On the Outside Looking In
On the Outside Looking In is a 36 page chapbook containing 4 essays and 1 letter providing a trans woman's perspective on feminism and the exclusion of trans women from lesbian and women-only spaces, published June 2005, Hot Tranny Action press (Oakland, CA).
*note: for my more recent thoughts, writings and rants related to the issue of trans woman-inclusion in lesbian and women-only spaces, please check out my Frustration webpage.
Table of Contents:
1) Bending Over Backwards: an Introduction to the Issue of Trans Woman-Inclusion
2) Skirt Chasers: Why the Media Depicts the Trans Revolution in Lipstick and Heels
3) Diane DiMassa Letter
4) On the Outside Looking In
5) Hot Tranny Action Manifesto
6) About the Author
copyright 2005 julia serano, all rights reserved
Bending Over Backwards:
an Introduction to the Issue of Trans Woman-Inclusion
*note: this essay has been recently updated (including new material!) for Julias new book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity - find out more!
It was never my intention to get so heavily involved in the issue of trans woman-inclusion in lesbian and women-only spaces. The first I heard of the issue was back in 1999, around the time that I was beginning to call myself transgendered about two years before I began my physical transition. At the time, I was voraciously reading everything I could get my hands on related to transgender experiences and issues. As I read, I kept stumbling upon past instances of anti-trans discrimination from within the lesbian community. These included derogatory anti-trans remarks by influential lesbian-feminist thinkers such as Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin, and of course Janice Raymond, who wrote the infamous anti-trans diatribe The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male; stories about committed lesbian-feminists like Sandy Stone and Beth Elliot being exiled from the lesbian community for being transsexual; and of course, the Michigan Womyns Music Festivals trans woman-exclusion policy (euphemistically called the womyn-born-womyn-only policy), which was retroactively instated in the early 1990s after an incident where a woman named Nancy Burkholder was expelled from the festival when it was discovered that she was trans.
While I found it disappointing that people who identified as lesbians and as feminists would come down so harshly on another sexual minority, I wasnt really surprised. After all, practically every facet of our society seemed to hate or fear trans people back then, and these incidents seemed more like a symptom of societal-wide transphobia rather than something unique or specific to the lesbian community. And as someone who was giving thought to becoming involved in trans activism myself, there seemed to be plenty of other more practical and relevant issues for me to take up: anti-trans violence and hate crimes, employment discrimination, access to healthcare, reforming the DSM, helping trans youth, and of course, changing mainstream opinion about trans people.
But in the years that followed, I experienced a number of changes in my life that would considerably re-shape my views on this matter. First, there was my transition. People are always fascinated about the more physical aspects of transitioning (hormones, surgeries, etc.), but I personally found that the physical changes were not nearly as dramatic as the differences I experienced in the way that people treated me. As I once wrote about my transition: my body has taken on a new shape, but mostly its just taken on new meanings. While I had considered myself a feminist long before my transition, and had often asked my female friends about their experiences having to live as women in a male-centered world, nothing could have truly prepared me for what it is like to be treated by the world as female. On an intellectual level, I knew that it would not be easy, but I underestimated just how frustrating, infuriating and hurtful it would feel to have strangers regularly hurl cat calls and sexual innuendos at me, or to have men speak down to me, talk over me, and sometimes even practically put on baby-talk voices when addressing me.
But for me, being trans didnt merely involve learning how to navigate my way through the world as a woman. Because I have the privilege of being able to pass as female, in my day-to-day life, when I am forced to come out to someone, nine times out of ten it is not as a transsexual, but as a lesbian. It happens every time somebody asks me if I am seeing someone and I reply, actually, I have a wife. It happens every time my wife Dani and I dare to hold hands or kiss in public. It happens when Dani is not around, but someone assumes that I am a dyke anyway because of the way that I dress, speak, or carry myself.
After my transition, I began to write not only about being transgendered, but about my experiences living in the world as a woman and a dyke after years of being perceived as a straight man. Not surprisingly, most of what I wrote had a definite feminist bent to it. As a trans woman, it seemed impossible for me to discuss my journey from male to female without placing it in the context of the differing values our society places on maleness and femaleness, on masculinity and femininity. After all, growing up as a boy, I learned early on that few people in our culture are as easily ridiculed and so fiercely despised as feminine males. And I couldnt help but draw a connection between the way that feminine boys were so cruelly teased by both boys and girls in the schoolyards of my youth and the condescending attitude that some men now had towards me the tell-tale sign that they perceived to be the lesser sex.
I know that it is popular these days to talk about anti-trans discrimination as arising from the fact that, as trans people, we transgress gender norms. Frankly, this does not resonate completely with my personal experiences. As a somewhat eccentric kid, I was given plenty of leeway to opt out of boys activities and to cultivate an androgynous appearance and persona. I was sometimes teased for being different, for being an atypical or unmasculine boy, but it was nothing compared to venom that was reserved for those boys who acted downright feminine. And now, as an out transsexual woman, I find that those who wish to ridicule or dismiss me do not simply take me to task for the fact that I fail to conform to gender norms instead, more often than not, they mock my femininity. From my perspective, most of the anti-trans sentiment that I have had to deal with is probably better described as misogyny.
This idea that much of what is commonly called transphobia is merely traditional sexism in disguise moved to the forefront of my mind as I began to be invited to perform my spoken word at various queer womens events around the San Francisco Bay Area. While I was welcomed very warmly by most of the women who attended these events, I would sometimes come across certain women who would act dismissive towards me, who seemed bothered by me being there, who acted as if they were granting me a special favor by tolerating my presence, who would make off-hand and inappropriate comments about my trans status as if to remind me that I was not a real woman like they were. This sense of ownership and entitlement about being a woman or being lesbian seemed hypocritical to me. After all, as soon as we would walk out the door, both of us would face similar discrimination for being women and for being dykes. But what was most frustrating about the way that many of these women dismissed me was the fact that they seemed to have no problems at all with female-bodied folks expressing masculinity and with trans people on the female-to-male (FTM) spectrum attending their events. In other words, they didnt have much of a problem with trannies per se, just so long as they were male- or masculine-identified rather than female- or feminine-identified.
The popular spin given to this preferential treatment of trans men over trans women states that trans men have been raised female and therefore should have a place in womens and lesbian communities, whereas trans women have experienced male privilege and remain physically male on some level, and therefore should be excluded. However, this argument makes little sense when examined more closely. After all, how can someone who identifies as female and currently lives as a woman have less in common with women than a male-identified person who has male physical attributes and currently benefits from male privilege? The premise that trans women should be singled out because we used to be men is highly suspect. Rather, I believe that this preference for trans men over trans women simply reflects the societal-wide inclination to view masculinity as being strong and natural, and femininity as being weak and artificial. In other words, it is a product of traditional sexism.
My appreciation for the ways in which traditional sexism shapes popular assumptions about trans women started to really take shape during 2003 and 2004 as I became involved in Camp Trans, an organization that works to end the exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces, most notably the Michigan Womyns Music Festival. In my work on this issue, I learned first hand how the occasional anti-trans woman sentiment I would come across in the relatively trans-friendly Bay Area was merely the tip of the iceberg. Some of the women who travel from all over the country to attend Michigan think nothing of wearing their suspicion or hatred of trans women on their sleeves, and they will often make extraordinarily naive and insensitive comments about trans women in their attempts to justify our exclusion. I am sure these women believe that they are protecting the values of lesbian and womens space by opposing our inclusion at all costs, but in reality the specific points they make (many of which are debunked in the essays contained within this collection) generally undermine feminist goals and beliefs rather than support them. After all, at its core, feminism is based on the conviction that women are far more than merely the sex of the bodies that we are born into, and our identities and abilities are capable of transcending the restrictive nature of the gender socialization we endure during our childhoods. I have yet to meet the person who can explain to me how refusing trans women the right to participate in womens spaces and events is consistent with this most central tenant of feminism.
This is why it is so disappointing for me to see members of my own dyke community practically bend over backwards, embracing hypocrisy, in a last ditch effort to prevent trans women from entering lesbian and women-only spaces. Women who are appalled by the militarys dont ask, dont tell policy regarding homosexuality seem to find no fault with Michigan for enforcing a similar policy regarding gender. Women who have struggled against patriarchal ideals about what makes a "real woman think nothing of turning around and using the word real against trans women. Women who would be outraged if an all-male panel were to discuss womens issues in Newsweek or Time magazines see nothing wrong with the fact that in the last few years several of the largest lesbian magazines have run articles and round table discussions on the issue of Michigan and trans woman-inclusion without inviting any trans women to participate. It is sad to see women so desperate to prevent trans women from attending Michigan that they will actually try to make the ridiculous case that this womyns festival was never actually meant to be an event for women, but rather for those who were born and raised as girls.
I am sure that a lot of these same people who support Michigans trans woman-exclusion policy, or who sit on the fence on this issue, would have a very different opinion if it was their inclusion that was being debated. Can you imagine how angry these very same women would be if the largest annual women-only event in the world was run by straight women who decided to exclude queer women from attending? Can you imagine how insulted they would feel if they were told that they are not allowed to enter women-only space because they are not real women, or that their attraction to women might threaten the safety of other women? Can you imagine how condescending they would find it if straight women talked to them about being queer-positive one minute, then turned around and purchased a $400 ticket to a queer-free womens event the next?
