Summary: Trans women are women.

Trans identity — defined broadly as a form of gender identity and expression that transcends the sex/gender binary — exists cross-culturally. That is, while the terms ‘trans’ and ‘transgender’ are relatively new terms in the Western contemporary context, there have always been people, all over the world, whose gender identities do not conform to one of two, rigidly defined forms. Check out some of the pins on this map to learn about forms of gender diversity around the world.

In this module, we’ve only skimmed the surface of trans studies — a distinct field that challenges the gender binary and its relationship to heteronormativity. Trans studies emerged as a counter to medical and scientific studies of trans people that have pathologized their identities — treating trans identity as something to be treated or cured. But, as trans studies scholar Susan Stryker explains, trans studies also implies a critique of queer theory and feminist theory, fields that have not always been inclusive of trans identity, theory, and experience. Stryker explains that queer theory privileges the study of sexuality, whereas trans theory seeks to complicate our understandings of gender and the various ways people ‘deviate’ from ‘normal’ gender identity.

For its part, feminist theory has, at times, been outwardly hostile to trans people and experience. Until the 1990s, feminist theorists were very reluctant to incorporate accounts of gender that threatened the notion that ‘women’ were a coherent, stable category with a common set of interests and experiences. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists or TERFs are feminists who reject the notion that trans women are, in fact, women. When TERFs argue that trans women are not women — perhaps because, at some point trans women have lived their lives outwardly as men — they reify the connection between biological sex and gender in a way that contradicts the feminist theoretical and political project to challenge biological determinism. Trans women are women.

In this module, we resisted the work of Leslie Feinberg, who argued that trans liberation is for everybody. Feinberg encourages us to think about the ways in which everyone — whether cisgender or trans — benefits when gender norms and expectations do not structure all of our life choices. Dean Spade shifts our attention to the material conditions necessary to bring about the kind of liberation that Feinberg wanted. Spade argues that trans people need healthcare, housing, and freedom from violence. Spade emphasizes that a critical trans political lens must incorporate a critique of racism, and all forms of state violence, including military violence. An American scholar, Spade is concerned about arguments for trans inclusion in the American military — an institution that does violence worldwide. Spade’s “trickle-up” approach to social justice emphasizes the need to focus on meeting everyone’s basic needs, including housing, healthcare, and freedom from violence.

Test Yourself

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Discussion Questions

Let’s talk about what Dean Spade means by “critical trans politics”, because this is the big idea for this module! Start by working together as a group to identify one component each of a “critical trans politics” approach. For example, you might start by saying “Dean Spade argues on page 42 and 43 that a critical trans politics is concerned with wealth inequality”. Next, explain why you think that is part of Spade’s critical trans politics approach. Finally, identify examples of how Spade’s critical trans politics approach is different from the narratives you tend to learn about trans people in media. Use examples from popular media.

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