Living Patriarchy as a Transgender Woman
By: Gabby Benavente
In memory of Ciara McElveen, Chary Reed, Keke Collier, Mesha Caldwell, and other transgender people we’ve lost at the hands of transmisogynistic violence. To every transgender person: You are valid. You matter. Our bodies are beautiful, and deserving of love.
Why are assigned male bodies that are perceived as femme often the most subjected to violence? In many feminist spaces, to be male-bodied is to have privileges that women do not experience due to the oppression of women under patriarchy. Yet, many trans women and gender nonconforming people who have male assigned bodies do not experience these privileges. In fact, the perception of a male body has left many of us vulnerable to excessive amounts of violence. Why is it then that we do not listen to these narratives? Why do some feminists refuse to understand the relation between body and oppression to be more complicated than the gender binaries created by cisheteropatriarchy? In asking these questions, my intent is not to discredit the validity of feminism. Rather, I want to highlight that within feminist discourse, cis feminists are predominantly speaking on behalf of the material experiences of trans people. In speaking on behalf of trans people, cis feminists often misconstrue and dehumanize trans lives. In response to the lack of trans voices represented within feminism, I hope to highlight the stories of other transgender women, as well as my own, to bridge gaps and counteract the erasure of transgender people.
Trans Women and Feminism: A Complicated History
To discuss the numerous ways in which feminism has failed transgender people, it’s imperative to look at feminism’s history of trans-exclusionary though. From the radical feminism of the 1980’s, to the contemporary op-eds written by cis feminists, trans people have often be used as theoretical objects to further understand the effects of patriarchal oppression. Our struggles, needs, desires often erased in favor of “what does the existence of trans people say about patriarchy, as it relates to my cis womanhood?” The centering of cis woman in favor trans women is often at the roots of the most pervasive forms of transphobia. For example, when North Carolina passed a law that barred trans people from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity, a lot of people across the spectrum of support for the bill responded by centering cis women. Kaeley Triller Haver writes for The Federalist that trans activists argue that “Anyone can use whatever restroom he or she wants without being questioned,” dismissing the experiences of cis women that have experienced rape. Offering a more nuance response, Labour MP Caroline Flint argued to the British parliament that “transgender rights” are important, but that is important to be “mindful of creating neutral-gender environments that actually may prove more of a risk to women themselves”. What these conversations share in common is that a lot of cis people want to talk about trans people, but choose to do so by concerning themselves with their own well-being. Decentering trans people is not only an act of erasure, but a violent one given the dangers and fears many trans people experience while using the restroom.
Debates on bathroom usage are one of several ways cis feminists have centered their experiences at the expense of trans women. In perhaps a most perverse fashion, Germaine Greer writes that “the insistence that man-made women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males”. In a similar grotesque argument, Janice Raymond states that “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.”What these arguments share in common is that they rely on the patriarchal subjugation of women to make blatant statements about the realities of being transgender. The intent is to paint transgender women as oppressors, or at the very least, holding remnants of maleness that separate them from an essential woman identity. The danger of radical feminism’s single story about transgender people is that understanding of patriarchy as a system of oppression is not a substitute for dialogue with transgender people and the ways in which patriarchy affects us. Simply reducing transgender people to men with privilege, while ignoring that it is that very perception of maleness breaking binaries leaves transgender people as one of the groups most vulnerable to violence is violent. Utilizing the myth of the trans rapist through the theoretical objectification of trans people is not going to liberate cis women, but it does demonstrate cis feminism’s unwillingness to empathize with the struggles of trans people. Decentering cis from feminism means an acknowledgment of a history of isolation towards trans people, and an imperative to incorporate trans liberation as indisputably feminist.
What are the Stakes for Trans People?
