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It’s All About Sex: Feminism, Paganism, and Trans Exclusion

When I found a first hint of my Goddess, I was twenty and alone.

No one else at my small-town-South, church-affiliated college was openly trans. I wasn’t just socially stigmatized – I lacked spiritual tools with which to understand my alienation. Then one professor, a lesbian feminist with a goddess-symbol pendant, gave me a book: Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly. Daly’s post-Catholic thealogy taught me that a male authority figure wasn’t the only sort of God. Soon, I found a sacred place under an oleander tree and prayed to “the goddess;” within a few years, I’d gone through the Goddess Movement to the Meter Theon’s devotional service and the vows I’m under today.

In large part, Mary Daly set me free.

However, had I actually met her, she would’ve wanted nothing to do with me. Daly helped found what today we call the TERF movement: Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism, a strain of feminism for cisgender (that is, non-transgender) women who believe trans women shouldn’t exist. Some of them follow through with harassment or even physical violence.

I thought of this paradox — that a TERF’s book could set in motion a trans woman’s religious feminism — when the cis Pagans in my social media sphere recently discovered that certain Pagan leaders have TERF ideas. A professor at Cherry Hill Seminary, Ruth Barrett, signed a petition denouncing trans people’s involvement in gay rights; Cherry Hill stood beside her in a subsequent press release.

Of course, this is no one’s first rodeo. In 2012, similar criticisms emerged when the founder of Dianic Witchcraft, Z. Budapest, excluded trans women from a ritual at PantheaCon that had been advertised as a rite for women. Trans exclusion has been a fact for decades in many Pagan communities.

But where does this sentiment come from? Trans women exist and many of us are polytheists and/or Pagans; why should anybody mind?


 

 

“All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves…Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.”

– Janice Raymond, author of The Transsexual Empire

When TERFs and right-wing Christians talk about trans women, they agree that everything comes down to sex. Take a few examples:

  • Last November, Houston, TX (my hometown) voted to repeal an antidiscrimination ordinance that included protections for trans people. After months of TV ads slandering trans women as rapist men lurking in the bathroom, the final count was 2 to 1 against the ordinance.
  • Right now, in Washington State (my adopted home), lawmakers have written six different bills, all intended to deny trans people the right to use the bathroom that best matches their gender. All of these politicians (and their supporters) have endorsed that same bathroom-rapist lie.
  • The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which ran annually until last year, maintained a blanket no-trans-women-allowed policy. One year, a Lesbian Avengers chapter with a trans woman member did attend, and the trans teenager found herself surrounded by a hostile crowd of adults, some of whom threatened her with knives. The festival claimed that trans attendees would somehow pose a special danger to rape survivors.
  • Janice Raymond, who wrote the anti-trans manifesto The Transsexual Empire, explicitly equated the existence of trans women with rape, and claimed that trans lesbians who had consensual sex were actually, somehow, committing rape. When she developed these ideas as a grad student, her thesis adviser was Mary Daly.

No trans woman has ever been found sexually harassing people in public restrooms. The figure of the bathroom-rapist trans woman is like Hookman or Bloody Mary: an urban legend, not an actual person. But politicians don’t write bills cracking down on the cursed monkey paw market. So, whence this particular urban myth’s political credibility?


 

 

On Catcalling, Good Sex, and Nonconsensual Work

 

As I discussed in my last article, capitalist patriarchy runs on women’s unreciprocated social labor. I didn’t, however, much talk about the way that sex, sexuality, and sexual desire fit into this system.

In heterosexual settings, women generally put much more effort into sexually satisfying their partners than their men reciprocate. We see this in everything from the deeply-gendered nature of sexy underwear (lingerie for women is an industry, lingerie for men is comedy fodder) to the juxtaposition of normalized fellatio and stigmatized cunnilingus. Rape is simply the extension of this one-sided approach to sexual pleasure past the line of consent. Obviously, male-centric but consensual straight sex qualitatively and morally differs from rape. Nevertheless, both exist within a gender system that makes the work of good sex something that women generally perform both for ourselves and for men, but that men usually perform quite a bit less.

This happens outside of straight encounters, too. “Straight guys think lesbians are hot” is practically a proverb. Plus, the ubiquity of catcalling shows that no public space excludes what feminist theory calls the male gaze. When a woman goes down the sidewalk, puts on clothes in the morning, or wears makeup, her goal is rarely to give male strangers a moment of sexualized entertainment. However, when they catcall her, those men have just gotten their entertainment from the work she’s performed (even if existing in public is the only work she’s done).

