The response to my previous article has been overwhelming and humbling; indeed, the various social media responses left me with vertigo as I looked down mile-long threads. To everyone who shared the piece, who added their experiences to its abstractions, who disagreed thoughtfully and respectfully, who vowed to speak up more often, I thank you.
There’s always more to be said, of course, and I wanted to take this opportunity to clarify my views and what I am advocating. A noteworthy critique marshalled against my article and the others like it was that we are advocating “niceness” in lieu of robust advocacy. I cannot speak for my friends and colleagues, naturally, but in speaking for my own intentions, nothing could be further from the truth.
There can be no doubt that our political discourse– at all levels– suffers from a rapidly oxidising corrosion; in response many “civility” initiatives have appeared, constellating around what one might fairly call “a cult of nice.” In their way, like the extremists they oppose, they toss the baby out with the bathwater. They abjure nastiness, but also the forcefulness that must define advocacy, which must attend any effort to challenge or change an ossified status quo. They eschew vile and childish rhetoric, but also drown in false-equivalences; as a result they are utterly allergic to the exercise of their own judgement and discernment. Most mainstream pleas for civility are little more than a supine relativism, utterly unequal to the tasks of politics.
But for my own part, I have no interest in allowing facile false equivalences and relativistic handwringing to stop us from doing our work. I sincerely believe that we can be more than either rage-fuelled or down on bended knee.
The Shape of Rage
This brings me to a second major criticism, which is that articles like mine are long on abstraction and short on specifics. There is some truth to this. By necessity, one has to avoid the appearance of airing out personal grievances in order to keep the focus on the big picture, rather than individual episodes of bad behaviour. If this sounds familiar it is because it is the mirror of my point about how activists ought to approach politics generally– keep focus on structure rather than individual “bad people.” Through these articles, I do not wish to punish people in this community that I believe wronged me or my loved ones.
This being said, I could certainly clarify what I meant to criticise in general terms, and that will also hopefully allow me to distinguish my proposals from mere “niceness.” That word is often used by my fellow activists to demean pleas for civility, for they perceive “niceness” as weakness and as the death of empowerment. They aren’t wrong–many mainstream “civility” initiatives threaten to do just that– but some activists often miss the mark with what they tar with the “nice” brush. Being nice is, let me be clear, a good thing to which we ought to aspire, but politics is not always nice. Telling someone they are wrong, or calling power-holders to account rarely entails niceties.
On the same token, however, it can be done without wishing suicide or violent death upon one’s opponents, without aimless and expletive laden ad hominem irrelevant to the issues at hand. Many feminists and anti-racist activists have been at pains to tell people they have accused of prejudice that they are attacking actions or words, not people. “I’m not saying you’re a bad person,” goes the old refrain, “just that you said something bad.” For many activists, that is indeed what we are doing. We are not saying that individuals are rotten to the core, irredeemable, evil, or inhuman; we are questioning and challenging specific acts.
Regrettably, however, we too often forget our own hard-won wisdom and allow a slippage between attacking behaviours and attacking people, allowing “you are an inherently bad person” to be said too often. I hoped to challenge the logic amongst activists that allows this to happen, and the indulgent us-versus-them thinking that seduces us into making caricatures of opponents, entirely in line with a well worn patriarchal and neoliberal playbook. I am not challenging criticism, I am challenging an invidious manifestation of it. When we begin attacking people rather than ideas, that is when we begin to lose ourselves.
There have been a number of episodes where forthrightness laced with a healthy dose of anger have helped to make change this past year. But there is a difference between an unapologetic and uncompromisingly firm piece of writing, and one that subsists on wanton cruelty. When I wrote a rebuttal to the flagrant transmisogyny evinced by Julie Burchill in her now-infamous Observer editorial, I was careful to keep the focus on what she said while also ensuring that her fundamental humanity remained in the frame of my criticism. I spared her no critique, but I targeted what was fair game: the written record of her words and ideas, the very things she had submitted to a public forum. To tell her to kill herself or worse, as some did, was unaccountably out of bounds.
What I am calling for is a nuanced ethic of action that is responsive to individual circumstances. To treat things on a case-by-case basis, and to be forthright without being “nice.” Empowered and merciful. We need that nuance to judge the infinite variety of quotidian issues we are confronted with– from microaggressions to international law. Yet we too often have a hammer and nail problem; each case is treated with the same blanket ruleset and the same system of call-outs. The lack of a “middle gear” is a major problem here. There are some people whose records are such that they could indeed be justly called “an unrepentant racist” or “pathological transphobe,” but there are many more whose mistakes deserve far, far less fire in response. Some may not have made prejudicial mistakes at all. So what is going wrong here?
Punishment and Justice
As I wrote in my recent article criticising internet mob justice of a more general variety, the impulse to act as judge, jury, and executioner all at once is a dangerous one. In the hands of, say, 4chan or angry Redditors, that impulse is obviously dangerous, even frightening. But we must cease pretending that social justice activists are somehow above the temptations to misuse that power. We, too, yearn to punish. That is an impulse that must be resisted with every fibre of our beings. It is a dangerous, bloodied path to dehumanisation.
In the spirit of the nerdiness I share with many of my fellow commentators on this issue I thought concluding with a Lord of the Rings quote might be apt. I always loved this bit from Gandalf in Fellowship:
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
I suspect, especially in these hyper-connected days where many of us participate in the internet’s mass anarchy, that every single one of us– regardless of our views– could learn from this. I myself am still struggling to take it to heart. We must, by all means, judge and use that judgement to decide what needs to be changed and how; we must, then, put our shoulders behind it, stand tall and speak truth to power. But few of us are equipped to punish justly, and too many of us are all too eager to try. That is what we have to think on: this is not about “niceness,” it’s about humanity and what we are prepared to lose en route to a better future.
Not long ago my partner and I were seated in her car discussing the arbitrary nature of certain holidays and I opined, perhaps halfheartedly, that New Year’s was a worthwhile holiday simply for it being a useful vantage point for reflection, however arbitrary. It provides an overlook whence one can see a year of one’s life and world. A recent tranche of writing by severalprominentmembersof the trans and queer feminist gaming community has renewed my faith in that idea– with the overleaf of the year we suddenly find a great deal of penetrating insight into activist discourse and the risks incurred by our silence about certain excesses that have come to define us too often.
