Trans Feminism: What is It? Is It Necessary?

Being a trans woman and a feminist, I am often saddened and deeply troubled by the supposed gap or conflict between trans activism and feminism. As an intersectional feminist, I happen to know that there are many feminist/women's spaces which care deeply about trans issues and which recognise how these issues are, in many ways, the same old misogyny and gender essentialism dressed in new clothing. So why is there a perception of a conflict? Can a different or new branch of feminism, trans feminism, help?

Jezebel, obviously, is one such space where trans issues are considered and discussed fairly often. The one in which I have felt my views are welcomed, encouraged, and even sought after. Despite Jezebel's reputation as "pop feminism," it has become my intellectual home. It is, however, hardly alone in its approach to trans inclusivity. There are a number of such spaces. I often like to cite Feministing and Feministe as two of the best at inclusivity. To a lesser extent, Ms. Magazine has showcased trans inclusive viewpoints in various articles, although its comments are rife with transphobia, trans misogyny, and other forms of outright bigotry. I respect Ms. Magazine's desire to avoid stifling debate or resorting to censorship, so this should not be read as criticism. That said, while I value free and open discourse, I also value polite, civil, and rules oriented discourse. This is one of the many aspects which makes Jezebel my go-to space. I have many great things to say about the moderating team and the writers: you all have done an amazing job keeping the transphobic comments at bay.

I want to take an additional moment here to say I feel especially indebted to Twisty Faster who as an avowed patriarchy exposing, gender paradigm smashing radical feminist has unwaveringly confronted those elements of her own branch of feminism which still just don't seem to get it. She may be very direct... and maybe a little abrasive at times, and we certainly have our disagreements, but she is a rather clear example of the many fine feminists who really gives a damn, and does something about it.

So, with so many great allies in feminism, why then do my fellow trans women (not to mention trans men) often say things like:

Getting involved with feminism as a trans person is one of the fastest ways to become angry and bitter because it's a never ending battle that becomes an argument in a circle. There is no winning. I've watched it happen over and over and over and over and I refuse to even get involved with the subject because of it.

These same (mostly) trans women may identify as feminists, if they do not, they most likely live feminist ideals. Yet comments such as this seem to suggest a conflict with capital "F" Feminism (academic feminism is sometimes specifically mentioned). Despite my own run-ins with trans exclusionary radical feminists, and some of those run-ins have been real doozies, I've always had the benefit of access to a wider array of feminist thought. Around the time I actually received a diagnosis of (badly named) "Gender Identity Disorder," one of my major (English/Literature) professors was, and I hope I am characterising her correctly, a black feminist. She and I still talk, and I consider her one of the most important people in expanding my views of critical race theory, feminism, and intersectionality. I understand not everyone has had a like intersectional experience at a formative time, and maybe I was lucky.

What is Trans Feminism?

Feminism has gone through several branchings based on criticism: too straight? Queer theory and/or lesbian feminism. Too white? Womanism. Too middle and upperclass? Socialist feminism. Too damn slow, too damn little? Radical feminism. So trans feminism, of course, would seem to answer the criticism of too cisgender.

The first use of the word on record was in 1997, coined, at least in print, by Patrick Califa, a trans man from Corpus Christi, Texas. More than anyone else, however, scholar Emi Koyama is responsible for introducing the term to academia. In 2001, Koyama published The Transfeminist Manifesto, writing:

Transfeminism is primarily a movement by and for trans women who view their liberation to be intrinsically linked to the liberation of all women and beyond. It is also open to other queers, intersex people, trans men, non-trans women, non-trans men and others who are sympathetic toward needs of trans women and consider their alliance with trans women to be essential for their own liberation. Historically, trans men have made greater contribution to feminism than trans women. We believe that it is imperative that more trans women start participating in the feminist movement alongside others for our liberation.

In the essay, Koyama identifies the primary principles of trans feminism as the right to define one's own identity, the right to complete bodily autonomy, and the right to not to be coerced into a decision in order to be accepted as "real" woman or a "real" man. According to Koyama, trans feminism serves to remind all involved in feminism, but especially women, whether trans or cis, to reflect on the ways in which we share the internalisation of heterosexist, patriarchal, and gender essentialist mandates. She reminds us, too, that trans women are often faced with gatekeeping which necessitates an unfortunate display of traditional gender expression and gender roles, and that the choice of identifying with traditional expression or roles is not inherently anti-feminist.

Koyama also discusses the issue of trans women, male privilege, socialisation, and feminism, but I have already spent a great deal of time writing on that subject in an article of that exact title, so I will not go into it here. She further argues that trans feminism "holds that sex and gender are both socially constructed; furthermore the distinction between sex and gender is artificially drawn" and ultimately calls for complete freedom to assign one's self a sex independent of any medical, political, or religious authorities. Trans feminism, asserts Koyama, also deals with "traditional" feminist issues from a trans perspective, including body image, violence against women, and health and reproductive choice.

Recent scholarship by Julia Serrano, including her primer on trans feminism for Ms. Magazine which she wrote in response to Aviva Dove-Viebahn, connects trans feminism to other "third wave feminisms" and their shared goal of addressing intersectionality, although ultimately, I feel confident I can interpret her works as running parallel or nearly so with Koyama's original articulation of trans feminism. You will see one aspect to trans feminism which is hers, and while I whole heartedly embrace:

Many trans feminists prefer spelling “trans feminism” as two separate words, where trans is an adjective that modifies feminism. The single-word version—“transfeminism”—looks somewhat alien, and seems to suggest that this is not actually a strand of feminism but something else entirely (just as the single word “transwomen” suggests that trans women are something other than women). Along similar lines, we do not describe people as Catholicwomen or lesbianwomen.

It is this idea that trans feminism is part of an "intersectional family of feminisms" I would like to return to in addressing the second question of this article.

Is Trans Feminism Necessary?

Certainly Koyama and Serrano would argue that, indeed, trans feminism is necessary. Yet, and this is where I may shock you, dear readers, I am not sure I agree. Are Koyama and Serrano somehow wrong that trans women (and trans men, for that matter) have unique experiences which feminism needs to address? No. Are they wrong about the intersectional nature of those unique experiences? Absolutely not. Do I not articulate all (or at least most) of the primary principles articulated by Koyama? I do. So, what, then, could I possibly object about? After all, I'm a trans woman, would I not be expected to support a primarily trans branch of feminism?

In the opening paragraph of this article, I identified myself as an intersectional feminist. I did so with a purpose. I identified intersectional feminist spaces. That, too, was for a purpose. Ultimately, no, I do not find trans feminism to be necessary, at least not as a distinct movement. Why? Because I fundamentally believe that intersectional feminism encourages, and indeed, requires trans voices to be articulated and heard, and also for others to respond to such voices. I further believe that feminism without intersectionality is, quite bluntly, no feminism at all. A feminism which rejects trans voices, a feminism which would require a separate movement which is "primarily a movement for and by trans women," is a feminism in name only, not worthy of the label.

There is absolutely no reason why, in my mind, we as feminists cannot simply integrate, with very little fuss, all those principles Koyama discussed in The Transfeminist Manifesto and all those intertextualities within third wave and intersectional feminism pointed out by Serrano. Indeed, there are so many reasons, discussed on Jezebel, and Feministing, and Feministe, and by Twisty Faster, and Emi Koyama, and Julia Serrano, and Kate Bornstein, and Natalie Reed, why we absolutely should.

Being an intersectional feminist necessitates being a "trans feminist."