3 min

You make me feel

On Thu, Mar 8, International Women’s Day (IWD) will roll around for the 99th time. It’ll mark a decade since the first time I participated. I didn’t know then about the socialist roots of the event and how global it had become.

Ten years ago, I only knew I’d be performing at the University Of Toronto for some women’s event. I admit, I hadn’t heard of IWD before. Most of the women’s activities I’d been involved in were queer and club-oriented. Feminist scenes interested me, but they scared me, too. Like the women’s symbols on bathroom doors, they felt like a “keep out” sign. I think I mentally associated IWD with IUD. Both seemed like private issues I had no business knowing about.

The topic still makes me nervous. Asking a trans woman about her relationship to feminism is like asking a mouse about its relationship to cats. Maybe it’ll work… but you never know. Rahne Alexander, a Baltimore transsexual musician, covers “(You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman,” singing instead, “You make me feel like a hideous mutant.” I see her point.

Trans women’s skepticism toward feminism is not unwarranted. Most of the negative representation of trans women out there is perpetuated in the name of feminism. It’s hard to forget Janice Raymond’s charming portrayal of us “male-to-constructed-females” from 1979: “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” She’s far from alone in her feminist transphobic bitterness.

Trans activist and performance artist Mirha-Soleil Ross picks up on transphobic feminism in her play Yapping Out Loud. Her feminist-professional character condemns both prostitution and transsexuality, yelling “It’s very simple! And if you’re not simple-minded, you won’t understand it!”

Some recent feminist/transsexual peace initiatives do sound impressive. The amazing intersex activist Emi Koyama introduced transfeminism in 2001 which has become a fairly solid branch of its own. But I still think it’s kind of like goth yodelling. If you’ve heard of it, you’re probably one of the people doing it.

The clash between feminism and transsexuality became very real for me when I was working for an international women’s rights organization. When they decided to bring a prominent scholar into the organization, guess whose name came up first? The aforementioned Janice Raymond. I quit when my objections to their discriminatory trans policies went unaddressed.

This isn’t just a Canadian issue. The British National Union Of Students has a women’s caucus, which indeed accepts trans women members. But as of 2001, the catch was that you had to have had sex reassignment surgery — and then wait seven months before joining. I guess neo-vaginas have a seven-month gestation period in the UK.

Now just five weeks before IWD, the Vancouver Rape Relief has managed to definitively exclude Kimberly Nixon (and any other trans women) from its organization. For 12 years Nixon had been trying to win the right to volunteer at the shelter, which expelled her on the basis of her transsexuality in 1995. On Feb 1, the Supreme Court Of Canada declined to hear her case, effectively allowing women’s centres across Canada to discriminate against trans women. Vancouver Rape Relief’s website announces their relief at finally having a “safe and secure environment.”

Should trans women just brush ourselves off and move on? I think we can do better than that. A lot of positive interactions happen between trans and nontrans women, even on political levels, and there are ways to learn from them.

As I said, my introduction to IWD happened because of an invitation to perform, not because I clawed my way into some nasty lair. I’ve had good experiences since then. Many Toronto queer women’s spaces have been trans-inclusive for a long time. Pussy Palace, the UofT women’s centre (which went nameless for years while looking for some gender-inclusive name), CUPE’s “trans-identified, women-identified” caucus at York University and the Dyke March all reach out to trans women. The York University centre for women and trans people has cancelled events when facilitators refused trans participants. Pretty impressive.

And the perennial trans exclusion from the Michigan Women’s Music Festival? In 2002, I recorded an audio documentary on Michfest and its protest counterpart Camp Trans. A secret agent at Michfest asked women if they supported trans inclusion at the festival. Only 7 of 62 respondents wanted to keep trans women out.

There’s an encouraging pattern here. Most of my bad experiences were with large institutions that had rigid, older ideologies. The better experiences were on smaller levels — no larger than universities, and generally with a younger membership. The individuals at Michfest were more supportive than the policies were. University women’s centres were more inclusive than their national associations were. Small women’s music events were more welcoming than larger festivals were.

It’s time for the positive attitudes of individuals and small groups to filter up to institutional and policy levels. Feminist attacks on trans women don’t represent the attitudes of most women I encounter. One way to integrate trans and nontrans women in feminist spaces is to be sure that the higher levels of organizations stay tuned in its creative and forward-looking members.

I’ll have a lot of friends participating in the march at this year’s IWD. So what am I doing? It turns out I have a doctor’s appointment that day. Maybe it’s symbolic that I’ll be recuperating. The day really is about women moving forward from past injustices.