As much as I am bothered by the long history of trans women being expelled from the lesbian community during the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, I am willing to chalk that up to the fact that the transgender movement hadnt fully come into its own yet, and there were few people who were able to articulate a clear message for transgender rights and inclusion at the time. But now, in 2005, there is no legitimate excuse for trans woman-exclusion in lesbian and women-only spaces. Most LGB groups have long since added Ts to the ends of their acronyms. And while there was a time when trans-inclusion debates only took place on the outskirts of the queer community, they now take place in work places and courthouses all across the United States. In the last fifteen years, six states (Minnesota, Rhode Island, New Mexico, California, Maine and Illinois) and scores of cities and counties across the country have extended their non-discrimination laws to explicitly include transgendered people. It is downright embarrassing that so many folks within the lesbian community, who generally pride themselves on their progressive politics, have managed to fall behind Peoria, Illinois and El Paso, Texas in recognizing and respecting trans peoples gender identities.
So why not give up? Why not follow the advice of Michigans trans women-exclusionists who suggest that we trannies should start up our own festival instead? Well, because I am not just a transsexual; I am also a woman, a dyke, a feminist, and this is my community too! And it would be irresponsible for me to turn my back on feminism or queer womens activism because of a vocal minoritys prejudice against me. I continue to work for this cause because I believe that it is crucial for other queer women and feminists to recognize how transphobia and misogyny often work hand-in-hand to marginalize all women and to reinforce male privilege.
To this end, I offer the following essays, which I hope will provide an articulate trans womans perspective on the issues of feminism and trans woman-inclusion in the lesbian community. The first piece, "Skirt Chasers: Why the Media Depicts the Trans Revolution in Lipstick and Heels" (which appeared originally as a feature article in Bitch Magazine, issue #26 in Fall 2004) discusses how the media uses traditional sexism to shape popular assumptions about trans women. Towards the end of the piece, I draw parallels between the strategies the media use to dismiss trans women and those used by some lesbian-feminists who argue for trans woman-exclusion. The second piece, Diane DiMassa Letter, was my response to several uninformed and anti-trans woman comments made by the creator of the comic-book series Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist. The story that follows, On the Outside Looking In, was written for TransForming Community, a spoken word show produced for the 2005 National Queer Arts Festival, which explored the friction at the intersection of contemporary trans and queer communities. The piece describes my experience at Camp Trans in August of 2003, and is meant to be one trans womans response to the dialogue that has taken place over the years between non-trans queer women over the issue of trans woman-inclusion. The final piece, "Hot Tranny Action Manifesto," which was written to be the mission statement of the trans woman-activism website HotTrannyAction.org, is my attempt to synthesize a new direction for feminism out of what we have learned from recent feminist and transgender activist movements.
I feel that it is appropriate for me to make the following disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this chapbook are my own, and while they may be shared by others, I do not purport that they represent those of all trans women, transsexuals, or transgender-identified people. Further, while I was a member of the Camp Trans organizing committee in 2004, and continue to support the cause by putting together benefit shows and contributing in other ways, the views in this book do not necessarily reflect those of that organization or its members.
This book is dedicated to all of the fierce, feminist trans women who have inspired me with their art and activism over the years with special thanks to Lauren Steely, Carolyn Connelly and Shawna Virago for discussions that helped shape some of the ideas in this book. I also want to thanks all of the genderqueer and FTM spectrum folks who have worked for the inclusion of trans women in women-only spaces for recognizing that when any trans identity is dismissed, all trans people lose and to all of the non-trans queer women have worked tirelessly on this issue with a special shout-out to Michelle Tea, who over the last two years has used her formidable talents as a writer and events organizer to raise attention to this issue. Last, but most certainly not least, I want to thank my wife, Dani Eurynome, for (once again) providing invaluable feedback, inspiration, support, and love, without which this project would not be possible.
Why the Media Depicts the Trans Revolution in Lipstick and Heels
--A version of this piece (slightly edited for length) first appeared in Bitch Magazine, issue 26, Fall 2005--
*note: this essay has been recently updated (including new material!) for Julias new book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity - find out more!
As a transsexual woman, I am often confronted by people who insist that I am not, nor can I ever be, a real woman. One of the more common lines of reasoning goes something like this: Theres more to being a woman than simply putting on a dress. I couldnt agree more. Thats why its so frustrating that people often seem confused because, although I have transitioned to female and live as a woman, I rarely wear makeup or dress in a particularly feminine manner.
Despite the reality that there are as many types of trans women as there are women in general, most people believe that trans women are all on a quest to make ourselves as pretty, pink, and passive as possible. While there are certainly some trans women who buy into mainstream dogma about beauty and femininity, others are outspoken feminists and activists fighting against all gender stereotypes. But youd never know it from the popular media, which tends to assume that all transsexuals are male-to-female, and that all trans women want to achieve stereotypical femininity.
Trans peoplewho transition from male to female or female to male and often live completely unnoticed as the sex opposite to that which they were bornhave the potential to transform the gender class system as we know it. Our existence challenges the conventional wisdom that the differences between women and men are primarily the product of biology. Trans people can wreak havoc on such taken-for-granted concepts as feminine and masculine, homosexual and hetero-sexual, because these words are rendered virtually meaningless when a persons biological sex and lived sex are not the same. But because we are a threat to the categories that enable male and heterosexual privilege, the images and experiences of trans people are presented in the media in a way that reaffirms, rather than challenges, gender stereotypes.
THE TWO CHOICES
Media depictions of trans women, whether they take the form of fictional characters or actual people, usually fall under one of two main archetypes: the deceptive transsexual or the pathetic transsexual. While characters of both models have an interest in achieving an ultrafeminine appearance, they differ in their abilities to pull it off. Because the deceivers successfully pass as women, they generally act as unexpected plot twists, or play the role of sexual predators who fool innocent straight guys into falling for men.
Perhaps the most famous example of a deceiver is the character Dil in the 1992 movie The Crying Game. The film became a pop culture phenomenon primarily because most moviegoers were unaware that Dil was trans until about halfway through the movie. The revelation comes during a love scene between her and Fergus, the male protagonist who has been courting her. When Dil disrobes, the audience, along with Fergus, learns for the first time that Dil is physically male. When I saw the film, most of the men in the theater groaned at this revelation. Onscreen, Fergus has a similarly intense reaction: He slaps Dil and runs off to the bathroom to vomit.
The 1994 Jim Carrey vehicle Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, features a deceptive transsexual as a villain. Police lieutenant Lois Einhorn (played by Sean Young) is secretly Ray Finkle, an exMiami Dolphins kicker who has stolen the teams mascot as part of a scheme to get back at Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. The bizarre plot ends when Ventura strips Einhorn down to her underwear in front of about 20 police officers and announces, She is suffering from the worst case of hemorrhoids I have ever seen. He then turns her around so that we can see her penis and testicles tucked behind her legs. All of the police officers proceed to spit up as The Crying Game theme song plays in the background.
Even though deceivers successfully pass as women, and are often played by female actors (with the notable exception of Jaye Davidson as Dil), these characters are never intended to challenge our assumptions about gender itself. On the contrary, they are positioned as fake women, and their secret trans status is revealed in a dramatic moment of truth. At the moment of exposure, the deceivers appearance (her femaleness) is reduced to mere illusion, and her secret (her maleness) becomes the real identity.
In a tactic that emphasizes their true maleness, deceivers are most often used as pawns to provoke male homophobia in other characters, as well as in the audience itself. This phenomenon is especially evident in TV talk shows like Jerry Springer, which regularly runs episodes with titles like My Girlfriends a Guy and Im Really a Man! that feature trans women coming out to their straight boyfriends. On a recent British TV reality show called There's Something About Miriam, six heterosexual men court an attractive woman who, unbeknownst to them, is transgendered. The broadcast of the show was delayed for several months because the men threatened to sue the shows producers, alleging that they had been the victims of defamation, personal injury, and conspiracy to commit sexual assault. The affair was eventually settled out of court, with each man coming away with a reported $100,000.
In the 1970 film adaptation of Gore Vidals novel Myra Breckinridge, the protagonist is a trans woman who heads out to Hollywood in order to take revenge on traditional manhood and to realign the sexes. This apparently involves raping an ex-football player with a strap-on dildo, which she does at one point during the movie. The recurring theme of deceptive trans women retaliating against men, often by seducing them, seems to be an unconscious acknowledgment that both male and heterosexual privileges are threatened by transsexuals.
In contrast to the deceivers, who wield their feminine wiles with success, the pathetic transsexual characters arent deluding anyone. Despite her masculine mannerisms and five oclock shadow, the pathetic transsexual will inevitably insist that she is a woman trapped inside a mans body. The intense contradiction between the pathetic characters gender identity and her physical appearance is often played for laughsas in the transition of musician Mark Shubb (played as a bearded baritone by Harry Shearer) at the conclusion of 2003s A Mighty Wind.
