Dear Zeph —
Your open letter on Fest yesterday to Alice Kalafarski and readers of PrettyQueer.com, is one of the most insightful, intelligent, and incisive I have read in years. It is not only so on the divisive politics of Fest, but also on describing today’s snapshot of women’s communities by affirming its several intersections of experiences, ages, working classes, bodies, survivor knowledges and, to several degrees, one’s ethnicity and cultural foundation.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you for speaking on this.
If it is OK, may I raise a few points atop several others why trans women are not yet being seen in critical mass numbers at Fest? Three perennially come to my mind:
- economic class and poverty being one (despite the few highly visible, highly liquid trans women whose links to the tech industry are renown);
- affirming that Fest does not speak to a lot of trans women whose interest in dyke-positive spacing as heterosexual women is minimal or even absent; and
- a nagging reminder that for someone who does not attend Fest, it is still viewed from outside as a largely white, culturally elitist bacchanal (whether fairly perceived or not) with very little grasp of the much more basic barriers facing all women — cis and trans — in places like the U.S. (where many of us are not) and far, far beyond.
In reverse order, the optics of Fest being geographically remote, removed, and isolated isn’t helped by its location. The build-up for Fest is a bit like the build-up for Burning Man in a way, but viewed as more remote in that its voluntary transportation linkages (such as for carpooling) from nearby major cities is a bit more tenuous than, say, starting points of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle, or Las Vegas for Burning Man (where critical masses of like-minded folks can organize carpools to Black Rock City with greater ease).
When one goes through pictures and video captured during past Fests only to observe a sea of women/womyn/etc. who would look totally at home in a Subaru commercial, what exactly does this broadcast to all the feminist-forward women, cis or trans, who would not be hand-picked for such a fictitious casting call? Why do the faces still skew to the pale end of this spectrum? (I have an idea, of course, but it’s not important.)
Also, the emphasis by WBW recalcitrants on this being a private space in which private, arbitrary policing is diligently enforced is deeply off-putting not just to trans women (who fear being outed or excoriated before her peers with no legal protections from harassment or assault), but also to cis women whose geographic, social, political, and cultural herstories have been strictly regulated by men and the masculinized power systems which arbitrarily police and constrain the movement of women, girls, feminine-feminine attraction, femininity generally, and latitudes of expression in private spaces far removed from Fest.
The last thing a woman from these origins wants is to go from one privately policed space to another kind of privately policed space where she is suddenly as conditionally welcome as she was conditionally unwelcome in non-Fest private spaces. Some women actually would feel safer without the idea of (or word) “policing” even looming nearby — just for once.
What comes to mind are lesbian women in places like Jamaica, Iran, several Latin American communities, parts of the Middle East, and several areas across the global South. It will be only once women from these places can — were all cost-barriers and transportation barriers evaporated — feel at home at Fest that it really will become an important site of inclusion for all women/womyn.
In a private space, goalposts can be moved with impunity, and they often are — frequently without consultation or consensus. In principle, this is not supposed to happen in a public space. At Fest, the goalposts have never enjoyed a fixity — particularly where trans womyn are concerned, and previously where kinky cis womyn were concerned.
In this sense, I still see Fest today as much like Fest in the early 1990s when I came out, first as a young trans woman and a few years following as a dyke: an insular, inward-facing, Americentric celebration of white cis womyn of at least blue-collar and white-collar backing — less so for pink-collar and no-collar (chronically unemployed). It is much less so for trans womyn whose experiences intersect with these marginal pink- and no-collar positions.
Further, quite frankly, how might Fest encourage straight cis women to affirm and discuss their feminist concerns — sometimes as basic as how they’re allowed to present themselves socially; to access education; to secure reproductive health access; or to teach their daughters to self-defensively protect themselves from sexual assaults by men and male elders in their local surroundings? If there have been workshops discussing these, great!
