Disappearing women

In her most recent column, “Who Has Abortions?,” Katha Pollitt  says, “We can, and should, support trans men and other gender-non-conforming people without erasing women from the fight for reproductive rights.”  I agree.  I’ve got a draft of quite a few fragments and links for a long blog post on feminism and trans politics–on reproductive rights, on women’s colleges, on how TERFS have derailed real conversations about feminism in trans communities, and on the outsized role those on the trans-masculine side of the gender spectrum play in setting out the official gender line for trans politics. I’ve not had the time to pull it all together, so instead, I’m just posting bits and pieces.  Pollitt’s column today prodded me into posting the first bit.

But yes, I think Pollitt is right on this one.  Here’s part of her explanation:

The real damage of abolishing “women” in abortion contexts, though, is to our political analysis. What happens to Dr. Tiller’s motto, “Trust Women”? There was a whole feminist philosophy expressed in those two words: women are competent moral actors and they, not men, clergy or the state, are the experts on their own lives, and should be the ones to decide how to shape them. It is because abortion gives power specifically to women that it was criminalized. How did Selina Meyer put it on Veep? If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM. Restricting abortion is all about keeping women under the male thumb: controlling women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is what patriarchy is all about. Indeed, that women should decide for themselves is controversial even now. Although the Supreme Court ruled decades ago that men were not entitled to be notified if their wife was planning to end a pregnancy, some polls show large majorities of Americans believe husbands have a right to know. Once you start talking about “people,” not “women,” you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially.

I think it’s entirely possible to point out that it’s not just women who become pregnant and still keep in focus the bare political fact that abortion rights and access are gender issues, that it’s almost only women who get pregnant and who need abortions, and that abortion rights and access are under assault all over the US precisely because it’s primarily a “women’s issue.” Obviously abortion access shouldn’t be restricted by gender identity and providers should clearly communicate this in the messaging. Trans men need to know they can access to these services.

That said, taking “women” out of abortion rights rhetoric,  putting “vagina” on the list of unacceptable words, has the faint reek of misogyny.  Pollitt doesn’t call it by that name, but she writes:

But a feminism that can’t say “women”—or “vagina” or “sisterhood” or even the cutesy “ladyparts”— is cutting the ground from under itself. It’s not just about slogans like “the War on Women“ or “Stand with Texas Women, “ important as they are and challenging as it would be to replace them with gender-neutral language that carried the same emotional charge. How do you even talk about women’s being underrepresented politically, or earning less than men, or being victims of rape and domestic violence? In an era where politics is all about identity, as a tool for organizing and claiming public space, are women about to lose theirs?

It’s not just reproductive rights language that is fast being “de-gendered.” Women’s colleges are also being asked to get rid of that exclusionary category.  Many of us have long argued that women’s colleges need to admit trans women, regardless of the gender listed on their identity documents. And students who were admitted to women’s colleges as women and whose gender identity shifts during their college years need to be allowed to stay, and supported in their transition. But some of the discussions about changing who counts as a woman for college admission have morphed into an argument that everyone but cisgender men should be eligible to apply. Monica Potts, at the New Republic, says this is simply misogyny.

Feminist blogger and prison abolitionist Emma Caterine sees it differently. As she argues in a piece bluntly titled, “Trans Women are Not Agents of the Patriarchy”:

One of Potts’ main concerns is the push on women’s campuses to eradicate words like “sisterhood” from use. But this isn’t an example of trans activism, as Potts puts it, being “indistinguishable from old-school misogyny”; that’s just old-school misogyny disguised as trans activism. Trans activism fights to make a world that is better for trans people, and while trans men are an important part of that, the fight to make a place for themselves at women’s colleges has nothing to do with them being trans and everything to do with them being entitled men.

Trans women are on the precipice of being recognized as women at women’s-only institutions.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that now is also the moment when those institutions are being asked to retreat from their historic mission of educating women.   It’s certainly not the intention of the activists calling for the all-but cis men rule, but the effect is to suggest that once trans women gain entrance, all bets are off, everything is up for grabs. The unstated but inescapable implication of all this–that trans women aren’t women.  That’s trans-misogyny.

What’s the wedge issue?

Last month I was talking with the amazing Amaya Perez-Brumer and other graduate students at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Someone asked me, “If same-sex marriage is the wedge issue for the gay rights movement, what’s the most divisive issue in transgender politics?”  A good question, and certainly there are real divisions about what should be prioritized, just as there has been in the LGB rights movement.

There are a number of  priorities, but what should top the list? If we want to make trans lives better, where should our resources be directed? In fact, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality  asked that question on page 178 of their enormous 2011 survey project, “Injustice at Every Turn.” The policy areas most frequently by the survey’s 6450 respondents were:

Protecting transgender/gender non-conforming people from discrimination in hiring and at work: 70%

Getting transgender-related health care covered by insurance: 64%

Passing laws that address hate crimes against transgender/gender non-conforming people: 47%

Access to transgender-sensitive health care: 43%

Better policies on gender and identity documents and other records: 40%

Protecting transgender/gender non-conforming people from discrimination in housing: 26%

The right to equal recognition of marriages involving transgender partners: 25%

Passing anti-bullying laws that make schools safer: 21%

Transgender/gender non-conforming prisoners’ rights: 15%

The right of transgender/gender non-conforming people to parent, including adoption: 14%

HIV prevention, education and treatment:11%

Allowing transgender/gender non-conforming people to serve in the military: 7%

Immigration policy reform (such as asylum or partner recognition): 5%

This list gives some sense of the popularity of particular policy areas.  But the numbers fail to reveal a wedge issue, just significantly less interest in immigration, military service, parenting rights, incarceration. bullying. Even these least popular issues represent very different political positions–for example, prisoners’ rights versus the right to serve in the military.

I’m still thinking this through, but my first stab at an answer to this question was that there really isn’t a wedge issue. It’s not trans employment discrimination versus the plight of trans HIV positive people, prisoners, parents or immigrants.   The wedge is transgender itself. In that sense, it’s sort of an inverse wedge, if there can be such a thing.  So really not a wedge, but a wrong cramming together of people whose only commonality is that one way or another their gender didn’t turn out as expected, based on the sex they were assigned at birth. That “trans” or “transgender” purports to describe people who are so very  differently situated in relation to their vulnerability to violence, to incarceration, to illness, to homelessness seems like one of the more miraculous feats of identity politics.

More on this to come as I work these ideas out in the chapter I’m writing on incarceration, trans economicus and the freeze frame policy in the book.

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