Reproductive Justice and the Invisible Sisterhood

I delivered this speech at the opening plenary of the 2013 State University of New York– New Paltz Women’s Studies Conference. I present it here in its original written form without additional comment.

(Well, one additional comment: If you wish to follow along with audio and hear the voice of Nuclear Unicorn, click here. My profound thanks to Eli Mann for the recording.)

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sisterhoodispowerfulPatriarchy does not begin in our bodies.

Contrary to those theories, feminist and otherwise, that seek an “origin myth” for patriarchy that germinates somewhere in the uterus, patriarchy has no starting point in reproductive organs of any kind—there is nothing in our marrow as women, our DNA, that sets us up as ontological victims of men whose bodies, whose bits, predispose them to oppression.

In the words of legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon: “It is one thing to identify woman’s biology as part of the terrain on which a struggle for dominance is acted out; it is another to identify woman’s biology as the source of that subordination. The first approach certainly identifies an intimate alienation; the second predicates woman’s status on the facticity of her biology.”

Put bluntly, there is no truly feminist or social-scientific way to reason that patriarchy begins in a womb, an ovary, or the vagina. What is much fairer to say is that the meaning society gives our bodies is what oppresses us—and also what binds us together, however unwillingly. I begin here because if I am to speak about trans women’s experience of reproductive injustice, I cannot indulge the false premise that women are born to be oppressed—a very different notion from saying we are born into a world that oppresses us. Much searing truth remains in Simone de Beauvoir’s timeless assertion that “one is not born but rather becomes woman.”

Those words invite us to search for the full depth of their meaning.

I.

Patriarchy does not begin in our bodies, but it is often very intimately concerned with them. I would suggest, above all else, that patriarchy does powerfully regulate and control women’s bodies—not because a sizeable percentage of women have ovaries (not all of us do), nor because many women menstruate (not all of us do), nor because every woman can get pregnant (many of us can’t)—but because there is a powerful, controlling ideology about what bodies are for that transcends the particulars of any one woman’s embodiment.

Transfeminist writer Autumn Nicole Bradley asks us if an infertile cisgender woman would, in a feminist space, “be thanked for sharing her struggle, welcome in the knowledge that everyone there understands that when women are reduced to their presumed reproductive ability, reduced to their parts, the misogyny catches all women in the blast regardless of their ability to reproduce?” I would ask you to think of trans women in the same light.

Feminism has often been accused—sometimes wrongly, sometimes rightly—of essentialising and universalising “woman.” Yet more often than not it is feminism that has been the necessary antidote to the patriarchal myth that all women are the same bundle of incapabilities imbuing an alabaster, pedestalised angel who exists only for man’s pleasure—for every woman who does not fit, we are cast into the fires of violent oppression at its most naked; women of colour, transgender women, poor women, women with disabilities, loud and outspoken women, sex working women, any woman regardless of race and class who refuses the objectification of that invisible cage. As we are tortured in the shadows, the myth of patriarchal essentialism—centered on a mythic, silent and obedient white virgin upon her pedestal—beats on.

Male dominance gives our bodies a very particular meaning, one that purportedly unites us and submerges all particularity, all individuality, beneath its event horizon. Our bodies are meant for one thing, and one thing alone. Ours is to reproduce; and if we cannot, then we are condemned to the great, ever swelling ash heap of this society—those considered unable to fulfill their supposedly naturally ordained functions. And yet, we know patriarchy does not apply this meaning equally; for all its mythologizing about the eternal feminine and the ultimate indistinguishable unity of women, it recognises we are not all the same. Our patriarchy, struck through as it is by classism, racism, and other forms of prejudice, desperately wants to prevent some women from reproducing—killed or sterilised by the hundreds of thousands, targeted daily by microagressions writ painfully small and propaganda writ blazingly large.

Yet even in this case, we see where patriarchy begins and ends: its alpha and omega is the meaning of women’s bodies, and so much hinges on how suited we are judged to be for reproductive purposes. So much hatred is directed at us around the issue of reproduction—whether it is forcing white women to have children or forcing black women, native women and Latinas not to. Patriarchy really cares about what we’re doing with our bodies.

Consider, no less, how the interventions of women of colour have broadened feminist understandings of reproductive justice: reminding us that reproductive injustice happens when we are forced not to bear children or adopt, as when we are forced to do so. In every case, what links them is both a denial of women’s agency—our right to choose—and a meaning imposed on our bodies by a sexist society that seeks to stifle and suffocate our humanity beneath that overriding myth of idealised motherhood. Motherhood on the terms of cisgender men, particularly white men; comprised of the right kind of mothers, doing the right and proper things—mostly involving keeping our mouths shut and bearing our pain with silence and obedience.

Where does one suppose trans women fit into this?

II.

