Saturday, November 5, 2011

Andrea Dworkin on Transsexuality, and my own thoughts on Trans and "Rad Fem" Politics

image of book cover is from here
There is an update following the main post, which is below.

Earlier this year I wrote a great deal here about concerns regarding liberal queer politics, including liberal trans politics. Please see those posts for more detailed discussion on those topics, if you wish to. In this post I'll take on some current mischaracterisations and oversimplifications of radical feminism. (I've also posted a fair amount here over the years about misogynist men's nonsense about radical feminists. This post won't concern itself with those virulent anti-feminists.)

Any time anyone speaks of what "those radical feminists" or "those radical lesbian feminists" are doing, or believe, or feel, I'm skeptical to disappointed. For one thing, when "they" are accurately referenced, the criticism of radical feminism tends to reference only a very few region-, race-, and academically-privileged white women.

Two women who get touted as exemplars of radical feminism are Mary Daly and Janice Raymond. So let me begin by saying that while Mary Daly and Janice Raymond are two voices in the herstory of US radical feminism of the last forty years, they aren't "US radical lesbian feminism" to me. Alice Walker and Audre Lorde are two key voices in US radical lesbian feminism. Their work has had a much greater impact on me. Why are they rarely-to-NEVER referred to when anti-radical feminist spokespeople are expressing their own critiques?

One answer is racism: the obnoxious and erroneous contention that all radical feminists are white women is but a wee part of the on-going effort within and beyond the cultivators and purveyors of anti-feminism to erase women of color from the "canon" of radical feminist writers and activists. Another answer is that Lorde and Walker's written views and values don't necessarily match up with those of Daly and Raymond. And this inconvenience for those who wish to lump all radical feminists together as being all "transphobic" or "anti-male" or "anti-sex", isn't so easy if one contends with the depth and breadth of US radical feminist writings.

Personally, I never read Janice Raymond during the long years of my own initial education in radical feminism. I've read very little by Mary Daly. Neither woman represents "radical feminism" to me, while I fully acknowledge the significant--and amazing--contribution to radical lesbian feminist thealogy by Mary Daly. As noted above, Lorde and Walker, and also Andrea Dworkin, have been far more influential in teaching me what radical feminism can do in responsible theory and activist practice.

I found what follows typed up online, on a Tumblr account called Head Girl (*here*), and so cannot vouch for the accuracy of the text, but it sounds like what I remember reading in Woman Hating (1974). I'm checking online for the text and from what I can find there are several inaccuracies in what was at the Tumblr page and so I've made some corrections in what appears below.

How can I really care if we win “the Revolution”? Either way, any way, there will be no place for me.
A transsexual friend, in conversation
Transsexuality is currently considered a gender disorder, that is, a person learns a gender role which contradicts his/her visible sex. It is a “disease” with a cure: a sex-change operation will change the person’s visible sex and make it consonant with the person’s felt identity.
Since we know very little about sex identity, and since psychiatrists are committed to the propagation of the cultural structure as it is, it would be premature and not very intelligent to accept the psychiatric judgment that transsexuality is caused by a faulty socialization. More probably, transsexuality is caused by faulty society. Transsexuality can be defined as one particular formation of our general multisexuality which is unable to achieve its natural development because of extremely adverse social conditions.
There is no doubt that in the culture of male-female discreteness, transsexuality is a disaster for the individual transsexual. Every transsexual, white, black, man, woman, rich, poor, is in a state of primary emergency (see p. 185) as a transsexual. There are 3 crucial points here. One, every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition.
Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised.
Three, community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.
Andrea Dworkin, in Woman Hating, 1974

At another blog called Transmeditations, with posts written by Joelle Ruby Ryan, there was a post documenting tensions between a few non-trans radical feminist-identified people and one trans-identified person (who I believe also identifies as a radical feminist). The account of what happened is one person's experience of it; I've heard differing accounts by people who were also there about inaccuracies in Joelle's description. But of course that is likely to be the case with any upsetting or triggering experience.

