Transfeminism, also written trans feminism, has been defined by scholar and activist Emi Koyama as "a movement by and for trans women who view their liberation to be intrinsically linked to the liberation of all women and beyond." Koyama notes that it "is also open to other queers, intersex people, trans men, non-trans women, non-trans men and others who are sympathetic toward needs of trans women and consider their alliance with trans women to be essential for their own liberation." Transfeminism has also been defined more generally as "an approach to feminism that is informed by trans politics."
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According to Emi Koyama, there are two "primary principles of transfeminism" that each transfeminist lives by and wishes to follow, as well as wishes for all individuals. First, Koyama states that all people should not only be allowed to live their own lives in whichever way they choose and define themselves however they feel is right, but should also be respected by society for their individuality and uniqueness. Included is the right to individualized gender expression without the fear of retaliation. Koyama's second principle states that each individual has every right, and is the only one to have the right, to possess complete control over their own bodies. There shall be no form of authority - political, medical, religious, or otherwise - that can override a person's decisions regarding their bodies and their wellbeing, and their autonomy is fully in the hands of that sole individual.
Early voices in the movement include Kate Bornstein, author of 1994 Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, and Sandy Stone, author of essay "The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto," which included a direct response to Janice Raymond's writings on transsexuality. In the 21st century, Krista Scott-Dixon and Julia Serano have published transfeminist works. Bornstein has also released new works, such as Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation in 2010 with S. Bear Bergman. Susan Stryker and Talia M. Bettcher have also recently released a publication about transfeminism.
Transfeminism.org was created in 2000 to promote the Transfeminism Anthology Project by Diana Courvant and Emi Koyama. The site primarily devoted itself, however, to introducing the concept of transfeminism to academia and to finding and connecting people working on transfeminism projects and themes through an anthology of the same name. Koyama and Courvant sought other transfeminists and to increase their exposure. The anthology was intended to introduce the movement to a large audience. At a Yale event and in bios associated with it, Courvant's use of the word (as early as 1992) and involvement in Transfeminism.org, may have made her the term's inventor. Courvant credited Koyama's Internet savvy as the reason transfeminism.org and the word transfeminism got the recognition and attention that it did. This site is no longer active at the web address transfeminism.org, as it has since been archived.
Patrick Califia used the word in print in 1997, and this remains the first known use in print outside of a periodical. It is possible or even likely that the term was independently coined repeatedly before the year 2000 (or even before Courvant's first claimed use in 1992). The term gained traction only after 1999. Jessica Xavier, an acquaintance of Courvant, may have independently coined the term when she used it to introduce her articles, "Passing As Stigma Management" and "Passing as Privilege" in late 1999. Emi Koyama wrote a widely read "Transfeminist Manifesto" around the time of the launch of the website that, with her active participation in academic discussions on the internet, helped spread the term.
In the past few decades, the idea that all women share a common experience has come under scrutiny by women of color, lesbians, and working class women, among others. Many transgender people are also questioning what gender means, and are challenging gender as a biological fact. Transfeminists insist that their unique experiences be recognized as part of the feminist sphere.
Transfeminism incorporates all major themes of third wave feminism, including diversity, body image, self-definition, and women's agency. Transfeminism is not merely about merging trans concerns with feminism. It also includes critical analysis of second wave feminism from the perspective of the third wave. Like all feminisms, transfeminism critiques mainstream notions of masculinity and argues that women deserve equal rights. Lastly, transfeminism shares the unifying principle with other feminisms that gender is a patriarchal social construct used to oppress women. Therefore, by many, the "trans" in transgender has been used to imply transgressiveness. Nicholas Birns indeed categorizes transfeminism as "a feminism that defines the term 'trans-' in a maximally heterogeneous way."
The road to legitimacy for transfeminism as a concept has been different and more vexed than for other feminisms. Marginalized women of trans background and affect have had to prove that their needs are different and that mainstream feminism does not necessarily speak for them. Koyama echoes this in the beginning of "Transfeminist Manifesto", saying whenever a marginalized group of women speaks out, other feminists begin to question who they represent and what their beliefs are. Contrarily, trans women must show their womanhood is equally valid as that of other women, and that feminism can speak for them without ceasing to be feminism. Radical feminist Janice Raymond's resistance to considering trans women as women and as participants in feminism is representative of this obstacle. Her career began with The Transsexual Empire (a book-length analysis of transsexual women) and she has often returned to this theme.
