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Five Ways Cis Feminists Can Help Build Trans Inclusivity And Intersectionality

May 2, 2013


The title kind of says it all, I guess.

Lately, I’ve come to notice a kind of annoying trend amongst many cis feminists who profess themselves as allies to trans people and trans-feminism. Far too many such allies (I think “ally”, like “social justice”, is a term that I no longer consider benign, and have come to regard as a bit of a red flag) seem to take an approach whereby they implicitly (though perhaps unconsciously and unknowingly) treat feminism’s ongoing issues with cissexism, cisnormativity, cis-centrism and transphobia as being trans people’s job and responsibility to solve. As though the onus is on us, the victims of feminism’s tendency towards privileging the needs of cis women, to “solve” the problem and make it right, rather than the responsibility of cis feminists themselves to, you know… not do that shit in the first place.

It’s never the job or ethical responsibility of the victims of oppression to end it. In fact, oppression operates in exactly such a way that even if it were the victims’ responsibility to end oppression, they wouldn’t be empowered to do so. The obligation (and power) always rests on the shoulders of the oppressor and those privileged by the oppression to end it. The victims may fight against their oppression, sure, but the oppressors’ responsibility isn’t simply “don’t fight back”; it is also “fight on the side of the victims”.

It’s also not the job or ethical responsibility of the victims of oppression to educate their oppressor as to how to not be an oppressor. That said, I’ve decided to opt to offer some suggestions as to how cis feminists who are interested in ultimately creating a trans-inclusive, intersectional feminism can help do so (cis feminists whose interest in this is hopefully not motivated by cookies or the ability to claim ally status, but instead because it’s the right thing to do and, as the saying goes, “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.”)

So, if you’re more keen for intersectional feminism than you are for bullshit feminism, it’s time to stop sitting around waiting for trans feminists to make everything better. It’s time to engage yourself, and here are some pretty simple, easily-applicable starting points.

1) Be willing to confront instances of transphobia, cissexism, cisnormativity, cis-centrism, cis privilege and other forms of destructive bias where you find them (especially when you find them within feminist, activist or queer spaces), not through “call outs” or other toxic, self-defeating, or abusive strategies, but by taking the opportunity for genuine discourse.

I’m not a fan of internet “call-out culture” at all. To be perfectly honest, I’ve got nothing but contempt for it, no matter how just the underlying cause may be. Mostly, it strikes me as an excuse for bullying and abuse. And most of the time, that’s all that’s really going on, with “social justice” simply operating as an excuse. This is especially apparent when the “call outs” and underlying questions of “safety” are being directed against an already marginalized group, and when the abusive, toxic “call outs” are being conducted by the privileged themselves “on behalf” of some other marginalized group. Like the many recent occurrences in which self-identified “allies” of trans women bombarded transphobic or cissexist cis women with disgusting, misogynistic harassment and slurs like “you transphobic c–t!” or whatever, supposedly as an act of “solidarity” with trans women. How anyone can think that trans women will want men to say a bunch of misogynistic shit “on our behalf” is beyond me, unless they not only fail to realize that we’re women, but also fail to realize that we consider ourselves women. Which is, you know, ridiculous.

Anyway… yes, I get that sometimes bigotry and oppression and sexism and transphobia can be really ugly, painful and emotionally volatile things. I understand that they can make people angry. Understandably so, sure. But if you’re not the target or victim of the bigotry or oppression, if you’re not the person it affects, and if you’re not the person who has to live with the consequences, it’s not really your place to make the strategic call of vocalizing that anger, given how rarely it has a positive outcome. (I do, however, understand a trans person reacting emotionally and unstrategically to an act of transphobia, given that it’s hir choice and perogative to do so… likewise I understand PoC reacting as such to racism, women reacting as such to misogyny, PwD reacting as such to able-ism, etc. I don’t view it as “productive”, but people’s right to empower themselves through owning their anger supercedes that question of strategy… UNLESS you’re speaking “for” a different group than your own).

People who are into “call outs” often wonder aloud why it’s so rare for people to respond with a simple apology. I wonder why, given that a particular approach consistently fails to produce the intended response, they never consider that the approach might be the problem. Again, I understand expressing and owning one’s anger for its own sake, and the sake of self-empowerment, but I don’t understand anyone who regards the “call-out” as a genuinely effective, long-term strategy for dealing with oppression. I also mistrust their motives, given how the majority of call-out culture seems to have nothing to do with actually making anything better for anyone.

So I’d really, really, really prefer if cis people didn’t take this approach to transphobia. I don’t think being swarmed by embittered mobs is likely to make any transphobe any more aware of the issues… or likely to improve anything for anybody. I think it’s most likely to create bitterness, and cause people to dig their heels in.