I've commented there, most recently to another commenter. I just saw that my comment was not posted (so far) and I'd like it to be on record here. First, the link to the post and comments is *here*.

Amber is the name of the recent commenter. Here's that comment edited slightly (please see the full comment in context at the site linked to above), and after that is my response to her:

[...] The vicious hate related here truly upset me. Dont these so-called “rad-fems” understand that the people they hate so badly are real people with real things and that they detest am entire group of people, with no reason, who mean them no harm and who are often a great danger but only to themselves.
amber said this on October 26, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Reply
  • Hi amber,
    I know of countless examples of trans-identified people demonstrating willful, purposefully aimed misogyny and anti-feminism at lesbians. From arrogantly insisting on invading lesbian spaces, to disrespecting lesbians interpersonally, I’ve seen it happen and I have read so many accounts of it happening that I really have to challenge, as woefully inaccurate, the statement you make above. Misogyny and anti-lesbianism is flourishing right now in many queer spaces. Gay and bi men have been perpetrating it for decades and more recently far too many trans people do too. Do you doubt that?
    JulianReal said this on Your comment is awaiting moderation. November 3, 2011 at 8:39 pm |Reply

I probably ought to note that people who identify as "rad fem" are not necessarily representatives of radical feminist thought or exemplars of radical feminist practice. I'll tell you a story that illustrates the necessity of me making that point. A pro-radical, pro-feminist male I know told me a year or more ago that he was considering giving up on radical feminism as a valid political theory and practice. I asked him why. He told me that he found some of the beliefs there absurd, such as the anti-sex viewpoints. I told him that radical feminism, in my experience, isn't anti-sex at all. He referenced an online discussion among a few privileged white women that did seem to be anti-sex. I suggested that he not assign to those few women what is most notable and necessary from the vast writings and activism by radical feminist women. It hadn't really occurred to him to doubt the validity of what some "Rad Fem"- identified women said as allegedly accurate about "radical feminist" on the whole. So if Amber is also referring to a few privileged white women online who express themselves as if speaking for all of radical feminism, that might be important to know.

Given the significant contributions to radical feminist theory and practice made by heterosexual and other non-lesbian women, radical lesbian feminism and radical lesbian politics are not the sum total of radical feminism. In fact, I know of at least one Radical Lesbian who doesn't ascribe to what many "traditional" radical feminists believe about gender and sexual oppression. And I know of another woman who has identified more as a revolutionary lesbian feminist than as a radical lesbian feminist for most of her long activist life. Her own views are different than either the Radical Lesbian woman I am referring to or the views of many other radical feminists.

All of this should help build a case for the danger or saying that a single person or group's viewpoints are representative of what all radical feminists believe and do. I find the whole herstory of radical feminist accomplishments--named as such in writing and in life, to be complex, compelling, and anything but monolithic, which isn't to say the term "radical feminism" refers to anything at all.

But the assumption that some online and offline white, class-privileged trans activists or spokespeople--who often enough seem to speak for all trans people--do no harm and mean no harm is nonsense. There are too many examples of gross insensitivity and blatant hateful behavior towards radical lesbian feminist people to pretend that all actions by trans people are benign and free of misogyny and anti-feminism. (How could it be, really, that trans people, as one of many diverse populations of people--many of whom don't identify as "trans"--are free of misogyny and anti-feminism? I know of no group of people who have managed to accomplish that, including the group "radical feminists".)

I don't know what Andrea Dworkin would say about the various contests for safe space and the power to name reality that are currently occurring between those two groups in some places on- and off-line. I also wouldn't presume to know. What I've found in Andrea's writing is a commitment to name male supremacy wherever and whenever it exists, displays itself, and asserts dominance in social and personal spaces. I've seen some trans and many more non-trans people be (or, rather: act) male supremacist in many different ways, almost never owning the male supremacy embedded in the behaviors.

