'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner': Lesbian Trans Exclusion Gets Noticed

08/08/2014 09:38 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The LGBT version of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is not yet playing at a theater near you this summer, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone were writing such a script.

Every summer sees the return of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MWMF or MichFest), along with the exposure of the festival's profoundly discriminatory policy against trans women. This summer, though, has been witness to a sea change in the national LGBT community's response. For the first time a state equality organization, Equality Michigan, led by Executive Director Emily Dievendorf, issued a public critique of the festival. It has also committed to a multi-year effort to effect change. They were quickly joined by HRC's Beth Sherouse, who published a blog post in support of Equality Michigan, which then started a petition that, as of this writing, has been joined by the Task Force and NCLR.

But MichFest is only the very tip of the iceberg. The next layer down is populated by the women who've spent the past four decades wasting their energy hating trans women. Their numbers include Lisa Vogel, the founder of MichFest and its director since its inception. These women, now known as trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), include professors like Janice Raymond and Julie Burchill, authors like Mary Daly and Sheila Jeffreys, and cyberbullies like Cathy Brennan and GallusMag. One such '70s-era second-wave feminist who has since learned about the trans experience and left the group is Gloria Steinem, who joined other sane feminists like Andrea Dworkin. Very well-researched reviews of this phenomenon have recently been written and include those by Julia Serano and Jos Truitt in response to last week's New Yorker article "What Is a Woman?"

These women hold conferences, or try to hold them when they're not being blocked by a younger, more inclusive community of radical feminists. They write books attacking the trans community, both women and men, and while they shout about the need to confront men who are abusing women in our patriarchal society, they focus their energy not on the actual men who disparage, demean and assault women but on women who've lived some portion of their lives as men because of a birth defect. That trans women do not assault other women is irrelevant; their screed is no different, in words and theology, from that of the radical, anti-modern religious zealots who hate all things LGBT. (Here's Jeffreys: "[W]hen I look at the House of Lords debate on this legislation, those I agree with most are the radical right.")

There is nothing new about any of this. The MWMF has been an annual event for four decades, and trans women have been engaging with it, generally unsuccessfully, since 1991. The TERFs have been active since Sandy Stone was bounced from Olivia Records in the mid-'70s, and while some of the lesbians from those days, such as Judy Dlugacz and Sue Hyde, have evolved, many have not. That gets me to the main theme of this blog post.

Our community's problem isn't with MichFest. If it became trans-inclusive tomorrow, the underlying problem would remain. It isn't even with the radical antifeminist nature of the TERFs; if they quieted down tomorrow, the underlying problem would remain. The problem is the iceberg below, which no one wants to recognize. I would say we all have our heads in the sand, but that's one metaphor that won't mix with sea water.

There is a reason that it has taken until 2014 for a state equality organization to challenge MichFest, and for a number of national organizations to give their tepid support to that effort. I say "tepid" because while some of the people behind those efforts at HRC, the Task Force and NCLR are great trans allies (in particular Kate Kendell of NCLR, who has faced down the TERFs for years, dealing with "Why is the National Center for Lesbian Rights supporting trans women and men?!"), and while these efforts are great progress compared with the near-total lack of movement until this year, they are not the statements of commitment that the movement is eager to make on other issues.

When the community decided that the religious exemption in the version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that they had supported less than a year ago was too broad, there was a stampede for the exits. Allies were left twisting in the wind, coalitions were broken, statements were released to the press, Congress was engaged. Rightly or wrongly (and I wrote about this last month), the community decided and acted. That has not happened here, because the rot is much deeper and broader than the national leadership will publicly admit.

A large number of non-trans lesbians -- those who've come of age in a world colored by second-wave feminism and enveloped in scientific ignorance -- simply do not accept that trans women are women or that trans men are men. Many of these cisgender (non-transgender) lesbians are political allies, because, like most Americans, they believe discrimination is wrong. But on a social, personal and intimate level, trans women are invisible to them as women. And they often view trans men, many of whom formerly identified as lesbians and were members of their community, and frequently were their partners, as deluded women.

This is at the root of the meme that trans women are rapists, forcing themselves on cis lesbians. Any trans woman who is socially or sexually oriented toward women and is desirous of being part of the lesbian community finds the going extremely difficult, if not impossible. This has been called the "cotton ceiling." Even those who do manage to hook up with a cis lesbian will find that the latter will often come under attack by her friends for being intimate with a trans woman.

The national organizations have dipped their toes in gently, knowing the blowback they would get if they took a more forceful public position. And while the prevalence of these beliefs among the 45-and-over age group is significant, there is good news as well. This hostility, at worst, or, at best, this dismissiveness, is much less common among millennials, and it is also generally absent among those women who identify as gay, bisexual, pansexual or queer.

Now that we've reached what the mainstream is calling the "transgender tipping point," I believe it's time for the gay community to confront this attitude head-on and do the education among its own that has always been necessary but, to date, has happened only sporadically and quietly behind the scenes. I should note that gay men have their own problems with the persistence, since the '70s, of the philosophy of Stonewall veteran Jim Fouratt, who believed that trans women were simply extremely gay men who desired to be penetrated but could not accept their homosexuality. We've made great progress in explaining the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation since those days, but the problem remains, as I've learned all too well in dealing with certain gay politicians during my political career.

I call this tipping-point moment our "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" phase, appropriate for the generation that is mired in ignorance and fear about trans persons but remembers when the African-American civil-rights movement was creating integrated workplaces and schools but had yet to make any inroads into the family bedroom. A generation later that has changed remarkably; the same can happen for the LGBT community, but not without a more concerted effort. I hope these days will be seen as the start of that change.