Content Note: this post contains references to misogynistic, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and especially transmisogynistic violence of all kinds, including murder, rape, and physical abuse on these bases. There is also discussion of sex and genitalia in this article, and the mention of misogynistic language. Proceed with caution.
I’m going to talk about discursive violence and material violence. I dread these sorts of discussions, namely because I’m trans, and sensitive, and tired. I dread Trans Day of Visibility (henceforth TDoV). Last week I saw the beginning of the inevitable parade of think pieces on dead trans people, especially dead trans women of color*. Tomorrow there will be vigils. Vigils, as long as they are accompanied by action and genuine long-term remembrance and commitment to liberatory action (especially on the behalf of the well-meaning cisgender people who decide to attend), are good. Performative grief and candle-holding and a polished, solemn expression of “solidarity” that is accompanied by silence in the face of everyday transphobia, especially transmisogyny? Meaningless. Worse than meaningless; it gives the illusion of solidarity while providing nothing of substance. It makes you an empty husk of an “ally”.
I’m in a mood. I’ve been in a mood for the last eight days or so. Not only have I been battling several voices within me –– one of which wants to let me “off the hook” and assure me that I am not obligated to talk about TDoV by mere virtue of being an out trans person who writes things. But the other voices have won out, and have only been amplified since I learned of the Mount Holyoke News article “Queer Sex Event Strikes a Heteronormative Tone.” Perhaps I’m beating a dead horse; unfortunately, the existence of this article is still fairly new to me, since I’m not physically present on Mount Holyoke’s campus (specifically the MHN newsroom). Either way, I’m going to talk about the article, and about discursive violence, and about real violence. Hopefully you can “remember” the connections between those things tomorrow, in between your performative social media posts and your candlelight vigil appointments. Let’s begin.
The author, Maddy Ritter, is correct in saying that most of the “queer” sex happening at Mount Holyoke is happening between people with vulvas. There is no acknowledgement, however, of the cultures of transmisogyny that lead to so few trans women and transfeminine people coming to historically women’s colleges in the first place. Given students’ (myself included) collective negative reaction to seeing (those who appear to be) men on campus, some of this should be obvious. If we consider the imagined sacredness and purity of the womens’ college (interestingly, “historically” is often dropped here) campus, free of “scary males,” we can come again to the conclusion that this is not a safe social space to be a trans woman. What of the “pre-op” or “pre-everything” trans woman? Given the regular erasure of AFAB trans students at Mount Holyoke (sure, our “cute” little “self-identities” and pronouns can be on our orientation stickers, but c’mon! We’re all basically women, right? Right?) I can only imagine the reaction to a trans woman who did not adhere to certain idea(l)s of femininity. Not to mention, the non-out trans woman would likely not even be able to apply to Mount Holyoke or other HWCs by mere virtue of her closetedness.
Unfortunately, Ritter’s subsequent associations between “vulva-havers-who-like-other-vulvas” and “queer women” are also incorrect in their myopia. There are plenty of people at Mount Holyoke who are not part of that demographic, but I’ll use myself as an example: I’m neither “queer” nor am I a “woman”. I’m a nonbinary butch lesbian. Although I find myself exclusively attracted to womxn**, I’m not about to locate the source of my attraction to them in a body part. To do this would be objectificatory. Women are more than the sum of their (body) parts, including (and especially) the ones most commonly associated with sex.
Furthermore, Ritter asserts that she will “never need to use that skill [of putting on a condom]” that was taught at the workshop, by virtue of her gay womanhood. Her implication that condom education is somehow as heteronormative as your average high school health class is not only transmisogynistic but also far too vague, as she does not distinguish between types of condoms in her critique. A condom for a penis is not the only type of condom to exist, and it is essential that more people with vulvas speak openly about internal condom usage. She also correlates condom lessons with what she terms “the same old penis-in-vagina sex,” and with the aforementioned health classes. This ignores not only that practitioners of “the same old PIV sex” entitled to information as to safe sexual practices in queer sex workshops, but also, that human beings of all genders have anuses that can be sexually useful, and that it’s likely that if a penis is entering one’s anus, that penis should wear a condom. This is a doubly poignant point within the larger “queer community,” still reeling from a HIV/AIDS crisis that fueled increased attention to the importance of protected sex. This is the same crisis that disproportionately struck and strikes not only men who have sex with men, but also trans women. Especially those of color.