Feminist activist and city councillor Sarah Brown once posted a conversation between herself and a cisgender man who was sexually harassing her, fetishising her for being a trans woman. He cackhandedly asked her whether she was trans or cis by saying, “so r u a natural woman?”

Her reply: “What, like the song? Or do you mean, do I occur in the universe? Because, I like to think so.”

That natural occurrence is, perhaps, one of the more troubling aspects of our existence, so far as patriarchy is concerned. For a society that believes so very passionately that women are made to reproduce—and to do so in a certain way—the fact that we keep damnably and insistently popping up is a source of unending consternation to those most invested in biologist myths. Put plainly, I am not supposed to exist. I shouldn’t be here, and my occurrence in the universe not only disrupts what is meant by “natural” but also what is meant by “woman.” I share that quality, as I alluded to earlier, with many women whose bodies are not capable of reproducing in the way women are presumed to be universally able to.

You may wonder why I spent the last couple of minutes on so much foreground, by the way, barely mentioning transgender people at first. The reason for this, for summoning up theoretical arguments against essentialism that underlay the best of the feminist tradition, is explained by the following comment from a cisgender woman replying to an article I wrote on Feministing about why “trans rights are reproductive rights,”

“Reproductive rights are at their core the right not to die or be crippled or to be left destitute or be trapped in a violent relationship by an unwanted/unplanned… pregnancy.

Trans women cannot get pregnant, this is not about trans women.”

For all the cisgender women out there who can’t get pregnant, I’m sorry, but I guess this isn’t about you either.

Statements like this, which appear well meaning, mistake the terrain of reproductive injustice for its fundamental cause. There is no doubt that women who get pregnant are ruthlessly targeted by our society for dehumanisation and shackled by a regime of bodily control, one way or the other. But for those of us who cannot, we are in many cases ruthlessly attacked in part because we are unable or unwilling to fulfill the patriarchal mandate that says women must bear children in order for them to be both legitimate and successful women. We all feel that pressure, whatever our bodily configurations may be. That’s because it doesn’t arise from our bodies or begin in the shape of our genitalia, but instead is projected onto us by the society in which we live.

When I came out, one of the first things my father lamented was the loss of his grandchildren, the loss of progeny who would—by blood—carry his name and his “legacy.” Then came the recriminations about what my body was “for” and what “God put us on this earth to do.” I was no good to my family as a woman if I could not bear children. Interwoven in all of this is that very ideology about what bodies are for. It is precisely the same ideology that has seen women coerced into having children, that has seen people of colour brutalised under eugenics programs that sterilised them, and that has created a byzantine web of regulations regarding what trans people can and cannot do with their bodies.

It is the ideology behind laws in many countries that require trans people to be sterilised before our gender markers can be changed on various IDs and the ideology that still sees too many psychiatrists enforcing gender norms on their trans patients as a pre-requisite of trans healthcare. We all have different medical needs as trans people, but for those of us who require hormones and surgery we are often spiritually blackmailed for them (“wear this skirt and makeup or I won’t see you as a serious woman”). We may be charged dearly for the pleasure and then laughed at if we suggest such things should be covered by either public or private insurance. We may also be denied transition altogether.

All in the name of what some people—particularly men—think our bodies are for. What they think a woman’s body should be.

One of the central reasons that what we do is considered “self-mutilation” is that we are seen to be destroying our purportedly natural reproductive capacity. We are seen to be revolting against a genetic inheritance that should obviate the very existence of transgender people; sinful enough. Yet, far worse in the eyes of many petty patriarchs is when trans people express their biological reproductive capacity. All the consternation over Thomas Beatie, the trans man who made headlines with his pregnancies, illustrates this. The laws in Australia, in the UK, and in several American states that prohibit trans people from changing the gender markers on identity documents until we can prove we’ve surgically altered our genitals illustrates this.

Our limited access to reproductive care facilities illustrates this. All such facilities expect an unproblematically cisgender man or woman. So when a Planned Parenthood clinic is confronted with a transgender man who needs a gynecologist, or when a sperm bank is confronted with a trans woman who wants to have children of her own someday, it occasions the medical equivalent of a constitutional crisis that sees these trans people shown the door more often than not, left to fend for ourselves.

When trying to bank her sperm, one trans woman I know was asked by the attendant on the phone why she was doing this. When my friend explained, the staffperson abruptly said “That’s not real” and hung up on her.

Hm.

A close friend simply got the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” treatment when she revealed she was trans.

We are damned because through transition we may sterilise ourselves, but we are equally damned if we try to preserve and express biologic reproductive capacity. We are caught in the very double bind Marilyn Frye deems essential to oppression. We transition, therefore we upend naturalist myths—and that existence is bad enough—but to make sure we don’t pass on our cooties and do even more violence to that patriarchal mythology, the state demands that we become sterile anyway if it is to suffer our insistent existence.

Little to no medical research is done on trans people and reproduction—whether to simply collect data or to create organs that might allow me to bear the child I should love to have someday—we are not supposed to exist, after all.

