Friday, October 29, 2010

Addressing cisgendered privilege:a chance for growth among feminists

"Biology is not destiny" and "Keep Your Laws Off My Body" are generally thought to be iconic feminist pop protest statements. I certainly had both as buttons or bumperstickers in my earlier feminist years. Now some thirteen years later, these statements bring to mind so many different forms of body control and oppression than just the original constraints of childbirth and abortion.
Kate Borstein drew this relation between these old feminist slogans and their application to the bodies of transgender, genderqueer and other gender non conforming persons in her book, Gender Outlaw. She spoke to her struggles as a transwoman seeking acceptance in the feminist community and the irony of the application of such feminist slogans to the transphobic oppression she was experiencing within the community itself.

Certain feminists claim that transgender people seek only to serve the patriarchy. For example, a transphobic feminist might view a transgender woman as a type of male spy, slumming it in the oppressed class. Or this feminist could view a transgender man as a pure appropriator of male privilege. An especially extreme version of such transphobia prevalent in America's feminist history is evident in this quote about transwomen from Janice G. Raymond's 1979 book The Transexual Empire.
All transexual's rape women's bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women's sexuality and spirit, as well.

Like Borstein, who heavily criticized Raymond and other transphobic feminists in Gender Outlaw, I find arguments that transgender people inherently serve the perpetuation of misogyny to be thick with lense of cisgender privilege and coming from a place of deep rooted cultural essentialism. Cisgender is a gender identity for a person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth or its subsequent gender roles. Some people also prefer the identity term "non-trans." A common frustration with this label however, is that it creates identity in terms of the other, even if it attempts to make transgender people the normative label.

The lense of cisgender privilege, like all other intersections of privilege, heavily colors the assumptions that cisgender persons make about the live's of transgender people. The Cisgender Privilege Checklist can help break down what this privilege looks like from the view of those of us who do not experience these powers. If Raymond had examined her own cisgendered privilege, she may have been able to see her views for the transphobic oppression that they were.

The lives and legal regalities of transgender, genderqueer and gender non conformists are beginning to garner more and more attention nationally and internationally. As this happens, I think its pertinent for the mostly cisgendered legal community educate themselves on how their gender privilege affects their interest in trans legal justice and their attitudes towards trans people.

In the legal world where everything gray is attempted to be made black or white, transgender bodies get socially and legally and medically policed in way that often negates their identity soley to "surgical status." Surgical status meaning whether and what surgical modifications have been done to a person's genitals. Raymond did this when she negated transwomen to being "artificial" women. This reduces a person's identity to genitals and a transgender identity to being a medically based one. One good step towards addressing cisgender privilege in the feminist legal community is to encourage scholars and lawyers to move beyond seeing transgender people as defined only by their bodies.

Borstein wrote Gender Outlaw in 1994. In sixteen years has feminism in the US opened its mind and addressed its transphobia? Some age old struggles, like the transphobic policies at womyn's only music events, remain but many feminists have become fierce cisgendered allies to transpeople. The Gender Across Borders Blog has great resources for how to empower transgender children, for example. I think this speaks to the the main feminist populace as being more open minded and anti-essentialist as it may have been twenty or thirty ago when transgender feminists were still seen as tools of the patriarchy.

My hope is that one day most feminists will grow to the understanding that I think many people who live without cisgender privilege have come to themselves; that often the first step to dismantling the patriarchy is to dismantle your own gender and put it back together again as your own design. Like Borstein argues in Outlaw,

Well, its a patriarchal culture, and gender seems to be basic to the patriarchy. After all, men coudn't have male privilege if there were no males...Doing away with gender is key to the doing away with the patriarchy, as well as ending the many injustices perpetrated in the name of gender inequity.


Rebecca said...

I will be honest, I struggle with Dusty’s posts every week and find it difficult to relate or comment. So a few weeks ago, I thought it was time I started to examine why. After all, I consider myself to be very accepting of members of the LGBTQ community. So here is my feeble attempt to comment on this particular post even at the risk of exposing my lack of substantial understanding of the issue.
I did some preliminary research to educate myself, and I began to notice that radical feminists, particularly ones with a separatist view advocating the need for a women- only space or dialog seem to struggle with including transwomen in the conversation. It appears that in their view, a transwoman is not a real woman because she was born a man. By characterizing transwomen as men, it obviously excludes them from women-only spaces of feminist dialog This interpretation denies transwomen a seat at the feminist table in proposals for national conferences of radical feminists and political agenda design discussions. This “ women only” view fails to take into consideration whether transwomen are in fact “men” at all or whether they should be acknowledged as members of “the class of women”.
The view posits a gender binary, placing transwomen squarely in the category called male. This seems to me, contrary to strong “radical” feminism and flies in the face of a feminist movement that is supposed to be about questioning gender binary interpretations. Females who were raised girls certainly have the advantage of being in the significant majority in terms of sheer weight of privilege.

I was surprised to discover that some feminists think the transgender movement is dangerous to feminism and women because it involves the promotion of “men’s interests” at the risk of diverting energy away from the radical feminist movement into a transgender movement. This is a missed opportunity I think. Including transwomen in the definition of women and being inclusive of trans women in radical feminist spaces of conversation gains the movement powerful allies.

We need to remember that transwomen are often at huge risk from the same male sexual violence directed at females who were raised girls.

The idea is that transwomen, because they were raised as boys, cannot understand female oppression because they have absorbed a degree of male entitlement that is impossible to reconcile with radical feminist is a dangerous stereotype. Imagine the conversation if a radical feminist organization told a radical, young, woman-loving transwoman of color that she is too dangerous and privileged to be allowed into their radfem women-only organization or conference.

Again I am reminded that the lens through which many self- possessed radical feminist women view the world has been a white, middle-class, well educated, married, able-bodied and highly entitled one. This “born with a vagina entitlement” is still entitlement. I really don’t think being exclusive gets radical feminism anywhere.

Below are some interesting links I came across in my journey to become more familiar with the issue.

2elle said...

This post exemplifies what I love about this class - exposure to concepts that I would probably not have come across otherwise. I think the idea that by dismantling gender in order to free people from the confines created by a patriarchal society is brilliant, but scary at the same time. I never realized how much of my identity I had wrapped up in the notion of myself as "female" and "feminine". The thought of taking those labels away and reconstructing identity in a whole new way is scary, but liberating at the same time.

I think there is some comfort in using conventional labels to define myself, but this definition oversimpifies who I am and who I can be. I look forward to learning more about alternate ways of reconstructing identity in a way that encourages growth and individuality in people.

Kate said...

We need to remember that transwomen are often at huge risk from the same male sexual violence directed at females who were raised girls.

This is really the most compelling argument against feminist transphobia for me. Lisa Harney at QuestioningTransphobia summed it up really well when she wrote that:

Is it really more important to push to keep trans women who are themselves DV or rape survivors out of DV and rape shelters than it is to agitate against rape culture and domestic violence?...Is it somehow too inconvenient to talk about how abortion access is becoming more complex and difficult over time that it’s just plain easier to take a disempowered and marginalized group of women and try to paint them as a terrifying threat to all women?...Aside from this one thing, we’re on the same side and want the same things...why do you need to make yourselves into enemies?

Why waste your time picking on women who face the same (in fact, percentage-wise a greater) risk as you of being beaten, raped, and murdered, when you could spend that time fighting the men who are doing the beating, raping, and murdering?