I think there is plenty to critique in contemporary liberal, white, class-privileged trans and non-trans understandings of gender and social justice. I make it a point to have this blog be a space that values such critique. And people telling me I'm "transphobic" or "anti-male" for doing so won't silence me. I find those sorts of accusations typical derailing strategies almost always by people with significant social privilege and power. And I see such strategies being designed and implemented to stop the radical inquiries and interrogations, not deepen and expand them.

Andrea Dworkin's own views developed and deepened. She has critiqued some of what she wrote in Woman Hating and that self-critique may be found in a 1998 book by Cindy Jenefsky titled Without Apology: Andrea Dworkin's Art and Politics. Part of Dworkin's own critique has to do with lack of interrogation of the Freudian influence she accepted in her own understandings of sexuality in her first feminist book. I have never read anything else she wrote since that demonstrates a lessening of regard and respect for transsexual people, however. (Please see the update in purple for more.)

9 Nov. 2011 UPDATE: 
I just found this post, which is a cross-post from other Tumblr accounts but is added to at The Trans Woman's Anti-Violence Project

As an anti-misogyny/anti-patriarchal violence activist, I don't agree with the writer's assessment or conclusions. I think regarding Andrea's views as identical to Jan Raymond's is a spurious thing to do: Andrea had her own voice. What she wrote in her own voice is what should be used to either agree with or disagree with her, not the writings of other women. The guilt by association tactic for condemning a writer-activist is not a respectable or responsible thing to do, imo.

The fact that Andrea didn't speak directly to this issue after writing Woman Hating means something. What it means is up for interpretation, of course. But what I know about Andrea is that she was a deeply compassionate person towards anyone who enduring the violence and violations of male supremacist harm and horror. I do not know Jan Raymond at all. But I did know Andrea and I regard Dworkin's work as a tremendously important resource, theoretical base, and activist approach to all anti-misogyny work. That someone is framing her work as being pro-misogyny (supportive of misogyny directed at some trans people) is rather absurd to me.  On that Tumblr page, there is a statement about Dworkin's promotion of "androgyny" as being terrifying. I'm troubled that an idea in a book that has no institutional or social support in the actual world, is regarded as more of a threat than the rampant, unowned, unacknowledged white and male supremacy inside and outside white-dominated queer communities. Here is that passage:
Also, I think Dworkin’s militant advocacy for replacing the sex binary with a monolithic compulsive androgyny is terrifying. Androgyny as the socially enforced norm would lead to something like the gender repression featured in “The Outcast” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Tobi Hill-Meyer’s The Genderfellator.

“Andrea Dworkin (yes, THAT Andrea Dworkin) on Trans people: …
WOMAN HATING- by  Andrea Dworkin 1974
BRB, Continuing to be amazed that Dworkin is like, right next to Raymond and Delay as the patron saints of 2nd wave hardline anti-trans stances.
(via unobject)

As discussed a bit below in the initial post I wrote recently, Dworkin repudiated what was in parts of Woman Hating and what she believed in 1973 and 1974 ought not be held against her, given the amount of more thorough work she did on male supremacy in the twenty years that followed.

I find it troubling that people working to stop misogyny don't attach that work to addressing and challenging male privilege and male supremacy in our lives--including in the lives of people who are queer and trans. I experience that as far more terrifying than Dworkin's later-rejected theory of androgyny from a book published over 35 years ago.


  1. Good post. I remember over a year ago when we had a discussion about transpeople invading radical lesbian feminists' spaces, and I was rather defensive at first. I mean no one wants to admit that a group they ascribe to, "their people", do fucked up things to other people. Especially when that group is oppressed in its own way. But after reading countless conversations between some of these transpeople and radical lesbian feminists, I wholeheartedly agree with you. The first thing I noticed reading these conversations was who started the namecalling. The so-called transactivists were always the ones to say some really fucked up shit, and there is no excuse for that. Second of all, what the fuck is the problem if a group of radical lesbian feminists want to have their own space? There are plenty of transsexual only gatherings out there and I don't hear about lines of angry lesbian feminists outside calling people names...It is totally unnecessary and uncalled for.