She didn’t put together a public presentation in order to give men a show, but they got a show anyway by ogling and heckling. They’ve extracted benefit (entertainment) from her labor (wearing clothes and walking down the street) without her consent, and without reciprocation; they certainly aren’t likely to try to amuse her in return! In short, they’ve just exploited her work.

Every bit of this applies both to cis women and to trans women. All women, trans and cis, run the risk of rape and sexual harassment; all women who date men, trans and cis, deal with partners who demand that their own pleasure must always come first.

However, the exploited sexual labor of trans women goes past that of cis women. Patriarchy tries to reduce trans women’s entire existence to sex. Supposedly, we only transition to satisfy a sexual fetish; supposedly, the only people who sleep with us have a fetish of their own. We go into sex work much more frequently than cis women because hiring discrimination is so rampant. Mainstream cultural depictions of trans women at work rarely include jobs other than sex work and hairdressing. (And remember, patriarchy believes that women groom and get haircuts solely to attract straight men.) Without letters of approval from self-appointed psychiatric “experts,” it’s extremely difficult to access trans-specific medical care (mostly hormone therapy and various surgeries). Those gatekeepers have traditionally denied that healthcare to trans women they deemed insufficiently feminine, attractive, or heterosexual.

This extra layer of sexualization brings an extra layer of gendered violence. A majority of trans women have been raped and/or sexually abused, and anti-trans violence gets overwhelmingly committed by men who sleep with us. (Throw in race and occupation to the mix, and you’ll find that not only are most anti-LGBT hate murder victims trans women, but a large majority of those women are Black and/or Latina, with a substantial number of sex workers in the mix. When bigotry kills LGBT people, that bigotry is usually racism plus sexism plus transphobia.)

So patriarchy disproportionately sexualizes trans women, while disproportionately punishing us for it. Why? When that happens, what’s in it for patriarchy? It gets a class of women who perform extra sexual labor, while facing too much brutalization to easily challenge that. More exploitation, less resistance.

Anti-trans ideas only make sense in terms of that social situation.

Prejudice and stigma occur so that trans women stay in that extra-exploited situation. People who say that trans women are really men don’t mean that literally; after all, when most people say you really are a man!” to an actual man, it’s a compliment. Those same words to a trans woman are an insult and a threat (and often precede physical violence). However, the combination of stigma, discrimination, harassment, and violence that gets thrown at trans women keeps us easier to exploit. In sociological lingo, that’s transphobia’s social function.

And plenty of trans women have stories about getting hit on by TERFs and conservative transphobes. As often as not, the people who rail the loudest in public about how we’re sexually disgusting are the ones who sleep with us in private. No surprise that those who most directly benefit from our sexual labor also most want us kept in line!

However, anti-trans politics does more than that. By campaigning against a hated and nearly defenseless minority, both right-wingers and TERFs gain visibility, prestige, and clout within their communities: conservative Christianity and majority-cis feminism, respectively. Pagan TERFs like Ruth Barrett bolster their position within feminist witchcraft and the broader Pagan scene. If the benefits transphobic actions accrued were to stop, so would those actions.

If TERFism hurt rather than enhanced someone’s position within Pagandom, then anti-trans practices would wither.


 

 

“An injury to one is an injury to all!”

– The Industrial Workers of the World

I don’t write this article for other trans people.

Trans Pagans and polytheists have already spent decades attempting to undo the power of anti-trans leaders within our communities. We already know just how dangerous and spiritually deadly transphobia gets.

Cisgender fellow Pagans, I’m writing for you. I don’t want to make yet another moral appeal to support us because it’s just and virtuous to do so (although it surely is); instead, I want us to consider, together, what anti-trans Paganism means for us all. If you’re a cis woman, I have as much a stake in ending patriarchy as you – and transphobia only exists because it’s part of patriarchy. If you support full inclusion for trans women as women, you’re helping to reject one of patriarchy’s more violent ongoing projects! And if you’re a cis man, I have the same message. Transphobia is patriarchy, and patriarchy is capitalism, is homophobia, is racism, and is every other structure of exploitation that keeps the ruling classes on top. “An injury to one is an injury to all” is a statement not of moral solidarity, but of sociological fact. Propping up discrimination against someone else just strengthens the powers that oppress you.

So, together, let’s make the Pagan subculture a place where hating trans women destroys reputations instead of growing them. Let’s make our traditions islands of pro-trans feminism; let’s say “you’re being divisive” to transphobes, not to their critics.