III.

Yet do you know what else is really threatening about that existence? About everything I’ve just described? It is the fact that we as trans people—whether we are trans women, trans men, or genderqueer—expose the fatal flaw of naturalism, just as many before us have in ways great and small. But in our way, we put the lie to the idea that to be a woman, or a man, means fulfilling some evolutionary imperative, or to silently obey the edicts of our selfish genes while using the bits we were born with.

We upend the idea that one is born anything, and tacitly remind all that we “become” something.

Let me speak of this from the perspective of trans women.

When I go out into the world and have a gender ascribed to me—one that is almost always some kind of woman—the people who gender me are not thinking about my genitals, or my chromosomes, or what is on my birth certificate. I present as a woman, according to the various cues that our society assigns to the gender of ‘woman,’ therefore I am one so far as they are concerned. Therefore I am treated as one.

I run the same risk as cis women do of going into a job interview and being silently judged because I’m a young woman who “might get pregnant and leave the company”—I might get mommy-tracked, if I’m hired, and if I come out, I run the risk of being fired because I’m trans. No uterus required, just patriarchy.

In the street I face men who sexually harass me because they see me as a woman, and therefore they feel entitled to my body, whatever its configuration. No uterus required, just patriarchy.

I find myself condescended to and mansplained to; I’ve been the target of rape threats, I have been stalked and harassed online, and I’ve been called every sexist and transmisogynist slur in the book—including ones I hadn’t heard of. I was told that I was a “feminazi whore with too much sand in her fake vagina.” I’d never spoken to this man about my body—and but for the word ‘fake’ he merely said what he might’ve said to any cis woman. No uterus required, just patriarchy.

As we speak, trans women of colour in New York City are literally having their handbags raided by police officers who then arrest them on prostitution charges if they’re found to be carrying condoms. Where are their reproductive rights, one wonders? No uterus required, just patriarchy.

Women are not wombs; that is one of the most powerful lessons that feminism has tried to teach a stricken world. I say to you, my sisters in this audience, that I stand with you; I have walked where many of you have walked, and we must not be divided from one another by our corporeality, but united by our shared womanhood.

Women are not oppressed because we have wombs; wombs are attacked because they are perceived to belong to women. For those of us without wombs, because we are still seen as women our bodies are disciplined and controlled in other ways. For trans men and genderqueer people with wombs, who refuse a womanhood patriarchy relentlessly tries to foist upon them, they too find themselves viciously attacked in part because they refuse to adhere to naturalism—they may dare to show that pregnancy does not only define the condition of woman. This is very bad news for patriarchy.

We are learning, as a society, that the Sun does not orbit the Earth. Our entire view of the universe is being changed.

IV. 

As I opened with a few words from Catharine MacKinnon, so too do I close. She once wrote of oratory, “A platform and a period of time and listeners who choose to be there create a threshold of mortality. If you never say anything else to them (you might not) and if you die right afterward (you could), what would have been worth this time?”

What indeed. What I would say to you if I could say naught else, my listeners for this space of time, is this: I am your sister.

We as trans women are not an entryist plot trying to distract from “the real issues,” we are women who are simply trying to get by, trying to move around, trying to live, and to claim the humanity that is the common birthright of us all. We bring not dissension and dissolution, but the same truths that women down the centuries from Sojourner Truth to the Lavender Menace have brought. The truth of feminism’s promise: that none of us will win unless all of us do, and that we are all ultimately united in struggle.

We as trans women have always been here—for while theoretical debates about our womanhood prevail, the fact of our womanhood prevails in the world out there. Patriarchy makes no mistakes about us; we are targeted because we are women. We are a great sisterhood invisible.

That notion of sisterhood, battered over the years by so much criticism, still thrums through so many trans women who find comfort and refuge among other women like them—and sometimes, as has been blessedly true with me, cisgender women who see in me their lives and struggles recited back to them in a different voice, but one that resonates with theirs.

As women, our diversity has always been our strength. It is not just an invisible sisterhood that links trans women together, but it also links cisgender and transgender women as one indivisible whole that no amount of transphobia, whether postmodern or second wave in provenance, can ever tear asunder. We share something far more essential than a body: we share the fact that we are survivors. We share the fact that patriarchy imposes a meaning on our bodies that demands something soul-wrenching from us.

But we also share this. This spirit, this will, this passion, something that burns beautifully and demands that our swords not sleep in our hands until we have built a world where all women, where all people, shall be free of those imposing ideologies and free of the nightmares that dog too many of us. We share the belief in a better world, we share hope for our children—for those we have and those we were not allowed to have—and we share lives that are insistently and powerfully lived; beautiful lives.

We are you, and you are us.

What links us is not our scars or the ways we have been hurt, but our aspirations to rise above oppression’s fetters, and claim our bodies for ourselves.

Our bodies, our choices.

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