Sex & Health

Why Feminism Needs To Be Trans-Inclusive, or The Bodily Consequences of Cisnormativity

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Cissexuality (Cis): When there is an alignment of an individual’s gender identity and biological sex and other putative gender-determining bodily signifiers. That is, the majority of individuals who identify with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex.

Cissexism: A systemic form of discrimination against, hierarchical de-privileging of, and treatment of inferiority towards trans and gender non-conforming people. Cissexism reinforces the notion that cisgender and cissexual identities are more natural and authentic than trans identities, usually with appeals to the biological or anatomical ‘facticity’ of sex.

Cisnormativity: The commonplace normative assumptions that sex and gender should and do equate with one another, that cissexuality is the only valid form of sex-gender interpretation/translation, and that trans people are thereby fundamentally atypical, abnormal, unnatural and inauthentic in comparison to their cis counterparts.

I write this article today, amidst my various engagements with trans studies, because I want to pose a question that is not brought up often enough within feminist circles, especially those most recently formed by newly identified feminists who may lack the historical context of previous feminist movements and concerns: “Why does feminism need to be trans-inclusive?”

I raise this question in part because feminism has often had the well-intended yet still ugly tendency to try and delineate what exactly a “woman” is—to assert that there is some essential core that all woman could be said to embody and share with all other women. After the first-wave disenfranchised feminists strove for and eventually achieved suffrage, second-wave feminists then began to theorize the patriarchal root causes of misogyny and sexism that seemed integral to their critiques of women’s second-class status. With second-wave feminism, moreover, explorations of female embodiment and the position of female individuals in opposition to their privileged counterpart, men, became so central to these debates that “womyn-born womyn” spaces emerged which excluded men from their assemblies (which ironically has had a history of excluding trans women as well, evinced by the first known case of trans woman Nancy Burkholder who was removed from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival despite having attended previous years.)

Yet many of these second-wave feminists, unaware of their privilege in occupying the coveted and valorized positions of whiteness, heterosexuality, higher economic capacity, corporeal ability and cissexuality, often forgot in their efforts to deduce a universality of “woman,” with some ostensible essential commonality, that “women” do not look like one thing nor can such a commonality be presumed in the very corporeal contours of putatively “female” bodies. Many feminisms that explored, then, such topics as maternity, female-bodied erogeneity and sexed embodiment with the good intentions, for example, problematically assumed that such experiences could be said to encompass or constitute a female or feminine subjectivity, derived from the specificity of the body and one’s corporeal locality. While these explorations, to be fair, enabled the generation of a necessary corpus specific to feminist inquiry and beneficial to those who do experience female sexed embodiment, they too had the unintended effect of being essentialist, homogenizing, and consequently exclusionary.

These feminist explorations preoccupied with the “female” body, more importantly for the purpose of this article, have eclipsed the ways in which trans women differ from other (cis) women insofar as they do not necessarily have or occupy a “female” body. Such a universalizing presumption of cissexuality is ciscentric and cissexist because it assumes that the authenticity of femininity is rooted in the female body, that cissexuality is the correct or superior gender identity, and that all “female” bodies hence yield and are inhabited by female-identified “women.” This presumption also assumes that sexed embodiment is crucial for identifications of femininity and assertions of womanhood, which is downright trans-misogynist and cissexist to trans women who have already faced innumerable charges of inauthenticity, insanity and subhumanity. When Janice Raymond, for instance, published her highly polemical The Transsexual Menace: The Making of the She-Male (1979), she crystallized her position as the exemplary figure of second-wave feminist transphobia by shoring up hostility against trans individuals in order to denigrate the status of trans women by reiterating their putative inauthenticity – a position which was, unfortunately, well-received by many second-wave feminists. Of the many cissexist and transphobic remarks she made about the “transsexually constructed lesbian feminist” (to use her charged term), she wrote most infamously, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves” (104). While I am not surprised by Raymond’s vitriolic remarks, particularly given her prescriptive stance that all sex work constitutes sex trafficking despite the presence of some forms of consent-based sex work, such a sentiment is not uncommon: Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys and others celebrated her work, indicating that transphobia has too sometimes found its home in feminist spaces.

