Being trans* in the lesbian community

Since coming out as genderqueer, I can’t tell you how many of my friends have told me that they, too have gender issues, issues that are entirely separate from their sexuality. Lesbian friends, not all of them remotely butch, have admitted they never felt like a woman. Straight but “gay-looking” friends have opened my closed mind to the fact that it was a gender issue, not a sexuality issue, I was picking up in them.

Fellow dykes, when you walk down the street and see a straight woman who “doesn’t know she’s a dyke” what you’re seeing may be their gender, not their sexuality. Time to open our minds – gender and sexuality are two entirely different things; that’s why femmes exist.

So why does the lesbian community lock gender issues so firmly in the closet?

For me, the message came through at my first ever lesbian event; I made good friends with a trans* woman and then we found out she wasn’t welcome; the event had a “women born women only” policy. I soon learned that many women’s spaces are trans* excluding. Even when they’re nominally inclusive, the amount of hostility to trans* women from a vocal minority in the community makes them feel completely unwelcome.

My friend wasn’t an activist. She was quiet and shy, like most of my trans* friends. She didn’t know about the policy, because it wasn’t advertised. She was a woman who liked women; she thought the event was for her. When she found out, she didn’t kick up a fuss, she just left, devastated and bewildered. Most of the people there didn’t agree with the policy, but they didn’t fight it either. Everyone just carried on enjoying themselves in a trans* free space, like white South Africans who didn’t really agree with apartheid but were still more comfortable sunning themselves on white-only beaches and not having to deal with people who are different.

There’s this whole bullshit, garbled theory to justify trans* exclusion, based on “if we say it’s not real, we’re right and all these people with all this complex, unique experience – well, they’re wrong.” Oh, and science is wrong too. And if we never talk to those people or allow them into our events or conversations, then we never have to examine whether our ideas really hold water (hint: they don’t).

If you want to get really technical, the “trans-critical” theories are a bizarre mash-up of a) the post-modern ideas of Judith Butler (who is trans* accepting, intersectional and inclusive, as it happens) and b) some essentialist ideas about sex and biology being destiny. So far, so not very radical. A simplistic and essentialist model of binary, biological sex trumping all other considerations becomes the clumsy crayon with which we’re expected to draw our identities, (and police other people’s).

But I understand their fear, because I feel it too. Opening your mind to trans* issues shakes the foundations of everything we believe about sex and gender; however radical we may think we are, really wrapping our head around the multiverse of trans* identities is one giant leap beyond anything non-intersectional feminism has to say. But as Judith Butler puts it:

“the feminist framework that takes the structural domination of women as the starting point from which all other analyses of gender must proceed imperils its own viability by refusing to countenance the various ways that gender emerges as a political issue, bearing a specific set of social and physical risks.   . . .That feminism has always countered violence against women, sexual and nonsexual, ought to serve as a basis for alliance with those other movements since phobic violence against bodies is part of what joins anti-homophobic, antiracist, feminist, trans, and intersex activism.” Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, p.9

In simpler words, (because Butler’s words are never simple) ignoring gender variance as a real thing and ignoring the inherent risks and oppressions connected to any kind of gender variance, is likely to undermine feminism (and reinforce patriarchy). So Trans* exclusion is brilliantly doing patriarchy’s work for it, assisting in the oppression and marginalisation of gender non-conforming individuals.

For me, I quickly learned to keep my own gender issues under wraps, but I’m fed up now of cutting off bits of myself in order to conform to one group or another. I hereby resign from the binary and the either/or in all its manifestations. And I still belong here.

9 thoughts on “Being trans* in the lesbian community

  1. Pingback: Reblogging: Being trans* in the lesbian community | doubleinvert

  2. Pingback: Being trans* in the lesbian community | CrazyQueerClassicist

  3. Rachel Phillips

    The more I read and explore about gender, the more the binary system seems bizarre. Keep blogging, you’re saying lots of things that need saying! x

  4. thevenerablecorvex

    I am a trans* woman attracted exclusively to other women, both cis and trans. But I have never associated myself with the so-called Lesbian community for pretty much exactly the reason that you describe here.

