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W hile the lives and struggles of transgender people remain largely invisible to the mainstream, trans people have long been an active part of feminist organizing and progressive movements. Women’s groups and spaces, from rape crisis centers to music festivals, are increasingly working to create new policies and practices to include and integrate people who identify as transgender and transsexual. The politics of trans inclusion can offer opportunities to expand the meaning of feminism and broaden the scope of women’s social justice work.
The Trans Inclusion Project, part of the 519 Church Street Community Center in Toronto (“the 519”), works with women’s anti- violence organizations to help women-only services become trans- inclusive. Since its founding 6 years ago, the project has worked with over 200 women’s organizations across Ontario to train staff and board members and make specific policy recommendations.
Camp Trans outside the Michigan Womyn’s Festival in 2006— photo from camptrans.squarespace.com
“I believe that trans folks should be integrated into every service,” says Yasmeen Persad, director of the Trans Inclusion Project. In her trainings with rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, she covers the basics of gender and transition, the role of sex work, the history of transgender organizing and violence on a systemic level. She says the hardest part of the training is helping people recognize trans women as women.
The extensive trans programs at the 519 started when three sex workers, two of them trans, were murdered in the Toronto area. One trans woman went to the city and the 519 to demand a project geared towards addressing this kind of violence. Persad explains that while there are specific issues of violence for trans women—a 1998 study in Ontario said that 50 percent of trans people reported having been raped or assaulted by an intimate partner—there is also a great deal of overlap between the experiences of trans and non-trans women.
“There are issues of self-esteem” for all women, Persad says. In her work with women’s domestic violence shelters, rape crisis organizations, and other service groups, she finds that in addition to issues of immigration, welfare, and the threat of being reported to the state because of sex work, trans women also face hate-motivated violence and high costs of gender-related surgeries.
Another trainer and activist for trans inclusion, Molly McClure, worked with Women’s Anti-Violence Education (WAVE) in Philadelphia for five years as an organizer and self-defense teacher. McClure’s activism was central to a long process of building the historically feminist organization to explicitly include trans people.
“Women and trans people all experienced gender-based issues,” McClure says, “around their bodies, how they wear them, how they move, where they go at night.” McClure has done a number of trainings on trans inclusion and says she focuses on the overlap between trans and non-trans women in experiencing gendered violence and oppression—not in an attempt to minimize the differences, but to focus on a common struggle and on “recognizing natural alliances.”
“I try to center trans oppression squarely in other oppressions,” McClure says, “so it doesn’t get isolated into ‘Who are those freaky people that want to be a part of this?’ but more ‘How is transphobia similar and different to other issues of power and discrimination?’”
McClure and Persad agree that making connections helps to bridge the gap for many non-trans women who are struggling with fears around working with trans people. Persad says that after participating in her trainings, many people see more similarities than differences in the struggles of trans and non-trans women.
Partly thanks to McClure, WAVE now defines “women” as anyone who has identified or currently identifies as a woman. Trans women can now participate in women-only self-defense classes, and there are also separate courses for trans people of all genders.
How did these changes come about within a feminist organization that was resistant to the prospect at first? McClure says that long, challenging conversations were essential. She believes that trans inclusion requires trainings, education, and reframing an organization’s priorities. She warns against doing sensitivity trainings and stopping there.
“If an organization is serious about change, it needs to be an ongoing process,” she says, adding that “If we think making an organization trans inclusive is about doing a bunch of paperwork, that’s sad.” McClure encourages organizations dedicated to trans inclusion to have an active member inside the organization working on the issue, as well as working with supportive allies from outside of the organization.
McClure also points out that working for trans inclusion can be a good opportunity for an organization to do an “anti-racist audit”; to look at who is in leadership and who has power within the organization as a whole. Trans inclusion, she says, can and should push beyond a “liberalized” approach which tends to focus on including white, middle-class trans people.
Persad, for her part, plays a leadership role as a trans person, and she works with a group of seven other trans-identified activists, including three other women. The Trans Inclusion Project also makes a habit of referring local organizations to trans women who are doctors, professors, and teachers who may be able to support their work.
