transgender politics

aka "i love hate mail"

I've been procrastinating about writing this essay for maybe 6 months. This is some deep shit, and it's going to get me in trouble with some of my best friends. But I can't put it off any more. The following essay puts me on the opposite side from not only many of my friends, but also some of my bestest bands: le tigre, peaches, so many more. In writing this essay, I know that in some ways I will be seen as a traitor to many, if not most, feminists my age. I am a throwback, I am not as liberated and liberal as they are, I am just not as cool. I don't get it. But I can't keep quiet about it anymore. Feminism is being stolen from feminists every day, and it's mostly my generation of feminists who have allowed this to happen. Here are my thoughts on it, in the most clear way I can present them. Please e-mail me with your arguments, please try to change my mind. Because so many people I know disagree with my position on this issue, I am more open than usual to alternative points of view (I guess I should always be open to alternative points of view, but let's face it, some things just aren't up for discussion.)

I disagree with the fundamental tenets of the transgender movement, and I think it is doing damage to the feminist movement. There are other essays on this site about how dangerous I think postmodernism is, and so I guess it's only natural that, since the trans movement has come out of the "postmodern project" (postmoderninists love to depoliticize, so they don't call their movement a movement, they call it a "project," which always makes it seem to me like it's a pencil holder made of popsicle sticks or something), I have issues with it.

Oh, first a note. I have not fully developed my opinions on mtf (male-to-female) transgendered people. maybe it's because I just don't care about men as much as I do women, maybe I just haven't gotten around to it. Right now my opinions apply mostly to ftms, because the ftm stance is much more deeply hurtful to me.

Karla Mantilla's "Stealth Politics of Transgender" is one of the best essays I've found online about the trans question. It originally appeared in the legendary feminist journal off our backs and set off a huge controversy. I don't agree with all of what she says, but mostly it's gold.   Karla Mantilla has also written a few good articles on the uses and abuses of postmodernism, one of which can be found at the Off Our Backs site.


Nonviolence is, for me, the fundamental basis of all my political convictions, so I think it's the best way for me to begin the discussion.

It seems to me that many (but not all) women who want to become men, who feel and have always felt that they are men living in a female body, have institutionalized misogyny (hatred of women) to a horrifying extent. There, I said it. I've outed myself as a closet Catherine MacKinnon. Sorry to let everybody down, but I don't believe violence against women is OK -- especially self-inflicted violence, which is undeniably what's happening when women take huge doses of a drug and undergo surgery to rearrange their body parts.

I think that trans people and their allies are so alluring to most liberal, feministy people because they seem to be so inclusive, open, and liberal. They seem to be only widening the circle of radical politics to include all different kinds of people, and what's wrong with that?

What's wrong is that I think the transgender philosophy has the effect of reinscribing and upholding, rather than deconstructing and destroying, gender roles.

Feminism and postmodernism.

My definition of feminism is: a philosophy that says that women should be granted the same rights as men. A philosophy that recognizes that women breathe in patriarchy and breathe out misogyny and attempts to correct this through breaking down the walls of self-hatred we are encouraged to construct. Basically, the kind of feminism I believe in says that 1) being a woman is a wonderful thing and 2) all people deserve basic human rights. I won't get into ecofeminism here, but that's really my main philosophy -- that feminism is connected to every other movement for justice, because there can be no peace when others suffer. It's an anti-violence philosophy, and that's why I like it, because, once again, for me it's all about violence.

But postmodernism gets into those words and changes them around, it worms its slimy way into the very core of words like "woman" and holds them up to a strange academic fluorescent light and says: "what is a woman?" and thus, with a single stroke of the postmodern pen, academics everywhere put down their "I'm pro choice and I vote" bumperstickers (heretofore to be dismissed as "passe")and Discuss. While the Discussion is taking place, Roe v Wade is being stripped from us, Bush is passing laws that require women to wear chastity belts and burkas, and Ted Nugent has just been elected mayor of New York City. But no one cares (except those pomo ladies who find the chastity belts sexy) -- they are too busy writing whole forests worth of discourses with titles like "Incredulity Toward Metanarrative: Negotiating Postmodernism and Feminism." In the postmodern world, no one can say anything with any authority, because absolutely everything is negiotiable. From a Karla Mantilla article:

One intern, assigned to cover an anti-choice event, became confused about how "You can't say that anti-choicers are wrong--they have a viewpoint too. You really can't say any viewpoint is wrong." She actually became confused about her stand on abortion after hearing the fervent beliefs of anti-choicers. Not that she was convinced by the merits of their arguments--that would have been at least an honest mistake. It was her inability to hold any argument as being more valid than another, so that as long as there are competing positions on any topic, she seemed unable to take a stand on it. This, as I see it, is the cumulative effect of postmodern academic teachings on students of women's studies these days. They are rendered unable to take even the most obvious of stands with any conviction.


