Monday, June 6, 2011

Who Will Transgender and Transsexual Activists Support in Men's War Against Women?

image is from here
I've written a great deal on this subject but few people appear to want to engage with these issues. Here's my latest attempt to generate respectful conversation and coalition building. For background on my position and political/structural location, see *here*. For now, I'll inform you that I am what is frequently termed "male-bodied" since birth; I am white and gay and have many white male privileges but not some of the ones that white het men have; I am intergender and asexual. I don't see myself reflected in either dominant media or in queer media. I don't hear many of my issues being raised by conservative and liberal trans activists. So I'll start with that. This post isn't about how to make me more comfortable. It is about how to make the world safer for women and girls.

There is a globalised patriarchal war against women, perpetrated and protected most powerfully by men. Among these two socially gendered groups in white-supremacist North America is a third and fourth, self-identified as transgender and transsexual. The distinction between the two terms is blurry and is set in motion, not in stone. The first, I would argue, is inclusive of the second: transgender refers to individuals who experience ourselves as not fitting into the binary: woman and man. It generally means people who don't identify strictly either of these groups of grown-ups, using English-language terms which has its own significant cultural and linguistic limitations:

Group 1: people raised to be boys, identified usually as male when medically or physically examined, and who now identify as men in adulthood.

Group 2: people raised to be girls, identified usually as female when physically or physically examined, and who now do not identify as women in adulthood.

The issue of who names us male and female is a tricky one--enough of us are intersex in many ways to make such labeling spurious, invalidating, and oppressive. Why do we need to distinguish who is allegedly one of two sexes, at birth--or before? So we know what color clothes to buy? To project our own stereotypes and selfish wishes upon the child? To begin the process of socialising the newborn as a heterosexual girl or a straight boy? In my experience those are the primary reasons there's such an obsession with the "sex" of one's fetus or newborn. I say skip the balloons--there's enough latex and rubber allergies already. And mylar isn't recyclable.

I'd say social dominants would be better off not knowing and determining the "sex" of our children, as science defines the term, unless there is a compelling medical-health reason for doing so. But I wouldn't make this same prescriptive statement about non-dominant people. More on this in a bit.

The science and medical knowledge of sex is confusing, complicated, and sexist, usually leaving out two groups: intersex people and transsexual people. Those of us who are transgender and intergender do not fit the birth-bill either. But, as a radical intergender activist, I don't want anyone telling me what that is unless they are socially positioned to be oppressed by me, or unless they are also intergender. Who, among adults, is structured or located to be oppressed by me? All female people, all intersex people, and all women. That includes some transsexual and transgender people as well. I'd like to remind the reader, if you're not female, a woman, or transsexual or transgender, that many transgender people are not transsexual, and many transsexual people do not socially appear to be transsexual--at least in ways that many non-trans people assume that "looks like". Many of us are not gender non-conforming or genderqueer, for example. Many of us are not seeking or desiring surgery or other medical interventions. To watch dominant media, you'd think "transsexual and transgender" people are all surgery-bound M2F and F2M people. We're far more diverse in our understandings of self and goals at achieving greater personal and social well-being than that.

For the last year or so, I have been understanding "intergender" as one of many ways of being transgender, but there's an argument to be made that transgender people might be under the umbrella "intergender"--if we can identify non-transgender people who are not women or men. I'm an intergender person who doesn't identify as a man or a woman, who doesn't and won't claim I should be included in woman-only and womyn-only spaces, who respects woman- and womyn-only spaces, including social service, cultural, and political and educational institutions--the few that exist.

In my view, it is dangerously conservative and misogynistic for white transgender and transsexual people to seek the identities most enforced in heteropatriarchal societies--"woman" and "man', in English. I can understand anyone wanting to fit it and not call additional attention to oneself, for all kinds of reasons. Assimiliation is one of many strategies for increasing opportunities for safety and survival. But while I can appreciate the need for it, I won't promote it as a radical approach across the board. Because in witnessing the conflicts that have emerged in the last twenty years, it appears to me that social change to radically transform the gender binary is not the goal of many white transsexual or transgender people; only seeking liberal forms of assimiliation and accommodation is.

