Two lesbian feminist activists talk about why it's important to denounce trans-exclusionary language.
Recently, author J.K. Rowling unleashed a series of tweets that asserted a view shared by trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, that transgender women aren’t women. As two white cisgender lesbians who came of age in the lesbian feminist communities of the 1970s and ’80s, and who are still active in the struggle for justice, we reject Rowling, the TERFs, and the ideology they espouse. They don’t speak for us.
It’s past time for lesbians like us who embrace our trans and nonbinary loved ones to speak out and share our own journeys of change. We invite you into our conversation.
Roey Thorpe (pictured above, right): For many of my young adult years I was a proud member of lesbian feminist communities in Ohio and Michigan. This was the mid-1980s, and the things I learned about power, resistance, and gender were what propelled me toward a career as a social justice activist. I learned that sexism had played a powerful role in how I saw myself and how others saw me, and believed that feminism is the natural response to the oppression of women. I still believe that.
Cindy Rizzo: I arrived in Boston in the summer of 1977, right after college and a few years after coming out. Boston was the fulfillment of a dream — home to a vibrant “women’s community,” the coded term we used back then to mean lesbian. There were three lesbian bars downtown within short walking distance of one another. There were feminist newspapers that appealed to a range of perspectives, from mainstream assimilationist to the most radical. We had our own feminist bookstore and women’s restaurant. There was a local lesbian publishing company and women’s music production company. Hundreds of women filled college auditoriums to sing along with Meg Christian, Linda Tillery, Cris Williamson, and Alix Dobkin, who were our very own celebrities.
Roey: Lesbian feminism was exhilarating. I was also exposed to women-centered music, art, and writing, and I happily embraced a feminist sensibility and aesthetic in everything I did. I had found a community that valued strength and a bottomless well of anger, both of which I had plenty. I lived in a lesbian-only house, associated only with women, and believed that lesbian feminism provided a vision for the future that would benefit societies all over the world, if only lesbians could be put in charge. I went to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival annually for over a decade, with no idea that it would become a symbol of trans exclusion. At the time, it felt like home.
Cindy: But one’s entry into all of this amazing community of culture and politics came at a price — conformity. Because we lived by the core feminist mantra that “the personal is political,” we saw everything as political, including what we thought, how we dressed, loved, and lived. Those who deviated from any of these were mistrusted, shamed, or even shunned.
Roey: Yes. High heels were not OK, not ever. Neither was makeup, shaving, or sexual penetration. We debated the rules, discussed each other’s behavior, and did our best to fit an androgynous lesbian ideal. But there was one thing that was clear to all of us at the time: Real women were “womyn-born womyn,” and transgender women were impostors, determined to sap women’s culture and power. I owned and had highlighted a copy of Jan Raymond’s book The Transsexual Empire, and I believed every word. It’s so painful to think about that now, when that book is still quoted in such a damaging way by TERFs.
Cindy: I remember attending a concert by one of the most radical performers of the time. She began her set by saying, “I’ve heard there’s a member of your community who has a penis.” She was referring to a trans woman who was one of the most politically active and effective people in our community. But there was no mention of the work this woman did. Instead there was a call to drive her out. I remember sitting there stunned. I knew what the performer was saying was wrong, even as many in the audience applauded her. But I didn’t have the words to articulate how or why I was so uncomfortable, so I said nothing.
Roey: In the late 1980s the world around me was changing quickly. The silence that had surrounded LGBTQ people was shattered by AIDS and I got involved in the movement. I went from being a lesbian who knew almost no men to someone whose friends were dying every week. And I went from being an androgynous baby dyke to a young woman who stopped hiding my love of glitter and makeup. I tried turning to lesbian feminism for answers, only to have more and deeper questions.
Cindy: My journey to becoming a trans ally was gradual. I was beginning to put the pieces together. I started to examine my own gender expression and identity as a butch lesbian who was attracted to femmes. During Pride Week in New York City some years ago, an African-American lesbian was assaulted by security and forced to leave a restaurant because she had walked into the women’s restroom and was thought to be a man. That was a galvanizing event in my mind that showed me how connected the struggle of butch lesbians was to that of trans women and men. That event was like a fork in the road for me. I could have chosen the path of those who say that the patriarchy is like a siren that is forcing butches to transition. But I felt that I’d be twisting myself and my politics into a pretzel to believe that because the lives of transgender people prove it to be so wrong.
Roey: I also started having some pretty big moments of change. One of them was coming to understand that gender is a spectrum, not a binary, and that many of the butches I was so attracted to didn’t see themselves as women at all. And then I met Frances Billker, a trans woman who became a dear friend, and once I loved her all I could see was the things we had in common, including a love of sparkle. My friendship with Frances caused me to start reading personal stories that made me challenge my assumptions about trans people and about gender more broadly. And then, as the leader of an LGBTQ organization, I got to know many more trans people, all with their own journeys, who challenged me further. I witnessed a trans movement growing, and over time I became a dependable ally; the power of watching people come out and begin to live openly was both very familiar and undeniable. And hearing how much damage that people with my lesbian feminist beliefs had done to trans people both in the past and currently became something I had to both admit to and apologize for.
Cindy: That’s why I’d urge my lesbian community to really understand the stories that trans folx are telling us. The lives of trans women and men are testaments to the struggle, the courage, the oppression, the resilience, and the authenticity of what one has to endure just to be oneself. It is neither theory nor politics, though both are bound up in it. It is a reality of a people who know they are someone other than who they were assigned at birth. That is the personal. The political is on the rest of us in how we react, how we align ourselves, and whether we join as activists for change.
Roey: Along with the common interests and experiences I have with the trans women in my life (and there are many), I also see a common enemy. That enemy is right-wing conservatives and religious fundamentalists. I was shocked to see that a group of self-identified radical feminists, including many lesbian feminists, are calling themselves the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) and joining forces with ultraconservative groups to attack trans people. To them I ask, are you kidding me? Is the difference you believe you have with trans women greater than what we all share in our belief in women’s equality? Is the discomfort you feel with trans people worth allying yourselves with those who would rather take away every right you have fought so hard for? What are your priorities here? There is an epidemic of violence against trans women of color in this country, and there was a time when my feminist community would have seen that as evidence that these women were challenging patriarchal power. For some of us to join with our enemies rather than to embrace our sisters is outright betrayal and nothing that resembles feminism.
Cindy & Roey: We call on everyone who calls themselves feminists, especially lesbians and radical feminists, to take a stand and refuse to let WoLF and other TERFs speak in our name. We call on all lesbians and feminists to ally ourselves with the trans community in recognition of the fact that no one is free till we’re all free!