The wages of rage in our communities, and the often aimless, unchecked anger striking both within and without have created a climate of toxicity and fear that not only undermine our highest ideals, but also corrode the comforts of community for the very people who most need it. One of the most leaden wages of that culture of rage is, indeed, fear. I have been praised for my voice by many in this community and called “brave” by more people than I can name, count, or thank; and yet sitting in my My Documents folder is a number of articles, some finished, others not, that are “on ice.”
When I mention the icebox of unpublished posts and articles to friends and colleagues, I do so with a forced smile, pretending that it’s a heady combination of academic perfectionism and fear of being attacked by bigots that leads me to suppress them. There is more than a grain of truth to this. As many of my friends, loved ones, and sisters in struggle have demonstrated and written about, there is a lot to fear from the 4chan-esque world of angry young men with ample resentment towards those of us they perceive to be purloining some birthright of theirs. My academic work is devoted, in no small measure to explaining their behaviour (more on this in a bit).
But I am lying when I say they are the sole source of my hesitation.
The rest, often as not even the lion’s share, comes from fear of something with the power to cut even deeper– my own community. I fear being cast suddenly as one of the “bad guys” for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication. In other words, for making an innocently ignorant mistake.
The Tumblr-isation of Activism
I have feared stumbling over the Tumblr trip wire and falling into the abyss of “call-out culture” to be discredited with every slur and slander in the book by the people who I ought to be able to trust the most. This stays my author’s hand as much as anxiety about being attacked by, say, the same crowd that bedevils Anita Sarkeesian. I fear the moment I get tarred as a “collaborator,” “apologist” for privilege, or a “sell out” (to women, to Latin@s, to working class people, to trans folk). Equally troubling is the fear of my loved ones being caught in the mammoth whirlpool of Twitter/Tumblr Justice and tarred for their association with me.
Fear of this sends me, yearning, into the oblivious embrace of silence.
I have written about this in the past, obliquely, and spoken in either couched or very specific terms about my feelings on this matter, which have haunted my thoughts for some time. So much online social justice activism has become hyper-vigilant against sin, great or small, past or present. That sense, that even the smallest, meanest revelation of past transgressions would come back to haunt me, inspired this paragraph in an old article I wrote about the painful contradictions of feminist activism:
“The pressure for me has always been to aspire to that feminist Madonnahood, and the perfection this demands is rigorous indeed. There is a strangely Catholic quality to the demand I often hear to show my scars, to prove I am a woman by showing how I have been hurt, to prove that patriarchy can wound me by showing how it has.
For there is something very odd about what the perfection my activism and my internalised sense of morality has demanded of me. It is not only that I show my scars but that I, paradoxically, testify to my permanent perfection from birth. In this world where patriarchy has scratched, burned, and tortured me- and where proving this martyrdom is a requirement of feminist perfection- I must also somehow be unblemished by patriarchy.”
I stand by this, but I deliberately left enough spaces for readers to assume that I was speaking about white cis middle class feminism, the dreaded “mainstream” variety that it was more acceptable to criticise. I was, but I was also speaking about the wider activist enterprise upon which many of us are embarked. This includes the world of online social justice activism, trans politics–indeed, the radical left as a whole. We must paradoxically be “oppressed” and yet bear none of the markings of that oppression upon our consciousness; we can never bear baggage or scars; as people of colour we can never show our veil of double consciousness, per W.E.B DuBois. It feels, sometimes, as if we must arrive fully formed to the world of activism, the perfect agents of change, somehow entirely cognisant of the ever shifting morass of rules and prescribed or proscribed words, phrases, argot, and thought.
But this also presumes that there is some kind of Platonic perfection to which we must unproblematically aspire. There is the lingering but important question of disagreement; identity does not fully contain humanity, and there are many of us who are women, and/or trans, and/or people of colour who have good faith arguments against dominant strategic paradigms, or dominant cultures, norms, and rules. Time and again, I speak to people of my background in the whisper filled shadows of corners and corridors, quietly fretting about “getting it wrong” or being accused of collaboration or being a sell-out for voicing such criticisms. Even when such whispers have the audacity to become a loud conversation (behind locked doors) they rarely grow into public debates– too many of us fear we’re alone.
Identity and Politics
In a characteristically elegant act of rhetorical artistry, scholar Edward Said used his article on William Butler Yeats and colonialism to find insights about the entire colonial/anti-colonial enterprise. Said took the cultural ferment that he argued gave rise to much of Yeats’ oeuvre and used it to elaborate on both the triumphs and follies of decolonisation– to brilliant effect
Yeats, in being a tribune for Irish liberation (albeit a rather problematic one, as Said explains elsewhere), wrote poetry that was not only about Ireland and Irishness but also poems that held,
“…a good deal of promise in getting beyond them, not remaining trapped in the emotional self-indulgence of celebrating one’s own identity. There is first of all the possibility of discovering a world not constructed out of warring essences. Second, there is the possibility of a universalism that is not limited or coercive, which beliving that all people have only one single identity is… Third, and most important, moving beyond nativism does not mean abandoning nationality, but it does mean thinking of local identity as not exhaustive, and therefore not being anxious to confine one’s self to one’s own sphere, with its ceremonies of belonging, its built in chauvinism, and its limiting sense of security.”
“Nativism” is Said’s word for nationalisms that trumpet a reversal of colonialist hierarchies, exalting rather than denigrating the purported essence of the colonised. This, Said argues, leads to a “metaphysics of essences” that then begets an “unthinking acceptance of stereotypes, myths, animosities, and traditions encouraged by imperialism.”
So, what does this have to do with us and online activism? Said was speaking to vexations that have bedevilled every liberation movement, and used art to elucidate what is a fairly common struggle: how do we continue on the path to the promised land without taking perpetual detours in hells of our own making? How do we avoid the pitfalls created by the very fires we use to emancipate ourselves? And most pertinent for me: how do we do activism without taking too much of patriarchy for granted?
I have long argued (privately) that our current phase of online activism is very much hobbled by the logic of neoliberalism and its emphasis on the individual, in ways that many of us are completely unaware of. Much online activism exalts the particular at the expense of the collective, rewarding individual episodes of catharsis and valuing them with considerably higher esteem than the more hard-nosed and less histrionic work that sustains a community. This is the dark side of the anxiety over the “tone argument.”
The Uses of Anger to Late Capitalism
Odds are if you belong to marginalised group, you are saddled with a stigma against being angry. Women, people of colour, people with disabilities, trans people, the poor and labouring classes, all face various and specific stigmas for being “too loud” or “too angry.” There are paradigmatic stereotypes in the particular, as well, “Angry Black Wo/Man,” “Angry Tranny,” “Feisty Latina,” “Dragon Lady,” “class warrior,” and so on, with which we are all painfully familiar in one way or another. It was with noble intentions that many of us rallied around the idea that “tone policing” was an oppressive construct meant to deny us the eminent humanity and cleansing fire of anger. We had a right to be angry, as surely as anyone else; moreso, even. Oppression ought to make one angry.
