Trans rights and feminism

Trans rights = civil rights
Trans rights = civil rights by Women’s eNews / CC BY 2.0

In his recent column on the CBC news website, Neil Macdonald writes that trans rights issues have resulted in a convergence between the far right and the far left. His comments are based on presentations made to the Senate committee reviewing Bill C-16, An Act to Amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. When passed, Bill C-16 will add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination, as they should be. Macdonald is writing about presentations – some of them from women who identify themselves as feminists – that oppose the new legislation.

Macdonald makes a number of important points in his column but, while this is an issue that the feminist movement has struggled with for some time, I don’t think it marks a confluence between the far right and the far left. Rather, it illustrates one of the many schisms that have plagued feminism since its beginning.

An ongoing debate within feminist circles

For decades, feminists have argued about race, class, sexual orientation, reproductive rights, whether men can call themselves feminists, electoral politics and more. Usually, the movement has emerged the stronger for these debates.

The argument within feminist circles about gender identity seems to have been more bitter and hate-filled, and the jury is still out about whether or not we will be strengthened by our struggles over this important human rights issue.

Some feel that redefining our understanding of gender and creating legal rights for folks who identify with gender in a non-binary way will threaten the gains made by feminists for women’s equality, the understanding that the violence to which many women are subjected is gendered and the right to have women-only spaces.

Others understand that feminism supports the right of people to live as whatever gender they identify with, regardless of the gender they were assigned at birth. We see the present binary definition of gender as limiting to all and as reinforcing women’s inequality, which in turn leads to violence against women. We see, as Gloria Steinem wrote in 2013, the opportunities for all of us in a world where people can live along the “full human continuum of identity and expression.”

While there can be challenges in moving to understandings of gender that are inclusive, they can be overcome, and we will all be the richer for it.

It is unfortunate for both feminism and trans rights that some, as we saw in at least two of the recent presentations to the Senate committee, continue to argue that transwomen, because they were not born with a vagina, are not “real” women and that trans identity is something people “choose”.

It is past time to put this kind of hatred and discrimination behind us and embrace any measures, including Bill C-16, that increase inclusivity of all gender identities and expressions.

4 thoughts on “Trans rights and feminism

  1. It took me a long time and an arduous journey to come to the point of view that Is expressed in Pam’s blog entry. I truly value women’s access to women’s spaces. I have come to believe the potential harms to trans are so omnipresent and severe that every protection in law that others enjoy should be extended to explicitly address this population. I believe that while there may be malicious persons who will try to corrupt women’s only spaces, such challenges will be few, and agreements of conduct within these spaces can be constructed to deal with disruptive behaviour for anyone threatening the safe space. As a feminist I cannot live my principles denying any vulnerable population the fullest and clear human rights protections.

  2. Bonnie, I really agree with what you have written. Threats to the women’s movement are not new: we have been under attack since the first woman spoke out about her rights. Whether it has been anti-choicers bombing abortion clinics and shooting abortion providers, so-called men’s rights activists claiming women lie about domestic violence (and threatening and assaulting women’s equality activists at government hearings) or media celebrities trying to pass sexual assault off as consensual BDSM activity, women’s equality, women’s right to our own spaces, to reproductive choice, to live lives free from abuse and the threat of abuse have faced serious attack since the Suffragettes fought for the right of (at least some) women to vote.

  3. I entirely agree that trans people need legal rights and protections. But the spa issue in Toronto has me stumped. I think most women there do not want to see male genitals,and I just can’t imagine any way around that dilemma.

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