The legacies of trans-exclusive feminism (aka why are you angry?)

Having read over the various obituaries for Mary Daly the past couple days, I’ve found myself more and more angry at the various defences marshalled in her defence (I particularly recommend Sady’s one at Tiger Beatdown), I’ve found myself more and more angry at the various defences marshalled in her defence.  And it’s not that these have necessary been uncritical (though some have), but that what I see is a debate largely amongst cis people, one that centres cis feelings, thoughts, politics.  I mean, if Daly raised your consciousness, mazel tov, but some of us have some rather justifiable anger left around for her.  Cos yeah, I’ve read as much of Gyn/ecology as I could tolerate, and it sucked, and I frankly mistrust anyone who likes that book.

But for me, this isn’t just an anger about Daly, this is about the legacies of second wave feminism—and more, pertinently, the way its effects linger in the present.

As a number of people have pointed, as well as her pioneering work in feminist theology, a great deal of Mary Daly’s legacy is marred by racism and transphobia.  As Sady said:

Daly hated on trans people something fierce. This has been sort of lightly mentioned and hinted at elsewhere, but I have to tell you this in plain language: MARY. DALY. HATED. TRANS. PEOPLE. Particularly trans women. She intimated, at times, that they were part of a plot to eliminate “real” women, and to assign “men” all “authentic” female functions. She also said that they were like whites putting on blackface (yeah: Lorde might have been right, about the whole appropriating-other-people’s-oppression thing?) and implied that they should have bodily violence done to them, or at least should be physically intimidated, by “real” feminists, so that they could not enter the feminist movement or feminist space. Let’s not be coy, here: no matter whether she believed this for her entire life, no matter whether she privately got over it later, she published it,This, right here, is the face of the oppressor. without apparently ever publishing a retraction, as far as I can tell. This is hate. This is privilege.

I’ve read a number of people make apologetics for Daly, that she was a product of her time, it’s all in the past, that we should take the good with the bad, nobody’s perfect etc.  Or that hey, she was a woman so.. uhh.  it’s ok to wistfully long for genocide, even if you never act on it?  Or that she wasn’t really transphobic, she was just against the medical establishment, or that she wasn’t transphobic at the end or in person.  One person has suggested at Sungold’s that she had personal knowledge Daly changed her mind on trans women in private.  Ok, fine, I can accept that as a possibility, though it seems to me that if you’ve made a genocidal argument in the past, you may wish to publically recant that.

And that seems wildly insufficient to me, not because that isn’t true, but because the shape of the problem has been barely defined.  It wasn’t just words.  No, she weren’t out there killing trans women, but the transphobia of Daly and other feminist writers has and continues to have consequences, flesh and blood consequences.

The problem is this.  Mary Daly had a substantial hand in creating the specifically feminist form of transphobia that continues to affect trans women today.  She, along with her former PhD student Janice Raymond, Germaine Greer and others beyond their mistakes in the utopian days of the 70s gave sustenance to yet another generation of transphobes from Sheila Jeffreys to Julie Bindel—feminists who argue in the name of (a certain kind of) feminism* against trans women’s rights—against legal recognition, against access to necessary medical treatment, against anti-discrimination policy, and against our ability to access women’s homeless, domestic abuse and rape shelters.

So part of why I and other trans women remain angry at people like Daly is this is not past for us.  Feminist transphobia has unfortunately segued rather neatly into the institutionalised cissexism of the State.  To choose two examples—the Vancouver Rape Centre enlisted the British Columbia Supreme Court to stop trans woman Kimberley Nixon from working for them.

In Victoria, which has the most comprehensive gender identity anti-discrimination laws in Australia extending to pre-op and no-op trans people as well as post-op, a case tried by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in 2007 effectively negated the rights of transsexual and transgendered women to be housed in a women’s shelter in Victoria (as well as denying trans women the right to be employed in that shelter).  In Hanover Welfare Services Lt (Anti Discrimination Exemption) VCAT 640, a women’s homeless shelter was allowed the right to refuse to house trans women if it so chose.  Here is the justification for the ruling by C.L. McKenzie, Deputy President of VCAT:

It [excluding trans women] seeks to provide safe and secure accommodation and services to women and goes no further than is necessary for this purpose.  It seeks to ensure that that services are provided to vulnerable and homeless women in the best way that will meet their needs and not make them feel threatened and traumatised

Note the wording.  First that “women” and “transsexual women” are mutually exclusive categories, and therefore it is acceptable to exclude transsexual women from women-only spaces and employment.  Furthermore, (cis) “women” require safe accommodation, whilst transsexual women are conjured as threatening and traumatizing and presumably not in need of safe and secure accommodation. Trans staff, moreover, are presented in the same way, for “it would be inappropriate if the staff at these services were not women” (n.pag).  The mere presence of a pre-operative trans woman, therefore, is being legally enshrined as threatening, emotionally violent in some circumstances, whilst the very real violent erasure of trans women by cissexual women is elided under the sign of “women’s safety.”

