This module is divided into four main parts:
- trans discrimination within feminist theory and communities
- Critical Trans Theory
- and trans experiences of sexuality
Before delving into these topics, however, it is helpful to introduce some key terms, borrowed from the introductory chapter of Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity (2007).
Although we are drawing on Serano’s book for definitions of trans terminology, Serano herself uses a term – “transexual” – in the title of this book that has fallen into disfavour. This is indicative of the quickly changing vocabulary in many social justice movements, as activists often shine a light on the potentially problematic connotations of words we use and propose alternatives. Today, the terms “trans” or “transgender” are preferred to “transexual.”
- Transphobia: an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against people whose gendered identities, appearances, or behaviours deviate from societal norms.
- Cisgender: the opposite of transgender, referring to people who have only ever experienced their gender identity and the sex-gender they were assigned at birth as aligned.
- Cissexism: the belief that the genders of trans-identified people are inferior to, or less authentic than, those of cisgender people, the refusal to accommodate the needs of transgender poeple (for example, purposeful misgendering or bathroom policing), and other forms of discrimination against trans people.
- Traditional sexism: the belief that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity.
- Oppositional sexism: the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories and the idea that men and women are opposite sexes.
- Misogyny: the dismissal and derision of femaleness and femininity.
- Transmisogyny: the intersection of transphobia and misogyny as experienced by trans women and transfeminine people.
One of the terms introduced above is “transphobia,” however in this module the term “trans-hating” is used more often than “transphobia.” This is because some activists and scholars have challenged the view that the emotion underlying so-called “homophobia” and “transphobia,” so-called “gay panic” and “trans panic,” is actually fear as opposed to hatred. Note that hatred and not fear is the emotion identified by the word “misogyny” (“woman hating”).
Serano has a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics from Columbia University and she was the first to use the prefix “cis” in opposition to “trans.” These terms are commonly used in the sciences and in chemistry in particular. You can find an article explaining the scientific meaning of “cis” and “trans” here.
Below is a short video by University of Alberta Women’s and Gender Studies professor Simone Pfleger on the terminology used within trans movements and scholarship. In particular, Dr. Pfleger discusses the reasons behind the transition from the usage of “transexual,” seen in the title of Serano’s book, and “trans” or “transgender.”
Misogynist Trans-Hating Persons (MTraHPs)
The tension between trans and feminist communities is decades long. In the 1970s and 1980s, feminists such as Janice Raymond, Sheila Jeffreys, Germaine Greer, and Mary Daly have consistently denied the legitimacy of trans identity on many bases, including the belief that trans women are dupes of patriarchy, that they “infiltrate” women’s spaces to feed off of women’s essential creativity and life force. Feminist theologist of Christianity Mary Daly states in Gyn/Ecology:
“the Frankenstein phenomenon is omnipresent not only in religious myth, but in its offspring, phallocratic technology. The insane desire for power, the madness of boundary violation, is the mark of necrophiliacs who sense the lack of soul/spirit/life-loving principle with themselves and therefore try to invade and kill off all spirit, substituting conglomerates of corpses. This necrophilic invasion/elimination takes a variety of forms. Transsexualism is an example of male surgical siring which invades the female world with substitutes.”Mary Daly, Gyn/ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1990)
While the second wave is often depicted as (and was!) “radical,” it is important not to conflate radical feminism with transphobia. Radical feminism and lesbian separatism are no more inherently transphobic than any other kind of feminism, past or present – except transfeminism, which will be discussed later in the module. If you are interested in reading further on this topic, you might like to read the article “Sandy Stone on Living Among Lesbian Separatists as a Trans Woman in the 70s”.
Contemporary transphobic or trans-hating feminists such as J.K. Rowling, building off of the anxieties and hate of their foremothers, believe that trans women pose a danger to “real women” in women-only spaces (e.g. sport, prisons, women’s washrooms) and critique the way that they see “transgender ideology” co-opting the feminist movement. Given the refusal of “transgender ideology” and with it trans identity, such feminists will often intentionally misgender trans people and depict trans people as inherently violent and threatening. Unfortunately, because their arguments resonate with the transphobia and misogyny found in dominant society, these views continue to spread.
While transphobia and trans-hating are nothing new, inside or outside of feminism, a particular form of transphobia has been articulated in recent years that is called Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism. Canadian queer theorist and feminist social theorist Alexis Shotwell has argued that we should reject the term TERF, however, since those who are so described are in fact neither radical nor feminist.
