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The 2018 Molly Hadfield Social Justice Oration written & delivered by Mama Alto for the City of Darebin on International Women’s Day, March 8th at Northcote Town Hall INTRODUCTION Before I begin, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and waters where we meet today, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nations, and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded. Always was, always is, and always will be - Aboriginal land. And in so acknowledging Indigenous peoples of this continent, it is also necessary, before we proceed with our International Women’s Day presentation, to acknowledge the diverse and complex experiences of womanhood for Indigenous women now and throughout history, as well as committing to the future of inclusion of Indigenous voices within our feminism. Tonight I am delivering the 2018 Molly Hadfield Social Justice Oration, an annual event that pays tribute to well-known City of Darebin resident Molly Hadfield OAM, and recognises her tireless, lifelong work as an activist, humanitarian and advocate, honouring her achievements in advancing the rights of women and seniors. The Molly Hadfield Social Justice Oration, which also marks and celebrates International Women’s Day in the City of Darebin, has a proud and consistent history of highlighting explorations and perspectives of diverse womanhood, centring an intersectional approach which has included voices from Indigenous women (Celeste Liddle) and women of colour (Tasneem Chopra). Within that context, speaking tonight as a trans and gender diverse woman, it is an honour as well as a heavy responsibility to be speaking out tonight on issues which effect, and too often threaten, the lives of trans women. Writing for the Victorian Women’s Trust on March 3rd this year, Madison Griffiths urged us all on International Women’s Day to remember and include the women who are too often excluded in white, middle class, cisgendered women’s feminisms - and as part of her survey of such women, noted “the trans women who are chastised and abused for merely existing, [and] the queer women who were pinned as political subjects and put through tireless public scrutiny.”1 In establishing the Molly Hadfield Social Justice Oration, the Darebin Women’s Advisory Committee and the Active & Healthy Ageing Committee Advisory Board both noted that the oration should “keep the issues Molly held dear in the public eye,” and highlighted that the orations and speakers should use the platform to promote the understanding of social justice issues and their impact on women and older persons - particularly the causes Molly Hadfield championed, “notably housing and homelessness, domestic violence, social 1
Madison Griffiths, “What Makes Me A Woman?” - Victorian Women’s Trust blog, March 3rd 2018 https://www.vwt.org.au/what-makes-me-a-woman/
2 of 14 isolation and economic inequity.”2 It is important to note that these four issues disproportionately impact the lives of trans women. Although no conclusive Australian study has documented the impact of homelessness on trans and gender diverse people - with many studies not able to differentiate between each identity within the LGBTI+ community in the available data - a 2017 survey of 859 young trans people suggested at least 22% of this sample group had experienced homelessness.3 The landmark 2007 TranzNation study reveals that 12.3% of Australian trans respondents had been refused housing explicitly due to their transness.4 The TranzNation study also notes 16.1% of transgender respondents had been the victims of domestic violence. We can assess a variety of factors which point to increased social isolation experienced by transgender women, but if we look to negative mental health outcomes as a key indicator of poor social inclusion, a 2016 report from the LGBTI National Health Alliance indicates that in Australia, 35% of trans people have attempted suicide - compared to just 3.2% of the general and total population, whilst 57.2% of trans people have been diagnosed with depression - compared to 11.6% of the general population.5 Another report on the wellbeing of transgender people in Australia and New Zealand found that 47.4% of the respondents experienced direct social exclusion for being trans, and 87.4% reported experiencing stigma and discrimination due to their trans identity.6 In terms of economic inequity, the 2007 TranzNation study found that 35.4% of transgender people in Australia earned less than $20,000 per annum, whilst 9.1% were unemployed.7 Meanwhile, 31.6% of respondents to that same study reported they had been denied employment because they were trans.8 The 2013 National Trans Mental Health Survey reports 45.1% of respondents earned an annual income of less than $20,000 and highlights the disparity between this figure and the Australian mean average of that year, sitting at $58,000, and notes 12.7% of respondents were unemployed in that year.9 2
