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Men in Ewes' Clothing : The Stealth Politics of the Transgender Movement
Saturday, April 1, 2000
by Karla Mantilla, originally published in off our backs, April 2000
Backlash is everywhere these days. Its latest manifestation is the transgender movement, which is wreaking havoc among lesbians, liberals and other so called progressives. It comes right on the heels of (and is no doubt born of) postmodenism. Once again, we've been had. This movement presents itself as radical -- indeed as the most radical thing going--but it is really an insidious form of paralyzing liberalism which translates into ultraconservatism in action.
I know these are strong statements, but the transgender movement has been taken so unquestioningly to heart by so many lesbians, feminists, and progressives, there is such dogma surrounding it, and there is such a taboo on challenging it, that I am unwilling to fudge even a little on how dangerous it is to feminism and women.
Although the transgender movement is far from a unified whole, I think some of the analytical confusion surrounding it has been due to thinking of mtfs (male-to-females) and ftms (female-to-males) as part of the same phenomenon. I believe these two parts of the transgender movement (Iike gay men, and lesbians) are conceptually distinct and have different ramifications. As I talk about this movement I will address these two phenomena separately for clarity.
mtfs invade michigan
Look at what happened at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival last year. Apparently, pre-op mtfs entered the festival and disrobed by the showers where women were also naked preparing to shower. If these wannabe "women" had any real understanding of what it is to be a woman in patriarchy they would have respected, not violated, women's space, and they would have understood what a horrific violation it would be for a woman to be confronted with a strange naked biological male, penis and all, when she herself is unclothed and vulnerable. The mtfs' concem with their own movement and liberation come at the expense of women trying for just one week in one remote corner of the United States to feel completely safe from male violence.
To me, the worst thing about the fact that mtfs have violated the women-only space at the festival is that now you never know whether there might be a man, in one form or another, there. One of the most important things women get from going to Michigan is the feeling of complete safety from men and patriarchal tape culture. Now that safety has been eroded. Now even if a man isn't there, there is in our minds the possibility of violation---that a male could be there.
How in the world has this come about? And how is it that so many wellmeaning lesbians have bought into the arguments for inclusion of mtfs at Michigan? Clearly, trans people, (like all people) deserve basic human rights, such as access to jobs, health insurance, respectful treatment, and freedom from living in fear of hate crimes and violence. But do mtfs, at any stage of transition, have the right to be at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival?
identity as stealth politics
First, one of the ways transgender mtf activists have managed to confuse lesbians who know that there is something wrong with letting men, however altered, into Michigan is through framing their position as one of identity. The argument is that they are, in some fundemental way, really a woman inside a male body. That is their identity. It is taken as a given that one must not question another person's assertion of his or her own identity.
But what does it mean to "be" a man or a woman? Radical feminists have long been the ones accused of being essentialist,that is, reducing the cause of human behavior to innate essences. Radical feminists have been misconstrued as saying that men are competitive, aggressive, and violent because they are men. (This is one of the many examples where radical feminists are attributed with some idea that they in fact do not hold and then smeared for it.) In truth, radical feminists are among the only ones arguing that being a man or woman is a matter of profound socialization (not of biological or hormonal origin). However, many (but not all) transgender people explain themselves in essentialist terms.
But an intellectual slight of hand occurs over this matter of identity--explaining oneself in this way neatly avoids dealing with the Political implications of one's identity. If identity is held as a given, it is off-limits to criticism or analysis. If, for example, I hold catholicism as my identity rather than my choice then I avoid moral accountability for the various beliefs and political stances go along with it. And if I demand that other people respect my identity as a catholic, then I demand that they accept without protest the policies that I choose along with my catholic identity, even while I pretend my catholicism is not a political choice, only a matter of identity. Identity politics is a stealth maneuver that demands, in the name of tolerance, that others do not challenge my politics.