If this sexual health workshop lacked lessons on the usage of dental dams and the like, that is an important critique to be noted. What could be useful, constructive criticism (both on the possible inaccuracy of the terminology used for internal/external genitalia and the possible lack of diversity in condom education) appear to be smokescreens for transmisogyny, namely through im/explicit statements of womanhood’s location in the vulva, and sex between “queer women” as inherently located in interaction between vulvas.
So, what does this have to do with violence, specifically? Material violence against trans women continues to exist not simply because humans are violent and trans women “happen” to be the targets of violence. It is because a long cultural, historical precedent of biological essentialism and the militant policing of womens’ bodies have made them a target. Much as with other standards of beauty women are expected to fulfill –– thinness, strictly-controlled sexual un/availability; pale, smooth skin enhanced by the requisite makeup regimen; “respectable and professional” clothing that still does not threaten the authority of the man –– the possession of a (hairless, “normal-looking”) vulva becomes another means by which some women can be deemed conditionally acceptable, and others can be punished. Many readers may have had the experience of being a “disobedient woman” and thus becoming a “whore” or a “[fat/ugly] bitch” or a “slut”. Sometimes, these labels come with immediate consequences, including social ostracism and physical / sexual violence. So too with women who are of marginalized sexualities, as we are all aware. There is an inherent ugliness (especially for gender-nonconforming women, especially those who are lesbians) or fakeness (toward those do not appear “queer enough”) or sexual availability (toward bisexual women in particular) projected upon those of marginalized sexualities which directly inform the degrees and types of violence these women face.
Trans women, of course, experience this, too. In a magnified way. It is not exclusive to the cis women who inevitably take center stage in discussions of lesbophobic and biphobic violence against women. In fact, many of these the “feminists” who claim to oppose violence against women paint trans women not as vulnerable to violence, but as pathologically predatory toward cisgender women. This is a stereotype that not only draws divisions between women (who could be acting in solidarity against the threat of rape and other forms of violence, most often by men) but also pushes trans women squarely into the “perpetrator” role of the perp/victim binary, and thus erases their disproportionate victimhood. In a world ruled by binaries, the assertion of the inherent “queerness” of sex between vulvas is a silent assertion of the inherent “straightness” of PIV sex.
The assertion that trans women may not be included within this category of “queer women” is a silent affirmation of the sexgender binary. The exclusion of trans women from the category of “[queer, if applicable] women” allows the continuation of a dangerous ignorance even/especially among so-called feminists, of the threats trans women (as WOMEN) face on a daily basis. It allows some supporters of anti-rape and anti-violence campaigns to ignore the social markedness of trans womens’ bodies and the subsequent higher rate of abuse directed at them, especially gender non-conforming trans women of color. In the case of a health course, it allows queer people to ignore the presence of trans women in our sexual and social communities and place less importance on both their sexual health and their experience of sexual pleasure.
As I hope I’ve indicated, violence against trans women occurs on a number of levels: there is the discursive violence of erasure, cisnormativity, and biological essentialism that appears at first to be nonviolent because it appears not in a punch or kick, but on the page of a newspaper. Then there are the murders and other acts that emerge and continue in that ideological atmosphere of erasure, cisnormativity, and biological essentialism. All expressions of ideology have consequences, and no article, no political or social position, no articulation of one’s own identity exists in a vacuum. I’d encourage all of us to remember this truth on TDoV, while we also remember (descriptions of graphic violence at the link):
Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien.
Amia Tyrae Berryman.
And the others who remain unknown, unnamed, unclaimed. Rest in power.
Words, articles, and “mere” statements by individuals may not feel as though they have an ideological ripple effect, but they do. Remember today, tomorrow, forever that any contribution to transmisogynistic discourses reifies social forces that get real human beings isolated, abused, and sometimes murdered. Truly seeing trans women requires an understanding of these forces and a commitment to dismantling them.
* Who benefit less than white / transmasculine people from mainstream trans activism, are more frequently exposed to graphic violence against people like themselves in the media, and also tend to contribute more intellectual, physical, and emotional labor to the cause than their counterparts.
**For lack of a better encompassing term.