It may seem that transgender women are included in several communities that fight for their rights: feminism and LGBTQ (which also means the trans* community as part of it). But the reality is far less simple and optimistic: trans* women’s needs are often disregarded within feminism, and some representatives of the LGB community forget that the acronym LGBTQ actually includes not only sexual, but also gender identities.
Just because we experience one or several forms of discrimination does not mean we do not discriminate ourselves. As practice shows, by no means does unfair societal condemnation make people reflect upon mechanisms of discrimination. You may feel the pressure that concerns you personally but remain unaware of similar practices you perform yourself towards other people. That is why transphobia also exists within those movements that are supposed, by definition, to be humanistic and tolerant. To see discrimination and understand it better, the idea of intersectionality can be useful.
The term intersectionality was introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 article Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color. Crenshaw suggested that discriminations support and produce one another, and follow similar patterns. The researcher analyzes the experience of American women of color to demonstrate that women as an oppressed group are not homogeneous, that they, too, fall into oppressors and the oppressed, those who exercise authority and those who remain invisible.
Kimberlé Crenshaw has pointed out the need to develop new methods of fighting discriminations that take their interplay into account. Intersectionality is a highly reflexive strand of feminism which is often misinterpreted as diverting attention at unimportant, made-up issues. In fact, intersectionality is a tool for analyzing reality that helps one see that one engages into various contacts and occupies various positions within them. For instance, a middle-class woman and a poor woman have different problems, and the former has a higher position, more power and opportunities. It would be wrong to think that both are discriminated against in exactly identical ways or that there can be a universal solution for both.
We have talked to three transsexual women (the names have been changed at their request) to find out what life looks like when you are accepted neither by the patriarchal heteronormative society, nor even by more progressive groups.
As far as I know, most transgender women only go to see doctors to get health certificates or in case of serious health issues.
Probably the main reason why people go to see medical professionals is to get a diagnosis confirmation, which also serves as an approval for surgery. But many are even scared of those doctors who are known to be accepting and put off going to see them. Aside from that, there is no guarantee that seeing doctors and getting the diagnosis will significantly improve one’s quality of life.
There is a deficiency in the Russian law: it requires a standard medical document to issue new personal papers, but that standard has never been established, so registry offices assess the medical documents based on precedents and their superiors’ opinion. Most registry offices only agree to issue new papers after one has had surgery, but recently a positive trend has been emerging: some have been settling for endocrinological certificates confirming an “irreversible hormonal sex change”. That’s the route I’m taking: I hope to be able to get new papers without any surgery.
Those professionals who have met a lot of transgender people and are genuinely interested in understanding them won’t focus too much on what the person is wearing, or require heavy make-up and high heels. There are waiting lines to commissions with such doctors, transgenders come to see them from all over Russia.
The commission before which I went consisted of accepting doctors. I wore jeans and a red blouse, and all the make-up I had on was a little base. I suspect outside Saint Petersburg and Moscow there are a lot more doctors who require transgender women to be hyperfeminine, but I was lucky enough not to come across such people.
It can be very hard to find a job when you have no female papers: I, for one, haven’t managed to do it. I would go to interviews but after they saw my passport, they denied me the job without giving any reasons. Now I depend on my girlfriend for support and I mostly take care of the household.
Some find a solution in adult services. Apart from prostitution, there are other options, of course: anonymous or semi-anonymous freelance work, if you have valuable skills and experience. Some manage to find official jobs even without getting new documents, especially in “friendlier” branches such as design. You can also work illegally, without showing your passport at all, but it’s not that easy to find such jobs nowadays as work contracts are signed almost everywhere. And obviously, working with no contract means risking to be left without pay.
Several transsexual women I know didn’t leave their jobs when they started to transition: they have to lead a double life and pretend to be men while they’re at work. Not everyone can endure that. As a matter of fact, that was precisely why I quit my old job and I do not regret it.
Many LGBT rights organizations raise the employment issue. Some of them gladly employ transgender people. I know cases when organizations helped find employers who were willing to turn a blind eye on the “weird” paperwork. But of course, there’s still a long way to go until a real solution is reached.
