Feminist Transphobia, Feminist Rhetoric: From Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminism to HB 2 (@theTable: Transcending Transphobia)
By Siobhan Kelly.
The field of feminist studies in religion has failed to live up to its liberatory potential when it comes to trans* inclusion and liberation. As a young scholar of religion whose gender differs from its binary assignment at birth, feminism, to me, is supposed to be a place to find home; its failures are personal, as are its successes. However, no movement is ever perfect, and accountability and adaptation are central to feminist spaces. Today, as we unveil Feminist Studies in Religion’s updated publishing standards and website language that promote greater inclusion, we must also look backward at sites of failure in the feminist movement at large, especially in religion. FSR reinvigorates our call to trans inclusion in the classroom, the academy, the feminist movement, and beyond. As a feminist organization that publishes original work, it is our mission to continue to push against approaches to academia that refuse to recognize the many varied ways of being in the world. This includes problematic approaches once found in the canon of feminist studies in religion, which we must work to eradicate.
While policy changes for equitable and inclusive publishing are important, it is equally necessary for accountability to take place. The brand of transphobia located in some feminist religious discourses is now being repackaged into the rhetoric used by supporters of the legal exclusion of trans people, such as by North Carolina’s HB 2. This lineage of trans-exclusive feminist thought can be traced from its nascence in the field of religion into many arenas over the last forty years. To move forward to new, inclusive feminist futures, we must become aware of the field’s own failures, and their widespread repercussions today.
Central to the lineage of trans*-exclusive radical feminism is the relationship between scholars of religion Mary Daly and Janice Raymond, and their rhetorical legacy present in political discourse today. Janice Raymond is a well-known figure in the realm of trans-exclusive radical feminism, captured clearly in her 1979 book (reissued in 1994), The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Many of my forbears have criticized this book before. Still to this day, this work’s feminist lineage has tendrils that have infiltrated politics and the academy. This is not to say they are the sole harbingers of transphobia in feminist religious studies by any means—yet their work has had, and continues to have an immense and negative impact.
Janice Raymond is trained in feminist studies in religion. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies from Andover Newton Theological Seminary and a PhD in Ethics and Society from Boston College, where she studied under Mary Daly. Raymond’s acknowledgments in The Transsexual Empire show how far ranging this trans-exclusive feminist network is, and where these scholars’ influence is still felt. Acknowledgements are addressed to prominent feminists including Andrea Dworkin (who commented on a chapter entitled “Sappho by Surgery: The Transsexually Constructed Lesbian-Feminist”), and Adrienne Rich (“a very special friend and critic”), as just two examples (x). Mary Daly’s influence on this text cannot be overstated: the dedication of the book is a short poem to Mary Daly, and Raymond says, “I hope the dedication of this book adequately expresses the gratitude I owe to Mary Daly… It is difficult for me to separate my words and ideas from her own” (ix). Daly is cited over ten times and warrants her own mention in the book’s index. Additionally, this book originated from a presentation at the American Academy of Religion’s New England meeting in 1972—from its nascence, this book is tied up in a history of religious studies, and specifically feminist religious studies (vii). I use these myriad examples and quotes to show a lineage of feminist thinkers that participated in and contributed to transphobia both within academia and beyond. This is not to say these authors cannot be read in reparative ways or did not make important contributions to their fields; however, to ignore participation in transphobia is to selectively remember these thinkers. Their legacy does not remain siloed in feminist religious discourse, but branches out into poetry, cultural criticism, and, in Raymond’s own career, medical ethics. Some feminists have altered their views: I reached out to feminist religious scholar Emily Culpepper, who is also briefly referenced in The Transsexual Empire. She said that “Since the power of naming and the right to name one’s self is a hallmark of liberation movements, I readily supported and adopted this new language,” disavowing transphobic language once alternatives became available to her. Feminist accountability, however, requires that we make networks of exclusion and hatred within feminism known and work to correct their influence.
Perhaps most terrifyingly, the logics at work in The Transsexual Empire do not remain contained to the text. We see the same rhetoric that Raymond and Daly use taken up in the political arena, to justify anti-trans* practices and policies. This feminist opposition to trans* inclusion and liberation has been used to bolster arguments in favor of discriminatory practices such as North Carolina’s HB 2. HB 2 relies upon an idea of safety contingent upon an idea that transfeminine people in ‘women’s’ restrooms are ‘men in dresses,’ more specifically ‘male predators in dresses.’ This predatory fear mongering echoes Raymond’s work, where she accuses transfeminine people of “raping” womanhood: she says, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves” (104). Turning to affective resonance through appeals to safety, the Christian Right and conservative politicians redeploy the rhetoric found in Raymond’s and Daly’s feminist religious work. Their logic and its redeployment facilitate a culture in which transfeminine people, especially transfeminine people of color, are not only excluded from public spaces and discriminated against, but also are murdered at astonishing rates and experience our own sexual violence at rates of about 50%.
In one citation of Daly in The Transsexual Empire, Raymond writes: “as Mary Daly has remarked, in the case of the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminists their whole presence becomes a “member” invading women’s presence and dividing us once more from each other” (104). The presence of transfeminine people in the bathroom that makes them feel most safe, using this Raymond and Daly’s logic, “invad[es] women’s presence.” In the words of a coalition supporting HB 2, “policies that allow men to enter restrooms and locker rooms designated for women and girls creates uncertainty in a setting where women should feel safe and it provides access to victims when they are most vulnerable.” In both cases, the authors use the idea of protecting ‘women’s spaces’ against a specter of sexual violence to justify discrimination. Raymond, under the influence of Daly, pioneered the use of this logic to discriminate against trans* people in debates around feminist women’s spaces—a trajectory from feminist religious discourse to HB 2 is thus charted.
Perhaps, some readers may agree with Daly and Raymond—perhaps, my presence in a feminist organization makes me “’a member’ invading women’s spaces,” me being one of these monstrous creatures described by Daly, Raymond, so many other feminist thinkers, and by politicians across America who are picking up on their work. Perhaps, criticism of well-renowned feminist titans will be unwelcome—another form of ‘invasion’ of a rose-colored feminist history. However, I believe it is necessary that we recognize that feminist religious scholarship is partly responsible for contemporary political rhetorics of safety and exclusion that make my life, and the lives of so many like and unlike me, so much more precarious.
I write this post from a café with sex-segregated bathrooms. I used the bathroom twice while editing this draft.
Siobhan Kelly is a Masters of Theological Studies candidate at Harvard Divinity School, focusing on Women, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion. They have worked nationally on campus sexual violence, and their academic work focuses on trans* studies and sexual ethics. They are Co-Managing Editor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and can be reached on Twitter: @john_m_kelly.
Next: Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, “Exploring Non-binary Transgender as the place of Nepantla” (Part 3)
Back: @theTable: “Transcending Transphobia” and Open Call for Submissions