But in the process, “the tone argument” came to be understood less as a complex piece of social machinery than an easily identifiable trope; it then became a badge that could be waved at will in any discussion to absolve one of responsibility for their words. Even though we as leftists quite literally wrote the book(s) on why and how language matters, we suspend that understanding when it comes to our own community members because we have come to value the sanctity of their anger over the integrity of the wider group. Some of us excuse this on the grounds that we provide the only safe place for certain people to express anger without being shamed for it, and that living with oppression leaves us with pent up rage that demands expression.
The individual catharsis, then, comes to matter more than the collective, and responsibility to a wider community is blurred, if not quite lost.
It’s why it was difficult for many in the trans community to challenge the #DieCisScum hashtag, for example, because any who questioned it would be charged with “tone policing” and denying the community’s right to be angry. But the problem always was that this pseudo-therapeutic exercise in catharsis only made a few people feel better while starting a violently unnecessary and unhelpful discussion with hordes of cis people who laid their own hurt and anger at every trans person’s door. It took a tarring brush to the entire community for next to no meaningful gain, other than sticking it to “our oppressors” for the benefit of a handful.
This is where we return to Said and his argument that nativism operated under colonialist logic; in addition to the emphasis on individual catharsis, the culture of unchecked rage that sometimes wracks us is also an artefact of patriarchy itself and its lust for competitive, often violent contest. Much ink has been spilled on the masculinism that infects activist discourse, leading to delightfully snarky epithets like “Manarchism,” but we ignore the fact that white cis men are not the only people perpetuating this; it’s a culture, it does not dwell only in those with a perceived “essence.” We often unthinkingly accept and venerate the modalities and methods that patriarchy most favours; rage fuelled, unempathetic, us-versus-them politics is an ideal fit with the political hellscape of modern, neo-liberal patriarchy. It is a world that prizes the atomised particular over the powerful but compromising collective.
Your rage fuels the profits of every major website on the internet; be it Facebook, Twitter, Fox Nation, the New York Times’ comment sections, blog comments, Reddit, Tumblr, or Slashdot, your rage gets others angry, committing them to call-and-response threads hundreds of comments deep, which keeps them coming back to threads obsessively, which generates pageviews, ad impressions, and more revenue for the interested parties.
Activist rage is linkbait.
The isomorphism between the particularly fiery posture of some activism and the weeknight lineup of American cable news ought not be lost on us. If we can recognise the latter as a cynical sop to capital that is degrading our discourse, then it might be time to acknowledge that, at least sometimes, we are pressed into a similar role by the cultural logic of our society. Rage seduces us all, no matter what our background, and its sirensong will always be in the language that most appeals to us as individuals, regardless of our politics.
Ethics for Queer Cyborgs
This past year I began to outline a theory of online behaviour, entitled Ethics For Cyborgs, that explained why we ought to go beyond blaming anonymity for the rash outbreaks of prejudice and mass cruelty that predominate online– what is sometimes erroneously called “trolling,” and what too often becomes a very material threat to one’s life and livelihood. I argued, in brief, that although anonymity was a part of the problem, it has been vastly overemphasised in popular and academic discussions alike, and that taking it away would not bring us to a significantly better place online, free from prejudice and the oppression of privilege’s collective soft power. Instead, I said it must be defended as a common human right for us all online, and that we must look instead to the fact that the internet is presented to us as a mobius strip of reality and unreality– real when it’s convenient, unreal when it is not, and that the cultural conceits educating us into thinking of cyberspace as less real than “meatspace” make inhumane behaviour inevitable. This is a new medium for human interaction, and one where our socialisation for it has been decidedly faulty, laden with the false conventional wisdom that our eyes deceive us.
This argument was presented as one that chiefly explained the well-known behaviour of prejudiced people who would form hate mobs directed at outspoken women and queer people. The hate mail, the organised campaigns, the rape and death threats, the pornography, the organised and well-marshalled targeting of people’s homes, families, and loved ones, would be, I argued, more intelligible within this framework.
What I did not foreground, however, was the fact that this theory– that we are socialised to believe the internet is less than real, and that this makes belligerent behaviour more likely and more defensible– also explained the less violent, but still worrying behaviour of some social justice activists who delight in vitriolic attacks against their own when they are perceived to have erred. The fusillade of expletive laden insults and cruelly-cast public aspersions by our own are equally explicable by that theory. We ourselves fail to keep sight of the fact that the people we attack are human beings, and that our words have power.
My friend, activist Kat Hache, spoke about this phenomenon in her own article on activist rage:
“Anita Sarkeesian’s TED talk touched on this sort of performative cruelty, where targeting other individuals online has gained somewhat of a competitive aspect, similar to that of a video game, with a rewards system that reinforces toxic behavior. I have to say, as much as I’ve seen directed at me that mirrors exactly what she describes in the threads about me on 4chan, I’ve seen a disturbing amount within the social justice circle.”
I find myself reminded of the time when I was a tadpole trans woman and mere neophyte blogger, when I was raked over the coals by a woman who damned me for defending a cis friend who had made a mistake on trans issues; not only was I torn into, but another woman even wished death to that same friend when I (ill-advisedly) brought up her terminal illness. My interlocutor hoped my friend would die sooner, she said.
It is an extreme example but one that is nevertheless entirely too common, and one that I came perilously close to taking as a model. There was a time in my life where I took pride in being a “social justice warrior” on Reddit, ticking the boxes of others’ mistakes, missteps, and misspoken words, cruelly scolding people, looking for those who were “doing it wrong” as a means of validating my own sense of integrity as an activist, as if each person I roasted would be a talisman against the same thing happening to me ever again. It was only when I discovered that I had made someone cry for hours that I took a long step back and asked myself if I was really making the world a better place by doing this.
I had at last allowed myself to acknowledge that this was not what I wanted to do as an activist.
From Here to Eternity: Concluding Thoughts
At its best, activism is not merely opposition to what is, it is also constructive of what will be. Ours is not a utopia of negatives– a world without this, without that, and so forth– but also a world of affirmatives and possibilities. This swirling gyre of rage and ressentiment is a terrible artefact of oppression, and one we ought not consign ourselves to. It is not a wormhole to liberation, however much we may wish it to be.
