Disclaimer: I am a white trans woman exploring the role of transmisogyny in the colonial history of the United States and how that affects all current forms of feminism. I may experience transmisogyny, but I do not experience the ways in which it intersects with racism, and so my perspective is incomplete. Please keep that in mind as you proceed through this paper.
Trigger and Content Warnings
Before disclosing potential triggers, I wish to point out immediately that two-spirit identity is not a trans identity. In contexts that embraced gender variancy (Indigenous communities in what we now call the United States), there is no such thing as trans or cis. Applying the term ‘transgender’ to two-spirit identity is a colonizing act. In this paper, I will say “perceived as transgender” or “read as trans” or some other variation when referring to two-spirit identities from a Western context. This is also part of the reason I do not use the asterisk when I say trans, as the asterisk includes identities which are not necessarily trans, such as two-spirit identities, intersex people, and cis cross-dressers. I am also aware that some romantic and sexual relationships in Indigenous communities could also be viewed as ‘queer’ from our Western context. This is not an element I am looking into within this essay. I may write about it at a later time, but for the intents and purposes of this essay, I will not delve into that dynamic. Moving forward…
Trigger warnings: Anti-black racism present in an image I use to demonstrate the effects of colonialism and Western thought as they relate to dominance and control of the Other; cissexism, and one transmisogynistic slur to demonstrate how widely accepted transmisogyny is (Janice Raymond’s book).
Content warnings: This essay examines the role of transmisogyny in the United States. I will describe briefly the rationale behind “Americanizing” the Indigenous person, and in writing this essay, I made certain stylistic and wording choices to reflect the toxicity of this rationale.
Both my trigger and content warnings are flexible. If folks reading this essay find something triggering, of which I did not mention in this section, you can send me a message, and I will add it as soon as I can.
In this essay, I will be examining closely the still-dominant role of transmisogyny as it relates to whiteness. I will also explain why the only acceptable genders under whiteness are cisgenders. These have enormous implications for contemporary feminism and its work. My perspective as a trans woman is by and large rejected within feminism. I am still viewed as a “man in a dress” who is invading women’s spaces to make it about “himself.” Thank you, Janice Raymond, for writing The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Although transmisogyny is nothing new in feminist spaces, that book helped to perpetuate and reinforce that hate more than any other that came before.
Embracing transmisogyny in feminism, however, goes much, much further back than Janice Raymond’s book. It goes further back than Cathy Brennan, the Stonewall Riots, Gender Identity Watch, and Name The Problem. Transmisogyny is embedded into the history of feminism, but before I can talk about the history, I feel I must illuminate how contemporary feminism still invokes transmisogyny.
Problematizing Understandings And Discourses on Patriarchy Within Feminism
From bell hooks’ essay, “Understanding Patriarchy,” she defines it as “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.” Basically, a society organized around the inherent dominance of males. Note, all definitions of patriarchy set up the dichotomy of men vs. women, as the gender binary is inherent to patriarchy. Also notice bell hooks’ use of ‘the weak’ to describe all things feminine.
For patriarchy to function, “the two genders” must perform roles that serve its ends, and for people to perform these roles, they must feel naturally compelled to fulfill them. So gender roles are assigned to “the two genders,” and these genders are assigned to people immediately upon birth, and even pre-birth with ultrasound technology, because under patriarchy, gender is biological and therefore static. Men and women perform specific duties under a patriarchal society as they are assigned to them, and men must always be at the forefront because that is their birthright. Men are taught to control their environment, and women are taught to control their bodies to appease men. Patriarchy packages gender as “this is your lot.” You cannot change it, you cannot disagree with it, and if you attempt to, you will be severely punished and put back into your cage.
But this understanding of patriarchy only encompasses cisgender people. The first giveaway for that is the language of “male” and “female,” because it applies gender to biological sex. This conflation of sex and gender has been used to erase, dismiss, and degender trans people, especially those on the trans feminine spectrum. One of the most common things I hear as a trans woman is, “Right, you identify as a woman, but you’re biologically male” or some other variation therein. My gender is reduced to my genitals, and my genitals then become the definitive feature of my gender. Sounds familiar, right? Gender is being equated with biological sex, and this is a major tenet of patriarchy. So then, if sex is equated with gender, where does this understanding of patriarchy place transgender people exactly? Trans people’s self-concept of their gender does not match up with the external pressures placed on them (assigned sex). Trans people are forever excluded from the binary under patriarchy, because, by definition and history, the binary rejects all non-cis identities. Now let’s get into the history.
