My twitter feed has been buzzing recently with discussions about trans-exclusionary feminism. Once upon a time, I studied similar things at University, and this debate has stoked my analytical engine. Unwise as it may be to walk into these shark-infested waters, I want to explain my thinking, not least as a method of clarifying the ideas in my own internal debate.
I am not a feminist. In fact there are very few “ist” or "ism" words I do subscribe to. That is not to say I disagree with the broad aims of the dictionary definition of feminism, “to define and advance political, economic, personal, and social rights for women.” but that I struggle with identifying with any ill-defined team in society. There is too much scope, too much opportunity for factionalism and misrepresentation of ideas.
Some of the women who speak in the debate, come from a historical and social viewpoint of fighting within the developed world for the ability to soar in whatever intellectual or employment based field they want, when this was not the case. I tend to think of them as glass ceiling feminists. Within the context of their experiences and their fight, I can understand they do not associate their struggle with that of someone who has an established social standing as a man and then transitions to female, without losing, in their perception, status. (In case you've been asleep under a bush I'm alluding to Jenni Murray and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie )
My personal experience of this is a mtf post-surgery family member. Work status was established as a male and was protected by law when they transitioned, and working in a liberally minded field, being trans did to a certain extent give a level of kudos. That they have transitioned has not significantly altered their lives in the areas that these feminists consider to be their struggle. Maternity rights, pension rights, access to training has not been an issue for a late onset transitioner. They have not had physically feminine issues such as feminine cancers and menstruation and avoidance of pregnancy to deal with, nor have they adopted a traditionally feminine role within society as a main care-giver in a family. Perhaps this is the experience trans-exclusionary feminists have in their experience? Yes, they have struggled with their own identity and in many other ways,-access to funding and transition health care, familial and friendship acceptance, legal and societal acceptance, but these are not directly matching the experience of the majority of cis-gendered women of the same age educational and social status (et al).
Others who speak in this debate have a practical understanding of the difficulties relating to trans individuals and add this experience to their understanding of feminism. In this sense perhaps feminism becomes less about personal experiences of being female and of being perceived to be female and more about all sectors of the community having equal social and political access as men of privilege? Feminism becomes about the potential negative experience of the individual due to the perception of others that they are female: less about your self definition and more about the eye of the beholder.
There are many equality based difficulties in the world today that are key for people with either female physiognomy or female identification. Access to sanitary products and appropriate safe places to toilet as a broad sweep issue is world-wide, from rules on trans-peoples’ bathrooms in schools in the US, to poor girls in major first world cities lacking sanitary products, to girls shut away as unclean during the days of their periods, to women raped when they go out to the fields to defecate. This affects mainly women, so could be seen as a feminist issue, but equally, I think it would be stupid to think there are not boys raped in the fields, and non-continent boys unable to attend school because of a lack of hygiene products around the world.
There are problems in work places, from the boss that thinks it is ok to use derogatory terms or sexist humour, to lack of opportunities for advancement- the traditional glass ceiling elements- that still exist, to the problems caused by the intersection of working women with societal care needs, including children and parents, which still falls overwhelmingly on women. However, men who have to take on this role are also discriminated against. Is a son taking care of his parents not also the potential butt of discrimination at work, or the man who has taken a career break to be with his children going to be seen as having a lack of workplace drive? I am certain a number of female bosses exist who are derogatory about their male employees for perceived male weaknesses,-jokes about inability to multitask being the first thing that comes to mind.
I am a woman who employs male carers for my male children. This is questioned constantly, with the impression from certain female professionals that men working in care must be paedophiles. Are female carers questioned in this way? And I am a professional who has given up work to raise my children. I identify in my brain as a professional, but society sees me as a stay at home mum. Equally sometimes my carers see the housework as only my domain, yet I am considerably better qualified at the hands-on teaching of my children than they are. I hate having to use gender as a way of judging or explaining these behaviours, but it is used as a defining factor all the time mainly as a pre-conception.
I guess the best definition for me would be intersectional feminist, but I still shy away from that. It is still a way of separating people into boxes and simplifying their experiences. I cannot criticise the role and position of glass ceiling feminists as I did not have to face the difficulties they did in the society and time frame they lived through. Nor can I agree with them that trans-people do not suffer from some or all of the same battles as cis-gendered females who identify as female.
I am fortunate to have autism which is another "ism" which is poorly defined outside the medical community (and sometimes even within it). In this field of reference, for me, it means socially constructed boundaries such as gender and class have less importance and less visibility for me than the definition of people as individuals. I find the ideas perhaps easier to ignore or discount than some more neuro-typical people, but I am not going to hold that against them! Equally, just because someone is autistic, this might not be their experience of gender.
I choose to be positively non discriminatory. Everyone faces their own personal journey from a starting point they did not choose, or provide reason to deserve. Where I can, given my limited understanding of each person’s situation, I aim to be a positive influence on their life and their personal development and happiness. I hope everyone finds a way to be happy in their own skin and that they are surrounded (not necessarily solely physically) by people who are kind and empathetic about their experience. I aim to make positive contributions to the lives of others to help further equality and social justice regardless of gender, sexuality, colour or beliefs.
Perhaps it is time to ditch "ism" ideology and start to treat other human beings well simply because it is a kind thing to do?