This is the essay I never wanted to write.
The focus of this piece is the women's community, but I could easily write an essay about how gay men also have treated the transgender community badly. Some have called for them to be ousted from the rainbow, and others have disowned friends who were once fun-loving "drag queens" who now identify as women. And of course, some cisgender straight people can be pretty awful, too.
I have fears, wading into what has been a decades-long struggle to both cover and live within a community that is divided, by a small number of people, on a core issue of who belongs in certain spaces, who gets to self-identify, and even who gets to be on the rainbow flag. This is about the cisgender and transgender divide.
Divisions in our community have always existedsexism, racism, classism, etc. In the 1970s, transgender activist Sylvia Rivera was ostracized by lesbians at New York pride. Sandy Stone, considered the founder of transgender studies, faced bias from some cisgender women while a collective member at the Olivia Records women's music labelshe was eventually forced out.
But this essay is about the recent and ancient battles between some cisgender lesbians ( and non-lesbian women ) and the transgender community. This year has seen an upsurge in intensity: At London and Baltimore pride parades, anti-trans literature was handed out and signs carried. At San Francisco's Dyke March, a group of cisgender women say they were physically assaulted by trans allies apparently upset with their signs decrying lesbian erasure ( and one sign protesting puberty blocker side effects on kids ). Even those without signs were targeted.
There are so many overlapping issues that it's difficult to separate legitimate concerns from the clear transphobia.
On the transgender side, no organizations or movement leaders have voiced anti-lesbian or anti-cisgender sentiment. Yes, some individuals, speaking for themselves, have issued threats of violence. On the cisgender side, unfortunately there have been a few feminist leaders ( I am not naming names here ) who have a media presence, especially in England, who have made horrendous anti-trans statements. And some cisgender lesbians do not accept transgender women as women, denying their very existence. While they may not view this the same way they view a violent threat, imagine what we think when someone says lesbians do not have a right to exist? That is a form of threat, too. It is a stage in the building of oppression that can lead to violence and murder.
But I also think even the most benign differences get escalated and lumped all together, and there is even guilt and de-platforming by association. The "TERF" ( Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists ) label is probably too over-used and therefore loses its impact. But there are also very appropriate times TERF should be used. Also, it does demean the word feminist to include it in a phrase that is anti-feminist in its very nature. Some cisgender lesbians get swooped under the label TERF merely for discussing trans issues in a way that is not 100% in line with current orthodoxyeven though the orthodoxy has changed over time, and especially over generations.
I know there are many examples of people who have evolved on this issue. People who were once anti-transgender, or transphobic. Their evolution is due in large part to the patience and educational support of transgender people.
But let me begin at my own beginning on this issue.
I am a native Chicagoan, but I went away for four years to Des Moines, Iowa, from 198084, to attend Drake University. I was very out as a lesbian on campus, and during my sophomore year I started to be on panels both on and off campus. On one such panel, I was with two other women, and they were partners. One was a transgender woman. They explained to the audience that sexual orientation was separate from gender identity ( they probably used a different phrase back then ), and from that point on, it was really easy for me to understand this difference.
I am grateful that I learned this young, because it has made doing my job as an LGBTQ journalist and publisher so much easier. From very early on, even when Chicago's out transgender community was very small, we have had an inclusive approach at the papers I have published. We had transgender columnists and writers almost from the start, and we had what I believe was the first Intersex columnist in any publication in the 1990s.
Changing language and community
The terms we use in this debate have changed. We have not always had the word "cisgender" to apply to non-transgender people, and in fact much of our modern language continues to evolve. For some cisgender lesbians, they loathe the word because when it first came into widespread use, it was often used as a slur or a negative. It has grown on me, and I do use it, but I understand the painful ways it has been wielded, too.
Among other phrases that have changed: what was "sex change" is now "gender confirmation." Just as the words and phrases we use to describe sexual orientation have evolved ( we don't use "homosexual" anymore ), so too have words to describe transgender. I remember in the 1980s when some older women told me they just liked the word gay and never called themselves lesbians. Gender fluid, gender non-conforming ( GNC ) and gender expansive are all relatively new phrases. There are also now a myriad of gender pronouns. There are changes in how we discuss things such as pregnancy, parenthood and medical care to be more inclusive. Trans men can get pregnant, for example. Inclusion shouldn't be seen as erasure. The word queer has become more prominent because it allows for so much more fluidity.
