Transsexual women are a small group with a very complex political history, who – without wishing to – have been the focus of troubling problems in projects of political and social change. An inclusive democracy needs to include transsexual women’s voices; but how is their accent to be defined.
Transsexual women are women who have been through a process of transition from another position in the gender order: usually born with male (sometimes intersex) bodies, and usually brought up as boys. They have had to negotiate a strongly contradictory process of gender embodiment, often involving wrenching personal conflict and social stigma. Transition, usually undertaken in adulthood (though sometimes in adolescence) is an attempt to resolve this situation, gain recognition as women rather than men, and construct a path forward in life on this basis.
There are specific needs around transition: access to specialised medical services, means of changing legal status (e.g. for identity documents – passports can be a severe problem), safety and support in the vulnerable process of transition. Beyond these, transsexual women’s interests are much the same as the interests of other groups of women. They include an end to gender-based violence including rape; economic security, and economic equality between women and men (many transsexual women are poor, and even those in employment tend to lose income after transition); full access to education, health care, and other social services (transsexual women often have difficulty accessing services); adequate child care and family support (yes, many transsexual women have families); decent housing; political voice and legal equality; an end to media stereotype and stigma – in short, an end to patriarchy, and the creation of a society of gender equality.
Not surprisingly, then, transsexual women were involved in the early days of the Women’s Liberation movement; and transsexual feminism has existed since then. However several prominent US feminists in the 1970s denounced transsexual women in quite bitter terms as infiltrators in the movement and not really women at all. It became a widespread (though never universal) view among Anglophone feminists that transsexual women should be excluded from women’s organizations and events.
This exclusion oddly reproduced the patriarchal stigma against transsexual women, put to new use in defining a sharp identity contrast between women and men. Deconstructionist approaches to gender in the 1980s and 90s challenged the notion of a fixed identity for women. This opened the way to a “transgender” movement, in which transsexual women were included in a spectrum of queer or subversive groups, thought to be undermining a heteronormative, dichotomous gender system.
This rapidly mutated into a new kind of identity politics. “Transgender” became the name for something like a third gender category, blending masculinity and femininity; or for what was understood as a new sexual identity. In this form, transgender was swept, within a few years, into an astonishingly popular category in human rights talk, “LGBT” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, sometimes extended with Intersex, Queer, etc.). In the 2000s “LGBT people” were frequently presented as an oppressed sexual minority, for whom rights and protections were claimed. Since gay men are by far the most influential group in this acronym, the paradoxical result for transsexual women was to be politically represented through a form of masculinity politics.
Meanwhile another dimension of politics continued, around transsexual women’s medical and legal needs. Medically assisted transition, mainly involving surgery, hormones and psychiatry (a package defined in the 1950s and 60s), was at first sharply rationed, and access required conformity to patriarchal stereotypes of gender. Psychiatric theories of transsexuality have mostly been stigmatising, some extremely so; and therefore have been contested in the few available forums by transsexual women. But the gatekeeper function of psychiatry makes this a very fraught process. Over time, surgical gender reassignment has become increasingly available on the private market to people who can pay – as an export industry in Morocco and then in Thailand, and within North America. This replaced gender conformity with class privilege as the determinant of access, a dubious gain.
From the 1990s to the present, lobbying by transsexual and transgender groups has led an increasing number of countries (and jurisdictions within countries) to pass laws governing transition. These have the great virtue of giving legal recognition to the fact of gender transition, and thus admit transsexual women to citizenship. But they often sharply restrict who can gain this recognition; and because they usually make surgical reassignment the decisive requirement, they lead back into the dilemmas of medical politics just mentioned.
There is no single path for transsexual women’s politics, but I would argue that the most important direction now is to develop a feminist politics of social justice. Both material equality and recognition are important here, one doesn’t get far without the other. Transsexual women are a small group, and don’t add much weight to feminist projects; but their experience has been important in thinking about gender, and may continue to be – including for issues of global solidarity. Transsexual women’s presence enriches contemporary feminism.
Further Reading & Resources
Raewyn Connell, “Transsexual women and feminist thought: toward new understanding and new politics”, Signs, 2012, vol. 37 no. 4, 857-881. Spells out the detail of the argument above, and offers an analysis of transition.
Viviane Namaste, Sex Change, Social Change, 2nd edition, Toronto, Women’s Press, 2011. A sharply observed set of essays that covers politics, theory, and the social realities of transsexual women’s lives including HIV and prisons.
Translatina, a full-length documentary film directed by Felipe Degregori (Peru, 2010), covering the lives of travestis and transsexual women across Latin America, including interviews with activists and some harrowing detail.
Claudine Griggs, Passage Through Trinidad: Journal of a Surgical Sex Change, Jefferson NC, McFarland & Co., 1996. Also not for the faint-hearted; the best account of what medically-assisted transition really involves.