This is the first time that I have written on Trans issues. I am usually willing to express my view on most issues. Nevertheless, while I have supported Trans rights on social media, I have never written on the subject nor publicly replied to the occasional attacks, which have depicted me as a TERF (Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist). I am not now, nor have I ever been a TERF, but I have had to become educated about Trans issues. At 77, I’m not as enthusiastic about fighting off attackers and trolls as I once was, so I’ve remained relatively silent on the topic..
Then Fae Johnstone was viciously attacked on social media just because Hershey’s Chocolate chose her as one of five women to be celebrated on their chocolate bars for International Women’s Day. They only did this in Canada, knowing how fierce the ultra-Right is against Trans people in the United States. Maybe Hershey’s forgot the internet is international? The attack against Fae was overwhelming, organized by high profile alt-Right figures like Tucker Carlson. Over the years, I have learned a lot and one of the people who I learned the most from quite recently was Fae Johnstone. I went to a workshop she gave in Windsor where she opened by saying, “This is a safe place. You can ask the questions you have always wanted to of a Trans person.” Fae is smart, caring, and spends a lot of her time educating people who are ignorant about the lives of Trans people. She believes people can learn and change their minds.
The attack on Fae is a sign of a massive international alt-Right campaign against Trans and 2SLGBTQIA+ people, especially against learning about them in schools, and for some bizarre reason, drag shows. It seems to me the people behind these attacks are the last people with whom feminists should ever be aligned. It’s not just the enemy of my enemy is my friend; it is also that the attack against Trans women is the cutting edge of an attack against all women and all the expansions of human rights we have won over the decades. It’s past time to unite against those attacks and put Trans Exclusive Feminism to bed for good.
In 2000, I testified in a famous BC Human Rights case—that of Kimberly Nixon, a Trans woman who was rejected by Vancouver Rape Relief as a volunteer because she wasn’t born female. Nixon is today seen as a pioneer and a hero of the Trans movement. I didn’t agree with the argument Vancouver Rape Relief made at the time, but I did think that they should be able to decide their volunteer criteria, given that they work with traumatized women. Since the 1970’s, Vancouver Rape Relief has been one of the most radical rape crisis centres in the country, but unfortunately, the organization continues to exclude Trans women to this day.
At the time of the case, I didn’t really understand the issues involved. I was a socialist feminist and believed that gender was socially constructed, which didn’t include the reality of Trans people. I wanted to understand, but no one was willing to explain it to me. I just got attacked by Trans supporters who were very isolated at the time and by some of the feminist community in Toronto who were angry with me. It wasn’t unusual to have differences and work through them, but this time I was written off as a progressive feminist by some and even though I have since then informed myself about the error of my previous position and action, I am still occasionally attacked for my position during the case. Some people want an apology, but I don’t really agree with that. I was ignorant, I learned, and changed my position. Furthermore in the Jewish culture in which grew up, forgiveness is not a major theme as it is in Christianity. Atonement is what Jews celebrate on Yom Kippur. We must atone for our sins, not ask for forgiveness. I’m not religious, but this makes more sense to me. And perhaps, this article is part of my atonement for the earlier error. Also as a radical, I welcome anyone who changes their views. How else will we change the world?
Many women of my generation have a hard time accepting Trans women as women. Some have even argued that the Trans movement is destructive to feminism. They always bring up these myths about attacks in bathrooms. I’ve asked for even one example of a Cis woman being attacked in a bathroom by a Trans woman. No-one can come up with a single one. Then they bring up violence in prisons. Prisons are violent places, and indeed, women in prison are more vulnerable to attack, an issue that should be addressed,but that has little or nothing to do with Trans people who are even more vulnerable to attack in prison. As Kai Cheng Thom persuasively argued recently, vilifying marginalized minorities as dangers to women and children is common during periods of economic and social upheaval.
Some women of my generation spent their youth fighting for a place to stand among men, fighting to be taken seriously and have their voices heard. They can’t accept the idea that gender is not necessarily biologically determined. Some of us constructed ourselves to act like men in order to get heard, but others are still recovering from bullying by men that women only spaces helped them overcome. Then there is the argument that “born women” are brought up and learn to be submissive to men. That is much less true today than in the past but it was never true for all women, certainly it wasn’t for me or my mother or my grandmother or for those who grew up in more matriarchal families or societies.
In the early days of feminism, there were three feminist ideologies. Liberal feminists wanted more power within the existing system, fighting to change laws that restricted women’s participation and structures that excluded women, but were resistant to challenges to other systems like colonialism, racism, capitalism. Radical feminists organized women-only spaces and believed that men were the problem and patriarchy was the dominant system of oppression. I was a socialist feminist, and we believed that capitalism was the main problem and that patriarchy was deeply rooted in capitalism. For example, in 1978, we socialist feminists called for a march in Toronto on International Women’s Day. The radical feminists wanted a women-only march. The socialist feminists argued for including men as we wanted to incorporate the labour movement and immigrant groups who often worked with men. Fortunately, we won. As a result, IWD continues as a march every year reflecting changes in the composition of the women’s movement, the struggles of that year both local and international. This year, Iranian women and men led the march and education workers and nurses who both organized strong walk outs this year were also prominent. On the other hand radical feminists understood and prioritized violence against women long before most of us did.
As feminism grew more sophisticated, I thought we wanted to eliminate the gender binary, eliminate gender stereotypes and recognize that gender does not limit who you are or what you can do. It seems to me that the challenge to gender represented by Trans people and gender non-binary people is a much more profound challenge to the gender binary that of my generation. In a recent UCLA study the number of young people self-identifying as Trans has doubled since they began their research. As young people become more and more interested in exploring their gender and their sexuality, their parents may feel threatened and the alt-Right reacts to that by whipping up hysteria. I also spent a significant part of my activist life fighting for women’s right to abortion. We fought on the grounds that women must have the right to control our own bodies. Isn’t a Trans woman asking for that same right? Feminism must fully embrace Trans people as part of our intersectional battle for equality and justice.
Finally, it is quite simple. Trans women are now the object of organized and serious attacks online, and in educational settings. They have won recognition of their human rights in many countries, including Canada and as feminists we must support and defend the human rights of all people and to continue to welcome Trans women into the ranks of the women’s movement, such as it is.