    There is something REALLY dangerous about assuming that because a person is transgender that they do not fall into the same pitfalls of white male privilege. There are various reasons why this is bullshit and I don't want to get into every one of them, but I will explain my case. I identify as transgender, but it is not always apparent simply by looking at me. I often get treated simply as another white, straight, cisgender male. This is especially true in business and other structured social groups where discrimination is extremely common. Therefore I still have male privileges whether or not I identify as a male. Generally if someone looks like a man, society will treat them like a man. I have yet to meet a MTF who has not been treated like a man at some point in their life, and so that privilege still applies. What many transgendered people I have talked to fail to realize is that acknowledging personal privilege in NO WAY invalidates their experience as a transperson, nor does it lessen the importance. Fucked up shit happens to transpeople all the time, but that does not mean that transpeople cannot do fucked up shit to other people..

  2. Hey Chris!

    Good to hear from you and thanks for your comment.

    I see no reason why white trans people raised to be boys would be less misogynistic or heterosexist or racist than anyone else. I can't identify much in the dominant political views of the population of trans folks with such privileges that would mitigate acting out all of the oppressive behaviors and attitudes, both interpersonally and socially, offline and online, that the non-trans population does with similar privileges and structural power.

    I see a really awful double standard wherein the feelings, sensibilities, politics, values, experiences, and viewpoints of anti-radical, anti-feminist, anti-lesbian trans people who have been socially engaged for less than fifteen years with what is termed in liberal circles as gender politics (as opposed, say, to sexual politics) seem to automatically and swiftly trump those of radical lesbian feminists who have been working in the trenches for twenty to forty years. I also see radical lesbian feminists being monolithically and misogynistically demonised in really hideous ways.

    In what political system does such a thing happen? (Lesbians and feminists being demonised, harassed, marginalised, and invalidated?) In my experience, that'd be a rampant liberal-to-conservative heteropatriarchal one. Often loaded up with racism and classism too (wherein understandings of Queerness and Trans identity are ruled and regulated by whites and people with class- and also education-privileges).

    I hope more Queer- and Trans-identified people support the efforts of radical activists against the interests of liberals and conservatives who not only are not engaged in systematic, organised transformative activism but are also undermining the perspectives and politics of radical activists.

  3. Julian: it seems like you believe that trans women specifically are subject to male socialization and thus, male privilege--and in the case that they are also white, another level of advantage. However, despite being exposed to a form of male socialization, transgender women do not receive the same social instruction that shapes cisgender males, as they still internalize the example of female behavior that influences female socialization. Trans women's socialization really is distinct to trans women, and in reality they do not really benefit socially from any element of male socialization they may retain.

  4. Hi enhanta,

    TW for discussion that includes violating practices in rape culture.

    My response is in a few parts.

    Thank you so much for your comment. I'll do my best to clarify my position. Most trans women I have known grew up with some levels of male socialisation, male privilege, male entitlements, and so forth. Some with a great deal of it. Here's one example. A white, class-privileged trans woman was raised to be a boy and a man. She excelled in Anglo-white-masculine pursuits, including using firearms, negotiating a world from the vantage point of having wealth, and having a military career. She transitioned in her forties. She got involved with a nontrans lesbian and became controlling and abusive, in ways typical of people socialised to value power and domination as white men practice it. She was possessive. She leaned on her partner for economic survival. (Her family disowned her and she had no poverty survival skills.) This rendered her especially dependent on her partner, who grew up in poverty. She was sexually coercive and insensitive to her partner's reality as an incest survivor. (Of course some nontrans lesbian women can be batterers and committers of sexual assault: the point is that it is still learned from patriarchal socialisation.)

