Feminism and trans rights can easily exist and even flourish together. It's just that both will have to acknowledge the ordeal each has undergone and the battles that still lie ahead (Representational Image)
I have a friend, who is a passionate feminist and leads a quite successful life. The other day, I got into a discussion with her about transgenders and their claim that ‘transphobia’ still exists in our society. To get to ‘transphobia’, we must first make clear just what feminism and transgenders constitute.
Feminism is the belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. It is manifested worldwide and is represented by various institutions committed to activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests. Throughout most of Western history, women were confined to the domestic sphere, while public life was reserved for men. In medieval Europe, women were denied the right to own property, to study, or to participate in public life. At the end of the 19th century in France, they were still compelled to cover their heads in public, and, in parts of Germany, a husband still had the right to sell his wife.
Even as late as the early 20th century, women could neither vote nor hold elective office in Europe and in most of the United States (where several territories and states granted women’s suffrage long before the federal government did so). Women were prevented from conducting business without a male representative, be it father, brother, husband, legal agent, or even son. Married women could not exercise control over their own children without the permission of their husbands. Moreover, women had little or no access to education and were barred from most professions. In some parts of the world, such restrictions on women continue today. The condition of women in other (non-Western) parts of the world can be deduced from the fact that such restrictions on them were still in place in the West till recently.
In short, a feminist is a person who espouses the conviction that gender relations should be defined by equality and that alone.
And what about transgenders? Transgender is a general term that describes people whose gender identity, or their internal sense of being male, female, or something else, does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. A transgender woman labeled as male at birth could have the gender identity of a female. A transgender man may have been assigned the female sex at birth but identifies as male. Some transgender people don’t identify with one gender exclusively. Their gender identity may combine both female and male elements, for instance, or they may not feel like either gender. These transgender people are often described as being “non-binary.” Another term that is sometimes used to describe people in this category is “genderqueer.”
These definitions and this narrative leaves several questions dangling in mid-air. One of the most pertinent ones is can feminists and transgenders co-exist harmoniously? Can identifying as one means to be antagonistic to the other? What about theories doing the rounds that transgenders undermine the hard-won gains by feminists over scores of decades by the former’s assertions that they be identified, interacted and dealt with as female despite having been born male?
India’s 2011 Census was the first census in the history of the nation to incorporate the number of ‘trans’ people in the country. The report estimated that 4.8 million Indians identified as transgender. In India, the ‘third gender’ has been around for millennia; they are known as ‘hijras’, ‘kinnar’, ‘aravani’, ‘aruvani’, ‘Jogappa’. To many in India, the existence of the third gender is a fact of life and one that most have accepted as being ‘natural’. The ‘kinnars’ have their own ecosystem, where they lead lives which are majorly and overtly separated from the mainstream gender binary. Some of them even get elected to public office, like Shabnam Mausi, who was the first transgender in India to hold the position of Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA), in Madhya Pradesh state.
However, examples like Shabnam Mausi’s are few and far between and a vast majority of transgenders in India continue to be stigmatised and condemned to exist on the fringes of society.
In the wider context, feminists cite several reasons for being wary of transgenders. There’s even a term for them — TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists)! They believe that the emergence of transgenders on a worldwide scale — in a move that appears measured and deliberate — threatens to undo the decades of progress that feminists have made, sometimes by putting their well-being on the line, in a deeply hegemonic milieu.
Essentially, the contention by some feminists is that the act of ‘identifying’ as trans-woman is deeply unfair because it makes null and void the decades of professional struggles and personal hardship suffered by women. What about those long years and tiresome decades of professional labour for which they were paid less than men because of the fact that they were women? What about the centuries of patriarchal oppression which women had to deal with and overcome to arrive at this juncture as a collective entity?
It is important to understand that feminists are demanding equality in all spheres of life, including areas where they face differential treatment owing to the nature of sexual organs they were born with. As mulled above, identifying as one does not have to mean that the positives associated with the other are rendered unavailable and considered malicious.
It is nobody’s contention that feminists have to be derisively categorised as TERFs in order for transgenders to feel validated. Transgenders can co-exist, thrive even, with feminists as long as they acknowledge the impact identifying as a trans person has on members of the social, economic, political group who happen to be born biologically as women.
This brings us to the term being used a lot these days — transphobia, which is the fear, hatred, disbelief, or mistrust of people who are transgender, thought to be transgender, or whose gender expression doesn’t conform to traditional gender roles. Transphobia can prevent transgender and gender non-conforming people from living full lives free from harm. Transphobia can take many different forms, including negative attitudes and beliefs, aversion to and prejudice against transgender people, irrational fear and misunderstanding, disbelief or discounting preferred pronouns or gender identity, derogatory language and name-calling, bullying, abuse, and even violence.
Transphobia is indefensible.
It is also quite apart from the impact faced by women in general and feminists in particular by the actions of transwomen and the beliefs pertaining to the rights of transwomen.
The broad contention made by LGBTQ rights activists is that biological sex and gender identity are distinct from each other and they should be recognised as such. For a section of feminists, though, this distinction negates the battle for the recognition of women’s rights over millennia. In disowning biological sex, they argue, the discrimination against women as a sex is being perpetuated.
In June 2020, British author J K Rowling (creator of the Harry Potter universe) had taken exception to an opinion piece titled “Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate” and had argued, over a Twitter thread saying, “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.”
Soon after, in an essay titled ‘TERF Wars’, Rowling made clear her stand on the issue: “The idea that women like me, who’ve been empathetic to trans people for decades, feeling kinship because they’re vulnerable in the same way as women – ie, to male violence – ‘hate’ trans people because they think sex is real and has lived consequences – is a nonsense.” She added, “I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.”
She said further, “I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.”
Rowling added, “So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.”
Feminism and trans rights can easily exist and even flourish together. It’s just that both will have to acknowledge the ordeal each has undergone and the battles that still lie ahead, thus conceding the point of standing together and not ranged against each other. And that’s something I am confident my anonymous friend would readily appreciate.