Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Pussy Power: You can’t fight misogyny with transmisogyny

Lisbeth Latham
[This is an extended version of my article published in Overland, the article had to be substantially cut to meet Overland's word limit]

Event Poster from overland.org.au
Modern Australian society is riven with sexism and misogyny. We see this in the horrifying rates of violence against women: close to two women are murdered every week. Our labour market is characterised by significant vertical and horizontal segmentation causing a gender pay gap of 18.8%. Both gender violence and the gender pay gap reflect systemic and structural oppression which all Australian women face – oppression that can result in internalised misogyny that assumes the marginalisation of women is natural. This diminishes the self-esteem of individual women and encourages lateral violence between women. It is precisely this internalisation of oppression that historically made consciousness raising an essential strategy of feminist women’s only spaces. We need to construct and defend such spaces to enable women to collectively fight misogyny.

It precisely this objective that defines Brigitte Lewis’s article in OverlandPussy Power in Peril’ in its discussion of the cancellation of the “Pussy Power” DJ night at Fitzroy’s Little and Oliver bar. Unfortunately, rather than challenging misogyny, Lewis’s piece attempts to justify the use of language that excludes trans women and frame attempts to challenge that exclusion as a threat to “females”. In doing so, Lewis demonstrates both a limited knowledge of the facts around the event cancellation and a heavy reliance on cissexist and transmisognyist views which exclude trans women from the feminist movement.

‘Pussy Power’, which was launched on May 9, was a night that profiled “femme DJs”. Almost immediately the event’s Facebook page received posts from patrons concerned that the event was transmisogynist. Requests were made for the event’s name to be changed. Despite these concerns the event went ahead for more than a month before being cancelled in mid-June. It has now been replaced by a new “All Girl DJ Night”, ‘Ciao Meow’ which began on July 4.

Lewis takes issue with the objections of trans women and the cancellation of ‘Pussy Power’. Lewis attributes the event’s cancellation to an “activist boycott”, implying the event’s success depended on trans women’s support (and their “activist” allies) and that trans women were obliged to attend. Implicit in this is that the success of the event was dependent on the patronage of trans women (and their “activist” allies) who were – in Lewis’s mind – obliged to attend a night that they found objectionable. There is apparently no obligation for the event organisers to build an event that people actually want to attend.

What is cissexism and transmisogyny?

Cissexism refers to attitudes and beliefs that assume that the experiences of cis people (people whose gender identities corresponds with the gender they were assigned at birth) are either normal or superior to those of trans experiences; the term also points to views that question the authenticity and validity of trans experiences. Transmisogyny refers to the intersection of transphobia and misogyny. Transphobia intensifies the misogyny experienced by trans women, and vice versa.

Why ‘Pussy Power’ is cissexist as an event name and why it excluded trans women

Central to Lewis’s defence of the event is her view that it was inclusive of trans women. She states that the “event was boycotted by activists who claimed such an event title actively excluded transgender-identified people even though the by-line read ‘gay straight transgender friendly party”. What the events’ byline actually states is that “Female, Male, transgender, gay, straight, bisexual, Agender/Neutrois, Androgyne/Androgynous, Bigender, Cis/Cisgender, Female to Male/FTM, Gender Fluid, Gender Nonconforming/Variant, Gender Questioning, Genderqueer, Intersex, Male to Female/MTF, Neither, Non-binary, Pangender, Other, Trans/Transgender, Transsexual, Two-spirit friendly event. Basically what we are trying to say is EVERYONE IS WELCOME. LET'S RECLAIM SATURDAY NIGHTS TOGETHER”. It looks like the organisers randomly threw a list of gender identities and sexualities together to appear inclusive (and co-opted the unrelated feminist movement, Reclaim the Night, into an apolitical DJ night). Stating an event is inclusive of an identity does not make it so. Indeed, an obvious first step towards including trans women would be to avoid labelling them as MTF (male-to-female). Many trans women view MTF as an offensive term and not an accurate reflection of their identity or experience.

Using ‘Pussy Power’ as a title for a supposedly feminist, inclusive, women's event is problematic. It promotes the idea that having a vagina is synonymous with being a woman. This is cissexist on two levels: it excludes those women who do not have a vagina from the category of women; it also erases the gender identity of trans men and non-binary people who have vaginas by insisting they are women. Merely stating that the event is trans-inclusive does not address these concerns – trans women do not want to be included in a women's event on the basis of being trans but on the basis of being women. The reality is, in practice, “trans inclusivity” at women-only events tends be used to signify that trans men and non-binary people with vaginas are welcome that exclude cis men. A trans woman who does not “pass” can still expect to have their gender interrogated at such events.

