At the heart of feminism lies the radical idea that who we are, the choices we make, our status and the roles we play in society, are not predetermined by the bodies we possess. Are our gender identities and gender roles innately defined by our genitalia and secondary sex characteristics or are they imposed upon us externally to help us conform into a patriarchal societal framework?
Feminism posits it in the latter. When trans people reject the gender identity society imposes upon them without consent at birth and reclaim their own gender narratives, they bring into question all our preconceived notions of gender. Trans people have to deal with ‘gender dysphoria’, a sense of misalignment between their assigned sex at birth and their own gender identity. Dysphoria usually brings with it moderate to severe depression that can be life-threatening. As such, the struggle of trans women to assert their true selves is one of self-determination in active defiance of a misogynist culture in which any association with femininity is mocked and demonised.
In spite of the transgender protection bill passed in 2016 (which had countless problems of its own), transgender people in India face the risk of homelessness, workplace discrimination, social marginalisation and being forced into begging and sex work. Bishesh Huirem, a transgender model from Manipur was attacked by a police team. Anurag Maitreyi, a Kolkata-based gender rights activist was harassed on the metro. The police initially refused to file her complaint, harassing her and accusing her of extortion and indulging in criminal activities.
Globally, the trans community remains one of the most marginalised and at high risk of violence. However, trans women are doubly punished, once for daring to overstep the boundaries of the gender binary and twice for associating with femininity. Trans women not only put up with cissexism – the idea that trans identities are less legitimate than their cis (non-trans) counterparts – but also with a barrage of transmisogyny. Trans women, like cis women, are demonised or overly sexualised in media portrayals and are also victims of male-perpetrated violence and rape.
Surely then, feminism and trans rights must go hand in hand, complementing each other in their struggle against a world that punishes those who dare to challenge patriarchal gender norms? Unfortunately, this has not always been the case. A vocal minority of the feminist movement have espoused trans-exclusionary beliefs, leaving out trans women from feminist spaces and providing a ‘progressive’ excuse for the continued marginalisation of trans women.
Germaine Greer, prominent second-wave feminist, for instance, said that trans women “seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody”. Janice Raymond not only wrote “The Transsexual Empire” where she said “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies” but also wrote to the US Government a paper titled “Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery”, effectively eliminating federal medical aid for imprisoned transgender people. Julie Bindel, another prominent transphobic feminist, penned a piece for Standpoint magazine in 2009 arguing against the Gender Recognition Act, which would allow people to be issued new birth certificates after changing their sex.
Trans-exclusionary ideology relies on gender essentialism: the idea that the body you are born with determines the course of the rest of your life. This, of course, is a time-honoured patriarchal tradition and utterly antithetical to feminist thought.
For me, the dichotomy between trans issues and feminism is a false one. By rejecting a uniformistic and simplistic notion of feminism and embracing a feminism that is intersectional, we can enrich the feminist struggle with a plurality of views that challenge various forms of societal marginalisation.
Fortunately, the tides are turning. Feminists from an older generation, like Judith Butler and Gloria Steinem, have come out in favour of trans rights. The third wave of feminism is much more intersectional and inclusive of trans issues. Nivedita Menon in her book Seeing Like A Feminist speaks favourably of trans issues. Among the newer generation of feminists, Laurie Penny is vocal in her support of transfeminism. Prominent transfeminist voices include Julia Serano, whose book Whipping Girl serves as a transfeminist manifesto, Kate Bornstein, who made it permissible to be a Gender Outlaw, and Leslie Feinberg who pioneered transgender rights and intersectionality long before others had tackled the subject. Within my own friends circle, I’ve seen cis and trans feminists together celebrate Pride, and stand together against instances of patriarchal violence. Still, we have a long way to go before the equality we desire can be achieved.
The modern feminist movement must speak up for the rights of all women – trans and cis – alike. It must recognise unique modes of oppression and not erase people’s lived experiences through traditionalist narratives. The idea that gender is not a strict male/female binary, and that we do not have to be defined by our externally assigned secondary sex characteristics, that gender is fluid and runs on a spectrum, has real potential for shaking up the patriarchal status quo like never before.
Not only does trans activism have a place within the modern feminist movement but it also might be its radical heart. Being a woman in our society is inherently political and when trans women reclaim their womanhood, they are engaging in an inherent act of political defiance against the patriarchal status quo.
Soumadri Banerjee is an intern with Youth Ki Awaaz for the batch of February-March 2017.