The exclusion by some radical feminists of trans women from a broader coälition of feminism may be undermining solidarity that both groups of women need to fight oppression
By LOUIS FLORES
As the second wave of the women's rights movement began to swell over America following the publication of the landmark book, The Feminine Mystique, it's author, Betty Friedan, expressed a concern that a lavender menace of men-hating lesbians could potentially derail changes in public opinion necessary for enactment of civil rights legislation to end discrimination based on sex. Almost 50 years later, precepts of those fears still exist with some quarters of feminist thought in America, and those fears have flared up in what can be described as a pink peril of female-bodied women, who are threatening the civil rights gains being advocated by trans women.
Within a span of weeks, the interview program hosted by Christopher Hedges on RT America broadcast two segments on the topic of feminism. The first featured Mary Lou Singleton, a midwife and women's liberation activist, and Maya Dillard Smith, the former head of a civil rights group, and the subject was oppression based on "biological sex." The second featured Pauline Park, a notable LGBT and human activist based in New York, and the subject was oppression based on gender and gender identity. Given the gulf in feminist ideology between the lavender menace and the pink peril, the same interview program could not have broadcast discussions about the oppression of women from more different perspectives.
During her interview, Ms. Singleton addressed the issue of a system of patriarchy in which "male-bodied people are exploiting female-bodied people," mentioning issues left unresolved by the second wave of the women's rights movement, such as the wage gap between men and women. The first interview program then pivoted to how men are now attempting, under a perceived extension of patriarchy, to self-identify as women (a reference to trans women), and this shifted into a discussion of the circumstances that led to Ms. Dillard Smith's separation from the civil rights group she formerly headed. Ms. Dillard Smith resigned in June 2016 from her post as interim director of the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union after she questioned the ACLU's support for the right of trans individuals to use the bathroom that corresponded with their gender identity, according to a report published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In speaking about the efforts to update the Civil Rights Act to be inclusive of legal protections based on gender identity, Ms. Dillard Smith warned that such efforts would undermine legal protections codified in law that prohibit discrimination based on what she described as immutable characteristics, such as sex and race. Efforts by the Political Left to expand legal protections would, in her view, undermine the legal protections that women and other minorities, particularly Blacks, have been trying to defend from attack by the Political Right.
"The implications in the law will serve to have some consequences both on the gender continuum, with the greatest consequence to the advancement of rights for women, but also have deep consequences on the advancement of people of color," Ms. Dillard Smith said, in an appearance on Mr. Hedge's interview program, On Contact. Ms. Dillard Smith added that she would entertain "exploring" rights for trans women that would not undermine the rights of minorities, adding that there have to be "accommodations," but she notably stopped short of advocating for full equal protections. When asked by the host Mr. Hedges about her views of race, Ms. Dillard Smith said that she viewed both race and gender as immutable characteristics.
The narrowness of Ms. Dillard Smith's ideological viewpoint were described by some as a failure to call for full equal protection guarantees for humans regardless of social constructs, and that shortcoming was reflected in the comments that were posted on the YouTube video of the interview. One comment on the YouTube video described the parsing of words to ensure an exclusion of trans women from fully claiming feminism for themselves as transmisogyny -- a modern-day consequence of Ms. Friedan's fear over a lavender menace.
Eight weeks later, Mr. Hedges broadcast an interview with Ms. Park on On Contact during which he asked Ms. Park to respond to the ideology of radical feminists, who viewed trans women as not fully women. In response, Ms. Park said, "I think the progressive feminist perspective on this is to view sex, as well as gender, as social constructions and to understand how [the] sex-gender binary is the root of all of our oppression -- as men, as women, as trans people." Ms. Park added that, "Only when we deconstruct the sex-gender binary will we be able to construct a truly just and equal society."