And one massive difference from the 1970s and 1980s is that transgender and GNC people are coming out at ever-younger ages. In my 20s, most transgender people would come out well after college, and some even into their 40s and 50s. Caitlyn Jenner coming out in her 60s was a more common occurrence for transgender people decades ago. These days, families are experiencing this with children as young as three. Our gender identity starts becoming clear much younger than our sexual orientation. And yes, some people's identity is fluid, and changes over the course of their lifetimes.
This is not a column that will deal with the complex issues of young people and gender, or the medical and psychological issues that their families and professionals should be allowed to examine privately. [See Brynn Tannehill's Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Trans* ( But Were Afraid to Ask ).]
It should never be for society to decide what is right for a family or their children. Some of the literature being handed out at pride and posted online is disgusting, claiming to know what is right for a child. They forget how people still want to imprison us, and kill us, for who we love. How dare anyone claim to know what is best for someone else related to gender. Remember a core tenet of the women's movement: Our bodies, ourselves.
Fear and loathing
There are a couple things to break down a bit here.
First, it is a big deal whether someone comes out as transgender or GNC at age 5 vs. age 55. Their transitions will be entirely different. It means the 55-year-old experienced life for 55 years in one way, and now the world might see them another. If they grew up as outwardly male identified, of course they had male privilege and that effects someone both externally and internally. We should never deny that, and those who lived a life of such privilege should work to understand that as they live their new life. But there is no admittance test to womanhood, no certificate someone can achieve to be that "perfect" woman. After all, there are plenty of cisgender women who are not feminist.
Second, there is this fear in the cisgender lesbian community that butch lesbians are being hijacked in some way, that we are "losing" our butches to the trans community. This ties into the theme that lesbian spaces are disappearing.
I don't want to ignore these fears, because I know I hear this with heartfelt passion from people I have known for many years. So let me try to address these fears as someone who has a catbird seat to this movement, in a city like Chicago with so many options for LGBTQ people.
On the issue of butches: We as a cisgender community would be very selfish to think that anyone "belongs" to us. On the flip side, it is also wrong to tell a butch she should transition. If someone identified as a trans man, or wants to be non-binary or GNC, how is it any of our business to tell them they can't fulfill their own destiny? There is no social contagion happeningbeing transgender is not a fad. Remember when lesbians were seen as "stealing" straight women away from men? Maybe not all remained lesbian, but that was their life to lead, not ours. This would be like people who said to us growing up that we should be straight, that it's our duty to serve men, to have babies in a heterosexual context, and we were betraying our gender by not following the traditional path.
As with the extremely small percentage of LGB people who may change course in their life to be heterosexual, in the case of the small percentage ( estimated at 1-4%, often influenced by discrimination people have faced, or bad medical outcomes ) of those who de-transition, we should not then use those rare examples to determine the possibilities of the rest of the transgender community. How can it be right for someone else to dictate their path?
In the case of youth who are dealing with this issue, some become suicidal if they are not allowed to pursue their transition. If their doctors approve, so should we.
All of the above has nothing to do with the disappearance of lesbian-only spaces. Yes, most women's music festivals have gone away, as have women's bookstores, newspapers and bars. It's not because of the rise of the transgender movement, although many would blame the trans community. But long before certain women's festivals and events stopped, most other festivals closed down. Only a very few festivals, bookstores and bars remain in the entire country.
Yet, there are more open lesbians in the U.S. than there have ever been in history. There are more open celebrities and media people, including nightly on MSNBC with Rachel Maddow, daily with Ellen DeGeneres, not to mention Wanda Sykes and thousands more. Younger women may be more fluid or queer in their definitions, but they are coming out like never before ( Janelle Monae, Tessa Thompson, etc. ).
So why the disappearing act of certain parts of lesbian culture? We must not scapegoat the trans and GNC people for this. If cisgender lesbians wanted the bars, bookstores, festivals and newspapers to still be aroundand if they attended and supported those the same way they did in the 1970s and 1980sthey would still be here. I have promoted concerts with some legends of women's musicbut a lot of their fans just did not show up the way they used to.
People change, cultures change, the music we like changes, and the way we socialize and communicate changes. This newspaper will not be around forever, and neither will even the most successful gay male bars. The "blame" is just on generational change.
