Earlier this month the punditsphere erupted in vicious back-and-forths over the (lack of) space for trans women in mainstream feminism and how to talk about transgender people to begin with.
The comment that led to the storm has since been described by its author, Suzanne Moore, as a throwaway line, and, though certainly thoughtless, it was indeed a minor and nonessential component of the essay in which it appeared. In short, in a Jan. 8 piece about the current state of women’s rights activism, Moore described the perfect body that women are expected to have as “that of a Brazilian transsexual.”
A Twitterstorm of criticism ensued, making the point that trans people are victimized and excluded by mainstream feminism. (I am paraphrasing the hostile tone of this debate, which went both ways.) The controversy peaked on Jan. 13, when the Observer published a retort by another writer, Julie Burchill, that included such offensive language about transgender people that the Observer ultimately took it down.
It is obvious that not all women face the same challenges. Every disadvantaged group of humanity has a different history of exclusion and suffers in different ways. How we see ourselves, how others see us and how we believe they see us all have an impact on our experience of discrimination and abuse.
As a result, the two main substantive points in this debate were not mutually exclusive, though they were presented as opposites. On the one hand, it is true that girls are treated differently (in most cases less advantageously) than boys practically everywhere, and that this suffering has an impact on adult women’s self-worth, identity and ability to exercise our rights. It is also true that many transgender individuals suffer a different — and often both violent and invisibilized — type of exclusion throughout their lives, an experience that would color anyone’s understanding of what is safe and what is not. This is so whether we are talking about trans women or trans men.