A trans-inclusive feminism as a progressive sensibility
During the interview, Ms. Park also said that efforts by the Political Right to attack the rights of trans women represented a push-back against civil rights. In an interview with Progress Queens, Ms. Park described the Polical Right's efforts as meriting concern to all feminists. At the same time, Ms. Park complained that the actions of the Political Right against trans women were being ignored by some feminists, who remained influenced by the second wave feminist political thought of LGBT exclusion. Ms. Park said that the narrow view of some radical feminists have about sex had become obsolete, citing examples of how laws have already been changed to include gender alongside sex as categories of protection against discrimination, saying, "The clear distinction between sex and gender that used to exist no longer exists." Ms. Park cited as an example that New York City's human rights laws were amended to include gender as a category of protection against discrimination -- even if one's sex differed from one's biological sex, according to a reading of the law by The New York Times -- a change in the law, which Ms. Park lobbied to bring about.
Responding to the assertion that legal protections against discrimination need to be rooted in immutable characteristics, Ms. Park said that freedom of religion was a right for which the underlying religion practised by a person could be mutable, and that the right to be free from discrimination as a result of one's religion should still hold. That a person could change one's religion proved that the immutable argument "falls apart," Ms. Park said. Citing how foetuses are masculinised in the weeks after conception, Ms. Park said that sex was shown to be mutable, and she pointed to intersex individuals for whom there were no concrete binary to sex or gender -- proving that the sex-gender binary was just a social construction. "Second wave feminists never talk about intersex individuals, because it undermines their arguments for biological essentialism," Ms. Park said.
Ms. Park added that the arguments of radical feminists, who exclude trans women, known as trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF's, advocated arguments similar to those used by Christian fundamentalists against the LGBT community, and these anti-LGBT opinions shared an ideological cohesion based on ignorance and hate, such as on the comments that were posted on the YouTube video of Ms. Park's appearance on Mr. Hedge's interview program. Of the similarity in language used by TERF's and the Political Right, Ms. Park said, "TERF's, who think men are the problem, find commonality with misogynist men on the Internet and Christian fundamentalists against trans rights and for oppression based on gender. A progressive movement for social change requires trans-inclusive feminism."
If a trans-inclusive feminism were the ultimate goal, one guide post to reaching that destination would be to act in solidarity. Paradoxically, both trans feminists and radical feminists each bear some levels of erasure, particularly within their own communities. In the LGBT community, for example, prominent gays and lesbians backed a New York State-wide civil rights measure that was signed into law in 2002 ; the law extended protections against discrimination that were based solely on sexual orientation -- omitting any protections based on gender identity or gender expression. To this day, the transgender community within the broader LGBT community are still lobbying, unsuccessfully, for passage of amendment legislation that would add prohibitions to discrimination based on one's gender expression. As within the LGBT community, where there can be a lack of mutual support between the LGB on one side and the T on the other, within the women's rights movement, there has been a lack of mutual support for feminism by female-bodied people, notably between the radical feminists, who championed the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, and conservative women, such as the late Phyllis Schlafly, who made it her goal to defeat the ERA. Despite this lack of mutual support within each sides' communities, that radical feminists still reject trans women makes the failure to build unity all the more calamitous.
An early civil rights plateau for women that failed to overcome the wage gap, and an ascendancy for gay men within the LGBT community on matters of income
To some trans activists in New York, the push-back by TERF's against the extension of civil rights protections for the trans community could be rooted, on some level, in envy. Whereas the women's rights movement essentially plateaued after the collapse of support for the ERA, in the time since the sexual revolution of the 1960's, the march for legal protections against discrimination against the LGBT community has been clearly ascendant. Not only that, but for some members of the LGBT community, there exists no wage gap, particularly for some gays and lesbians with corporate jobs, some of whom have very high disposable incomes, despite being in protected classes. Finally, to some trans activists, the fact that trans women have become desirable partners for men, who describe themselves as heterosexual, can also be a trigger for backlash. Brooke Cerda Guzmán, an outspoken activist for trans women's rights, said that the "gay culture," generally, has made tremendous strides. "We have gone mainstream on steroids," Ms. Cerda Guzmán said. Because gay men, particularly White men are "loaded," Ms. Cerda Guzmán said that some members of the LGBT community have achieved some measures of equality that, although largely denied to the trans community, may be leading to critical reflection amongst feminists, particularly since large numbers of White gay men out-earn Black men. Speaking of women in the "dominant culture," Ms. Cerda Guzmán said she had trouble understanding the lack of sympathy from feminists toward the economic and legal status of trans women, "If they are having a crisis, [radical feminists should be realizing that] we are all having a crisis," Ms. Cerda Guzmán said.