So let’s shift the table a bit: how does Fest encourage straight trans women to affirm and discuss their feminist concerns — as basic as learning how to stay alive when dating misogynistic, transmisogynistic, and potentially violent men? How does this symptom, facilitated by our larger social environment, speak to the sheer misogyny affecting all womyn? What about no-hassle access to health and social care? What about the links between exclusion and privatization more broadly?
Because these are not what non-Fest women are hearing whenever Fest is mentioned, there isn’t a lot of motivation to want to go to what might look like an escapist party rather than an incubator for feminist emergence. Yes, celebrating is wonderfully important, but we must first have substantive reason to celebrate ourselves in the first place — which is kind of hard to do when you’re constantly taught to hate your body and your social placement and that hating your body and social placement is precisely what you should be doing for the “original sin” of having a trans body.
I do think Fest can find ways to overcome this perception, but it doesn’t appear from outside that this work has earnestly gone very far.
And lastly, the big one here is the elephant in the room: the myth that trans women are, in aggregate, wealthier than cis women and thus “male privileged”. While we do see the same few (largely white) trans women in technology or white collar services who did capitalize on their adult, vocational positionality before transitioning, this overshadows the majority who never could, never did, or never would.
This malformed myth of “male privilege” erases the ever-increasing contingent of trans women who transitioned as children and as teenage girls — sometimes with familial and community support (and often without).
It erases the specific misogynistic experiences trans women faced as children, even if she transitioned as a child or only experienced one puberty — a female puberty facilitated by a supportive family and physician.
It erases the disproportionate poverty of trans women — namely those who are not treated as cis women in a cisnormative power structure (and are penalized for it).
It erases the attendant barriers of employment by which so many trans women are persistently beset.
It erases the symptomatic outcomes of such poverty, including lower mortality ages and the escalated prevalence of illnesses typically ascribed to the domain of public health policy (i.e., lung disease, STDs, complications from morbid obesity, tooth decay, substance abuse, domestic violence victimization, and so on).
The optics of a $440 ticket entry, excluding time away from work (provided she has landed one and it isn’t in an informal economy); transportation and lodging on the road commute to and from The Land; and so on can easily push this total cost to well north of a thousand or more. This is a lot of money when the best work that one can find is just above minimum wage (if, that this, she’s legally employed); the idea of leaving an informal economy job like survival sex work, meanwhile, means a tremendous amount of income lost (and possibly a roof).
A thousand is even more when you’re trying to put aside money to regain agency over your body because the health system trivializes it as an “elective” and “cosmetic” problem — despite all legitimate academic peer review now agreeing otherwise. This assumes, of course, these trans women can even find gainful employment. So many cannot.
And with peer pressure at Fest by old recalcitrant WBW bullies broadcasting this rejection of trans women as another of the many varieties of women (I posit that all girls and women are valid, cis and trans), it not just does nothing to address dramatically higher suicide attempt rates (as well as tragic completions), but only adds to the reasons leading to one arriving to that head space of isolation and spiritual defeat in the first place.
In short, this myth that “trans womyn and women are men, males [sic], and lord ‘male privilege’ over [cis] womyn” erases so, so many women’s narratives — all of them valid. It’s probably the most obvious thing any of us invested in this discussion can say about this.
* * *
So Zeph, the very idea of Fest, even if trans women wanted to attend, is so beyond their reach that it results in their de facto exclusion from building towards that critical mass which you advance is absolutely necessary.
Nowadays, whenever I hear a WBW recalcitrant speak against trans women, I only hear a misogynist cis man talking — channelled through a female body — as cis men are the only other source I ever get to hear this same variety of divisive, essentialist, power-obsessed, and destructive rhetoric. The words are the same; the mouthpiece is not. I find this mildly ironic and equally unfortunate.
So, that’s all. I guess I’ll leave this as stuff on which to meditate as we try to resolve the intractable problem of exclusionary politics and the specific hegemonies of The Land for those women who are not welcome — either explicitly so or de facto.
Again, Zeph, thank you so, so much for posting this. You sound awesome and are someone for whom it would do me great honour to call an ally, a friend, and a sister in solidarity. You are wonderfully refreshing to read!
Patience Newbury, 4 September 2011