It also wastes an opportunity.

When someone says something transphobic or cissexist, that presents an opportunity for discussing that with the person, pointing out how/why what they said was messed up, and hopefully, slowly, gradually, helping steer that person (and those within earshot, and communities and cultures as a whole) towards greater trans awareness and sensitivity.

It may or may not make a difference for the particular individual, but it introduces a chance for discussion of trans issues. Rather than that incident becoming a means by which transphobia and cissexism is normalized and affirmed within whatever social context it occurs within (such as a feminist reading and discussion group, or an abuse-survivor’s support group, or a feminist subreddit), it becomes a mean by which the importance of a sensitive, intelligent, nuanced and non-oppressive approach to trans issues can be normalized and affirmed as an aspect of that social context. Do you know what I mean?

No, as I mentioned in the introduction, the oppressed never OWE education to their oppressors, nor do they ever OWE it to the oppressor to be nice about the subject of their oppression. But in this case? It’s not YOUR oppression, cis feminists. It’s ours. You’re part of the oppressor class. And so long as you benefit from cis privilege, and you acknowledge such social inequities as a bad thing, it IS kinda your responsibility to take whatever opportunities you have for helping make things a bit better. And that includes educating each other. And being nice about it, if that’s what the situation demands.

Rather than treating instances of transphobia and cissexism in your communities as an opportunity to show off what an ally you are, and exercise your internet smackdown skills, and hurt someone who “deserves” it, treat it as an opportunity to bring genuine trans discussion into the space, and strategically work towards improvement. It’s a slow road, but if this occurs often enough, in enough spaces, it WILL eventually have a meaningful impact. And people WILL ease up a bit on the open contempt, erasure or dismissal of trans people.

2) Don’t take a purely passive, reactive approach. Rather than waiting for things, like someone saying something overtly cissexist, or a trans person bringing up a particular concern, be willing to proactively introduce trans issues, or trans-relevant aspects of broader issues, to feminist discourse. Likewise, proactively treat possible consequences, perspectives and concerns relevant to trans people and trans experiences as being not only significant but essential to all feminist issues and conversations.

The trouble, though, with using moments of someone saying something cissexist as your opportunities to discuss trans issues, awareness, inclusivity, intersectionality and so on is that it allows the cissexists to define the terms of that discussion, the general framework, the topics, and when and where it happens. It prevents the conversation from moving forward into new territory, and limits it to simply helping everyone else catch up. It also generally creates a passive approach that devalues trans stuff as being genuinely worth talking about, instead just a sort of side note, reinforces the attitude that “not being transphobic” is enough to constitute “being a trans ally”, that an absence of doing harm is equal to doing good, and a bunch of other stuff.

Likewise, waiting around for trans people to actually speak up similarly limits how seriously the importance of trans intersectionality really is. It can create the illusion that cis people don’t REALLY care, that our voices are only relevant to ourselves, and, again, keeps us sidelined as an afterthought. It’s also worth remembering that a lot of trans people are very, very intimidated from speaking BY our general erasure and dismissal within feminism. So there’s a self-perpetuating aspect, whereby the absence of trans voices, and how trans inclusion isn’t taken very seriously, reinforces the absence of trans voices and the degree to which trans inclusion isn’t taken very seriously.

It’s important to proactively speak up, so as to assert that these ARE things that are genuinely worth talking about, not simply something you ought to tack-on for the sake of the appearances, or to prevent actively harming trans people. And it needs to happen repeatedly. There need to be a number of voices, cis and trans alike, from a variety of backgrounds, repeatedly asserting that this is a significant and meaningful aspect of the conversation concerning gender and gender-based oppression for that truth to ultimately be accepted to the point that trans people become the part of the conversation we need and deserve to be.

Proactivity also permits an essential diversity and range to the kinds of discussions that take place. So long as it remains passive and reactive, it’s always going to be defined by the small range of particularly galling issues that force us into discussing it. But when we’re choosing to speak about these things, and cis people are using their cis privilege to have the topic taken seriously and listened to, we can choose what exactly we’re going to talk about and how we’re going to talk about it. Thereby, the full, incredibly broad range of trans-related discussions can become part of the conversation. Not just arguing over and over and over again about why trans women don’t “reaffirm patriarchal gender roles!” or whatever.

It also allows our conversations to not always be tainted by whatever negativity forced us into speaking.

And it shows that you actually do care about trans people. That you don’t need to be reminded that we exist and matter. Which is nice.