Transphobia occurs everywhere, even in transgender people themselves (I mean internalized transphobia and the “true ones vs. fake ones” division). It’s a stalemate. The LGB community often says: “We’ve never seen transgender people, we’ve never talked to them, we don’t know how they live or what they are.” The T community says: “LGB don’t see us, so they’re not our allies.”
Every social phobia originates from ignorance and lack of understanding. That’s how hurtful stereotypes and myths, often very far-fetched, are born. We can only destroy them by telling our stories.
But many transgender people don’t want visibility because they are afraid of being judged and rejected. As a result, there is a vicious circle to which everyone contributes a little: those who don’t notice others as well as those who are afraid to show themselves.
The only solution I see is to establish a dialogue. And what helps to do that above all is to talk in person, offline.
I believe masculism does more harm than good. I think this movement went the wrong way from the outset, when it started fighting feminism instead of joining forces and fighting together for equal rights and against discrimination.
People’s problems and needs vary dramatically and depend on the life journey they’ve made and the experiences they’ve gathered along the way. While a cisgender man, for instance, may be upset that he can’t fight a job that matches his field and qualification, a transgender person with no new papers will be happy to have any job at all.
You can find allies almost anywhere, as well as those who won’t understand or accept us. Among radical feminists, for example, I’ve encountered not only overt transphobia but also such support that I’ve not even seen within the T-community itself. And that’s precisely the kind of allies we should join forces with above all others: they can debunk stereotypes about us within their own communities and engage in a constructive discussion with those who probably wouldn’t talk to us initially. But we also need to address the internal problems within the T-community—after all, nobody can help us more than ourselves. This has more to do with practical questions: for instance, self-help and psychological support groups for transgender people shouldn’t be “mixed” with similar groups for the LGB community.
There are feminists (mostly cisgender) who have trouble understanding that transgender exists and the impact it has on one’s sense of self, privilege and societal oppression. That’s why when they think of trans* women, they say: “If she hasn’t ensured she passes, then she has male privilege due to her looks. Trans* women are listened to. They don’t get raped. What’s all this talk about discrimination?”
What they don’t consider is this:
1. Trans* women don’t usually act according to the male gender role, which means they lose part of the “male” privilege and are discriminated against for failing to comply with the role.
2. Trans* women experience constant psychological oppression, they are literally surrounded by triggers. If you live as a “man”, your whole day is hell. The privilege that is handed to you requires you to publicly renounce yourself. You have to be aggressive, rude, pretend you like things you don’t like at all. Usually when you look in the mirror after that, you feel sick of yourself.
Every bit of privilege that is handed to you because you appear “male” serves as a quite painful reminder of how society sees you.
And then, when you finally break out of that infernal vicious circle and find yourself in feminist spaces, you’re told: “You’re not feminine enough, you’re not a trans* woman but a male rapist”.
On the other hand, if you’re too feminine, they’ll say you’re marginalizing women, that the woman part is all but an outer shell to you, that you’re not a real woman, you’re just wearing make-up. It’s as if you came into a patriarchal group. Fortunately, I haven’t faced that for a long time because I carefully choose the spaces I go to and only follow trans* inclusive public pages.
You never feel comfortable, almost never. You either have dysphoria, or if you don’t have it for a while, you start nagging yourself: “If you don’t have dysphoria, you’re not really transgender. Just a guy who likes to wear women’s clothes and prefers a female name”. It’s horrible.
I know many lesbians consider MtFs to be trash. And transsexual women are usually surprised when that’s not the case. I came to visit a transsexual friend once and was showing her my manicure. She asked me who had done it. I told her. And she was shocked: “How come, she’s a lesbian, isn’t she?!” It’s difficult to believe they can be okay with us.
Surgical treatment for sex reassignment in Belarus is free of charge if you go through the official commission. Hormone therapy too, if you do it officially. But few people go to endocrinologists because they can only prescribe you hormones after sitting with the commission, and that’s an unpleasant procedure. Often transgender people seek information on drugs and dosages online, and then order the pills. You need to look for the people who know these things, get advice, tale blood tests. It’s better to start with low dosages. I need to lower the testosterone and raise the estrogene levels. In Belarus you need a prescription to buy hormones, in Russia you don’t, so we ask friends from there to buy the drugs and send them to us.
