I was raised in a feminist home with parents who didn’t allow my sister and I to be confined by gender norms or conventions.
We had no Barbie dolls and we dressed in our boy cousins’ hand-me-down clothes. For fun, we dug in the dirt and collected worms and didn’t know there was anything unusual about it.
Our mom loved her power tools like other moms might love jewelry, and my dad did the cooking. As I grew older and went to my friends’ homes and saw what their lives were like, I began to realize that our world wasn’t entirely “normal.” My friends had Barbies and pink dresses and Easy-Bake Ovens. I was envious of all the fun things they had.
But as I grew older and began to learn about the history of feminism, I was grateful for the lessons I learned from my parents. While sexism was and is a reality, I never felt confined by gendered expectations around how I should look, behave, date or aspire to be. When I was older, there was no dramatic queer “coming out” story, I just showed up one day at my parents’ house with a girlfriend and that was that. Feminism taught me that there were possibilities for my life that did not have to follow convention.
The inclusive and intersectional feminism I believe in meant that while we might have a long way to go, choice, freedom, equity, self determination and respect for all people must be our North Star.
Yet for others, feminism means restricting choice and agency, not expanding it. A vocal and aggressive contingent of people calling themselves “gender-critical radical feminists” (called “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” or TERFs by critics, though they themselves oppose the label) have become some of the most strident opponents to greater rights and support for people who are transgender.
The radical feminists have filed an amicus brief to support the firing of a transgender woman who worked in a funeral home and whose case was before the Supreme Court, protested the London Pride parade for its inclusion of transgender people, and, most recently, planned an event at the Seattle Public Library’s Central Library in February to promote their view that transgender rights harm women and lesbians. Lately, they have often become strange bedfellows with right-wing groups and the Trump administration who find common cause in their mutual desire to limit transgender rights in public spaces and public life.
Gender-critical radical feminists did not just wake up one day to believe transgender people do not and should not exist. They evolved as a reaction to the oppression of women and homophobia against lesbians. These radical feminists believe that focusing on gender threatens cisgender women and girls by allowing “men” into women’s spaces and they believe that only a strictly biological definition of sex, not gender, protects the forward progress of cisgender women and girls. Unfortunately, their reaction to that oppression was to oppress others, targeting an already vulnerable and extremely marginalized group.
The scarcity mindset that these women espouse would seek to roll back the progress the queer and transgender liberation movements have made to create a more expansive view of gender and identity — one that allows for not just transgender people but gender nonconforming and nonbinary people as well.
We are all richer when women and girls — transgender and cisgender — have the opportunity to thrive. We are all richer when our queer, transgender and nonbinary communities expand possibilities for our individual lives and our relationships. As just one example, these expansions disrupt outdated and inequitable gender roles that place a greater burden on women to both work and do more of the household chores.
Queer and transgender communities teach us that we don’t have to resign ourselves to conventions that don’t work for us because other realities are possible. The radical feminists’ efforts to enforce a rigid binary around sex goes the opposite direction, reducing our identities to the sum of our body parts. This ideology flies in the face of what many of our cultural communities around the world have always known, that we can be many genders.
Transgender women are women. Transgender people are people. This is not that difficult. What is difficult is that transgender people experience greater levels of housing instability, discrimination, legal barriers and violence. Transgender women of color, in particular, face a horrifying level of violence at the hands of cisgender men.
For those radical feminists who want to exclude, misgender and target transgender people, you’re missing out. As Elle Jennings, a transgender woman and the economic justice coordinator for Ingersoll Gender Center told me, “Trans people are some of the coolest people you’ll meet. They’re so resilient. And that’s just what oppression does. It’s a pressure that builds people up like coals and diamonds.”
It hasn’t been easy, but she describes her life now as feeling “comfortable, happy and empowered,” though fear of transphobia is always present. Jennings does not feel safe enough to walk alone at night in Seattle due to violence against transgender women and the increase in hate crimes against LGBTQ people.
Those who would limit transgender rights because they feel it would undermine attention on the very real inequities faced by cisgender women and girls seem to forget that we can do more than one thing at once. Yes, as intersectional feminists we should work to identify and resist the multitude of ways in which cisgender women and girls are disadvantaged around the world. And, we can also recognize that our human community is broad, and there can be no liberation for some without liberation for all.
Naomi Ishisaka is a columnist for the Seattle Times.