I can tell you where the lesbians are in Chicago. Most of them are just living their everyday lives working, going to school, raising kids, caring for aging parents, helping ailing partners and friends, volunteering, hosting house parties, pampering their pets, and doing typical life things. We have been assimilated, for the most part, especially as we age.
And then, as always, there is a subset that parties like it's 1999. There are two full-time lesbian bars in the Chicago area ( Spyners Pub and Forest View Lounge ). There are also great women-owned all-gender bars including The Closet and Big Chicks. But there are also dozens of party promoters hosting events across the city and suburbs. In June alone there were probably 30 events specifically targeting lesbian, bisexual and femme-identified women. Yes, they included transgender women, too. If cisgender lesbians want places to socialize in Chicago, there are a myriad of choices. Or we do like we always had for generations: we can build it ourselves, in more inclusive ways than the past.
Another important change is that lesbian-identified cisgender women now feel far more comfortable socializing at mainstream clubs, at gay male bars, and with their work colleagues. Bars overall are hurting because of social media and competition from so many other entertainment options. That's just another generational change.
Finally, separating all of the above complex issues out, there is a cosmic disconnect on the issue of who is a woman. At its core, this debate comes down to the fact that some cisgender women do not consider transgender women to be women. And more specifically, some cisgender lesbians do not think that transgender women can be lesbians.
This can be among the most frustrating and personal of debates. There is the larger social issue, then there is the personal issue of relationships. No one, of course, should ever tell anyone who they should date or have sex with. Even when a white gay man says "I would never date a Black person" or "Asian" etc., we may say they are racist, but it's not for anyone else to say who someone should date. Some of the online comments about forcing cisgender lesbians to have sex with transgender lesbians are damaging aberrations to these debates. It is a red herring and I urge people not to go down that rabbit hole in debates. The issue is that it is transphobic to say you would not date a whole category of people based on their statusit is not about forcing an individual to have sex with any one person. Sometimes the argument is that "real" women are those who menstruate or can give birth. What about the many cisgender women who can't menstruate or have children? Are they not women?
But there is a heartbreaking part to this. A recent survey showed that almost 90 percent of respondents would not date a transgender person. I hope with visibility and education, with more media representation including TV shows such as Pose, we can change minds and hearts.
I believe transgender women are women. I believe gender is complex, related to genetics, epigenetics, society and so much we do not yet understand. To try to police gender is to unnecessarily divide us in the same way that people used to say ( and some still do ) that lesbians were not "real" women.
Sure, the experience of a transgender woman who comes out at 35 or 65 is not the same as a woman who was raised female from birth. But what about someone who has been raised as female since age 5 or 15? Who are we to say what the "perfect" age is to include someone or not?
There are so many ways each of us gets to be the person we are. My experience as a cisgender white middle-class woman from Chicago is very different from so many of my friends and other lesbians across the U.S. and the world. Each of us has had a unique path, some who have experienced violence from men, from women or from those who are nonbinary. The experiences we have shape us, and sometimes shape us in very negative ways. But that does mean we all must work to make sure horrible experiences do not shape us when we view an entire community, including the transgender community.
The gender construct is something cisgender lesbians and feminists of the 1960s and 1970s fought hard against. Androgyny was the thing. Women fought against horrible stereotypes and limited life paths. Sometimes I hear from cisgender lesbians that they do not understand why some transgender women have so bought into the stereotypes of what a woman is. Well, to put it in basic terms, it's because they don't have the luxury of casually walking in a society that might kill them if they don't.
There's no perfect solution on this, it's almost lose-lose in terms of dress and behavior. There is no one right way to be a woman. Transgender and GNC people also face much of the same violence cisgender women face. Women of color who live in poverty, regardless of cisgender or transgender, face harsh realities of the police and prison system, and violence targeting them every day. They have little in common with either Caitlyn Jenner or Jane Fonda.
Even though we are so different, I still believe the commonalities are larger. Sure, I may loathe the women who are apologists for a failing GOP and White House. But they are women, and they do face sexism. I would never say they are not women, even if I hate them. What I hope for is a day when our LGBTQ community, and cisgender people in particular, don't use gender status as a way to separate us. Just because there are trans or cis people you disagree and fight with does not mean they are not the gender they are living. And any one transgender or cisgender person does not represent us all, including those who resort to name-calling and violent threats.