Compared to other feminisms
A core tenet of feminism is that biology does not and must not equal destiny. The idea that women should not be held down by traditional gender roles plays a major role in all feminisms. Transfeminism expands on that premise to argue that people in general should not be confined by sex/gender norms.
Feminists have traditionally explored the boundaries of what it means to be a woman. Transfeminists argue that trans people and cisgender feminists confront society's conventional views of sex and gender in similar ways. Transgender liberation theory offers feminism a new vantage point from which to view gender as a social construct, even offering a new meaning of gender.
Transfeminist critics of mainstream feminism say that as an institutionalized movement, feminism has lost sight of the basic idea that biology is not destiny. In fact, they argue, many feminists seem perfectly comfortable equating sex and gender and insisting on a given destiny for trans persons based on nothing more than biology. Transfeminism resists and challenges the fixedness of gender that traditional approaches to women's studies depend upon.
Despite the similarities, there are also differences between transfeminism and many other forms of feminism. For example, transfeminism stands in stark contrast to mainstream second-wave feminism. Transfeminists often criticize the ideas of a universal sisterhood, aligning more with intersectionality and with the mainstream third wave's appreciation for the diversity of women's experience. Citing their common experience, many transfeminists directly challenge the idea that femininity is an entirely social construction. Instead, they view gender as a multifaceted set of diverse intrinsic and social qualities. For example, there are both trans and cis persons who express themselves in ways that differ from society’s expectations of masculine and feminine. Because this strongly affects how the person experiences and articulates their gender, and also their standing within patriarchy, these transfeminists would argue that masculine/feminine expression is an important concept worthy of feminist inquiry, to be compared and contrasted with both assigned sex and gender identity.
"Sisterhood" is a primary term that separates transfeminism from mainstream second-wave feminism. According to critics, "sisterhood" as a term evokes the idea that patriarchy and its tactics are so universal that the most important experiences of women everywhere are equivalent. However, women in culturally, ethnically, and/or economically diverse societies, young women and girls, women with disabilities, and others, object to the idea of universal sisterhood and its logical extensions, including two ideas: first, if one works for the benefit of any woman, one works for the benefit of all equally; second, that in a sexist society all women have the same (minimal) level of power.
These objections to the concept of sisterhood have been part of non-mainstream feminism since the second wave, and were confronted in many forms before the term "transfeminism" was coined. "Killing the Black Body", illustrated how white-feminist led reproductive-rights movements sometimes worked to the detriment of poor and/or minority women. This Bridge Called My Back is an anthology of third world feminist writing that challenged the idea of equal power among women.
Transfeminists report many under-examined situations in which one woman's use of power has the potential to hurt another woman. Transfeminists, for instance, propose client advisory boards for crisis lines and women's shelters, the end of unpaid and underpaid feminist internships, incorporating employees into board committees that evaluate non-profit executives, creating strategic funds to assist trans employees with nontraditional health issues, incorporating specific anti-racist and other anti-oppressive criteria on employee evaluation forms, and more. Particularly fruitful has been transfeminist investigation of feminism and disability, feminism and sex, and the combination of the three.
Access to feminist spaces
Though little acknowledged, trans people have been part of feminist movements. There have been a number of documented occasions when the trans people portrayed as bad actors were in fact the victims of overreactions by others.
Femininity has become a locus of contention between transfeminists and some other feminists. Trans women have been accused of exaggerating their feminine traits. Because hate crimes and social punishments are rampant against trans people, portraying gender unambiguously can increase a trans person's sense of safety. Even when the visible signs of femininity are only marginally different from norms, they may be seen as wildly inappropriate.
Sampling bias is the most logical argument for certain feminists' notice of a disproportionate number of trans women with very feminine expression. Transgender people are viewed as outlandish exceptions to society's norms. Thus when a person appears to fit within – or almost within – society's norms, one is assumed not to be transgender. When a person sees someone that isn't easily classified as a man or a woman, the viewer still almost never assumes the subject to be trans. Take for example the "Saturday Night Live" character "Pat". The comedy is based on other characters' curiosity about Pat's gender. They ask leading yet socially acceptable questions whose answer might confirm Pat as a man or a woman. Invariably, Pat answers without doing so. Even after several rounds of such questioning, the characters never conclude that Pat is trans. Such are the rules of polite society: it would be rude to assume another person is trans. As this training is so deep (and it is impossible to perceive another's thoughts), it is not possible to notice each trans person one meets. Thus the idea that trans women are somehow more feminine is an unprovable assertion most often made by those who wish to malign trans women as uneducated, and unliberated, and who threaten to serve as a useful tool enabling anti-feminist movements.
