Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson (left)
Forty years ago, the Washington, DC-based lesbian feminist record label Olivia Records needed a sound engineer – bad. Their big problem was that female sound engineers were a rare commodity in the mid-1970s: It was a male-dominated industry, and getting the training and experience necessary was, for most women, difficult in the extreme. So imagine their luck when the collective found a woman who not only was a capable recording engineer, but had even worked with the likes of Jimi Hendrix! That recording engineer was Sandy Stone, a trans woman.
Though it took some effort to convince her at first, Stone eventually joined the collective and happily started working on the backlog of folksy lesbian albums Olivia was excited to release to the small but growing “women’s music” market. But word travels fast in feminist circles, and when some fans of Olivia Records found out that Stone was trans, all hell broke loose.
Janice Raymond, an academic and radical lesbian feminist, was so inflamed by the notion that a trans woman had “stolen” a job from a deserving cis woman that she led a boycott that forced Stone to leave the collective (which eventually morphed from a record label into today’s Olivia Cruises, a lesbian cruise line). Soon afterward, Raymond wrote her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, which crystallized the trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) critique of “Sapphos by surgery.” Raymond and her ilk believed trans women were using male privilege to invade women’s spaces, and that by virtue of merely existing, trans women “raped women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Leigh Vogel / Getty Images
Many trans-exclusionary feminists have dedicated themselves, in the years since the publication of The Transsexual Empire, to harassing trans women and attempting to eject us from women’s spaces, as well as from feminist movements as a whole. That exclusion is often justified with the claim that the male socialization we’re believed to have had — and the resulting privilege of that socialization — sets us too far apart from cis women. Because many of us are born with penises and do not menstruate, we are also cast all too often as a threat: something different and dangerous.
So, many trans women were neither surprised nor thrilled when acclaimed feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discussed how she felt about trans womanhood on Britain’s Channel 4 last Friday.
“When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ My feeling is trans women are trans women,” Adichie said. “I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then sort of changed gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
After Adichie’s comments stirred angry debates online, she released a statement in which she positioned herself as supportive of LGBTQ rights, but reiterated many of the same ideas. She wrote that while she opposes violence against trans women, she still thinks that considering trans women’s experiences as part of women’s experiences more broadly “feels disingenuous” to her.
The specter of male privilege has long since been a way to deny trans women’s womanhood and basic humanity. Invoking male privilege is often meant to imply that trans women don’t know what it is like to live as “real” women — that we have not suffered the way other women have suffered, that we have not been disenfranchised by patriarchy because of our genders, and that our early experiences allow us access to forms of social power which influence how we move through the world even after we transition. This argument, beyond hinging all of womanhood on a relatively singular experience of suffering, has often been used to flatten the vast array of different life experiences among trans women and other transfeminine-spectrum people. At worst, it contributes to a culture of violence, harassment, exclusion, and erasure that presents a real threat to the lives and physical safety of the most marginalized among us.
Invoking male privilege is often meant to imply that trans women don’t know what it is like to live as “real” women — that we have not suffered the way other women have suffered.
In the standard trans narrative, our lives can be neatly demarcated into two sections: “before” and “after” transition. Adichie’s comments reflect that narrative: She assumes the typical trans woman has “lived in the world as a man…and then sort of changed gender.” But when I was younger, long before the rights of trans youth had entered the mainstream media, it just wasn’t that simple — and it’s not that simple for so many others.
My childhood was spent as a visibly gender-nonconforming child: I frequently passed as a girl and elicited confusion from every adult around me, including my parents. Even before high school I insisted on wearing makeup and girl’s clothes, and was bullied so often that I was eventually forced to drop out of school at 16. That same year, I started taking hormones. I never lived in the world as a man and before I transitioned my grasp on boyhood was tenuous at best.
Jamie Mccarthy / Getty Images
Like many young trans women, I repeatedly experienced harassment, physical assault, and sexual assault. As trans activist Raquel Willis tweeted in response to Adichie’s male privilege comments, “This convo falls apart with more and more trans folks coming out at younger ages.” But my white privilege ensured that I was one of the lucky ones, while trans women of color, particularly black and Latina trans women, often experience far worse. In the past month, three young Black trans women — Ciara McElveen, Chyna Gibson, and Jaquarrius Holland — were killed within days of each other in Louisiana.
While not all trans women transition in the same ways, and no transition path is more or less valid than another, the experiences of those of us who transition early seriously call into question the idea of a monolithic male socialization. Novelist and poet Kai Cheng Thom observes that “male socialization, for us, is actually a coded message: You’re not who you think you are. If you try to be anything other than what we say, you’ll be punished.”
