Promiti Debi | Senior Staff Illustrator
Wednesday was transgender day of visibility — a day to reflect on the progress that we’ve made as trans individuals and allies and to celebrate the incredible voices we have in the trans community. Every day is a wonderful day to celebrate trans people, but the day of visibility comes at an incredibly important time. Legislation and violence work to silence trans voices, but let’s take some time to talk about how we can support trans people through transfeminist practices.
Transfeminism was first defined in 2001 by Emi Koyama in “The Transfeminist Manifesto.” I’d highly recommend reading it in full, but for now, I’m more than happy to break down the basics. Anyone who supports trans lives can practice transfeminism. To start, take a minute to think empathetically about your activism and your feminist beliefs. If you’re anything like me, it’s a bit harder than it looks. Despite being a feminist, I’ve historically had a lack of empathy regarding the choices women make. I used to criticize women for cleaning up after their husband, for dating too many men, for wearing trendy clothes. It’s a vicious and unending cycle that only serves to harm women. Nevertheless, it can be avoided if we try out some transfeminist practices.
Dating is a hot topic among feminists. Some second-wave feminists of the ‘70s and ‘80s thought it would be grand to separate from men entirely in an effort to fight patriarchy (in those days, these feminists only thought of cisgender men and women, so I apologize in advance for how binary this is about to be). They thought that if you were truly feminist, how could you fight for women’s rights during the day just to be an obedient wife when you returned home? To be the doting wife of a patriarchy-fueled man was to be anti-feminist. So, some took it upon themselves to become lesbians, but only politically. Despite their attraction to men, they theorized that a relationship with one was too detrimental to feminism. That old adage of “the heart wants what it wants” wasn’t true for these political lesbians.
Except, of course it was. I hope I’m not the first to break the news, but you can’t choose your sexuality. Upon closer examination, the problem with the obedient wife wasn’t the existence of the wife, but the expectation that being a wife is the only choice a woman has. However, this didn’t seem to matter to political lesbians. Instead, they doubled down. To be a feminist, you had to personally omit patriarchy from your being. If years of sexist conditioning stuck to your skin like dirt, it might be easy to wash it off (and someone could make millions selling anti-patriarchal soap). There’s just one problem. Patriarchy can’t be willed away. It’s ingrained in you from the very moment you’re born.
Transfeminism accounts for this. It tells us that we shouldn’t let other people tell us what to do with our bodies or lives to qualify as feminists. This can be a really big step to take. If you’re anything like me, you have most likely condemned someone’s actions because they appear to play into patriarchy. Transfeminism asks us to think critically about our actions under patriarchy, but we don’t have to change what we do if it makes us happy and it doesn’t hurt other women.
This is a liberating thought, especially for trans people. While the same rules apply for cis individuals, the transfeminist manifesto was made with trans people, and specifically trans women, in mind. It may seem simple, but when you think about the expectations trans women are given, this sentiment becomes that much more important.
If you ask the question, “What does it mean to be a woman?” you would get an array of responses. Some may say that being a woman means being in touch with your femininity. Others would respond that it’s about caring and compassion. A few may tell you that it’s about wearing dresses or doing your makeup. If you ask the question, “What does it mean to be a feminist?” the range is even wider (and it includes a Buzzfeed quiz). There’s the obvious goal of the equality of the sexes, but I think most feminists would agree there’s more to it. Some would talk about dismantling the patriarchy, while others would say it’s about giving women freedom of choice. All of these responses are correct, but transfeminism clearly and explicitly states that feminism is about letting women do what they want, as long as you support all women’s right to do so.
This is something that feminists have historically had a difficult time with, and the issue does not begin and end with transgender women. During first wave feminism, big names like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony rejected their sisters of color after Black men won the right to vote before white women (cue some incredibly racist statements). The trend of pushing Black women aside continued into the second and third waves of feminism, which caused Black women to establish their own practices for equality. Black feminism and womanism emerged out of similar feelings to transfeminism as mainstream white feminism routinely ignored the experiences of non-white and non-cisgender individuals.
Ignoring the experiences of these historically excluded individuals only strengthens patriarchy. Take me in the 10th grade, for example. I was so busy critiquing girls for wearing short skirts or being cheer captain (and, yes, I did wear t-shirts and I was on the bleachers) that I completely forgot that women making choices is a good thing. Femininity can be an incredibly good and desirable thing, even if it is a construction of patriarchy. For transgender women, grappling with desires for femininity and deconstructing the patriarchy can be a tumultuous journey. Political lesbians asked themselves if it was anti-feminist to desire feminine things. What does it mean if you want to look pretty for your boyfriend or gossip with your girl friends? Are you anti-feminist?
If you asked me in the 10th grade, I would have said yes. If you ask a political lesbian, they would probably say yes, too. But if you ask a transfeminist, they would say no. It’s okay to want what you want. It’s important for trans people to allow themselves to desire things without a fear of rejection or criticism. You don’t have to forfeit your desires to abolish the patriarchy. The rules set out for cis women are the same for trans women, except trans people have the added pressure of being trans. It’s suffocating for cis women, trans women and anyone else who doesn’t benefit from patriarchy (so, most people). As a non-binary person, I have struggled with balancing my desires with feminism, but transfeminism says that it’s okay. You’re doing enough, and you don’t have to stop desiring for the sake of the movement. Take your joy. We’re here for you. Patriarchy takes so much from us. Transfeminism refuses to do the same.
Rachel writes about queer culture, the queer community and navigating life beyond the binary. Talk to them at [email protected].