Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose
the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution,
but more usually we must do battle where we are standing.— Audre Lorde
I’m a feminist. And a socialist. And a trans woman. I’m writing this because I’m angry and I want to do something productive with that anger.
Two days ago, a British socialist organisation published an article about transgender people. Not only do I disagree, I also disagree that this is just an opinion. Trans hatred would be a better term. The piece is supposed to be part one of two, one written by a feminist, one written by a trans activist. To get the debate going. Well, let’s have us some debate then.
Disclaimer: the socialist organisation in question belongs to the Fourth International. For those that don’t know what that means, think of it as a specific way of practicing socialism (like someone would be a radical feminist or a liberal feminist). While I am not a member of the Fourth International, I generally like what they do and support them.
I never spare criticism however. I will attack sexism and woman hating anywhere I see it, like in the article they published. That said, I’ve worked with many socialist organisations and never found more room for feminism than in the fourth international. They have repeatedly, explicitly, made room for feminism. They’ve refused violent men access, they’ve debated about inclusion and exclusion, they’ve made room for feminism on many occasions in many places. Which is why they deserve, precisely, this critique. So we can have a better debate and evolve. Openness to criticism is fundamentally important for an organisation that wants to change the world.
English is not my first language, I welcome suggestions on how to improve my writing.
Support and agreement
First of all, there are several views on transgender politics, transgender liberation, gender identity and so on. We don’t have to agree, obviously right now there are many different viewpoints. That’s fine. We also don’t have to agree with anyone in order to support their struggle. Another example: we support the struggle of the Palestines. Not all of them are socialists, so what? Do we then stop supporting them? No. The Egyptian revolution didn’t turn out as well as we had hoped. Do we stop supporting the Egyptian people? Never. I disagree with many trans people on their views of gender. So what?
This doesn’t mean we don’t need a debate. We really, really do. We need to be better. But if you don’t like the viewpoints of some group or individual, that’s no reason to attack them for who they are or stop supporting them. That’s what feminism means: this is a movement for all women. Not just the women we like. All women.
As socialists, I expect us all to take some time to think about what it means to be a materialist with regards to trans liberation. If you’re not familiar with trans people’s struggles, what are you doing sitting in your chair writing up an opinion? Just listen for a while.
It’s not hard at all to find information about the material conditions of most trans people’s lives They are horrible. We are poor, abused, we suffer from violence on a regular basis, ranging from verbal attacks to murder. Statistics about work, housing, depression, suicide, they’re right up there with other heavily oppressed groups. This is no laughing matter.
Our stories matter
What unites us is not a common sexuality or experiences or identities or self-expression. It’s that we’re up against a common enemy.
Trans women typically get socialized as women – are taught their “proper patriarchal place” – later than women who are not trans. Most of this forced socialization takes places when we are already conscious thinking individuals. These stories could be enormously interesting for the feminist movement. We could learn so much about this because trans women experience that shift consciously. Suddenly we are talked down to, ignored or objectified. This gives us a unique position from which to help consciousness raising for feminism. I’m not saying a better position, just a different one. One more thread into the thick tapestry of feminism.
Difference shouldn’t scare us so much. Women share a common condition, our oppression in a system of sexism. Though our lives and experiences differ wildly. We’ve had these debates before: the inclusion of not just the experiences of white, straight women has always been a problem in feminism, inclusion is still – in the age of intersectionality – a problem for everyone. The official state-sponsored feminist organisations in Belgium, e.g., are as white and straight as you could imagine. Every once in a while this “other” pops up and it’s always a problem for the mainstream.
But we can do better, and we should do better.
Fighting the wrong enemy
Feminism is hard. It’s a tough battle, we lose many good people along the way, the violence alone is enough to try to forget about it all or wish there was an easy solution. How I wish there was an easy solution. No more tough fights, we could just listen to Miley Cyrus cause that’s feminist and support Femen cause that’s feminist and take in a Burlesque show or something cause that’s also feminist these days. Every once in a while, we look for an easy way out. Fake rebellion is not real resistance, however.
An easy way out could also mean looking for an enemy. An enemy who can’t fight back, maybe. That would be great, just letting go, taking out the big old feminist hammer and bashing away without fear. So, so good. However, that doesn’t help us – it makes the problem worse.