Colonial History of the United States
In pre-colonization times, in what we now know as the United States, a number of tribes embraced gender variancy. The following is a list of terms found in Indigenous languages to describe people with penises/vaginas (PWP/PWV) two-spirits (translation in brackets): Crow: boté, bate, bade; Cree: ayekkwe, a:yahkwew (“split testicles,” i.e., sterile); Lakota: winkte (“would be woman”) Dreams of Double woman; Navajo: nutlys, natli, nadleehi (“he changes,” “being transformed”) , Zuni: lhamana (PWP), katsotse (PWV) (Changing ones: Third and fourth genders in Native North America. p. 214-222), however, and this is not an exhaustive list, and these terms have been largely compiled by people who are not of these communities and backgrounds. They are subject to error and misinterpretation. What is important to note here is the wide array of gender variancy in Indigenous communities, and that gender was not something fixed. The only role biology played was in the language used for certain individual two-spirits (refer back to Zuni terms), not necessarily in the validity of these identities.
But for white Europeans, gender was fixed and very, very important, but in a different sense. In fact, gender was so important that entire societies and institutions were constructed around it. Gender was essential in the survival of their culture, their economics, and more. White Europeans just weren’t satisfied with what power they had, and so felt the need to explore. They had to find new lands in order to expand their empires, as they were in power struggles with neighboring countries. Then came Columbus. The brutal, monstrous, exploitative “explorer” that so many of us learned about when we were younger, though back then he was portrayed as adventurous, brave, and driven. What Columbus started, other white Europeans continued. They colonized the land and people, and they established for themselves a new society.
Before I can dive in deeper, I must first briefly describe how colonization operates. Colonization operates as a mechanism of white supremacy, works on behalf of whiteness, and colonialism is built around white solidarity and consensus, “otherizing” non-white groups, paranoia, defensiveness, and violence. A major tenet of colonialism, and Western culture altogether, is to take and control nature, and so you will see Indigenous people, and people of color broadly, conflated with nature and (trigger warning: anti-Black racism) primality, whereas Western society is conflated with culture, civility, generosity (notice how in this painting, white people are generally in positions of power, standing up, better posture, etc) and divinity/grace. Femininity is also conflated with nature: one, two, and three, and so in these cases we can see how Western thought could easily be used to create a power relationship over the Other, however that is established. In other words, white Westerners are synonymous with “the right to power,” and everyone else is synonymous with “the need to be ruled.” The Other must be governed by the white Westerners, as that is their birthright. To control and “liberate” the natural, to bring it to civility, and that the Other should be grateful for their generosity and time.
When Columbus came over, he also brought with him the white European conception of gender: the gender binary under patriarchy. And because gender was understood as biological and fixed, any form of gender variancy/non-conformity (especially by those who we would now label as DMAB–designated male at birth) was subject to “correction.” The reasons DMAB people were more subject to “correction” than their DFAB counterparts are as follows: Men are not supposed to embrace femininity from a white Westerner’s point of view; Masculinity (even for those who are DFAB) is embraced so long as it serves the ends of patriarchy; And conceptions of masculinity are built around the values of control and domination of the feminine.
When white settlers started to see unfamiliar presentations of gender, they must have been both disturbed and frightened. Gender variancy could have been seen as Indigenous people taking control of nature, as their genders were not static. They had done something the white settlers seemed incapable of, which challenged their notions of gender and how it operated within the world. “Why would these men wear women’s clothes? Why do they act like women? That is not how men act.” But because Indigenous folk were not white, their conception of gender could not be viewed as correct, as that disrupted white supremacy and male supremacy simultaneously. To preserve and protect their socio-political systems, to preserve their supremacy, it became necessary to instill patriarchy in Indigenous populations. It became necessary to eliminate all gender variancy, specifically those who were perceived as ‘men’ embracing femininity.