Sex and gender are culturally and regionally relative and overlapping binaries in most places on Earth. Across the globe sex (and in some places, gender) is also also a means of maintaining a political hierarchy, a system of male supremacy and male privilege in which girls and women, and everyone else determined not to be a man, is oppressed structurally by men, and sometimes also by women. Those oppressed by women are lesbians, by het women, who endure interpersonal, cultural, and institutional abuse from het women, het men, and non-het men such as gay and bi men. Whites and the wealthy people--women and men, in many such systems--oppress women who are not white or who are poor and working class.

A few white-majority but not white-only situations have arisen in North America which highlight tensions and political struggles with regard to women and trans-identities. Social and cultural privileges, powers, and entitlements inhere in the identities that we are collectively assigned and seen to be--regardless of what we are. Other sets of privileges, powers, and entitlements come to those of us who adhere to socially compulsory and mandatory identities, regardless of how we experience ourselves.

At issue here, in this post: do people who were raised male, as boys, intentionally and deliberately retain their privileges and entitlements to name themselves, rather than be named by others? Do males or formerly labeled male people have the power to re-name themselves as women, and proceed to assimilate into spaces populated by women-only? Historically and currently, most woman-only spaces have been either controlled and mandated, or invaded and otherwise threatened by men. Is it reasonable to assume that another population of gendered activists might be regarded and experienced as unfriendly and unsafe by women? I'd say "Yes". Unequivocally, yes.

My experience is that this gendered group has an increasing number of allies in liberal and conservative queer communities, organisations, and institutions. And that those communities are anti-radical and anti-feminist. What I mean is that they are unapologetically misogynistic and antifeminist, as well as pro-patriarchal and anti-revolutionary. Many liberal and conservative activists and allies have some or a ton of male privileges and entitlements--usually unowned. In this respect, trans people and allies are just like men: patriarchal power over women is denied or minimised. Or worse: women are seen as the most oppressive gender.

I'd argue that when we discuss such things, we must, at the start, always acknowledge that we are living during a wartime. Not only a US and NATO war against Central Asia, but also a much older war, dating back before the genocidal slaughter (on-going) of Indigenous North Americans. I hear very little to no discussion among trans activists about the need to challenge and eradicate a very domineering and deadly Western Civilisation including US Empire. These malignant forces are increasingly globalised and infectious, carrying with them Christian patriarchal, white supremacist, and corporate capitalist values, institutions, assumptions, rituals, attitudes, and practices.

Those forces are designed to encourage and accommodate anyone who oppresses women. It is a system both of normalised and of extremist misogyny: of discrimination, violation, objectification, exploitation, degradation, destatusing, stigmatising, domination, and terrorism of all female and feminised people, who do not have the privilege and power and entitlement to name ourselves and have those names resonate accurately and be respected in the minds, actions, and institutions ruled by social dominants.Needless to say, transsexual and transgender people are not located so securely as either women or men. To white and otherwise privileged trans people: I'd argue we ought not seek assimiliation. I'd argue we ought to make social space for trans people, and not insist that we are 'either women or men'. Some of us are neither, after all.

In the last forty years, only one activist group--a very diverse and necessarily anarchistic one--has organised with the expressed political purpose of radically transforming this male-dominated, man-worshipping society. That group is radical feminists. I support their efforts to get patriarchy, pro-patriarchal activists, and their allies and apologists off women's backs.

In my experience, liberal feminists are usually organised to modify heteropatriarchy in various ways; and many modifications are needed to assist people in living in patriarchy with less unattended and unacknowledged misogynist and sexist harm. In the 1970s, for a time, it appeared that radicals and liberals might work together and in complimentary ways to achieve various goals. I don't see that happening any more, primarily because liberalism has bonded with conservatism, betraying and ostracising radicals in the process.

This has meant some very significant things for many non-dominant groups and cultures in North America. For one, it has meant that the emergence of transsexual and transgender issues and people has not occurred in an environment where radical feminism is thriving. Due to this, far too many liberal and conservative values and practices have taken hold in these communities, and in the minds of us who identify this way.