    1. Pro2501

      Thanks for your blog and for being a true ally to trans and genderqueer people. Not only trans and gc people, but all non-straight people and feminism need more voices like yours!
      For the last years I‘ve been at queer women’s venues and events, sometimes at women-only events or spaces nominally open to trans women or, most often, to trans people in general. Within those, I have never had the urge to disclose my trans status, as interactions were mostly limited to casual conversations. There were other reasons, though: I regard my transition as completed and do not usually experience my transness as an issue beyond cisgender prejudice, mostly limited to some interactions with health care professionals and with some people who know me from before.

      Even more importantly, I have never been certain that there isn’t some foul play at work behind most rhetoric trans-inclusive language within many lesbian and so called queer-spaces. This was always more than just a guts feeling:

      — I never ever saw any visible trans woman, perceptible as such (i.e. starting or undergoing transition) at those events or spaces. Not only once. Never. Not even at queer parties that would pose no ‘passing’ problems as they’re attended by a majority of lesbians but also by queer men, including one or two visible trans men.

      — Excluding a couple of big events and some very few exceptions I have seldom seen any femmes around and even at big parties they are a tiny, rare minority who seem to me to play the role of tokens.

      — I have witnessed a couple of women, either of femme or androgyne expression, come out as bisexual and cause some embarrassed, uneasy or shocking reactions in their supposed queer listeners.

      — I have witnessed a lot of small and/or subtle comments, looks and behaviors aimed at policing or judging gender and gender expression, along with no small amount of lookism.
      When hearing some conversations or seeing some event advertisement, I have had the most awful feeling that “trans” exclusive meant FAAB trans people and particularly the kind of trans men or trans masculine folk who date lesbians.

      — I have also heard a few comments in which trans was used as a kind of paternalistic “let them be”-code for saying “that little group of people who weren’t there from the beginning [sic thinking] and must be ‘protected’ and somehow included in our language and parades but who actually belong somewhere else or are better by themselves, and by the way are not queer enough”.

      — Many conversations I’ve heard (and been a part to) deal a lot with what one could call “queer or lesbian credentials”, i.e. centering around questions such as when did people notice they were lesbians, when did they come out, whether they had sex with men in the past, whether they identify as a “lesbian” and so on. Yes, it is that strange sitting a couple of hours in a lesbian bar among lesbians and after a while getting asked whether you’re one or whether you call yourself one. It is fun writing and reading this, but when in the middle of those conversations one cannot avoid thinking that she’s been judged and given some kind of true lesbian contest points for the answer.

      — I have heard comments of lesbians and bisexual women who also felt that way within those spaces and who would subscribe to most of the above. I have even heard of a few having inclusion problems just because of their feminine appearance.

      So now please tell me how are lesbian trans women supposed to feel safe, welcomed and included if by lesbian space or venue what is meant is “a space or venue predominantly for a few particular types of lesbians”. Consequently, there are lots of lesbian and bisexual women who meet online, find love and live their lives in the same town without ever visiting the these places for good. No wonder I am beginning to take this stance and to do the same.

      This experience has opened my eyes to the key fact that policing gender is not a problem of trans and genderqueer people only, but of all women and many queer men.

      Beside all of the above, the last micoaggressions and exclusionary comments I have experienced for being trans came from cis gays and lesbians who know about my trans status. I must insist: not precisely from them, but exclusively from them, as I have had no such thing coming from cis straight people for several years.

      What’s more, apart from the few bisexual women and femme lesbians I know, the best reactions to my transition years ago came from cis straight feminists, while the majority of the worst comments and most insidious reactions at my transitioning came from some gay men and from one or two lesbians.

      Finally, the only person aware of my past who has misgendered me on purpose within the last few years (apart from a couple of nasty relatives) has been a lesbian who knew me pre-transition and who wanted to make her cis privilege too clear by letting me know she “remembers about me” with some attitude.

      No wonder I have often wondered “would they be so cool if they knew…?” in regard to others while in lesbian venues or events…

      So all this goes for the acceptance of trans lesbians within lesbian spaces. Cissexism and unchecked cis privilege are not the only problems by far. The first and bigger problem is homogeneity as a principle of true lesbianism and queerness, which in turns produces a kind of unwritten, unofficial or hardly outspoken homonormativity.

