Yesterday, Frau Sally Benz posted on Feministe about whitewashing, that is, assuming Feministe is predominantly white. There’s been some conflict throughout this larger discussion – solidarityisforwhitewomen, wtfhugoschwyzer – about the way that past bloggers and blog history are being categorized. So Nanette said this in comments, and it crystallized things for me, that is, made me angry:
I don’t know who Bliss is, but gah! Heart. Disgusting person. I’m so happy that things have changed here (and hopefully elsewhere) and those sort of bigoted comments that you point out are no longer tolerated.
No, look, things did not change. A small group of people changed them. This is what happened: once upon a time, the feminist blogosphere had carved out a niche in the political blogosphere. The feminist blogosphere was really transphobic. A lot of the time, bloggers were well-intentioned, but they had no idea how to identify transphobia or talk about it. They wound up repeating – and ignoring – a whole lot of transphobic commentary. Then a bunch of trans bloggers and commenters started complaining about it. They made it their business to explain, in painstaking detail, over and over and over again, why their humanity was important and why transphobia needed to be a feminist priority.
Mainstream feminism is capable of articulating the concept transphobia because of that work. Before it happened, transphobia was not really on the radar. Feminist bloggers did not understand why “women-born-women” was a problematic concept. They did not understand why questions like, “But why can’t you just be a feminine man?” were rank transphobia. They constantly used transphobic and cissexist terminology when describing trans and cis people – bodies, sexualities, genitalia, histories.
Mainstream feminism has managed to become less transphobic only to the extent that it has internalized the critiques of trans people.
Holly wasn’t the only one. A partial list: Queen Emily, gudbuytjane, Rose, Lisa Harney, and, yes, voz. Some of these women guest-blogged at feministe. All of them did trenchwork in the comments section for years on end.
Take Heart. Jill’s post is on-point, but it wasn’t cis people who pointed out that Heart was transphobic. Heart made an attempt to mainstream herself, Bachmann-like, at the end of 2005. She was notorious from the Michfest threads; if you had been paying attention, you knew that she was incredibly transphobic, like, to the point of refusing to acknowledge that trans- was a valid concept. To the point of accusing a trans woman of plagiarism for using the concept of the monstrous in a poem. To the point of nodding along when trans women were called Buffalo Bills on her website. These things did not rise to the level of unacceptable back then. Mainstream feminism did not rise to the level of basic acceptance.
I remember that, and I remember having to listen to intelligent, well-meaning feminists saying things like, “But why would it be so bad if a blog had women-[born-women]-only threads?” and, “Look, when a transphobic radical feminist says women, it’s not necessarily true that she’s excluding trans women out of hand,” and, “I’ve always wondered about this transgender thing. I mean, really, can’t they just be feminine men?” There was no consensus that she was a horrible person, or that her political stance was horrible. That consensus didn’t suddenly emerge when she started saying transphobic things.
That all went on for quite some time. It didn’t stop because cis feminists realized that transphobia was important. It stopped because this cohort of trans bloggers refused to shut up and go away. They put up with an enormous amount of disrespect and cruelty. They gave detailed, serious responses to crude, unserious questions. Over and over and over and over again.
And now, mainstream feminism Gets Transphobia, just like the Democratic Party Gets Marriage Equality. Mainstream feminists can generally understand why it’s not okay to ask trans women about their genitals, or incarcerate them with men, or ‘wonder’ why they need to exist at all. They still screw up, but cissexism is officially on the radar. Cis is in the lexicon. Transphobia isn’t a political dispute. It’s a problem.
Management at Feministe is much better at moderating out transphobic comments, but they are better because they know what transphobia is, and they know what transphobia is because trans people kept explaining it to them until they understood.
In other words, Holly changed things. Holly’s contribution changed things. Holly went from being incomprehensible to being praised, and Holly gets the credit.
I know that Nanette isn’t doing this intentionally, but relegating these achievements to passive voice is wrong. It is erasure, and it obscures the extent to which mainstream feminism has been enriched by the contributions of communities it has taken into the fold – that is, comprehensively. Every single insight into the status of any marginalized group can be sourced back to the people directly affected. That means that white feminists have profited from, benefited from, the insights of people of color to the extent that they are not racist. Cis feminists have profited from, benefited from, the insights of trans people to the extent that they are not transphobic. All of this intelligence is the work of other people.
I stopped blogging because I felt like I was being eaten alive. I was having minor panic attacks every time I posted. I was having a lot of difficulty looking at, let alone responding to, comments. There are all kinds of rationalizations for this – I’ve used them myself – but I think I was in trouble because I was converting my life into someone else’s intelligence. It isn’t possible for a community to be supportive when your mission there is the dissemination of your basic humanity – and at the end of the day, I could not be myself among friends. And now, having to read this description of what happened as though it just happened…it bothers me. It really does.