Commentary Human Rights

Trans Women Are Not Agents of the Patriarchy

Emma Caterine

At The New Republic, writer Monica Potts recently positioned trans activism at women's colleges as a distraction from feminism. In reality, the misogyny trans women face is similar to, if not worse than, the kind Potts is fighting.

It seems that every few months left-leaning media outlets come out with a new wave of “edgy” op-eds pitting trans people, often trans women specifically, as agents of the patriarchy intent on destroying feminism. Many of these articles can be dismissed as sadistic bullying by people with chips on their shoulders and too much time on their hands. Others, however—like Monica Potts’ recent piece in The New Republic, originally headlined “Trans Activism Is Threatening Women’s Colleges’ Missionstem from ignorance of trans issues rather than deeply seated prejudice. Even so, writers like Potts evidently do not see trans issues as an important part of their feminism, and that flaw makes their brand of feminism incredibly dangerous.

Few things sting like having someone you admire pen an article that insinuates your defense of your own existence is a threat to an institution that has long denied you entry, as Potts did. To feminists like Potts, trans (or, as she incorrectly put it, “transgendered”) people seem to be a single gender group whose self-actualization undermines anti-misogyny efforts, instead of the incredible diversity of men, women, and many others who fall between or outside of those categories. In addition, her assertion that trans activism is a threat to the historic “sisterhood” of women’s-only colleges seems, at first, all too similar to the bigoted justifications I have heard for rejecting trans women outright from spaces like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. When I contacted Potts on Twitter, however, she explained that she was not against admitting trans women or men to women’s colleges; instead, she argued, a women’s college’s “sisterhood” could include “a whole bunch of [people],” and “I don’t think [you] have to [identify] as a woman to want to be part of the sisterhood, if that makes sense. Of course it [includes] transwomen.”

To give credit where it is due, it is nice to see someone explicitly support the idea that trans women should be considered part of the “sisterhood” of women’s institutions. But what is troubling to me are the implications of including men in that “sisterhood” as well—which, at the least, positions trans women as separate from cis women’s feminism, just as men are.

One of Potts’ main concerns is the push on women’s campuses to eradicate words like “sisterhood” from use. But this isn’t an example of trans activism, as Potts puts it, being “indistinguishable from old-school misogyny”; that’s just old-school misogyny disguised as trans activism. Trans activism fights to make a world that is better for trans people, and while trans men are an important part of that, the fight to make a place for themselves at women’s colleges has nothing to do with them being trans and everything to do with them being entitled men. Anti-trans activists may claim that womanhood is fundamentally a set of common experiences, but that is ridiculous: Women have incredibly varying lives, levels of privilege, and even expectations of gender performativity and identity. What we do have in common, however, is our oppression by the patriarchy—even the most powerful women cannot completely escape its exploitation. And therein comes one of the fundamental problems of trans men in women’s colleges. Many, especially those with access to resources, will move out of that positionality; studies show, for example, that transgender men actually benefit from increased wages. Unfortunately, because of her third-gendering of trans people, Potts sees trans men as trans first and men last—if she sees them as men at all.

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And while she labels trans men’s behavior as trans activism, Potts holds trans women as being complicit in the misogynistic act of erasing women on campuses. In reality, though, we often face more aggressions in academia than our cis peers, if we’re allowed in the college at all. Contrary to Potts’ assertion that there are plenty of liberal college “safe spaces” for trans people, I can say that attending the progressive collegiate paradise of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, was a living hell for me as a transgender woman. I’ve been a feminist all my life, and yet both professors and students there told me that I didn’t understand feminism because I didn’t grow up a woman. I would be glared at every time I even walked into an LGBTQ space, let alone a women’s space. My own queer community would pressure me into not looking and acting the way I wanted to as some sort of sociological experiment (“Don’t shave your legs, it isn’t feminist. Don’t wear dresses, it isn’t feminist”). And then, after all that, I would still have beer bottles thrown at me by frat bros. I’d get attacked multiple times just trying to walk home. I’d get run off the road by a car while on bike in broad daylight. I’m not some outlier case, either. Health care, safe and gender-affirmative housing, and records are all withheld or made into a bureaucratic nightmare on college campuses, including women’s institutions.