Some studies of data that do not exactly overlap show that gay men may out-earn Black men. One study of American men showed that Black men earned about 25 per cent. less than a typical White man's wage. In Canada, another study showed that gay men with partners earned only five per cent. less than straight men with partners. In a report published by The Atlantic about the Canadian study, this pattern was confirmed : "In the American pay hierarchy, the pattern is the same : Heterosexual men typically earn more than gay men, who earn more than lesbian women, who in turn earn more than heterosexual women."
In addition to an imbalance on income, trans activists said that they faced discrimination and violence from a culture of patriarchy that should lend itself to solidarity with radical feminists. Ms. Cerda Guzmán, for example, denounced how some TERF's remained steadfast in mis-gendering trans women, recalling how much efforting feminists undertook to reject the notion that women could be reduced to their body parts. If feminists don't want to be perceived by their body – "as a baby-making machine, as a sexual object" -- why do some radical feminists reduce trans women to their body parts, asked Ms. Cerda Guzmán ? "You cannot have it both ways."
The "other" women
Progress Queens reached out to Ms. Dillard Smith via her social media accounts for an interview for this report, but no response was ever received. Ms. Singleton agreed to an interview request after Progress Queens submitted advance questions that would be the subject of an interview. During an interview with Progress Queens and in the time since, Ms. Singleton objected to the use of language intended to participate in a discussion about how some feminists viewed trans women as an other, even when such language was used by Progress Queens to refer to Ms. Singleton's own concepts that trans women were an other -- separate from what Ms. Singleton described as individuals, whom she called women "on the basis of biological sex." Prior to the publication of this report, Ms. Singleton preëmptively published an entry on her Web site expressing her reservations about the use of the term "cis" to describe women, whom she viewed as different from trans women, based on biological sex. During an interview with Progress Queens, in an exchange of e-mails with Progress Queens, and in her Web site post, Ms. Singleton would, at times, use language of collaboration, and then she would invoke language that appeared to be deliberately intended to provoke a strong reaction from trans women.
The first of four questions posed to Ms. Singleton by Progress Queens was about the calls for solidarity between women activists, namely, whether it would be possible for feminism to operate under a "big tent" that could include the rights of trans women Ms. Singleton rejected the notion that trans women could invoke gender to claim entrée to women's rights, since Ms. Singleton gave meaning to gender as the root of oppression for female-bodied women. "Gender locks down oppression," Ms. Singleton said, saying later that, "Gender enforces the male system of patriarchy." To Ms. Singleton, the only qualification for womanhood was her immutable sex. Consequently, Ms. Singleton defined gender as a social construct, and she denied that a woman's sex was a social construct, saying that, "We are living in a body that can be subjected to rape-induced impregnation," she said, referring to the physiology of female-bodied women, adding that a female-bodied woman was regarded as a "state-regulated incubator." In respect of trans women demanding protections against discrimination, Ms. Singleton said that such expansion of rights would come at a risk of weakening protections against discrimination against female-bodied women, who might be discriminated against for menstruating or for breast-feeding, for example.
