Are Queer Women Leaving Trans Women Behind?

I don't count any transgender women among my close LGBTQ and feminist friends. I'm not proud of that. I'm also not alone.
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I don't count any transgender women among my close LGBTQ and feminist friends. I'm not proud of that. I'm also not alone.

As a bisexual woman, I frequent LGBTQ parties and events, hang out at lesbian and gay bars, and even produce LGBTQ news coverage for my job. Yet, while I have friends who identify under every term in the LGBTQ spectrum, virtually none are trans women. And few of my LGBTQ friends count trans women among their own close friends. I get that we all gravitate toward those in our social circles for any number of subjective reasons, but could the absence of trans women in our circles reflect a larger problem among feminists and queer women?

I think it does. Feminist and queer spaces have long excluded certain queer people, however intentionally or unintentionally. When those spaces are inclusive, they often privilege some gender presentations over others. Discrimination within the LGBTQ community is subtle, but it's insidious.

"When I go to a [queer] party, I'm often the only person assigned male at birth," Red Durkin, a trans activist and comedian, told me. "I think the philosophy of queer spaces as being more all-inclusive is something that the practice of it hasn't lived up to."

We may not purposefully exclude anyone, but there is no doubt that we privilege certain identities (my cis, feminine, white one included).

"A lot of lesbian and dyke spaces and a lot of feminist spaces are masculine-centric, [which] plays a big role about which trans people are welcome in the space and which are not," Julia Serano, a trans writer and activist, told me. "I've found that trans men and trans masculine people are way more welcome in queer spaces than trans women.... [A] large portion of the anti-trans sentiments are anti-feminine."

Then, of course, some feminists actively work to exclude transgender women altogether. Case and point: the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. The festival, which wrapped in early August, enforces a "womyn-born womyn" policy, barring anyone who doesn't fit that definition from attending. MichFest invoked this policy in 1991, when trans attendee Nancy Burkholder was kicked out after she was outed. It has taken activism over the past two decades, including Camp Trans, to counteract the festival's discriminatory policy. Durkin, for her part, initiated a petition calling on artists to boycott the festival, which garnered nearly 3,000 signatures.

Some feminists argue that trans women have been socialized as men and are physically threatening in "safe spaces," and they say that "feminine-presenting women are agents of the patriarchy," Annika Penelope, a trans activist, told me. "I certainly was in a lot of assigned-male-only spaces," she said, "but because I was always aware that I wasn't male, it's not like I internalized any of those messages."

These feminist arguments are more than mere transphobic platitudes. They readily translate into physical violence outside these spaces, particularly for trans women of color. According to a 2012 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), 53 percent of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims are trans women, and 73 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicide victims are people of color. This is why I reject any "sisterhood" that excludes trans women and doesn't value trans feminism in our community.

Feminists and queer people alike have benefitted from the notion that biology is not destiny, so we ought to expand our understanding of feminism and LGBTQ equality to include trans feminism -- that is, "feminist perspectives on transgender issues, or transgender perspectives on feminist issues," Serano told me. She wrote about it further in Ms. last year, arguing:

These strands of feminism represent a move away from viewing sexism as an overly simplistic, unilateral form of oppression, where men are the oppressors and women are the oppressed, end of story.

Trans women face sexism that intersects with other forms of oppression, such as transphobia, racism, and/or classicism. We can do better at keeping it out of our spaces.

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