I am happy to say that Hanover eventually reversed its decision itself, but the point I want to make is that as far as I’m aware the law in Victoria remains the same—“women only” spaces do not legally include trans women.  So even in those few rare places where there are gender identity protections in anti-discrimination law (which WA does not, and New South Wales is vague and only covers post-op trans people), trans-exclusive exemptions often apply—leaving us either excluded, or dependent on the whims of cis providers.

The most famous example of trans-exclusive “women’s only” spaces is of course Michfest, but as an ethos it stretches well beyond a musical festival (seriously, Do Not Care one bit).  The problem is, trans-exclusive “women’s only” space remain very often the default for—and this is acknowledged or unacknowledged, an idea as often as not that has had its roots in feminist thought.  The consequences on trans communities of trans-exclusive “women only” has been catastrophic, and continues to be.

To choose just one example: In November 2008, a trans women named Jennifer Gale froze to death in Austin, Texas, because the Salvation Army would not house her with the women—and further, completely disregarded her identity as a woman, using the wrong name, pronouns etc.  In short, they were abusive enough that she went out into a winter cold that she froze to death in.

Now think, homelessness is a massive problem in the trans community, and for trans women, being housed in “men’s” shelters, as well as being unpalatable, puts us at the risk of violence and rape.  A year ago I rang around a number of homeless shelters, and none of them actually had a policy on trans women.  Given the institutionalised cissexism of institutions, I’m willing to bet that in practice when presented with a trans woman needing help, they’d put her in the wrong shelter—if they even let her in.  Viviane Namaste found in Invisible Lives that many North American shelters used “dress code” as a form of terrorising trans people, of forcing trans women to dress in “male” clothes and be ungendered persistently—a highly unpleasant and indeed traumatic experience, to say the least.

Anyway, the point is, if you are a trans woman and you are in need of help, you cannot know whether you have anywhere to go.  If policies do accept trans women, that is infrequently made clear.  If they don’t, well, what do you?  Sleep on the streets?  Go back to your violent partner?  Would you even bother going to a women’s shelter if you didn’t know you’d be safe, if you didn’t know whether you’d be ejected back out into the cold or put at the risk of even more violence?

That there are women’s shelters at all is undoubtedly a legacy of second wave feminism–a massive, important one.  But so is the fact that they continue to frequently shut trans women out—leaving us in a world where safety and shelter is neglible.  This, to me, is a legacy which I cannot ignore.  It is not entirely Mary Daly’s fault, not a situation solely created by feminism.  Of course not.   No, she was not amonster, she was a writer, a flawed and misguided one.  But the fact remains, she and other second wave feminist writers created a transphobic climate in feminism with real world consequences for trans women, which has extended for over four decades now and for that, hell yeah I’m still angry.

*Obviously this is not the only or even dominant form of feminism, otherwise I wouldn’t be here now, or any other trans women at large feminist blogs)

Categories: gender & feminism

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14 replies

  1. Hear hear. I am increasingly angered by the way transphobia is tolerated by so many feminists.
    Just to clarify: Do you mean your first sentence to be “Having read over the various obituaries for Mary Daly the past couple days (I particularly recommend Sady’s one at Tiger Beatdown), I’ve found myself more and more angry at the various defences marshalled in her defence.”? As it is it sounds like you’re criticising Sady which I don’t *think* is what you meant to do.

  2. This is a marvellous post, thankyou.
    Jennifer Gale’s story is just horrifying. The number of institutions – all over, of all professed faiths and missions – who put people in the most marginalised bodies last is just… mind-boggling. We (as a society) need to be more outraged, and to DO something about it.