Femininity in transgender women is noticed and punished much more harshly than the same behaviors in cisgender women. This double standard reveals that the behavior itself is not as problematic to many critics as the existence of trans people. Julia Serano refers to the breed of misogyny experienced by trans women as 'transmisogyny'.
Sheila Jeffreys, a pronounced opponent of transfeminism and transgenderism in its entirety, supports a movement called "Womyn-born-Womyn". This movement believes that gender is an oppressive artificial construct, that sex assigned at birth is immutable, and that sex change operations should be made illegal in the United States. Specifically, Jeffreys argues in “Transgender Activism: A Lesbian Feminist Perspective” that “transsexualism is a construction of medical sciences” that aims to profit from expensive surgeries and master the alteration and creation of body parts. Janice Raymond, Mary Daly and among others, argue that the feminist movement should not focus its energy on trans women. Opponents of the womyn-born-womyn movement such as Kelsie Brynn Jones argue that excluding trans women from women-only spaces denies them their right to self-identify, and their own experiences with transmisogyny.
Lesbian feminism and transfeminism
In Living a Feminist Life (2017), Sara Ahmed imagines lesbian feminism as a fundamental and necessary alliance with trans feminism. Ahmed argues an anti-trans stance is an anti-feminist stance and one that works against the feminist project of creating worlds to support those for whom gender fatalism (i.e. boys will be boys, girls will be girls) is deleterious.
Radical feminism and transfeminism
Many radical feminists have expressed anti-trans viewpoints; for example, in Gender Hurts (2014), Sheila Jeffreys argued that trans feminism amounted to men exercising their authority in defining what women are. However, not all radical feminists have dismissed transgenderism outright. The radical feminist writer and activist Andrea Dworkin, in her book Woman Hating, argued against the persecution and hatred of transgender people and demanded that sex reassignment surgery be provided freely to transgender people by the community. Dworkin argued that "every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions."
Some transgender women have been participants in lesbian feminism and radical feminism. A prominent example is Sandy Stone, a trans lesbian feminist who worked as a sound technician for the lesbian-feminist Olivia Records. In June and July 1977, when twenty-two feminists protested Stone's participation, Olivia Records defended her employment by saying that Stone was a "woman we can related to with comfort and trust" and that she was "perhaps even the Goddess-sent engineering wizard we had so long sought."
Transphobia in radical feminism
Radical feminist Janice Raymond's 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire, was and still is controversial due to its unequivocal condemnation of transgender surgeries. Raymond says, "All transsexuals rape women's bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves .... Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive."
Perhaps the most visible battleground of feminists and transfeminists was the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. The festival ejected a transgender woman, Nancy Burkholder, in the early 1990s. After that, the festival maintained that it is intended for "womyn-born-womyn" only. The activist group Camp Trans formed to protest the transphobic "womyn-born-womyn" policy and to advocate for greater acceptance of trans people within the feminist community. A number of prominent trans activists and transfeminists were involved in Camp Trans including Riki Wilchins, Jessica Xavier, and Leslie Feinberg. The festival considered allowing post-operative trans women to attend, however this was criticized as classist, as many trans women cannot afford genital surgery. Since this incident, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has updated their community statements page. This page now includes a list of links to letters and statements such as their August 2014 response to Equality Michigan’s Call For Boycott and a list of demands in response to the Equality Michigan call to boycott. The initial response to the boycott states that the MWMF believes that “support for womyn-born-female space is not at odds with standing with and for the transgender community”.
Kimberly Nixon is a trans woman who volunteered for training as a rape crisis counselor at Vancouver Rape Relief in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1995. When Nixon's transgender status was determined, she was expelled. The staff decided that Nixon's status made it impossible for her to understand the experiences of their clients, and also required their clients to be genetically female. Nixon disagreed, disclosing her own history of partner abuse and sued for discrimination. Nixon's attorneys argued that there was no basis for the dismissal, citing Diana Courvant's experiences as the first publicly transgender woman to work in a women-only domestic violence shelter. In 2007 the Canadian Supreme Court refused to hear Nixon's appeal, ending the case.