Unlike the deceivers, whose ability to pass is a serious threat to our ideas about gender and sexuality, pathetic transsexualswho barely resemble women at allare generally considered harmless. Perhaps for this reason, some of the most endearing pop culture-portrayals of trans women fall into the pathetic category: John Lithgows Oscar-nominated portrayal of exfootball -player Roberta Muldoon in 1982s The World According to Garp, and Terence Stamps role as the aging showgirl Bernadette in 1994s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. More recently, the 1998 indie film The Adventures of Sebastian Cole begins with its eponymous teenage protagonist learning that his step-dad Hank, who looks and acts like a roadie for a 70s rock band, is about to become Henrietta. A sympathetic character and the only stable person in Sebastians life, Henrietta spends most of the movie wearing floral-print nightgowns and bare-shouldered tops with tons of jewelry and makeup. Yet despite her extremely femme manner of dress, she continues to exhibit only stereotypical male behaviors, overtly ogling a waitress and punching out a guy who calls her a faggot (after which she laments, I broke a nail).
While a character like Henrietta, who exhibits a combination of extreme masculinity and femininity, has the potential to confront our assumptions about gender, it is fairly obvious that the filmmakers were not trying to do so. On the contrary, Henriettas masculine voice and mannerisms are meant to demonstrate that, despite her desire to be female, she cannot change the fact that she is really and truly a man. As with Garps Roberta and Priscillas Bernadette, the audience is encouraged to respect Henrietta as a person, but not as a woman. While we are supposed to admire their couragewhich presumably comes from the difficulty of living as women who do not appear very femalewe are not meant to identify with them or to be sexually attracted to them, as we are to deceivers like Dil.
Interestingly, while the obvious outward masculinity of pathetic transsexual characters is always played up, so too is their lack of male genitalia (or their desire to part with them). In fact, some of the most memorable lines in these movies occur when the pathetic transsexual character makes light of her own castration. At one point during Priscilla, Bernadette remarks that her parents never spoke to her again, after [she] had the chop. In Garp, when a man is injured while receiving a blow job during a car accident, Roberta delivers the one-liner, I had mine removed surgically under general anesthesia, but to have it bitten off in a Buick... In the 1994 fictionalized biography Ed Wood, Bill Murray plays another pathetic transsexual, Bunny Breckinridge. After seeing Woods film Glen or Glenda, Bunny is inspired to go to Mexico to have a sex change herself, announcing to Wood, Your movie made me realize I've got to take action. Goodbye, penis!
The pathetic transsexuals lighthearted comments about having her penis lopped off come in stark contrast to the deceiver, who is generally found out by someone else in an embarrassing, often violent way. A Freudian might suggest that the deceptive transsexuals dangerous nature is symbolized by the presence of a hidden penis, while the pathetic transsexuals harmlessness is due to a lack thereof. A less phallic interpretation is that the very act of passing makes any trans woman who can do so into a deceiver. Ultimately, both deceptive and pathetic transsexual characters are designed to validate the popular assumption that trans women are truly men. Pathetic transsexuals may want to be female, but their masculine appearance and mannerisms always gives them away. And while the deceiver is initially perceived to be a real female, she is eventually revealed to be a wolf in sheeps clothingan illusion that is the product of lies and modern medical technologyand she is usually is punished accordingly.
In virtually all depictions of trans women, whether real or fictional, deceptive or pathetic, the underlying assumption is that the trans woman wants to achieve a stereotypically feminine appearance and gender role. The possibility that trans women are even capable of making a distinction between identifying as female and wanting to cultivate a hyperfeminine image is never raised. In fact, the media often dwells on the specifics of the feminization process, showing trans women in the act of putting on their feminine exteriors. Its telling that TV, film, and news producers tend not to be satisfied with merely showing trans women wearing feminine clothes and makeup. Rather, it is their intent to capture trans women in the act of putting on lipstick, dresses, and high heels, thereby making it clear to the audience that the trans womans femaleness is an artificial mask or costume.
While mass-media images of biological males feminizing themselves have the subversive potential to highlight ways in which conventionally defined femininity is artificial (a point feminists make all the time), the images rarely function this way. Trans women are both asked to prove their femaleness through superficial means, and denied the status of real women because of the artifice involved. After all, masculinity is generally defined by how a man behaves, while femininity is judged by how a woman presents herself.
Thus, the media is able to depict trans women donning feminine attire and accessories without ever allowing them to achieve true femininity or femaleness. Further, by focusing on the most feminine of artifices, the media encourages the audience to see trans women as living out a sexual fetish. But sexualizing their motives for transitioning not only belittles trans womens female identities but encourages the objectification of women as a whole.
Two examples from 2003 are the HBO movie Normal and a two-part Oprah special on transsexual women and their wives. While both of these offerings were pre-sented as in-depth, serious, and respectful attempts to tell the stories of trans womenand they deserve some credit for depicting trans women as human beings rather than two-dimensional laughingstocksboth were guilty of pandering to the audiences fascination with the surface trappings that accompany the feminization of men.
Normal tells the story of a pathetic-type trans woman named Roy. (Despite identifying as female, the characters name remains male in the credits.) The film begins as Roy comes out to her family as transgendered, and goes on to detail many of the specifics of her transition and how her wife, children, and community at large deal with the change. Normal has a fetishistic take on womens apparel and accessories from the opening scene, in which we see bras and underpants hanging from a backyard clothesline. Thus, from the begin-ning the movie sexualizes the very concept of female identity, and reduces all women (trans or otherwise) to mere feminine artifacts. After Roy makes the decision to transition, we see her bumble her way through her first embarrassing attempts at shaving her armpits and trying on womens clothing, and are shown two separate incidents where she wears perfume and earrings to her blue-collar workplace only to be ridiculed by her macho coworkers. At virtually every turn, the producers of Normal transform Roys transition into a hapless pursuit of feminine objects and artifice.
The Oprah special was a little more promising, primarily because it involved actual trans women. The entire first episode featured a one-on-one interview with Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of the recent autobiography Shes Not There: A Life in Two Genders. While Winfreys conversation with Boylan was respectful and serious, the show nonetheless opened with predictable scenes of women putting on eye makeup, lipstick, and shoes, and the interview itself was interspersed with before pictures of Boylan, as if to constantly remind us that shes really a man underneath it all. These visuals undermined Boylans female identity while simultaneously emphasizing her pursuit of a feminine appearance, and the effect was an implication that trans women never really become femalerather, they merely mimic feminine dress and mannerisms.
What always goes unseen are the great lengths to which producers will go to depict lurid and superficial scenes in which trans women get all dolled up in pretty clothes and cosmetics. Shawna Virago, a San Francisco trans activist, musician, and codirector of the TrannyFest film festival, has experienced several such incidents with local news producers. For instance, when Virago was organizing a forum to facilitate communication between police and the trans community, a newspaper reporter approached her and other transgender activists for an article. However, the paper was interested not in their politics but in their transitions: They wanted each of us to include before and after pictures. This pissed me off, and I tried to explain to the writer that the before-and-after stuff had nothing to do with police abuse and other issues, like trans women and HIV, but he didnt get it. So I was cut from the piece. A few years later, someone from another paper contacted Virago and asked to photograph her getting ready to go out: I told him I didnt think having a picture of me rolling out of bed and hustling to catch [the bus] would make for a compelling photo. He said, You know, getting pretty, putting on makeup. I refused, but they did get a trans woman who complied, and there she was, putting on mascara and lipstick and a pretty dress, none of which had anything to do with the article, which was purportedly about political and social challenges the trans community faced.
Requests like these from non-trans news interviewers and film documentarians are common. I had a similar experience back in 2001, just before I began taking hormones. A friend arranged for me to meet with someone who was doing a film about the transgender movement. The filmmaker was noticeably disappointed when I showed up looking like a normal guy, wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. She eventually asked me if I would mind putting on lipstick while she filmed me. I told her that wearing lipstick had nothing to do with the fact that I was transgendered or that I identified as female. She shot a small amount of footage anyway (sans lipstick) and said she would get in touch with me if she decided to use any of it. I never heard back from her.
When audiences watch scenes of trans women putting on skirts and makeup, they are not necessarily seeing a reflection of the values of those trans women; they are witnessing the TV, film, and news producers obsession with all objects commonly associated with female sexuality. In other words, the medias and audiences fascination with the feminization of trans women is a by-product of their sexualization of all women.
THE MEDIAS TRANS GENDER GAP
There is most certainly a connection between the differing values given to women and men in our culture and the medias fascination with depicting trans women rather than trans men, who were born female but identify as male. Although the number of people transitioning in each direction is relatively equal these days, media coverage would have us believe there is a huge disparity in the populations of trans men and women.
Jamison Green, a trans man who authored a 1994 report that led to the city of San Franciscos decision to extend its civil rights protections to include gender identity, once said this about the media coverage of that event: Several times at the courthouse, when the press was doing interviews, I stood by and listened as reporters inquired who wrote the report, and when I was pointed out to them as the author I could see them looking right through me, looking past me to find the man in a dress who must have written the report and whom they would want to interview. More than once a reporter asked me incredulously, You wrote the report? They assumed that because of my normal appearance that I wouldnt be newsworthy.
