Most of the discussions about trans people are about us and without us. That means the terms of the debate are set by people who aren’t trans, so misrepresentation, mischaracterisation and myths abound. This isn’t new, but two recently published pieces provide a good illustration of some of the more persistent tropes.
Two of the most influential names in discussions about trans people are Harry Benjamin and Janice Raymond.
This cartoon in Everyday Feminism describes Benjamin’s influence on how we think about trans people:
Benjamin meant well and helped a lot of people, but the “trapped in the wrong body” trope excludes a lot of trans people â€“ including me. I never felt trapped in the wrong body; I felt that there was something terribly wrong, but I didn’t have the hatred and horror of my body that some trans people experience.
This is important, because it keeps people like me from accepting who we are; perhaps if I’d realised you didn’t need severe body dysphoria to be trans I’d have come out many years earlier. And as the cartoon rightly points out. some trans people who do feel severe dysphoria become gatekeepers: you can’t be trans because your experience isn’t identical to mine.
Which brings us neatly to the anti-trans women who advocate against our rights. Because our experiences are not identical to theirs, we are not valid.
Writing in The New York Times, Carol Hay asks: what makes a woman?
But thanks to the past 40 years of work from intersectionalist feminists, weâ€™re finally paying attention to what women of color have been saying since at least the days when Sojourner Truth had to ask if she, too, got to count as a woman: that what itâ€™s like to be a woman varies drastically across social lines of race, socioeconomic class, disability and so on, and that if we try to pretend otherwise, we usually just end up pretending that the experiences of the wealthy, white, straight, able-bodied women who already have more than their fair share of social privilege are the experiences of all women.
The vast majority of anti-trans activists are relatively wealthy, white, straight, able-bodied women who already have more than their fair share of social privilege.
As Hay points out, one of the most influential figures in anti-trans feminism is Janice Raymond. A former nun, Raymond published a book called The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male in 1979. One of the most famous lines in the book, a book Hay characterises as hate speech, says that “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselvesâ€¦ Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.” Raymond would eventually apologise for that one some 35 years later; as far as I’m aware she has yet to apologise for campaigning to remove healthcare from trans people and for “the elimination of transsexualism”.
Raymond and her supporters have an unremittingly negative perception of trans women (trans men, as ever, are rarely mentioned because they ruin the argument). We live amazingly happy lives of male privilege and then decide to transition on a whim so we can further the aims of the patriarchy and oppress women. Despite this assertion being absolute bullshit, it’s one of the founding principles of anti-trans activism. We are fakes and frauds, gender tourists appropriating femininity for nefarious aims.
I’m not. The other trans people I know aren’t either.
Since the so-called transgender tipping point of a few years ago we’ve become more visible, and more of us have come out. But that visibility hasn’t been uniformly positive. Much of the discussion has been driven by Janice Raymond’s acolytes, and even the positive stuff has tended to feature yahoos instead of, say, the trans politician Sarah McBride and other equally inspiring, interesting and normal trans people. Instead we get Caitlyn Jenner.
Hay rightly damns Caitlyn Jenner for stupid comments such as “the hardest part of being a woman is figuring out what to wear”, a comment born of the kind of privilege you only get from being incredibly rich and separated from the real world. Jenner has said many idiotic things, and you can understand why some cisgender women might read them and want to kick trans women through a hedge.
But most trans women are not Caitlyn Jenner.
We are not all moving in tolerant circles, and very few of us are successful and solvent enough to afford incredibly expensive surgeries from the world’s greatest specialists. To suggest that Caitlyn Jenner is representative of trans women is rather like suggesting Katie Hopkins is representative of cisgender ones.
But if Iâ€™m as guilty of entrenching regressive gender stereotypes as anyone else, why do TERFs think itâ€™s trans women who are specially culpable for shoring up gender essentialism? Why arenâ€™t they going after cis women like me, too?
…Talia Mae Bettcher, a professor of philosophy at California State University, Los Angeles, demonstrates how trans people are caught in a double bind. If a trans person successfully passes as cis and is later discovered to be trans, theyâ€™re seen as an â€œevil deceiverâ€ who has lied about who they really are. Trans people who are open about being trans, on the other hand, are seen as â€œmake-believersâ€ â€” cheap counterfeits, pathetically attempting to be something they couldnâ€™t possibly actually be. The problem with this view of trans people as either deceptive or pathetic frauds is that it presupposes that thereâ€™s a real thing that trans women are failing to be. And this sounds an awful lot like the biological essentialism that almost all feminists reject.
I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a cisgender woman. I don’t claim to know, and I don’t argue that I didn’t experience male privilege. Of course I did: before I came out I never worried about my personal safety, I wasn’t discriminated against, I wasn’t sexually harassed or the victim of domestic violence… I’m aware that in my years presenting male, I benefited from the privilege that comes with that identity.
But this road runs two ways. If you’re cisgender you don’t know what it’s like to be a trans woman who can’t come out, to be bullied for not conforming to gender stereotypes, to spend years or decades fighting who you are for fear of the terrible consequences, to be demonised so frequently in the newspapers you have to stop reading them, to face not just misogyny but homophobia and transphobia too.
And that’s okay; it’s why we listen to and read stories by people whose experiences are not the same as ours, who do not have the same colour of skin, the same upbringing, the same environment. We recognise that while our experiences may be different, we also have a great deal in common.
The buzzword for that is “intersectional”, understanding that systems of oppression intersect â€“ so the lot of a middle-class, university-educated, straight white woman with a job in the media is very different and a damn sight easier than that of a working-class, gay, woman of colour working two jobs.
Feminism has not always been intersectional: the first wave of feminism, which gave us women’s suffrage, didn’t care about black women; in the US, black women were banned from some marches and forced to walk behind the white women in others. Second-wave feminism (the 1960s to the 1980s) has been criticised for its lack of inclusion for ethnic minorities and LGBT groups too; in 1969 the leader of the National Organisation for Women, Betty Friedan, described lesbians as “the lavender menace”: including “man-hating” lesbians would undermine the feminist cause.
When a cis woman complains that trans women havenâ€™t had the same experiences as â€œrealâ€ women-born-women, then, what sheâ€™s really saying is, â€œTrans women havenâ€™t had the same experiences as women like me.â€
For as long as there has been feminism, there have been women demanding the exclusion of women who aren’t exactly like them. Despite what you might read in the British papers, most feminists don’t have that worldview: they accept that while trans women’s experiences are very different, we’re all walking the same road.