February 20, 2007

The Relationship of Power and Privilege to Discrimination That Is Invidious

by PG

UPDATE: Responses to Heart, including those she has censored from her blog, here.

I've never attended nor had much interest in attending the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, though I've been aware of it since college when one of my queer friends went as a research project for her Anthropology honors thesis (or as she likes to put it, "I got the University of Virginia to pay for me to make out with girls for a week!"). I like women, I like music, but Michigan and mud do nothing for me. In observing the debate about whether the Festival should continue to bar women who were born with male genitalia, I'm always struck by how convinced the people who defend the Festival's discrimination against transsexuals are that women-born-women are the most powerless, underprivileged people possible in terms of gender. That attitude is well represented Festival founder and producer Lisa Vogel's statement, "Supporting womyn-born womyn space is no more inherently transphobic than supporting womyn of color space is racist."

So is supporting white-womyn-only space racist? Shouldn't every sub-group within the community have a room of her own? I doubt that the Festival would have a white-only tent, because the organizers recognize that being a white middle/upper-class woman still tends to be treated as the default woman's experience, so inevitably most of what is considered to be woman's experience at the Festival will be that. (For example, talk about Take Back the Night and how much it sucks not to be able to walk through a "bad neighborhood" tends to ignore the low-income women, often women of color, who live in that "bad neighborhood" -- it's represented as frightening foreign territory that must be occupied and civilized, never as one's own 'hood.) Therefore giving womyn of color a space to share their common experience makes sense.

In the same way, being a woman-born-woman also is the default woman's experience. I don't understand why women who have the privilege and power of social approval for their gender identity think they're being victimized by uppity transwomen who aren't respecting them. The transwomen are saying, "Ain't I a woman, even if my experiences don't fit into the default Woman's Experience?" Biscuit and others seem heavily invested in declaring that one cannot be a woman without having been born with a vagina, yet are unwilling to admit that this is a transphobic -- or for those who dislike the misuse of "phobic," a trans-denying -- attitude. They want to keep their queer friendly credentials even as they exclude the people who have been most hurt by the insistence that "masculine" people have XY chromosomes and "feminine" people have XX.

It's like a bad conservative joke about how a group has become so focused on its victim status that it can't recognize how other people might have it worse. The womyn-born-womyn go on about the male privilege that Male-to-Females have had, while ignoring that MTFs' refusals of male identity frequently mean that they can access the privileges of neither sex. (Yes, women do get some gender privileges, though they're mostly ones I don't want.) The refusal of these alleged feminists to recognize that having a penis can be a bad thing sometimes strikes me as the biggest threat to the feminist movement's continued viability, not only with regard to transfolk but also with regard to issues that impact men more damagingly than women, such as prison rape. Feminists should be the biggest experts on male prisoner-on-prisoner rape, because they can bring the insights of heterosexual sexual assault to bear on the problem, particularly the coercion-consent continuum negated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act's assumption that all homosexual sex in prison must be rape. Yet I fear that the widespread belief that feminists care solely about women-born-women prevents those analyzing men's problems from looking to feminists for help, because feminism so often is caricatured -- and thanks to people like Vogel, sometimes is accurately depicted -- as seeing only women as victims and men only as perpetrators.

February 20, 2007 01:35 PM | TrackBack

They want to keep their queer friendly credentials even as they exclude the people who have been most hurt by the insistence that "masculine" people have XY chromosomes and "feminine" people have XX.

It's not about masculinity and femininity, which are social constructs. It's about maleness vs. femaleness, which is biology. If men want to exhibit femininity by wearing stilettos and wrap dresses, it certainly isn't the radfems who are opposing them. Manly man's men are. If men want to exhibit femininity by having their dicks cut off and replaced with designer vaginas/vulvas fashioned from the fantasies of some plastic surgeon, the radfems aren't the ones denying them this diversion. Manly man's men are.

It's only when they claim that adopting femininity makes them women, which has both a biological and a social component, that some feminists have a problem with it. To say that the trappings of femininity can render biology immaterial is absurd. If black women don't become white (honorary or otherwise) by adopting the hair-tossing, sun-tanning femininity of white women (and, unlike sex, race actually is a social construct), then it seems more than ludicrous that a man's efforts at femininity should render him female.

Posted by: justicewalks at March 27, 2007 12:36 PM

But women who otherwise might be considered black can become white if they adopt certain tropes of white women. Surely you have heard of "passing," the practice of pretending to be a member of a privileged group. A lightskinned woman with African American heritage who otherwise might be thought black can "pass" as white if she straightens her hair and puts herself forward as white. There is the related phenomenon of "covering" (as Yale Law professor Kenji Yoshino calls it), in which a minority group is accepted as long as it "covers" any attributes that would not meet with the dominant group's approval. Nowadays racism is more likely to occur when someone is seen as "too black" -- with a black-identified mode of appearance (for example, braids instead of straightened hair) or behavior.

Given the vigor with which you and other womensspace commenters oppose transwomen, I wonder what your thoughts on transmen are. If the manly man's men are the ones opposing transwomen's appearances and surgery, who are the people opposing transmen's getting "designer [penises] fashioned from the fantasies of some plastic surgeon"?

Posted by: PG at March 28, 2007 01:42 AM
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