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?
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.