hile the lives and struggles of transgender people remain largely invisible
to the mainstream, trans people have long been an active part of feminist
organizing and progressive movements. Women’s groups and spaces, from rape
crisis centers to music festivals, are increasingly working to create new
policies and practices to include and integrate people who identify as
transgender and transsexual. The politics of trans inclusion can offer
opportunities to expand the meaning of feminism and broaden the scope of
women’s social justice work.
The Trans Inclusion Project, part of the 519 Church Street Community Center
in Toronto (“the 519”), works with women’s anti- violence organizations
to help women-only services become trans- inclusive. Since its founding
6 years ago, the project has worked with over 200 women’s organizations
across Ontario to train staff and board members and make specific policy
Camp Trans outside the Michigan Womyn’s Festival in 2006—
photo from camptrans.squarespace.com
“I believe that trans folks should be integrated into every service,” says
Yasmeen Persad, director of the Trans Inclusion Project. In her trainings
with rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, she covers the
basics of gender and transition, the role of sex work, the history of transgender
organizing and violence on a systemic level. She says the hardest part
of the training is helping people recognize trans women as women.
The extensive trans programs at the 519 started when three sex workers,
two of them trans, were murdered in the Toronto area. One trans woman went
to the city and the 519 to demand a project geared towards addressing this
kind of violence. Persad explains that while there are specific issues
of violence for trans women—a 1998 study in Ontario said that 50 percent
of trans people reported having been raped or assaulted by an intimate
partner—there is also a great deal of overlap between the experiences of
trans and non-trans women.
“There are issues of self-esteem” for all women, Persad says. In her work
with women’s domestic violence shelters, rape crisis organizations, and
other service groups, she finds that in addition to issues of immigration,
welfare, and the threat of being reported to the state because of sex work,
trans women also face hate-motivated violence and high costs of gender-related
Another trainer and activist for trans inclusion, Molly McClure, worked
with Women’s Anti-Violence Education (WAVE) in Philadelphia for five years
as an organizer and self-defense teacher. McClure’s activism was central
to a long process of building the historically feminist organization to
explicitly include trans people.
“Women and trans people all experienced gender-based issues,” McClure says,
“around their bodies, how they wear them, how they move, where they go
at night.” McClure has done a number of trainings on trans inclusion and
says she focuses on the overlap between trans and non-trans women in experiencing
gendered violence and oppression—not in an attempt to minimize the differences,
but to focus on a common struggle and on “recognizing natural alliances.”
“I try to center trans oppression squarely in other oppressions,” McClure
says, “so it doesn’t get isolated into ‘Who are those freaky people that
want to be a part of this?’ but more ‘How is transphobia similar and different
to other issues of power and discrimination?’”
McClure and Persad agree that making connections helps to bridge the gap
for many non-trans women who are struggling with fears around working with
trans people. Persad says that after participating in her trainings, many
people see more similarities than differences in the struggles of trans
and non-trans women.
Partly thanks to McClure, WAVE now defines “women” as anyone who has identified
or currently identifies as a woman. Trans women can now participate in
women-only self-defense classes, and there are also separate courses for
trans people of all genders.
How did these changes come about within a feminist organization that was
resistant to the prospect at first? McClure says that long, challenging
conversations were essential. She believes that trans inclusion requires
trainings, education, and reframing an organization’s priorities. She warns
against doing sensitivity trainings and stopping there.
“If an organization is serious about change, it needs to be an ongoing
process,” she says, adding that “If we think making an organization trans
inclusive is about doing a bunch of paperwork, that’s sad.” McClure encourages
organizations dedicated to trans inclusion to have an active member inside
the organization working on the issue, as well as working with supportive
allies from outside of the organization.
McClure also points out that working for trans inclusion can be a good
opportunity for an organization to do an “anti-racist audit”; to look at
who is in leadership and who has power within the organization as a whole.
Trans inclusion, she says, can and should push beyond a “liberalized” approach
which tends to focus on including white, middle-class trans people.
Persad, for her part, plays a leadership role as a trans person, and she
works with a group of seven other trans-identified activists, including
three other women. The Trans Inclusion Project also makes a habit of referring
local organizations to trans women who are doctors, professors, and teachers
who may be able to support their work.