After all, I know firsthand the power and intoxication of feminist self-embrace that people like Mary Daly offer at their best. If some of them fell short in their attempts to wash away patriarchy’s values, the strength of the Pagan feminist lifestance is surely enough to survive if we acknowledge that transphobia is patriarchy, and choose to do better than our precursors. Affirming trans women as women makes that feminism more powerful, not less.

And besides – if we can’t even reject patriarchy’s marching orders within feminist Paganism, how can we expect to do so anywhere else?


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Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.

28 Comments »

  1. Thank you for another insightful & courageous examination of prejudices involving the Pagan community. Daly & Z’s positions have troubled me for decades. I’ve spoken about it, written about it and sometimes I wonder why those of us who are male don’t speak louder against these ongoing trans misconceptions. I find it odd that a sort of reverse effeminaphobia would be embraced by any woman, seeing the nature of sex and power in patriarchal culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t doubt that much of what you say occurs does, even if the two trans women I know haven’t experienced it to my knowledge (one works as a nurse for the VA in Albuquerque, the other works in Seattle. It would be nice if there were statistics or at least anecdotal evidence included.

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  3. I am so sorry and dismayed to see this going on. Having been estranged from the Pagan community for several decades and now coming back, I am dismayed to find things like Racism hiding in some practices, Transphobia in others. I had always thought of all of us Pagans as “all inclusive” and “all accepting”. Look, I understand where there are groups and schools of thought that want to empower women and disinclude men. Women need their mysteries and if we are ever going to move back to a balanced society, we need to allow that space. However, that space ought to include those HUMANS who find that the physical gender in which they were born is not the gender which they actually are. I do disagree with some of your blanket statements about men and sex. When you bunch every cis-gender male into a single category of rapist, rapist, sexual exploiter, unequal partner in consensual sex, etc… you lose those of us, decent, good men who stand behind you. We are your allies. Let us be your allies. I am. As I won’t lump people into smaller groups of people in order to feel secure, I ask that you don’t lump all men into a single category. In any event, your article has given me awareness of a problem that I did not know existed. My vow to you, as a fellow Pagan and Polytheist is to remain aware of this horrible dynamic and speak out against it whenever it occurs. Please accept my hand as your ally… it is freely given without any expectation of return. I know many men who would do the same. Peace.

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    • Hi Bernard – I’m speaking as an LGBT woman here, though not trans. My experience with my own communities and friends is that we are always glad to have the support of cis men in our circles; you and others who are sympathetic to equality are in the best position to help with the good fight, so to speak. It’s good to know we have that support in the Pagan community as well.

      This being said, it’s important for there to be spaces where the feelings of allies aren’t the focus of the discussion. I have learned this the uncomfortable way myself in spaces where I carry privilege, including spaces like this post where trans voices are the focus. There’s limited bandwidth for these conversations, and when we ask someone to explicitly acknowledge that there are allies out there among the dominant group (be that cis men, or white people, or straight people, or whatever), we’re asking them to take focus away from the point they’re trying to make, an argument they are making primarily for those who aren’t on board yet. In those moments, it’s our job as potential allies to listen to that message without feeling attacked or ignored, knowing that if we take opportunities to show our support in the real world, those actions will mark us as allies. Or at least as people who are trying, because one thing we can count on is that we can and will mess up along the way.

      Here’s a site I go to when I need a reminder about how to do a better job trying: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Allies

      It’s written in the context of feminism and geek culture, but a lot of the articles linked there are applicable to any ally situation. There’s a page of resources specifically for dude feminists as well.

      (haven’t commented here before so I hope the link comes through…)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Great feedback. I had not even considered that before. You’ve made me a better ally. I didn’t realize I was changing the narrative. Lesson learned. Much thanks and blessings to you.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Speaking as me here, asking people to observe acceptable “ally” etiquette is a demand for exclusivity, it says “you don’t qualify for full adoption of the ideology”. It’s exactly the problem Sophia is discussing from a slightly different angle.” An injury to one is an injury to all!” isn’t an empty statement, discrimination against women, or trans people, or anyone else, damages us all. If you really believe we are all equal then it will follow unequivocally that we all have the same interest in the maintenance of equal treatment for all, by all.

        Possibly too esoteric and philosophical for this stage in the game but I’m never one to be quiet when I can say something annoying.

