I survived because I am strong. This girlhood is mine to claim and unpack, not yours.
The “Cotton Ceiling” is About Rape, and Definitely Not About Hating Trans Women
The “cotton ceiling” concept gained a ton of traction amongst transphobic feminists as a rallying cry of “See? The horrible trans women want to rape lesbians!” Which would be horrific if it were true.
The refutation of this silly concept boils down to this:
- Desire is political.
- Our biases influence our desire.
- Our choices, based on desire, can uphold oppression and structural privilege.
Look at the work being done in body positivity and fat acceptance. If “no fats and no femmes” is unacceptable, so is “no trannies.” The point is not that you MUST SLEEP WITH TRANS WOMEN OR YOU ARE EVIL — only that if your position is that you are attracted to “women”, and your concept of “women” does not include trans women, your position is transphobic and you should maybe unpack your desire a bit. Desire is political, and I bet there are some super hot women you could be dating if you were less of a bigot. Some of them might even be trans.
Also see Myth #2 above for why assuming the shape of people’s genitals is crap.
Trans Women Add to My Oppression By Criticizing My Statements.
Then consider yourself oppressed, bish! (Sorry… I couldn’t help myself).
Broustra essentially argues that because women’s rights are threatened, and because lesbians are oppressed, trans women should stop oppressing real women with their silly quest for justice and respect.
Let me be really fucking clear to you, dear reader.
I am a woman. I get catcalled if I fail to dress like a nun. I feel the male gaze picking me apart. I am deeply horrified by the sexual predator that got elected to the fucking presidency. I too get paid less than men and am constantly talked over in my profession. Like basically all women, I too experience being shamed for my body. I too am a survivor of sexual assault. I am a former sex worker. I too feel conflicted about wearing makeup, about weight gain/loss and every other fucking issue our young friend here is upset about. It sucks, girl, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that in the last twelve years of fighting we couldn’t have made the world better than we did. We could be so much more dangerous fighting together if you could pause with the bigotry long enough to see that we are on the same damn side.
In other, better, words, Son of Baldwin wrote on Twitter:
You might tell me I ain’t a woman, but this world reminds every goddamn day.
It Is Sufficient to Pay Lip Service to Trans People’s Preferred Pronouns and Healthcare While Arguing Against Their Identities and Social Belonging in Our Gendered Space.
No, It is not enough. Get the word “ally” out of your mouth!
Transphobia, homophobia and misogyny are all interwoven in a terrible cocktail of bad. When a little boy is beaten up for putting on lipstick, is it because they think he’s a faggot and they think they can beat it out of him? Is it because they think he might be a disgusting tranny? Or is it just that he’s acting like a woman and the worst thing a boy could be like is a woman? They might articulate one of those options, but all of them are connected by the denigration of femininity and the violence of patriarchy. When we resist, we must resist on all axes of oppression in solidarity with each other.
Resistance means work, work to be accountable for our privilege. Work to empower each other. Work to dismantle the structures of White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. I don’t really care if you get my pronoun right because I know you’ll be calling me he purely out of spite anyway. I care that you stop punching down and figure your shit out so that more of my friends stay alive and we can get to work tearing this shit down.
My freedom to exist without fear is ultimately your freedom to exist without fear.
Exhausted Girl is Exhausted
“If the transgender women’s movement wants all women on their side, the way to get our support is not to ignore us when we cry out about the differences and voice our needs as women who were born women, that just makes it harder for us to want to hear you.”
Honey, I am not ignoring you. I have been listening to women like you explain to me why I am a monster for literally half the time you have been alive. You are not voicing the needs of the oppressed women — the women’s movement has already moved on without you. There is no “transgender women’s movement.”
Unless you count our secret facebook groups where we try and convince each other not to commit suicide.
To the small extent that anyone gives a fuck about our needs, it’s in the form of liberal institutions implementing a basic platform of: “Trans women are women and should not be barred from spaces based on Trans status.” There is so much more work to be done to support trans women’s lives and ability to access vital services — and while you cry out that our rights as women are under (at this point largely hypothetical) attack, legislatures all around the country are trying to make it illegal for me to pee in the same room as you.
“The transgender women’s movement, cannot be another movement that oppresses women, but thats (sic) what its(sic) seemingly becoming.”
You have trans women of color to thank for starting the movement that gave you the right to marry. The threads of the supposed “transgender women’s movement” has been around for a long time, in all of us who refuse to die, and should it ever oppress women, it is because we are oppressing ourselves.
We are women.
You? You’re an asshole.
The Feminist movement(s) will still be here waiting for you with open arms whenever you decide to stop hatefully targeting trans women for derision and marginalization. We have actual work to do.