“It’s not radical to drivel away about patriarchy, dominant ideologies, and systemic class oppression and then to pivot to examining my genitalia as a way to determine my reproductive capacity. That’s exactly what sexist conservative patriarchs do! And it’s not feminist to say that gender oppression is immutable and comes down to what genitals we have and how the people around us when we were little kids treated us. Indeed, that’s one beautiful thing about feminism. Feminism allows us to understand that no matter what people who hate us told us we could be, we can be so much more than they can ever imagine.”Alexis Shotwell
Shotwell proposes that, rather than TERF, we instead use the more accurate term, “Misogynist Trans-Hating Person” which, she suggests, “we could shorten to ‘MTraHP’ if we need to say it out loud.” Indeed, a close look at the issues and concerns of MTraHPs reveals a deep and irrational fear and hate of trans women in particular, and trans people in general. MTraHPs themselves resist the label “TERF,” seeing it as a slur, and refer to themselves as “Gender Critical Feminists.” Again, however, we might resist this term since MTraHPs are neither feminists nor gender critical. For a critique of the term “Gender Critical Feminism,” you can watch trans philosopher Natalie Wynn’s video, “Gender Critical.”
Since neither TERF nor “Gender Critical Feminist” is an accurate description, in this module we will take up Shotwell’s suggestion and use the phrase “Misogynist Trans-Hating Person,” or “MTraHP.”
An infamous example of trans-hating in the guise of feminism is the “womyn-born-womyn-only” policy of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. The week-long festival was held every August between 1976 and 2015 and was a major gathering for lesbian feminists in particular. All the musical performers were female and audience members camped for 8 days at a variety of campsites: there was an “over 50” campsite, a campsite for families with children, a campsite for chemical free and sober audience members, a campsite for audience members needing special accommodations, a quiet zone and a “rowdy” area, and so forth. In addition to the musical performances, there was a kitchen providing vegetarian meals, a grocery store, vendors selling crafts (including sex toys), a Butch Strut and a Femme Parade, and a wide range of workshops on offer.
At its peak in 1985 10,000 women attended the festival. In 1991, however, a trans woman named Nancy Jean Burkholder was asked to leave the festival, and this was justified on the basis of a “womyn-born-womyn-only” policy. According to this policy, while trans men were permitted to attend the festival, trans women were not. As Julia Serano has pointed out, this policy effectively denies the gender identity of both trans men and trans women – trans men were allowed to attend the “womyn-only” festival because the organizers did not actually recognize them as men, while trans women were excluded from the festival because the organizers refused to accept their identity as women.
The festival later decided it would allow post-operative trans women to attend, but maintained a “no penis” policy. Even male children over the age of five were not allowed to accompany their mothers to the festival on the basis of this policy, and child care was provided for these boys at the nearby Brother Sun Boys Camp.
In 1995 “Camp Trans” was launched, a protest held annually beside the music festival grounds.
Musical performers such as the Indigo Girls who had regularly performed at the festival, along with a number of prominent LGBTQ advocacy groups such as the National LGBTQ Task Force and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, boycotted the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival because of its discriminatory policy. In large part because of its discrimination against trans women, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival failed to attract younger women, and attendance dwindled to 3000 by 2013, with the most crowded area of the festival grounds being the “over 50” campsite. Finally, in 2015, rather than change its policy, the annual festival was discontinued.
In the short video below, Julia Serano describes and responds to some of her own experiences of transmisogyny within the feminist community, including her exclusion from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.
Feminism is often understood as a women’s liberation movement, with “women” tacitly understood to be cis women. Feminism should, however, be understood to include the liberation of trans women as well as cis women and, moreover, to oppose and resist all forms of gender and sexual oppression, not just that of cis women and girls. Similar to Shotwell, queer feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has argued that feminism must be in alignment with trans rights, as the “gender fatalism” of anti-trans stances are anti-feminist. Gender fatalism is the view that the gender we are assigned at birth on the basis of sex cannot be changed, and, clearly, this is a view that has oppressed both cis women and trans people.
Although, following Ahmed and Shotwell, all feminism should be trans-inclusive, the term Transfeminism emerged in the early 1990s to describe a form of feminism that centers the experiences and political aspirations of trans people. Transfeminism sees trans liberation as integral to the feminist movement. As the late trans activist and author Les Feinberg argued in Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink and Blue (1998), feminism is primarily concerned with gender oppression and trans people are acutely oppressed by the system of assigning sex and gender at birth. Indeed, queer and trans people who resist the sex-gender binary may face even more violent gender and sexual oppression than cis girls and women who conform to the system; in works such as Stone Butch Blues (1993), for instance, Feinberg described experiencing brutal beatings and sexual assault by police officers during police raids of gay bars. Feminists and trans activists should be allies, Feinberg argued, as they are both invested in resisting biological essentialism and gender fatalism, as well as sexual and gender based violence.
As Emi Koyama observed over 20 years ago in “The Transfeminist Manifesto,” trans liberation has many of the same goals as the feminist movement, including challenging the Freudian claim that “anatomy is destiny” (or that those with wombs are destined to be “women”); resisting traditional gender roles and the assignation of gender on the basis of sex assignment at birth; critiquing norms of beauty and and oppressive body images; resisting sexual violence; reproductive health and autonomy; and fighting discrimination on the basis of gender.
