Trans Feminism: What Is It and Why We Need It

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Feminism is more than just a simple belief. It is an ideology, a socio-cultural movement and statement towards equality. The concept of feminism is broad and complex. It is an umbrella term for a lot of other sub-movements. Which is why it is extremely important for us to continue practicing intersectionality within feminism. Intersectional feminism lets us raise voice for not only gender equality and rights for women but also stand up against discrimination based on race, socioeconomic class, religion, sexual identity, and many more. One of the sub-movements under feminism is transfeminism. Transfeminism can be linked back to lots of other popular and controversial feminist sub-movements like sex-positive feminism, queer theory, and intersectional feminism.

Trans feminism mainly advocates the rights of transgender, especially transwomen, to identify as their preferred gender rather than the one they were assigned at birth based on their biological sex. The movement also supports trans rights in other fields and fights to include them in central feminism. Transphobia in mainstream feminism is still perceptible even today. Modern white feminists fight for gender equality and equal rights but intentionally exclude transgenders from the movement. One can often find common transphobic comments by TERFs, which is acronym for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, accusing trans people of “female erasure” and “anti-lesbian”.

Transphobia has been part of practicing feminism from the beginning of history. Even in the 1980s, white feminists were very against transsexuals. They saw trans people as nothing more than just men trying to infiltrate spaces women worked hard to make safe especially from men. A lot of the times cisgender women would “gender check” before letting people into feminist workshops, bookstores, or cafes. There was a very narrow sense of womanhood. However, despite the dramatic changes in gender politics over the last few years, things remain quite same. Let’s take a look at a tweet shared by popular author J.K. Rowling just a few days ago. She tweeted,
“Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consulting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill”
Rowling, who claims to be a feminist, has been supporting this movement for a long time. There are articles online stating how great of a feminist she is for clapping back at sexist people and tweeting about feminism. She is celebrated around the world for her contribution to women’s literature. The tweet mentioned above is Rowling expressing her support for Maya Forstater, a researcher and self-proclaimed gender critical feminist who lost her job recently after the institution she works for discovered her involvement in anti-trans campaigns online.

Not so shockingly, this is not the first time Rowling has expressed transphobia. She has a whole book for it, the 2014 dark literary novel The Silkworm. The writing in that book can only be described as grotesque and absolutely vicious. One of the characters in the book is a young transwoman called Pippa, and she is constantly described in an objectifying way from one of the two protagonist’s narrative. The way Rowling chose to describe and emphasize Pippa’s character is awfully similar to the points usually made by transphobes in order to invalidate trans men and women’s identities.

Trans feminism and other similar sub-movements offer the society an opportunity to view sexism in a new light rather than in the simplistic way where men are oppressors and women are oppressed, as typically pushed by mainstream feminists. These feminisms focus more on the fact that numerous forms of discriminations and oppressions exist based on someone’s personal identity like their sex, gender, or sexuality. They also talk about other types of sexism beside traditional sexism, where men are considered superior to women. There is heterosexism, which is when heterosexuals are considered more legitimate than homosexuals or any LGBTQ+ people. Monosexism, which is when people who are only exclusively attracted to members of a single sex think of bisexuals and pansexual people as their inferiors. Masculine-centrism, where masculine gender expression is viewed as more valid than expressing femininity.

Even though sexism is commonly reckoned as a term in patriarchy, early trans activists have presented the gender binary to prove the multitude forms and levels of sexism in society. Gender binary or gender binarism is the classification order where people are assigned as female or male sex at birth. Those assigned male are expected to grow up to identify as a man, have masculine gender expression and be exclusively attracted to only women. On the other hand, those assigned with female sex are expected to grow up and identify as a woman, have feminine gender expression and be exclusively attracted to only men. Anyone who does not fit in those structures is marginalized by society whether it is an intersex person, a gay man, a butch woman, or a transgender person.

Trans feminists also bring attention to the institutionalized cissexism trans people face every day. Cissexism is a form of sexism where trans people’s gender identity is construed less legitimate by cis people. Cissexism, or transphobia, can be observed when individuals or organizations refuse to respect trans people in the gender or sex they identify as, when they face targeted discrimination in workspace and medical facilities because of their gender and sexual identity, and how they are often victims of violence and harassment.

Cissexism does not exist by its own; it is a subset of traditional sexism. Nonetheless, there are lots of parallels between what women faces with what trans people face. Both are objectified by society and are thought to be incapable of making big decisions especially about themselves, their own bodies, and what they have experienced. Thus, just like traditional sexism, cissexism is also often intersected with other forms of oppressions. For instance, trans-misogyny is the intersection of cissexism and misogyny, which targets trans women and any trans within feminine spectrum. Statistically poor trans women of color are more often victims of transphobic violence compared to white trans men.

At the end of the day, all of us have our own history and experience of oppression we have faced. Even if all our experiences are not same, it is important for us to acknowledge and understand the seriousness of every one of these experiences. Some cis white feminists might still argue that cis-gendered women have it far worse than trans women, or traditional sexism is worse than heterosexism or monosexism. However, it is not a competition for who is more oppressed – and that is exactly the ideology trans feminism is trying to promote. We, as a society, need to focus on practicing intersectional trans feminism, which includes standing up against all forms of oppression individually and intersected. It is time for us to stop reducing trans feminism to only a debate about whether trans women are real women. Not only is that extremely disrespectful to trans people but also to the ideology of feminism. Instead we should raise our voices together, promote and practice trans feminism for what it is.


Afra Sampreety, student

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