To demonstrate how a feminism that labels transgender woman as monstrous by default has failed transgender people, there are numerous statistical forms of evidence that demonstrate the harsh realities of being transgender under patriarchy. The Office for Victims of Crime reports that “One in two transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives.” As Kerriscia Gibson writes for The Odyssey Online, “Fifteen percent of transgender individuals report being sexually assaulted while in police custody or jail, which more than doubles (32 percent) for African-American transgender people. Five to nine percent of transgender survivors were sexually assaulted by police officers. Another 10 percent were assaulted by health care professionals” (ovc.gov). My intent is not to prioritize evidence to demonstrate how transgender people often experience violence, as supposed to being the perpetrators of it. However, part of shifting the narrative regarding trans people is to debunk the myth of transgender people as males using womanhood as means to hurt women. I want to establish research done one transgender violence to narrate how my experiences as a transgender woman and that of many other transgender women have not granted us privilege, but have left us vulnerable to violence.
In a response to feminist Chimamanda Adichie that transgender women experience privilege due to male socialization, actress Laverne Cox writes that “I was a very feminine child though I was assigned male at birth. My gender was constantly policed. I was told I acted like a girl and was bullied and shamed for that. My femininity did not make me feel privileged.” My experiences as a trans woman could not resonate more with Laverne Cox. From the time I was young, my gender was continuously policed by both my school peers and family. From “maricon” in Peru, to “Faggot” in America, the perception of a male body performing femininity left me vulnerable to constant name calling. Eventually the slurs became physical, and assaults became routine. I specifically remember that after a day of hard punches, kicks, and spitting, I ran to my parents crying. Rather than given solace, my family would reenact the same violence that my school peers engaged in due to my inability to perform maleness and stand up for myself. Thus, I became isolated and fearful of relationships. My days consisted of reading, writing, watching Japanese animation, and avoiding the men I came to associate with my oppression. My femininity did not protect me, but I knew that despite it being a large part of why I was abused, that I did not wish to erase it. I wanted to be authentic.
Yet, in spite of my desire for authenticity, I came to understand that I needed to perform my femininity in ways that were less visible. I became obsessive over my mannerisms, as I needed to ensure the safety of my body. Yet, by virtue of being the other from a young age, I was marked and perceived as an object other than male. This was most evident in my family. In spite of taking steps to conceal my femininity, I was continuously rebuked for speaking with an effeminate accent, swinging my hips, and having an affinity towards poetry. My everyday became a continuous torment, one that involved being told that I was too defective to be a man, but too embodied in having to be one. I became depressed, and attempted to take my life on several occasions. I was not kind to my body. My femininity did not protect me.
Coming to terms with my depression, I began to look for for nourishment in books. I read feminist philosophy, wand felt a validation I never felt before. Audre Lorde taught me that tapping into my own inner most self and not letting others define me is a source of power. I remember crying reading “A Litany for Survival” by Lorde, reminding me that it is better to speak than remain silent, as we were never meant to survive. The words of bell hooks reassured me of the power of self-love amid a violent, white supremacist patriarchy, while Angela Davis gave me hope in feminism and its capacity to provide avenues of liberation for transgender people. Feminism saved my life, which is why it is hurtful to see that much of the love I’ve received from feminism has not come without its share of hatred. At that time, however, feminism encouraged me to live authentically. It allowed me to be vulnerable, feel comfortable in struggling and being able to express myself as the gender I’ve known myself to be since childhood. The moment I allowed myself to wear a dress, and name my pronouns to my closest friends with pride is to date one of the happiest moments in my life. As Janet Mock states regarding allowing herself the freedom to express identity, “This shift in my personal aesthetic made me feel good about my body, confident in my appearance and at ease in social settings where my peers and classmates were also exploring, changing and growing.” I felt what Mock describes, not only did I overcome several aspects of my social isolation and dysphoria, but a passion for social justice and feminism rekindled. I felt ready to dismantle the systems that have hurt myself and many other transgender people.
Despite my enthusiasm and support from people I now consider family, my decision towards living my truth did not absolve me from the same patriarchal violence I’ve experienced as a child. My family still polices my gender, threatening to withdraw support if I were to continue being a woman. I’ve been raped as a result of my presentation, but denied credibility by authorities due to my inherent maleness. I’ve been stared at, followed, and fetishized by the same men who deny me of my rights and call me faggot behind closed doors. I’ve come to understand these struggles as arising from the intersections I live as both trans and woman, or as some radical feminists would uphold, the experiences of being femme while in a male body. Yet, these feminists would rather reduce me to body than to complicate their understanding of how patriarchal violence operates beyond binaries. They do not recognize how harmful it is to label a group that is much more likely to experience sexual assault to be the same, or perhaps worse, than our perpetrators.
