In a recent op-ed in The Advocate, “Working Together Over Time,” the esteemed feminist Gloria Steinem speaks about the need for trans*-inclusion within feminism and human rights activism. “Humans are not ranked; we are linked,” she insists, which marks a turning point in second-wave feminism’s redress of its misgivings and hostility towards trans* people. At last, (some) trans* issues are being given the consideration in policies and perspectives that they deserve. Feminism and trans people have had multiple difficulties before in establishing communities together. Trans exclusion and discrimination only intensify the bigotry and violence committed against trans people. TransGriot details her history as a transphobe quite aptly, particularly her complacency towards and acceptance of Janice Raymond’s pitifully caustic “The Transsexual Empire” that sought to discredit the viability of trans* identities.
In her article, she declares:
“So now I want to be unequivocal in my words: I believe that transgender people, including those who have transitioned, are living out real, authentic lives. Those lives should be celebrated, not questioned. Their health care decisions should be theirs and theirs alone to make. And what I wrote decades ago does not reflect what we know today as we move away from only the binary boxes of “masculine” or “feminine” and begin to live along the full human continuum of identity and expression.”
Throughout the article, Steinem denies that she previously held views that might be considered transphobic, cissexist, and trans-misogynist. Such a denial rewrites history.
Her unwillingness to speak with honesty on trans* issues only further erases the histories of trans* and gender nonconforming people. It further alienates trans* communities from feeling fully accepted. It denies the complicated historical relationship trans people have had with cis feminists. It does not reconsider how the language of “mutilation” can in certain cases disrespect the choices and transitions of trans people. It also recalls the history of second-wave feminists declaring all forms of female genital modification, at their very heart, against the cultural contexts within which they occur, “mutilation.”
In the beginning of her apology, she condemns a group of Iranian students’ homophobia and antigay views, where the laughter of her company led her to have “a sinking feeling that something more serious than denial was going on.” Her piece centers on how queer or homosexual people were driven to transgender identities because of their sexualities – instead of their genders. Like many of her peers, she conflates trans* and gender nonconforming identities and expressions with queer sexualities, despite these identities hinging most primarily on issues of gender and nonconformity. She describes the reaction she experienced amidst these procedures most succinctly: “I doubt I would have been so suspicious if his words hadn’t hit memories of four decades ago when I began traveling as a feminist organizer.”
I am suspicious and wary of Steinem words. She wants to be inclusive of trans* issues, realizing their centrality in the wake of Chelsea Manning and the recurrence of anti-trans* violence, yet does not speak of her own complicit stance on trans* issues within the feminist movement that was given primacy in its platforms. As TransGriot notes, Steinem’s powerful position in the 70’s and 80’s as a feminist icon was not used for trans* support. She cannot fix the problems transphobia caused for trans* people engaging in feminist and lesbian circles. She speaks of Jan Morris’s “brave voyage to authenticity”, yet her rhetoric fails to realize that trans* identities do not require surgery or other forms of gender reformation to make their identities more “valid” or “authentic.” Their identities are always authentic insofar as they identify with a certain gender. It’s also a classist presumption, given trans* people’s disproportionate access to stable employment and housing, higher rates of poverty, and the expensiveness of surgery. Similarly, it does not give room for trans* people of color, trans* immigrants, and other disadvantaged groups in affording such adoptions of “authenticity.”
Gloria Steinem has been an icon for many within feminism, but rarely has she been the paragon of trans* advocacy. She issues an apology at the end of her op-ed, stating:
“I’m grateful for this opportunity to say that I’m sorry and sad if any words floating out there from the past seem to suggest anything other than support, past and present. As feminists know, power over our own minds and bodies comes first.”
While her words are duly noted within the community of trans* people and advocates, her work has a long way to go to redress her history of negligence on our behalf.
Working together means discussing our differences – not rewriting history.