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.