What aroused my concern was the fact that there are too many people, in the trans community alone, who feel like they are unable to call it their community and find shelter there because the tenor of discourse is so corrosive as to be just as stressful and antagonistic as the outside world. I hear this from a number of people who are close to me and have contributed mightily to activist communities with labour, art, and struggle– and I hear it from neophytes and outsiders who wish to join but find themselves put off by the rancour they hear from within. One example of the latter was a trans woman named Deb who commented on an article I wrote criticising the culture that led to the vicious online firestorm surrounding Carolyn Petit and her review of GTA V. Deb worried that that same “poisonous attitude” was creeping into “otherwise nice places,” going on to cite examples of speech in queer communities that troubled her. My reply was at pains to draw a clear distinction between oppressive speech and counter-oppressive speech, and to assert that the difference in power between the two was not trivial. Nevertheless, her core points could not be denied and so I addressed those at greater length. What I said there is, I think, a good way to close:
“It is not reasonable to compare the angry speech of a powerless minority to the “hate speech” (in the legal and sociological sense of that term) of a privileged group, but there is an ethical argument to be made. We may not materially disadvantage cis people when we speak in such overtly aggressive ways, but we do something equally bad– and you exemplify this– we isolate our community members and corrode the very community that is meant to be a shelter for us against an often uncaring world. I do not wish to be in a community where spite and anger are the prevailing emotions, however justified they may be in some cosmic sense. More than cis people, we owe it to each other to make our community more productive. The simple and ineluctable truth about our corrosive call-out culture is that it’s part of this larger problem I addressed, where we use the unique nature of the internet to do harm. People saying that others should commit suicide, die in a fire, or making death threats are not acceptable– whoever says them. And as feminists and social justice activists, we must make that clearer without indulging in the overused and disingenuous argument that oppression makes that sort of expression valid.”
We must remember that considering the impact of our words and the register in which they are spoken is not genuflection to the oppressor, but love and respect for our peers.
I would now take this one step further to say that while sheltering our community members must always take priority, we must also challenge ourselves to be merciful to those who make themselves our enemies, and keep their humanity in sight even as they denude themselves of it with petty hatred. We can do more than simply meet their cruelty with ineffectual rage, and we can do more than simply shelter in place from their privilege. It is time that we took our convictions to their logical conclusion and set our sights higher than the call outs of particular points of failure evinced by some hapless individual; it is time we took the next step so many in our communities are already taking, to a social justice activism recommitted to changing social structures and not just creating echo chambers to declaim against what we have. In Mattie Brice’s words we “need to keep in mind that we’re fighting the system that uses people to marginalise others, not the people themselves.”
Throughout this piece I have, likely to the consternation of some, been less careful with my uses of the terms “anger” and “rage” than some of the other critics and activists I have cited. I did this in part because I think it can be healthy to be critical about what we admit as “anger” and thus acceptable under the dominant paradigms of activist discourse. One can take the excellent tack that Aevee Bee took in her article and say that “anger isn’t abuse and abuse isn’t anger,” recognising that abuse is not something we should excuse with the ennoblement of anger that we indulge, but we can also think about the efficacy of even “acceptable” forms of anger. Why? Because I believe that lack of circumspection is at the heart of the problem. We allow important activist insights to metamorphose into inflexible rules, rather than useful information to help us make sense of an ever-undulating landscape. Yes, anger is useful and sometimes vitally necessary. But we can hold onto that while judging activist tactics on a case by case basis. Rather than applying blanket rules (“all questioning of anger is tone policing”) we can be nimbly thoughtful in our assessments and recognise that not every problem we face is the nail to anger’s hammer.
Justice does not take the shape of punishment eagerly dispensed. Let us recommit to the just creed that has summoned us to this work: a clarion call that resonates with our shared humanity and compels us towards a more compassionate and merciful understanding of justice– surely we owe it to ourselves.
My approach to Cathy Brennan has long mirrored my approach to Ann Coulter; I generally refuse to dignify their deliberate attempts to cruelly incite. Rising to meet their hate, which is deliberately designed to provoke outrage, feels like a vindication of their strategy; what they desire most is attention, and giving it to them hardly feels like a victory for those on the side of the angels. However, after seeing a relatively sympathetic article about Brennan in the online magazine Bustle— which apparently misgenders a trans woman and which some of my friends have fairly derided as a “puff piece”– I felt there are some matters which merit clarification.
During the interview she clearly set aside the instruments of her usual rhetoric and put on her most reasonable mien. Unsurprisingly, nothing she says justifies her behaviour, and much of what she does say is premised on assumptions that have no basis in our shared reality as women.
It is that latter point that Brennan struggles with and the primary reason that reconciliation between those like her and the rest of the feminist movement is likely impossible; she simply refuses to believe that trans women are women, and structures everything she believes around that misapprehension. This keystone holds up everything she and her fellow travellers believe about trans politics. I have no illusions about convincing Brennan, but for the sake of anyone who might have been persuaded that Brennan’s contribution to this debate arises from something other than a particularly heartless form of prejudice I would submit the following in response to some of her points in this interview.
Notes on an Avant-Garde Definition of “Conservative”
First and foremost is this particular argument which lies at the heart of much “feminist” transphobia:
“The laws also codify the idea of innate gender identity, Brennan said. In pushing the idea that whatever gender a person identifies as overrides their biological sex, it “enshrines into law the idea that gender is innate.” This is an essentially conservative idea, and “it’s not advancing the cause of women’s liberation, which is what I’m interested in as a feminist. This ideology — I understand that it’s rooted in equality, but it has the effect of marginalizing women.””
This is breathtaking. It is especially gobsmacking for a feminist to argue something so painfully opposed to most feminist understandings of patriarchy and biological essentialism.
Let us be clear about what is being argued here: Brennan’s suggestion is that if one is assigned a sex at birth, forcibly, by doctors and parents on the basis of nothing more than a cursory glance at a biological fact, and then one is forcibly raised to live up to that role, backed by the full faith and violent credit of patriarchy, it is essentially conservative to then reach a point of consciousness that says “no, I am not a prisoner of my birth biology,” and identify differently from a gender that everyone around you says is “innate,” “biological,” “ordained by God,” et cetera. This courageous act is what she deems conservative, not the chorus of voices in patriarchal institutions that have long tried to pathologise and marginalise us for our asseverations of self.