Indeed, the media tends not to noticeor to outright ignoretrans men because they are unable to sensationalize them the way they do trans women without bringing masculinity itself into question. And in a world where modern psychology was founded upon the teaching that all young girls suffer from penis envy, most people think striving for masculinity seems like a perfectly reasonable goal. Author and sex educator Pat Califia, who is himself a trans man, addresses this in his 1997 book Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism: It seems the world is still more titillated by a man who wants to become a woman than it is by a woman who wants to become a man. The first is scandalous, the latter is taken for granted. This reflects the very different levels of privilege men and women have in our society. Of course women want to be men, the general attitude seems to be, and of course they cant. And thats that.
Once we recognize how media coverage of transsexuals is informed by the different values our society assigns to femaleness and maleness, it becomes obvious that virtually all attempts to sensationalize and deride trans women are built on a foundation of unspoken misogyny. Since most people cannot fathom why someone would give up male privilege and power in order to become a relatively disempowered female, they assume that trans women transition primarily as a way of obtaining the one type of power that women are perceived to have in our society: the ability to express femininity and to attract men.
This is why trans women like myself, who rarely dress in a stereotypically feminine manner and/or who are not attracted to men, are such an enigma to many people. By assuming that my desire to be female is merely some sort of femininity fetish or sexual perversion, they are essentially making the case that women have no worth beyond of their ability to be sexualized.
There are numerous parallels between the way trans women are depicted in the media and the way that they have been portrayed by some feminist theorists. While many feministsespecially younger ones who came of age in the 1980s and 1990srecognize that trans women can be allies in the fight to eliminate gender stereotypes, other feministsparticularly those who embrace a gender essentialismbelieve that trans women foster sexism by mimicking patriarchal attitudes about femininity, or that we objectify women by trying to possess female bodies of our own. Many of these latter ideas stem from Janice Raymonds 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-male, which is perhaps the most influential feminist writing on transsexuals. Like the media, Raymond virtually ignores trans men, dismissing them as tokens, and instead focuses almost exclusively on trans women, insisting that they transition in order to achieve stereotypical femininity. She even argues that, most transsexuals conform more to the feminine role than even the most feminine of natural-born women. This fact does not surprise Raymond, since she believes that femininity itself an artificial by-product of a patriarchal society. So despite the fact that trans women may attain femininity, Raymond does not believe that they become real women (to emphasize this, she refers to trans women as male-to-constructed-females and addresses them with masculine pronouns throughout the book).
Unlike the media, Raymond does acknowledge the existence of trans women who are not stereotypically feminine, albeit reluctantly. She writes, I have been very hesitant about devoting a chapter of this book to what I call the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist. Because she believes that lesbian-feminists represent a small percentage of transsexuals (a claim that she never verifies), she seems inclined not to discuss their existence at all except for the recent debate and divisiveness [the subject] produced within feminist circles. Being that Raymond believes that femininity undermines womens true worth, you might think that she would be open to trans women who denounce femininity and patriarchal gender stereotypes. However, this is not the case. Instead, she argues, as the male-to-constructed-female transsexual exhibits the attempt to possess women in a bodily sense while acting out the images into which men have molded women, the male-to-constructed-female who claims to be a lesbian feminist attempts to possess women at a deeper level. Throughout the rest of the chapter, she discusses how lesbian-feminist trans women use deception in order to penetrate womens spaces and minds. She says, although the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist does not exhibit a feminine identity and role, he [sic] does exhibit stereotypical masculine behavior. This essentially puts trans women in a double bind, where if they act feminine they are perceived as being a parody, but if they act masculine it is seen as a sign of their true male identity. This damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-dont tactic is reminiscent of the pop cultural deceptive/pathetic transsexual archetypes.
While much of The Transsexual Empire is clearly over the top (the premise of the book is that biological woman is in the process of being made obsolete by bio-medicine), many of Raymonds arguments are echoed in contemporary attempts to justify the exclusion of trans women from womens organizations and spaces. In fact, the worlds largest annual women-only event, the Michigan Womyns Music Festival (MWMF), still enforces a womyn-born-womyn-only policy that is specifically designed to prevent trans women from attending. (In the interest of full disclosure, in 2004, I was one of the organizers for Camp Trans, the annual protest of MWMFs policy banning trans women.) Many of the excuses used to rationalize trans womens exclusion are not designed to protect the values of women-only space, but rather to reinforce the idea that trans women are real men and fake women. For example, one of the most cited reasons why trans women are not allowed in the festival is that we are born with, and many of us still have still have, penises (many trans women either cannot afford or chose not to have sex-reassignment surgery). It is argued that our penises are dangerous because they are a symbol of male oppression and have the potential to trigger abuse survivors. So penises are banned from the festival, right? Well, not quite: The festival does allow women to purchase and use dildos, strap-ons, and packing devices, many of which closely resemble penises.
Another reason frequently given for the exclusion of trans women from MWMF is that we supposedly would bring male energy into the festival. While this seems to imply that expressions of masculinity are not allowed, nothing could be further from the truth. MWMF allows drag king performers, who dress and act male, and the festival welcomes female-bodied folks like Animal (from the musical duo Bitch and Animal) who identify as transgender and often describe themselves with male pronouns. Presumably, MWMF does this because they believe that no person who is born female is capable of exhibiting authentic masculinity or male energy. Not only is this an insult to trans men, but it also implies that male energy can be measured in some way independent of whether the person who is expressing it appears female or male. This is clearly not the case. Even though I am a trans woman, I have never been accused of expressing male energy, because people perceive me to be a woman. When I do act in a masculine way, people describe me as being a tomboy or butch, and if I get aggressive or argumentative, people call me a bitch. My behaviors are still the same; it is only the context of my body (whether people see me as female or male) that has changed.
This is the inevitable problem with all attempts to portray trans women as fake females: They require one to give different names, meanings, and values to the same behaviors depending on whether the person in question was born with a female or male body (or whether they are perceived to be a woman or a man). In other words, they require one to be sexist. When people insist that there are essential differences (instead of constructed ones) between women and men, they further a line of reasoning that ultimately refutes feminist ideals rather than supporting them.
From my own experience having transitioned from one sex to the other, I have found that women and men are not separated by an insurmountable chasm as many people seem to believe. In actuality, most of us are only a hormone prescription away from being perceived as the opposite sex. Personally, I welcome this idea as a testament to just how little difference there really is between women and men. To believe that a woman is a woman because of her sex chromosomes, reproductive organs, or socialization denies the reality that every single day we classify each person we see as either female or male based on a small number of visual cues and a ton of assumption. The one thing that women share is that we are all perceived as women and treated accordingly. As a feminist, I look forward to a time when we finally move beyond the red herring of biology, and recognize that the only truly important differences that exist between women and men are the different meanings that we place onto one anothers bodies.
Diane DiMassa Letter
This was a letter I wrote to Bitch Magazine in response to an interview they conducted with Diane DiMassa (issue #25, summer 2004) during the controversy over the musical based on her comic-book character, Hothead Paisan, being performed at Michigan:
In your recent interview with Diane DiMassa, she revealed just how uninformed she is regarding the Michigan Womyns Music Festival (MWMF) trans woman exclusion issue. By parroting MWMFs policy about the festival being a space for women-born women who have experienced what its like to grow up female in our patriarchal society, she completely overlooks the fact that this policy was only instated retroactively in the early 1990s (after the festival had been going on for close to twenty years) in response to an incident where a woman was expelled from the festival for being a transsexual. In other words, the growing up female phrasing is merely a product of MWMFs PR campaign to put the best possible spin on trans woman exclusion. The truth is that MWMF is a festival for women it even says so in the name! And when the worlds largest annual women-only event singles out trans women for exclusion, it sends a clear signal to womens and lesbian communities that it is OK to discriminate against trans women (ever heard of the phrase separate but equal?). When DiMassa insisted that MWMFs policy recognizes that there are different types of women, I was reminded of all of the misguided straight people Ive met who believe that they are recognizing homosexuals when they say, I dont care what they do in their bedrooms just as long as they dont flaunt it in front of me.
As a trans woman and a dyke, I can tell you first hand that MWMFs trans woman exclusion policy has repercussions throughout the lesbian community and fosters an atmosphere where anti-trans bigotry (particularly directed against trans women) is considered acceptable. If one has any doubts about this, they need to look no further than DiMassas own offensive comment that "It's just fucking typical that a man-born woman can't get the concept of not being allowed somewhere," in order to see how deeply the anti-trans prejudice can run. After hearing what she really thinks of trans women, I am not surprised that she refuses to go on the record as to how Daphne (the ambiguously gendered character from her comic strip) identifies her or himself. Apparently DiMassa, like many non-trans writers, uses her trans characters as mere plot devices to provoke audiences in much the same way that heterosexist TV sitcom writers create walk-on lesbian characters who exist only to challenge the male protagonists masculinity. Real trans people have identities! And it seems bizarre to me that the creator of Hothead Paisan cant seem to comprehend why trans women might get angry at her for dismissing, stereotyping, and exploiting their identities and life experiences.
