Diving Into the Wreck: Trans and Anti-Trans Feminism

by Joy Ladin

In summer 2000, Emi Koyama’s influential “Transfeminist Manifesto” defined trans feminism as “a movement by and for trans women who view their liberation to be intrinsically linked to the liberation of all women and beyond” (245). For Koyama, and for many trans and non-trans feminists since, trans feminism is a no-brainer, one among many efforts to “broaden” feminism to include “women who had previously been marginalized within the mainstream of the feminist movement” (244).

But fifteen years after Koyama strove to establish trans feminism as a variety of intersectional feminism, the relationship between feminism and trans feminism, and, more importantly, between the liberation of trans women and the liberation of all women, is anything but settled. All too often, online and off, the interaction of trans and non-trans feminists is marked by hate speech, threats, exclusions and counter-exclusions, accusations and counter-accusations of violence and violation.

For some anti-trans feminists, often referred to as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” or “radfems,” enraged opposition to trans inclusion and trans identity is so central to their feminism that it can be hard to distinguish their feminism from their transphobia. But as Elinor Burkett’s widely-shared 2015 New York Times editorial, “What Makes a Woman?” showed, even feminists who repudiate transphobia and acknowledge the oppression of transgender people may share the view that there is an inherent opposition between trans and feminist ideas of gender. Many also believe that inclusion of trans women (people born and raised male who identify as female) under feminism’s intersectional umbrella weakens the feminist movement by blurring the unifying concept of “woman” that has long been the basis for feminist critique, solidarity and action. On the other side are trans and non-trans feminists who argue that all feminists should support what Koyama called the first principle of trans feminism: “that each individual has the right to define her or his own identity and to expect society to respect it. This also includes the right to express our gender without fear of discrimination or violence” (245).

The argument between trans and anti-trans feminists over what “woman” and “feminism” mean, or should mean, has continued since the 1970’s with little progress toward common ground, understanding, or even respectful dialogue. In 2000, Koyama based her argument for trans feminism on an idealistic portrayal of a feminism that embraces “the ultimate virtues of inclusive coalition politics,” despite the challenges posed by recognition of “previously marginalized” perspectives: “When[ever] a group of women who had been previously marginalized within the mainstream of the feminist movement broke their silence, demanding their rightful place within it, they were first accused of fragmenting feminism…, and then were eventually accepted and welcomed…” (244). While many non-trans feminists have indeed “accepted and welcomed” trans women, when trans and anti-trans feminists collide, Koyama’s vision of a movement that would naturally include trans women founders and sinks beneath the various feminist waves.

I have often been on the receiving end of anti-trans feminist rhetoric. But rather than repeating the trans feminist critique of this rhetoric – and repeating the failures of this critique to move beyond argument toward dialogue – I want to “dive into the wreck,” as Adrienne Rich’s famous poem put it, and explore the collision between trans feminism and anti-trans feminism, in order to

… see the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun  (23-24)

For trans and anti-trans feminists alike, “the story of the wreck” often begins with Janice Raymond’s 1979 book-length polemic, The Transsexual Empire: the Making of the She-Male, which famously argued that people born male were not and could never become women, and that trans women (or, as Raymond calls us, “male-to-constructed females” or “she-males”) who identify as feminists should be treated as patriarchal infiltrators threatening feminism from within. Raymond’s terms seem dated – even anti-trans feminists who, like Raymond, indulge in overtly transphobic hyperbole don’t refer to “the transsexual empire” any more.  But as Burkett’s “What Makes a Woman?” shows, even feminists who acknowledge that transgender people are oppressed and who at least nominally support transgender rights – that is, the sort of feminists who Koyama believed should welcome trans feminists into the intersectional feminist coalition – may share Raymond’s view that trans women represent a threat to feminism:

People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women … shouldn’t get to define us. That’s something men have been doing for much too long. And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman.

For Burkett, as for Raymond, feminist recognition of trans women (or, as she calls us, “people who haven’t lived their whole lives as women”) undermines the definition of “woman” on which feminist solidarity and critique of patriarchy is based, minimizing the role of female bodies and life experience in determining who is a woman, and empowering people born and raised male to claim, along with other privileges that go with being born and raised male, the privilege of redefining “woman” to fit our own needs.