Actress Laverne Cox broke down the notion of male privilege still further in a recent series of moving tweets. “Narrative which suggests that all trans women transition from male privilege erases a lot of experiences and isn't intersectional,” she wrote. “Gender is constituted differently based on the culture we live in. There's no universal experience of gender, of womanhood.”
“Patriarchy and cis-sexism punished my femininity and gender nonconformity,” she added. “The irony of my life is prior to transition I was called a girl and after I am often called a man.”
As many black feminists — like Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality — have been pointing out for decades, race and class divisions create a such variety of life experiences that we can only come to view the idea of a singular experience of girlhood and womanhood as a myth. No one is actually saying trans women and cis women's experiences are exactly the same — and that's because no two women's experiences are exactly the same. There is not one womanhood, but many.
The myth of a singular (cisgender) experience of womanhood has led to real-world consequences for countless trans women. In 1995, for example, Canadian trans woman Kimberly Nixon attempted to volunteer at Vancouver Rape Relief after herself escaping an abusive relationship with a man. She had used women’s services to help find the strength to leave her abuser, and now wanted to give back to the community and help other women in similar situations.
On the first day of her training, Nixon was outed to Vancouver Rape Relief staff, who then ejected her from the building — sparking a legal case that would wind its way through the Canadian legal system for most of the following decade. Vancouver Rape Relief believed that Nixon, having once been a “man” who therefore experienced male privilege, did not share the common experience of having been assigned female at birth, and thus could not be allowed to provide crisis counseling to other women fleeing abusive relationships. Nixon won her initial case, but the BC Supreme Court reversed the decision on appeal, allowing special interest groups to define their own terms for membership — in other words, letting VRR determine which women counted as women, despite their legal gender status.
Perhaps the most well-known case of trans exclusion in the United States is the longstanding womyn-born-womyn only policy of the now-defunct Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. In 1992, the festival ejected Nancy Burkholder from the festival grounds, commonly known as “the Land,” for being a trans woman (though trans men had been and continued to be welcome on the Land). This ignited a powder keg of tensions between cis and trans feminists, and led activists such as Riki Anne Wilchins and Leslie Feinberg to start a yearly protest called Camp Trans. MichFest’s anti-trans woman policy continued to divide women’s communities in North America for the next 20 years. All trans women, and our friends and allies, had wanted was to listen to some feminist folk music in the woods with other women — but rather than allow this, the festival closed its gates in 2015.
No one is actually saying trans women and cis women's experiences are exactly the same — and that's because no two women's experiences are exactly the same. There is not one womanhood, but many.
While some feminists have worked tirelessly to tell trans women we aren’t welcome, this hasn’t always been the case. As lesbian writer and activist Sarah Schulman recently wrote on Facebook, organizations like the Lesbian Avengers in the 1990s were consciously trans-inclusive from the start. “There are those of us out here who have always believed in a trans-inclusive women's community, regardless of what thoughtless over-amplified [sic] contrary opinions may be in circulation,” Schulman wrote. “I know it is painful when ignorance gets a platform, but do not let it overwhelm all the love and connection that is and has been there.”
While some cis feminists are openly hateful, like Janice Raymond, many are more middle-of-the-road when it comes to trans women and trans inclusion. But that kind of neutrality does nothing to stop the introduction of still more anti-trans bathroom bills, nor does it help trans women gain access to vitally needed women’s services. Neutrality certainly doesn’t do anything to stem the tides of violence many trans women, particularly trans women of color and sex workers, experience on a near-daily basis.
Still, I hold out hope that mainstream cis feminism as a whole will come around. In 1973, cis lesbian feminist Jean O’Leary spoke at the Christopher Street Liberation Day rally in New York City on behalf of the Lesbian Feminist Liberation collective. In her speech, she denounced trans women and drag queens as misogynists. Her fiery words inspired Sylvia Rivera, a trans activist and a patron saint of trans liberation, to literally fight her way to the stage and wrestle away the microphone from gay activist Vito Russo. Rivera delivered a powerful speech about trans women’s experiences of sexual violence and imprisonment, and their abandonment by mainstream white gay and lesbian leaders.
Years later, Jean O’Leary would come to regret her actions against trans women. “You know, I really hate talking about this,” she was quoted as saying in Eric Marcus’s 2002 book Making Gay History. “We decided to attack men who did it for profit — professional female impersonators and prostitutes. This is so embarrassing. I can hardly believe that we believed this.”
“I don’t believe in separatism now, so for me to sit here and go back twenty years and say, ‘These are the reasons why women have to be separate’ is very difficult,” she added. “But this is how it was then, and I realize that we have to go back and talk about these things so that people can learn from history.”