Despite her reservations, Ms. Singleton said during an interview that, "I don't think anybody should be discriminated against," a sentiment she similarly expressed on Mr. Hedges' interview program. Notwithstanding her expression of sympathy, her statements during an interview turned hostile towards trans women, generally, and towards Ms. Park, in particular. Unprovoked, Ms. Singleton spoke of trans women as "men wearing dresses." She then extended her indignation by saying that, "I'm tired of people with penises trying to tell me what I need to agree with." Of Ms. Park, Ms. Singleton said, at several points, "She doesn't give a shit about women," "I don't believe that Pauline Park is a female-sexed person," and "Whether I think Pauline Park is a woman or not does not matter to a homophobe, who may attack her. He's probably also being violent to women." In summary, Ms. Singleton said that if trans women really wanted to embrace feminism, the focus shouldn't be on divisions between women but, instead, on male violence. "Let's name the problem," Ms. Singleton said. "We can work together on that : ending male violence."
To some radical feminists like Ms. Singleton, the battle of the sexes is certainly not over. For example, in her preëmptive Web site post, Ms. Singleton described what appeared to be a competition for equality between biological women, for lack of a better term, and trans women and of her belief that the status of biological women were at risk due to the advocacy by trans women for their own equality. Yet, within the framework of her own arguments, she complained about the need for words that would perpetuate an otherness between women. "If transwomen would like to join this fight in a way that does not eliminate this group of people [women biologically born female] from having concise words for ourselves and the ability to name what is happening to us (sex-based oppression; males oppressing females), I welcome that help. Instead, many transwomen are upset that female people are not using our resources and energy to fight for the rights of males who declare themselves female."
If the need for precise language to respect separations based on a person's characteristics took a priority over finding commonality in the equality of all people, regardless on one's characteristics, then some viewed the emphasis on the precise language of differences between people as nothing more than minorities adopting and affirming the semantics of their own oppressors. During Ms. Dillard Smith's interview with Mr. Hedges and in Ms. Singleton's interview with Progress Queens, both women cited the case of former NAACP official Rachel Dolezal, who self-identified with Black culture and who many saw as passing herself off as a Black woman, as an example of a threat to existing legal protections based on race. Both women saw Ms. Dolezal as a metaphor for the threat that advocates for trans equality would pose to existing legal protections based on biological sex. Further threatening civil rights activists was the fact that Ms. Dolezal has said during an interview broadcast by the CNN cable news network that she viewed race as a social construct. Any arguments calling characteristics that are used as the basis for discrimination as social constructs threatened to undermine advocacy for equality that second wave feminists argued for on the basis of sex, particularly during a time when a fear of the lavender menace rooted advocacy solely based on sex, and not on gender.
Following her resignation from the Georgia chapter of the ACLU, Ms. Dillard Smith launched Finding Middle Ground, an online Web site that is using at least one of her own children to promote what some equal rights activists deem a false panic around the right of trans women to use the bathroom of their gender identity. “There are real concerns about the safety of women and girls in regards to this bathroom debate,” Ms. Dillard Smith said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, invoking a menace. In the time since that interview, it was reported that 60 per cent. of trans women have avoided using public bathrooms out of fear for their safety, according to findings of a study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and reviewed by the Reuters wire service for a news report. To some trans activists, if radical feminists truly believed in providing "accommodations" to trans women -- as loaded as that term became for Blacks fighting for space aboard buses, at bus stations, and in bathrooms -- the failure of the accommodations to exist or to actually be provided revealed one more way how, within the same community of sisterhood, one group was betraying another.
* A note on the language : In this article, terms, such as female-bodied women, biological sex, and cis-gendered women, were used to access meaning conveyed by the discourse of the subjects interviewed for or written about for this report.
RT America : On Contact
- Chris Hedges ‘On Contact’ : Female erasure with Maya Dillard Smith & Mary Lou Singleton (02 July 2017) [YouTube]
- On Contact: The Struggle for Trans Rights (03 September 2017) [YouTube]
- Georgia ACLU director resigns over transgender fight [The Atlanta Journal Constitution]
- What Is a Woman ? The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism. [The New Yorker]
- Why LGBT Advocates Say Bathroom 'Predators' Argument Is a Red Herring [Time]