3) Don’t assume any given issue is strictly, or even primarily, relevant to cis women. All feminist concerns are also transgender concerns, and vice versa. There are no feminist dialogues in which trans voices “don’t belong”, or to which trans voices have “nothing to add”. There are no social issues related to gender that don’t have consequences for trans people.

Awhile back, I was invited to speak at the atheist conference Imagine No Religion in Kamloops, BC on the subject of abortion and reproductive rights. At the time, it felt really strange and a bit uncomfortable; of all the various feminist issues I could be asked to speak on, this was the one that directly impacted me the least, and I was highly nervous about how the likely entirely cisgender audience at the conference were going to react to an openly trans woman speaking about such issues. I wondered whether I was going to be perceived as having “no right” to have an opinion on the topic, given that I’ll never myself have to face the choice of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, and I internalized that question into doubt as to whether I felt I had any right to speak to the issue.

Ultimately, I resolved those doubts, and helped focus the nature of my talk, by examining what the question of reproductive rights is really about, which is the question of medical autonomy. I spoke about similarities between anti-choice arguments and the various justifications set up for trans-related gatekeeping. I talked about the horror of the state determining what happens to your body, and being subjected to endocrinological changes that you didn’t want and didn’t choose. And I talked about how the right to medical autonomy needs to remain an absolute in order to protect that right for all of us, regardless of our exact medical needs and exact anatomical configurations.

There really wasn’t any reason a transgender perspective would be “meaningless” to the question of a woman’s right to choose, because it’s about far far more than the literal, biological reality of pregnancy. It’s about patriarchy, about how women’s bodies are treated, about how we perceive sex and the sexualized aspects of bodies, and about many other things that have direct bearing upon and consequences for trans lives. Which is to say nothing of the fact that many trans people can get pregnant. Or how many nations have considered sterilization a prerequisite for legal change of sex. If that’s not a question of reproductive rights, I don’t know what is.

There was no reason I ever should have doubted my “right” to participate in a discussion of reproductive rights. Because it isn’t an exclusively “cis women’s” issue, no matter what one may assume from a superficial glance at the question.

The same holds true of numerous other issues from which trans voices are consistently excluded. Trans people DO need access to women’s shelters, to domestic abuse and rape crisis lines, to gynecological exams and mammograms and pap smears and other aspects of “women’s health”, to testicular exams and prostate checks and other aspects of “men’s health”, to planned parenthood and reproductive options and contraception and safer sex kits and everything of that kind… to a whole lot of things that we’re consistently, and often quite deliberately, cut out of. This has intense and real consequences for us, often on the scale of life and death.

And it should go without saying that transgender perspectives are both relevant and necessary to discussion of all social, cultural, political and theoretical questions of gender. Not simply the “trans question” as academically and distantly considered by cis people discussing gender, either; trans people should ourselves be permitted to offer our own perspectives in relation to ALL such questions, and be given a chance to be heard and listened to.

The inclusion of trans perspectives is not only something we deserve in terms of our own rights and needs, but it also can help illuminate important questions or considerations relevant to the rights and needs of cis women or men that were nonetheless missed, or weren’t taken seriously. We have at least as much to offer feminism as feminism has to offer us (though the latter question, what feminism can do for groups who’ve been marginalized by present understandings and treatment of gender, should always be the priority).

Never, ever assume that you, in your (necessarily) limited cisgender experience and knowledge, know when transgender perspectives aren’t really necessary to a given conversation. Assume they always are. If it’s an issue where we feel we don’t have anything to say, we’ll let you know.

4) Proactively seek out transgender voices, perspectives, and input on all issues, not simply what you regard as “trans issues” or situations where the value of such perspectives is immediately obvious to you. Come to us, rather than waiting for us to come to you.

One of the ways that marginalization operates is by making it definitively more difficult for marginalized identities to get their voices heard and noticed. This is a result of countless barriers and risks for people in marginalized positions contrasting with the privileges afforded to others in being heard and paid attention to. For instance, a woman is exposing herself to all kinds of harassment, risks, compromises and exhausting uphill struggles in deciding to launch or join a visible blog that men don’t have to face. Queer writers face additional harassment and risks that other writers don’t have to, such as potentially being outed and the consequences that can follow. These risks are compounded for trans writers, as opposed to cis writers. And people of colour are far less likely to have their views taken seriously, and considered in light of the social complexities of race, than white writers (whose vantage point is treated as the cultural “norm”). The overall effect is that it means something very different for someone in such a marginalized position to make themselves visible and heard than what it means for the privileged, and not everyone in a marginalized position, especially an intersectional one, is going to be willing to subject themselves to the risks and hassle. Especially if their chances of actually being heard and taken seriously are unclear.

