Feminism and the Transgender Community

I’ve been deeply struck recently by the narratives I’ve heard from some feminists about transgender people. There is a disconnect, or a tension, it seems, between certain conceptions of feminism and a full embrace of transgender people.

Among many older feminists, for example, there seems to be a general confusion about transgender identities and, perhaps, a too-eager willingness to dismiss those identities.

I mention age here not to imply that older people’s idea are inherently out of date or old-fashioned – this isn’t like when everybody rolls their eyes at the kind-of-racist thing your grandparent just said.

Rather – the women I’m thinking of are deep, liberal, radical feminists. Their age is important because they fought on the front lines of sexual liberation. They’ve personally felt that glass ceiling pushing them down. They know what it’s like to be sexually harassed and discriminated against as part of institutions that didn’t even put up the appearance of condemning such behavior.

They knew the first women in their families who were allowed to vote.

These women have been leaders in the battle not only only for women’s rights and equality, but for women’s freedom of self-expression.

Being a woman, they’ve rightly argued, is no single thing. There is no perfect body type. No thing you must enjoy or activities you must hate. It’s not clothes or hair, attitude or aptitude that define femininity.

In this way, the women’s movement isn’t just about the right to be treated equally, it’s about the right to be ourselves.

This concept runs into challenges with the transgender movement which – correctly or not – is often interpreted as arguing that, for example, a transgender woman is someone who feels like a woman.

A radical feminist doesn’t know what that means.

How can someone “feel like a woman” when womanhood itself is something that eludes definition?

This approach interprets transgender men and women as people who are simply conforming to the gender binary: transgender men were assigned female at birth but were too macho to be stereotypical women. Transgender women liked princesses too much to live by their assigned gender of male.

And while I am not at all convinced that the above interpretation of transgender people is accurate, it does create tension between the two communities as feminists bemoan the reinforcement of gender norms and see people of privilege – those assigned male at birth – claim the title of womanhood.I don’t know the way out of this tension. I have no idea what it feels like to be a gender other than the one I was assigned to at birth, but I have to trust people when they tell me that’s who they are. For me, that is enough. But as a society I think we need something more.

This conflict is particularly tragic because there should be no greater allies to the transgender community than feminists. There should be no one better able to appreciate the struggle of being unable to genuinely be yourself.

In many ways, that is, we are all in the same fight – all struggling to find and be our true selves.



4 thoughts on “Feminism and the Transgender Community

  1. Dennis Fischman

    Well observed. I have been a feminist (or a pro-feminist man) for going on forty years, so I can remember an early radical feminist comment about people we today we would call transwomen. She said, “I don’t care if a man wants to cut his dick off. Sometimes I wish they would all cut their dicks off. But that doesn’t make him a woman.” I know there are women who have always presented themselves as women who still feel that way.

    More elegantly, they would agree with Simone de Beauvoir’s famous mot, “One is not born but becomes a woman.” They would argue that it’s the experience of being treated as female, not the primary or secondary sex characteristics, that shapes a woman. And I share your respect for them, Sarah, and I also share your moral intuition that that’s not all that is to the story. I am hoping to live long enough to learn more.

  2. May Loo

    Good article. I am a 55 year old Chinese woman and I am totally confused by the trans movement. I can’t understand why we should redefine male or female based on feelings rather than the physical reality of our bodies. I grew up not trying to fit into today’s perceived male/female binary. I became me without categorizing how I dressed or acted as either male or female.


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