Rather than accepting that a person just is transgender as a matter of identity, I believe it is imperative to examine the politics of being mtf. I maintain that there are politics inherent in the choice to be mtf, that is, there are ways of looking at the world,at gender, at identity, and at power relations in that choice. Yet identity politics disallows political analysis or criticism of identities which are profoundly political. The tactic of holding identity as separate from politics and above analysis is a politics in and of itself---and it is generally a politics of conservatism to hold areas as off limits for scrutiny.
Leslie Feinberg, in Trans Liberation, admits s/he has heard transwomen being criticized for "taking up too much space or being overbearing because they were socialized as men," yet s/he says that it is "prejudiced" for nontrans people to make this observation (by the way, that is a misuse of the word prejudice; it is not pre-judging, it is simply making an observation). In this manner, the power implications of taking up too much space are ruled exempt from critique.
One of the political problems that I see with the whole notion of transgender politics is the idea that by changing one's appearance, presentation, or body, one can change one's gender. As a radical feminist, I believe that gender does not reside for the most part in our bodies--it resides in our heads, where gender socialization occurs. So for mtfs to focus on physically passing as women rather than on overcoming unwitting vestiges of internalized masculinity and power and control sidesteps the real problems wit h gender--how we come to feel and think inside. The fact that so much emphasis is on physical presentation instead of critiquing masculinity, power dynamics, and patriarchy shows little understanding of feminism.
A Politics Of Individualism
If people are not born with a certain gender orientation, but instead are socialized into their gender, shouldn't we then embrace mtfs into women's space? After all, these are biological men who go so far to renounce masculinity that many actually undergo surgery to have their penises removed. This should be just what we want, more people wishing to join the social category of female.
That would be true, except it involves a very superficial understanding of socialization. Socialization, especially something as profound as gender socialization, cannot be totally overcome by a conscious or intellectual decision to be different. The idea that this could occur so easily comes in part from the extremes to which privileged people do not understand how deep oppression runs.
It's a woman thing, you wouldn't understand
I had a white friend who felt offended when, years ago, many african americans wore shirts that read "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand." He (along with many other white people) felt that he was being slighted, and that of course he could understand if it was just explained to him. As a white person, I believe there is no way to really "get it," to really understand the insidious and pervasive way racism shapes entire biographies, the way subtle and constant acts of racism invade the hearts and minds of people of color.
How superficial, individualistic, and simplistic it would be for me, as a white american raised by a white family, to come to feel that I was really a black person inside, to change my skin color and other features to begin passing as black, and to demand to enter people of color space! In that case we could clearly see how outrageous such a demand would be. Being black in the United States (and elsewhere) is so much more than a matter of adopting skin color. It is an insult and the mark of privilege to miss that point so entirely.
This situation is exactly analogous to mtfs trying to gain access to Michigan. Sure they may have done much to oppose gender oppression, sure, they may pass as women and therefore experience some of what women-born women experience. But if they really "got it," they would never have shown up naked at the showers at Michigan. Even as a committed radical feminist woman, I have trouble overcoming the feminine socialization in my own head, it is so deep and automatic. It is naive and insulting for a man to think by becoming or passing as a woman, she has, presto change-o! overcome deep overdetermined internal socialization as a man. Sure, transwomen have taken a step in the right direction and I applaud that, but it is simply not that easy. Would that it were.
A Politics Of libertarianism
The transgender movement of today is largely libertarian in its political stance, that is, it advocates freedom from oppressive gender roles and freedom to make choices about gender identity and sexual orientation. While these are not bad goals in and of themselves, the emphasis on "freedom" comes from tile discourse of the privileged and of 'liberals who while thinking of themselves as "good guys," don't really challenge the status quo at all.