This is one of the many reasons it’s never enough for any organization or space to simply decide against directly excluding marginalized voices, and then claim that alone makes them “inclusive” and “[x]-friendly”. It’s not enough to just open up your doors and then expect that those who approach you will reflect broader demographics and lead to greater “diversity”.  Proactive efforts to deliberately seek out such voices, deliberately ensure that they’re reflected in your conversation, deliberately investigate whatever subtle or “invisible” barriers might be excluding certain people or leading them to feel uneasy about participating, deliberately investigate how you might be failing to meet the needs and interests of a given demographic, deliberately and actively address those barriers and limitations and find ways to remedy them, and deliberately make sure that the wider extant barriers for marginalized voices are taken into consideration, are all necessary in order to create an actually diverse space and conversation. Much like how it’s not enough for an employer to simply claim to offer equal opportunities to all applicants and employees, and affirmative action and real, proactive policies are necessary to counteract wider social problems that disadvantage women and minorities in finding employment or being promoted.

Feminism can’t be trans-inclusive simply by quietly, passively deciding not to be actively trans-exclusive. In order for trans voices to end up genuinely included and reflected in the conversation, they need to be sought out, while feminists need to also be making a concerted effort to address its internal limitations in meeting the needs of trans people and potential trans speakers, writers, activists, etc. Efforts to be more trans-inclusive also can’t be done quietly, in such a way that trans people might simply assume that all the same exclusions and gender-policing and such are still going on. To make trans voices a part of your space or organization or discourse or whatever, you need to vocally reach out to us, do so in a way that recognizes and addresses our different risks, concerns, barriers and needs, and let us know that you want us there and are aware that we don’t have all the same privileges and safety and assurances of being heard that you might take for granted.

It might also be worth asking yourselves why you want us there, and what you’re actually offering us in exchange for our participation. Why should we want to work with you? For instance, are we going to simply be there to lend your organization the appearance of diversity and inclusivity? Are you actually interested in a trans perspective and voice, even if it ends up being critical of your pre-existing assumptions, practices and attitudes? Are we going to be tokens, or are we going to be participants? Are we going to be offered any actual responsibility and control? Are we going to be permitted leadership positions, or are things like that going to remain restricted to cis people and otherwise already-privileged participants? Are you interested in what you can do for us, or only in what we can do for you?

Additionally, this kind of proactive effort to include trans voices I’m advocating also can’t simply be restricted to situations or issues or whatever that you, or other cis people, consider to be “trans issues” or something where a trans perspective might be beneficial. If the only times you ever actively seek out trans people to be included in feminist conversation is when it’s something like doing a panel on a subject like “gender outlaws, androgyny and gender-bending in pop culture”, “gender and body modification”, or, most commonly, just “trans-feminism” or “trans… stuff”, where the relevance of including a trans perspective (or a tokenized trans presence) is immediately apparent to your cisgender perspective, then you’re not actually including trans perspectives in feminism; you’re just ghettoizing such perspectives and keeping us hemmed into particular roles and meanings that cis people have defined for us. By restricting our “inclusion” to what you’ve defined as a “trans issue” or “trans-related” issue, you’ve barred us from participation on our own terms, or offering perspectives on what we see as important. In other words, you’re not actually including our perspectives and concerns, only your own perspective of us.

To create a genuinely trans-inclusive feminism (or space, organization, event, conversation, etc.), it’s necessary to proactively seek out our inclusion, to do so with recognition of our specific circumstances and risks, permit us to be included as full and unrestricted participants, permit us the same level of responsibility and mobility and power as everyone else, and allow us to define for ourselves what our participation will be, where our perspective is of value, and what issues we wish to address.

5) Don’t treat the larger social conflict of gender as being dialectic or binary in nature. Don’t assume a unidirectional model of gender-based oppression.

This is one of those many many mistakes people can make in discussing social issues where once you notice it, it feels like it SHOULD be obvious, but nonetheless gets made all the time, even by very intelligent and otherwise conscientious people.

The “unidirectional model” is the idea that sexism operates in, well, one direction: as a top-down force of oppression by which men subjugate and control women. While this was a useful way of looking at some of the more overt kinds of patriarchy, like women being prevented from owning property or voting, being restricted to the home, and not being permitted to advance in either business or politics, a discussion of the more subtle and pervasive forms of patriarchy and sexism in our culture requires understanding sexism as a systemic problem, a very complex one, and one that is every bit as “down-top” as it is “top-down”, as much perpetuated by women as by men, as much inflicted on ourselves and one another as at the hands of those with the most immediate power, etc.