On the Outside Looking In
This piece was written for "TransForming Community", a show curated by Michelle Tea as part of the Queer National Arts Festival in June, 2005. The purpose of the show was to explore the friction at the intersection of contemporary trans and queer communities.
note added 8-1-13: a version of this piece will be included in my next book, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive, which comes out in October, 2013.
Prejudice usually cant survive close contact with the people who are supposed to be so despicable, which is why the propagandists for hate always preach separation.
If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.
When we hear story after story set in a landscape that we have never set foot in before, we cant help but create our own mental picture of that place. I realized only as my wife Dani and I turned off a dirt road and up to the welcome center, that I always imagined that Camp Trans would resemble pictures I had seen of Woodstock, with tents strewn everywhere and people buzzing about busily, with a sense of purpose and energy, with a sense that they were a part of history. But Camp Trans looked nothing like that. It was set on a modest-sized clearing in the middle of the woods. Cars were parked close to the entrance, tents tucked away just out of sight behind the trees. There was a main congregating area, where campers were slurping up the vegan miso soup that was being served for lunch. Everyone was way more mellow than I had imagined, perhaps because they had been baking in the ninety degree heat for close to a week now.
Some of my non-queer friends thought it was hilarious when they heard that Dani and I were going to spend a long weekend at Camp Trans. They probably imagined something like summer camp meets Priscilla Queen of the Desert, only set in the Michigan wilderness. They seemed a bit disappointed when we told them that this was primarily a political, rather than social, event. We were there to protest the Michigan Womyns Music Festivals womyn-born-womyn-only policy, which is a fancy way of saying that transsexual women like myself are not welcome. My het female friends were always the most offended on my behalf upon hearing this. These were women who welcomed me with open arms when I first started sharing womens restrooms with them, who made a point of inviting me along on their girls nights out, who made it clear, even in those early days just after my transition, that they considered me to be one of them. When they asked me why the lesbian organizers who ran the festival were adamant about excluding trans women, I told them, theres just a lot of really bad history there.
It all started during the 70s and 80s, when a number of influential lesbian-feminists began to trash transsexuals in their writings and theories. They argued that we propagated sexist stereotypes and objectified women by attempting to possess female bodies of our own. Eventually, this all became unquestionable dogma, and transsexuals, even those who identified as feminists and dykes, were conveniently banished from most lesbian and womens spaces. But things started to change by the mid-90s, as a growing number of dykes began coming out as trans and referring to themselves as men. This caused many to question their views and, over the years, has led to a certain level of acceptance of trans men in the lesbian community. These days, it is not uncommon to find dykes who openly discuss lusting after trans guys. And many trans people who were assigned female at birth will still call themselves dykes long after they have asked their friends to refer to them with male names and pronouns.
So you may be asking where trans women fit in? Well, we dont really. Granted, there are some queer women who respect our female identities, many of whom now boycott Michigan because of the festivals trans woman-exclusion policy. And there are also quite a few lesbians who still view the identities of trans folks on both the male-to-female (MTF) and female-to-male (FTM) spectrums as somewhat dubious. But in between those two extremes lies a growing consensus of dykes who see female-born trannies as their peers, as a part of the lesbian community, while viewing trans women with suspicion, disdain, or apathy.
Now an objective observer might suggest that this preference for trans men over trans women suspiciously resembles traditional sexism. As with most forms of prejudice, there is no shortage of theories one can use to rationalize their predilections. For instance, many lesbians believe that male identified trannies are more trust worthy because their ex-dyke status instills them with political enlightenment, whereas I, a trans woman who has lived as woman and a dyke for several years now, apparently can never truly understand what it means to be female because testosterone and male socialization have dumbed-down my brain permanently.
These days, it is common to see the word trans used to welcome trans men (but not trans women) on everything from lesbian events, sex surveys, and play parties. And even at Michigan, women are no longer defined based on their legal sex, appearance, or self-identification, but on whether or not they were born and raised as a girl. And while performers like Animal and Lynnee Breedlove, who identify as transgender and answer to male pronouns, are invited to take the festival stage each year, someone like myself who identifies one hundred percent as female isnt even allowed to stand in the audience. As if that wasnt bad enough, many now use Michigans tolerance of folks on the FTM spectrum to argue that the festivals policies are not transphobic. Well Im sorry, but any person who considers trans men to be women and trans women to be men is not an ally of the transgender community.
Shortly after arriving, Dani and I met Sadie, a trans woman who is one of Camp Trans main organizers. She tells me that she is excited to have another trans woman in attendance - I was the seventh one to make it so far. Virtually all of the remaining hundred or so campers were assigned female at birth: some were dykes and bisexual women, some trans men, and the rest were genderqueers, who identify outside the of male/female gender binary. Apparently, the unbalanced demographics were a by-product of the more genderqueer-centric direction Camp Trans had taken a few years earlier. Many trans women, who felt they should be allowed into Michigan because they identified as female, felt abandoned by the cause when so many of its members seemed hell-bent on deconstructing their genders out of existence. I was told that this years organizers were working hard to get Camp Trans back on track and to encourage more trans women to come to the event.
After Dani and I finished setting up our tent, we headed down to the main area and hung out by the campfire, starting up conversations with some of the other campers. Despite being so far from home, I almost felt like I knew a lot of these people. Demographically speaking, the mix was similar to the crowds who come out to the San Francisco trans and queer performance events Im involved in. The campers were predominantly in their early twenties, white, and many either previously or currently identified as dykes. They shared similar political sensibilities: many were anarchists and vegans, many self-described pansexuals and practitioners of SM and open relationships.
I always feel incredibly uncomfortable when people refer to this sort of crowd as the trans community. The truth is this is but a small segment of it. Ive attended other trans gatherings where the crowd was predominantly made up of crossdressers, transsexual women and their female partners. Ive performed spoken word at events put on by the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center, where many of the trans people in the audience were poor or homeless. Ive been to San Franciscos Transgender Day of Remembrance, where trans people of all colors, all generations, all economic classes, come together to pay respects to those in our community who have been murdered.
No, this right here is not the trans community, it is merely a clique a pro-sex, pro-trans faction of the dyke community borne out of the backlash against 80s era Andrea Dworkinism. And some times I feel like Im a part of it and other times I feel like Im on the outside looking in. I think about this as Dani passes me a small tin tray of salmon that we cooked at the foot of the campfire this evening, a much anticipated meal as we were both unable to stomach the vegan beets and cabbage the Camp offered for dinner. And I am grateful that none of the campers complain that our eating habits are triggering them. And as I enjoy this rare occasion of taking part in a trans-majority space, it occurs to me that I have never felt so old, so monogamous, so carnivorous, and so bourgeoisie in my life.
The following day, Dani and I signed up for a work shift at the Camp Trans welcome center. Part of the job involves briefly orienting incoming campers about the rules of the space, telling them where to park their cars, where to pitch their tents, and other such things. The hard part of the job is acting as an ambassador for Camp Trans if any festival folks come visiting us from just down the street.
In the middle of our shift, a woman from the festival makes her way over to our booth. She is carrying a pamphlet on trans woman-inclusion that Camp Trans had passed out earlier in the week. She told us she agreed with most of it, but was furious about one particular passage that read, When members of the dominant group believe that they have the right to get rid of the minority group solely because of their own fear, such as when white aircraft passengers request Middle-Eastern passengers to be removed from a flight because the presence of Middle-Eastern people makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, it is called an undeserved sense of entitlement and it needs to be challenged.
This extremely caucasian festival woman proceeded to lecture us about how inappropriate it was for us to make any analogies with race. It didnt seem to phase her when I mentioned that the author of the pamphlet, Emi Koyama, is Asian. I find that the people who seem to get most upset by comparisons between Michigans anti-trans woman policy and instances of race-based exclusion are white women defending the festivals reputation. To me, it almost seems like they are less concerned about offending people of color than they are removing Michigan from any kind of historical context.
Dani, who has been a queer activist since she first came out as a dyke in the early nineties, does her best to reason with the woman. Eventually she calms down and brings up other issues that concern her. She asks if Camp Trans is fighting to let trans men into the festival, a common question since so many male-identified trannies continue to attend the festival. We tell her no Camp Trans supports the idea of women-only space, but believes it should be open to all self-identified women.
Next, the woman brings up her fear that trans women might bring male energy onto the land at Michigan. This is a classic argument that has been used time and time again to justify trans woman-exclusion. So I ask the woman if she senses any male energy in me. She looks confused at first, but then I see the change in her eyes, a look Ive seen hundreds of times before, the look that signifies that she is starting to see me differently, noticing clues of the boy that I used to be, processing this new realization that she is speaking with a tranny. She tells me that she is surprised, that she has never met a transsexual woman before. I tell her that every person I have ever met has met a transsexual woman, whether they realize it or not.