The side effects can be blood clotting or thrombophlebitis. There is a heavy burden for the liver. When you take hormones, the changes are not only external but also psychoemotional, you get mood swings. The CPA antiandrogen causes depressive states, suicidal thoughts. I doubt a cisgender woman could get me. Only if she’s had some experience with all that.
I don’t feel 100% free. I’m unhappy with myself. Unhappy with how I look. Financially, transgender women have it very bad. You need money for a plastic surgery.
Prostitution among transgender women is indeed a problem. There can be consequences, even murder.
My family doesn’t support me. There are constant accusations, constant mockery: “It’s all rubbish, you need to be locked up in a loony bin, you need a good flogging”. I only have two friends, I met both in groups on Vkontakte. I miss being around people, I need someone to go for a walk with, to chat with, no matter what about.
I’d like to turn on the TV and see something that concerns me. I mean, the media’s function is to supply information, why can’t they say there are other people apart from the majority?
I believe collaboration between feminism and masculism within a common anti-sexist project is impossible, which has already been proven in practice several times. Feminism and masculism together is a CatDog. First of all, they have different priorities. A masculist doesn’t care one bit about women being raped: there are thousands of feminist groups where you can get support as well as phone numbers for women’s crisis centers (and there are such centers to begin with), and this sort of crime is banned by the law. Rape is one of the few crimes where women are more often the victims. A masculist cares more about men being the primary victims of muggings, beatings, murders, that they commit suicide four to five times as often as women.
I became a masculist activist back when I identified as bigender, and I made sure my account looked like a XX bigender’s. Thanks to that experience, I know very well how this or that person will react to something I say if they think I’m a XX bigender, or if they think I’m a XY guy, or if they know I’m a XY girl.
I didn’t become a masculist because I felt all the perks of male “privilege” like blackmail and beatings at school, or because I see everyday discrimination. I became a masculist because I like to look at and judge by objective indicators (statistics, legislation, studies, etc.)
Why did I choose to include myself into masculism? Because it’s the kind of inclusion where I can kick out most activists if I want and try to: my opinion means a lot to people, I’m one of those who form the ideology. I like this state of affairs, and it makes it a sin not to include myself.
There are problems unique for transgender people, and it is natural that their experiences are different from those of the LGB. However, that does not mean the trans community must be isolated. It is unjustifiable and unreasonable to separate oneself on the one hand while excluding, on the other. Naturally, people with different experience cannot build a movement without subgroups, but that should not be considered as a precondition for hostility or for comparing who does more and whose discrimination is more important.
Even within the trans community, there are various visions of fighting for rights: some of the women come to feminism, others choose masculism, still others are busy with other aspects of their lives: earning money to fund their transitions, coping with loneliness and insecurity.
The transphobia present in some strands of feminism and in the LGB community aggravates the stigma transgender people have to deal with, deepening their isolation and depriving them of help in many difficult situations. Causing gender dysphoria by referring to transgender women with masculine pronouns is a popular practice among radical feminists. Selecting news in a lopsided way, informing only about crimes committed by transgenders, using essentialist arguments, insults, ascribing specific motives to trans people—all this looks too much like a copy of patriarchy’s methods to have a place in a feminist movement. However, all of this does happen.
I will stress again that intersectionality does not mean denying patriarchy, nor does it call to forget about women’s rights. Intersectionality tells us that all women (and all people) are different and that ideological conflicts should be discussed respectfully.
It is one thing to feel little affection towards a transgender woman who does not consider rape an important issue, or to fight the dissemination of such views by informing about the statistics on crimes against women. It is quite another thing to stigmatize that woman based on her being transgender, to use it as an argument in a discussion or as a weapon to hurt her.
«Misogyny, transphobia, homophobia all are kinds of xenophobia.
Just as transphobes believe transgender people to be different in a negative sense of the word, so too do misogynists think of the woman as something different, secondary in relation to the “universal” man.
Looking through the lense of intersectionality, it is easy to find more links between discriminations. This can help people with varying experiences to respect each other and be particularly tactful with those who have less opportunities and resources.
Photoproject – Małgorzata Sajur
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