March 8th has been International Women’s Day for over a century, and in that time almost immeasurable progress has been made for women. Well, for some women. The women’s movement has left a lot of women behind, as GritPost explored earlier this year. On this International Women’s Day, mainstream feminists have a responsibility to make it clear that transphobia is no longer welcome in the movement.
Despite the positive message of International Women’s Day, a vulnerable contingent of women not always supported by mainstream feminism is the transgender community. A very vocal minority of the women’s movement consists of “TERFs”, or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, who help define controversial spaces like the Michigan Women’s Music Festival which chose to close rather than accept transwomen.
Though vocal, TERFs make up a minority of women’s spaces in the public discourse.
“TERFs are not representative of modern feminism,” transgender author and advocate Brynn Tannehill told GritPost. “When you look at where they are drawing people from today, there is this strange mixture of evangelical conservative Christians from the Phyllis Schlafly school of anti-feminism aligning with 70’s vintage second wave feminists.”
It should be noted that TERF is seen as a charged term in itself with some preferring “gender-critical feminism”. Some even see the term as a slur, saying that such gender-critical feminists are threatened or even hurt (something that surely separates them from the so-privileged trans community).
The Silent T
Transgender people are often sidelined in the struggles of the groups that ostensibly support them. The cisgender (or cis, meaning those who identify as the gender on their birth certificate) white women’s movement has faced criticism over its approach to the vitriol around gender-critical feminism, but is far from the only space to dismiss transwomen.
The LBGT community is criticized for the concept of “the silent T,” that like the cis white women’s movement, the cis white gay men’s movement often ignores that which needs it’s support. Even as the champion of the gay movement, the Human Rights Campaign has improved from its problematic past, it continues to show growing pains when it comes to inclusivity.
Recently, queer icon RuPaul made headlines for some troublesome statements regarding transgender people. RuPaul also faced criticism in 2014 for running a segment on the show Drag Race entitled “Female or She-Male,” which is also obviously problematic. The apology for the most recent bout of transphobia featured RuPaul taking to Twitter with what he seemed to assume was a transgender flag, but was in fact a piece called “Trains Landscape.”
The conflict between transgender people and drag isn’t limited to RuPaul. Drag is a central fixture in gay culture that uses anti-transgender slurs like “tranny” and helps perpetuate the oppression of transwomen by conflating their identity with the hobby of drag performance.
Even in the trans community, the experience of being a transman, transwoman or other nonbinary identity is vastly different, with transwomen facing unique struggles. Transmisogyny — or the intersection of transphobia and sexism — has impacts on the entire gender spectrum, and is felt especially hard by transwomen. As an example, over half of all LBGT homicides are committed against transwomen.
Transphobia as a Tool of Conservatism
Conservatives have seized on transgender issues as a means to unite disparate communities in support of their social conservatism. TERFs align with a movement to remove the T from the coalition under the LBGT umbrella that cropped up several months ago in Instinct Magazine.
The battlefield on transgender issues ranges from bathroom bills to literally letting transgender people die from medical discrimination. This stems from from a divide-and-conquer strategy that conservative leaders have openly admitted to, and it brings together unlikely bedfellows, as Tannehill pointed out: Second-wave feminists, parts of the gay community and the religious right stand united in their goal to exclude and oppress the trans community.
“The only thing that unites these groups is an overriding belief that transgender people are the greatest threat in the world to women,” she said. “Thankfully, this is a very small group of people, who only really have a platform due to religious right hate groups such as the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defending Freedom, neither of whom is a friend to women’s issues.”
Tannehill encouraged women’s and trans advocates to be critical of the gender-critical thinkpieces they might encounter or anti-trans opinions they might encounter.
“Who wrote it? Why? More often than not, these same writers are people who are opposed to women’s rights in general, and are trying to enforce harmful, religious-based gender stereotypes.”
And these opponents aren’t a force unopposed. Trans supporters in the queer community have countered the arguments for spinning off the silent T, and a transman started a fundraiser to support trans youth in response to TERFs in the British Labour Party. These efforts, however, are small defenses against voices amplified by social conservatism.
“I think [the women’s movement] is subtly pushing back on this sort of hateful ideology,” said Tannehill. “You see feminists and transgender people opposing transphobic speakers on campi, and leaders of the womens march making it clear that transgender people are welcomed.”
That push might be showing real progress despite the opposition. After all, there are some big things for transwomen to celebrate this International Women’s Day.
An International Women’s Day for All Women
The breakout headline of the eve of Women’s Day was from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Invoking Title VII protections against sex-based discrimination, the Sixth Circuit ruled Wednesday that businesses cannot fire employees for being transgender.
Employees in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee now potentially have access to civil rights protections guaranteed under Title VII which extends beyond job security to protect against pay discrimination, promotions and use of facilities.
New Hampshire’s House passed protections for transgender people Wednesday, as well, and advocates are optimistic about the bill’s chances of being signed into law.
Even the smallest things, like a transgender activist feeling safe using the restroom at the Academy Awards, seem to be building to a moment of inclusivity for Women’s Day.
“The struggles of the transgender community are feminist struggles at their core,” said Tannehill. “Bodily autonomy, fighting gender and sex stereotypes, and resisting patriarchy and kyriarchy; all of these are central to both the transgender movement and feminism.”
Transgender rights are women’s rights, just as women’s rights are human rights. Transwomen are women. These are fundamental. At its very best, feminism stands to fight the toxicity that seeks to divide women based on assigned sex or, as GritPost has previously explored, race, or ableism or socioeconomic status or any other issue used to marginalize.
Today, for International Women’s Day, we should embrace all women and, in so doing, embrace inclusive feminism.
As for what allies can do to support transwomen, Tannehill joked “Read my book when it comes out?”
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.