ACTIVIST HISTORY: QUESTIONING FEMINIST ‘HEROES’ & TRANS EXCLUSIVITY

Content warning: Transphobia, mentions of rape, homophobia

One of our PISSWIFE members is in San Fransisco on a 5 month exchange at the moment. While Tessel is studying at San Francisco State University, she is contributing to the university’s exchange council blog, and she continues to write for PISSWIFE from overseas. The previous ‘Activist History’ post can be found here.

At San Francisco State University, I follow a course called LGBTQ Cultures and Society which introduces me to the long and impressive history of LGBTQ+ emancipation in the United States. Following PISSWIFE’s tradition of making academics more accessible (originating from ‘Academics Unpacked’ by Esther Eumann in PISSWIFE issue #1), I decided to share with you what I learned about LGBTQ+ emancipation in the US from a rather interesting essay by Susan Stryker. It is not only interesting to read about queer struggle & activism, it is also important to know how the efforts of the LGBTQ heroes before us paved the way for emancipation today.

This article by Stryker, called “The Difficult Decades”, which we had to read was a historical overview of the social position of transgender folks, especially in relation to the Gay Liberation movement and feminist movements at that time: All three movements have some overlapping objectives, however they also had major difficulties with one another. Stryker starts out by telling how the 1960’s blurred gender norms in the world of fashion, calling this a “transgender aesthetic”. (Stryker, 91) This shift might have made it easier on individuals to express themselves through the means of clothing, but transgender folk still faced political and institutional oppression. At the end of the 60’s, transgender people gained acknowledgement in the medical sphere: Research programs were interested in the ‘phenomenon’, but weren’t involved in bettering trans folk’s social status.

I thought this was a very strong quote: “Access to transsexual medical services thus became entangled with a socially conservative attempt to maintain traditional gender, in which changing sex was grudgingly permitted for the few of those seeking to do so, to the extent that the practice did not trouble the gender binary for many.” (Stryker, 94)

Of course, trans people desiring a physical transition need medical recognition and medical help, however an undesired side effect that occurred was that trans people were heavily pathologized. Homosexual people faced the same problem: Gayness was often seen as a mental illness, however they got rid of this stigma in 1973, making the depathologizing of homosexuality disappear from the gay agenda. Gay liberation and the trans movement now had less in common then before, dividing the two.

Especially a few feminist groups were blatantly transphobic and/or homophobic from the beginning. Betty Friedan, famous for writing ‘The Feminine Mystique’, “opposed associating lesbian concerns with feminism because she feared that society’s homophobia would limit feminism’s appeal and hamper its progress.” (Stryker, 99) A lesbian-feminist organization called the Lavender Menace were outraged because of this, and theorized about a female identity in a Adrienne Rich-like rhetoric: women should be woman-identified and actively get rid of their identity shaped by patriarchy. Gender identities or expressions that could be argued to be “patriarchal” were abandoned. This radical rejection of anything remotely ‘masculine’ paved the way for feminist transphobia. These groups of lesbian feminists “insisted that transgender people were politically regressive dupes of the patriarchal gender system who, at best, deserved to have their consciousness raised.” (Stryker, 101)

At a certain point, the feminist transphobic rhetoric became progressively more violent. One specific TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) called Robin Morgan expressed her transphobia by accusing trans lesbian singer Beth Elliott of sexually harassing her, installing a discourse that repetitively portrayed transgender women to be assaulters, “since they represented an “unwanted penetration” into women’s space.” (Stryker, 102) It’s truly horrible how vile the accusations towards innocent transgender folk were getting, and how angry these feminist groups got simply over their trans existence in feminist spaces (where they, as feminists, were supposed to be). In 1979, Janice G. Raymond, a feminist, wrote a book which was the absolute peak of transphobia in that decade. She stated that all transgender females “rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” (Stryker, 106)

In the 1980’s, the medical term Gender Identity Disorder started to appear. “A person seeking to change genders would need several months of psychotherapy for a diagnosis of GID before being referred to an endocrinologist for hormone therapy, followed by at least a year of living socially as a member of the desired gender.” (Stryker, 112) This was still a very complex process and procedures like these were often denied legitimacy by insurance companies. On top of this, the transgender community was hit by the AIDS epidemic from the 1981’s onward. Trans folk that were heavily discriminated against on the labor market often relied on sex work to make ends meet, making them more at risk for becoming infected.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to be aware of this transphobic feminist history and use this knowledge to be extra careful to be trans-inclusive in your feminism!

Text: Tessel ten Zweege
Image: Helen Weeres

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