Given the vulnerabilities of transgender populations under patriarchy, what does engaging trans people not as theoretical objects look like? For one, recognizing the humanity of trans people involves engaging in dialogue that is grounded in respect. This respect involves, for example, calling transgender people by our personal pronouns and genders, and not “TG’s”, as academic scholar Daniel Harris labels transgender people in a publication for the Antioch Review. Humanizing transgender people also involves acknowledging of our ostracizing, and that in arguing that “It is always girls and women who are politely supposed to step aside for everyone else” as Meghan Murphy does for the Feminist Current, that transgender women too have been asked to step aside in proclaiming our rights to exists. Speaking on behalf of transgender people demands accountability, actively fighting against misinformation that paints transgender women as sexual predators, and acknowledging that cisgender men are predominantly responsible for the rape epidemic. Making claims about transgender people requires empathy and care, because just this week a black transgender woman from Miami was murdered. Her name is Chary Reed, and she is the ninth transgender woman to be killed at the hands of cisheteropatriarchal violence. Justice for trans people requires cis people, and not just cis men, to be accountable for the marginalization of transgender people through both legislature and culture.
What can be done to Protect Trans People?
Outside of listening to transgender voices and recognizing our identities, there are multiple ways allies can be involved to help transgender people. If you are cis people that knows a transgender person is having difficulties using the restroom in a state that criminalizes our existence, offer to go with us. If you are in a position where you can donate to LGBTQ centers that offer services and shelter to transgender people, such as the Audre Lorde Project, engage in redistributing resources to give power back to transgender communities. Call your local and state representatives to ensure that trans people feel safe. Go beyond ally pins. Most importantly, however, the first major step starts with recognizing our humanity. Do not reduce trans people to objects, stereotypes, or hyper-visible representations of transness in the media. Understand that trans people have a history of oppression, potential trauma, but also work towards not essentializing transgender experiences under a monolith. Do not police trans bodies, and engage with curiosity but not malice.
If cis femininists took the time to speak trans people, rather than reduce to theoretical objects, they’d know most of us are not interesting in hiding our transness. Most of us are hyper-aware of how our transness differentiates us from cis women. We are aware that as a result of how society perceives transness, we are often denied housing, jobs, and security. We know that transness forces us to out ourselves to our partners, or otherwise risk being murdered. We are aware that when using the bathroom, someone might make a scandal and assault us. We are aware that our communities often face higher rates of violence than cis women.
The problem is not an unwillingness to recognize these differences on the part of trans women, but an obsession by cis women to establish their entrance to womanhood as the only valid one. What they want trans women to say is that we are men, that we are more privileged, and that we are an approximation of womanhood but never truly really women. This obsession is why there’s a strong emphasis on the part of cis women to highlight what makes us more “privileged” (i.e any amount of male socialization and being perceived as a male body), as opposed to what makes trans women vulnerable to the patriarchy (higher rates of assault, rape, unemployment, pay inequality).
What many trans activists are trying to do is not to deny differences. On the contrary, our very existence adds nuance to conversations surrounding gender that encourages us to think beyond binaries of oppressed/marginalized. Conversations surrounding privilege and gender are complicated. A white woman’s entrance to womanhood is going to differ from a black woman’s entry to womanhood. A straight woman’s entry to womanhood is going to differ from that of a queer woman. Intersectionality as praxis is not merely stacking up how many marginalized identities one embodies, but as Angela Davis notes in relation to justice, a constant struggle to reconceptualize how systems of oppression affect people living at different intersections, and how we translate this understanding into action. Actions that acknowledge that gender is complicated, but that despite how we arrive at our genders, that we can conclude that trans identities are valid. We can say trans women are not cis women, but they are women.