Bigotry is often born out of fear and confusion at those whose identities we don’t understand. We fear that their difference reflects on our sameness, and in a rush to blanket ourselves in the comfort of conformity, we demonize their difference. Progressives often bemoan the bigotry underlying the policies and political positions of those on the right, but the sad truth is that bigotry exists even in progressive and feminist spaces. And nowhere is that more evident that in the transphobia, both latent and outright, that underwrites many facets of the feminist movement
The Twitter hashtag #RadFem2013 is littered with a small but acerbically aggressive sect of online feminists who have hijacked radical strands of feminism, rooted in challenging patriarchal structures and oppression, as a means to belittle, condemn, and berate members of the trans community. They contend that because trans women were born male, that they are not women. They actively exclude trans women from feminist spaces. They demonize trans women as female impostors and violently libelously label them as supporters of “corrective rape.” They harass trans women online and often publish the full names and addresses of trans women in online spaces. And yet, while they are perhaps the most visible perpetrators of transphobia within feminism, they are not the only ones.
Often, mainstream feminists simply avoid talking or writing about trans women. Trans woman and activist Sophia Banks emphasizes that while she identifies as a feminist, her experience within the feminist community has been largely mixed. “Intersectional feminists have been great but many radical feminists have been really hurtful towards me,” she says, highlighting that many feminists work within the confines of gendered language, and, perhaps unknowingly, operate from an assumption that cisgender women (cisgender means someone who identifies with the gender they were born with) are their target audience.
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Any assumption that cisgender women are the only true women is a blatant form of bigotry. And honestly, it’s in direct violation of Feminism 101. After all, Simone De Beauvoir said more than half a century ago “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
Feminism is predicated on the idea that gender is a social construct, that women are not defined by their biology, and that the category of “woman” is informed and constructed by social gender norms. If women are more than what’s between their legs, why do some feminists continue to perpetuate a patriarchal notion that biology is destiny?
Feminism cannot be a movement to create boundaries about who is an acceptable woman and who is not. Feminism cannot be a means of promoting bigotry and isolation. Feminism is a movement for social change, one that challenges the gender binary and works to end the patriarchal oppression of women. Feminism is supposed to critique and combat bigotry, not perpetuate it. That is precisely what “rad fems” and any other transphobic feminists are doing; perpetuating bigotry against trans women while cloaking themselves in feminist rhetoric.
Any time that cisgender feminists fail to include trans women, that is transphobia. Those within feminism (or anywhere, for that matter) that perpetuate the demonization of trans people are purveyors of transphobic bigotry. Perhaps it’s the fear of losing privilege, of confronting the reality that we are not women because we are born that way, but because we choose to be. But those “Rad Fems” who dwell in the blind comfort of their own bigotry, who attack and stigmatize trans women, and who maintain that feminism is only for cisgender women, they need to understand that their bigotry will not be tolerated within feminist spaces.
Cisgender feminists must include and advocate for trans women. Rather than maintaining a myopic focus on trans women’s bodies, one that reiterates the same biological determinism we are trying to avoid, Ph.D candidate and queer activist Ricky Hill advocates that cisgender feminists should “focus more on highlighting and engaging the experiences and accomplishments of trans women into the rubric of feminism.” Cisgender feminists must not only make space for trans women within feminism, but enable their voices, perspectives, and stories to be disseminated and promoted. And as Sophia Banks emphasizes, it is just as important that cisgender feminists refute transphobia whenever they hear it, whenever they see bigotry and hatred pointed at any member of the trans community.
Trans women are women. How do I know that? Because they say they are women. Because they identify as women. Because your gender expression is not dictated by the gender with which you were born. Because I, and many other cisgender feminists, trust trans women when they say they are women. Because women are women, and that’s really all there is to it.