  3. Thank you, Queen Em. As usual, You Rool. It troubles me how swiftly people are willing to dismiss the ‘errors’ of the past, as if they could ever be contained in a previous historical moment like that. Those pasts, whatever they were, error and right, create futures. And we—cis and trans alike—live that future. And trans people continue to pay the price. Acknowledging that is the first step in reconstituting our shared futures; pretending the past never was, or didn’t matter, or doesn’t matter now (coz we know better), is the way to maintain those futures as transphobic (and other *ist and *phobic along with).
    Thanks too for the pointer to Sady’s post!

  4. @sb Woops yeah that’s unclear. No, I didn’t mean that Sady’s post made me angry, I meant I recommend reading it!
    [edited post to reflect sqbr’s suggested amendment ~ tigtog]

  5. Or that hey, she was a woman so.. uhh. it’s ok to wistfully long for genocide, even if you never act on it?
    I think the standard is that you can wistfully long for genocide as long as you are oppressed, or think you are oppressed, by the group you want to commit genocide upon. You know, because you’ll never be able to do it, it’s fine for you to say utterly horrific and hateful things. It’s the idea that it’s acceptable to meet hate with hate, to imply you are just as awful as those who hate you, that somehow the combining of hates will lead to improvement, that I just can’t fathom.
    .-= Lucy´s last blog ..The Transphobe Who Can Ruin Your Day =-.

  6. Excellent.
    (There isn’t much more to say than that).

  7. sqbr is short for Square Bear so sb is an entirely valid abbreviation 🙂

  8. I think she started with a good idea, went wrong with it, then went even further wrong with it.
    The good idea: The image of woman most of us encounter in daily life is a construction by men for men.
    The wrong: Any one born with male physical characteristics that identifies with female gender is simply playacting this unreal role. Because they couldn’t possibly know the real gender role being the wrong physical sex for it.
    It assumes that there is no way a person can be born with a gender identity contrary to physical self, that it must be a fake. This is wrong, but I can understand how some people might be led to think so if they’ve never interacted with a trans person. I was surprised to learn last year that there is some (internet) definition of “radical feminist” that incorporates this idea. Bleargh.
    Then the far more wrong part, desire for genocide. I suppose it comes from a ragey desire to obliterate the male-constructed fake Woman, which I can understand. But it’s wrong in its assumption that trans=fake Woman, and much more hugely wrong in how obliteration of fake Woman should be carried out. People are not roles. People who are broken should be put right, not put to death.
    And trans people aren’t broken by virtue of being trans, except where they’ve been broken by those trying to push them into boxes they can’t fit.

  9. I think there’s room for anger at the oppressor, and I think anger is a necessary part for people coming to terms with their oppression. But, yeah, I think advocating for the “elimination” of everyone who oppresses you (or who you perceive as oppressing you, as in trans people and trans-hating radical feminists) goes across a line, and it polarizes your politics in such a way that, well, makes people recoil.
    Although, I want to question the construction of trans people (or any people) as broken. Our bodies may be wrong to us, and need to be modified so that we are at least comfortable in our own skins, but I don’t think broken is a good way to describe this.

  10. Sorry, Lisa, I wasn’t clear in my use of the word broken. I would never characterize trans people as broken because they’re trans.
    They’re broken *by others*, at times, when they are forced into roles that fit the way society wants them to be rather than the way they are.
    Someone else breaks them by denying their nature.

  11. One of the ideas I remember coming across in the early 80s – and believing – is that the feminine role was so destructive that no-one who had any choice would want to do it. Therefore anyone trying to do it must have been either a lunatic masochist, or really gay and in denial. Or a deranged misogynist trying to get closer access to women in order to do harm. The “gay denial” option seemed most likely to me back then. And the last option seems least likely, but still that’s where Daly & company went.
    I think it’s fair to try to evaluate Daly “in her time”, remembering that the sociology, psychology and science of gender was nowhere near as well understood as it is now (and now isn’t so shit hot either). Hers was a position of ignorance and fear, and had she learned and changed and apologised sometime in the last couple of decades, I would think much better of her. And are the last three decades not also “her time”? Sadly, she didn’t.

  12. I have a problem. I both agree with a lot of this post, and yet react very defensively to parts of it. It has come at about the same time as that Facebook “post the colour of your bra’ meme which in combination makes me feel my gender identity is under threat by others. I think I’ll try to write up what it’s all about in detail on my blog.

  13. Well, I don’t have a problem with this post at all. If you react defensively to parts of it then it is time to have a little think and a word with yourself. I wrote my own post on ‘How to honor Mary Daly’ and I for one rather like it.

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