But Potts’ ignorance of the perils trans women face on college campuses is just one part of her broader misunderstanding of just how much the misogyny we fight is similar to, or worse than, the kind she’s confronting. She points out that the Florida legislature battles women’s bodies by censoring the word “uterus,” but she fails to recognize that trans women’s bodies are so stigmatized in that state that soon they may be jailed for using public restrooms. As awful as the legacy of misogyny in public male-dominated institutions is, trans women often deal with hate and violence everywhere, including, again, women’s spaces. Our reproductive capacity and health is also denied and exploited. We have no representation in Congress, are four times more likely than other households to live in extreme poverty, and are in disproportionate danger of being abused or murdered—especially trans women of color. Yet many feminists still maintain that our inclusion in anything is objectively divisive.

Potts’ fallacy is the classic limitation of non-intersectional feminism, which assumes that because cisgender women are oppressed and exploited, everyone but cisgender women must be on the side of the oppressors and the exploiters. But the vast majority of issues that cisgender women have to deal with are similar to those trans women must overcome. Many anti-woman sentiments, such as reducing people to their sexual body parts, affect us too. There are exceptions on both sides, but we have far more ground for solidarity than for opposition. Unfortunately, the dominant strains of white, middle-class feminism have never been super flexible when it comes to being inclusive of problems outside their limited scopes. Instead, they will claim that it is trans women who aren’t inclusive of cis women’s struggles.

For example, Potts uses the instance of activists combating a production of the Vagina Monologues at Mount Holyoke College as an implication that trans women are anti-vagina. It is hard for me not to find this line of argument hilarious, considering many of the trans women I know are pretty desperate to get a vagina of our own. (Which, by the way, is another medically necessary procedure we are often denied or charged exorbitant amounts of money for.) But even trans women who are not trying to get a vagina are not trying to stop cis women from talking about whatever body parts they want. Just like a woman who has had a mastectomy should have the chance within feminist spaces to talk about not having breasts, just like a woman born without ovaries should have the chance to talk about motherhood, and just like intersex women should have the chance to talk about not having periods, trans women should have the chance to talk about our bodies. That does not deny cis women the opportunity to talk about theirs. Simply put, some feminist spaces, and the events and productions that occur in them, do not allow that—and that is a huge problem.

While feminists like Potts may not indulge in the absurdist shallow hate of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) like Cathy Brennan, they do seem to hold in common the belief that the truly important issues are the ones that affect the most people. They frequently prioritize topics like sexual violence and abortion rights, and suggest that any other matters of reproductive justice are distractions or derailments. It should not be overlooked, though, that these overwhelmingly white, cis, middle-class, urban individuals are less likely to be affected by problems of access, need, safety, and stigma than many other people in the United States. Still, they continue to try to obscure those differences under a broad umbrella—because to do otherwise might endanger their chance of continuing to hold the majority of the power within the mainstream feminist movement. Or, if the differences are as apparently difficult to appropriate as trans women’s issues are, these feminists instead classify them as irrelevant or a menace.

Unity, solidarity, and broad movements for social equality and liberation are based in celebrating, challenging, and recognizing our differences. I am glad that Monica Potts was at least willing to hear out my concerns on Twitter, but if she really wants, as she put it in her piece, “a fight [against patriarchy] that should be waged alongside … the one for LGBT rights,” then she and other cisgender feminists need to at a bare minimum allow us into their spaces. Not as part of a new non-sisterly sisterhood where we’re classified as belonging with trans men as allies rather than fellow feminist leaders, and not as tokens to show how hip they are with modern feminism, but as fellow women. I kid you not: It is actually that simple.

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