Report: “Options for Commemoration of Molly Hadfield” - Darebin City Council, May 20 2013
Report: “LGBTQ Homelessness: Risks, Resilience and Access to Services in Victoria” p7 GALFA Gay & Lesbian Foundation of Australia, September 2017 https://www.galfa.org.au/wpcontent/uploads/2018/01/LGBTI-Homelessness-project-Final-report-September-2017.pdf 4
Report: “Tranznation: A report on the health and wellbeing of transgendered people in Australia and New Zealand” p61 - M Couch, M Pitts, H Mulcare, S Croy, A Mitchell, Sl Patel, 2007 5
Report: “Snapshot of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Statistics for LGBTI People” - LGBTI National Health Alliance, July 2017 6
Report: “Tranznation: A report on the health and wellbeing of transgendered people in Australia and New Zealand” p60 - M Couch, M Pitts, H Mulcare, S Croy, A Mitchell, Sl Patel, 2007 7
Report: “Tranznation: A report on the health and wellbeing of transgendered people in Australia and New Zealand” p19 - M Couch, M Pitts, H Mulcare, S Croy, A Mitchell, Sl Patel, 2007 8
Report: “Tranznation: A report on the health and wellbeing of transgendered people in Australia and New Zealand” p60 - M Couch, M Pitts, H Mulcare, S Croy, A Mitchell, Sl Patel, 2007 9
Report: “The First Australian National Trans Mental Health Study,” p16 - Z Hyde, M Doherty, PJ Matt Tilley, KA McCaul, R Rooney, J Jancey, 2014
3 of 14 It is clear then, that the issues faced by trans women certainly include the four key “issues Molly held dear,”10 and that these same issues cause significant hurdles in social and economic equality for trans women. Many of the negative, harmful and dangerous social and political consequences of discrimination against trans women - also known as transmisogyny - would begin to ease, or at least be easier to confront and deconstruct, if trans women were recognised as real women, and if we recognised that - whilst gender is at some level a socially constructed concept - gender is still innate and stems from internal self-recognition, a practice of knowing ourselves (as opposed to say, inherited - in the way that race is - though we will speak more on that later down the track). Benjamin Law’s Quarterly Essay on equality, acceptance and the Safe Schools program, summarises this innate self-knowing beautifully in layperson’s language, relating the experience of a trans youth named Michael: “Sometimes, when people question Michael’s gender identity, or ask how Michael could possibly know he is transgender, he asks that person to close their eyes and tell him what gender they are. “They say, ‘I’m this.’ And I’m like, ‘How do you know?’ They’re like, ‘I don’t know, I just feel it.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s exactly like being trans.”11 And so, within the 2018 International Women’s Day theme of “Press for Progress” tonight my oration will emphasise the importance of recognising that trans women are real women - and in doing so, exploring the gender binary, its construction and artificiality, and the ways in which that construction negatively impacts trans women, and all women. DEFINITIONS Before we begin, I will outline a couple of quick definitions for those unfamiliar with the issues we will discuss and terminology I will use tonight. To be transgender, or trans, is not identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth. To be cisgender, or cis, is to identify with the gender you were assigned at birth. We say “cis” because it is far better than saying “trans” and “normal” - if that strikes you as too politically correct, consider the similar impact of saying “black” and “normal” instead of “black” and “white,” or “women” and “normal” instead of “women” and “men.” “The gender you were assigned at birth” refers to the gender label - usually a binary of female or male - which those present at your birth give based on their brief assessment of physical characteristics, usually involving visible genitalia or secondary sex characteristics. “LGBTI” and “LGBTIQA+” refers to a range of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity labels, sexualities and genders.
