Rethinking Sexism: How Trans Women Challenge Feminism

The world's largest annual women-only event excludes trans women, sparking a debate among feminists about sexism and privilege.
"The grudging admiration felt for the tomboy and the queasiness felt around a sissy boy point to the same thing: the contempt in which women -- or those who play the female role -- are held."
-- Radicalesbians (1970)

In 1991, Nancy Jean Burkholder was expelled from the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MWMF), the world's largest annual women-only event, because festival workers suspected that she was a trans woman -- that is, someone who was assigned a male sex at birth but who identifies and lives as female. That incident sparked protests from a burgeoning transgender movement to challenge what eventually came to be known as the festival's "womyn-born-womyn"-only policy, which effectively bars trans women from attending. The protests evolved into Camp Trans, which continues to take place just down the road from MWMF each year, and which has become a focal point for a much broader push for trans-inclusion within feminist and queer communities. Despite more than 15 years of petitioning, and a growing acceptance of trans identities in both mainstream society and within queer, feminist and other progressive circles, the festival still officially maintains its "womyn-born-womyn"-only policy, and countless other lesbian- and queer-woman-focused groups and events continue to harbor dismissive, if not outright disdainful, attitudes toward trans women.

The history of the MWMF trans woman-exclusion debate has been retold countless times -- often in an overly simplistic, cut-and-dry manner. The controversy is usually depicted in one of two ways: either pitting the supposedly out-of-touch, transphobic lesbian-separatists who run the festival against a more politically progressive transgender minority, or portraying transgender activists as bullies who selfishly seek to undermine one of the few remaining vestiges of women-only space with their supposedly masculine bodies and energies. In addition to being obvious caricatures, these sorts of us-versus-them portrayals obscure one of the most important aspects of the story: the fact that there are actually three "sides" to this debate, each driven by a different take on feminism.

Rather than rehash the history or delve into all of the details about the festival and the controversy, I will attempt to describe these three differing feminist perspectives and discuss how they have played out with regard to the issue of trans woman-exclusion at MWMF, as well as in lesbian/queer women's communities more generally.

For those unfamiliar with the subject, I will start by defining some of the trans-specific language that I will be using. Transsexuals are individuals who identify and live as members of the sex other than the one they were assigned at birth. A trans woman is someone who has socially, physically and/or legally transitioned from male to female, and a trans man is someone who has similarly transitioned from female to male. While the medical establishment (and the mainstream media) typically define "transsexual" in terms of the medical procedures that an individual might undergo (for example, hormones and surgeries), many trans people find such definitions to be objectifying (as they place undue focus on body parts rather than the person as a whole) and classist (as not all trans people can afford to physically transition). For these reasons, trans activists favor definitions based on self-identity, that is, whether one identifies and lives as a woman or man. "Transgender" is an umbrella term for all people who defy other people's expectations and assumptions regarding gender, and can be used to refer to transsexuals as well as people who are gender nonconforming in other ways -- for example, cross-dressers, drag performers, feminine men, masculine women, and genderqueers (who do not identify exclusively as either women or men), to name a few. Transgender people who defy gender norms in the male-to-female/feminine direction are said to be on the trans feminine spectrum; those who transgress gender norms in the female-to-male/masculine direction make up the trans masculine spectrum.

Unilateral Sexism and Lesbian-Feminism

MWMF is one of many women-only institutions that grew out of the lesbian-feminist movement during the 1970s and 1980s. A dominant ideology within that movement was the belief that sexism constitutes a unilateral form of oppression -- that is, men are the oppressors, and women the oppressed, end of story. While more liberal or reform-minded feminists of that time period focused primarily on the most obvious examples of sexism (e.g., wage and workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, reproductive rights, etc.), lesbian- (and other radical) feminists extended their critiques of sexism to include many taken-for-granted aspects of gender and sexuality. They argued, for example, that masculinity is inherently dominating and oppressive and that femininity is necessarily associated with objectification and subjugation, and that both forms of gender expression are merely products of socialization rather than natural aspects of people. According to this perspective, a first step toward overturning sexism is for individuals to distance themselves from ways of being that are associated with male domination and female subjugation and instead revert to more natural (and presumably androgynous) forms of gender and sexual expression.