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      • (This response is eons late in internet time, but I just saw Damien’s comment today…)

        I take your point that “an injury to one is an injury to all” is a valid statement, for sure. But I do think part of adopting any radical ideology is navigating which conversations need your voice and which mostly just need your receptive attention – not because certain voices are inherently more important than others, but just because not every conversation can be about everyone’s injuries or perspective equally. From a practical standpoint, as well as a philosophical one.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I am dismayed to find this going on in our community. After so many decades of being away I would have thought that this kind of stuff would have faded. I am horrified with the small pockets of racism I have found within a small part of the Heathen community. I am now equally appalled at the blatant Transphobia that I am finding as well. There are places and groups and gatherings that are for women only. You have your special mysteries and, if we men want to be a part of a balanced society, we need to accept that and move aside when you take a place. However, those who were born in one gender only to find that you really are another, that should include you as well. Feminists have no place disincluding anyone. After centuries of oppression, they ought not to be oppressing anyone else. As for us men… well I have some thoughts. 1) Tran-people are not sexual objects. When you love someone, you love them for them, not their genitals. 2) I disagree with some of your generalizations of men. You seem to lump us all into a single, oppressive category. By doing this, you deny yourself some potent allies. Men who want a balanced society and not a patriarchy. I. Am. Your. Ally. I offer my hand. Take it. It comes with no strings attached. Let me help support you. Let me speak out when I see that kind of disinclusion. Not all men are rapists, not all the sex that we offer our partners surrounds our own pleasure. Creating a generalization of men takes away from those of us who are evolved humans our dignity. We have made a choice to stand with you as part of the binary. Please acknowledge those of us (and they are many) who would willingly stand by you and support your position. My personal vow is to speak out against this disinclusion of Tran-people where ever I see it. Peace.

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  5. Amazing. I wish you could hear or see me clapping from here! This was a wonderful, insightful article that I plan on disseminating throughout my communities as much as possible. I fully support this and you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I found this post from a link on Facebook. Though not Trans or Pagan (I am an atheist, cisgendered queer white male), what caught my eye was the anti-capitalist focus of the piece, since I am a socialist. I rarely ever see the concepts talked about in this piece brought together, and as well written as they are here. There are a great many things I don’t understand about these cultures, but I am grateful you chose to share this. At the risk of sounding corny, it was a real teaching moment, which is also something I don’t see enough of. It’s not your job to be my teaching moment, but it means a great deal to someone like myself who actually attempts to find pieces like this and have them presented with such clarity and with a real focus on a communal dialogue. Again, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve only recently learned about the “terf” issue in Paganism and it sickens me. I have friends from all around the various spectrums and I love them all, no matter what type of person they were born as. I stand in solidarity with my Trans* sisters and brothers in seeking equality and inclusion.

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  8. Great article, Sophia. Nice to see more strong condemnations of TERFs, especially within the Pagan community. It’s interesting though; I find myself completely agreeing with your conclusions but disagreeing with a few of the points which led to those conclusions. Specifically, I believe patriarchy and transphobia are about enforcing the gender-divide because it supports class division (something I’ll write about in more detail when I’m feeling a bit better). Though there certainly is a lot to be said for what you have observed regarding exploitation of disadvantaged groups and emotional labour (hearkening back to your last article, which was also excellent.)

    None of that, however, should in any way take away from your most important point, which you stated so beautifully in your conclusion: “the strength of the Pagan feminist lifestance is surely enough to survive if we acknowledge that transphobia is patriarchy, and choose to do better than our precursors. Affirming trans women as women makes that feminism more powerful, not less. And besides – if we can’t even reject patriarchy’s marching orders within feminist Paganism, how can we expect to do so anywhere else?” I wholeheartedly agree. Transphobia is, indeed, patriarchy. it is anti-feminist, and the sooner we recognize this and stand united against it, the stronger our community and our cause will be.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Problems first have to be discussed, and then acted on. I have never never had any person problems with trans men or trans woman being a gay man myself But the only way end the problem is to constantly speak when we run into actions and words of being trans-phobic. The biggest danger is remaining quiet and giving the impression that trans phobia is okay. Only by constant speaking up can we show that it is not okay. Meanwhile, I am happy that we hear much more from trans people. They are the only ones that can tell us what it means to be trans and we first need to be able to listen and understand before we can be of help.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. @Mary L;
    Funny, some posts I can reply to directly, others not.

    What I mean to say is that the conversations you choose to be silent on and the conversations you choose to comment on shouldn’t be based on whether you’re directly impacted by the issue or not. People can choose to listen, or not, but if you feel you have something relevant to say then you should say it. Shutting yourself, or others, down is unwise.