I go on to explain how Michigan, being the largest annual women-only event in the world, sets a dangerous precedent with its trans woman-exclusion policy, contributing to an environment in lesbian and women-only spaces where discriminating against trans women is considered the norm. I tell her about how trans women are routinely turned away from domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers. I tell her about my own experiences dealing with lesbian bigots who have insulted me to my face once they discovered my trans status. And as I tell her this, it becomes apparent to me that my spiel doesnt really matter anymore. She is nodding her head up and down, agreeing with me. She gets it now, but it had nothing to do with my words or reasoning it was my person that convinced her. Her senses told her that I was a woman and a dyke, not a man in a dress or some other stereotype. She now understands that if I am a transsexual, then any woman she meets could also be trans. And its hard to justify discrimination when you are unable to find any distinguishing differences to begin with.
As the woman walks away smiling, Dani and I collapse in our chairs and squeeze each others hands to celebrate the fact that we just changed someones mind. But for me, the feeling is fleeting. I almost immediately begin second guessing myself, wondering whether I took the easy way out, placating that womans fears rather than challenging them. A part of me wishes that, instead of coming out to her, I had told her flat-out how anti-feminist the whole male energy argument is. By suggesting that trans women possess some mystical male energy as a result of being born and raised male, they are essentially making the case that men have abilities and aptitudes that women are not capable of. It baffles me how anyone can argue this point without seeing how excruciatingly sexist it is.
Or maybe this just seems obvious to me because I am forced to deal with this sort of thing day in and day out. When youre a trans woman, you are made to walk this very fine line, where if you act feminine you are accused of being a parody, but if you act masculine, it is seen as a sign of your true male identity. And if you act sweet and demure, youre accused of reinforcing patriarchal ideals of female passivity, but if you stand up for your own rights and make your voice heard, then you are dismissed as wielding male privilege and entitlement. We trans women are made to teeter upon this tightrope, not because we are transsexuals, but because we are women. This is the same double-bind that forces teenage girls to negotiate their way between virgin and whore, that forces female politicians and business women to be aggressive without being seen as a bitch, and to be feminine enough so as not to emasculate their alpha males colleagues, without being so girly as to undermine their own authority.
It find it disappointing that so many feminists seem oblivious to the ways in which anti-trans discrimination is rooted in traditional sexism. This is why the media powers-that-be systematically sensationalize, sexualize, and ridicule trans women, while allowing trans men to remain largely invisible. It is why the tranny sex and porn industries catering to straight-identified men do not fetishize folks on the FTM spectrum for their XX chromosomes or their socialization as girls. No, they objectify trans women, because our bodies and our persons are female. Many female-born genderqueers and FTM trannies go on and on about the gender binary system, as if trans people are only ever discriminated against for breaking gender norms. Thats probably how it seems when the gender transgression in question is an expression of masculinity. But as someone on the MTF spectrum, I am not dismissed for merely failing to live up to binary gender norms, but for expressing my own femaleness and femininity. And personally, I dont feel like Im the victim of transphobia so much as I am the victim of trans misogyny.
The following day, two women from the festival came over to the main congregation area where a few of us were enjoying the shade. One carried a notebook and referred to herself as a graduate student. She asked us if we would like to be interviewed for her thesis project on the Michigan trans-inclusion debate. These days, it seems like everybody and their grandmother is getting advanced degrees in trannies. And while I cant help but feel insulted at the prospect of being somebody elses research subject, I usually agree to do these interviews in the off chance that my words may counteract some of the misinformation, appropriation, and exploitation of trans identities and experiences that have been propagated by academia.
The grad student introduces the other woman as her life partner. She says they have been coming to Michigan for years, but this is their first time visiting Camp Trans. The partner looks noticeably disturbed to be in our presence. When youre a tranny, you get used to not only the thesis interviews, but having other people feel inexplicably awkward and uncomfortable around you.
The interview begins and it is only a matter of time before the graduate students line of questioning arrives at the penis issue. This is a highly contentious matter, as many trans women (including myself) either cannot afford to have sex reassignment surgery or choose not to have it. The trans woman-exclusionists often take advantage of this situation, arguing that it would be a violation of womens space to have penises on the land and playing up how unsafe and uncomfortable some women would feel if they accidentally caught a glimpse of one of our dreaded, oppressive organs. Now granted, there are probably more dildos and strap-ons at Michigan than you would ever want to shake a stick at, many of them resembling anatomically-correct penises. So I suppose phalluses in and of themselves are not so bad, just so long as they are not attached to a transsexual woman.
I answer the womans question by stating the obvious, that its ridiculous to believe that once trans women are allowed inside the festival that we would all go around flaunting our penises. I went on to talk about the societal shame that many of us have been made to feel about our bodies not living up to the cultural ideal, an issue which most women at Michigan should be able to relate with.
This was apparently the last straw for the graduate students partner. After about fifteen minutes of fidgeting in silence, she suddenly burst out with questions of her own. While there were several of us being interviewed, she turned directly to me, and in a terse and condescending tone of voice said: How dare you! You have no idea what many of these women have been through. Dont you understand that many of them are abuse survivors who could be triggered by you? Cant you see why some women wouldnt feel safe having you and your penis around?
I remember being dumbfounded, like a deer caught in the headlights, at the venom in her voice as she lashed out at me. And all of my well-thought-out trans-inclusive sound-bites and anecdotes completely dissipated from my brain when confronted by this womans anger for me. Im not quite sure how I responded at the time. What I do recall are all of the things that I wish I had said to her after the moment had passed. How I wished I could go back in time, look her directly in the eye and reply: Yes, I do know what those women have been through. I have had men force themselves upon me. Like you, we trans women are physically violated and abused for being women too. And there are no words in your second-wave feminist lexicon to adequately describe the way that we, young trans girls forced against our will into boyhood, have been raped by male culture. Every trans woman is a survivor and we have triggers too. And my trigger is pseudo-feminists who hide their prejudices behind womyn-born-womyn-only euphemisms.
I wish I could have told her how hypocritical it is for any self-described feminist to buy into the male myth that mens power and domination arises from the penis. Whats between my legs is not a phallic symbol, nor a tool of rape and oppression, it is merely my genitals. My penis is a womans penis and she is made of flesh and blood, nothing more. And we have a word to describe the act of reducing a woman to her body parts, to her genitals: it is called objectification. And frankly, I am tired of being objectified by other lesbians!
Whenever I think about that womans assertion that my penis would endanger safe womens space, I cant help but think of our daily trips to the lake. Piling up four to five people per car, waves of Camp Trans folks would take turns driving to a small, secluded beach to escape the humid August heat with an innocent skinny-dip. And as a trans person who has been on hormones but hasnt had any surgery, this is normally the sort of situation that I avoid like the plague. But here, it was OK for me to be my almost-naked self. This was a place where trans men felt comfortable enough to take off their t-shirts and unbind their breasts. Many of the trans women, dykes and genderqueers would go topless too. And I remember how amazing it felt for the first time since my transition to strip down to nothing but my underpants, bulge be damned, in front of other people. And as we all soaked in the shallow water, laughing and talking with one another, I cant tell you how amazing it felt to have my body be absolutely no big deal to other people.
I realized right there at the lake what a mistake many women from Michigan make when they insist that trans women would threaten their safe space, destroying a rare place where they feel comfortable revealing their own bodies. Because there is never any safety in the erasing of difference, and no protection in the expectation that all women live up to certain physical criteria. The only truly safe space is one that respects each woman for her own individual uniqueness.
On our last night, there is a benefit show and I was invited to perform spoken word. The event takes place shortly after a small procession of trans-inclusion supporters from Michigan march out of the festival gates and parade down the road to Camp Trans. Some of the campers had issues with the fact that these folks were being called supporters, as each of them had spent about three hundred dollars for tickets to the very same festival we were protesting.
Some of these so-called supporters try to justify their attendance at Michigan by asserting that they are trying to change the festivals policy from within. But to me, that seems like a seriously flawed notion. If you look back at history, there has not been a single instance where people have overcome a deeply entrenched prejudice without first being forced to interact with the people they detest. Mere words cannot dispel bigoted stereotypes and fears, only personal experiences can. Those who talk about changing the festival from the inside out often cite past instances where the festival has changed its ways, how it has overcome internal resistance to allowing SM, dildos, or male drag on the land. But those policy changes did not occur because of discussions or debates they happened because dykes were just bringing those things into the festival with them and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. And once women at the festival had to live next to leather-dykes and drag kings, they began to realize that those women were not really so different from them.
The debate over trans woman-inclusion at Michigan has been going on for almost fifteen years now. And at this late date, anyone who still believes that they can change the festival from within is simply enabling lesbian prejudice against trans women.
When the festival supporters finally arrive at the Camp, they get a brief orientation at the welcome center. Some were apparently offended to find out that certain areas of the Camp had been designated as wristband-free zones, a reference to the plastic bracelets they wore which allowed them to go in and out of the festival. They assumed that we were trying to teach them a lesson about exclusion, but that wasnt actually the case. The rule was put into place because the previous year there had been several incidents in which trans women were verbally attacked by festival visitors. The wristband-free zones were meant to offer trans women a safe space, just in case something similar happened again this year.