For many trans women, these arguments are so hurtful and so hateful that it is hard to consider them as arguments. We have our own “story of the wreck,” one that starts from our experience of maleness not as a privilege but as an oppressive, aggressively enforced imposition that contradicts and violates our sense of who we are. We affirm our individual, unverifiable sense of femaleness as both a private site of resistance to this oppressive gender regime and as the cornerstone of our identities, a truth for which we risk, and sometimes lose, our lives. In this story, anti-trans feminists are oppressors rather than liberators, bullying supporters of the brutal binary gender regime that holds that our genitals and chromosomes matter more than our souls, so that no matter who we know ourselves to be, we are always and only the gender assigned on the basis of the sex of our bodies.

Trans and anti-trans feminists regularly point out that both strains of feminism represent contradictory, mutually exclusive definitions of feminism and gender itself.  But as Talia Bettcher argues, these conflicting “stories of the wreck” are intertwined. Indeed, Bettcher’s account suggests that trans and anti-trans feminism grew out of one another, like the hands in M.C. Escher’s famous etching.

It’s easy to see anti-trans feminism as a response to trans feminists’ efforts to be recognized and included as women; indeed, that is the way anti-trans feminists tell their “stories of the wreck,” which present anti-trans feminist views as efforts to defend feminism against trans women.

Bettcher’s claim that trans feminism was both inspired and shaped by anti-trans feminism is more surprising. According to Bettcher, Janice Raymond’s Transsexual Empire not only crystallized anti-trans feminist arguments; it also “represented the hostile face of feminism in opposition to which trans studies and politics grew” (5; italics in the original). As Bettcher points out, there is a clear kinship between Raymond’s anti-trans arguments in The Transsexual Empire and the pioneering theories of transgender identity of Sandy Stone and Kate Bornstein:

[T]here is a perverse sense in which the emerging transgender politics of the nineties endorsed many of the points that Raymond herself had made. There was agreement that the medical model of transsexuality serves to perpetuate sexist norms (Raymond 1979, 92; Stone 1991, 290), and that transsexuality is not a pathological condition but arises, rather, as a consequence of an oppressive gender system (Raymond 1979, 115; Bornstein 1994, 118). There was even agreement that bodily dysphoria, which motivates surgical intervention, would disappear in a culture that had no gender oppression (Raymond 1979, 119; Bornstein 1994, 70). (4-5)

According to Bettcher, the “endorsement” of these aspects of anti-trans feminism shaped the model of gender that has become the basis for most trans theory and activism: the idea that “gender [should be seen] as freely [and individually] chosen,” self-determined rather than socially defined, and expressed without regard to (and preferably, for Stone, in opposition to) binary gender conventions (9). Bettcher dubs this the “beyond-the-binary model” of gender.

If Bettcher is right, then “in a perverse sense,” theories of trans identity that are based on the beyond-the-binary model derive in part from the anti-trans feminism represented by Raymond. As Bettcher shows, that is certainly true of trans feminism, whose first principle, in Koyama’s vision, follows the beyond-the-binary model in holding that “each individual has the right to define her or his  own identity and to expect society to respect it” (245).

But as Bettcher points out, the beyond-the-binary principle that gender is (or should be) entirely self-determined represents “a form of voluntarism that is incompatible” with feminist conceptions of gender as “social” and “relational.” The beyond-the-binary model conceives of gender as something we do by and for ourselves, while feminism’s critiques of gender oppression are based on the idea that gender is something we do with and to one another. In this regard, too, the beyond-the-binary model follows anti-trans feminism, by magnifying the incompatibility of trans identities with the social and relational conceptions of gender that underwrite feminist analyses of “gender and sexual norms” (9). As a result, according to Bettcher, “the beyond-the-binary model has foreclosed a genuinely intersectional trans feminism” (1).

Despite their “incompatibility,” however, many trans feminists follow Koyama in pledging allegiance to both the social/relational and the beyond-the-binary models of gender. Indeed, for people like me, who were born, raised and lived much of our lives as males but identify and present ourselves as women, each model underwrites key aspects of our identities. In basing my gender identity on my female gender identification rather than my male birth and socialization, I am embracing the beyond-the-binary principle that my gender is a matter of self-determination rather than social assignment. But to express my female gender identification – to live and be seen as a woman – I rely on signifiers (such as the word “woman”) that are socially and relationally defined.

