Them and us – the pitting of lesbians against transwomen by the gender normative majority

So, I’m in a Facebook discussion about the Indigo Girls’ decision to speak out against Michfest’s  “Womyn born Womyn only” policy, and somebody says something that makes me think “aha, now I get where all this stupidity towards trans women comes from”. One commenter, in support of IG’s non-transphobic position, pointed out that once upon a time lesbians were excluded from women’s space because they were not seen as “proper women” either – they were seen as “too much like men”.

Is there an “it’s either them or us” thing going on here? Because many lesbians show visible differences from straight women that we generally associate with gender. If we acknowledge gender is significant, some lesbians can then be marginalised by cis/het women for their gender difference.

So, is the only real option to make gender irrelevant, and count only “biological sex”? And of course pretend biological sex is some essential and binary thing that is not in itself partly socially constructed.

But in doing this many gender variant lesbians are forced by their own community into an uncomfortable closet. I know, because I was one of them, but I’m not alone. Since I started my blog, many lesbians have approached me and admitted they have differences that are not to do with their sexuality, but their gender. My partner felt this so strongly he decided to transition, but many more of us occupy the complicated borderlands, experiencing a difference that goes unnamed and unacknowledged, or just gets lumped in with our sexuality as if it’s the same thing.

So when Julie Bindel confidently claims that her gender non-conformity as a child turned out to mean she was a lesbian and oh, horror, if she was young today someone might “mistake” it for a gender issue and allow a child to transition, I think that whole construction needs a bit of unpicking. Her assumptions are numerous:

Assumption #1: It is preferable to be a lesbian than trans.

Assumption #2: There is no difference between a female-assigned child who says “I want to marry a princess” or who says “I want to be a prince” – gender identity is not allowed to be a thing in its own right.

Assumption #3: Kids are not self-aware and we should dismiss what they think about themselves and control their choices about their identities and bodies. We should coercively maintain the sex binary by insisting they adhere to the label they were assigned at birth, even if the child themselves persistently voices a different wish.

Assumption #4: All gender non-conforming children are the same and therefore if one child expresses a need to transition that is validated, this will be imposed on all GNC kids

Assumption #5: something in the biology of being a lesbian makes some lesbians inexplicably immune to the usually pervasive childhood gender messages (but we’re not allowed to call it a gender difference).

Of course, these are all just ways of making meaning and there is no perfect truth, much as we want there to be some objective reality we can measure the world by. We want there to be this consistent, essential category called “woman” and more to the point, given our history of extra marginalisation and oppression as lesbians, we don’t want it defined in a way that excludes us. Perhaps in the back of many lesbian minds is the lurking notion – “We have no choice but to marginalise trans people, it is an act of self-preservation”. So what if we are carving up our own identities in order to make ourselves fit this equally constructed notion of womanhood?

An alternative? Simple – no matter how “masculine” those with female bodies are, they still experience oppression based on any perception of their female sex or gender, plus additional marginalisation for their transgression of gender norms and therefore, they should be allowed under the protective umbrella of feminism, however they identify. And no matter what the history of trans women, they still experience oppression based on any perception of their female sex or gender, plus additional marginalisation for their transgression of gender norms, and therefore, they should be allowed under the protective umbrella of feminism. And while both of these groups should be self-aware of any male or masculine power or privilege they may have possessed or co-opted, this should not be used as an excuse by others to marginalise them further than they are already marginalised.

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15 thoughts on “Them and us – the pitting of lesbians against transwomen by the gender normative majority

  1. Vron

    This reminds me of a debate in the 90s at a women only camp, about whether trans women should be welcome, where a heterosexual woman spoke in favour of trans inclusion on the grounds that the camp already allowed very butch lesbians who had lots of “male energy” (whatever that is) so it wouldn’t be much different to that. You can imagine how that went down with many of the lesbians there. 🙂

    I’ve been thinking lately too about why marginalised groups marginalise other people. I keep coming across condemnation of the kind “how can those oppressed people possibly not see how they’re oppressing someone else, they should know better, how terrible they are!” and feeling like more understanding is needed especially if it is ever to change. I think it is often to do with survival and insecurity, with feeling under pressure, fighting for what seems precious and threatened in some way. I might think that is misguided or overreacting or even downright bigoted sometimes, but I think it is interesting and useful to dig down and see what’s at the bottom of it.