Lesbian-feminist critiques did not solely take aim at the heterosexual mainstream; they also targeted other sexual minorities whose gender and sexual practices were deemed (in their view) to emulate unilateral sexism. This includes those who engage in BDSM (who were seen as reinforcing dominant/submissive sexual roles), and butch and femme lesbians, drag performers, cross-dressers, and transsexuals (who were all seen as reinforcing masculine/feminine gender roles). While lesbian-feminists derided many forms of what we would now call transgender expression, the bulk of their contempt was directed squarely at trans women and others on the trans feminine spectrum. This attitude stemmed both from the assumption that trans women are "really men" (i.e., oppressors) and that femininity is tantamount to a "slave status." Thus, according to this logic, trans female and trans feminine individuals were viewed as oppressors who appropriate the dress and identities of the very people they oppress. For example, feminist Robin Morgan claimed that trans women "parody female oppression and suffering," and Mary Daly equated trans feminine expression with "whites playing "blackface.'" Many (including Morgan and, most famously, Janice Raymond) even described trans womanhood as a form of rape.

While many lesbian-feminists today will concede that such accusations are beyond the pale, their unilateral perspective on sexism still leads them to insist that trans women should not be allowed to enter women-only spaces such as MWMF based on the assumption that trans women have experienced male socialization and privilege in the past, and/or because their bodies, personalities and energies still supposedly remain "male" or "masculine" on some level.

The Gender Binary, Queer Theory and Transgender Activism

Prior to the mid-1990s, trans women and allies typically responded to trans woman-exclusion by stressing the similarities between trans women (who live as women and thus experience misogyny in their day-to-day lives) and non-trans women. But this strategy of emphasizing similarities became less relevant by the mid-to-late 1990s due to the rise of "third wave" feminisms, which challenged universalizing views of womanhood and examined the many differences that exist between women. For example, "third wave" feminists embraced the critiques made by women of color over the years that the belief that sexism was the "primary" oppression, or even a unilateral form of oppression, ignores the ways in which sexism intersects with racism and classism in many women's lives. Additionally, many feminists (especially younger ones) around this time began reclaiming expressions of femininity and sexuality that had previously been considered taboo or repressive among lesbian-feminists. But perhaps no shift in feminism had such a profound affect on transgender-inclusion within lesbian and queer women's communities as the rise of queer theory.

Queer theory shares the lesbian-feminist belief that many aspects of gender and sexuality are culturally derived (rather than natural), but takes this notion one step further by bringing into question the very categories upon which sexisms are based. This is often accomplished by critiquing, subverting and deconstructing the "gender binary" -- that is, the assumption that there are only two legitimate genders: feminine women and masculine men. For this reason, many queer theorists became particularly interested in transgender people, whom they sometimes hailed for challenging traditional notions about femaleness and maleness. This view is in sharp contrast to lesbian-feminist perspectives, which claimed that these same individuals reinforced oppressive sex roles.

Queer theory both influenced, and was influenced by, the rise of transgender activism -- a movement to unite previously disparate gender-variant communities around the idea that these groups are all targeted for discrimination because they transgress binary gender norms. Activists such as Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, Riki Wilchins and countless others mobilized many transgender spectrum folks, and won over many feminist and queer allies, by positioning the transgender community as the cutting edge of a much broader movement to shatter the gender binary. In 1999, Wilchins and other transgender activists took this approach to MWMF, where they revived Camp Trans (after a five-year hiatus) and challenged the "womyn-born-womyn"-only policy on the basis that it is rooted in outdated, binary assumptions about gender.

The idea that transgender identities and expression subvert the gender binary did much to increase transgender-inclusion within feminist and queer spaces. However, this approach did not benefit all transgender people equally. Because transgender-inclusion was explicitly linked to gender transgression and subverting the gender binary, those individuals who did not identify within the gender binary -- for example, people who are genderqueer, gender-fluid, or who engage in "genderfuck" (purposefully playing or screwing with gender expression and presentation) -- tended to be most celebrated, whereas transsexuals -- especially those who identify within the binary and who appear gender-normative and/or heterosexual post-transition -- frequently still had their motives and identities questioned.