    You can’t have equality unless everyone’s on board, and excluding voices is not going to get you there. A movement for equality is not a support group, or at least it shouldn’t be, it’s a effort to convince people that they have an interest in actively supporting other peoples freedom. Any inclination you may feel to say “my perspective is more authentic” should be recognized as the narcissism it clearly is.

    Isn’t that what the exclusion of trans women from feminism is, a narcissistic claim that those women’s femininity isn’t authentic enough to be truly “feminist”. It’s just one more dead canary indicating that feminism, as it stands, is an utterly incestuous, corrupted and sour minded pile of horseshit which any equality minded individual should hate to be associated with, and a massive part of the reason it’s landed where it has is ally etiquette. It needs to go.

    Let me give you a concrete example. We voted for full marital equality in Ireland last year. On one hand, the gay rights movement could have taken the view that gay people were the only people in the country directly impacted by this legislation passing and their voices should have been the only ones heard. If that had happened, it might have passed, but just, grudgingly, with a small turnout. Legal equality would have been achieved but it would have been hollow compared to what actually happened. The leaders of the gay rights movement here kind of took a step back and, instead, everyone with an interest in equality was encouraged to lend their voices. The personal impact of inequality on gay people, and their families, was obviously important and much discussed but it took everyone speaking out to convince an otherwise incredibly conservative country that marriage inequality damaged us all. The result was a creeping groundswell of support, a massive turnout and a landslide victory that reflected a real acceptance of homosexuality within our society. If anything in the world could convince you of the shortsightedness of ally etiquette, that referendum campaign would be it.

    If you want to achieve true equality, you need to recognize that we are all treated unequally in one way or another, to some degree, so we all have an interest in each others equality. Once you recognize that you have an interest in other people gaining equality, it’s a lot easier to convince other people that they have an interest in gaining yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Everyone has a point here. The one string that ties all these different points together is that we all believe that disinclusion of Trans-women is not acceptable.

    As for my comments about the generalization of males, well, I have a point but Mary L does as well. If we are to stay on point then this is about that one issue. If I want to be a supportive ally then I support that issue.

    However, it does sting just a little to be lumped into a single category. Then again, as a middle class, college educated, caucasian, american male, I’ve a whole lot of privilege. I will not discount my struggles with life but other people (of color, of gender identity, of sexuality of simply being women) have much bigger hurdles. So, in an effort to remain sensitive to their needs, I will try to “tamp down” my personal feelings about being seen as a “category” and not an individual.

    I will still be an ally. I will still raise my voice against disinclusion but the tent is big enough for us all. If we want the same things like equality for all then we all have to respect each other.

    I’m older. I’m from a whole other generation. I will try to fix what mine fucked up. In another 40 years, it’s all yours. Hopefully, I’m the last generation where anyone can lump anyone else into a “group”. In any event, if I misstep it is because my intentions are good but your’s is a whole different world than mine. Give me a little leeway and I promise you, you will have a powerful ally. Age and treachery make for good friends. Use me as you will. Educate me as you must. All I ask is patience, respect and compassion.

    So… once again, I hijacked the main point (see, I can’t even help myself). Let’s stay on the one point that we all agree on… “The disinclusion of Trans-Women from woman only events is unacceptable”.

    I hope that I get to see a time, before my passing over, when their are NO groups and we are all in this together, fully, wholly and equally.

    With Great Love and Respect to all…

    Blessings,

    Bernie Rizzo

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  12. Transphobia and gender essentialism are the mirror image of patriarchal and kyriarchal oppression.

    The patriarchy told us that being sensitive and nurturing and all that was “feminine” was worthless, while being a warrior and all that was “masculine” was good.

    Gender essentialist “feminists” try to tell us that it’s the other way round – “feminine” good, “masculine” bad. How is that even remotely helpful?

    Break down the gender binary!

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  13. Even some of the Gnostic Christians are with you, and some of us cis/het men. I am thankful for your piece, it was enlightening and brought me a little closer to having some sense of your experience–an understanding I shall never attain, but I shall hopefully be changed by the alchemy of your words, and be better man for it.

    As a fellow Washingtonian I too am getting sick of these bathroom bills, how many times do we have to talk about this?! We all want the same thing when we go to the bathroom. For the most part, we want to be respectfully ignored while we do our business, then leave.

    Peace and Light

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  14. This is very eloquently and thoughtfully put forward. Thank you for writing and sharing this. It’s very important for our community to keep working to heal these sicknesses and discussions like these definitely open the door to doing so.

    Like

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