So, everyone was discussing that a women really isn't anything, really, because the term "woman" is just a sign, and, as Jacques Lacan so accurately pointed out, signs don't and cannot, because of the metaphorical and therefore restrictive nature of language itself, ever actually "be" what they signify -- the actual printed written word "woman" will never be someone with a vagina so therefore that person cannot be said to actually "exist" in any real, quantifyable way, except as a collection of our own latent fears and Freudian desires (and don't computers make it all ever so much more interesting, because now this typed word cannot even be held in your hand, it is a sign that itself doesn't exist, living in cyberspace -- which doesn't exist). Why would anyone care about anything as silly as the fact that women's studies professors get paid half as much as physics professors when we can mull over these questions all day? Well, some women (or whatever) got to thinking: if the category "women" doesn't exist, and postmodernism has freed us to "explore the boundaries of gender" and I've never felt like a "woman" anyway, why don't I bind my breasts with an ace bandage, take a bunch of carcinogenic pills and call myself a man?

Do you see the funny logic there? Without even delving into postmodernism's parlor-game-gone-bad, rich-person's-luxury mind games, if postmodernism really did free us from the shackles of gender, wouldn't we be more free, not less, to be comfortable in the body we're in? If there's no such thing as a woman, what's the rush to escape?

Well...let's think about it. Women who want to become men argue that they have never felt at home in a female body, and, in a truly open society, they should be allowed to "expand the boundaries of gender" and become, either in name or in actual practice, men. My main problem with this is the classic postmodern question: what is a woman? Sidestepping all that crap about language, let's just ask this: when someone says they feel uncomfortable as a woman, what does that mean? You don't want to wear pantyhose? You don't want to be on the bottom during sex? You don't want to shave your legs, talk in a high voice, nurture men and children, prepare meals, be a secretary, accept less money for more work? Is this what you dislike about "being a woman"? If so, I have to be a little rude, because you, who pretend to be so open and radical, are obviously extremely stupid. Many women have somehow managed to travel the slippery slope of affirming themselves as women while not doing any of these things. A little thing called feminism made it possible for women to be able to do many different things, act many different ways, have sex in many different styles, and, until today, it never seemed necessary to undergo massive surgery and change the pronoun with which you refer to yourself in order to do these things. Feminism, good old school 1970s feminism, is what truly expands the boundaries of gender, because it says that men can cuddle and women can fuck and everything is fine, because men and women aren't predetermined to be a certain way. It seems to me that the transgender world reaffirms gender stereotypes, not only in its inability to imagine anything beyond barbie womanhood, but because (it seems to me) the women who do become men become horrible frat boy men that real feminists spend their lives actively loathing. For a great example of this, listen to this insanely strange segment of This American Life , in which a ftm transman discusses his sudden and dramatic transformation into a frat boy almost immediately upon beginning a regimen of testosterone.

Ok, so maybe you understand that all people who identify as women don't have to lust after a 24 inch waist, that there is more to womanhood than nail polish and poppin out babies. What if you just always felt, from the day you were born, that you were a man? You've always looked mannish, always been a tomboy, and you're just tired of dealing with close-minded people who can't accept the fluidity of gender, and you would just be happier as a man. For a long time, my analysis of this issue stopped here, and I agreed that if someone feels this way, they should be free to take steps to bring their inner and outer worlds into alignment and we should embrace that person. But two examples, pointed out by helpful friends, changed my mind. What if you were black in 1944 (or 1844, or 2004), and you were just really tired of being discriminated against. Would the best course of action be to paint your face white every day so you could "pass"? Or would it be to do the horribly hard work of working for more open-mindedness? Or what if you had small breasts and you always, from your 11 th birthday on, felt that you were really, really meant to have really, really huge breasts? Do you think society should embrace your mature decision to have a boob job, or do you think th inking people would think you were maybe just a bit brainwashed?