      Certain types of lesbian and queer people are the right ones. Period. All others are not lesbian and/or queer enough. They may be allowed to visit at occasions, but they are made suspect or feel unwelcomed and disregarded. Particularly in most wannabe radical queer settings (that allegedly distrust identities) the new code is not being regarded as gender or identity transgressive, which often translates into not dressing in certain ways, choosing to shave your legs or not wearing a fake moustache at some parties.

      In its turn, homonormativity prevents people included or integrated within it to educate themselves about trans issues, especially with and/or by trans people. What’s more, it is often cis lesbians and gay men, especially in some activist and academic circles, who get to speak for trans and genderqueer people while practically preventing them from becoming visible and speaking form themselves.

      I am not quite an activist at the moment. I am just a woman who loves women and a feminist. I wished to feel part of a loose movement and community that stands for gender equality and freedom from oppression by all means and reasons connected with gender, while sharing some safe space for non-straight women. Now I honestly do not think such self-centered and biased lesbian spaces as I have described above are really safe from all prejudices and mechanisms of gender discrimination that are at the core of our marginalization and oppression, as well as of the so often quoted gender system.

      After a few years around lesbian spaces I am more and more determined that it is within trans organizations and within the vast majority of cis straight feminists that trans women must interact, if anywhere. As I have never ever heard a gay man or a lesbian speak against trans bashing and discrimination, I am determined to never raise my voice again for same-sex marriage and adoption rights, only against human rights violentions and discrimination for general principles (as I would do in case of any other human beings).

      Also, I am beginning to value more and more those straight cis people, especially cis straight women and feminists, who know about me and have treated me with the same regard as they’ve showed to other fellow women, and from whom I’ve never heard or seen the stealthy and treacherous kind of gender bigotry I have witnessed or experienced from some lesbians.

      Also, I am quite bored and disappointed by the sort of lesbian spaces I’ve commented on. I am definitely done with the sort.

      1. Sandy Hope Post author

        I really appreciate your comment and agree with much of it – there is indeed institutionalised transphobia, biphobia and femmephobia in much (but not all) lesbian space, and at times I get pretty tired of it too. I did edit out one unhelpful and triggering comparison you made, and I want to say “not all lesbians are like that” but the reality is, your experience is valid and I have observed very similar.

        Honestly, I think we are all stronger together and that there is inevitably huge crossover and movement between LGBTIQ&A, but lesbian space that is named as such probably will inevitably create a heirarchy of identity with lesbian at the top, and the influence of separatist second wave feminism on these spaces can make them very uncomfortable places for femme, trans and bi people. To be fair, butches and trans men don’t fare brilliantly either, and in my experience androgeny tends to be the ideal, although subtle masculinity is valued over femininity.

        I spent a lot of time trying to reform those spaces, but I now incline myself towards setting up different kinds of spaces altogether.

        I also want to note that you have said you have been stealth in these spaces, and I think this is the true price the trans community pays, in “don’t ask, don’t tell” style policies where you can bring your self, but you must leave your identity at the door. Thus a lot of FTMs hold onto a female or lesbian identity in order not to lose their community, bi women in relationships with women pretend they are lesbian, and trans women go stealth, leaving the “we’re all the same” illusion intact, and meaning everyone is at risk of having to surrender parts of their identity to the overall idealised image of what a lesbian is – unhealthy monocultures are not good places for anyone to thrive in.

  5. pro2501

    Dear Sandy,

    Thanks a lot for your reply and for editing my previous comments, including some grammar and typos.

    I believe I understand your “let’s have hope and not give up” message. I just would like to share it to the same extent that I did until very recently. Rationally, I fully agree. For one reason, giving up any claims to the LGBTIQA+ movement would mean surrendering the whole “conglomerate” to the uniformity, hierarchical, identitarian, gender-policing, homonormative, cissexist and masculine-centric forces therein (to which from now on I’ll simply refer to as ‘exclusionary’).

