Radical Feminists Could Benefit From Expanding Their Definition of Gender

December 10, 2014 in inQueery

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(Be warned that there is transphobia and misgendering likely to be found in the sources.)

There is a minority of feminists who deny the experiences of transgender people and exclude them from their movements for gender equality. This started decades ago with radical feminists banning transgender individuals from the West Coast Lesbian Conference in 1973 and other events (The New Yorker). It continues today with the radical feminist group, RadFem’s, ‘women-only’ policy (only biologically females are allowed to participate in their movement) and with the radical feminist group, Deep Green Resistance (DGR), banning transwomen from the women’s restrooms and women’s quarters at their conference in 2011 (The New Yorker). There are also women like Sheila Jeffreys, professor of Political Science at the University of Melbourne, who claims that trans men are just trying to obtain male privilege, and Julie Bindle, who claims that trans women are engaging in self-mutilation and pretending to be women as a form of male privilege (feminist-reprise.org, The Guardian).

These radical feminists are finding that other radical feminists, and feminists in general, think they are transphobic. As Be Scofield wrote on decolonizingyoga.com, “This [shaming of trans people] undoubtedly contributes to the culture of violence, suicide and harassment that trans people face on a daily basis.” The exclusion of transgender people from the radical feminist movement is harmful to the advancement of social justice for all women and gender nonconforming people. Why are these radical feminist groups so insistent on shaming and excluding the transgender community?

In this article I would like to address DGR’s ideas and treatment of transwomen because they have come under fire recently. DGR is aware that others are offended by their treatment of transwomen and specifically addresses the question “Why are some people accusing Deep Green Resistance of Transphobia?” on their Rad Fem FAQs page. DGR says, “We have been called transphobic because the women of DGR do not want men—people born male and socialized into masculinity—in women-only spaces.”

DGR is making assumptions here: that all transwomen were born male (some were born intersex) and were strictly socialized into masculinity. If gender is “social,” like DGR claims later in their response, wouldn’t it make sense that a biologically male person could be socialized into femininity? Couldn’t a child be initially socialized by men, reject masculinity throughout the process, and actively seek out socialization by women? What about trans women who express femininity and internalize negative stereotypes about women their whole lives? What about the misogyny trans women experience whether or not they have medically and/or socially transitioned, i.e., rape, assault, employment discrimination, health care discrimination, and pathologization (National Transgender Discrimination Survey)? Although cis women and trans women have different experiences, they share many forms of gender oppression and could benefit from working together on these issues.

DGR is also ignoring the fact that not all cisgender women are socialized in the same way – some are socialized to be more masculine than others. There are probably some cis women out there who identify more with some trans women than with other cis women, and there are probably some trans women out there who identify more with some cis women than with other trans women. DGR’s limited view of socialization doesn’t fit with the diversity of human experience.

Responding to that same question about transphobia, DGR claims that they just have a different definition of gender:

We are not “transphobic.” We do, however, have a disagreement about what gender is. Genderists think that gender is natural, a product of biology. Radical feminists think gender is social, a product of male supremacy. Genderists think gender is an identity, an internal set of feelings people might have. Radical feminists think gender is a caste system, a set of material conditions into which one is born. Genderists think gender is a binary. Radical feminists think gender is a hierarchy, with men on top. Some genderists claim that gender is “fluid” (Rad Fem FAQs page).

DGR has a very simplistic idea of what constitutes gender and seems to be equating “genderists” with transgender people. Did DGR ask transgender people how they define gender before answering this question? No – they made another assumption about transgender people to justify their exclusion.

Well, researchers Nagoshi et al. (2012) asked transgender people how they define gender. They interviewed 11 transgender individuals who identified as either ‘born male,’ ‘born female,’ or ‘born intersex’ (p. 410). All 11 of them viewed gender as fluid and either socially based or socially constructed. All but two participants also responded that elements of gender identity may not be socially constructed. These 11 transgender individuals defined gender differently, but most defined gender as social. How will DGR account for this and other definitions transgender people may have?

It would seem that gender is more complex than DGR would like to believe. Do cisgender feminists only see gender as “social?” It seems more likely to me that cisgender feminists would also have different definitions of gender. To limit the definition of gender as “social” and never as “a product of biology,” “a feeling,” or “fluid,” denies the existence of some trans women’s experiences, some intersex women’s experiences, and some cis women’s experiences. While acknowledging that transgender people face widespread violence, DGR denies that trans women experience the world as women. To deny an oppressed group’s experience is oppression.

Sorry to break it to you DGR, but, if you do not allow a trans woman access to the women’s bathroom and women’s quarters at your conference because you are worried that she has male sex characteristics, has male physiology, or was undeniably and inescapably socialized as masculine, you are making huge assumptions about a person’s body and mind that constitute prejudice. You are also ignoring the fact that trans women often face harassment and violence while using any public restroom. In fact, you are inadvertently supporting this violence by openly claiming that transwomen don’t deserve to use the public restroom they feel safe in. Wouldn’t including a group of people who face gender oppression in your movement for gender equality be beneficial?

At the end of their response to the question about transphobia, DGR says, “Without the socially constructed gender roles that form the basis of patriarchy, all people would be free to dress, behave, and love others in whatever way they wished, no matter what kind of body they had” (Rad Fem FAQs page). This is a beautiful sentiment that I imagine most feminists can get behind. Doesn’t accepting and loving the way trans women dress and behave uphold this sentiment? Shouldn’t we live this vision of the future right now? DGR, RadFem, Sheila Jeffreys, and Julie Bindle, where is the love?

Revae Hitt is a Guest contributor at InQueery.