It becomes easy to see how something as positive sounding as freedom of choice can be inherently supportive of privilege and power when we look at economic libertarians (who, by the way, tend to identify more closely with republicans than democrats). Economic libertarianism calls for freedom from undue governmental imposition on economic matters, so that strict libertarians oppose income tax, the minimum wage, indeed any constraints whatsoever on economic transactions. This means those who have money would not be constrained in any way from engaging in unfair work practices, and could pay laborers $1.00 a month if the laborers entered freely into the arrangement. Such "freedom" empowers those with power and prevents measures to empower the disempowered, like labor laws, fair wage laws, maternity or sick leave, and overtime pay. If an individual needs a job to survive, what power does she have to bargain with a corporation for a Iiving wage without labor laws or unions? It is easy to see how economic libertarianism empowers those with money and power to exploit those without.
Poor women have long criticized the freedom of choice argument about abortion as being fundamentally liberal: it retains the rights of those already empowered to have children to choose when to have their children, but does nothing to address those who are too poor to ever be in a position to care for the children they have or want to have.
The transgender movement, by dwelling so much on freedom of choice identify as whatever gender you want, takes our eyes off the consequences of choices and the way our choices are structured by oppressive forces, in short, it does nothing to eliminate a system based on power and privilege. Such a system values competition over connection, control over cooperation, aggression over compassion, and individualism over interdependence. Freeing people from gender roles means they are free to hold whatever values they choose including the values of power: they can be controlling, disconnected from others, or aggressive if they want to.
The liberation movement I want to join is to dismantle the underlying cultural values of power as embodied in patriarchy, not to liberate people to be free from the constraints of gender roles.
A politics of inclusion
Finally, for all the lip service paid to challenging gender stereotypes through transgression, there is remarkably little analysis about male power, oppression, and patriarchy in its politics. The transgender movement is really a liberal platform--a movement for inclusion in the existing social structure.
What's so bad about inclusion?
I have always been skeptical of the sudden interest in "equality" evinced by white people who feel that affirmative action is not fair to whites. The argument goes, after all, if we want equality between all kinds of people, shouldn't we start treating all people equally now? This strikes me as self-interestedly disingenuous. It is like a basketball game in which one team is forced to play with one hand tied behind their back until half time. At half time the score is accordingly drastically uneven. Then, after half time, when the first team finally gets to use both hands, the second team says it is unfair to ask to even the score-after all, shouldn't the (lie score be tallied purely on merit, shouldn't they be treated equally? Funny how the second team didn't feel merit and equality were so important during the first half. Acting as though equality has been already reached and now should needs to be extended towards the oppressor group belies how pervasive racism still is and is a way of undermining efforts to challenge racism.
I believe that women's space is a powerful strategy, which is evident because it is so virulently attacked both from without (by the right wing--see the February 2000 issue of oob on Mary Daly) and from within (the glbt movement). It seems to me that just when women finally eek out an infinitesimal amount of space to experience one measly week away from patriarchal culture, to begin to try to even the score of five thousand years of patriarchy, the refrain has suddenly become how unfair it is not to be inclusive. There is a lot of liberal rhetoric about nondiscrimination, diversity, and inclusion just at the time when we have started to make a little headway. Not that these aren't ultimately positive values, but it strikes me (as with "merit" and "equality" in the case of abolishing affirmative action for african americans) as more than a little coincidental that they are being touted so much at this particular time. Acting as if there is no problem with male violence and aggression, as if women are not living under the threat of it every day of their lives, as if the problem of patriarchy is merely one of exclusion and not of power and violence, as if male socialization is not intimately linked to power relations and deeply rooted even in those who wish to eschew it, is a smokescreen for conservative forces in the guise of radicalism to destroy the few vestiges of feminist space that we have.
This is a real danger of the transgender movement. Somehow we have a movement whereby men's interests have found a clever way to siphon off lesbian and feminist energies into a liberal agenda of identity politics, individual freedom, and inclusion which make us forget altogether about challenging patriarchy. To the extent feminists partake in this, we have nursed a viper to our movement which is now out to destroy what precious little women's space we have managed to eek out. We have not come a long way, baby, and we cannot afford to give out movement over just yet to the boys, no matter how they come dressed.