Eventually, the benefit show begins and there are a variety of acts: singers and spoken word artists, drag kings and queens, skits and puppets, even cheerleaders. My favorite performer of the night is Carolyn Connelly, a trans woman spoken word artist I hadnt met yet. In a thick Brooklyn accent, she belts out: Fuck the lesbians who think Im straight, I cant be femme/Im not a girl/Fuck the gay men who out me at Pride every fucking year/Call me fabulous/Tell me to work it/And theyre really girls too/Fuck the transsexual women who think Im too butch /Cause of my short spiked hair/Cause I drink beer or Im a dyke...Fuck the genderqueer bois and grrrls/Who think they speak for me/Or dis me cause I support the gender binary...Fuck Post Modernism/Fuck Gender Studies/Fuck Judith Butler/Fuck theory that isnt by and for and speaks to real people...
When it is my turn to go on, I perform a poem called Cocky, which I wrote to connect the dots between the uneasiness other people feel about me, the violent hate crimes that are committed against trannies, and the shame that I have been made to feel about my own body. If I seem a bit cocky/thats because I refuse to make apologies for my body anymore/I refuse to be the human sacrifice offered up to appease other peoples gender issues/Some women have a penis/Some men dont/And the rest of the world is just going to have to get the fuck over it.
And as I recite these lines, four days worth of tension pours out of me. I perform my poem defiantly, my words fueled by a frustration that has finally boiled over after years of simmering on the backburner. I originally thought I could come to Michigan to intellectually fight for trans woman-inclusion, but coming to this place and having my body become the actual battleground upon which the trans revolution is being fought upon, well lets just say that it sobered me up a bit. And while other folks in my community may be content to simply celebrate their fabulous trans selves or take pride in living outside the gender binary, I am no longer satisfied with simply being allowed to exist as some third-sexed male-to-female trans-gender novelty. I maybe a transsexual, but I am also a woman. And my dyke community needs to realize that anger that they feel when straight people try to dismiss the legitimacy of their same-sex relationships, is what I feel when they try to dismiss my femaleness.
And later after the show, I was told that several festival women left in the middle of the benefit because they were disturbed by the angry content of some of the acts. Well fuck them and their supporting-both-Michigan-and-Camp-Trans wussy fence-sitting politics! I am tired of lesbians and gays who try to meet me half-way with fuzzy, pseudo-trans-inclusive sentiments. Trans people are not merely a subplot within the dyke community, nor fascinating case studies for their gender studies graduate theses. No, we trans people have our own issues, perspectives and experiences. And non-trans queer people everywhere need to realize that they cannot call themselves pro-trans unless they fully respect our identities, and unless they are willing to call other queers out on their anti-trans bigotry.
And after releasing all of this pent up tension and frustration, I had one of those rare moments of clarity. I happened just after my performance, when one of my new friends, Lauren, came over to give me a hug. She said, Your piece made me proud to be a trans woman. And her words were so moving, because I had never heard them spoken before. Proud to be a trans woman. And as I looked around the Camp at all of the queer women and folks on the FTM spectrum, I realized that in some ways I am very different from them not because of my biology or socialization, but because of the direction of my transition and the perspective it has given me.
I am a transsexual in a dyke community where most women have not had to fight for their right to be recognized as female it is merely something theyve taken for granted. And I am a woman in a segment of the trans community dominated by female-born genderqueers and folks on the FTM spectrum, neither of whom have experienced the special social stigma that is reserved for feminine transgendered expression and for those who transition to female. My experiences as a trans woman have given me a valid and unique understanding of what it means to be both female and feminine a perspective that many women here at Michigan seem unable or unwilling to comprehend.
At Camp Trans, I learned to be proud that I am a trans woman. And when I describe myself with the word trans, it does not necessarily signify that I transgress the gender binary, but that I straddle two identities, transsexual and woman, that others insist are in opposition to each other. And I will continue to work for trans woman-inclusion at Michigan, because this is my dyke community too. And I know that it will not be easy, and plenty of people will try to make me feel like an alien in my own community. But I will take on their prejudices with my own unique perspective, because sometimes you see things more clearly when youve been made to feel like you are on the outside looking in.
Hot Tranny Action Manifesto
*note: this essay has been recently updated (including new material!) for Julias new book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity - find out more!
Hot Tranny Action exists to fight for the safety, respect and equal rights of trans women everywhere. For the purposes of this manifesto, we define trans woman as any person who was assigned a male sex at birth, but who identifies as and lives as a woman. We do not place any qualifications on the term trans woman based on a persons ability to pass as female, her hormone levels, or the state of her genitals after all, it is downright sexist to reduce any woman (trans or otherwise) down to her mere body parts or to require her to live up to a certain societally-dictated ideals regarding appearance.
We denounce all those who attempt to define trans women according to their own personal beliefs and theories regarding gender and sexuality, and all those who falsely believe that their own discomfort with our trans or female status justifies their attempts to ridicule us, hyper-sexualize our bodies and motives for transitioning, and/or exclude us from our own communities.
Of all of the gender and sexual minorities in our culture, trans women tend to be the most maligned, ridiculed and despised because we are uniquely positioned at the intersection of two binary gender-based forms of prejudice: transphobia and misogyny.
Transphobia is an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against people who transgress gender norms. In much the same way that homophobic people are often driven by their own repressed homosexual tendencies, we believe that transphobia is first and foremost an expression of ones own insecurity about having to live up to cultural gender ideals. The fact that transphobia is so rampant in our society reflects the reality that we place an extraordinary amount of pressure on individuals to conform to all of the expectations, restrictions, assumptions, and privileges associated with the sex they were born into.
The most common form of transphobia occurs when people attempt to deny trans people the basic privileges that are associated with the gender the trans person self-identifies as. Common examples include purposeful misuse of pronouns, insisting that the trans person use a different public restroom, etc. The justification for these denials is generally founded on the assumption that the trans persons gender is not authentic because it does not correlate with their birth sex. In making this assumption, the transphobe attempts to create an artificial hierarchy by insisting that the trans persons gender is fake, they attempt to validate their own gender as real or natural. This sort of thinking is extraordinarily naive, as it denies the basic truth that everyday we make assumptions about other peoples genders without ever seeing their birth certificates, their chromosomes, their genitals, their reproductive systems, their childhood socialization, or their legal sex. There is no such thing as a real gender there is only the gender we identify as and the gender we perceive others to be.
This artificial real/fake gender hierarchy establishes three unique forms of privilege that discriminate specifically against trans people:
Birth privilege is the privilege enjoyed by all non-trans people of having been born into a sex that matches the gender that they identify as. This privilege not only allows the non-trans person to take for granted the fact that they feel comfortable with their birth sex, but it also immunizes them against transphobia.
Passing privilege is the privilege of being able to be true to ones own gender identity and expression without having their sex or gender questioned as a consequence. While one could theoretically say that the overwhelming majority of non-trans people pass as the gender they identify as, in practice the word is only ever used to describe people whose gender presentation differs from their birth sex. Thus, when we say that someone passes, the implication is that they are getting away with being a gender that they are really not. The concept of passing hurts all trans people. Those who do not pass become obvious targets for transphobia. And those that do pass soon realize that it is a fleeting privilege, because it creates a Catch 22: the trans person can either keep quiet about being trans, an act which inadvertently transforms their trans status into a shameful secret that they may be forced to reveal at any moment, or they can constantly out themselves, thus making themselves targets for transphobia.
Essential privilege is the privilege experienced by all non-transsexuals of being able to fall back on, and partake in the privileges of, ones birth sex. Once transsexuals transition, we are often denied the privilege of having any authentic gender and are more often than not treated as if we are permanently in between neither fully our birth sex nor the sex we have transitioned to. This is evident from other peoples tendencies to place transsexuals into unique gender categories (such as third-sex or other-gendered) and to describe us with derogatory hybrid terms (such as boy-girl, he-she, she-male, etc.).
Thus, while all trans people potentially face transphobia, we experience it in different amounts largely based on the extent to which we transgress gender norms and how obvious or out we are as trans people. It should also be noted that, while quite different in practice, both transphobia and homophobia work towards the same overall goal, namely, punishing those who express gender or sexual traits typically associated with the so-called opposite sex. This explains why trans folks, bisexuals, lesbians and gays, while all quite different from each other, are often confused or lumped into the same category by society at large. Our natural inclinations to be the other sex, or to be attracted to the same sex, challenges the assumption that women and men are mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires. By breaking these gender and sexual norms, we essentially blur the boundaries that are required to maintain the male-centered gender hierarchy that exists in our culture today.
In addition to the establishment of rigid, mutually exclusive gender categories, the other requirement for maintaining a male-centered gender hierarchy is to ensure that maleness and masculinity are generally considered to be superior to femaleness and femininity. For the purposes of this manifesto, we will use the word misogyny to describe this tendency to dismiss and deride femaleness and femininity in our culture.
