Learning From Trans* Experiences

Let us begin at the beginning and everywhere: transgender people live all over the world and have since the dawn of time. In many cultures, now and in various eras, people of trans experiences play vital and revered cultural roles, and in others, they are marginalized, even attacked. What trans folks call themselves differs, and trans experiences embody all the intersectional bits of ourselves: race and class; sexual orientation and physical ability, as well as macro and micro cultures of origin and adoption.

“Trans” or “transgender” broadly refers to people whose location on a sex (female <-> male) and gender (feminine <->masculine) matrix falls not at polarized norms, but moves and illuminates spectrums. They live beyond gender and sex stereotypes. Trans includes individuals born male then transitioning to female, born female then transitioning to male, and everyone in between who claims the identity. Some trans folks reject the gender binary of either female or male, aiming for a gender between or neither: androgynous, genderqueer, genderf*c!. Trans is a process of becoming one’s authentically felt gender, working to match external perceptions and reactions with an internal sense of self.

Trans individuals craft their gender presentation, as we all do, through appearance, including fashion, communication style and body. Body modification may include surgery or not, may include hormone therapy or not. Some trans people refrain from biomedical interventions by choice; others forgo expensive hormones or surgery only when they cannot afford them or services are altogether unavailable.

Like many people outside of mainstream systems, trans-inclusive queer communities rally around members in need: fundraising benefits for top surgery, rallies for the alarming number of trans victims of violence. This includes street violence as well as police brutality and discrimination: 41% of black transgender people are arrested/jailed due to bias their identity, according to the National Transgender Discrimination survey.

Trans people who move from one gender recognized by the state to another can pay fees and file papers to change their gender on identification documents; many U.S. states require a court order. Some legally change their name, incurring more fees and paperwork; in some places, organizations like SRLP and the Transgender Defense and Legal Education Fund support individuals in these formal processes. Changing gender, name and pronouns with families and friends is often the more complicated, long-term process.

For trans people, and particularly trans women, all of this stuff is an up-hill trudge, through the fire of stigma and shaming, often over a lifetime. Given their playing field skews on account of gender, the feminist alarms ought to sound.

Although many early feminist thinkers presume cisgendered women (those living as women and born with socially recognized female bodies) in their analysis, trans people embody a feminist challenge to patriarchy by troubling ideas of sex and gender as fixed corollaries, questioning what is “natural” and what is socially constructed and how such is linked to power or vulnerability. Feminist undertakings, like realizing reproductive justice and eradicating gender based violence, will remain unrealized if we do not take the needs and experiences of trans people into account.

Too often, however, institutionalized “feminism” via mainstream women’s organizations— like their counterparts among gay institutions— view trans issues as beyond the scope of their missions or as a political burden. Other feminist thinkers have tripped over crucial questioning of social pressure to align sex and gender into transphobia.

Only recently, Gloria Steinem recanted early anti-trans writings: “What I wrote decades ago does not reflect what we know today as we move away from only the binary boxes of ‘masculine” or ‘feminine’ and begin to live along the full human continuum of identity and expression.”  She continues, “we have a lot to learn from original cultures that often didn’t even have ‘he’ and ‘she’ in their languages, taught girls how to control their own fertility, and routinely accepted and had special roles for the ‘twin-spirited.’ These facts may remind us that patriarchy, racism, and nationalism have been dominant for less than 5% of human history. Maybe they are an experiment that failed.”

Transfeminism, as discussed by Emi Koyama in Transfeminism Manifesto, is “primarily a movement by and for trans women [used to refer to those individuals who identify, present or live more or less as women despite their birth sex assignment to the contrary] 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 transwomen and consider their alliance with trans women to be essential for their own liberation.” (emphasis added) How we treat individuals, engage our communities, and build our movements are opportunities to advance transfeminism.

The trans community, of course, has launched its own successful initiatives and organizations, including the National Center for Transgender Equality, Hearts on a Wire Collective, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), and Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE), founded in 2000 by a group of primarily LGBTQ young people of color. Historically, drag queens of color—including the venerable Marsha P. (Pay It No Mind) Johnson— threw the first stones that sparked the Stonewall Rebellion, a riot resisting police violence that launched the modern American LGBTQ movement.

There is something big to be learned from trans experiences. We are at a transformative moment; we must change to survive together on this planet. It seems extra important to listen to people who have heard themselves clarion through all the static and struggle to live authentic, wholehearted lives.

Where and how people suffer shows us where we need to change, philosophically, politically, economically, and institutionally. If someone suffers, for example, when faced with choosing a bathroom for “men” or “women” in a public place, we should question and address that situation.

We need safe bathrooms for every person. We also need other trans sensitive policies, structural change, and cultural evolution. Here in the United States, “it is part of social and legal convention…to discriminate against, ridicule, and abuse transgender and gender non-conforming people within foundational institutions such as the family, schools, the workplace and health care settings, every day.” These toxic American conventions now creep worldwide. For example, in Uganda, new criminalization of LGBTQ people is affecting those who are gender variant first. The well-publicized anti-queer crisis in that country is directly linked with regressive right-wing leaders in this country whose attacks on women — and reproductive rights in particular –are woefully familiar to American feminists.

In the Transfeminist Manifesto, Koyama writes, “Trans liberation is about taking back the right to define ourselves from medical, religious and political authorities.”  As a cisgender woman and feminist, I say, “f*c!, yeah! That’s my game too!”

Feminists will be more powerful when we listen to the voices of trans activists directly. Some recommended reading to begin with:


vrb photoAbout the author: Vanessa Brocato is a freelance writer, facilitator, and general global feminist good witch based in Brooklyn, NY. She is a cisgender queer femme woman with more than two decades of AIDS movement experience and a well-worn passport. She earned her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC, where she won the international human rights award for her graduating class. Follow her on Twitter @glitter_sweets for musings on sex, global justice, glitter, and cake.

Categories: Action

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16 replies

  1. See also the new book, American Culture Warriors in Africa: A Guide to the Exporters of Homophobia and Sexism is a new, popular-format guidebook designed to educate U.S. audiences and motivate all people of conscience to take action that interrupts the persecution of women and sexual minorities overseas: http://www.politicalresearch.org/africa/book-american-culture-warriors-in-africa/

  2. Thank you to Vanessa for this important landscape of trans feminism and activism!


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