By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
At Q Center’s second Town Hall meeting, an attendee stood, identified herself as a “woman born woman” and requested space to meet exclusively with other women who identify as she does. Hearing her, I, and the other trans women in attendance, knew that the term for such a person is trans exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF.
That this speaker was not immediately shouted down by all in attendance indicates how little is known about anti-trans woman discrimination in the LGBTQ and feminist communities. What this woman was saying, in essence, was that she is an “actual” woman, unlike trans women. What TERFs believe about trans women can vary. The most virulent, such as those that run the website Gender Identity Watch, refer to us as “men,” and accuse us of “invading” women’s spaces and making the “legitimate” women (meaning those who were assigned female at birth) unsafe via our presence.
Other TERFs complain about trans women’s genitalia, as though that defines a human’s gender, or the fact that we were misgendered and forcibly raised male, as though that’s somehow more harmful to them than it was to us.
Each of these lines of thinking is transphobic and cissexist. In pursuing them, cis women entitle themselves to define womanhood via their gender identities, and to exclude trans women because of ours. Because our society has been so transphobic and cissexist historically, such prejudice and discrimination has heretofore been difficult to challenge.
In her article “Identity is Power,” Renee LaChance spoke of the Women in the Woods (WIW) retreat as a celebration of lesbian feminist pride. She did not mention that was and is a trans exclusionary event. WIW’s “Herstory” page on its website describes the retreat’s “no penises” rule, which has been in place since its inception in 1984. The page further describes efforts by trans women to integrate the retreat in 1999, which were rebuffed by a majority vote of its attendees, and its adherence to its rule since that time.
I’ve gathered in the time since the second Town Hall that lesbians who support the idea of cis women only spaces at Q Center do not wish to be referred to as TERFs, but there’s simply no other way to describe their actions and aims. Women in the Woods is not only a TERF event, but, like the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, with which it compares itself in its “Herstory,” it is a proudly defiant one. MichFest this year was condemned by the HRC and Equality Michigan for being transphobic. Were Women in the Woods a more high profile event, I imagine it, too, would receive such censure.
Trans women want and need equality. The time when we could simply be told we are not welcome is past, as is the time when lesbian feminist pride could be synonymous with trans exclusion. The time since Q Center’s Town Hall has been anguishing for trans women, as we’ve witnessed how little is known about our history of marginalization and oppression at the hands of second wave feminists, like those who organized Women in the Woods, or who now lobby for trans exclusionary space in our own community center.
Over and over we’ve had to assert truths that should go without saying: that trans women are women, that attempts to exclude people on the basis of gender identity are transphobic, and constitute a form of discrimination completely at odds with LGBTQ equality, and that trans exclusionary radical feminist beliefs can have no place in a movement that includes trans women.
Renee LaChance’s article asserted that her generation “paved the yellow brick road to equality.” I have no doubt they accomplished much, but I cannot with my whole heart applaud them knowing they did so while perpetuating transphobic beliefs and actively working against transgender progress.
Second wave feminist leaders, such as Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, and Janice Raymond all put forth TERF ideas, and the latter was instrumental in persuading the Reagan administration to discontinue federally funded trans health care. While these women were progressing, trans women were shut out, ostracized from their own community, and struggling merely to survive.
It’s not lost on any trans woman I know that our current controversy is playing out against a backdrop of epidemic level violence against our community. Transmisogyny says over and over that trans women’s lives are disposable.
If trans women are loud, angry, and unreasonable—as I hear people calling us often these days—I’d argue it’s because we’re trying to be heard over prejudice and hatred that surrounds us. As long as TERF ideas are received with polite approval, as they were at the Town Hall, trans women will likely be screaming. When everybody is as angry as we are at the people who discriminate against us, deny our identities, and omit the transphobic actions of their pasts, we’ll have the luxury of lowering our voices.