Just as all trans people experience transphobia to different extents, we experience misogyny to different extents too. This is most evident from the fact that, while there are many different types of trans people, our society tends to single-out trans women (and others on the male-to-female (MTF) spectrum) for attention and ridicule. This is not merely because we transgress gender norms per se, but because we, by necessity, embrace our own femaleness and femininity. Indeed, more often than not, it is our expressions of femininity and our desire to be female that become sensationalized, sexualized, and trivialized by others. While trans people on the female-to-male (FTM) spectrum face discrimination for breaking gender norms (aka, transphobia), their expressions of maleness or masculinity themselves are not targeted for ridicule to do so would require one to question masculinity itself.
When a trans person is ridiculed or dismissed not merely for transgressing gender norms, but for their expressions of femaleness or femininity as well, they become the victims of a unique form of discrimination: trans misogyny. When the majority of jokes made at the expense of trans people center on men wearing dresses or men who want their penises cut off, that is not transphobia it is trans misogyny. When the majority of violence committed against trans people is directed at trans women, that is not transphobia it is trans misogyny. When its OK for women to wear mens clothing, but men who wear womens clothing can be diagnosed with the psychological disorder Transvestic Fetishism, that is not transphobia it is trans misogyny. When womens or lesbian organizations and events open their doors to trans men but not trans women, that is not transphobia it is trans misogyny.
In a male-centered gender hierarchy, where it is assumed that men are better than women and that masculinity is superior to femininity, there is no greater perceived threat than the existence of trans women, who despite being born male and inheriting male privilege, choose to be female instead. By embracing our own femaleness and femininity, we in a sense cast a shadow of doubt over the supposed supremacy of maleness and masculinity. In order to lessen the threat we pose to the male-centered gender hierarchy, our culture (primarily via the media) uses every tactic in its arsenal of traditional sexism to dismiss us.
1) The media hyper-feminizes us: by accompanying stories about trans women with pictures of us putting on make-up, dresses, and heels, in an attempt to highlight the frivolousness nature of our femininity, or by portraying trans woman as having derogatory feminine-associated character traits such as being weak, confused, passive, or mousy.
2) The media hyper-sexualizes us: by creating the impression that most trans women are sex workers or sexual deceivers, and by asserting that our motives for wearing womens clothing or transitioning to female are primarily sexual in their nature.
3) The media objectifies our bodies: by sensationalizing sex reassignment surgery and openly discussing our man-made vaginas without any of the discretion that normally accompanies discussions about genitals. Further, those of us who have not had surgery are constantly being reduced to our body parts, whether it be by the creators of tranny porn who over-emphasize and exaggerate our penises, thus distorting trans women into she-males and chicks with dicks, or by everyday people who have been so brainwashed by phallocentricism that they believe that the mere presence of a penis can trump the femaleness of our identities, our personalities, and the rest of our bodies.
4) The media puts us in our place: by propagating the false assumption that we transition in order to attract straight men. This, in combination with the medias hyper-sexualization and objectification of us, creates the impression that we exist solely to sexually serve men.
Because anti-trans discrimination is steeped in traditional sexism, it is not simply enough for trans activists to challenge binary gender norms we must also challenge the idea that femininity is inferior to masculinity and that femaleness is inferior to maleness. In other words, by necessity, trans activism must be at its core a feminist movement.
Some might consider this contention to be controversial. Over the years, many self-described feminists have gone out of their way to dismiss trans people, and in particular trans women, often resorting to many of the same tactics (hyper-feminization, hyper-sexualization, and objectification of our bodies) that the mainstream media regularly uses against us. These pseudo-feminists proclaim that women can do anything that men can one minute, then the next ridicule trans women for any perceived masculine tendency we may have. They argue that women should be strong and unafraid to speak our minds one minute, then the next tell trans women that we act like men when we voice our opinions. They claim that it is misogynistic when men create standards and expectations for women to meet one minute, then the next they dismiss us for not meeting their standard of woman. These pseudo-feminists consistently preach feminism with one hand, while practicing traditional sexism with the other.
It is time for us to take back the word feminism from these pseudo-feminists. After all, the word feminism is much like the words democracy or Christianity while each has a major tenet at its core, there are an infinite number of ways in which one can practice that belief. And just as some forms of democracy and Christianity are corrupt and hypocritical while others are more just and righteous, we trans women must join trans-positive women and allies of all genders to forge a new type of feminism, one that understands that the only way for us to achieve true gender equity is to abolish both transphobia/homophobia and misogyny.
It is no longer enough for feminism to fight solely for the rights of those born female. While that strategy has furthered the prospects of many women over the years, it now bumps up against a glass ceiling that is partly of its own making. For while the movement worked hard to encourage women to enter into previously male-dominated areas of life, many feminists have been ambivalent at best, and resistant at worst, to the idea of men expressing or exhibiting feminine traits and moving into certain traditionally female realms. And while we credit previous feminist movements for helping to create a society where most sensible people would agree with the statement women are mens equals, we lament the fact that we remain light years away from being able to say that most people believe that femininity is masculinitys equal.
Instead of attempting to empower those born female by encouraging them to move further away from femininity, we should instead learn to empower femininity itself. We must stop dismissing it as artificial or as a performance, and instead recognize that certain aspects of femininity (as well masculinity) transcend both socialization and biological sex otherwise there would not be feminine boy and masculine girl children. We must challenge all those who assume that femme vulnerability is a sign of weakness. For when we do open ourselves up, whether it be honestly communicating our thoughts and feelings or expressing our emotions, it is a daring act, one that takes more courage and inner strength than the alpha-male facade of silence and stoicism. We must challenge all those who insist that women who act or dress in a femme manner necessarily take on a submissive or passive posture. For many of us, dressing or acting femme is something we do for ourselves, not for others. It is our way of reclaiming our own bodies and fearlessly expressing our own personalities and sexualities. It is not us, but rather those who foolishly assume that our femme style is a signal that we sexually subjugate ourselves to men, who are the ones guilty of trying to reduce our bodies to mere status of playthings.
In a world where masculinity is assumed to represent strength and power, those who are butch are able to contemplate their identities within the relative safety of those connotations. In contrast, those of us who are femme are forced to define ourselves on our own terms and develop our own sense of self-worth. It takes guts, determination, and fearlessness for those of us who are femme to lift ourselves up out of the inferior meanings that are constantly being projected onto us. If you require any evidence that femininity can be more fierce and dangerous than masculinity, then all you need to do is simply ask the average man to hold your handbag or a bouquet of flowers for a minute, and watch how far away he holds it from his body. Or tell him you would like to put your lipstick on him and watch how fast he runs off in the other direction. In a world where masculinity is respected and femininity is regularly dismissed, it takes loads of strength and confidence for any person to embrace their femme-self.
But it is not simply enough for us to empower femaleness and femininity we must also stop pretending that there are fundamental differences between women and men. This begins with the acknowledgement that there are exceptions to every gender stereotype, and this simply stated fact disproves all gender theories that purport that female and male are mutually exclusive categories. We must move away from pretending that women and men are opposite sexes, because when we buy into that myth it establishes a dangerous precedent. For if men are big, then women must be small; and if men are strong then women must be soft. And if being butch is to make yourself rock solid, then being femme becomes allowing yourself to be malleable; and if being a man means taking control of your own situation, then being a woman becomes living up to other peoples expectations. When we buy into the idea that female and male are opposites, it becomes impossible for us to empower women without either ridiculing men or else pulling the rug out from under ourselves.
It is only when we move away from the idea that there are opposite sexes, and let go of the culturally-derived values that are assigned to expressions of femininity and masculinity, that we may finally approach gender equity. By challenging both transphobia/homophobia and misogyny simultaneously, we can make the world safe for those of us who are queer and for those of us who are female, while simultaneously empowering people of all sexualities and genders.
About the Author
As a writer and spoken word artist on the subject of gender, Julia has gained attention as of late in the womens, queer and trans communities. She has performed at high profile events such as the National Queer Arts Festival, San Francisco Pride's Main Stage & Dyke March Stage, Oakland Pride, Ladyfest Bay Area, Outcry 2005, and the UC Berkeley production of The Vagina Monologues. She is regularly invited to perform spoken word or give presentations on gender and trans issues at numerous colleges and universities (including UC Berkeley, UCLA, San Francisco State University, San José State University, and California College of the Arts). In addition to self-publishing three chapbooks of her own work, Julia has contributed personal essays to two anthologies, written articles and poems for queer, feminist, and pop culture magazines such as Bitch Magazine, Clamor, Kitchen Sink, and Transgender Tapestry, and excerpts from her work have appeared in The Believer and The San Francisco Chronicle.
Julia's background as a writer, performer, trans activist, and biologist (she has a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Columbia University and is currently a researcher at UC Berkeley in the field of Evolutionary and Developmental Biology) makes her a unique voice on the subject of gender. She has the rare gift of being able to present (and often critique) difficult-to- grasp concepts from feminism, biology, and post-modern gender theory, and to interweave these ideas with her performance poetry and her personal experiences as a trans woman. Her charming, playful, and down-to-earth delivery and her empathy for both the male and female experience has the unique ability to resonate with both queer and straight audiences alike.
Julia's previous chapbooks, "Either/Or" and "Draw Blood", are available for purchase on her website: http://www.juliaserano.com.
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