San Francisco Women Against Rape, a radical anti-violence organization,
has been trans inclusive “in theory” for as long as Executive Director
Janelle White remembers. The organization began articulating new trans
policies in their most recent strategic plan. White defends the existence
of organizations like hers, which specifically mandate the leadership of
women of color, arguing that their politics work in tandem with, rather
than against, trans politics.
“Identity politics have a place,” White says. “If they isolate you and
make you not able to see connections with people, it’s not useful. If they
give you a chance to sustain yourself, do healing, be with your people
so you can go back out and do the coalition piece of the work, that’s great.”
Trans inclusion, she says, “is not in contradiction to prioritizing women
of color leadership.”
an Francisco Women Against Rape partners with other local anti-oppression
organizations to offer Trans 101 trainings to all of their volunteers.
All of their staff are familiar with gender identity issues. White says
that the biggest question they currently face is about the role of transgender
people on the female-to-male (FtM) spectrum. Those on the FtM spectrum
have sometimes been more easily integrated into women’s space than male-to-female
folks, but complex questions remain regarding the roles of trans people
who do not identify as “women.” White believes that female-assigned trans
people can support the work of her organization without needing to identify
them as being women, but seeing them as allies.
The Trans Inclusion Project is in the process of researching the needs
of female-to-male transgender and transsexual people in the Toronto shelter
system. Persad’s guess is that for some female-assigned trans people, women’s
shelters are still the safest or the only place to go. Also, many people
on the female-to-male spectrum access reproductive health resources primarily
geared towards women and the time may come when those who do not identify
as “female” begin to seek a voice within the reproductive justice movement.
Of course, not every feminist organization is opening its doors to transgender
people. Those groups who continue to resist it find themselves under increasing
pressure from trans activists, as in the case of the Michigan Womyn’s Music
Festival, whose long-standing policy of excluding trans people has brought
on articles, artist boycotts, and a 15-year sit-in at the festival gates
by Camp Trans, an ad-hoc organization that demands inclusion at the largest
women-only music festival in the world.
Lorrraine is a trans woman who attended the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival
in 2006, causing a wave of renewed controversy over old policies. Lorrraine
self-describes primarily as a feminist activist who is trans, rather than
a “trans activist.” When asked why she opposes the policy of the Michigan
Womyn’s Music Festival, Lorrraine is clear on her feminist values: “Any
politics that divide women into groups of good women we support and bad
women we oppose, I think is misogynistic and I don’t support it. A lot
of people have difficult ideas about us—how we think, how we act, how we
came about,” she says. “I hear these ideas repeated over and over. They
get a lot more attention than the lives of trans women I know that don’t
fit the patriarchal mold.”
One of the most common fears that arises is the fear of violence—what McClure
calls “the sexual assault myth, the idea that all trans women are rapists.”
In her work at WAVE and with the Philadelphia shelter system— which is
in the process of becoming trans-inclusive—McClure has addressed these
fears with groups of women. On how to respond to questions of safety, she
explains: “It was useful to talk about physical violence. People do get
assaulted in shelters, people are not in a safe space. This is not specific
to trans people.”
Activists like Emi Koyama frame the exclusion of trans people as a race
and class issue, explaining that while penises may trigger associations
of violence for some women, white skin may trigger other women as a symbol
of violence. No women’s space, whether it is a shelter or a music festival,
is inherently “safe” for all women, and to claim that it is writes off
the experiences of women who are targets of multiple forms of violence.
“We live in a violent time,” says McClure. “There is a war on women’s bodies,
queer folks, folks of color, poor folks. The fear of violence is real.
But transphobia, along with racism and classism, can keep many of us from
accurately identifying the real enemy, or effectively building towards
what will make us truly safe. In a loving, respectful way, we need to challenge
some of those misdirected fears.”
Trans-inclusive feminism has a lot to offer to a broader social justice
movement, not the least of which is a complex and practical analysis of
gender and power. Women and trans people ought to be at the forefront of
struggles for justice, defining the terms and building the future alongside
other marginalized people committed to liberation and real change.
Lewis Wallace is a transgender activist, student, and zinester. He has
worked for a number of years as a sex educator and grassroots fundraiser.
His essays appear in various anthologies and magazines under the name “Sailor.”
He lives in Chicago, Illinois.