Like Koyama’s definition of trans feminism, my identity as a trans woman is based on contradictory models of gender. That makes it difficult to include me within any version of feminism, however intersectional, that is based on only one of those models. Rather than simply asserting that trans feminism should be welcomed by non-trans feminists, trans feminists need to follow Bettcher’s lead in confronting the ways in which the beyond-the-binary model of gender contradicts the social/relational model.

The contradictions between these models of gender are not merely theoretical. They often lead to practical disagreements, such as those voiced  in a 2015 New York Times editorial page debate about whether birth certificates should continue to record the sex of infants even though some of those infants will later identify in ways other than the sex to which they are assigned at birth. Transgender activist Tiq Milan, following the beyond-the-binary model, argued that birth certificates should no longer record sex:

It’s ringing true for many people that gender is self-determined and not something defined by a doctor or government agency. It makes most sense to believe someone when they tell you their gender. I didn’t choose to be labeled female at birth. That was a fixed idea based on the way a doctor viewed my body. I had no say in the matter.

Linda McClain, following the social/relational model that has been the basis for most feminist thinking, argued that we must continue to record sex on birth certificates in order to track and remedy sex-based discrimination:

Whether it’s male, female or other, there are legitimate reasons for using the category of “sex”; indeed, one powerful reason is to document, and fix, gaps in equality. Girls and women still experience discrimination and disadvantage on the basis of sex.

Both Milan and McClain agree that the question of whether or not to record sex on birth certificates is highly consequential, but because their approaches to that question reflect different models of gender, they not only disagree about the answer, but even about what is at stake in the question. If, per the beyond-the-binary model, we see gender as self-determined, then no one’s gender should be assigned without their consent. But if we see gender as a social system whose inequities, for many people, begin at birth, we need records that tell us not how infants will self-identify but the gender by which others identify them, so that we can track and address those inequities. There is no obvious way to resolve this disagreement. Each answer is “right” in terms of the model of gender on which it is based, and each model reflects some of the ways in which gender is lived.

Trans feminists have a tendency to equate anti-trans feminism with transphobia and other prejudice, but as the debate over birth certificates shows, opposition to trans feminist positions may also reflect the conflict between the beyond-the-binary and social/relational models of gender, and the different approaches to real-world problems each model implies.

Are Janice Raymond and her anti-trans sisters right? Is trans feminism an oxymoron, because trans liberation and feminist liberation are based on models of gender that contradict and vitiate one another?

The answer, I’m happy to say, is “no.” But to reach that answer, we need to dive deeper into the wreck, past the mutually enraging stories of trans and anti-trans feminists, to recover “the drowned face always staring / toward the sun”: the face of the feminism that gave birth to both trans and anti-trans feminism and is too often “drowned” by the conflict between them.

We can glimpse that face in Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, the 1973 collection which, as Elizabeth Hirsch notes, marked a “constitutive moment in feminist self-expression” (118). Many of the poems in Diving into the Wreck portray gender from a social/relational perspective that assumes that binary terms such as “man” and “woman” have stable, widely understood meanings. Thanks to this assumption, the widely anthologized “Trying to Talk with a Man” is able to portray the dynamics of male and female communications without offering a single indication of the gender of the speaker or addressee after the word “man” in the title (3). Because, according to the social/relational model, the phrase “trying to talk with a man” tells us that the speaker is not a man, the speaker must be a woman.

But Rich doesn’t simply reproduce binary gender assumptions; she uses the social/relational model of gender to critique them. Since “man” and “woman” in this poem are socially rather than individually defined, the single man addressed in the poem represents all men, and the speaker’s difficulties in “trying” to talk with him reflects difficulties all women face in talking with men.