It is also common for trans feminine spectrum individuals to be called out for "reinforcing the gender binary" more so than their counterparts on the trans masculine spectrum. This is due, in part, to the fact that female and feminine appearances are more readily and routinely judged in our society than male and masculine ones. And because concepts like "transgression" and "rebellion" tend to be coded as "masculine" in our culture, whereas "conformity" and "conventionality" are typically coded as "feminine," there is an unspoken bias that leads masculine transgender expression to be seen as more inherently transgressive than feminine transgender expression. Indeed, such unconscious presumptions about masculinity and femininity have surely contributed to the tendency exhibited by many feminists to praise women who engage in traditionally "masculine" endeavors, while expressing anywhere from apathy to antagonism toward men who engage in traditionally "feminine" endeavors. In fact, one could make the case that historically feminism has been predisposed toward "trans-masculinism" -- that is, favoring gender transgression in the masculine direction.

Not coincidently, perhaps the biggest change in lesbian and queer women's communities since the rise of queer theory and transgender activism has been a growing influx of trans men and others on the trans masculine spectrum, many of whom date and/or are partnered to non-trans queer women. While trans men are not officially allowed in MWMF, many still attend anyway (as the festival has essentially had a "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gender identity for much of the last decade). The significant attendance of trans male/masculine folks led one trans masculine attendee in 2000 to remark that the festival was "the largest female-to-male trans conference I have ever seen in my life." The festival not only accommodates such individuals, but has invited trans masculine musical artists who go by the pronoun "he" to perform on the festival stage. It has also become increasingly common for MWMF supporters to claim that the festival is a place for those who have grown up female in a patriarchal society, an interpretation that conveniently enables trans men to attend but not trans women. Indeed, this growing inclusion of trans men has not yielded a similar inclusion of trans women; in fact, many feel that it has only served to make trans women more invisible and irrelevant within queer women's communities.

Trans-Misogyny, Intersectionality and "Second Wave" Transgender Activism

I personally became involved in the MWMF trans woman-exclusion issue in 2003 when I attended Camp Trans. This was a turning-point year for the protest, as organizers began to make a purposeful effort to focus specifically on working toward trans woman-inclusion (rather than "transgender-inclusion" more generally) and to try to shift the dynamics of the protest from one that favored trans men and others on the trans masculine spectrum to one that is equally welcoming of, and empowering for, trans women. It was there that I first had in-depth conversations with other trans women about how people on the trans feminine spectrum tend to be more routinely derided and demonized -- both in mainstream society and within lesbian and queer women's spaces like MWMF -- than our trans masculine counterparts. It was clear to many of us that this phenomenon was not simply the result of the fact that we "transgress gender norms" (something both trans masculine and trans feminine folks do). Rather, it seemed to be driven more by traditional sexism -- that is, the presumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to, or less legitimate than, maleness and masculinity.

Over the last five years, trans feminine feminists have begun to articulate a new perspective on feminism and trans activism that better captures our own experiences dealing with sexism. This approach is not so much rooted in queer theory as it is in intersectionality -- a theory that grew out of the work of feminists of color, most thoroughly chronicled by Patricia Hill Collins, and perhaps first discussed in relation to the MWMF trans woman-exclusion issue by Emi Koyama. Intersectionality states that different forms of oppression do not act independently of one another, but rather they interact synergistically. Unlike queer theory and lesbian-feminism, intersectionality focuses primarily on the ways in which people are institutionally marginalized, rather than fixating on whether any given individual's identity or behaviors "reinforce" or "subvert" the gender system.

According to this view, trans women lie at the intersection of (at least) two types of sexism. The first is cissexism, which is the societal-wide tendency to view transsexual gender identities and sex embodiments as being less legitimate than those of cissexuals -- that is, nontranssexuals. (Note: the word "cisgender" is similarly used as a synonym for nontransgender.) Cissexism functions in a manner analogous to heterosexism: Transsexual gender identities and homosexual/bisexual orientations are both typically viewed as being inherently questionable, unnatural, morally suspect, and less socially and legally valid than their cissexual and heterosexual counterparts. Not only does cissexism institutionally marginalize transsexual individuals, but it privileges cissexuals, rendering their genders and sexed bodies as unquestionable, unmarked and taken for granted (similar to how heterosexual attraction and relationships are privileged in our culture).

While all transsexuals face cissexism, trans women experience this form of sexism as being especially exacerbated by traditional sexism. For example, trans women are routinely hyper-sexualized in our society, especially in the media, where we are regularly depicted as fetishists, sexual deceivers, sex workers and/or in a sexually provocative fashion (trans men, in contrast, are not typically depicted in this way). The common presumption that trans women transition to female for sexual reasons seems to be based on the premise that women as a whole have no worth beyond their ability to be sexualized. Furthermore, most of the societal consternation, ridicule and violence directed at trans people focuses on individuals on the trans feminine spectrum -- often specifically targeting our desire to be female or our feminine presentation. While trans men experience cissexism, their desire to be male/masculine is typically not mocked or derided in the same way -- to do so would bring maleness/masculinity itself into question. Thus, those of us on the trans feminine spectrum don't merely experience cissexism or "transphobia" so much as we experience trans-misogyny.

