Tapping into trans-feminism

Xtra!; November 2008

I was born privileged, but not necessarily in the conventional sense. I entered this world with certain advantages that I can't take credit for, but neither can I take them for granted: being white, being heterosexual and being male in female form.

Though being white and heterosexual are commonly understood to carry privilege, most people wouldn't consider transsexuality to be all that sweet a deal. The most accurate summation I've heard for the transsexual experience is that "it sucks." But it sucks only insofar as there continues to be no space for transsexuality within a system that only recognizes two genders.

In itself, though, transsexuality is a gift, recognized in some cultures as an evolved state of being — housing both a female and a male spirit, and having the ability to see the world from two perspectives at once. This is privilege.

With privilege comes responsibility. Like all people, transsexuals have the responsibility, according to their abilities, to share the advantages of their giftedness. With my particular set of gifts I could hardly avoid the inevitable avenue to fulfilling this responsibility: feminism.

I have never been able to resist the temptation to question hierarchy — whether based on sex, sexuality, gender, race, class, age, ability, nationality or species — and to try to understand why it exists, who profits from it and how I can make use of what I've been given to deconstruct it.

Historically, however, feminists have been less than eager to welcome transsexual contributions to the movement. Many have argued against trans-feminism on the grounds that one must inhabit a female body to have the experiences that make one a feminist.

This is a deceptive argument on many levels. In the same way that I don't have to be black to be a passionate defender of civil rights, it stands to reason that anyone who upholds feminist ideals should be free to consider themselves feminist.

And how is it that an argument intended to negate trans-feminism - "that one must inhabit a female body to have the experiences that make one a feminist" - can so accurately communicate my reasons for becoming a transsexual feminist in the first place? I was a boy raised as a girl, treated as a girl, spoken to as a girl, taken advantage of as a girl and so often dismissed as "just a girl." No one can deny me the right to fight for gender equality.

This is particularly critical considering that we continue to live in a predominantly patriarchal world that seeks to reinforce femininity in women and masculinity in men; favouring maleness and sidelining femaleness.

It is understandably a feminist goal to disrupt this system. But where feminism falls short, argues Toronto-based trans activist reese simpkins, is in failing to challenge a binary sex/gender system that at the most fundamental level invests masculinity into male bodies and femininity into female bodies.

"By disrupting the male equals man equals masculine formula... trans politics are key to feminist politics," writes simpkins in 2006's Trans/forming Feminisms : Trans/feminist Voices Speak Out.

Gender is far more rich and mysterious than it gets credit for in the male/female, man/woman formula. It is true that, with the exception of certain intersexed folk, we are all born into one of those two camps. But belonging in one or another is far more complex than a mere biological assignment.

As I see it there are three parts to gendered belonging: shared gender identity (a sense of self as male, female, both or neither), shared biological sex designation (male, female or intersexed) and shared experiences that come with biological sex (sexual development and expression, social interaction and the like). Cisgendered (non-trans) men and women are typically distanced from one another in all three areas. But transsexuals occupy a space outside or between gendered belonging in a binary system and therein lies a transformative but untapped resource.

Transsexual men, for example, share only one element of belonging with cisgendered men: their gender identity. With very few exceptions trans men have both biological sex and accompanying experiences in common with women. That is why, I believe, I have yet to meet a trans man who does not on some level identify as a feminist. We have, in short, the experiences that make one a feminist.

I grew up as a biological girl with all the experiences that come along with that assignment. Because of this I developed a strong resentment toward men and masculinity for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was my exclusion from both.

Equally destructive was my abhorrence of my femaleness, a ball and chain as foreign to me as what was between my legs or what happened to me in puberty. It wasn't until I discovered that I was free to define myself and my body that masculinity, femininity and gender-neutrality all became indispensable articles of my own liberation and self-expression.

At the risk of sounding presumptive I would argue that this is the key to gender liberation, not just for transsexuals — for whom this process is largely unavoidable — but for everyone, since we are all sitting somewhere on that same blurry gender spectrum and we all suffer equally, though differently, under the weight of segregation and hierarchy.

It is in this sense that transsexuals are uniquely positioned to bridge the gulf between the sexes. We have gender identities that are diverse and sometimes fluid, we have blended experiences and blended bodies, and we have gender roles and expressions that are fuzzy at best. Most importantly we have demanded freedom in all of the above areas, because transsexual health depends on the ability to accept, express and value the male, female and none-of-the-above within oneself.

From my corner of the world it seems clear that the feminist movement could benefit enormously from an alliance with transsexual male feminists. After all we are men who have the biological vulnerabilities and the sociological experiences of women. If patriarchy is the problem — if men "just don't get it" — then the most effective instruments of change could be men of female experience.