Last week when I watched a video of Emma Watson, Harry Potter star and also now the United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador, addressing the UN with a speech about feminism, I felt a mixture of gratitude and respect for her courage and parts of her message, and also sadness, disappointment, and frustration. Emma Watson’s speech, while doing the important work of lifting up feminism as an issue on the global stage, also tacitly reinforced the gender binary. Trans* folks did not exist in her speech. (That one brief mention of gender as more of a spectrum hardly counts.)
The last time (to my knowledge) a stranger incorrectly perceived me to be female was two months ago. As far as I know, nearly everyone (if not just everyone) I have newly encountered has perceived me correctly to be male, and because we live in a cisnormative society where trans* folks are not worth thinking about and don’t exist in most conversations and stories that include any mention of gender, most (if not all) of these folks likely have presumed that I am cisgender guy.
This is in part relieving, and in part really difficult for me. It is relieving because I am finally not being misgendered on a regular basis, which was exhausting and upsetting. It is really difficult for me because I have no idea how to be a cisgender guy — because I’m not one! I will never be cisgender, and it’s not who I am. But in our society today, unless someone is explicitly talking about trans* folks, when there is any kind of discussion about men, it’s presumed that we’re talking about cisgender men. (Because trans* folks aren’t supposed to exist.)
So when I heard Emma Watson’s speech and realized that once again, this was a feminism pitch exclusively for cisgender folks, my heart sank with the familiar weight of disappointment and isolation, of being left to stand up for myself on my own.
Even though I am male and use pronouns dominantly associated with being male (he, him, his), whenever I see binary gender options of ‘male’ or ‘female’, ‘he’ or ‘she’, I feel invisible. Whenever there are only binary gender options, it is a signal to me that I am in a space where transgender people are not supposed to exist. I am still healing from the past year of transition, of being misgendered constantly, of being presumed to be a cisgender woman, of not knowing which bathroom will be safe and/or be less ruinous of my mood and day, and all of the weight of that anxiety and exhaustion. I still feel like I’m wearing a huge sign on my imperfectly bound chest, an emotional battlefield for me as I continue to encounter increasingly complicated hoops to jump through in order to access top surgery, that says in huge flashing letters: ‘PSEUDO-GUY, TREAT AS A WOMAN’, should anyone look too closely.
I feel this way even though I know my body does not determine my gender, because that is the message I have internalized, and that is the message that is constantly and casually reinforced in the media and casual conversations on a nearly daily basis. I feel this way even though I know that to be treated as a woman shouldn’t be considered something negative (what was that? the patriarchy, you say?). I feel this way because I still suffer from some of the worst parts of female socialization that tell me that the confident cis-male graduate students around me are naturally smarter and more right than me, all the time no matter what. I still struggle with cultivating my own confidence in my abilities and ideas, because there’s a nasty voice in my head that still says ‘you’re just a whiny, stupid woman, of course you’re doing it wrong’, even though I now know I am a man. Transitioning does not make that voice go away. I have real skin in the game.
In fact, all trans* folks have skin in this game in a way cisgender men do not. It is the very setup of the patriarchy, the denigration of femininity, that makes this world unsafe for all transgender people. In this excellent article outlining transmisogyny against transwomen, Laura Kacere writes (all emphasis is the quoted author’s):
In our sexist society, being a woman automatically places you in a position of less value.
But to give up one’s “important” position as a man, choosing (as trans* people are perceived to do) to be a woman and to be feminine, in a way, poses a fundamental threat to male superiority and may be seen as a rejection of the “superior male identity.“
Trans* women are not only a reminder to society that gender categories are not fixed, but also that womanhood and feminine gender expression is not something to be ashamed of.
In this way, understanding transmisogyny is absolutely imperative to our work as feminists, and makes clear just how integral trans* issues and rights are to our work around gender.
It is the same reasoning that works against transmen and transmasculine folks who were assigned female at birth: you are not allowed to assume men’s power if you didn’t already have it before. Even trans* folks who are ‘male’ or ‘female’ and not exclusively genderqueer or non-binary threaten the patriarchy. Anyone who challenges the cisgender binary also challenges the patriarchy, and the idea that femininity is inferior.
So when I see 95+% of the efforts of feminists completely ignore the existence of transgender people, speaking only of the needs of cisgender women (and sometimes cisgender men), I. Feel. Exhausted. and alone. Because now that I know I am male, and now that folks are perceiving me to be male, I get lumped in with cisgender men, and I feel completely lost and alone because that is not who I am, and I still need support around the ways in which my history of having lived as female continue to affect me today, and because even though I am picking up some amount of cis-male privilege, I still have skin in this game in ways cisgender men do not.
When I have tried to bring this up in other spaces, I have come up against this sentiment in a couple of different places: Emma Watson couldn’t have mentioned trans* folks, because the world isn’t ready for that yet. The idea is that once the world accepts women’s rights, then they’ll be ready for trans* rights. The thing is, people only get ready for things like this when you make them get ready. Also, the fight for trans* rights is completely intertwined and related to women’s rights, and cannot be cleanly separated. The reason why (cis)-women’s rights might be a little bit more ahead of trans* rights is because folks have put in a lot of time and energy into (cis)-women’s rights – more so than has been put into trans* rights.
Consider this: What if the same amount of time, money, and organizing for same-sex marriage equality had instead gone to the issue of fighting for homeless lgbtq youth of color? Or for fighting against the criminalization of transwomen of color? Huge progress could have been made for those populations – populations of folks who are routinely murdered for being who they are! Huge progress.
Instead, we say that those folks have to wait in line, that once we achieve the sliver of dignity that marriage equality will bring that somehow the world will be more ready to support these other oppressed groups. As if the movement for same-sex marriage equality doesn’t still privilege the idea of (upper-)middle class white suburbia, and the idea that we must assimilate to be as close to heteronormative culture as possible in order to be deemed barely acceptable, reinforcing the shame of being different. (I understand that marriage equality impacts more than this just population of people, but we must acknowledge that this privilege has been a significant driving force for the movement.)
Do you see how we are reinforcing the oppression of the very folks we told to wait in line? It’s the same thing that is happening when someone tells me that trans* rights must wait in line behind women’s rights, while the fight for women’s rights continues to reinforce cisnormativity and some of the very oppressions that trans* folks are trying to get out from under.
The world will not become more ready for trans* rights unless we make the world get ready, and that will not happen by exclusively talking about cisgender women. When we tell one oppressed group to get in line behind another, we are building our freedom on a foundation of other oppressions. We are buying into the idea that we cannot share what scraps of power we are able to snag, as if there is a limited amount of access and potential power. We are taught that we can only fight one oppression at a time because that is the very idea that weakens all of our movements. Oppression is about concentrating power among the few, and we will never break free if we do not learn how to share our power, if we only seek to become one of the few.
So I am grateful to Emma Watson for standing up there and taking the risk, for standing up for women’s rights. I am grateful that she stood up and spoke not only in the face of making mistakes as someone who felt under-qualified to be giving such a speech, but also in the face of the violent backlash she was subject to (and did) receive. It is so important that folks get up and do this.
My reaction and my experience of the oppression in her speech does not negate this gratitude, nor the importance of her standing up and speaking out. I encourage all folks celebrating her courage and her message to also consider how her message could be more whole and inclusive, and thus even stronger, and to consider how other oppressions are perpetuated by all of our anti-oppression movements. I do not want to build my freedom on the backs of other oppressed groups. I refuse to tell anyone to wait in line, because liberation is not linear.
I want my freedom to be boundless and expansive, not carved into a landscape of other oppressions.
Freedom built out of other oppression is not real freedom at all.