Trans Exclusionary Trans Activists?

Yet again RuPaul’s questionable usage of transphobic slurs on his show has angered the online trans* community. Trans* public figures Calpernia Addams and Andrea James have not as much defended RuPaul as they have personally attacked one of the other trans* activists speaking out. I used to like Calpernia Addams, even if I often didn’t agree with her, but I am appalled and disappointed by her article in The Huffington Post, and James’ article on BoingBoing.

In her response, Addams declares:

All these angry, attacking women seem to share certain telling characteristics. Perhaps conditioned to bully and take by a lifetime of white, heterosexual, male privilege in academia and business, these women seem to relish the co-opting of yet another source of power: Often in only a year or two, they drop the mantle of white, straight, male privilege, having wrung every benefit that a 20- to 30-year-old person can from it, and take up the currently unassailable position of being a queer female with all the zeal of a new conqueror. What’s the thing they rail against when not decrying other trans people? “Cis-het privilege”?

The irony of this angry, attacking article is that it is disturbingly close to echoing Janice Raymond’s transphobic rhetoric of co-opting and invading spaces. Just in place of women’s spaces we here have what appears to be Harry Benjaminesque True Transsexual™ activist’s spaces.

As one of the type of people Addams apparently despises, namely a late transitioner who transitioned well into her thirties, I find her characterisation of my group of trans women and trans men highly offensive. Not only do most of us, as she does too I’m sure, have a life-long history of struggling with our gender identity faced with cisnormative and heteronormative society, but we all also move through the landscape of sexual identities in the process as these tend to be defined in gender binary terms.

The amount of privilege you enjoyed pre transition in your assigned gender role reflects how well you were able to pass yourself off as a cis man or a cis woman. As soon as you step over those boundaries you start losing that privilege. Boys and men who do not challenge their gender roles generally do not experience the kind of oppression and disadvantage that gender non-conforming people as well as cis women do. Accusing outspoken trans* activists, and especially trans women, of displaying male privilege and entitlement is a common accusation made by the TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical “Feminists”). It’s ironic coming from people who claim to be feminists, as women have always been put down for being assertive and outspoken, but it’s even more ironic coming from a trans woman who calls herself an activist.

For trans women who have lived in the male role for many years the sense of freedom that once came with male privilege can take some time to wear off. Now, the thing about the benefits of privilege is not that the benefits themselves are bad, but the fact that only some people have them. Any person should be free to be assertive and outspoken regardless of gender identity. During and after our transition we all have to adapt to a society littered with institutional sexism. The fact that it takes some time before the implications of this dawns on us is not a problem. For every trans woman who gives in to sexist gender roles, the cause of women’s rights loses a voice. The world is full of loud, awesome cis feminist women. No one accuses them of male privilege.

This cheap shot at trans women whose initial reaction is to fight back when privilege suddenly takes a dive is not only uncalled for, but counter productive. Many of these trans women do get involved in the wider LGBT and trans* activist community, and input their experience and enthusiasm into the important work of educating mainstream society, and lobbying for better legal protection and healthcare option for the trans* people coming after us.

I can agree with one part of Addams’ criticism: that the online trans activist community can sometimes be quite angry, and that anger sometimes is unproductive. I also agree that we need to build bridges, especially in the wider LGBT+ community, but also in intersectional feminist spaces. However I flatly reject the elitism of both Addams and James and their gross generalisations of “younger transitioners” that is presented in both these pieces. Gay and lesbian culture have their own set of normativties, and many of them are trans* exclusionary and outright cissexist. Drag culture can also often times be quite misogynistic. I have no problems with drag queens in principle, in fact I love it when someone challenges gender norms no matter what the person identifies as, but I refuse to cater to the problematic sides of lesbian and gay culture and throw half the trans* community under the bus in the process.

While Addams and James caters to a media that still views trans* people as fun afternoon entertainment, newer and more influential voices like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, with their zero-tolerance for media’s cissexism, manages to both be successful and bring a clear and concise message to the wider cis society as well as unite the trans’ community both online and offline. Janet Mock, with her #GirlsLikeUs campaign, is also part of “the eyeroll-inducing ‘hashtag activist’ movement currently infecting the internet” that Andrea James despises so much. While some of these campaigns are driven by anger, many of them are not, and they mean a lot to many trans* people.