Report: “Options for Commemoration of Molly Hadfield” - Darebin City Council, May 20 2013
Benjamin Law, “Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal” p57 Quarterly Essay (Black Inc) Issue 67, 2017
4 of 14 Now - let’s dive in. A HAIRY ISSUE I would like to begin with a quote attributed to Molly Hadfield herself - one which stuck out to me as humorous, but also one with unintended dimensions: underlying connotations and unexpected resonances for trans women. In the beautifully written 2012 obituary for Molly Hadfield, her granddaughter Melissa Marino notes Molly’s “formidable sense of style,” her dress and presentation making her stand out in a crowd, and quotes her as once saying: “We may be feminists but that is no reason to be sloppy.”12 Today, many of us can laugh at this wry observation, and celebrate that women can ground self-empowerment and embody feminist values in exercising choice when it comes to what might be referred to as ‘sloppiness”’- by rejecting conventional and often oppressive markers of femininity, or conversely, embracing them in exaggerated, celebratory and self-aware hyper-femininity. However, there is a cruelty within that prevailing trend: in order to be recognised as women by society and by policy, trans women are expected and forced to rigorously maintain and uphold those same arbitrary and constructed signifiers of femininity. A salient and seemingly every day example, which often has far-reaching implications and consequences, is in defying society’s expectations and patriarchal policing surrounding the presence or absence of body hair. The presence of body hair - be it left to grow free on the armpits, the lip line, the belly, the legs, or even the genitals - on a cisgender woman can be seen as praiseworthy amongst activist circles, as a brave act of rebellion and resistance against the patriarchy. In cases where cisgender women face discrimination for their body hair, it most frequently manifests as street harassment, or as online expression: internet trolls, often anonymous, and often with violent, derogatory, and sexually explicit threats. The presence of body hair of any kind on a trans woman is immediately used in most social contexts as evidence to deny us our womanhood, to misgender us as men, or even to dehumanise us as animals or freaks. In cases where transgender women face discrimination for our body hair, it often has immediate and drastic consequences, including workplace discrimination, prohibited access to bathrooms and public amenity, gatekeeping and denied access to medical services, transition, and gender affirmation therapies and surgeries, as well as public threats of intimidation and violence, and even physical assault and murder. Even from this one very specific bodily example - the personal-is-political nexus of hair we can see that arbitrary standards of womanhood, created within an exaggerated and artificial dichotomy of gendered bodies which places a strict divide between binary female and binary male, are a false set of constructed stereotypes against which to assess any
Melissa Marino, “Cheerful crusader for the community” - Sydney Morning Herald/The Age, December 19 2012 https://www.smh.com.au/national/cheerful-crusader-for-thecommunity-20121218-2bkxe.html
5 of 14 given individual’s gender identity. These standards against we are measured - as trans women, but also, as all women - are inherently flawed. That is to say, we can begin to perceive how the construction of gender binaries is in fact a gendered weapon - a constructed artificiality of what is “natural” and “normal” on a gendered body which does not reflect the actual state of things, denies the human form’s biological realities, and indicates the engrained and insidious nature of misogyny. This also begins to point towards one of my key contentions: that transmisogyny is an extension of misogyny, that the very structures used to oppress all women are the ones utilised to target trans women, and that the denial of trans womanhood is both a discrete and unique issue but one which forms within, and is indicative of, the broader system of structural oppression that is misogyny. Let us step back for a moment. Why does hair matter? Why do the politics of hair matter? Are we making a mountain out of a molehill - a dam in a mighty river out of a plug of hair in a clogged drainpipe? How does this connect to a quote about sloppy appearances? Sadly, for many trans women - in the workplace, on the street, going about daily life - the cost of dressing and presenting ‘sloppily’ is an all too real problem which influences whether or not we ‘pass’ - that is, whether society and