Pop Theory: The War on Transwomen


Why do some cis-gender (aka “bio”) women loathe transwomen? There’s really no other way to ask this question, especially in light of the recent hullabaloo across the pond last week.

First, New Statesman columnist Suzanne Moore wrote a piece about the difficulties of being a woman in the 21st century, including, she writes, the inability of most women to look like “Brazilian transsexuals”—an off-the-cuff, blatantly unpolitically-correct comparison that drew a ton of ire from the trans and queer communities.

All photos from Getty Images

Not to be outdone, her friend Julie Burchill, in a column now pulled (and under investigation) at The Observer, unleashed a verbal assault on transwomen, calling them “a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing,” “screaming mimis,” and “bed-wetters in bad wigs.”

Stay classy, Julie. Stay classy.

Actually, after reading this I raised both fists in the air and exclaimed, “What the fuck are women doing?!?!” I am so unbelievably disappointed in the community of cis-gender women who attack transwomen. Their behavior is nothing short of hypocritical and it totally undermines the feminist movement, as Anna North over at Buzzfeed rightly noted:

A central tenet of feminism has long been that a woman and she alone should have control over her body. To argue that the gender of said body isn’t covered by this — that it should instead be determined from the outside — is an increasingly untenable position.

For a stronger feminist movement we must present a unified front. Period. Discrimination against women occurs primarily on the perceptual level of gender. We read and see gender. We are attacked for our gender; those at the edges of the female gender (especially those who appear very masculine, or those who sometimes fail at “passing”) face a greater amount of discrimination than those (like myself) who reside somewhere in the middle. In this regard, it doesn’t matter if you’ve had boob implants (a surgery made common by heterosexual cis-gender women) or not, or if you have two X chromosomes or one. Discrimination is born out of appearances, and for that everyone woman is subjugated to the power structures of patriarchy.

As you know, I’ve written about transphobia before in an earlier Pop Theory piece, “Is the ‘Cotton Ceiling Theory’ All Fluff?,” in which I questioned the need to police other people’s identity. The hatred of some cis-gender women toward transwomen is nothing other than fear—Yoda could tell y’all that. But why are these cis-gender women afraid of transwomen? Why are they afraid of people who are actively praising the feminine through their continual appropriation (linguistically, but also physically through lifelong hormone treatments) of “woman”? Transwomen, in my mind, are the most noble of women because they—more so than cis-gender women—understand the minority position of “woman” in this patriarchal world and readily take it on. I am woman, hear me roar.

And, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing not a whole lot of people would readily give up the position of “man” (especially of “white man”) in this world. Ammi right, or ammi right? I mean, isn’t a part of “butch flight” the attractiveness of owning a piece of patriarchal power, of giving up a minority position that’s “just too hard”?

The fear, I think, of said cis-gender women is that of invisibility. Something as innocuous, say, as Melissa Harris-Perry’s weekend segment on the future of LGBTQ rights during Obama’s second term, featuring The Advocate’s Matthew Breen (gay white male) and the National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling (white transwoman). These fearful cis-gender women might ask, “Who is speaking for me?”

While the “War on Women” rageth, it’s been a banner year for transgender rights, including the transgender anti-discrimination immigration policy, and the removal of the term “gender identity disorder” from the DSM. The fear of invisibility is also one of substitution, hence Moore’s asinine comment about “Brazilian transsexuals.” For transphobic, cis-gender women, the logic is that the substitution consists of substituting a women for a “man masquerading as a woman.” Or, to paraphrase an old white lesbian who I got into a Facebook-argument with, “I am insulted by the label of cis-gender and refuse to cede feminism to a certain strain of trans.”

I mention the race, gender, and sexuality of my virtual interlocutor because I have found through personal experience that the most vocal transphobic contingent of cis-gender women are overwhelmingly middle-aged and white. And this makes me wonder, “Did these avowed feminists have their heads in the sand when P.O.C. feminists like Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa called them out for their racist stranglehold on Feminism back in the ‘70s and ‘80s?”

There is a difference of sex, but not one of gender, between cis-gender women and transwomen. This difference, however, does not translate into culture—and this is where transphobic women need to correct their thinking: in discourses of politics, from culture to ideology, especially that of “Feminism,” the difference of sex is irrelevant. In the name of Feminism, in the name of political and legal rights, what matters is gender.

As the aforementioned Lorde, Anzaldúa, and countless others taught us, “feminism” encompasses the ideals of all women, not just those who are middle-class and white. Its politics should not be driven by fear and loathing, but respect and admiration.

Egalitarianism is not championed by patriarchy. Feminists, you can do better.

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