Indeed, this is what transphobic feminism never seems to grapple with: how do they theorise patriarchy’s long, abiding legacy of discrimination against trans people? How do they reconcile their assertions with the fact that trans women are victims of the same types of harassment, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, street violence, exploitation, and objectification that cisgender women are? How is it that after being condemned by conservative, patriarchal religion, (lest we forget, the erstwhile Pope Benedict once likened us to climate change), the patriarchal nuclear family, and patriarchy on the street, does one come to the conclusion that what trans women are is “essentially conservative”?
Far from being “innate,” most trans people argue that gender is the very opposite, with our lives and our numbers as empirical proof of the same. Whether one likes it or not, we defied our assigned sex at birth, and we exist. Rather insistently, at that. It is certainly true that some trans people redound to reductive arguments about innate brain sex or genetics, but I and many others have argued that this should not be the basis for our claims to rights and justice.
We should not be held hostage to what some of us say when trying to win some measure of reprieve from a violent system: sometimes mouthing the words “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” or “I have a woman’s brain in a man’s body” is what one needs to access healthcare, a place to live, or the support of parents who would otherwise turn you out of your home. When every other door is slammed in your face, what would you do? We as feminists have ample analysis to understand this; why is that analysis always shut off when trans women enter the frame, and why do a minority of cisgender feminists suddenly and naively take what they see at face value, in a manner redolent of the crypto-misogynist who says that women make less money because we choose to spend more time with our children?
I must confess, I have never been able to follow the logic of those who argue that trans people are inherently conservative or biologically essentialist in our essence. Consider Brennan who argues:
“Our whole lives we are raised very much aware of our vulnerability as women, so I don’t understand why when a man says he’s a woman, all of a sudden the penis is no longer (an issue) … Men rape women and girls in bathrooms all the time, so it’s not like women’s concerns about that aren’t reasonable. And these laws are broadly enough written to justify the entry of anyone into a (women-only) space.
If they’re excluding you because you’re male, well, I’m sorry, but you are male. Deal with your reality. We didn’t create that reality, that reality exists.”
In other words, if you have a penis at birth and it leads to you being assigned “M,” then there is no way to escape that; you are a man for life, irrespective of any number of possible social interventions, with one’s penis being the all determining truth of the matter. (The reverse being true for those assigned “F,” presumably). Is this the grand argument against biological essentialism? How is this view, that one’s physiology at birth is the all determining truth, the full “reality” of one’s gender, not what is inherently conservative?
Our Lives, Our Truth, Our Womanhood
What is “reality” is the brutality of patriarchy for many women—for when it comes to that fist in women’s faces, patriarchy makes no distinction between cis and trans women. The other key fact ignored by Brennan in the foregoing is that trans women are raped too.
Theoretical debates about trans women prevail in some spaces, but the reality of our existence prevails in the real world of the street, the late night bus, the dark alley, the bedroom. No amount of Brennan’s averring that we are men would have spared CeCe MacDonald, Islan Nettles, Erycka Morgan, and countless other women who have suffered or died at the hands of men. It does not spare trans women of colour from being stopped and frisked by police officers who use condoms as “evidence” of prostitution. It does not spare those same trans women from being raped by cisgender men in holding cells and prisons. It does not spare trans women from being murdered by boyfriends who demonstrate the same entitlement they would over the life and body of a cisgender woman—taking it to an especially vicious extreme because transgender women are, in too many cases, even more disposable. It does not spare us from being the target of internet harassment campaigns designed to silence women—much of my own work has centered around this, and the recent hate campaigns directed at Carloyn Petit and Laura Kate Dale remind us that feminist trans women incur just as much hate for speaking out as cisgender feminists do. I myself was run off of moderating a community forum because of stalking, misogynist threats, and the odd rape threat.
Patriarchy makes no mistakes about us, even if our individual tormentors may deride us as “men” or fixate luridly upon our anatomy by calling us “chicks with dicks” (merely repeating the objectifying gestures extended to all women), they will unequivocally treat us as women.
Thus, asking us to use men’s accommodations is the equivalent of saying that it is acceptable for us to go somewhere we’ll be beaten up, sexually harassed, and possibly raped. Whatever inconvenience this poses to Brennan’s ideology, trans women are not treated as men by patriarchy.
That reality exists.
It is, in a sense, degrading that I must even write this– an article that lays bare scars, bruises, bodies, and wounded hearts– is this lurid pornography of the spirit what it takes for someone like this to accept, however grudgingly, that in spite of her hailstorm of arrows we are inexorably sisters in this struggle? Why must I even be placed in the position of proving our womanhood by proving that patriarchy has hurt us through delineating how it has? It is beyond lamentable that this has become necessary.
Finally, a brief word must spared for Brennan’s suggestion that her lawsuits and stalking are reserved only for those who go out of their way to harass her. As her recent suit against Jacobin magazine makes abundantly clear, Ms. Brennan will use legal instruments to attack anyone who merely disagrees with her. Jacobin’s crime was to publish a critical article by transfeminist Samantha Leigh Allen which picked apart the fundamentals of Brennan’s beliefs as I have done here. Like me, she did not attack Brennan but criticised her ideas and, yes, labelled them “transphobic.” This, apparently, counts as slander.
Meanwhile, a cis friend of my partner and myself is being hauled to court for mildly criticising Brennan on Twitter. Another friend, whose work centres around bringing gender equity to the internet, has been attacked by Brennan and her allies for being a trans woman.
Furthermore, as I write this, radical feminist journalist Laurie Penny has had to put an article about Brennan’s politics on ice because of a possible lawsuit, after a day of enduring her attempts to get her fired.
This is scary and intimidating. Brennan is now sending threatening emails to my employers. I could do with some support here.
I want to make myself absolutely, unequivocally clear: no one, whether trans or cis, woman or allied with women, should harass those whose transphobically harass us. There is no place for threats or hateful words directed at Brennan or any of her fellow travellers. I do not condone such behaviour. We accomplish nothing by merely summoning more cruelty and indignity into the world, whatever power differences may prevail amongst the participants.
But I am speaking up now against Ms. Brennan’s ideas because her work seems to chiefly consist in stopping other feminists from doing theirs. She is harassing our community and trying her hardest to silence women—every person in my professional circle that has faced some sort of action from Brennan is a woman, whether cis or trans, and we can now add one of our most prominent young feminist writers to that list, apparently. Every single one of these people, myself included, has important feminist projects that we are working on and constitute our life’s work—any criticism of Brennan is incidental. But it would appear that she makes it her full time job to harass us and anyone who might speak on our behalf against her, which invariably means that most of her work involves attacking and silencing women and girls, most of whom are feminists.