To colonize a people, you must not only colonize their bodies, you must also colonize their minds. To colonize their minds, white settlers sought to erase Indigenous traditions, and this was done extremely effectively through the boarding schools. The boarding school system became more formalized under the Grants’ Peace Policy of 1869-1870, which turned over the administration of Indian reservations to Christian denominations. Government funds were set aside in order to erect new schools to be ran by churches and missionary societies (“American Indian Education in the United States: Indoctrination for Subordination to Colonialism,” in Annette Jaimes’ State of Native America). These boarding schools were off-reservation, and the first one, Carlisle, was founded in 1879. The children of Indigenous people were kidnapped from their homes at an early age, not returning until they were young adults. This was justified by colonialist modes of thought and white saviorship, “Kill the Indian in order to save the Man” as well as “Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit” (Americanizing the American Indian: Writings by “Friends of the Indian”).
And so whiteness continued to encroach upon Indigenous conceptions of gender, replacing it with the gender binary by omitting the possibility of gender variancy in the boarding schools. The gender variancy in the Indigenous communities declined, as their children were unable to learn their languages, their cultures, and the roles of two-spirit identities. White Europeans used their elimination of the Indigenous person to implement their own power structure, one that cemented their place at the top. Our nation set up institutions, structures, economic practices, culture, and more to guarantee its immortality, in a sense.
What this says about our context is this: Everything we know about gender today is a complete and utter lie meant to serve the white patriarchy.
What This Means for Feminism
Feminism, because it emerged under the white patriarchy, is built upon colonialism, and therefore transmisogyny. This is inescapable and must be addressed. The only acceptable genders under the white patriarchy are cisgenders, as we currently understand them. Gender variancy and non-conformity are not tolerated, unless this is practiced by those who are DFAB–because under the white patriarchy, the only place for DFAB people to go is closer towards masculinity, and masculinity is the ideal. Rosie the Riveter, anybody? She represented strength and productivity. This was embraced by a whole nation (albeit temporarily) because it served white, patriarchal, capitalist interests. It served the military industrial complex. Have we seen that again? Absolutely.
Women can now serve in combat roles. I use the term ‘women’ there very loosely, as I know it only pertains to cis women in this context (and basically every context). Trans women are viewed as men, so they could already serve in combat so long as they kept their trans status hidden. Women in combat are tolerated under our systems because it serves the interests of the hegemony. We’ve also seen it in movies like She’s The Man, Mulan, and others. A takeaway message from these movies is “You can do masculinity so long as it serves men, their structures, their desires, etc.”
Why is this the case? Referring back to the previous section on problematizing patriarchy, feminist frameworks of patriarchy more often than not come down to a dichotomy of men vs. women. Gender in these models is still fixed and biological. Sure, what ‘woman’ and ‘man’ mean in these models can change, but only in a social/cultural sense; biology is still the underlying component in feminist conceptions of womanhood and manhood. No identity that could be considered trans by our society can ever be included in the binary, even so-called binary trans identities. All trans people are Other’d by the current gender system. All trans people are harmed by it.
Feminism claims to be helping in this regard, but frankly, I can’t buy into that. When feminism is predicated on transmisogyny and transphobia broadly, when it is predicated on colonialism and therefore whiteness, then it cannot fully challenge the gender order. If feminism is cis-centric, then these harmful gender systems and ideologies are enabled and, in many ways, affirmed and validated.
Any feminism that embraces the dichotomy of men vs. women simultaneously embraces white supremacist colonialism, because that is what our conceptions of patriarchy are built upon. This will forever be the case until transmisogyny is eliminated from feminism to a considerable degree. If there must be some sort of dichotomy set up to understand patriarchy, then I contend it should be patriarchal masculinity vs. all other genders. This is far more inclusive and encompassing than current conceptions. To eliminate transmisogyny, and by extension seriously challenge colonial, Western thought, it is not enough to have trans women and trans feminine people at the table, because the foundations of feminism were built without us in mind. The very foundations of feminism must be shaken, must be challenged altogether. If feminism cannot be shaken, then maybe it’s high-time to start a new movement and academic body, one that centers trans femininity and, more importantly, trans women of color.