In 1979, MTraHP Janice Raymond published The Transexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, in which she attacked a transwoman, Sandy Stone, for working for a women’s music label, Olivia Records. According to Raymond, Stone was plotting to destroy Olivia Records with her “male energy.” In an early transfeminist response, Stone published the 1987 essay, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto,” which was inspired by her friend Donna Haraway’s famous feminist text, “The Cyborg Manifesto.”
Since these seminal works from the 1980s and 90s, transfeminism has become an important subfield in gender studies including important anthologies such as the 2006 collection, Trans/Forming Feminisms.
As in the title of this collection, transfeminist scholars often use “trans” in expansive ways, stressing the transformational and transgressive potential of transgender for feminist activism and gender studies.
Critical Trans Theory
The third part of this module introduces Critical Trans Theory through the work of trans legal theorist and law professor Dean Spade. This topic is explored through a video lecture that you can find below.
The Introduction and Chapter One of Spade’s book that was the topic of this lecture, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law, is available as an optional reading on the Assigned Resources page.
The fourth and final part of this module has to do with trans people’s experiences of sexuality within a dominant cisgender and cissexist society.
It is important to recognize that transgender is a gender identity and not a sexuality. The fact that a person is trans tells you nothing about their sexuality! Trans people can be straight, gay, bisexual, queer, pansexual, asexual or any other sexual orientation. Thus it is not possible to talk about “trans sexualities” as if this were any one thing. Rather, in this last section the focus will be on how trans people’s sexualities have been constructed and some common experiences that trans people have in relation to sexuality.
“And I mean okay, you can slap a Greek word on anything and make it sound scary, fake, and pathological, but I think this is an especially unfair way to characterize my experience…”Natalie Wynn, “Autogynephilia”
In previous modules we saw some of the ways in which women’s sexuality and gay and lesbian people’s sexuality has been pathologized by doctors. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, in this module we will see that doctors have also pathologized the sexuality of trans people and of cis people who are attracted to them.
One example of the pathologization of trans people is the diagnosis of “autogynephilia.” Etymologically, autogynephilia has the Greek roots for “self,” “woman,” and “love,” and is used to describe men who are aroused by the thought of themselves as women and who, for this reason, enjoy dressing up as and may ultimately transition to living as women. This diagnosis hypersexualizes trans women, suggesting that their main motivation in transitioning is sexual gratification rather than related to gender identity as trans women themselves describe. The topic of the autogynephilia diagnosis and the pathologization of trans people’s sexuality is explored in the assigned resource for this module, Natalie Wynn’s (ContraPoint) video, “Autogynephilia.”
Scientists have also pathologized attraction to trans people, with some scientists deeming such attraction to be a paraphilia. Scientific labels for such attraction include gynandromorphophilic and gynemimetophilic (applied to men who are attracted to trans women), andromimetophilic (applied to people who are attracted to trans men), and skoliosexual (used to refer to people attracted to non-binary people).
Sexual Objectification and Fetishization
Trans people are often subjected to sexual objectification. An example is this is a fixation on their genitals and frequently being asked about whether they have had bottom surgeries. In a well-known incident, talk show host Katie Couric asked Carmen Carrera about her genitals – which it is almost unimaginable that she would ask a cisgender guest about – and was hushed (“sssshhhh…”) and scolded by Carrera. Her next guest, Laverne Cox, then elaborated on Carrera’s points, explaining to Couric some of the reasons why her question had been inappropriate.
While it is commendable that Carrera and Cox so eloquently educated not only Couric but also her viewers about the harms of asking prurient and invasive questions of trans people about their bodies, it has been suggested that such admonishments, while necessary, have “inadvertently created a taboo in the trans community: Nobody talks about sex.”
Trans people are also subjected to sexual fetishisation. Fetishisation refers to a situation in which a person is desired because they have been reduced to just one aspect of themselves, rather than being recognized, valued, and desired as a whole person. Although some argue that so-called “trans-attraction” or “trans-amorousness” is a sexual orientation or identity, many trans people have seen it as a form of sexual fetishisation. You can read such a critique of “trans-attraction” here.
As Cox’s admonishment of Katie Couric highlights, trans people are disproportionately subjected to violence, including sexual violence. As some of the interviewees mention in the videos on internet dating, trans people must constantly negotiate the danger of sexual violence when choosing whether to pass and when to come out in the context of dating. Although coming out from the start puts one at risk of being sexually objectified and fetishized, not coming out until a later point can increase the risk of sexual violence.
Gender Dysphoria and Gender Affirmation
Sex can cause some trans people to experience gender dysphoria as it involves engaging with parts of one’s body that may be a source of distress. Gender dysphoria can be worked through by communicating with sexual partners about how one wants to be touched, which acts feel safe, whether one is comfortable being naked, and what words one prefers to refer to one’s anatomy. Sex can be an opportunity to experience gender euphoria as well as dysphoria, however, and can be uniquely gender affirming.
The two short videos below on online dating touch upon some of these topics.