I’m not going to say anything here about “misandry” or “female privilege” or “men are just as victimized by sexism as women are!”. I find all such notions contemptible and absurd. Nonetheless, understanding sexism requires understanding that it has, at least, two facets: misogyny and oppositional sexism. Men, maleness and masculinity are all considered superior, preferable, stronger, healthier, more natural and more “normal” and “default” than women, femaleness and femininity, true. That’s the misogyny part. However, those concepts can only work and be maintained by way of initially treating gender as a binary, dialectic, oppositional thing, with men on one side and women on the other. The idea of human beings as divided into two, mutually exclusive “opposite sexes” is what I mean when I say “oppositional sexism”, and in addition to being a prerequisite for misogyny to function, it has numerous oppressive qualities all on its own, that can and do harm people across the entire “spectrum” (not actually a spectrum) of gender and sex. Men and others who are assigned male at birth, for instance, end up being much more viciously and violently reprimanded for straying outside of the expectations of their assigned gender role. This specific issue is primarily a consequence of the misogynistic devaluing of women and femininity relative to men and masculinity, but by way of oppositional sexism it ends up harming men and AMAB people the most.

Both oppositional sexism and misogyny can be subtle and pervasive, and present in very small, seemingly insignificant everyday actions. There are many forms of sexism that don’t remotely fit the model of “man subjugates women”… such as “benevolent sexism”, the various subtle acts that imply women are weak and dependent that take on the outward appearance of a kind, generous or chivalrous gesture, such as a man insisting upon opening doors or paying for the meal, regardless of a woman’s wishes. There are also numerous little codes and modes of behaviour that help prop up rape culture and the idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies or sexuality, the attitude of women’s bodies as property, the idea that women’s worth is through their beauty, the idea that women are naturally domestic, etc. And while in all of these subtle kinds of sexism are, in their misogynistic aspect, meant towards privileging men, the oppositional aspect will end up having a reflection in the expectations that are placed on men and those so-assigned that can, in turn, harm them (and perhaps be mistaken as an issue of “misandry” or “female privilege”).

And, of course, this subtle, discursive oppositional framework really fucks over trans people and anyone else who can’t be fitted into that structure.

The trouble is that feminism often sort of shoots itself in the foot, and shoots trans people in the back (or the face), by playing along with the idea of “men” and “women” as fundamentally different and oppositionally defined concepts. Many feminists will talk about “female socialization” as some kind of universal experience, or talk about female “energy”, or the inherent psychological and emotional qualities of women as opposed to men, or (with self-awareness or not) discuss a Hegelian or Marxist dialectic between male “masters” and female “slaves” (which need to position ALL human beings as fitting into one of the two supposed classes), or discuss female subjugation and misogyny but totally ignore all other forms of gender-based oppression, or ignore the ways that women themselves participate in systems of both misogyny and oppositional sexism, or talk about how the presence or absence of a vagina or uterus or penis or the capacity to give birth or the capacity to menstruate or any other sexually dimorphic anatomical quality is the “key” difference between men and women that explains patriarchy…

…or sometimes even just tiny little things like naming their feminist site “The XXsomethingerather!”, or snarkily saying “this conversation is only for people with vaginas!”, or otherwise “innocently” using certain specific (but by no means universal) biological aspects of most women to mean “women” in a general sense.

All of that is destructive. All of it is cissexist. No matter whether you meant it to be or not.

I know that the more complex and nuanced a discussion of gender becomes, the harder it becomes to sell to people. I know that a lot of feminists feel we’re losing energy and momentum because we no longer have a “key” issue to push forward, like the vote or equal pay. I know that a lot of the time it really DOES seem like an issue of men vs women, with men on one side, privileged and powerful, and women on the other, constantly having to fight to have our voices heard and our minds respected and our bodies treated as our own. I know. And I know that fights are easier to fight when you have a nice, clearly defined enemy. But what are we fighting for?

We’re fighting for a better world, right? A better understanding of gender? And a world where gender and sex don’t end up defining our social position, and our options in life, and in which they are never exploited as a means to oppress or subjugate or silence or coerce another human being?

Well, if that’s the case, then we need to do our job right. And we need to be addressing the actual complex, nuanced, tangled, often seemingly contradictory, often outright baffling realities of gender and gender-based oppression, not just a simplistic mock-up thereof.

Remember that sexism isn’t just about men oppressing women. It’s mostly about human beings oppressing each other and themselves. It works in every possible direction.

Bonus Points:

Remember, when including trans perspectives, that intersectionality doesn’t stop there. Which trans perspectives are you including?

Thanks for listening! And pre-emptive thanks to anyone/everyone who makes the effort.

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