Eating Bitter: Anti-Transsexual/Transgender Misogyny Within the Feminist and Lesbian Movements

Teresa Reeves left a comment to the post  “Some Songs To Celebrate International Women’s Day”, that people should read.

I grew up Left. Too young for the campaigns for Black Civil Rights during the early 1960s but old enough to answer Mario Savio’s call to put my body against the wheel, to try to stop the war machine that was sending the boys I went to school with off to die and murder in Vietnam.

I came out during the Spring of 1969.  Along with fighting in the battles for People’s Park that spring I joined the feminist marches and attended the feminist rallies on the Berkeley campus.  I was in SDS and went with the Weatherman faction because it was more anarchistic than Progressive Labor and more feminist, with one of the strongest, most charismatic women of the Left, Bernadine Dohrn as a leader of that faction.

I listened to the feminist critiques of society, that all women were of a class and that class was the most oppressed class one could be a member of.  Even though that analysis neglected considering the extra burdens race and poverty put on all the poor and  especially women of color, who were often hit with a double whammy.

I was an obvious transkid, bullied and abused from the cradle until coming out. Contrary to the mythology of doctors demanding that we be stealth, blending into the world of women who were assigned female at birth was for me a survival skill, a way of escaping the extreme prejudice that had made my childhood so painful.

In one of her books Jessica Valenti, who started the blog Feministing wrote, as a child the worst thing you can call a child is a girl. I remember lesbians complaining about being stigmatized as “tomboys” and yet I remembered being labeled a sissy and the physical and emotional abuse that accompanied that label.  While tomboys were non-conformist and may have risked censure for that non-conformity they were also respected,  at least before puberty, and were often granted honorary boy status.

One of the few kids who befriended me and gave me some protection from the kids bullying me was a tough working class, tomboy from down the street.  Her name was Shirley and I remember her and her sister to this day.

Even in mill, factory and mining towns there are caste lines divided by class. My friends were working class because I was working class.  As I said I grew up Left, with class consciousness.

I found places within the hip culture and within the left where class was less stigmatizing than within straight culture, where having been born transsexual was more accepted as just being part of who I was than in straight culture.

On the left people struggled to overcome their prejudices.

Therefore, the Summer of 1969 I was surprised when I was told I did not belong in a women’s liberation group that was forming to study feminism.  Even though I was reading the same books they were. So I continued to hang out with women friends who were just as feminist but who were also committed to the Left.  I listened to Bernadine Dohrn, Ulrike Meinhof, the women of the Panthers, the women of the Red Tribe.

I thought that the feminist critiques of the patriarchy that failed to factor in matters of race and class were rather thin.

Gay Liberation was new and happening that summer of 1969 and I could see how people were discriminated against and oppressed due to their sexuality.

I had known that  since my teenage years when I had learned, I could be arrested for even responding to a man trying to pick me up.  Or how I could be arrested for sport by police who found me to be too gender non conforming even when I was wearing a leather jacket, turtle neck, jeans and cowboy boots.

I didn’t have to be a genius to see the contradiction or question the analysis of AFAB women, particularly middle class or higher class white women claiming to be the most oppressed class at a time when I could be arrested for being, when my whole life had been filled with abuse.

There was  a story about the Chinese peasant women in pre-revolutionary China and their recounting of their lives of misery.  The phrase was “Eating bitter”.

I accepted the criticism that summer of 1969.  After all I still had the left and Weather.

But I wondered about the why and the presumptions.  I had been raped the year before, when guards in the San Francisco City Jail decided that it would be fun to stick me in a cell block where I would be raped rather than in the queen tank. Was my having been raped some how a lesser violation of my being than the rape of a natal female?

But I also thought, I needed to grow, to become, and after all I had family in my cadre and among the hippies and the left.

A year or so later I was reading a local feminist newspaper, I believe it was “It Ain’t Me, Babe”.  It had in it what I believe to be the first public trashing of a woman with transsexualism by a feminist/lesbian publication.  Perhaps you have heard the name, Beth Elliott. At that time I was still part of the fragmented Weather Nation, our leadership was underground, I was involved with a Marine Corp deserter.  Beth on the other hand was a lesbian involved with both the feminist movement and with Daughters of Bilitis.  Those not involved in the trashing of her said she was one of the hardest working and most dedicated members of DOB.

She volunteered where ever and when ever someone was needed, because the years of abuse transkids endure leave us blaming ourselves and thinking if we only try harder people will accept us. Beth was involved in so much from DOB to writing for the Lesbian Tide and helping organize conferences.

Then in 1973 she was publicly trashed at the West Coast Lesbian Conference held at UCLA.  She was attacked by Robin Morgan, verbally and in print (See “Going Too Far”).

