THE BLOG

Must We Alienate Our Women Allies?

05/15/2015 03:37 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016
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There has been a long history of tension between lesbian trans women and lesbian cis women, manifested in the battles over admission to and inclusion at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, as well as admissions to women's colleges. In some ways it's to be expected, as an understanding of gender identity has taken a long time to even begin to permeate through society as a whole, let alone gay society. It is also no surprise that cisgender lesbian women, who see themselves through the prism of sexual orientation, don't easily "get" trans women, who are rooted in the experience of a gender identity that is different from the one assumed at birth. Those lesbians usually don't feel any challenge to their fundamental sense of self as women -- that is, until one of their own decides to transition to male or to partner up with a trans woman. It's at that moment that the deeper issues of identity as female force their way into consciousness. I will admit to envying my cis lesbian friends who are so comfortable just being women who love women and seldom feel the challenge anymore from an ignorant hatred that refuses to see them as women simply because they are gay.

Those battles, which unfortunately persist, are bad enough, but now there is a movement among certain young trans persons and allies to confront the class of straight cis women as well. I first noticed this trend last year when a group challenged local Texas NARAL and Planned Parenthood groups for using "women" in their marketing, claiming that that language excluded trans men. I've learned that the public debate began a year earlier, when Laura Rankin posted an op-ed on truthout.com stating a need to reframe the battle for abortion rights. This year some women at Mt. Holyoke College decided to cease performing The Vagina Monologues because they felt that the play was no longer inclusive, and because they inferred, wrongly, that the playwright, Eve Ensler, is transphobic. Now the battle has made it into the mainstream leftist media in an article by Katha Pollitt, and the trans activists are misreading her words and creating a problem where there isn't one.

Ms. Pollitt makes her point succinctly and compassionately, with no evidence of prejudice:

I'm going to argue here that removing "women" from the language of abortion is a mistake. We can, and should, support trans men and other gender-non-conforming people. But we can do that without rendering invisible half of humanity and 99.999 percent of those who get pregnant. I know I'll offend, hurt and disappoint some people, including abortion-fund activists I love dearly. That is why I've started this column many times over many months and put it aside. I tell myself I might be wrong -- it's happened before. "Most of the pressure [to shift language] comes from young people," said one abortion-fund head I interviewed, whose fund, like many, has "Women" in its name. "The role of people in our generation is to give money and get out of the way." (Like many of the people I interviewed for this column, she asked to remain anonymous.) Maybe in ten years, it will seem perfectly natural to me to talk about abortion in a gender-neutral way. Right now, though, it feels as if abortion language is becoming a bit like French, where one man in a group of no matter how many women means "elles" becomes "ils."

Pollitt points out that the critical issue today is access, and there seems to be little disagreement about that fact. She then goes on to point out the political impact of the demanded change:

The real damage of abolishing "women" in abortion contexts, though, is to our political analysis. What happens to Dr. Tiller's motto, "Trust Women"? There was a whole feminist philosophy expressed in those two words: women are competent moral actors and they, not men, clergy or the state, are the experts on their own lives, and should be the ones to decide how to shape them. It is because abortion gives power specifically to women that it was criminalized. How did Selina Meyer put it on Veep? If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM.

That's the politics from a cis woman's point of view. From a trans woman's point of view, I see one more misguided attempt at providing inclusion that has the inevitable consequence of alienating millions of women who are or could be our allies, as we dilute their campaign while focusing solely on ourselves. No pregnant trans man has been denied access, according to reports; the problem lies with trans men feeling excluded by the language. Well, it's not always about you or me. There are much bigger issues involved here, and demanding that the language that speaks to and empowers tens of millions of women should be neutralized so as not to offend a handful of trans men is unfair.

It's similar to the demands of some trans men that they be accepted for admission at women's colleges as openly trans men, because they feel safer in women's colleges. It's one thing -- and a very generous and compassionate policy of these schools -- to harbor trans men who applied as women, while they undergo transition. It's another thing entirely to demand that someone assigned female at birth belongs in a women's college even when he no longer identifies as a woman. In my tradition we call that "chutzpah," and not of the honorable kind. Let's remember that trans men are men, whether they can get pregnant of not. They are no longer second-class citizens when it comes to sex.

Rye Young, the trans activist on the board of the New York Abortion Access Fund, who has taken the lead in opposition to the traditional language, calls Pollitt's piece "a fearmongering and unsubstantiated piece about how this change erases women from the abortion-rights movement." I disagree, and I consider Young to be the one who is "fearmongering." He goes on to say, "In this article, Pollitt minimizes, demonizes, and pokes fun at trans people -- while claiming the moral high ground." I'm sorry, but this is debate by "belligerent assertion," which is all too common in some parts of the younger generation of trans activists. There is nothing in Pollitt's column that I would consider demonization or poking fun. Not only are the trans activists alienating millions of allies and potential allies, but they're offending some of their foremothers and forefathers as well.

Demanding respect for each individual is a fundamental right, a venerable part of all civil rights movements. Demanding to overturn an entire cultural edifice for the sake of a few political radicals is insulting to many and potentially very harmful to the greater cause, not only for the protestors but for all the others struggling to get by each day. Reducing the self-definitions of others to mere "slogans" and then accusing them of "abandon[ing] a community that is literally dying from a lack of visibility, healthcare access, and solidarity is wrong and counter-productive."

Demanding gender-neutral language is not "improving the feminist movement," and smashing the gender binary in society at large is not going to move us forward anytime soon. We need to care for people and work to embrace, not erase, actual people. I see the reproductive rights movement, in its work, as embracing all people. Undermining the language of society by demanding radical revisions, without living your life by respecting others, is counterproductive. While generational change is normal and necessary, it needs to be done in a sensible and civil manner so as to advance not only our cause but those of our allies as well.