Trans feminine perspectives on sexism have shaken up the dynamics of long-standing feminist debates about trans individuals and inclusion. For example, lesbian-feminist critiques of queer theory and transgender activism have charged that focusing primarily on transgressing or blurring the distinction between "woman" and "man" does nothing to address the affect that traditional sexism has on women's lives. Trans feminine feminists typically agree with this lesbian-feminist critique and further extend it to address the many ways in which traditional sexism impacts our own lives, both as women and as trans women.

Trans feminine feminists have also taken issue with the ways in which others have defined and positioned us in the MWMF inclusion debate. For example, queer theorists and transgender activists often argue for inclusion on the basis that transgender people transgress or subvert the gender binary. Trans women have challenged this approach for being both masculine-centric (as it favors trans masculine individuals) and cissexist (as the presumption that we blur or subvert the gender binary is the direct result of people viewing us as "fake" and "illegitimate" women in the first place). Lesbian-feminists, on the other hand, typically argue that trans women should be denied entrance into women-only spaces such as MWMF because we were born and socialized male. These claims are also masculine-centric (as they emphasize supposedly "male/masculine" aspects of our history over our female identities and lived experiences as women) and cissexist (as they presume that our female identities are less legitimate than those of cissexual women).

Trans feminine feminists have also countered the way in which MWMF has increasingly co-opted queer/transgender rhetoric in recent years in its defense of its trans woman-exclusion policy. For example, a 2006 MWMF press release described "womyn-born-womyn" as "a valid and honorable gender identity." This statement seems to takes advantage of the transgender activist claim that there are countless possible gender identities, each of which should be equally respected. However, it fails to recognize who the privileged majority is in this case (cissexual women/"womyn-born-womyn") and who the marginalized minority is (transsexual women). Thus, MWMF's statement is analogous to the hypothetical situation of heterosexual women declaring that "straight woman" is a valid gender identity in order to justify excluding lesbian and bisexual women from an event in which all other women are welcome. Most MWMF supporters would undoubtedly recognize such an approach as being unquestionably heterosexist; by the same reasoning, MWMF's trans woman-exclusion policy is unquestionably cissexist. MWMF has also asserted that the festival is not "transphobic" because plenty of transgender people attend, or because it is "home to womyn who could be considered gender outlaws" (an apparent reference to Kate Bornstein's binary-shattering book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us). While this strategy gives the appearance of accommodating queer/transgender perspectives, it does not address the concerns of trans feminine feminists, who believe that the festival's policy is primarily cissexist and trans-misogynistic/trans-masculinist (as it is excludes trans women while accommodating trans male/masculine folks).

A recognition of trans-misogyny/trans-masculinism -- both within queer and feminist settings, and in society at large -- has led many trans women and trans male allies to critique the growing numbers of trans men who, despite their physical transitions and the fact that they now live as men, still feel entitled to inhabit lesbian and women's spaces. Such individuals will often justify their continued presence in such spaces by citing their female history, or claiming that they don't feel 100 percent like a "man" (even though their appearance definitely reads "man"). Such claims reinforce the popular misconception that transsexual gender identities should not be taken seriously, and thus has had a direct negative impact on trans women's inclusion in these same spaces. In a sense, these trans men seem to want to have it both ways: being men in the male-centered mainstream and then being "not-men" in queer/women's/feminist spaces. This places trans women in no-win situation: We are treated as second-class citizens in the male-centered mainstream because we are women, and then further derided for supposedly being privileged, infiltrating "men" in queer/feminist/women's spaces.