But by holding up male and female roles up for critique, Rich implicitly redefines “woman,” staking out a perspective and speaking with an authority beyond those afforded by the traditional gender binary. The man in the poem may represent all men in the traditional binary sense, but the speaker represents the potential for women to speak from a position outside the traditional roles afforded to women. Other poems in the collection, such as “When We Dead Awaken,” make this potential explicit, portraying women in the act of re-imagining what it means to be a woman:

….even you, fellow-creature, sister,
sitting across from me, dark with love…
working with me to remake
this trailing knitted thing, this cloth of darkness,
this woman’s garment, trying to save the skein. (5)

Even anti-trans feminists like Raymond embrace this sort of “remaking” of gender as central to feminism. (Indeed, Raymond’s lesbian feminism represented a radical “remaking” of the traditional definition of “woman.”) As Rich’s poem suggests, feminist efforts to remake “woman” are collaborative, something women do together, rather than an expression of individual identity or freedom. Like the “remaking” described  in this poem, these efforts combine the effort to redefine “woman” with a small “c” conservative desire to “save the skein,” to preserve the winding, knotted thread that connects one woman to another.

Like “Trying to Talk with a Man” and “When We Dead Awaken,” most of the poems in Diving into the Wreck reflect the social/relational model of gender. But in the title poem, Rich explicitly embraces an individualistic, beyond-the-binary subject position. The speaker of “Diving into the Wreck” identifies as both “mermaid” and “merman,” “he” and “she,” or, as the speaker of another poem in this section of the collection, “The Stranger,” puts it, as an “androgyne.” :

… I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
I am she: I am he
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot (24)

Compared with today’s cornucopia of beyond-the-binary identities, Rich’s “androgyne” seems dated, a simplistic combination of male and female signifiers. Rich uses the subject position of the “androgyne” for rhetorical and theoretical purposes, as a signifier of human possibilities excluded by the gender binary rather than as a representation of actual trans people, lives or identities – a move Bettcher and others have pointed out is characteristic of the discussion of transgender figures in queer theory. For Rich, the “androgyne” embodies possibilities that have been lost in the wreck: sunken treasure “left to rot,” “the half-destroyed instruments” that, according to the speaker, “we” both discover in the wreck, and “are.” In other words, Rich presents the beyond-the-binary “androgyne” subject position as an act of feminist imagination that enables the speaker (and all whom the speaker represents) to rediscover and reclaim what has been lost in the depths beyond gender’s either-or binary formulation.

As Hirsch notes, Rich soon repudiated this imaginary beyond-the-binary subject position: “Rich’s next published volume, The Dream of a Common Language, turned back on such tropes, asserting, `These are words I cannot choose again: I humanism androgyny’ [1978, 66]” (135). Rich’s change of attitude isn’t surprising. As Jennifer Finney Boylan and other trans critics have pointed out, Rich, who “counseled Raymond during the writing of 1979‘s execrable Transsexual Empire,” is “credited by Raymond in the forward … as having provided `constant encouragement.’”  By the time Rich was cheering on the composition of The Transsexual Empire, imagining a subject position that was neither simply male or female had come to seem incompatible with the anti-trans feminism she and Raymond shared – a form of feminism that, as Raymond memorably demonstrated, is so deeply invested in the gender binary that it perceives transgender identity as an existential threat.

Rich’s ambivalent engagement with “the androgyne” in Diving into the Wreck is characteristic of a phenomenon Judith Butler would point out almost two decades later at the beginning of Gender Trouble: the tendency of feminist thinking based on the social/relational model of gender to move toward beyond-the-binary thinking:

Contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism. (vii)

According to Butler, feminist discussions often bring up the sorts of existential anxieties that Raymond and other anti-trans feminists see as being embodied in trans women, because feminist “troubling” of the social/relational “meanings of gender” tends to destabilize binary categories and lead to a sense of “the indeterminacy of gender.” Butler, of course, celebrates the “gender trouble” that she portrays as worrying many other feminist thinkers and activists. But whether we see this as a good or bad thing for feminism, Butler’s observation suggests that beyond-the-binary thinking represents neither an assault on feminism by transgender interlopers, as anti-trans feminists insist, nor a minority perspective that intersectional feminists should acknowledge and respect, as Koyama and other trans feminists argue: beyond-the-binary thinking is built into feminism.