    Also, yay Indigo Girls!

    Reply
  2. A

    There’s something I don’t understand though, and it makes me wary of interactions with lesbian feminists in general. Perhaps you can calm my concerns. There seems to be a number of ‘strict’ lesbian feminists that refuse ANY relationships between lesbians and trans women. If any lesbian has an interest in a trans woman, she is supposedly hetero because “that’s not a woman, that’s a man!” And for those that are interested in trans men, they’re dating a ‘traitor’ to womanhood.

    I understand the survival and oppression that you go into above. But my issue is with why it seems to be acceptable, especially in cases like this, to police someone else’s body, and who they care for.

    I’m glad you’ve written this, because it has been on my mind lately. Unfortunately, when I ask some of my cis feminist friends, it seems they have been either poisoned by the trans=bad mentality or are just as confused about it as I am.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Sandy Hope Post author

      I’m sorry, I only just saw this comment. Simple – it isn’t acceptable, I’m writing this to try and understand where a truly horrible prejudice comes from, but I don’t condone it.

      Reply
  3. Jamie Ray

    Great post. Who defines whether you are male or female? Do you base it on legal sex? Do you base it on original birth certificate? Do you base it on current genitals (and if so who gets to check)? Do you base it on DNA? Why would you refuse to accept as truth what someone tells you is their sex?

    How do you decide someone’s race or ethnicity or religion? Deciding what someone else’s identity is – that is a dangerous thing to do.

    Reply
      1. Josie Nemo

        Which is excellent, because I thought of something that dichotomy does – it divides allies, that is transwomen and ciswomen. Especially those that are the least gender-conforming. The thoughts I had restate some of what you’re saying, so bear with me, I guess.

        Which always seemed odd to me, but when you wrote, “We want there to be this consistent, essential category called “woman” and more to the point, given our history of extra marginalisation and oppression as lesbians, we don’t want it defined in a way that excludes us.” it clicked for me – it’s the fear of losing their identity driving them to cling to this dichotomy.

        If trans people don’t exist, then no matter what kind of expression of gender and/or sexuality a lesbian lives their life as, they’re a lesbian, no questions asked. But the mere threat of expressions that many lesbophobic attacks relate-to put one’s identity as a lesbian (and woman) in danger, perhaps like calling a butch person something masculine to erase her womanhood, if that makes sense?

        And also seeing transmen wanting their identities as men respected, it might make some lesbians them worry about themselves losing their lesbian identity via association? The dichotomy coming into play again – the fear that only lesbians who comply with normative womanhood will allowed to be lesbians (lovers of women) and that there’s some kind of slippery slope of masculinity that once you step onto… whoops, you’re gone!

        Which further plays into the obsession with gender-as-assigned-at-birth. If that is it, no danger. But also it also highlights the biological essentialism and accompanying ignorance of biology as it relates to gender. One’s assumed physiology, even if changed, will thus be assumed to conform to that essentialism.

        Forgive me, I’m rambling redundantly (and if this posts repeatedly, having issues with comment-systems today).

    1. Josie Nemo

      Sweet. Not to derail, but I’ve been rather stressed lately and particularly scatterbrained today. I wrote a bit of a rant about (you may have heard of her) a teenage transgirl winning homecoming queen (yay for her) somewhere here in the states and the backlash against her (predictable, still a bummer), but haven’t felt up to turning it into a proper blog post. So I was like, “I hope I’m making sense and not sounding too much like captain obvious, lol.”

      Reply
  4. seralyn84

    Hey there! I’m a newcomer to your blog, but I’m so glad that I stumbled across it! The poignancy and lucidity with which you write is such a breath of fresh air. Keep up the good work!

    Reply

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