Hijacking, a Legacy in Many Parts

30 March 2012

(originally posted to my Tumblr)

I logged on to my computer this morning, and of a whim, I decided to check the tag for “#adrienne rich” here on Tumblr, because I am curious how the wider feminist community is handling the news of her death, since her legacy is so very problematic concerning trans women. I wish I could say that I was surprised to see that there was little mention of the conflict, yet one post caught my eye, a post complaining of “transjacktivists” by an 18-year-old Australian woman:


Seriously, transjacktivists? You’re discrediting her years of work for the feminist movement by claiming (on the day she died— have some respect) she was a transphobe?

I assume, since I am a fair hand at the English language, that this person means to say that trans activists are somehow hijacking this conversation, as if we have no right to comment upon the legacy of Adrienne Rich. First of all, we are not “claiming” any such thing, the evidence comes from the woman’s own hand and hands of her closest associates.

Not that I am going to allow the words, let alone, the arrogance, of an 18-year-old child to stand in my way. I have a few things that I wrote this morning in regard to Adrienne Rich that I would like to share with you, because there seems to be some misunderstanding about how Adrienne Rich is viewed in the trans community, simply because some of us have felt the need to express our anger about her, which is not an unusual reaction when hearing about the death of a controversial figure. The same sort of debate surrounded the deaths of Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin. The same sort of debate will surround the deaths of Janice Raymond, Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer, and many others, when they, too, are gone from this life.

Adrienne Rich, much more so than any of the figures I named just there, is as revered by many in the trans community as she is in the wider feminist community. The shock and anger, the denial, that is evident in the wider feminist community at learning of Adrienne Rich’s contributions to the battle against trans women’s participation in the feminist community, or in womanhood, is being played out in microcosm in the trans community. Some of us are quite familiar, overall, with both the bad and the good of her work. Others found out just the other day.

Still, and I don’t expect an 18-year-old from Australia to have any real conception of what it was like to be a trans woman in the United States in the aftermath of the publication of Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire in 1979, there are those of us for whom familiarity with Rich’s stance on trans women was part and parcel of any appreciation we might have had for her work or her life. I am one of those people.

I was born in 1968. I am 43 years old. This is not some ancient history which has no personal meaning for me. This was the reality of my life, growing up. I was 11 years old, hitting puberty, at the time Empire was published, and Raymond made her thanks to Rich for her contribution. In 1982, I entered high school, and by this time, this strain of radical feminism exemplified by Empire was in its ascendancy in academia, such that by the time I entered college, it was one of the dominant lines of feminist philosophy. In these days, only a handful of local jurisdictions in America offered anti-discrimination protections to people on the basis of gender identity, beginning with Minneapolis, MN, which passed such laws in 1975. There was yet to be a single state which enacted such laws.

By my tenure in high school, Adrienne Rich was already considered to be one of the most important American poets of her generation, and given that I attended high school at the very well advanced Stuyvesant High School in New York City, I was exposed to her poetry even before the age of 18. I did not yet really understand my need or my ability to transition. I only knew what most people would have known about transsexualism, except that with a physician for a father and a Registered Nurse for a mother, as well as a scientific bent of my own, I had more knowledge than most of the risks and dangers of medical transition, which given the treatments available at the time, were significant, and extremely rare was the medical practitioner who professed any expertise in the matter. I also knew that I was deeply and profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin and that I had an affinity for women, and a longing for their sisterhood, but it seemed almost preposterous to me that I could possibly be “one of those people”.

Until I read the poetry of Adrienne Rich. I did not immediately know of her precise connections to the lesbian and feminist communities, but I was aware, peripherally at least, that she was so connected. I will leave it at that, and return to my discovery of her work, below.

I should say, perhaps, that I am a poet, myself, as well as a songwriter, so poetry has always captured my attention. I began writing songs at the age of 16. A friend of mine on Facebook, a fellow Stuyvesant alumna of near vintage who is also trans and also a poet, was hosting additional discussions on the life of Adrienne Rich. We have been arguing for the last couple of days about this. I am also, if you are unaware of this, a mildly well-known activist for the equal protection under the law of the rights of all people, and for this, I have received the dubious honor of being personally attacked by certain members of the radical lesbian feminist community simply because I have dared to put forth the proposition that trans women are women.

Part of the argument with my friend happened, I think, because she was under the impression that my antipathy toward Rich and others was more of a theoretical issue. It was only after I pointed out the fact that I have been personally, individually targetted by name and by publishing my likeness that she began to look into this and express her support for me.

I would like to share with you something of what I said in our conversation. Perhaps it may lead to better understanding.

I doubt I will ever be able to ignore the knowledge that Adrienne Rich spoke of things which she meant not to apply to me, things which she meant to keep from my ears. Why is this so important to me? Because the damage she caused directly affected my life, and continues to affect my life in a daily and personal manner. … With Rich it is different, and when I read her, the anger and disgust I feel informs every word, my knowledge of her hatred for my womanhood destroys any connection we might have had, because it is a connection through the shared sisterhood that she repudiated.

…your comment, above, is representative to me of the quandary I find myself in, when you say, “But with respect. All who pass, even those we don’t agree with deserve respect and dignity.”