We weren’t helped by someone named Angela Douglas, who wasn’t really transsexual but was rather an attention freak and mentally ill ranting and raving, claiming to represent us and picking fights with various feminists. Nor were we much helped by Jan Morris or Renee Richards as they were seen as highly privileged as well as accomplished men who were demanding to be accepted as women.

Trashing in general was a dark side of feminism and was often focused around identity politics.

It was disappointing when certain people engaged in it, like Robin Morgan, Gloria Steinem and Alex Dobkin. It was equally surprising to have Andrea Dworkin write positively regarding us.

There were more of us who were part of both the feminist and lesbian movements than  most people were aware of.  There were more natal women who were supportive than there were trashing us.  Had everyone been hostile Sandy Stone would have never been Olivia Records’ recording engineer and sound person.

At the same time we were excluded from basic services like rape counseling even when we were the victims of rape.  We weren’t included in the services of women’s clinics. If we were in an abusive relationship with another woman we were presumed the guilty party.

Then came Mary Daly and Janice Raymond. Janice Raymond seemed to believe the only paths that should be open to us were denial or suicide which was very Catholic of her but never struck me as very feminist..

If we embraced society’s expectations for women we were accused of creating those stereotypes of perpetuating them.  If we were indistinguishable from our Birkenstock, blue jean and flannel shirt wearing dyke friends then we were somehow disguising ourselves to fit in, subvert and mock the movement women with whom we share politics and lifestyles.   Never mind that with in or without the lesbian community we might well be crunchy hippie feminist women.

I’ve become an old woman.  I am saddened to see the same battles being fought within the lesbian and feminist communities.  They seem like such a waste of time and energy, a sort of cannibalism that prevents the movement from actually confronting oppression in much the same way the wars between transsexual and transgender people prevent our improving the lot of either.

In the mean time many of the women doing the trashing seem to have both class privilege and white skin privilege and often times women with transsexual histories or transgender women are just another minority to be ignored or used as a scapegoat.

In the mean time the general Left seems to often be a more welcoming place for a wider range of people than do the various identity politics forms of feminism or lesbian feminism.

A life time of eating bitter has brought me to the point where  I have learned to say no to abuse.

I do not need a group to be a feminist, I only have to live up to what I see as feminist ideals. I especially do not need to be a part of a group that believes feminism mandates my being verbally or emotionally abused.

I have a life partner. we go to concerts, museums, and travel together.  We have sports we enjoy watching and sports we participate in.  We do not need to belong so much that we feel we must go to events where we are subjected to abuse.

Over the years more and more feminists including lesbian feminists have grown to accept women with a history of transsexualism, although  Transgender Inc has made it harder for us to be accepted as simply women and not as transgender.

I am too old to eat bitter, I have fought too long to not expect a few roses along side of the bread. I do not have to prove myself to some one half my age when the reality is I may well have been female longer than she has been alive.

I know right from wrong. Decency, respect and justice from abuse and injustice that deprives me of my humanity. If I didn’t then perhaps my feminism would be open to question.  If I weren’t willing to stand up for others of my class, who have suffered the same lives filled with abuse that I have then perhaps my commitment to lesbian feminism would be open to question.

I live my feminism.  I speak truth to power.

2 Responses to “Eating Bitter: Anti-Transsexual/Transgender Misogyny Within the Feminist and Lesbian Movements”

  1. tinagrrl Says:

    I was picked on EVERY day in grammar school. From the 1st grade to the 8th grade. I made a decision to “become a boy” in High School, etc., etc., etc.

    Though I always WANTED to be accepted — I really never knew when, or if, I was. There was always that shadow of past abuse hanging over my head. It was as if I ALWAYS had to hide — because, if you knew …………………

    Eventually that led to my becoming a loner – or, if not quite a loner, someone who never made really close friends, someone who always hid some part of myself. As open as I appeared, you NEVER got to my core, whoever you were.

    In many ways, that experience serves me well today.

    I support the goals of the LGB communities even though many in them have no use for me. Those goals suit me.

    I support the goals of the various T communities even if I do not see myself part of, or represented by, those communities.

    I don’t have to be an active member of ANY community to support its goals. It doesn’t matter if they accept me or not. I’m accustomed to my own company.

    In fact, I’m lucky to have a partner I love, and who loves me.

    Neither the lesbian, gay, trans, or any other “community” speak for me — I speak for me.

  2. queenemily Says:

    Thanks for this Suzan, wonderful post. It’s all too easy for us younger women who weren’t there to talk only about the history of exclusion and hate screeds, without also remembering the more complex history of trans acceptance in feminist, lesbian and leftist communities and the many cis people who *weren’t* prejudiced.


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