the people we encounter accept us as trans women, as women, or indeed, as human. The consequences and danger for being deemed not woman enough - or for being deemed too womanly and accused of attempting to deceive or ‘trap’ heterosexual men are extreme, and far too commonly, fatal. And yet, as we have began to brush the surface of, the very notion of ‘passing’ and of the pressure or expectation to ‘pass’ is fundamentally flawed. We should all - all women, be we trans or cis - be entitled to choose whether we are ‘sloppy’ or not, without compromising our womanhood, or innate gender identity. Indeed, we should be able and willing to reject external definitions of ‘sloppy’ that rest on patriarchal, misogynist and transmisogynist constructs. THE DANGERS FOR TRANS WOMEN Trans women face dangers - ranging from daily micro aggressions, to structural oppressions including social exclusion, political discrimination, and economic disadvantage, and to physical violence, including death - due to their gender, and these stem from transmisogyny and misogyny. A startling 19% of participants in the 2007 Tranznation study of trans people in Australia and New Zealand report physical attacks.13 A 2009 study by the Trans Murder Monitoring Project found that globally, a trans person is murdered every 3 days in acts of transphobic violence.14 Being visibly trans, or confiding or confirming your transness to people - be it in the workplace, in educational and medical institutions, in accessing bathrooms and other gendered facilities and amenities, on the street and in the community, within family relationships, on the dating scene, and even in the bedroom - is a constant negotiation of 13
Report: “Tranznation: A report on the health and wellbeing of transgendered people in Australia and New Zealand” p61 - M Couch, M Pitts, H Mulcare, S Croy, A Mitchell, Sl Patel, 2007 14
Carsten Balzer "Every 3rd day the murder of a trans person is reported" - Liminalis: Journal for Sex/Gender Emancipation and Resistance, 2009
6 of 14 personal safety. And as reviewed in the introduction to this talk, homelessness, domestic violence, social exclusion and economic inequality also plague trans women in Australia, but also, world wide. These experiences of transphobia, discrimination and exclusion create poor mental health outcomes. 57.4% of trans women in Australia surveyed by the LGBTI National Health Alliance in 2017 reported being diagnosed with mental illness within the past three years, and 58.9% reported being diagnosed with depression within their lifetime (compared to 11.6% of the general population). The same study found that 35% of trans people have attempted suicide, compared to 3.2% of general population, and 53% have self harmed in their lifetime (compared to 8.1% of the general population).15 It is worth emphasising for clarity: Being trans does not cause poor mental health outcomes, despite what many conservative politicians and fundamentalist religious extremists might claim. In the same way that cis women were once stigmatised as being prone to poor mental health due to their ‘hysterical’ bodies, the idea that being trans inherently causes mental illness is a prime example of insidious structural oppression masquerading as truth, and of bigoted opinion disguised as public health discourse - again, reiterating how transmisogyny is truly fashioned from similar stuff as misogyny. It is the experiences of transphobia and exclusion society pushes upon trans people which cause poor mental health outcomes - and a 2015 study lead by Katrina Olson at the University of Washington further confirms this.16 At the root of transphobia, exclusion, and transmisogyny - which are major underlying causative factors for so many of the dangers and discriminations we have discussed - is the denying of our existence, the refusal to recognise trans women as women. INTERSECTIONALITY, AND PERCEIVED THREATS TO FEMALE IDENTITY There are some cisgender women, including trans exclusionary radical feminists, who insist that trans women are not women, and cannot be recognised as real women, because they may believe that identities of trans womanhood and evidence of trans women’s issues (such as those we have outlined thus far) pose a threat to female identity for cis women, and minimise the very real issues, dangers and inequalities posed by misogyny and patriarchal oppression around the world. However, expanding the definitions of womanhood does not erode the womanhood of other women; and as often suggested in the work of black feminist and critical theorist Angela Davis, expanding feminist movements does not weaken feminism, but strengthens it.