In an academic discipline and type of activism such as feminism where inclusivity would seem so crucial to its various projects, feminism has repeatedly failed to recognize the nuanced complexities and diversities of women’s lived experiences, including trans people who purportedly “fail” to conform to our notion of an ideal, representative or “real” woman. Any attempt to speak on the behalf of all women, too, will then tend to showcase some women’s perspectives at the cost of others—namely, those women who are not white, cissexual, heterosexual, able-bodied, Western, upper-middle or upper class, safely employed, native to their resident country and outside the precincts of carceral confines. Trans perspectives offer us novel modes of seeing the everyday myths that govern our lives, especially the myths that enforce compulsory cissexuality and regulate gender norms, where the price for nonconformity is the threat of dire bodily consequences such as rape, assault, suicide and murder. So, then, again I must ask, why does feminism need to be trans-inclusive?

While the problems feminism currently faces are urgent and grave, especially amidst the current Republican-driven War on Women, we must not too hastily centralize our issues and simply set aside those which may seem less important, less imperative for our project. In my recent research, I have become more and more aware of how trans people are in many ways one of the most marginalized, discriminated against and violated groups throughout the world. In the U.S., 1 in 12 trans individuals are murdered. For trans people of color, impacted by the devastatingly intersectional, compounded effects of both racism and cissexism, that figure is 1 in 8. The most comprehensive study to date on trans discrimination in the U.S., “Injustice At Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey,” conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, shows the severity and extent of discrimination and violation against trans people today: they are four times more likely to be in poverty, almost twice as likely to be homeless, twice as likely to be unemployed and four times as unlikely if the person is a trans person of color. Discrimination in employment, educational institutions, housing and governmental agencies is also rampant and often severe: sixty-three percent of the participants experienced at least one severe form of discrimination—job loss, eviction, sexual or physical assault, homelessness, lost familial ties, incarceration or denial of medical services—with
nearly a quarter of the individuals experiencing three or more of these compounding discriminations. Upon coming out, at a moment of intense vulnerability for those who may have taken years to express themselves so candidly, fifty-seven percent of the respondents reported being rejected from their families. Because of severe discrimination in employment, sixteen percent reported engaging in sex work and drug trade and, similarly, numerous individuals used either alcohol or illicit substances to cope with their mistreatment. I cite this particular statistic because it highlights how trans people also are disproportionately likely to be affected by anti-sex work and anti-drug stigmas, which has often led to the justification of violence against trans people and its subsequent condonation by the predominantly cis public. It is no surprise, then, that nearly forty-one percent of the respondents—and undoubtedly a multitude of others throughout the world—have attempted suicide. The other adverse effects of being visibly trans are too numerous to list yet that only attests to the necessity of trans-inclusivity within any form of activism which aims, by principle, to help those most in need.

Though I have provided a litany of statistics indicating the extent of trans discrimination, it was not these figures that drove me to pursue trans studies academically – it was the harrowing stories of trans people affected by violence. Those of us who have taken gender studies courses might remember the poignant story of the Latina trans woman Venus Xtravaganza in the documentary film Paris is Burning (1990), a frequent participant in the Harlem-based drag balls and a sex worker, who was later strangled and stuffed under a hotel bed in New York in 1988. Or Brandon Teena, a trans man who was raped multiple times and finally murdered by two cis men in 1993, which was later depicted in the Academy Award-winning film Boys Don’t Cry (1999). For more recent examples, I think first of trans woman Gwen Araujo who was brutally assaulted and killed by four men, two of whom with which she previously had had consensually sexual relations; not only that, the defense dared to try and alleviate their defendants’ culpability by asserting that it was done in a violent state of a temporary form of insanity caused by the still-scientifically questionable “trans panic.” And who could forget the first trans person to ever be considered the victim a anti-trans hate crime, Angie Zappata, beat to death by a fire extinguisher when a cis male discovered her trans status, calling her an “it.” There are too many instances of violence against trans people for me to list, and far too many still go unreported.

These are the bodily consequences of cisnormativity—the prevalent and presumptuous assumption that cissexuality is the only acceptable and legible form of gender identity—which show us why, when we engage in feminist activism and inquiry, we must be trans-inclusive in our efforts to ensure that every human being deserves decency and justice when wronged. Instead of demonizing an already heavily marginalized group, we must instead strive to ensure that the rights of all women are being upheld – regardless of whether or not those women conform to certain bodily criteria, such as the facticity of sex. Not only that, we must fight for the rights of all trans people and include them in our discussions, because they represent the most daring of individuals who are willing to destabilize our current constrictive gender norms despite the bodily consequences gender policing and transphobia might impel. And is not such a destabilization of oppressive gender norms one of the many tenets that has continually sustained and invigorated feminism, both today and historically?

By Ragnar Jónsson, Editorial Consultant

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