On Saturday, a small group of women got a lot of national attention by protesting at London LGBT Pride, claiming trans activism and the queer movement 'erase lesbians', while themselves attempting to erase trans and queer people! Along with many others I feel profoundly disturbed by what happened and moved to clarify my own position.
Specifically, the women made the transphobic, false and deeply harmful claims that trans women are men, are rapists, and are forcing cis lesbians to have sex with them.
For people like me who spend all our time trying to figure out what gender actually is, it's reasonably clear what happened here. For those who don't, all this must be terribly confusing.
Let's start with some facts. And yes, these are now well understood to be facts, not 'debating points' as some tabloids and bigots would have you believe:
- Biological 'sex' is not quite as simple as was once thought and is not neatly binary
- Gender is substantially socially constructed, and is demonstrably a spectrum rather than a binary
- Gender sometimes does and sometimes doesn't map to biology
- Sexual orientation doesn't map to sex or to gender
So, cis gendered people exist. That is to say, there are people whose gender matches the sex and gender assigned to them at birth. In terms of sexuality, some cis people are straight, some are bi, some are lesbian or gay, and some are asexual. Trans people also exist. That is to say, there are people whose gender does not match the sex and gender assigned to them at birth. Some trans people are straight, some are bi, some are lesbian or gay, and some are asexual. Importantly, there are many people whose gender lies somewhere along a spectrum in between the two well-known identities of man (masculine) and woman (feminine), or who don't relate to this spectrum at all. I'll come back to the question of my own gender later.
What, then, are these claims of 'lesbian erasure' about? Well, first, let's be clear that sexism/ misogyny, heterosexism/ homophobia, and cis-genderism/ cis-sexism/ transphobia are alive and well everywhere, and combine to ensure that lesbians, bi women and trans people are systematically erased by heteronormative (and homonormative) society as a whole. To 'erase' an identity means the tendency to ignore, remove, falsify or reexplain evidence of it, or even flatly deny its existence. Widespread erasure of our existence is, therefore, an experience lesbians, bi women and trans including non-binary people have in common.
However, things start to get complicated because a (hopefully small) faction of the people who wish to improve the world by dismantling the gender binary (a laudible aim) go a step too far and seem to suggest that because non-binary and bisexual people exist, lesbians (in particular - the same claim is less often made about gay men or straight people) don't. AND, a (also hopefully small) faction of the people who wish to improve the world by dismantling patriarchy, sexism and lesbophobia (again a laudible and surely closely related aim!) go a step too far and seem to suggest that because lesbians exist, trans including non-binary people don't! Confused? Me too.
Both of these sets of people are wrong, and their wrongness is the crux of the drama at Pride on Saturday. In demonstrable reality, male, female and intersex people all exist. Cis and trans men and women exist. All manner of non-binary people exist. Straight, gay, lesbian, bi and asexual people all exist. Queer people also exist (I'll come back to 'queer' later.) What the two extreme factions I mentioned harmfully fail to see, is WE ALL EXIST, and that's OK.
The latter faction, sometimes referred to as trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), insist that to accept the existence of trans, non-binary and queer people is to gradually erase lesbians and feminism. For example they say things like: 'Just as patriarchy rewards the ‘cool girl’ for distancing herself from feminist ideals, queer politics rewards the lesbian for claiming any other label' and 'The parallels between queer politics and patriarchy cannot be ignored'.
But lesbians DO exist, have always existed, and will always exist, and the same for bi, trans, non-binary and queer people.
I said I'd come back to 'queer'. Different people mean different things by queer. Sometimes it's used as shorthand for gay/lesbian/bisexual and sometimes for LGBT. To me queer means something quite different: not heteronormative.
I am queer because how I do gender, how I do sex(uality) and how I do relationships do not conform to heteronormative expectations. I am (as far as I know) female, but I am not feminine and nor am I masculine. I am often attracted to femininity, sometimes to gender neutrality, rarely to masculinity. I fuck in ways I'm definitely not supposed to. I do not prioritise sexual and/or romantic relationships over other kinds of relationships automatically, and I am not monogamous.
Since Saturday many cis lesbians have spoken publicly to distance themselves from the protesters' claim that trans and queer identities 'erase them'. I want to add my voice to this tide precisely because of - not in spite of - the complexity of my own relationship with lesbian identity.
For about 20 years I identified unequivocally as lesbian. QUEER and DYKE are now the two (reclaimed) identities I wear with pride and without hesitation. Politically I identify as a WOMAN - and a FEMINIST - though I hover awkwardly on the gender-neutral margins of this huge identity (and most certainly am not welcome in the ultimate gender-battleground: women's toilets!). I cringe to my core when addressed as Señor/amigo OR Señora/amiga. The people I love represent just about every gender and orientation permutation going. Most of the people I fuck identify as women, but not all of them do. (And what bits they have or had is none of your business.) Oh, and I don't suppose anyone who has met me needs persuading that any of the above happens because I want to be 'cool'. I mean, I wear Crocs with socks. All the time.
What I want to say to the two factions I mentioned above and most especially to the TERFs is: Look around you. Listen to people. We all exist. In particular, trans people including non-binary people exist. Trans men are men and trans women are women. Some trans women are lesbians. Some of them have penises (though that really isn't any of your business). They aren't trying to rape you, lesbians. Some of them might love to have sex with you if you were up for it, but they aren't trying to force you to. They aren't trying to erase you, lesbians, nor do they have the power to do so. In fact, trans women are amongst the most vulnerable members of our community for really similar reasons as cis lesbians are vulnerable (i.e. sexism + homophobia). Lesbians exist. Bi women exist. Trans women exist. Trans lesbians exist. Non-binary people exist. I, too, exist. Let's live and let live. Thanks for reading.