Being a trans woman and a feminist, I am often saddened and deeply troubled by the supposed gap or conflict between trans activism and feminism. As an intersectional feminist, I happen to know that there are many feminist/women's spaces which care deeply about trans issues and which recognise how these issues are, in many ways, the same old misogyny and gender essentialism dressed in new clothing. So why is there a perception of a conflict? Can a different or new branch of feminism, trans feminism, help?
Jezebel, obviously, is one such space where trans issues are considered and discussed fairly often. The one in which I have felt my views are welcomed, encouraged, and even sought after. Despite Jezebel's reputation as "pop feminism," it has become my intellectual home. It is, however, hardly alone in its approach to trans inclusivity. There are a number of such spaces. I often like to cite Feministing and Feministe as two of the best at inclusivity. To a lesser extent, Ms. Magazine has showcased trans inclusive viewpoints in various articles, although its comments are rife with transphobia, trans misogyny, and other forms of outright bigotry. I respect Ms. Magazine's desire to avoid stifling debate or resorting to censorship, so this should not be read as criticism. That said, while I value free and open discourse, I also value polite, civil, and rules oriented discourse. This is one of the many aspects which makes Jezebel my go-to space. I have many great things to say about the moderating team and the writers: you all have done an amazing job keeping the transphobic comments at bay.
I want to take an additional moment here to say I feel especially indebted to Twisty Faster who as an avowed patriarchy exposing, gender paradigm smashing radical feminist has unwaveringly confronted those elements of her own branch of feminism which still just don't seem to get it. She may be very direct... and maybe a little abrasive at times, and we certainly have our disagreements, but she is a rather clear example of the many fine feminists who really gives a damn, and does something about it.
So, with so many great allies in feminism, why then do my fellow trans women (not to mention trans men) often say things like:
Getting involved with feminism as a trans person is one of the fastest ways to become angry and bitter because it's a never ending battle that becomes an argument in a circle. There is no winning. I've watched it happen over and over and over and over and I refuse to even get involved with the subject because of it.
These same (mostly) trans women may identify as feminists, if they do not, they most likely live feminist ideals. Yet comments such as this seem to suggest a conflict with capital "F" Feminism (academic feminism is sometimes specifically mentioned). Despite my own run-ins with trans exclusionary radical feminists, and some of those run-ins have been real doozies, I've always had the benefit of access to a wider array of feminist thought. Around the time I actually received a diagnosis of (badly named) "Gender Identity Disorder," one of my major (English/Literature) professors was, and I hope I am characterising her correctly, a black feminist. She and I still talk, and I consider her one of the most important people in expanding my views of critical race theory, feminism, and intersectionality. I understand not everyone has had a like intersectional experience at a formative time, and maybe I was lucky.
What is Trans Feminism?
Feminism has gone through several branchings based on criticism: too straight? Queer theory and/or lesbian feminism. Too white? Womanism. Too middle and upperclass? Socialist feminism. Too damn slow, too damn little? Radical feminism. So trans feminism, of course, would seem to answer the criticism of too cisgender.
The first use of the word on record was in 1997, coined, at least in print, by Patrick Califa, a trans man from Corpus Christi, Texas. More than anyone else, however, scholar Emi Koyama is responsible for introducing the term to academia. In 2001, Koyama published The Transfeminist Manifesto, writing:
Transfeminism is primarily a movement by and for trans women who view their liberation to be intrinsically linked to the liberation of all women and beyond. It is also open to other queers, intersex people, trans men, non-trans women, non-trans men and others who are sympathetic toward needs of trans women and consider their alliance with trans women to be essential for their own liberation. Historically, trans men have made greater contribution to feminism than trans women. We believe that it is imperative that more trans women start participating in the feminist movement alongside others for our liberation.
In the essay, Koyama identifies the primary principles of trans feminism as the right to define one's own identity, the right to complete bodily autonomy, and the right to not to be coerced into a decision in order to be accepted as "real" woman or a "real" man. According to Koyama, trans feminism serves to remind all involved in feminism, but especially women, whether trans or cis, to reflect on the ways in which we share the internalisation of heterosexist, patriarchal, and gender essentialist mandates. She reminds us, too, that trans women are often faced with gatekeeping which necessitates an unfortunate display of traditional gender expression and gender roles, and that the choice of identifying with traditional expression or roles is not inherently anti-feminist.
Koyama also discusses the issue of trans women, male privilege, socialisation, and feminism, but I have already spent a great deal of time writing on that subject in an article of that exact title, so I will not go into it here. She further argues that trans feminism "holds that sex and gender are both socially constructed; furthermore the distinction between sex and gender is artificially drawn" and ultimately calls for complete freedom to assign one's self a sex independent of any medical, political, or religious authorities. Trans feminism, asserts Koyama, also deals with "traditional" feminist issues from a trans perspective, including body image, violence against women, and health and reproductive choice.