    However, I do give up in thinking this can be done from within spaces already ‘intoxicated’ with exclusion. No one stands a chance there (not even many cis lesbians themselves), as those spaces have been too well controlled by exclusionary minorities and too much intoxicated by exclusionary practices for far too long, even if they like to present themselves under a radically queer, identity-questioning appearance lately. No wonder you speak of “different kinds of spaces altogether”. It sounds good. The problem is that I have heard that already, but seen it at work only once. In other cases the old prejudices have taking up the new spaces under a new rhetoric, which can be summed up as “we are super trans but there are no trans people around (sorry, they’re too busy ‘passing’, conforming to gender roles and strengthening the gender binary)”.

    For straight trans women in general this is no setback at all as they may progress and complete transition without ever missing any lesbian or cis queer women spaces. They have a ‘single-line’ queer discrimination axis, on the grounds of being trans only, and not bisexual or lesbian as well, and their ‘natural’ ally are all non-watered-down feminists. For specifically lesbian and bi women who happen to be trans, however, this means an important community “gap” in their lives. They may still have access to trans and trans women spaces while enjoying some stealth life compartments in straight society at large (in which they’re just put down as women and not as women and trans), but they lack a safe haven for their female queerness. For instance, I’ve been laughed or looked at with skepticism by some straight trans women and straight cis trans supporters alike when calling myself a lesbian in the past.

    Now my point is not that it doesn’t pay off for lesbian and bi trans women to go and explore cis queer women spaces as some of those spaces may eventually work for them. Among other things, I believe interpersonal interaction will save many people from their prejudices and bigotry. Also, there are a couple of younger trans generations who won’t have the same bloody ‘passing’ problems and transition hurdles we are well all aware of.

    But definitely, trans women who venture into those spaces should prepare beforehand for utter disappointments until they are lucky enough to find one of the few non-exclusionary exceptions. Long story short, they must know what to expect. Also, they should not expect to find any competent or usable transition relief or support there. Therefore, I would suggest that they solve or clear up all their transition priority matters before they go on lesbian space trip.

    Now I’d like to comment on what you called “STEALTH”.
    This is really a most important topic.

    First of all, most lesbians would simply apply the gay or homonormative concept of ‘passing’ to trans people as in “acting straight” or “passing as straight”. I know we’re far beyond that point here, but most cis gay people are not, and lesbian allies and lesbian trans women should keep that in mind. By the way, a lot of straight cis people do not have this problem with us, as they have no clear, conscious or explicit concept of ‘passing’ to get messed with trans specific passing (if we look like the women we are, most cis men just treat us like cattle or like we’re dumb people, exactly like they do with women altogether and regardless whether they wan to fuck us while sober or only when drunk and they very conveniently forget they know we’re trans : )

    So when a trans woman is usually read as the woman she is, she’s just another cow in the field, another target of misogyny and not specifically of transphobia and transmisogyny. However, I think for the lesbian trans woman there is the substantial ideological difference of the patriarchal infiltrator narrative of 1970s feminists like Raymond and her like: we’re not simply a “men” posing as women to fuck straight men (as het trans women are sometimes viewed) but we’re the “most deceiving agent of patriarchy seeking to infiltrate women spaces to destroy them from within by first infiltrating women’s bodies”. Wow! Our alleged deception is thereby made political, not just pathological and/or sexual.

    Now that’s why I made the political comparisons you decided to delete in my previous reply. I thought that’s OK if you thought they may be triggers for some, but I must insist there’s a feminist political dimension about my interaction in lesbian spaces that went missing with that deletion.

    And that’s the precisely the most shitty point of them all: it is not just how uneducated and prejudiced most lesbians are about trans women, and it is not just about the so called “cotton ceiling” as I believe human desire clearly overruns identity labels (I know this by experience). Besides ignorance, I believe there is the vague but resilient idea that lesbian trans women are not just dissident lesbians or women who are “not lesbian enough”, such as femmes and feminine lesbians in general, but simply the worst infiltrator possible, the political enemy and the true devil in disguise, even if they’re still believed by some to be “some kind of women”, “non-biological women” [sic] or “people perceived as women and treated as such”. Bottom line, a lesbian trans woman is not only perceived as a “man”, but also as an especially evil and mischievous one.