Even if the intent to include trans women was genuine – which I don’t think it was – it is not enough to want to include a marginalised section of the population. You have to actively seek dismantle the barriers that prevent the involvement of that marginalised group. Apart from the important reality that associating vaginas with womanhood can trigger dysphoria for some trans people, trans women, like other trans people, face the constant negation of their gender identities. Trans women in particular face active exclusion from women’s spaces and the erasure of their very existence.

Is ‘Pussy Power’ okay…because it is a subversive reclamation of pussy?

A less subversive take on "Pussy Power"
[ResidentAdvisor.net]
Lewis argues that ‘Pussy Power’ “was meant to be subversive, a tongue-in-cheek alliteration, a literal call to party” as a consequence of pussy having always “been a dirty word. If you’re a ‘pussy’, you’re weak, you’re a girl and you throw like one too.” There are two problems with this argument. It is questionable how transgressive the phrase “pussy power” or whether it subverts negative meanings associated with the word pussy. ‘Pussy power’ has been used in misogynistic way by chauvinists since at least 1969. Secondly, a subversive reclamation cannot justify being transphobic – particularly if you are using it to describe a space that is supposed to be inclusive of trans women.



Do trans women’s objections to ‘Pussy Power’ marginalise ‘Women with Vaginas’?

Lewis’s attempts to defend the use of ‘Pussy Power’ on the basis that not using it would marginalise "women with vaginas". This is disingenuous. Not using that title would not marginalise cis women, it simply avoids the erasure of trans women from the category of women. It might be marginalising if there was a reality in which trans women were centred in all discourses about women – but since this is not the case Lewis’s concern is simply hyperbole. Trans women’s rejection of the title of the event is not about the use of the word pussy in general. Trans women reject the assertion that possessing a vagina is synonymous with being a woman.

But cis women experience discrimination too

Lewis attempts to justify the use of the word pussy on the basis that cis women experience discrimination. She points to the existence of the gender pay gap – although she acknowledges that trans women experience more discrimination and links to the Private Lives 2 report. However, using language that excludes trans women is never justified, irrespective of cis women’s experience of discrimination. Lewis fails to recognise that trans women also experience sexism and misogyny and have a shared interest with cis women in combating it.

A broader definition of womanhood?

Lewis ends her article by acknowledging the need for “broader conceptions of what ‘woman’ is” – yet, she herself has imposed limits on the definition of being “female” as possessing a having a vagina – which she describes as being either “biologically female” or “surgically constructed”. To support this position she ends with a quote from trans feminist Julia Serano “to believe that a woman is a woman because of her sex chromosomes, reproductive organs or socialisation denies the reality that every single day, we classify each person we see as either female or male based on a small number of visual cues and a ton of assumptions. The one thing that women share is that we are all perceived as women and treated accordingly”. The visual cues that Serano is referring to, as the quote makes clear, is not whether a person has a vagina – you generally can’t tell much about a person’s genitalia by looking at them fully clothed – but the extent to which the way they dress and carry themselves fits our socialised ideal type of “woman” that we carry with us.

Woman, female, or femme?

A significant problem that Lewis and the event organisers stumble over is their use of the terms femme, female and woman interchangeably. These terms are not interchangeable. Female relates biological sex, woman is a gender category, and femme is a gender expression. Having or not having a vagina does not determine whether you are female, a woman or femme. A night that seeks to highlight femme DJs could conceivably feature people from any gender identity, because anyone can present as femme.

Lewis’s piece is riddled with cissexism and transmisogyny. Some of the worst of includes:

  • trivialising trans women’s concerns with a supposedly inclusive feminist event taking ‘Pussy Power’ as its title
  • treating cis and trans women as having exclusively separate gender identities
  • repeated references to “biological females”
  • repeated discussion of trans women’s genitalia.

Given the general tone of the article this might be explained by Lewis's general ignorance of respectful ways to discuss trans issues. However, as both an academic and a member of the board of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Lobby you would hope that Lewis would know how to discuss transgender experience in more appropriate and sensitive ways. If we are to combat the misogyny that devastates the lives of millions of women we need a feminism that is inclusive of all women – and the continued marginalisation of trans women within feminism echoes patriarchal power dynamics which exclude, thus only strengthening misogyny.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 
This article is posted under copyleft, verbatim copying and distribution of the entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved. If you reprint this article please email me at revitalisinglabour@gmail.com to let me know.

0 comments:

About This Blog

Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP  

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.