Who is more oppressed? (or, Oppression 201)

I recently read TransActivist’sMy message to those who would attend Radfem 2012” post (AND its comments—it all took me almost an hour) and learned more than I have from a blog post in a long time. I highly recommend reading the entire thing and then doing some pondering.

I’m happy to have gotten the hang of most of the Oppression 101 basics—you know, how to “unpack your knapsack,” that there’s no such thing as “reverse racism,” and what “derailing” means— but it’s still inspiring when I find something new to chew on. That “something new,” for me, is that there are real, live feminists who feel that it’s important for non-trans women to have a feminist space separate from trans women.

Two More Important Lessons from Oppression 101:

A separate space
The lessons I learned while learning the basics tell me that it’s good and necessary for oppressed folks to have space separate from their oppressors. I remember, when I was learning this for the first time, feeling a little conflicted—“if a white person isn’t allowed to go to a racism conference for people of color, isn’t that unfair and racist, too?” “Why can people of color exclude whites but whites can’t exclude people of color?” But I am a white person, and thus didn’t (don’t) fully understand the silencing effect a white person, an oppressor, in the room can have on the voices of others. The need for a separate space is real and important.

Don’t talk about me without me
I’ve also learned the importance of including people’s voices if those people are the topic of conversation. A group of men shouldn’t have a discussion about what it’s like to be a woman; a group of white people shouldn’t assume they know what racism feels like; a church shouldn’t undertake to characterize homosexuality without acknowledging the voices of homosexuals in their congregation. This is another reason why oppressors shouldn’t ever be allowed to exclude oppressed folks.

Radical Feminists hold that women born women deserve a separate space from women who were born men. Trans activist(s) maintain that a conversation about trans people shouldn’t be held if trans people are excluded. From there, we get into the specifics of each groups’ oppression. Women born women are more oppressed, because they had female childhoods and never tasted male privilege. Trans women are more oppressed, because they were marginalized for their trans-ness.

Really, it makes sense that the argument would come down to a “who is more oppressed” debate, because whoever is more oppressed would certainly have the right to exclude the other at times, or would have the right to demand the inclusion.

… but all of this is oversimplifying, isn’t it? Enmeshed in all of this are tons of otherwise respectable feminist voices claiming that trans women aren’t “real” women, that the mere existence of trans people undermines the mission of radical feminism. It appears I’ve graduated to Oppression 201 now, and I definitely have a lot more learning about both transphobia and radical feminism before I truly understand enough to comment further.

But I will end with a piece of my own comment on the post:

Because I don’t think any of us have ever been both, none of us can answer the “who is more oppressed?” question with anything more than our own experience. But when in doubt, it’s best to favor inclusion of voices over exclusion, diversity of opinion over sameness.

And I would tentatively posit that trans women, especially feminist trans women, are not the oppressors that any kind of feminism should work to exclude.

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2 Responses to Who is more oppressed? (or, Oppression 201)

  1. Meg says:

    I also suspect that size matters. Excluding people on the basis of superficial characteristics is far less problematic for small consciousness-raising groups than it is for conferences. Excluding individuals on the basis of behavior is more work in larger groups, but also slightly easier socially because it can be made more impersonal.

    I believe separate spaces should have a purpose, and a time frame. What they should not be is a statement of separatism, that categorically and forever this large group will stand apart from all those icky people so we can mow our lawns or listen to music without ever being reminded that the world is more complicated than we’d like to pretend.

    Privileged people do this all the time: they move to the suburbs, drive instead of take public transportation, hold dinner parties for invited guests, attend expensive colleges where upper-middle-class cultural norms are assumed. Many less-privileged people would like to, but fewer succeed.
    The dirty secrete of feminism is that it is nice to get to pretend the world is simple for a while. In hard-core third-wave circles we do it by erasing the humanity and hurt behind offenders, imagining them simply wrong and call-out-able and that’ll fix it. Our outrage becomes a way of making the world comprehensible.

    I think this sense of ease-in-community is part of how we evolved to be social creatures: I don’t know that it will ever go away. It can be used, to escape social pressure for silence and assimilation, or it can be abused, to avoid criticism and deny the existence of others. I don’t think the line between those two is ever black and white.

  2. Looking at Radfem blogs, like Cathy Brennan’s, one would think that the existence of trans women was the most important issue in Feminism. There are radfem blogs devoted entirely to trans hate, or “trans criticism” as one puts it: look at “Twanzphobic”.

    Given the speaker’s writings on trans people (I have only read exerpts on blogs about this) I argue that the definition of this particular strand of “radical feminism” is not any particular attitude to gender, but a loathing of trans women. Just like the Evangelicals’ loathing of gay people.

    I do not present female because I think it is better to be female, I express the core of my being. (They say, trans women always make it personal- but it Is personal. Because if you say trans women are not women that is intensely personal for me.) Transition was the most important thing in my life. As a thought experiment, I wondered, how would I feel if I had to have a toe amputated for medical reasons? Terrible. Ghastly thought. And yet remove my gonads, and I was happier than I had ever been.

    So, not who is more oppressed, but whether that group of cis women (cue chorus of “‘cis’ is hate speech!”) has a right to oppress and erase trans women.

    That post you cite imagines a dialogue of the trans woman and the radfem, sharing accounts of pain. I comprehend all sorts of stuff about male privilege, and for the reasons given there I do not think I had it, particularly, though I do have my class privilege- a “Bachelor’s” degree, and European privilege, paid far more for most of my career than most in Africa or China. I do not think radfems want to hear my pain. Not when one comes up with “SCAM- Surgically and Chemically Altered Males” to describe me. Yes, I am making it personal. Again.

    A comment on that blog talks of a man in a dress, with male posture and clown makeup, in women’s space. I get read within a few minutes of conversation. Would the commenter say that of me?

    I love the last paragraph of Meg’s comment, though I think that close to the line she names only those actually doing the excluding can answer which side of the line they are. I don’t think this radfem conference is close to that line.

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