Calpernia Addams must believe people like me have nothing to contribute to the progress of trans* rights and inclusion. I spent many years acting as a straight male, that is true, but in safe spaces I identified as bi-gender, asexual-bisexual. A huge part of that was due to living in a small, conservative town where LGBT people allegedly didn’t exist. That town hasn’t changed much since I moved away seven years ago. Now, as an out and loud trans woman, I have joined the largest Norwegian LGBT organisation at a time where trans* people have gotten a brand new anti-discrimination law and are in the process of getting a major revision of the entire trans* healthcare system. A process we are directly involved with and included in.

My organisation is one of the major driving forces behind the current changes for trans* people in my country. The wider LGB community works with us, and we with them, but one of the main forces behind the changes comes from the youngest of our members in the queer youth organisation. Most of them are in their late teens and early twenties. They’re radical, loud, and challenges every norm in the book. They have gone right to the top and lobbied the prime minister when they felt they needed to be heard. They get shit done. Age (or trans* age for that matter) is not important, initiative is.

At the other end of trans* history many of the older and self-proclaimed wiser trans* people who remember the days when drag queens, trans women and gay men all got invited to the same parties, seem to distrust the new breed of trans* and queer activists. Maybe out of fear of their own diminishing relevance? There is certainly a division in the trans* activist community. On one hand you have a good deal of the older activists who went through a lot of the gatekeeping of the past, and who have internalised much of the cisnormativity forced on them. On the other hand you have younger activists who tend to have a more intersectional approach. The fact that Addams flat out rejects the term “cisgender” and presumably it’s derivatives, places her squarely in the former group. A career of catering to mainstream media may be a reason, but it may also be a lack of understanding of the terminology of transfeminism. Reading a bit of Julia Serano’s excellent analysis of the intersections of trans activism, queer activism and feminism would do her a lot of good. At least if she wants to be relevant in trans* activism in 2014.

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Veronica is a PhD candidate in high energy physics at the University of Oslo, Norway. She loves science, and is a total science-fiction nerd. She's a queer feminist, a secular humanist, and of course a skeptic. She spends most of her free time working for one of the major LGBTQ+ organisations in Norway. She is the editor of the Norwegian Skepchick blog, but also writes for some of the other blogs in the network. She can be found on Twitter as @VeronicaInPink.


  1. April 29, 2014 at 8:44 am —

    As a transgender woman transitioning in her mid-thirties I have to say great post! I find particularly laughable the idea that we shouldn’t be assertive and outspoken especially when assertive and outspoken is how I’d describe the majority of cisgender women close to me and definitely a fitting description of my wife. My wife is way more assertive and outspoken than I am. I guess that means she must be swimming in male privilege.

    One small quibble: “I can agree with one part of Addams’ criticism: that the online trans activist community can sometimes be quite angry, and that anger sometimes is unproductive. I also agree that we need to build bridges, especially in the wider LGBT+ community” I just can’t agree with this. I think the anger is justified. I agree about building bridges but I think more than a few needed to be burned as well. I just hope better ones can be built in their place.

    • April 29, 2014 at 9:47 am —

      Yes, that whole line of arguments is very strange, I must admit I have never heard it before other than in the context of TERF hate speech. It’s a double standard. The arguments put forward by Addams and James are not only transphobic, but also lacking in self-insight as their pieces are some of the most elitist I’ve seen in the trans* community.

      Even justified anger isn’t necessarily productive, but my point is that a fair bit of anger has at times been directed at people who are just ignorant, and I tend to take the educational approach at first. At least I try, unless I’m in a grumpy mood 🙂

      • April 29, 2014 at 10:40 am —

        I’m probably just angry 🙂 I suppose I can think of some twitter pile-ons where the ignorant but potentially educatable get backed into corners and double-down. Maybe that’s not the most productive form of activism. I suppose I was thinking more about the people writing blogs, articles, etc.

        And yes, it’s amazing how close some of James’ arguments seem to mirror TERF-speak. Maybe I shouldn’t have been horrified and shocked with James made a friendly compliment to Cathy Brennan on her facebook page.

        • April 29, 2014 at 11:04 am —

          Yeah, I saw that too. I also checked her facebook wall and there is a few rants about “male socialised trans women”, which is of course true to varying degrees for most of us that weren’t raised by awesome progressive parents, but she seems to ignore the fact that this applies to her as much as anyone else. There’s nothing worse than trans women that are so invested in pleasing cisnormative society that they adopt all the cissexism as well.

          • April 29, 2014 at 11:32 am

            Yes, her lack of self awareness is baffling.

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