Dean Spade, a white progressive trans activist, defaults into liberal political perspectives when calling on society to use gender-neutral terms. (See *here* for more on that.) I appreciate his perspective very much. I have great respect for his work. But I see some of what is promoted there as a way to move forward as dangerous to women's effort to accomplish liberation. Efforts to pretend we don't live in a world of women and men further denies women, particularly and especially women without race privileges and power, the already comprised right and power to define themselves as they wish, including redefining what it means to be a woman as racist heteropatriarchal men oppressively define that term. Men terroristically enforce the parameters of that definition by violating women's bodies and visiting unending violence against women and girls. Again, this reality ought not be forgotten when we discuss and work for social justice.

This message might well be a broken CD, but more mutually respectful dialogue and discussion, as well as alliance-building and coalition work is needed, as we hopefully all work to radically transform a deeply racist, classist, and heteropatriarchal Western Civilisation. As you read what follows, ask yourself what the values and practices are that Tim Chevalier and Wellesley College officials are promoting. How do each support or undermine women's resistance to patriarchal atrocity? I'm not making a case that trans-identified people must be pro-feminist and supportive of radical activism as many feminists--of all colors and classes--define that term. I'm arguing for effective radical activism to thrive, it would be good for conservatives and liberals--trans or not--to support radical feminist projects, not harshly critique and otherwise attempt to subvert them.

What follows is from  AlterNet / By Cortney Harding

Please click on the title below to link back to the source website.
Tim Chevalier was told by his alma mater that he would not be allowed to interview prospective students because his male identity would be a distraction.
All Wellesley alum Tim Chevalier wanted to do was help interview prospective students for his school. What he ended up doing was sparking a debate about transgendered graduates and the meaning of single-sex education.

When an email went out from the Oregon Wellesley Club last year seeking alums of the women's school to help interview prospective students, Chevalier expressed his interest. After a few exchanges with the local alumnae coordinator, Chevalier, then a graduate student at Portland State University, set up a coffee meeting and gave the coordinator a heads-up: although he had used female pronouns and a traditionally female name while attending Wellesley, he had since transitioned and is now male.

What followed could be called as a comedy of errors, if the emotional stakes weren’t so high. In a series of blog posts from the fall of 2010, Chevalier wrote that he met with the school's coordinator, who informed Chevalier that he would not be allowed by the admissions office to do any one-on-one interviews, because of his transgendered status, though he would be welcome to participate in other alumnae events.
However, the meeting was followed by a phone call from Wellesley’s assistant director of admissions, who told Chevalier that there in fact was no policy against trans alums doing recruiting, and he would be allowed to conduct one-on-one interviews after all.

But then there was another about-face from the school: in January, the director of admissions told Chevalier, once and for all, that he would not be allowed to conduct interviews, stating that the focus of such interviews should be on students, and that Chevalier’s male identity would be a distraction.

An email to the Wellesley College Office of Public Affairs seeking comment was not returned; however, in a post to the internal Wellesley Official Announcements bulletin board, which was forwarded to Chevalier, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid  wrote that he wanted “to offer some clarification in response to the discussion regarding a decision by the Admission Office not to allow a transgendered male alum to serve as an interviewer. The decision in this case was influenced by our tradition of having women serve as alumnae interviewers. The question raised in this discussion is whether this decision was based on a policy of not permitting transgendered alums to interview prospective students. The answer is: no, because no such policy exists.” Later, the dean followed up: “An important component of the admission interview is that a prospective student leaves with a clear understanding of the value of attending a women’s college. One thing we do insist on is that the interviewer strongly support and articulate the College’s commitment to being a women’s college.”

Chevalier argues that if he were to appear as the public face of the college, even in a limited capacity, it would draw positive attention to other male students and alums of Wellesley. “I know there are quite a few Wellelsey alums that have transitioned,” he told AlterNet. “There are two others in my class, and I’ve heard that between three and twelve trans students are currently attending Wellesley.”

How has Wellesly treated its transgendered students and alums in the past? A 2008 trans alum, Warren Kunce, was featured in a positive article in the college’s alumnae magazine, and other trans students at Wellelsley were included in a 2008 New York Times article, “When Girls Will Be Boys,” about trans students at women’s colleges. Bathrooms in many of the dorms are now classified as “Wellesley” and “non-Wellesley,” rather than “women’s,” “men’s,” or “co-ed.”