The culture of fear thus created where nearly everyone I know who puts pen to paper is afraid of even mentioning Brennan’s name is anathema to any ethical democratic discourse, and given the disproportionate silencing of women at work here it is a culture that is misogynist in its dimensions. This is not debate, this is not evenhanded or balanced; this is a brutal campaign that is making the life of people I love harder, and is, in some cases, putting trans people in serious danger.
How else could I describe her very public and (in the true sense of this word) slanderous campaign against an innocent trans girl being led by the right wing “Pacific Justice Institute”? Without a shred of evidence, she is attempting to gin up a national campaign to harass and exclude a young girl, going so far as outing her, for no reason other than her gender and the fact that Brennan does not approve of every place she exists as that gender. For her to ally with powerful, monied forces in the harassment of a child, is without excuse and it is persecution.
That is reality. And this must stop. As feminists we have enough to deal with without constantly dodging this decidedly unfriendly fire, especially when it targets our young.
This article is crossposted from my latest feature for the Border House; that version can be seen here.
What is staggering about much that passes under the banner of “fantasy” is how decidedly narrow its escapist vision tends to be. In both fantasy and sci-fi, far from transcending the fetters of real world limitations, we see our own world with its myriad failings reinscribed in uncritical verbatim form with only a smattering of chrome, Medieval grit, or magic to poorly disguise the copy. Dungeons & Dragons, long the towering mainstay of fantasy roleplay whose name is synonymous with its genre, has at times been either a magnificent carnival of fantasy or a pitiless mire of the same tired clichés about gender, race, and sexuality that bedevil so much of nerd culture. This schismatic approach to its material is, I believe, a psychic scar left by the culture wars of the 1980s when D&D was accused of various and sundry evils; all ranging from reefer madness with dice to charges of blood drinking Satanism. The game remains gunshy about introducing content that might be deemed something less than family-friendly. Even its excellent Book of Exalted Deeds compendium—a supplement geared towards elaborating the concepts of virtue and divinity in D&D—came with a “Mature Content” warning sticker. The offending content was, well, a boob, along with a frank discussion of torture (and why it was morally unjustifiable).
This flinching instinct on the part of D&D’s inheritors, Hasbro-owned Wizards of the Coast, has kept LGBT characters far away from public acknowledgement in the game’s content. “Family friendly,” that delightful euphemism for wilful ignorance of and prejudice against sexual minorities, has become the catchphrase of the granddaddy of RPGs.
While my love for D&D was immense and filled with innumerable fond memories, many immortalised on a shelf groaning under the weight of 2e and 3.5e books, I lamented the fact that such a fantastic genre should be hamstrung by senseless timidity. It was not just the issue of LGBT inclusion, of course; the writing had ossified, the taken for granted dimensions of the setting had become set in stone, routinized and underdeveloped. Flashes of brilliant creativity were smothered in the gloom of playing it safe as the controversial Fourth Edition went to press.
Enter Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder. For years I’d ignored it blithely, thinking it was a low rent, grittier D&D that had nothing new to offer, save a nostalgic continuation of the 3.5e ruleset. How wrong I was. The long, in-depth second look it deserved from me was occasioned by a friend’s breathless Facebook post about a trans woman character being introduced in the game’s latest adventure module. A lesbian trans woman, married to a half-Orc Paladin of a Lawful Good goddess. My attention was well and truly piqued.
From Representation to Creative Flourishing
It is a common complaint amongst those determined to preserve a patriarchal status quo that characters ought not deviate from a white/male/hetero/cis norm unless there are “good narrative reasons” for doing so, whatever those might be. Curiously, nothing ever seems to fit the bill for such people; any deviation from that norm immediately occasions passionate metaphors about shoving things down throats and other vaguely sexual musings. But for those of us who, in good faith, worry about tokenisation occasioned by well-intentioned efforts at inclusion, there is a legitimate concern about ensuring that, say, LGBT characters are drawn to be people first and queer second, lest they be defined entirely by one facet of their identity.
Paizo gets this balance just right, in my view.
The 73rd issue of their Adventure Path modules—self-contained cycles of adventures that provide detailed information about settings and campaigns a DM can use to start a plot for her players—The Worldwound Incursion by Amber E. Scott might well serve as both illustration of inclusion done well and an example of what that inclusion can look like in the specific medium of a pen-and-paper roleplaying game. (Cover at left; art by Wayne Reynolds).
The eponymous Worldwound is a scar in the world of Golarion, spewing forth demons and other hellish beasts who break like a tide against the increasingly beleaguered defenders in the nation of Mendev. Divine wardstones help keep the fiends at bay, but when one of them is sabotaged, one of the great citadels of the nation—the crusader city of Kenabres—falls to the horde. It is into this maelstrom that your adventuring party is thrust. Spared from the invasion by a virtuous dragon’s last minute intervention, your party and a few NPC citizens of Kenabres awake in an underground cavern—you must find your way back to the surface and do what you can to ease the fate of the fallen city.
One of these NPCs broke her leg in the divinely cushioned fall from the surface, Anevia Tirabade, a forthright rogue of a woman who served the city as a scout and archer. The story from here on out is very well treated by Ms. Scott; Tirabade is one of three NPCs of varying strengths and personalities with whom your party must work, negotiate, and assist. The mechanics of this, and the story possibilities that emerge, are a delight to read; one’s imagination really takes flight with the help of the complicated entanglements Scott writes for each character— the other two are Aravashinal, a blind wizard whose membership in a secret society drives a subplot, and Horgus, an arrogant noble whose gossipmongering about the other two could bring about the downfall of the group.
The genius of this module, I believe, lies in its strong emphasis on relationships and the deep elaboration that Scott gives to the myriad ways they impact the story, even as Kenabres crumbles. Rare is the writer who captures the fundamental humanity of apocalypse (beyond clichés about survivalism, at least), and Scott certainly rises to that challenge. The depth of these relationships, the conspiracies, triumphs, and tragedies they all entail, emerge as rewards for good investigative roleplay—and it is only here that Anevia’s story emerges.
One discovers that Anevia Tirabade is a trans woman who is married to a Half-Orc Crusader named Irabeth. Irabeth Tirabade is, in this campaign, helping to organise the resistance against the demonic horde. There is a beautiful and romantic story behind Anevia’s transition that is inextricably bound up with the love shared between the rogue and paladin, there for the taking if one wishes to learn it. But it is neither the focus of the story nor Anevia’s raison d’etre for being in it. Like Amanda Downum’s Savedra Severos, Anevia is a trans woman who is many years post-transition and whose role in the present story is akin to that of her cisgender counterparts—being a person of some power and influence in Kenabres pitching in after its destruction.