This growing "gender gap" between trans masculine and trans feminine communities is not unique to the MWMF trans woman-exclusion debate, but can be seen in other areas of transgender activism. While trans men used to be a minority in the trans community, over the last 15 years their numbers have significantly increased and, in many cities and college campuses, they have come to dominate transgender organizations and activism. This prominence is often enabled by the trans-masculinist leanings of feminist and queer activism (which tend to be suspicious of, or less welcoming toward, trans women both before and after our transitions). Trans men also enjoy significant social advantages over trans women, both because they physically tend to "pass" as cissexuals more often and more easily than trans women, and because of the male privilege they experience post-transition. Trans women -- especially those who transition at a young age and who thus do not benefit significantly from male privilege pre-transition -- have more difficulties finding and maintaining employment, are more susceptible to poverty, and are more likely to engage in survival sex work to make ends meet. There is a growing sense among many trans women that previous models of transgender activism have largely ignored these trans female/feminine-specific issues in a manner similar to how progressive movements during the 1960s largely ignored woman-specific issues, and how the gay rights movement of the 1970s and 1980s largely ignored lesbian-specific issues.

Trans feminine feminists are not the only group critiquing the "first wave" of transgender activism for ignoring the ways in which transgender issues are often intertwined with, and exacerbated by, other forms of oppression. Since the early 2000s, a number of organizations -- such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, TransJustice, Trans/Gender Variant in Prison and others -- have begun to focus specifically on the needs of trans people of color, trans people of low income, and those who are incarcerated -- all of whom are especially vulnerable to gender regulation and oppression due to living at the intersection of racism, classism and sexism. As a testament to the importance of intersectionality, a GenderPAC report on violence against gender non-conforming youth showed that the vast majority of the victims were of color, poor or on the trans feminine spectrum (and very often, all three). Activists like Viviane Namaste and Mirha-Soleil Ross have pointed out that trans sex workers -- typically poor trans women and trans feminine spectrum individuals -- receive little to no attention or support from mainstream transgender organizations, activists and academics, despite the fact that they are arguably the most marginalized segment of the transgender community. Other activists, such as Monica Roberts -- who blogs under the name TransGriot and who is one of the organizers of the annual Transsistahs and Transbrothas Conference -- have written extensively about how mainstream transgender organizations routinely fail to acknowledge issues that disproportionately affect trans people of color. Just as universalizing views of womanhood that existed within "second wave" feminism were challenged by "third wave" feminists, the universalizing view of transgender people forwarded in the 1990s (which tended to ignore differences with regard to race, class and direction of transition and/or transgender expression) have increasingly been called into question by this "second wave" of transgender activism.

Given the violence and extreme poverty that afflicts many trans people, some have suggested that the MWMF trans woman-exclusion issue has received an undeserved amount of activist attention. And the fact that tickets to this weeklong festival cost several hundred dollars -- a luxury many trans folks cannot afford -- is often cited by those who view MWMF's policy as primarily a middle-class trans issue. While MWMF is not the most pressing trans-related issue out there, such critiques miss the larger picture. This is not about the desire to simply attend one music festival. Rather, for lesbian and bisexual trans women, this is about us being able to participate in our own queer women's community -- a community in which we face anywhere from antagonism to irrelevancy on a regular basis.

Perhaps more importantly, this is about us being able to have a voice within feminism more generally. MWMF is not only the world's largest annual women-only event, but historically it's been a focal point for dialogues and debates on a wide range of feminist issues. As someone who has experienced firsthand the substantial difference between what it's like to be treated as a woman and as a man, and who now experiences both misogyny and trans-misogyny in my day-to-day life, I have found feminism to be an indispensable foundation for me to make sense of my experiences and to articulate the obstacles and issues that I face. For many of us who are trans women, this is about having a voice in a movement that is incommensurably vital to us.

For years, trans women have effectively had no voice in MWMF. During that time, many cissexual women and trans masculine attendees have tried to advocate on our behalf inside the festival. While their intensions may have been sincere, the fact that they entered into a space that excludes trans women, and that they claimed to speak for us (despite not having had a trans female/feminine life experience themselves), their actions further contributed to the erasure of our voices and perspectives. While the "womyn-born-womyn"-only policy remains in effect to this day, MWMF stopped formally expelling trans women from the festival in 2006 (although they still insist that any trans woman who attends is "choosing to disrespect the stated intention of this festival"). While the situation is hardly perfect, it does for the first time allow trans women to speak in their own voices within MWMF. And that's a crucial part of any feminist or activist movement: to allow those who have been marginalized, disenfranchised and excluded to be able to define themselves, and to speak in their own voices about the struggles they face and the way they experience their own lives.

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Julia Serano is a writer, trans activist, and author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Seal Press, 2007). More information about all of her creative endeavors can be found at her Web site,