Transgender debate: against exclusion

October 28, 1998

By Emma Murphy and Sarah Lantz

MELBOURNE — There has been widespread opposition to a decision to exclude transgender women from the NOWSA (Network of Women Students Australia) collective. This opposition has come from numerous alternative newspapers, including the Melbourne Star Observer, campus women's collectives, e-mail networks and queer collectives.

Contributors to these forums have criticised the NOWSA collective's decision, and in particular the Left Alliance members who argued for it, as biologically determinist, inward looking and exclusionary.

The alternative positions all insist that women's oppression is social, and that therefore anyone who suffers that oppression should be included in feminist organising.

The NOWSA decision has had ramifications in the women's liberation movement around the country, setting the precedent for transgender women to be excluded from the Reclaim the Night collective in Perth, and has brought discussion around the issue into numerous campus women's departments.

The exclusionary arguments are epitomised in an article by Jessica Whyte, a Left Alliance member, printed in the women's collective edition of Catalyst, the RMIT student press. Whyte's article uses separatist and biological determinist arguments to discredit the struggle that many transgender women face — to be recognised as who they are, rather than being attacked and rejected.

Whyte states: "... a person who has spent all their life as a man could not possibly be entirely free of patriarchal conditioning", which really says nothing about their experience as women in a sexist society.

Social categories

Left Alliance members have gone so far as to say that transgender women are not "real" women. The problem with this argument is that it relies on a biological definition of women.

We live in a society that categorises people into rigid and often oppressive social and sexual roles.

From the moment we are born we are taught — implicitly and explicitly — that there are two genders based on biological sex, male and female, and that each gender carries with it an appropriate behaviour. Those born with female sexual organs are women and therefore "feminine", and vice versa for those born with male sexual organs.

Society not only dictates that people conform to these gender roles, but that we treat the roles as self-evidently "natural".

The women's movement should recognise the oppressive nature of this gender stereotyping. It is used to define women primarily as mothers, wives, child-carers, launderers, cooks.

Feminists need to challenge this. We need to recognise that gender is socially constructed. Any social construction which tries to dictate even the most personal and individual aspects of our lives (i.e. how we identify ourselves) is something which we need to fight.

The biological determinist arguments put forward by members of Left Alliance give credence to the hierarchy theory of oppressions: that "women born women" are more oppressed than transgendered women. Thus those "more" oppressed (or perhaps "really" oppressed) should be allowed in women's campaigns and spaces.


This logic leads to exclusion: the idea that only the most oppressed can genuinely speak, participate, organise and make decisions.

Politics is leached from this argument. It ignores the fact that commitment to feminism is not in our genes. Being born a woman does not guarantee support for women's liberation. In fact, many women believe that existing gender relations are not oppressive to women, but rather "natural".

In the arguments of the NOWSA collective, political positions and consciousness of women are not important. In reality, both are the building blocks of any political movement, but the Left Alliance argument allows all "women born women", irrespective of their politics, to participate.

Meanwhile, transgendered women, many of whom politically support the aims of the women's movement, who argue that existing gender relations are oppressive and who experience oppression both as women and transgendered women, are excluded.

Biological determinism is deeply fatalistic. It means that women's liberation will always be unattainable while men exist.

Arguing that specific socialised conditioning is fixed and, hence, unchangeable, faces exactly the same problem. If this were the case, how do we explain the women who are socialised by the dominant ideologies of society, yet develop a feminist consciousness?

How, in fact, do we achieve any sort of liberation at all if we can't change people's consciousness?

Another argument for exclusion is that transgender women have led a life of "male privilege". This denies the fact that many transgender people realise from an early age that they do not fit the gender role dictated to them by society.

They suffer oppression as transgender people — being forced to conform to stereotypes that contradict their identity — and the minute they identify as a woman, they take on the oppression that all women face — issues of body image, sexual harassment, unequal wages and so on.

Individualising oppression

Left Alliance members arguing for exclusion claim that a "man" choosing to have a gender reassignment is legitimising the gender roles constructed by society. Whyte writes "... this same man could help break down notions of sex determined gender by refusing to behave in a way which society views as acceptably masculine".

This completely individualises transgenderism, blaming the victims of oppressive gender stereotyping rather than the system which creates it. Why should it be up to individuals to "break down notions of gender" to the extent that they live a life of persecution and depression due to being trapped in the wrong body?

The argument also implies that there is a great degree of choice involved, when transgender people are often aware of their true identify from a young age, and merely seek to change their body or their appearance to fit who they are.

Undergoing gender reassignment is not a political act; it's a personal decision to assert one's identity. Politics comes into it when a woman (trannie or otherwise) becomes aware of women's oppression and decides to get active in feminist organising.

Women-only space

This brings us to the question of whether transgender women should be allowed in women-only space. Whyte states that women-only space is to provide women with a place in which "... they will feel free from the intimidation or discomfort they may feel around men ... If women do not feel comfortable in the presence of a male to female transsexual then the point of women's only space if nullified."

This reduces women's rooms, something women have fought so hard for, to a comfortable social space. In fact, women's rooms are politically useful only when they are used for critical, feminist organising — a place where women can come together to organise for liberation, without the barriers many find to their ability to speak out.

Women-only organising space cannot be reduced to somewhere we can go to feel "comfortable". Indeed, if we are going to have entrance criteria, let's call them "feminist rooms", and only those who identify as women and want to work to build the women's liberation movement can be welcome.

The crucial point is this: transgender women are oppressed by the same systemic structures and ideologies that all women are oppressed by: from sexual harassment and unequal wages through to gender stereotyping and physical abuse.

It is logical that all those who suffer from the same oppression should organise together — the self-organisation of the oppressed. By excluding transgender women from feminist organising, however, we are not allowing this to happen, but are acting in collusion with the sexist system by policing its oppressive gender boundaries.

Attempted censorship

Since the initial decision by the NOWSA collective, and the resulting criticisms, the same Left Alliance members have attempted to censor discussion. They put a motion (leading up to FemX, the National Union of Students' women's policy conference) to stop collective members from expressing their opposition to the exclusion of transgendered women.

The NOWSA collective has expressed opposition to the ongoing debate in many forums, including in Green Left Weekly.

Democratic Socialist Party members were criticised for "going to the media". This, according to the collective, "shows no respect for the decisions of the NOWSA collective".

The opposite is true: it is essential that this debate be ongoing and widespread. It is a question of how to build a strong women's movement — a crucial issue for all who seek to fight against injustice.

Such issues cannot be confined within one group. This is an issue that affects all women.

Serious feminist organising is based on making political discussions public; forging alliances between organising collectives; strengthening the movement and raising the level of consciousness and understanding of the issues.

In the face of increasing attacks on women's rights, women's organising cannot afford to be atomised. With energy and urgency, our aim is to build the biggest movements and committees to combat all oppression, rather than to divide the oppressed by policies of exclusion and personal politics.