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Forging a trans-feminist philosophy

New essay collection seeks to transform gender

WE'RE NO ANGELS: Non-trans queer and feminist communities have not exactly been welcoming and supportive to trans people, says Krista Scott-Dixon, editor of Trans/forming Feminisms. Credit: Xtra West files

If you search them out, politics can be found everywhere.

Seeing a poster that’s advertising a lecture at UBC’s Women’s and Gender Studies Centre, for example, readers might envision a stately chamber appointed with cedar details and West Coast art-when in actuality, it’s a forlorn, portable building whose impoverished aesthetic suggests the university’s priorities are decidedly elsewhere.

Similarly, noticing that the small audience gathered to hear a lecture about a hybrid of transgender activism and feminist theory is mostly populated by non-transgendered scholars does prompt a question or two about the ability of ivory tower workers to take their ideas to the street.

Those political matters were not a visible concern to Krista Scott-Dixon, a York University lecturer who appeared at UBC on Dec 8 to talk about other political ideas in her new book, Trans/forming Feminisms: Trans-Feminist Voices Speak Out.

Though she’d arrived from the airport only minutes earlier, an upbeat Scott-Dixon spoke enthusiastically about her book, from its inception to its numerous goals.

At the onset, she made it plain that one of the principal goals of her project was “bringing people in”-which is to say she wanted the essays to be accessible to people other than those few scholars conversant in abstract theory-speak.

“Theory has its place,” she says, “but I feel that scholars who work on social justice issues have to be able to communicate things so that non-academics can understand. Otherwise, we just end up speaking to a very small selected group-and you know what, a lot of it is very boring, too!”

Her collection brings people in admirably.

Over five sections, Scott-Dixon incorporates an impressively broad selection of topical essays. They range from discussions of transphobia, inclusive language and spirituality, to examinations of gender-via-surgery, “lawyering for trans people” and even the ethics of exclusion at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival.

There’s also a lively rant against oppression in mainstream feminism and an exploration of “hierarchies of legitimacy in the trans communities” by Alaina Hardie, who as Scott-Dixon’s special guest, had flown in with her from Toronto.

In short, Scott-Dixon’s collection, in moving from abstract theorizing to practical matters and then back again, offers her assortment of readers abundant material to suit individual needs.

Scott-Dixon knows that gender and sexuality are “gut-level issues,” and considers education key, particularly for those whose awareness might have been created by a mixture of ancient prejudices and media images.

“Many people are surprised to find out that female-to-male trans people even exist,” she notes. “Their idea of what a trans person is comes from movies like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and TransAmerica, or worse, Jerry Springer. They might only have a very basic understanding, and they might not realize how much diversity exists among trans people.”

And though it may be tempting for queers to consider themselves progressive and categorically distinct from rabid Jerry Springer fans, Scott-Dixon believes we’re no angels, either.

“I’d like to say that the non-trans queer and feminist communities have been welcoming and supportive to trans people, since you might think they’re natural allies, but that’s not the case.”

While she acknowledges that “many, many” queers have been wonderfully welcoming and progressive, she also cites a number of examples that illustrate how “supremely transphobic and hurtful” feminists and gay women and men can be.

“What should a feminist trans woman do when she can’t enter a woman’s space to which she is politically and personally committed,” Scott-Dixon asks. “Or when a feminist trans man, who’s now a straight man, gets rejected from the feminist communities that he may have been part of earlier as a lesbian?”

As non-trans herself, Scott-Dixon was long aware that her choice to speak about trans issues with authority could be viewed as somehow ethically suspect, an act of appropriation. Eventually she forged ahead because the benefits seemed more significant than the shortcoming.

“I came up with this project several years ago and waited for someone else to do it, because I didn’t think it was my place to take it on. I figured someone much more qualified and appropriate would do it. I waited and waited and nothing seemed to appear,” she explains.

“So I thought, fine, I’ll just give it a shot. At the very least it’ll be something. And then, maybe, someone will be so upset by it, or so inspired, that they’ll do something else, or 20 something elses, that makes it better.”

While part of Scott-Dixon’s motivation for the collection was the “strong desire to tell the stories that weren’t getting told,” there were other strong emotions that gave her further impetus.

“In a way this book was an act of love, dedicated to the trans people who are part of my family, my friends, and my colleagues. In another way, it was an act of anger. I was angry at non-trans feminists who were hostile to trans people, and I was angry about all the crap that trans people had to deal with on a daily basis.”

Among the manifold pressures most trans people face on a daily basis, Scott-Dixon cites problems related to poverty, violence, alienation, psychological distress, substance abuse, and health care.

Still, Trans/forming Feminism is a hopeful collection, almost utopian. It seems fitting, then, to ask Scott-Dixon about a future world that might learn from and adopt trans-feminist discourse.

“One thing that I hope is that we will come to realize the incredible social and biological diversity of humans, which has always existed regardless of whether we choose to notice it,” she says.

“Some people have suggested that to adopt trans-feminism means the end of gender identity,” she continues, “but I see the opposite: that we’ll come up with many more ways to do things, and understand that all of them are okay-that in fact diversity and variation is normal, natural and very desirable. I hope that we’ll have more words for things, and more concepts to understand the world.”