If I took the negative approach some do, I would have left this community a long time ago and probably not identified as lesbian. Some of the worst damage we have done is to ourselves, and I have experienced this among cisgender lesbians. Most of my friends are cisgender lesbians, but I also have many in that same group who I have vehemently disagreed with ( on a myriad of issues ). I wouldn't say they are not womenor lesbiansbecause of those disagreements or even fights.
I would ask the same of the entire community. We may not like everyone we encounter with the LGBTQIAA rainbow, but people who self-identify as a part of our community have a right to be there. Once we start to say who belongs or not, we know the next step is we are all at risk.
Claiming history, building futures
A tricky nuance here is the need for both the transgender community and the cisgender community to "claim" their own. This applies to current lives, where there have been butch lesbians who have been questioned why they don't identify as trans, and it also applies to history, where communities are trying to counter the vast erasure of our lives. This can be contested ground between those claiming an ancestor as a butch lesbian, while others view them as transgender. In fact, some may have lived at one point as a lesbian and later as what we now call transgender. With so little documentation of the past, there will be disputes. But let's not let those minor skirmishes define our current communities.
My final comment is this: I know hundreds of people on both sides of this divide. I love them as friends and allies. I know that those friends who are cisgender are generally very pro-transgender equality, and have advocated and fought for transgender inclusion in our movement. There is a final hurdle we need to help push them over or throughand we should allow people to evolve, and we must, because that is the basis of activism and advocacy. Our work is never finished. I also know there are some cisgender people who will never come around; but I am optimistic that the wealth of information and coming out stories of transgender people, and of transgender lesbians, have been a wonderful counter to the earlier days of a few brave souls carrying the weight of the transgender movement. There has been a big shift in the past decade, and I believe we can build on this progress.
If we truly believe in the equality of a people, that means that separate is not equal. If we think having separate public spaces for cisgender women is okay, then we think separate is equal. ( This has nothing to do with private spaces. ) We all came to our gender or nonbinary status from different paths. To acknowledge difference is a strength.
We need to all understand that transgender women, regardless of any physical characteristics, are women, full stop. We all just have different paths to womanhood. Even though some cisgender women may have seen and experienced the vitriol of some transgender people, and the same holds true of transgender people experiencing bias from cisgender people, it does not represent the whole, any more than one conservative white gay Republican represents all gay men.
Kate Sosin, a former reporter for Windy City Times, wrote this in an essay Aug. 7, 2013: "What could be useful is a more complicated discussion on our myriad identities, the privileges each of usincluding trans people of all identitiescarry. It is helpful to hold all of us to better ways of being in community so that identity-exclusive spaces are less necessary in the future. … Gender is a set of rules, not a set of anatomy. Any associations we have that link our traumas to the bodies of other people, are our own to process. No one's body is wrong. What is wrong is a society that devalues all kinds of women and condones violence against them."
My true dream is that we reset the debate on cisgender vs. transgender. We must move past the contentious early days of debate, and realize that we all had and have a lot to learn about how our marginalization can bring us together. And we as a community have more to gain by working together than fighting one another on social media and at pride parades.
This circular battle is wrenching and untenable. People are being threatened and even friendships are at risk. It's like watching family members fight, or battles between outsiders. No one wins when the cannons are facing inside the room.
Riki Wilchins writes in Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender, "I have begun speaking simply of gender as a name for that system that punishes bodies for how they look, who they love, or how they feelfor the size or color or shape of their skin. I do this not to collapse our differences, but to emphasize our connections."
The LGBTQIAA community is so grand because it is so inclusive. We use one acronym because gender is the real problemthe system that says women should not vote, or work, or have body autonomy, that says gay men can't be feminine or passive, that is all about gender. Gender bias is the thing that really hurts queer women, trans people and queers of any stripe.
Can we all get along? For the most part, we actually do. For the small percentage in our communities that are continuing this battle, I urge you to gather in person to get to know one another. I love you all, I have friends across this divide, and I know we can all move forward so much faster when we row our oars together.
Tracy Baim is publisher and co-founder of Windy City Times. She has been covering the LGBTQIAA community since 1984.
Please see The violence never stops 16 trans murders already in 2018 here: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/The-violence-never-stops-16-trans-murders-already-in-2018/63684.html .