As for inclusion and nondiscrimination at Michigan, of all places, that would destroy the very meaning and soul of the festival. The whole point of the festival is to get a chance to experience life without male oppression or the fear of male violence. If the festival operated under the idea of inclusion, why wouldn't we just invite in those guys who ride cars tip and down the road outside the festival trying to get a glimpse of naked women? If we want inclusion, why go all the way up to rural northern Michigan-we can stay at home and simply go to a diverse public gathering of any sort. Inclusion is the very opposite of the whole Michigan experience. Excluding men is the point: it's what makes it the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and not a shopping mall. If having women's space just once a year for a week in one place in this country is so threatening that the boys have to find any way they can to destroy it, I say let's have more of it!
Fuck inclusion! We'll have inclusion when we live in post-patriarchy.
the problem of ftms
Again, the politics of identity avoids taking responsibility for choices and their political implications. For a woman to "feel" more like a man, to want to be a man, is profoundly political. To ignore that men and masculinity have been oppressors of women and to pretend that wanting not to just identify with the oppressors, but actually become like them is, if not anti-feminist, then at least oblivious to feminism. To identify as a man in a woman's body as an essential identity means never having to face or be accountable for taking on the privileges and sometimes oppressive behaviors of men. The ftm just is a man, so if he swaggers, doesn't do the dishes, and is silent and uncommunicative with partners, oh well, he just "is" that way. And anyone suggesting that there is something wrong with masculinity in general, and especially with women trying to take on oppressive characteristics of masculinity or be actual men, rather than taking on a political position, is considered to be discriminatory against an identity.
the biggest challenge: patriarchy
One of the serious problems with the transgender movement is that it masquerades as a progressive or even radical cause that confuses us to the point where we forget that patriarchy and oppression are the problem, not lesbians' failure to include transgender in our feminist spaces. As Allan Johnson writes in The Gender Knot, "Patriarchy's roots are also the roots of most human misery and injustice, including race, class, and ethnic oppression and the destruction of the natural environment." These roots are deep and wide and it is this that we should be focusing our energies on undoing. This is precisely the truth that the transgender movement distracts us from. Indeed, it is no coincidence that nearly all those who perpetuate hate crimes, especially violent ones, are men. If we really want freedom from hate crimes, how about attacking the root cause of what causes men to act violently? How about addressing why men create war, rape, traffick women, just to get started?
Leslie Feinberg writes in Trans Liberation, "There are no rights or wrongs in the ways people express their own gender style." Like hell there ain't! It is wrong to oppress others, and gender, particularly masculinity, is a primary locus of oppression. Are ftms really facing what is wrong with masculinity and how it is the root of human misery and injustice? Are mtfs really about overturning patriarchy and moving away from the enormous destruction wrought by men in the world? Are intersexed and other trans people about overturning power structures, or do they just want to be free to do their own thing and get their piece of the pie?
The insistence of mtfs on being included in women-only-space is a rebellion against women's rebellion, and, like a double negative, ends up being conservative, working against the liberation of women from patriarchy. By challenging women's space, transgender activists act the same as social conservatives. Because they masquerade as progressives with a shared political mission, they are the biggest threat to women's space since it began to be used as a strategy to right patriarchy.
Likewise the increasing popularity of lesbians becoming transmen forecloses their forming solidarity with other women against oppression and instead they join with the oppressors. There are serious and deep problems with masculinity, its politics, ethics, and practice. I would ask anyone, male or female, seeking to embrace masculinity whole-heartedly to give it up, not just for themselves but for humanity.
To the extent we nurture this boybased glbt movement and take on its politics as our own, we seriously imperil our ability to right patriarchy and challenge male violence. The whole transgender project is really fauxliberalism dressed up as a radical chic. While claiming the opposite, its actual effect is conservative in that it does nothing to challenge oppression and hierarchy. And it is dangerous and insidious diversions of lesbian energies away from feminism at a time when we can least afford it.