Anevia’s story is presented neither as a joke, nor as the driving motivation of her character. Like all trans people, her transition was merely instrumental in helping Anevia live a liveable life; her true adventure lay in the work she did for her adopted hometown, and the labours she would come to share with her wife. She is now part of the resistance and thrust into the epicentre of a renewed crusade against the forces of Hell, all of which are entirely orthogonal to the fact that she happens to be a lesbian trans woman. This is inclusion done well; Scott’s backstory for Anevia does not render her invisible as a trans person, but it also does not centralise that aspect of her as being the only worthwhile or interesting thing about her. Instead, it threads through her life in a seamlessly realistic way.
She grew up as part of her mother’s criminal gang, dysphoria leading to asociality on her part, even as she both learned to pick pockets and escape into art about strong women heroines. When at last the forces of law broke up the gang, Anevia’s mother sent her away to a temple of Desna, where a priestess would raise Anevia as her daughter—initially as a disguise, albeit one rather eagerly donned by the young Anevia. Her foster mother let her set off on an adulthood of adventuring, like the women from the stories Anevia so loved, with her blessing for this new life. On that long series of adventures in which she lent her services to other temples of Desna, she would meet Irabeth and fall head over heels.
I shan’t indulge in telling the whole story but it’s very sweetly written (aside from pronoun mangling when discussing the pre-transition Anevia, but it’s a forgivable lapse considering the audience; it’s still a dramatic and graceful step in the right direction).
The one artistic suggestion I might make is as follows. After falling for Irabeth, Anevia, according to the text,
“had revealed herself to actually be a man… but this didn’t matter to the paladin, who had learned to value a companion’s personality over her appearance. In fact, Irabeth had spent a fair amount of her personal wealth (including selling her father’s sword) to fund the purchase of an elixir for Anevia, one that would shift her physical gender to match the rest of her.”
(Okay, so maybe I will recount a bit more of their adorable love story). But the point is that it is rather unfortunate to recycle the “actually be a man” language which, although well intentioned in its use here, probably engenders more confusion than not amongst those unfamiliar with trans people. Generally speaking, any talk of ‘actually’ being one’s birth sex tends to be the spearpoint of a lot of transphobic arguments, and it’s best not to legitimise that.
When I have written trans people into my sci-fi and fantasy settings, I’ve always made sure to give them a unique name (“transgender” and “transsexual” being too deeply ground in our own world’s political and medical rhetoric to be truly distancing). One Pathfinder playing friend, writer Katie Berger Tremaine, suggests calling trans people “Arsheans” after one of the empyreal angels devoted to, amongst other things, diversity of gender expression. (That angel, Arshea, is another of Ms. Scott’s inspired creations and merits their own article).
The Fundaments of the Inclusive Adventure
One of the more darkly hilarious criticisms levelled at Irabeth and Anevia was that they were improbable due to being “too many identities at once.” This bizarre charge, being the inverted version of the vituperatively bigoted joke that says one must be a “disabled black lesbian Muslim” to get ahead in the world, is merely another irksome spasm of privilege and the myopia it inculcates— but it merits special comment nevertheless.
Behind the slur lies the idea that such people do not exist—that one might be a lesbian, or trans, or biracial, but surely not all at once; that is merely a fantasy of leftist diversity maniacs, after all. Yet, we actually do exist. As I joked more than once on Paizo’s forums to people making such prejudicial criticisms, Anevia and Irabeth’s story is actually all the more affecting because it maps onto the contours of my own life. After all, I’m a lesbian trans woman in an interracial relationship, myself. And given Irabeth’s biracial heritage as a half-Orc who struggled against racial prejudice and aspired to fit into human dominated institutions—she is also someone in whom I saw a rather lot of myself. It’s the kind of story not often enough told, and Ms. Scott captured it with aplomb.
It is here we return to the question of creativity in writing and the benefits of artistically-crafted diversity (as opposed to hamhanded tokenism): it makes stories better, more original, and more interesting. While transphobes were attacking Anevia simply for being in the story, and Irabeth for simply being a lesbian—occasioning all manner of scrutiny not given to Worldwound Incursion’s several straight cis male characters—they ignored how much lore and roleplay grist each woman added to the tale. The Worldwound Incursion is remarkable for its emphasis on the many social relationships—be they interpersonal or at the level of organisational conspiracy—that make up a city, even one smouldering in ruin amidst a truly hellish war. Unlike many adventure modules, Pathfinders’ as a whole place a good deal of emphasis on fleshing out the NPCs who are a setting’s truest ambassadors, imparting the living and breathing soul of a fantasy realm.
In this light, Anevia and Irabeth are, in their ways, part of Kenabres’ essence; each woman and her history says something about the hopes and failures of their adopted homeland, and their love is a perfect symbol of the virtues they tirelessly defend from the Worldwound’s spew.
What the critics of these two characters miss is how elegantly Amber Scott drew their fundamental humanity (with apologies to Irabeth’s Orc-ness, of course). Diversity does not just exist as a discrete property of a person fully coterminous with one aspect of their identity. There must also be diversity within a character. Anevia is not just a transsexual woman; she’s the crafty child of the streets who speaks forthrightly to all, regardless of rank, and who fights back the memories of her scarred past, trying to live in the here and now. She’s the Worldwound scout who found love on the edge of the abyss and who, at the present point in this campaign, limps her way through a cave with several strangers on her way into a strange, new adventure that has turned that world upside down.
Well done, Ms. Scott.
Concluding Thoughts: To Tell The Untold Story
The adventure module itself is also a testament to everything Pathfinder is doing right as a roleplaying game; rich in lore, technical rules that intrigue but don’t bog one down in math, an epic story that drops level 1 players into the midst of an incredible tale, a lavish gazetteer for the city of Kenabres, a short story, and some unique monsters thrown into the fray—there’s a lot to keep you busy. My personal favourite detail has to be Scott’s exalted magical sword, Radiance, (which inspired this article’s title); it was the sword of an outspoken crusader, a woman named Yaniel, who witheringly condemened her superiors’ negligence and took the fight to the demons. The weapon, in the hands of a virtuous paladin, can ‘level up’ with you. From Amber Scott’s fast paced and captivating plot, to Jerome Virnich’s evilly cute Sin Seeker monster, the module presents a peerless toolbox for adventure. If Pathfinder excels at anything it’s finding ways to tell stories that fantasy RPGs haven’t before.