    There is a substantial addition here to the perception by straight cis society at large, by which we may be seen as sick and freaky deceiving people, but not as intentional evil. It is a fucking big difference! When you get outed by someone among straight cis people, they immediately start treating you differently (i.e. like you’re not “normal” or like you’re a freak), but never as if you exist to do them harm! In this case, to harm the community you feel part of!

    HOWEVER, it was not my intention to be “stealth” within lesbian spaces.

    It just happened much in the same way as within society at large. I started being around. It had never been my intention to walk in with a sticker or tattoo on me warning “careful – toxic – trans woman on board – please maintain safety distance”. I doubt the educational value of such an action, while I am certain of its dehumanizing effect.

    Nonetheless, I have longed for disclosure in many moments, as I had dreams of being understood and accepted for what I am and not despite what I am. But at first there was no proper occasion and later on I begun to fear exclusion within spaces that are too homogeneous and normative already.

    As my dating necessities were fulfilled, I decided to allow myself some discrimination-free time to explore the spaces and get accustomed to them. But my tactic backfired as I soon became a witness to hierarchies, gender-policing and homogeneity beyond a surface of diversity rhetoric. And all the time there was the inexplicable eeriness of nominal trans-friendly spaces and rhetoric with no visible trans people at all! No wonder I began to fear disclosure instead of longing for it. After a couple of years, I was not only disappointed, but also bored and dissatisfied, and now I am writing this.

    So yes, there may be some “different kind of spaces altogether” somewhere else. As for future ones, the sooner they’re there the better for the younger dyke, lesbian and bisexual trans women waiting or starting to wonder about their queer community affiliations. For what I know and have experienced myself, however, I have zero expectations left. I am not only done with lesbian spaces in my town for good, and elsewhere for a while, but I have started not to apply the label “lesbian” for myself any longer.

    True, I’m a woman who love’s women, but I cannot avoid to associate “lesbian” to all what is wrong under its name anymore. Ironically, I’ve ended up with the same conclusion of a few cis straight women and feminists who warned me some years ago about what they perceived as “lesbian sectarianism and elitism”. These days the only label I go by is feminist. For me that includes questioning and fighting sexism and all gender-based oppression, be it outside or within LGBTIQA+ communities.

    Just in case anyone comes up with the “separatism” or “divisive” trope, I have nothing to do with so called “true transsexuals” (HBS and the like). I deeply despise Benjamin’s and Money’s work and the GIC system, and do not even believe in such things as “gender identity” (stress on “identity”), let alone any pathological or exclusively biological conceptions of gender, be it ‘essentialist’ or not. Sadly, separatism is a reality, though, as it is not trans folk who are the separatists, but the privileged and prejudiced exclusionary gay men and lesbians in control of their exclusionary, cissexist, biphobic, male-centric and masculine-centric communities. They’re not only isolating themselves from trans, genderqueer and non-homonormative folk, but from society at large in many cases.

    And lastly, it is sad that many trans folks do not seem to rely on queer cis spaces to function as relief or safe spaces during transition. But it is ever sadder that they do not do it out of lack of education among cis queers, but because of discrimination by them and for safety reasons among them. For me, personally, that’s too much to bear.

    There are things that cannot be mend. They must be made anew. Sad, perhaps, but so are many awful truths.

    Best regards!

    PS. There is an important typo in my previous reply, in which the 7th paragraph should read as follows: “When hearing some conversations or seeing some event advertisement, I have had the most awful feeling that “trans”-INCLUSIVE meant FAAB trans people only, and particularly the kind of trans men or trans masculine folk who date lesbians.”

    Please note this is not against trans men or trans masculine folk, but against discriminatory biologicist ideology and FAAB exclusionary policies, as well as against trans masculine tokenism as a disguise of transmisogyny and the exclusion of trans women.

    1. Sandy Hope Post author

      I promise I didn’t correct any typos! I just removed that one sentence. I totally acknowledge your sense of betrayal and strength of feeling about the treatment of trans women in lesbian, space – I started to blog and run my facebook page Lesbians and Feminists against Transphobia because I witnessed this first hand. Strangely, most lesbians don’t support such views and yet somehow the views seem to dominate – that may say something about the type of people who hold the views! I entirely understand why many of my trans women friends avoid lesbian space, but I would love to see a day when that changes because we enrich each other when we mix!


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