Are we allowed to attack women who aren’t feminist? Or if we don’t agree with their feminist politics, or they just don’t identify as feminist, maybe they’re even against feminism? Internalised oppression, it’s a thing. It’s one of the many ways the system of sexism is maintained. Are we going to blame the oppressed group for their oppression? Let me know, I’d love to have an easy day once in a while. Really get it on, you know. Love me some victim blaming.
No? Ok then, I get it. Maybe those women are not the real enemy. Maybe we should try to create the conditions for an honest dialogue instead. Not as easy as blindly attacking, but it might actually help.
Are we allowed to attack trans women who are not feminist? Why do some people expect this oppressed group to be better than another oppressed group? Trans women should all be shining examples of feminism but other women shouldn’t? Smells like a double standard.
There’s another way of seeing things. We know the behavior of all of us is encouraged towards certain forms by the world around us. I know many women who don’t want to wear a certain uniform or make-up but who will simply lose their income if they fail to do so. To name just one of many problems.
In a system of oppression you get punished if you don’t behave according to its laws. That’s true for workers under capitalism and for women under sexism/patriarchy. Just something to consider.
We are not liberals. We know these systems constrain us. Trans women are violently punished if they fail to meet expectations. And we fail. We rebel. Or at least we try. And we get killed for it, excluded and ridiculed. Take this seriously.
Trans people are not part of some secretly powerful group that has a lot of privilege. Usually, decisions about trans people are made without us. By politicians and men in doctor’s offices and film makers and psychiatric “experts” or whatever. Those are not our narratives, not our laws. They are forced upon us.
Feminism and trans liberation, those really are two struggles that could easily be done side by side. We could support each other, learn from each other, ultimately learn that this is exactly the same struggle. So there’s this system of oppression. We’re all against that. We disagree on some of the particulars yes. We need a lot of debate, true. But we should be allies.
The system that divides us, prescribes us how we should behave, who we should be, that keeps us from realising our full humanity, that needs to go. No matter how we call it. We have many ideas on how to reach that goal too. That’s fine. If someone tells you they know right now exactly how that better world will look like and how to get there, they are lying. We don’t know and we hope what we do brings us some steps in the right direction.
However, people who hate trans people, who want to exclude groups of women, stand in the way. They do divide us. Maybe they’re not the real enemy. Maybe they have learned to divide and conquer and impose their world view because that’s what we are all taught in this horrible world. We fight, we try to win, to dominate, and we fail because there are no winning moves in a struggle against our allies.
There’re people out there that will always be of the opinion that trans women are “men in dresses”. We can ignore these people. They probably won’t change their minds and they are not our allies. We don’t have to attack them, but we also don’t have to take their point of view seriously or give them much of our time. They are human, but that’s it. That’s all the respect they deserve.
A lack of radical politics
It sucks to be a radical feminist these days because there aren’t many of us and the systems we fight against aren’t going away yet. Prostitution is a horrible crime against humanity and it still exists. The ideology of woman hating as encoded in pornography is worse than ever. Radical feminists have an analysis that is simply true about these things. They got almost everything right. So what went wrong? First, not all radical feminists hate trans people. But a significant amount do.
This is just a hypothesis but sometimes it feels like radical feminism was so marginalised after being replaced by crappy feel-good liberal feminism that it has taken on some of the properties of a cult. Group-think excludes anything that diverges from the party line. Anything that threatens that cult is the enemy. Postmodernism – I agree. Sexists. Down with those. Men who pretend to be feminists, sure. And apparently, trans women. Who could be seen as an oppressed minority but apparently no, they are big bullies.
I’ve written about these problems before and won’t repeat it all here. One thing I want to repeat is that we should be careful to distinguish between trans people and the medical industry and the media. We don’t trust the media, rightfully so. What they say about feminism is as accurate as what they say about trans people or about the banking crisis. Don’t trust the media. Don’t hate a minority group because of what you hear in the media.
If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.
Feminism has a weak side
At the same time, it’s true feminism has an enormous weak side. We don’t have a theory and practice for a feminism that is radical and inclusive for trans women.
That is the challenge ahead. We need that new feminism. We need that precise combination of radical politics to attack porn culture and prostitution and racism and homophobia and trans hatred and poverty. The stakes are high – the entire of humanity needs this.
If we fail, the trans haters and postmodern feminists win and our entire struggle fails. But if we win…
If we lose, someday women’s blood will congeal upon a dead planet. But if we win, if we win, there is no telling…
— Audre Lorde
Evie Embrechts is a feminist and socialist activist, writer and researcher living in Belgium and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is currently writing a book about feminism called “Feminism: a new beginning”.