Where do trans women fit into feminism?

Photo from the 2014 Transgender Day of Remembrance by Keila MacPherson.
Photo from the 2014 Transgender Day of Remembrance by Keila MacPherson.

Trans women are vital to a cohesive feminism. If feminism is to be a movement for bettering the lives of women, then it must better the lives of all women, especially those most marginalized.

This, of course, doesn’t stop many “feminists” from repeating the transphobic, cissexist language and ideas passed down to them, but that certainly doesn’t legitimize their perspectives.

Being trans but not a trans woman myself, I contacted Laura Shepherd for her take on the importance of trans women in feminism.

“I was in a relationship with a bi feminist for 30 years, so I am perhaps more familiar than some trans women my age (mid-50s) with feminism in general. I have my peers who came to accept their transhood through either the kink community or the cross-dressing community, neither of which necessarily deconstructs cisnormative, heteronormative and patriarchal notions of femininity,” Shepherd explained, positing feminism as both needing the voice of trans women, and that trans individuals can learn from the teachings of feminism.

“Consequently, many of these folks strike me as overly concerned with ‘passing’ and in need of the kind of politicization a feminist perspective could offer. I know people who listen to feminization self-hypnosis tapes and share how-to videos (how to move like a woman, etc.) How, I wonder, can involvement in feminism help these folks be more comfortable with their authentic selves? That’s one reason or way in which trans women need feminism,” she explained.

“Passing” refers to the concept of whether or not a trans person looks and acts enough like their gender identity for someone to not recognize they are trans. The idea of “passing” is problematic as it repeats cissexist ideas of cis being what is desirable, and patriarchal ideas of what is appropriately feminine or masculine.

“That said, what I sought when I first approached the local woman’s centre, without being able to articulate what I wanted, was socialization – to be in an environment with other women where I was accepted as a woman and where it was acceptable to ask for and receive tuition or, more correctly, socialization. I couldn’t get that from the women’s centre in the rural community where I lived in the closet,” explained Shepherd.

“When I moved to Halifax and came out, the parallel spaces were campus-based. There is a big experiential difference between me and those I found in a university-based gender justice centre. But also, there was a highly evolved and nuanced and ultimately exclusive debate about academic feminism going on around me, and I found the degree to which people were invested in that made difficult to step back and see the exclusivity of that dialogue,” she remarked.

“And I am questioned for my appearance – what for me is masking the effect of testosterone poisoning is to them an imitation of patriarchal notions of femininity. My voice is questioned – whether an uncertain modification or, unmodified, what is perceived as deliberate invocation of male privilege.

I also found the theoretical feminist debate so inaccessible and that many made assumptions about me based on someone’s theory of trans women, without any regard to my lived experience.”

And so the problem of cis feminism appears. The struggle for equality for women has moved from the streets into the classroom, and while modern issues are still discussed, they are abstracted from the reality of daily life. Feminism is an important movement with which to engage, but I know friends who cannot stomach feminism because of the backlash they have experienced in feminist spaces. Any form of feminism must be for every woman before it is to be considered legitimate.

“There is a place for trans women in feminism – there is room for us to learn and grow. At the same time, a feminist space is not going to provide a trans woman with all elements of engagement they may seek from women, and some may find the more academic of those spaces downright uninviting,” Shepherd explained.

“I just wish there were fewer cis feminists explaining trans women and more of us speaking for ourselves,” she concluded. “I think we’d be better understood. It’s not the closed door that it once was, but it’s not yet the most welcoming place.”

[This article was originally published in Volume 48’s women’s issue.]

About Simon Semchuk 51 Articles
Simon Semchuk writes primarily on the arts and queer issues. A third-year English major, he is also interested in theatre, literature, and fluffy animals.