San Francisco Women Against Rape, a radical anti-violence organization, has been trans inclusive “in theory” for as long as Executive Director Janelle White remembers. The organization began articulating new trans policies in their most recent strategic plan. White defends the existence of organizations like hers, which specifically mandate the leadership of women of color, arguing that their politics work in tandem with, rather than against, trans politics.
“Identity politics have a place,” White says. “If they isolate you and make you not able to see connections with people, it’s not useful. If they give you a chance to sustain yourself, do healing, be with your people so you can go back out and do the coalition piece of the work, that’s great.” Trans inclusion, she says, “is not in contradiction to prioritizing women of color leadership.”
S an Francisco Women Against Rape partners with other local anti-oppression organizations to offer Trans 101 trainings to all of their volunteers. All of their staff are familiar with gender identity issues. White says that the biggest question they currently face is about the role of transgender people on the female-to-male (FtM) spectrum. Those on the FtM spectrum have sometimes been more easily integrated into women’s space than male-to-female folks, but complex questions remain regarding the roles of trans people who do not identify as “women.” White believes that female-assigned trans people can support the work of her organization without needing to identify them as being women, but seeing them as allies.
The Trans Inclusion Project is in the process of researching the needs of female-to-male transgender and transsexual people in the Toronto shelter system. Persad’s guess is that for some female-assigned trans people, women’s shelters are still the safest or the only place to go. Also, many people on the female-to-male spectrum access reproductive health resources primarily geared towards women and the time may come when those who do not identify as “female” begin to seek a voice within the reproductive justice movement.
Of course, not every feminist organization is opening its doors to transgender people. Those groups who continue to resist it find themselves under increasing pressure from trans activists, as in the case of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, whose long-standing policy of excluding trans people has brought on articles, artist boycotts, and a 15-year sit-in at the festival gates by Camp Trans, an ad-hoc organization that demands inclusion at the largest women-only music festival in the world.
Lorrraine is a trans woman who attended the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 2006, causing a wave of renewed controversy over old policies. Lorrraine self-describes primarily as a feminist activist who is trans, rather than a “trans activist.” When asked why she opposes the policy of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Lorrraine is clear on her feminist values: “Any politics that divide women into groups of good women we support and bad women we oppose, I think is misogynistic and I don’t support it. A lot of people have difficult ideas about us—how we think, how we act, how we came about,” she says. “I hear these ideas repeated over and over. They get a lot more attention than the lives of trans women I know that don’t fit the patriarchal mold.”
One of the most common fears that arises is the fear of violence—what McClure calls “the sexual assault myth, the idea that all trans women are rapists.”
In her work at WAVE and with the Philadelphia shelter system— which is in the process of becoming trans-inclusive—McClure has addressed these fears with groups of women. On how to respond to questions of safety, she explains: “It was useful to talk about physical violence. People do get assaulted in shelters, people are not in a safe space. This is not specific to trans people.”
Activists like Emi Koyama frame the exclusion of trans people as a race and class issue, explaining that while penises may trigger associations of violence for some women, white skin may trigger other women as a symbol of violence. No women’s space, whether it is a shelter or a music festival, is inherently “safe” for all women, and to claim that it is writes off the experiences of women who are targets of multiple forms of violence.
“We live in a violent time,” says McClure. “There is a war on women’s bodies, queer folks, folks of color, poor folks. The fear of violence is real. But transphobia, along with racism and classism, can keep many of us from accurately identifying the real enemy, or effectively building towards what will make us truly safe. In a loving, respectful way, we need to challenge some of those misdirected fears.”
Trans-inclusive feminism has a lot to offer to a broader social justice movement, not the least of which is a complex and practical analysis of gender and power. Women and trans people ought to be at the forefront of struggles for justice, defining the terms and building the future alongside other marginalized people committed to liberation and real change.
Lewis Wallace is a transgender activist, student, and zinester. He has worked for a number of years as a sex educator and grassroots fundraiser. His essays appear in various anthologies and magazines under the name “Sailor.” He lives in Chicago, Illinois.
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