Transgender women such as Sandy Stone challenged the mainstream second-wave feminist conception of "biological woman". Stone worked as a sound engineer for Olivia Records from about 1974 to 1978, resigning as the controversy over a trans woman working for a lesbian-identified enterprise increased. The debate continued in Raymond's book, which devoted a chapter to criticism of "the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist." Groups like Lesbian Organization of Toronto instituted "womyn-born womyn only" policies. A formal request to join the L.O.O.T. was made by a male-to-female transgender lesbian in 1978. In response, the organization voted to exclude trans women. During informal discussion, members of L.O.O.T expressed their outrage that in their view a "sex-change he-creature...dared to identify himself as a woman and a lesbian." In their public response, L.O.O.T. wrote:
A woman's voice was almost never heard as a woman's voice - it was always filtered through men's voices. So here a guy comes along saying, "I'm going to be a girl now and speak for girls." And we thought, "No you're not." A person cannot just joined the oppressed by fiat.
Sheila Jeffreys labeled transgenderism "deeply problematic from a feminist perspective" and stated that "transsexualism should best be seen in this light, as directly political, medical abuse of human rights." She has also written Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, published in 2014.
Major issues within transfeminism
Inclusion in mainstream feminism
Transfeminists struggle to be accepted by much of mainstream feminism, owing to the argument that the representation of transgender women threatens the very foundation or goals of cisgender women. For example, according to Graham Mayeda, women who identify as right-wing feel that issues of equality and female importance becomes less significant when the biology of trans people, specifically, male-to-female trans people, is mentioned. He noted that these feminists feel that the biological nature of trans-females confuse "women only" boundaries and could contradict or disrupt feminist goals of establishing a voice in a patriarchal world.
Groups such as the Lesbian Avengers accept trans women, while others reject them. The Violence Against Women Act now “explicitly protects transgender and lesbian, gay, and bisexual survivors,” such that domestic violence centers, rape crisis centers, support groups, and other VAWA-funded services cannot turn away any person due to their sex, gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation.
Max Wolf Valerio contributed as an out trans man to the feminist anthology "This Bridge We Call Home," which followed "This Bridge Called My Back", to which Valerio contributed before coming out. Whether trans men are acceptable in a group, place, or event can vary with nuances of identity, membership, or personal relationship. A man's acceptance or rejection often depends on his past contributions to feminism and friendly relationships with a prominent group member. There is no clear trend on feminist acceptance of trans men other than more sophisticated discussions.
Gender dysphoria describes the condition of people who experience significant dysphoria with the sex assignment that they were given at birth, or the gender roles associated with that sex. The term "gender identity disorder" (GID) is also frequently used especially in the formal diagnosis used amongst psychologists and physicians. Gender identity disorder was classified as a medical disorder by the ICD-10 CM and DSM-4. The DSM-5, however, uses the less pathologizing term gender dysphoria, and the ICD-11 uses the term gender incongruence. Many transgender individuals, transfeminists and medical researchers support the declassification of GID because they say the diagnosis pathologizes gender variance, reinforces the binary model of gender, and can result in stigmatization of transgender individuals. Many transfeminists and traditional feminists also propose that this diagnosis be discarded because of its potentially abusive use by people with power, and may argue that gender variation is the right of all persons. When arguing for the previous diagnostic category, pro-GID transfeminists typically concede past misuse of the diagnosis while arguing for greater professional accountability.
In many situations or legal jurisdictions, transgender people have insurance coverage for surgery only as a consequence of the diagnosis. Removal would therefore increase patient costs. In other situations, anti-discrimination laws which protect legally disabled people apply to transgender people only so long as a manifest diagnosis exists. In other cases, transgender people are protected by sex discrimination rules or as a separate category. This economic issue can split advocates along class lines.
At the 2006 Trans Identity Conference at the University of Vermont, Courvant presented an analysis of this controversy. She noted that "eliminationists" must decide whether their efforts to destigmatize trans people conflict with efforts to destigmatize mental illness and whether removing the GID category would actually help with the former, while disrupting the current, albeit limited, insurance regime. Conversely, "preservationists" must address the problem of faulty diagnoses and improper "treatment". She proposed retaining the category and focusing efforts on legitimating mental illness and improving acceptance of trans people, leaving aside the diagnosis question.
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- Virginia Prince quote from her essay in Sexology, "Men Who Choose to Be Women" as quoted in the Advocate, Dec. 2007, "A Transgender History"
- Bryan Strong, Ideas of the Early Sex Education Movement in America, 1890–1920 from the summer 1972 History of Education Quarterly, Vol 12, #2 (Summer 1972). Available online (for fee) at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/366974
- Feinberg, Leslie (1996). Transgender Warriors, Beacon Press, Boston, Mass.
- Transgender Studies and Feminism: Theory, Politics, and Gender Realities (special issue of Hypatia) co-edited by Talia Bettcher and Ann Garry.
- Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Talia Bettcher