I have one more point about the connections between feminism and transgenderism. I'm not sure about this, but perhaps one reason so many otherwise awesome women are so eager to disassociate themselves with feminism is because of the so-called "third wave" feminists. I have at least three essays in which I rant about the third wavers and my love/hate (but mostly hate) relationship with them, so, I won't go all into it, but basically third wave feminists, who are usually of my generation, have claimed a kind of feminism that seems sometimes suspiciously like anti-feminism. It started with lipstick -- we can be feminists and wear lipstick! Well, yay for you, I thought. I'm fine with the hemp balm, as it's not made of horses or whatever and tastes of tangerine and not plastic. Then it was -- we can be feminists and marry and stay at home and have baby after baby. Ok, I thought, as long as someone's raising thoughtful feminist kids and it's not me, who's to judge? Now it's -- we can be feminists and enjoy stripping for the pleasure of men. I'm not kidding -- it's called neoburlesque, and it's the new hobby (second only to knitting, strangely) of sexy indie girls all across nyc and other major cities. At first, I tried to be all supportive, after all, so many of these new strippers are anything but perfectly skinny, which is so awesome (as I found out when I went to an indie band show and the middle act was a lovely zaftig lady stripping down to pasties and painted-on underwear). But this is just dumb. I'm happy you've found feminism and it's allowing you to do what you want to do and feel comfortable about it, but have you ever stopped to think about why you feel comfortable doing those particular things? Maybe it's because you're brainwashed and now you're sullying the good name of my favorite f-word in the name of following your heart? Oops, there I go again, accusing people of false consciousness.

But, my whole point is that maybe the smart feminist women who saw the way the feminist "project" was currently being carried out wasn't for them, and, instead of realizing that the word "feminist" wasn't always about pasties and thongs and they ran the other way and ended up with a bottle of pills promising to lower one's voice and raise one's libido.

Finally, I want to write about an encounter with a friend of mine. She is an intensely brilliant woman who is studying to become a civil rights lawyer. I love discussing things with her. But recently we got into the issue of trans politics, and I don't know how it felt to her, but to me it felt like suddenly we were talking to each other from opposite sides of a deep chasm. The differences between us magnified to such an extent that I could hardly see her.

We were basically having the same argument that I outlineed above. I was rambling on and on about how the whole problem with the transgendered world is that we should really be working for a society in which everyone is valued -- girly men and boy girls all the wonderful fuckedupness that is possible -- and no one has to hate themselves and take drugs and have surgery because of institutionalized misogyny. She was, very kindly, with utmost politeness, accusing me of accusing transgendered people of a false consciousness and, basically, saying -- how dare you to presume to know how someone else feels about their body? "But feminism!," I kept saying. "Wouldn't you agree that a huge part of feminism is helping women to get past the self-loathing our patriarchal society heaps upon us and understanding that living in the world as a woman -- making money as women, wearing whatever clothes we want to wear as women, sleeping with whomever we want to sleep with as women -- is a great, not just an acceptable, way to live? At its root, isn't feminism all about simply saying: I am a woman, I am a person, I am allowed to live, I have rights?" (I didn't really say all this, but it's what I would have said if I had been more articulate.) "Honestly," she said, "I don't really find the term 'woman' or 'lesbian' useful for me anymore. That's why I identify as 'queer.'"

My heart dropped to the floor. In college, I was on the queer bandwagon, too, sleeping as I did (and do) with a man yet feeling generally women-identified in all other ways and, plus, no one understood when I called myself a "political lesbian." But in time I came to believe that "queer," while still an attractive term to me in some ways, has generally come to mean yet another group of people led by men. So, they weren't men who looked at me as a rape fantasy, yay for that, but deep down I really am a political lesbian in that the fundamental tenets of lesbian feminism -- basically that i don't care to be around many men -- apply to me in every way except for the comparatively small fact that i'm madly in love with a girly man. So for my friend to say that she doesn't find the word 'woman' "useful" to her anymore -- it was just so, so profoundly sad to me.

We were driving to the March for Women's Lives. The darkness settled around us as we pulled into D.C. I felt a heaviness in my heart and knew if we kept on talking about it I would start crying. Is it just that I can't stand a diversity of opinions, that I want everyone to think the way I do? I asked myself later that night, as I walked the streets, unable to sleep, trying to calm down. I hope not. The next day we gathered our Planned Parenthood and Ms. Magazine signs, our buttons and temporary tattoos, and marched with a panoply of women from around the country and the world. I felt so quiet. I looked at everyone thinking: what do you believe? Who are you? Are you going to change on me?

june 2004   (http://www.lagusta.com/Pages/politics_trans.html)


The Stealth Politics
of the Transgender

The Michigan Womyn's
Music Festival
and Transgender Politics

Identity = Politics:
A Personal Story

Sex, Lies and Feminism

Women-Only Spaces:
An Alternative
To Patriarchy

In Support of
Women-Only Spaces


The Emperor's
New Gender



transgender politics
aka "I love hatemail"

Another View of Exclusion