The recent announcement that Stonewall Chief Executive Ruth Hunt will be leaving in the summer has sparked a fair bit of comment. It has been argued that the organisation has lost its way and that it took a wrong turn by deciding to campaign for trans rights. This piece by Jonathan Best in Medium sets out the arguments cogently. I want to look at some of the claims made, in the light of my own experience.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the fightback against police oppression that began in New York’s Stonewall Inn. Prominent in the fightback that night were two trans women of colour, Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. I am going to argue that trans people are not a dispensable bolt on to the LGBT movement but have always been an integral part of it just as they were that night at the Stonewall Inn. It is both that logical and necessary that Stonewall should fight for the rights of transgender people.
Best argues that being trans is essentially different from being lesbian or gay or bi. Clearly, being trans is different from having a specific sexual orientation but I think there are three reasons for disputing the argument that it is basically a thing bolted on to the LGB.
Firstly, many trans people identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, so they are not a discrete and separate group within the community. I identify as bisexual,. For many this is, of course, a matter of logic; a straight man transitioning will identify as lesbian, a straight woman as gay.
But there is a deeper argument. The very process of transitioning, exploring gender, and embarking on the journey of self-discovery this entails, can lead to discovering sexual fluidity and new forms of sexual attraction. This is my experience. I identify as bisexual but I did not do so before beginning my transition. Sexual attraction to men is actually a function of my transition. Yes, that means I like cock. I actually like pussy more and I will return to this later. But the point is that my transness and my bisexuality are not separate from each other so that can be put in separate boxes, they are intimately linked aspects of who I am.
And haven’t trans people always been part of the queer scene? And not only trans people but genderqueer and non-binary people too, all of whom featured in the Tate Gallery exhibition Queer Britain 2 years ago. This, I fact, was one of the things that most struck me. Exploring gender fluidity and swapping gender roles has been seen as subversive as actual gay and lesbian sex. I find this fascinating and attractive. It is not by chance that I have a tattoo of Marlene Dietrich in a man’s suit on my right arm.
Best also claims that being trans is nothing to do with sexual attraction. I don’t agree. In my case it has everything to do with it. Since transitioning I have become attracted to men, attracted too to different kinds of women. Straight men in some cases are attracted to me, yes, I had to pinch myself too, but it is the case. The way I do sex with both men and women has changed, the way that I engage sexually too, and also the way in which sexual partners engage with me. I have experienced this in a powerful way as I have had sex with two women who were sexual partners before my transition and seen who their perceptions and sexual engagement with me changed.
Best argues that Stonewell’s redefinition of gays and lesbians as “people sexually attracted to the same gender” rather than the same biological sex has the effect of making gays and lebians “transphobic”. He seems to imply that trans people generally see gays and lesbians who won’t sleep with them as transphobic. He even suggests that some male bodied trans women have browbeaten lesbians into having sex with them. I take consent very seriously and would never browbeat anyone into having sex with me. And, let’s face it exercising undue pressure on people to have sex is hardly the preserve of trans people.
I want to tell a couple of stories to illustrate my point here.
On a warm summer night two years ago, I sat in the garden of a pub in Birmingham’s Gay Village drinking beer with a young lesbian friend. I asked her whether she would consider a relationship with a trans woman. I asked this out of curiosity, not because I was looking to make out with her, as I hope I made clear.
“With a post op woman may be but preop definitely not, it’s all about the body for me.”
“So you are saying that you prefer pussy to cock?”
“Every time!” She laughed. “Cock is just so not my thing.”
“I totally get that” I replied. “I am bi but, yeah, I do have a preference for pussy.”
And then there was the time I asked my closest girl friend for sex. She is a woman I have known for 20 years and with whom I was in a 10 year sexual relationship. But she turned me down.
“Eve I am straight and for me you are a woman. So it simply wouldn’t work for me.”
Neither of these friends is remotely transphobic and both have been loving and supportive friends. I have many other dear friends who, I guess, don’t want to have sex with me. This is for a variety of reasons, them being in monogamous relationships, my body, or maybe I just don’t float their boat sexually in terms of looks and personality. There is potentially a whole range of reasons why anyone would not want to have sex with a concrete other person. I wild never be so presumptuous as to accuse someone not wanting to make out with me as transphobia and neither would any other trans person I know.
Neither can I imagine any of the several trans women I know browbeating lesbians into sex they don’t really want. I can’t actually imagine them browbeating anyone into sex. For trans people sex is deeply problematic, for obvious reasons, and also because they are potentially negotiating a legal minefield where they could be accused of sexual assault if they do not make clear to potential partners what they have between their legs. For many trans people this is all too problematic and they resign themselves to living without sex and relationships because living an authentic life, as they see it, is more important.
I think the issue of gender probably needs a post in its own right. I do not believe, as Best asserts “the trans ideology” (whatever that is) holds, that gender is innate and internal. I believe that gender is fluid, believe that this very fluidity can be a response to external influences and our response as individuals to those influences. I grew up as a boy and has a happy childhood. No gender dysphoria for me and I can still bore for England about rush back goalkeepers!
Gender is complex and endlessly fascinating and the critique of gender by radical or if you prefer “gender critical feminists” is pretty thin gruel. Sexual stereotypes imposed externally and lived as oppression is part of the picture but only part. It leaves questions unanswered. What, for examples are the mechanisms of imposition? Where does patriarchy come from? Some commentators treat it as being sui generis, an ahistorical approach that I have difficulty with. How do concepts of gender change over time? When and where did the whole idea of gender originate? How is gender linked to biological facts? How does it link to concrete social formations? Is the woman queuing up at the department store beauty counter to buy a new foundation oppressed? Is she oppressed if she subjectively enjoys her femininity? There are those who would say that she is but this takes us into the territory of false consciousness which I think I think is deeply problematical for feminism.
As a socialist feminist I see gender in the light of concrete social formations, and in the modern world as something shaped by the needs of industrial capitalism. Gender, like class is not only a terrain of oppression, but also a locus of struggle, and a source of strategies for liberation. I do not find it progressive to see all men as a class oppressing all women. At some point class and race have to come into it. I think future generations will see Sheila Rowbotham as a rather more significant feminist thinker than Sheila Jefferies.
Sadly many gender critical feminists make common cause with evangelical Christians, the most reactionary elements of the Roman Catholic Church (yes the same people who blame clerical child abuse on some mythical “gay agenda”) and even the far right. I will just mention Posy Parker’s recent endorsement of “Tommy Robinson.” This, I have to say, is not the basis for a constructive and progressive politics either.
I think, too, that Best’s piece sets up straw men (women) in the shape of unnamed “trans activists” or a “trans lobby” allegedly saying or doing things which few, if any, trans people can relate to their own experience. I don’t recognise any of this in my lived experience. This is simply not a basis for arguing that Stonewall is wrong to campaign for trans rights. Most trans people just want to keep their heads down and get on with their often difficult lives. And knowing that Stonewall is fighting their corner is surely a help.
So why don’t we all, those of who identify as LGBT, pull together and fight our cause side by side, for it is a common cause, just as it was in Stonewall on that New York summer’s evening in 1969 when 2 brave transwomen helped lead the fightback.