I’m going to have to resist the overwhelming impulse to make a cheesy pun on the RPG’s name by saying something like “there’s a new path being found in roleplaying games!” and instead simply say that Pathfinder’s latest books merit a closer look. Paizo’s Creative Director, James Jacobs, has gone on record to say that LGBT characters exist in the world of Golarion and that all freelance writers are advised of this canonical fact. The iconic Cleric, Kyra, has been officially revealed to be a lesbian woman, and we can—apparently—expect more ‘out’ NPCs in the near future. It is no less worth mentioning that Pathfinder has overtaken D&D as the world’s bestselling PnP RPG: it’s yet another nail in the coffin of the dreadful cliché that “diversity doesn’t sell.” Wizards of the Coast might do well to take note.
*The banner image and Worldwound Incursion cover art are by Wayne Reynolds; the art of Anevia is uncredited in the book but I will add a name as soon as I can find one.
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.)
Patriarchy 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Much to my great shock I was nominated and added to the Trans100 List, a curated, non-ranked list of US trans activists working intersectionally to improve conditions for the community—I accepted with profound gratitude, and I feel humbled to know that I’ve been added to a list that includes some truly astounding people, considering I’ve only done a fraction of what some of them have. I can only hope to live up to the very high bar that my sisters, brothers, and siblings have set.
The Trans100 list is a project that I didn’t even know about until a week ago. But it grew up from We Happy Trans*, This is HOW, and other projects dedicated to the proposition of trans visibility, and the idea that the lives we live—even in the midst of a stricken world like ours—are worth celebrating. That’s an idea I can get behind, to say the least, and coincidentally I wrote something this past week that gets at why I think we need things like the Trans100. I was expressing my discomfort with the often Manichean tone of the same-sex marriage debate on my Facebook feed. Oh no no, not between liberals and conservatives, but between radicals and liberals. I was very uneasy with the simple, dyadic terms of a discussion where marriage was posited either as a capitalist-cum-patriarchal evil, or a completely unproblematic institution that merited no critical analysis. Adding to the complexity was the fact that the HRC, with its awful history, was squatting on the whole discussion like a dreadfully white elephant.
In many cases, trans people and POC were political footballs: “same-sex marriage is a nonissue because trans POC have totally different issues!” – partially true, of course, but it also misses some complexities. In particular, I grew weary of how we were being talked about mostly in absentia and mostly in terms of tragedy. What follows began as a lengthy Facebook post and has now been edited and remixed for you, Nuclear Unicorners (I’ve officially named you, revel in my originality). Enjoy.
I’ve noticed a trend amongst certain people in the queer community where white/male/masculine/cis people/who-don’t-live-in-my-hood are telling me what my issues are, and that does make me more than a little uncomfortable. The majority of people I know who’ve recently been married thanks to same sex marriage law changes are folks of colour and trans people, for one. It did matter to them, and that needs to be factored into our consideration here—that we may be standing in a more complex place than reductive ‘lived politics’ may permit.
But it’s more than just that. Allow me to explain.
What defines recent media coverage and liberal discussions of presumptively-cis gays and lesbians? Normativity? ‘They’re just like us!’-ism? Yes, in no small measure; but go deeper than that. What is that pointing to? In what substantial ways, beyond the white picket fence, beyond 2.3 kids and a dog, are they just like (some) cis heteros?
They’re shown to be having lives. Increasingly, cis gays and lesbians are at last being recognised as people who are everything from activists to artists, journalists to teachers, scientists to non-profit organisers, parents and family; people with dreams and aspirations. In particular, it is once the latter are accorded an equal place in the firmament of human yearning that we come one step closer to substantive justice.
This is not just about normativity, it’s a question of living and thriving. Of humanising. Many of the same radical queers may critique that, but they want to live those same lives– as activists, artists, academics, poets, writers, community organisers, queer polyfamily members, and so on.
That’s a life. A real life-as-lived that can be a source of inspiring pride.
Yet every time I see a Facebook post from someone about us, usually an ally of trans women who’s either a cis man/woman, or a queer trans man or trans masculine person, do you know what I hear?
About how dead we are.
Stab wounds, immolation, genital mutilation. We’re heels pointed up out of a dumpster, we’re arrest and incarceration statistics, and we’re “bodies” (oh how I loathe how that term has replaced “person” in so much discourse). We’re dead, voiceless names and brief stories read at TDOR. And when our issues are talked about and screamed about from the top of a cis man’s lungs, that’s mainly what we are. Dead and dying. Unable to speak for ourselves as trans women of colour.
It’s why I cheered when I saw Janet Mock on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show because holy mother of Goddess, when’s the last time the mainstream media heard from someone with her life and perspective? I finally saw a living, thriving sister talking about the need for justice, not a cis person speaking for us as so many bodies, but a real trans woman of colour. My sister.
My living sister.
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project—the non-profit where I’m a proud collective member—takes on the hard jobs, the cases no one else will. We do the hard work of responding as a collective and a community to the hell imposed on us by the state, by the police, by uncaring institutions and the violence of a society that hates us, but especially hates trans women. We do that, and we do it gladly. But you know who “we” are? Trans folk and people of colour. We’re not just victims, we’re doing. We’re lawyers, social scientists, activists, artists, and beautiful living, thriving people who are doing great work and striving to make our own issues and lives visible.
Our Prisoner Advisory Committee is comprised of incarcerated trans folk who are now fighting for meaningful lives– both during and after incarceration. They’re trying to thrive and do work; budding jailhouse lawyers who refuse to be “bodies.” (I encourage you to check out PAC’s newsletter, In Solidarity, where PAC members submit editorials, art, and poetry to be shared with the wider community– in and outside of prison.)
The people we serve aren’t just “clients”– they’re neighbours, friends and loved ones with vibrant communities too often ignored by both the gazes of mainstream media lenses and trendy radical indie film lenses. Instead we’re “bodies”– victims and statistics.
That half-truth is how we are seen by all. Even by our ‘allies.’ Through it all we hear next to nothing of these women’s lives and loves. We learn not of how trans women live, only how we may die.
Now we return to the beginning: this is why I get uncomfortable when white masculine queers angrily talk about how dead we are. We’re not all dead, and those of us who live have real, lived lives just as valid, beautiful, and dreamy as those of my queer sisters and brothers who get to have the house with the white picket fence. Even as we struggle—and every day it feels like I hear another story about how someone was shitty to a sister, abused or harassed her—and even as I still fight dysphoria, there are beautiful lives and stories and dreams there.