Elsewhere, the issue of trans students at women’s colleges remains a hot-button topic. Around the same time Chevalier started blogging about his experience, a transgendered Smith junior named Jake Pecht requested to be part of the college recruiting process by hosting a prospective student in his dorm. According to an essay he wrote for the Smith college paper, Pecht works as a campus guide for the admissions office but was not allowed by the office to let a prospective student stay in his dorm. He writes that he would have emailed prospective students and told them he was male and offered to find them alternate lodging if they were uncomfortable, but the admissions office refused to budge. According to the school paper, the issue has yet to be resolved, though a petition has gathered over 1,200 signatures, and many students are calling for a dialogue around the matter.

Smith’s official policy states that “Once admitted, any student who completes the college’s graduation requirements will be awarded a degree” – presumably meaning that if a student chooses to transition after starting school, and completes the necessary coursework, he or she would be allowed to remain enrolled at the school. An article about Chevalier in the Wellelsey News quoted a student who enrolled at the college in 2002, left after a year, transitioned to male, and then returned to finish his degree in 2008. He is scheduled to graduate this year.

Males are not an uncommon presence at many women’s colleges. Wellesley participates in a college exchange program with MIT that allows both male and female MIT students to enroll in classes at Wellesley (and vice versa) and has admitted male students as part of short-term, twelve-college exchange program. Women’s college campuses are certainly nothing like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival -- a music festival that admits only “womyn-born womyn,” and operates a seperate “Camp Trans” for attendees who are not “womyn-born womyn”). Rather, men teach, work, and spend time on women’s college campuses on a regular basis.

Much like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has become a hotbed of debate about the “womyn-born womyn-only” admissions process, Chevelier says he sees the same thing happening at Wellesley. “I don’t know why a young person who transitioned to being male would want to attend a women’s college,” he told AlterNet, “but I could easily imagine a situation where a young person who transitioned to being female would apply to Wellesley.”

The college does not require students to undergo any sort of physical examination when applying to or enrolling at Wellesley, but Chevalier says he fears that a slippery slope of anti-trans attitudes might lead to “panty checks.”

On his blog, Chevalier quoted a Wellelsey student who stated, wrongly, that “All Wellesley students, to the best of my knowledge, are biologically female at the time of admission.” He pointed out the obvious flaws in this logic; namely, that “biologically female” is a transphobic term, and without invasive exams prior to admission, there is no way to tell whether a student has a certain chromosomal makeup.

Chevalier says that he’s not “asking for any change in college policy. I'm asking for honesty about the de facto policy that already exists, a policy that involves admitting men. And to me, honesty about that policy can't mean that the administration accepts the academic, social, spiritual, and financial contributions of male and genderqueer students while telling the general public that it's ashamed of them.”

Whether Chevalier gets that level of honesty -- or even merely clarity about the admission office’s rules -- remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that this incident has touched off yet another debate about what being a “women’s college” really means.
Cortney Harding is a former editor and reporter at Billboard Magazine and currently a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.


  1. Julian,
    As per usual - many thanks for wading even deeper into this particular mind mess of nuanced, interlocking, contradictory, uncomfortable theory and praxis. I will have to repost this...probably tomorrow morning. Is that okay with you? Again, many thanks.

  2. The political position that the labels "man" and "woman" are reserved for cisgender people with cissexual bodies, that transgender or transsexual people are somehow committing oppression by claiming these labels for themselves (victim-blaming, anyone?) is not a radical position. It's a reactionary one.

  3. Of course Dark Daughta!!! You may always feel free to cross-post.

    We're blogging family!

  4. P.S. And thank you for your very supportive words. I truly, truly appreciate them and take them to heart. They/YOU mean a lot to me.

  5. Tim,

    Where did you read that I hold those views?

    For you to attribute to me the position you state, I'd appreciate you at least having the good graces and simple decency to show where I say what you declare.

    I don't think trans people are necessarily positioned to oppress women raised as girls. And please don't state that I believe that in any sort of unqualified way.

    This is reality:
    People with male privileges, power, and entitlements are socialised and structurally positioned to oppress women--whoever the women are. People with white privileges, power, and entitlements are positioned to oppress women of color.

    Where's the part of my post that led you to conclude what you concluded?