    And, of course, regardless of being trans or not, whatever sex or gender we were or are, we are all raised, systematically, to value maleness, manhood, and masculinity. Some of that maleness and manhood is more despised, due to being raced Black or Brown, being effeminate, and so forth. And some forms of femininity and womanhood are less despised in colonial patriarchies, such as lighter-skinned people of color relative to darker-skinned people of color.

    So I would say *we all do*, to varying extents: we are, collectively, subjected to colonial and patriarchal male socialisation, regardless of gender. And, in this view, there's no way a U.S.-raised trans woman would be exempt from such male socialisation, even if one never identified as a male, or boy, or man. If the issue is whether and how we benefit from it, I'd argue that, too, is very complicated, due to age, region, ethnicity, race, sexuality, generation, class, weight, height, build, tone of skin, abilities, and religion, among other variables.

  5. When you state this, "transgender women do not receive the same social instruction that shapes cisgender males", do you mean pre-transition or post-transition? And, are you assuming all transgender women are transsexual, or have transitioned in medical or other ways? The current measure of being trans in trans spaces I'm familiar with is how one identifies, not what one has done in an effort to mitigate dysphoria, to whatever (again very varied) extents that has existed in one's life. Many trans, non-gender conforming, and genderqueer people do not identify as male or female, as masculine or feminine, and so have a different relationship to binary socialisation than do those who find meaning in expressing what they understand to be 'one end' of the binary. I find that younger people in queer communities are less 'observant' of the gender binary.

    I reject the cis and trans binary because many, if not most, trans people also carry various forms of what is termed 'cis' privilege--particularly if one did not suffer greatly from dysphoria and if one is not transsexual. "Trans womanness" is not one thing, does not necessitate having dysphoria, does not mean one didn't feel like the gender of the child they were assigned at birth. For some, dysphoria comes later, for some 'dysphoria' isn't the compelling experience leading one to ID as trans.

    Also, many people are 'trans' to gender dominants: whites view Black nontrans women's cisgender as unstable, for example. Many nontrans people who cannot but help present as gender ambiguous, or as effeminate males, or as butch lesbians, are not viewed as 'cis' by nontrans people. We all have our own relationships to the values and victimisations of male socialisation.

    You write, "they still internalize the example of female behavior that influences female socialization".

    On what are you basing that? Again, who is the 'they'? Black women internalising misogynoir? Many nontrans gayboys positively internalise the example of female behavior that influences their own socialisation--this is true of some non-gay boys too. The very elements that are valued as 'female behavior' may be adored by a group of Brown gay men while despised by white lesbians.

  6. ***TW for discussion of the violations of rape culture***:

    You continue, "Trans women's socialization really is distinct to trans women, and in reality they do not really benefit socially from any element of male socialization they may retain."

    What is this alleged universal (or 'essential') distinction? I'd appreciate it if you could articulate that.

    Do class-privileged white trans women not benefit from any element of rich white male socialisation, if that socialisation acculturates someone to be a more successful navigator of white male supremacist society, such as the corporate business world? What are the lessons learned when one's experience in childhood, when socially regarded as an adolescent boy by other boys, was to not be targeted for sexual 'interest' and assault by those boys? Being bullied and being forcibly fingered are two distinct experiences, are they not? How does not being part of the group targeted for sexually violent groping and physical invasion benefit one? Perhaps the answer is: One isn't sexually assaulted by those boys at age 11 through 13. That's quite a specific benefit of male socialisation, is it not? What about a father by-passing 'the boys' room to rape his daughters? Are you saying there's no benefit to that socialisation, for the trans child who the father regards as a boy (even if this child feared being discovered as a nonbinary child)? This trans child likely does not live with the internalised disgust and shame of their body that their sisters may carry, nor the fear of men entering their sleeping space. That child's shame may be quite different, but we ought not conclude there were no benefits to not being raped from ages three to ten.

    To make the arguments you present, we have to essentialise transness, do we not? And cisness as well? And to standardise male and female socialisation out of the real world, such that race and other factors don't 'factor in'?

    I look forward to your responses and to continuing the conversation.