Why? Why does she deserve a dignity which she actively worked to deny to me, to you, to us?!

i want you to know that I am literally crying as i write this.
do you think i do not also love her work? how else would it cause me so much pain? do you know that when i read her work as a teenager, knowing that she was a woman, and lesbian, but nothing else at first, that her words resonated in me in a way which i will never be able to fully describe because it was so profound? in a way which began my journey toward my own womanhood?and then, discovering the truth of her, that she believed that never could i be what i felt, what i knew for truth inside, to have that joy ripped from me, was a pain so terrible that to articulate this pain was impossible. her words, her influence, echoed through every attempt i made to access my very being, turned me away from myself…

sometime in the mid-late 1990’s, i wrote a song, because it was the only way that i could express what i was feeling inside about who i was. that song is called “if i were (a girl)”, and i lied to everyone for over ten years about the meaning behind the lyrics just so that i could get it out into the world, to stand on a stage and sing out my heart, even if only i knew what i was saying.

This is quite a different picture than you will get from some others about how reading the words of Adrienne Rich had a different more positive effect upon them, no?

I do not really expect that if you yourself are young, as our 18-year-old Australian example above is young, and you identify as a radical feminist, that you really have any idea what the term “radical feminism” even describes. The funny thing is, most people don’t. Most women don’t, and most feminists don’t. They think it just means that these people are just “really, really, like super feminist”, or perhaps particularly vocal and strident about their feminism. This has lead to a very wide misunderstanding of what radical feminism is all about and why it comes into conflict with the rights of trans people, everywhere.

“Radical Feminism” means something very specific in the schema of Feminism. I find myself quoting and re-quoting a specific passage by Emi Koyama, from her 200 essay, “Whose Feminism is it, Anyway?”:

“Radical feminism, in its simplest form, believes that women’s oppression is the most pervasive, extreme, and fundamental of all social inequalities, regardless of race, class, nationality, and other factors. It is only under this assumption that the privilege transsexual women are perceived to have (i.e. male privilege) can be viewed as far more dangerous to others that any other privileges (i.e. being white, middle class, etc.).”

As I have yet to see this passage contradicted by those who self-identify as radical feminists, save to hear them protest that only radical feminists have the authority to identify what radical feminism means, I think it a functional definition, if an incomplete definition. Why incomplete? Because as a trans woman, I see that it leaves out any mention of the fact that radical feminists by and large hold a specific belief that trans women are not women, but in fact men, and that never, ever, under any circumstances can any child born “male” become a woman. The justifications for this belief are varied, but none of them are considered to be available for debate.

And so, in a related discussion today, I found myself saying:

“…in light of this knowledge of the tenets of radical lesbian feminism, you can see that in their day, these women of their own volition and accord chose a definition of “femaleness” which was absent any real scientific basis in fact, a definition which rejected science, actually, on the grounds that science is corrupted by patriarchy, and therefore “women’s mysteries” are the only trustable source of knowledge.In this system of quasi-religious belief, there is an ineffable mysticism about femaleness that cannot under any circumstances be acquired by anyone not “born woman”, and thus the claims of trans women to womanhood are inherently invalid, appropriative, false, and oppressive to “real women”.

And because it is their central belief that oppression of women by men via patriarchy is the most fundamental oppression that exists, their resistance to comprehending our reality rests upon the fact that they do not acknowledge that we are, in fact, women.”

On the one side of this debate, we have trans women who believe that there is sufficient scientific evidence to suggest that sex and gender are concepts which even in human biology are far more complex and varied than has been previously thought in earlier times, and therefore, we should embrace the diversity of human development as natural. On the other side of the debate, we have radical feminists who assert that they “just know” that trans women are male.

Belief, of course, cannot be countered in the mind of the believer by externally verifiable fact.

In the minds of trans women, we are women. The scientific community agrees with us, the medical community agrees with us, the psychiatric community agrees with us. Every competently conducted study recently performed confirms the basis for this. We realise that this is a difficult concept to grasp for many people. After all, for many of us it was a terrifying leap of faith we had to take to become the women we are. But it is true, verifiably so. Trans women ARE women.

So, when we see soi disant radical feminists dishing out hatred toward trans women, what we see is that this is exactly equivalent to the hatred that is directed by a patriarchal society toward all women, and we say, “Radical feminism equals patriarchy. There is no difference.”

I do not really expect that this is going to change the mind of any person who prefers the comfort of ignorance to the liberty of knowledge, the false certainty of religious belief over the uncertain conclusions of an imperfectly rational mind. What I have to say here is an attempt to reach out to those who are shocked by the level of anger that I have directed at the legacy of Adrienne Rich, and by the anger displayed by other women like me all over the world.

And so, I ask you this: How much longer? How much longer will trans women have to wait for equal rights? How much longer before we collectively put the legacies of these women whose destructive ideas form so much of the foundations of modern feminism behind us? How many more trans women will die from despair, lack of housing, lack of jobs, lack of healthcare, and from outright murder before that day comes?

I ask you this, because *this* is also a part of the legacy of Adrienne Rich, along with all her wonderful, soaring poetry, her inspirational words which have lifted up generations of women, and you do a terrible disservice to women everywhere when you ignore it.


Gemma Seymour-Amper