To be any sort of feminist is to imagine that “female,” “girl” and “woman” can mean something other than they have meant in the past. And because in the binary gender system, each gender defines and is defined by the other, to declare that “female,” “girl” and “woman” do not have to mean what they have meant in the past is to declare that “male,” “boy” and “man” are not fixed either, that their meanings can change in ways that we may not yet be able to imagine or articulate. To be a feminist, then, is to see gender not as an inescapable binary prison in which we are all serving life sentences, but as a range of possibilities, known and unknown, among which, as Emily Dickinson would say, we dwell. Whenever feminists explore those possibilities, they are thinking beyond the traditional gender binary.

But as we see in Diving into the Wreck, when feminists imagine possibilities beyond the gender binary, they tend to do so not in opposition to but through engagement with the social/relational binary gender terms that continue to define the identities and lives of most human beings. To successfully resist patriarchal oppression, feminists must re-imagine gender-binary-based social structures – think beyond the binary – in ways that redress current inequities; as McClain points out, recognizing those inequities requires us to continue to use binary “categories of sex” to distinguish between women’s lives and men’s lives, and thus register the effects of sexism and misogyny. We see a similar combination of beyond-the-binary and social/relational thinking about gender in feminist efforts to “remake” the traditional binary concept of woman so that identifying as a woman gives individuals maximum freedom of gender expression and self-determination, while saving the social/relational skein that connects women to one another.

Because all forms of feminism require both social/relational and beyond-the-binary thinking about gender, when we “dive into the wreck,” we find a deep kinship between trans and anti-trans feminists. Both trans and anti-trans feminists believe that we can and must remake traditional binary definitions of what it means to be a woman, while embracing “woman” as an essential term both for recognizing and critiquing patriarchal oppression, and for identifying, expressing, empowering and committing ourselves.

When we recognize this kinship, we glimpse the “drowned face [that] sleeps with open eyes” in the wreck of trans and anti-trans feminist collisions: the face of the capacious feminism that that birthed and comprehends them both, the feminism that embraces both beyond-the-binary imagination and social/relational gender identification as necessary, complementary, interdependent modes of thinking.

The voice of this ur-feminism tends to be drowned out by the bitter arguments between trans and anti-trans feminists, but in Rich’s “The Stranger,” we hear it loud and clear, a “living mind” inditing our “dead language” of identity and reminding us of the ever-present, inexhaustible possibilities of the verb “to be” which survive despite, and among, and within, us:

if I come into a room out of the sharp misty light
and hear them talking a dead language
if they ask me my identity
what can I say but
I am the androgyne
I am the living mind you fail to describe
in your dead language
the lost noun, the verb surviving
only in the infinitive
the letters of my name are written under the lids
of the newborn child (19)

Bettcher, Talia. “Intersexuality, Transgender, and Transsexuality.” In The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory. Ed. Lisa Disch and Mary Hawkesworth. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015. Oxford Handbooks Online.
Boylan, Jennifer Finney. “’What Kind of Times are These?’: On Adrienne Rich and Trans-Misogyny.” Web. April 18, 2012.
Burkett, Elinor. “What Makes a Woman?” The New York Times. Web. June 6, 2015.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. NY: Routledge, 1990.
Hirsh, Elizabeth. “Another Look at Genre: Diving into the Wreck of Ethics with Rich and Irigaray.” In Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory. Ed. Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan P, 1994. 117-138.
Koyama, Emi. “Transfeminist Manifesto.” In Catching a Wave: reclaiming feminism for the 21st century. Boston: Northeastern UP, 2003.
McClain, Linda. “Categorizing By Sex is a Remedy for Discrimination.” The New York Times. Web. October 19, 2014.
Milan, Tiq. “Why Should a Government Tell Me Who I Am?” The New York Times. Web. October 19, 2014.
Raymond, Janice. The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Athene Series. Teachers College Press, 1994.
Rich, Adrienne. Diving into the Wreck: Poems, 1971-1972. NY: W.W. Norton, 1973.
Joy Ladin is the author of seven books of poetry, including Lambda Literary Award finalists Impersonation and Transmigration; two new collections, Fireworks in the Graveyard (Headmistress Press) and The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow Press) are coming out in 2017. Her memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life, was a 2012 National Jewish Book Award finalist. Her work has been recognized with a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship, among other honors. She holds the Gottesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University. Her poems and essays are available at joyladin.com.

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