Report: “Snapshot of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Statistics for LGBTI People” - LGBTI National Health Alliance, July 2017 16
Press release: “Transgender children supported in their identities show positive mental health” University of Washington, February 26 2016 https://www.washington.edu/news/2016/02/26/ transgender-children-supported-in-their-identities-show-positive-mental-health/
7 of 14 As trans women, we do not claim to represent or embody the entire spectrum of womanhood, but recognise our place as one interlocking, intersecting piece of a mosaic. Trans women present our own set of innate and intrinsic issues, and then say: These too are womenâ€™s issues. Within the continuous history of feminism, the emergence of trans voices follows on from black feminist movements, which present issues which may be completely incomprehensible to middle class white feminists, and yet are also womenâ€™s issues and feminist issues. Historically, we have seen that acknowledging the unique and diverse challenges, issues and identities of black womanhood does not erase white womanhood, and that feminisms which utilise intersectionality - to use terminology pioneered by theorist and activist Kimberle Crenshaw - can conceive of multifaceted identities which overlap across race, gender, class and sexuality, and perceive a diversity of resulting issues. Trans women do not claim to share every single issue in an identical way to every cis woman, and indeed, as part of intersectional feminism, we recognise that the diverse spectrum of women - women of colour, Indigenous women, white women, mixed race women, migrant women, mothers of all kinds, women living with disabilities, women across different class and socioeconomic groups, elderly women, women living with chronic illness, sex workers, trans women, and women who live in the intersections of two or more of these (and more) groups - all have very different lived experiences of womanhood. The perception of trans women as a threat to the womanhood and female identity of other women is an approach which lacks intersectionality, but which also denies a global history of trans and gender diverse lives (a history which we will discuss in more detail soon). Trans womanhood is just one set of experiences, and by advocating for the acceptance of trans women - and striving to reach equality and safety for trans women - we are not attacking, denying or attempting to erase the womanhood of cis women. MALE FRAGILITY, AND PERCEIVED THREATS TO MALE IDENTITY Meanwhile, there are some cisgender men who perceive trans women as a threat to their own male identity, challenging their sexuality and their understanding of their place in the world. This is less about the lived realities of trans women, and more about misogyny, about how some cisgender men have an inability to perceive women beyond sexualised objectification, and about the contradictions of certain types of male identities forged by male fragility and toxic masculinity - which could be the topic for many hours of exploration. It is likely that these men are also, in certain ways, victims of oppressive patriarchal structures, but this is outside the scope of my talk this evening beyond noting that a rigorous self-evaluation of definitions of masculinity and conscientious self-knowledge amongst cisgender men would prevent many dangers to trans women and cis women alike, as well as society in general, and ultimately, save lives. If I may put it briefly and bluntly, as a message from all trans women to some cis men: You donâ€™t have to have sex with us, but stop using that as a justification for killing us. SELF-DEFINITION BY EXCLUSION OF THE OTHER In understanding transphobia, transmisogyny, and the violence and discrimination trans people suffer at the hands of individuals, institutions, social systems, and policy and
8 of 14 economic structures, it is also necessary to observe that the dominant, hegemonic identity in any given struggle tends to identify itself and develop self-definition by exclusion of the other. Cisgender people often have no concept of the word cisgender, only of the identified “Other” - transgender - and themselves, the perceived “normal.” To normalise and naturalise itself, the dominant societal identity defines itself not by rigorous self-reflection but through the exclusion, marginalisation, and sometimes pathologisation and criminalisation, of that which it is not. In a cruel paradox, it is through this process that the self-appointed “norm” becomes dominant in society. As parallel and sometimes historical examples of a “norm” only naturalising itself through the exclusion of its identified “other” - toxic masculinity defines itself by the exclusion of women and femininity; whiteness defines itself as not blackness; heterosexuality has been described as “normal” in opposition to the “abnormal” of homosexuality, bisexuality and asexuality. At the root of deconstructing transphobia - and hence, transmisogyny - is acknowledging that it is not “normal” and “transgender” - but “cisgender” and “transgender.” DENYING & EXCLUDING TRANS WOMEN Exclusion of trans women - from spaces, from institutions, and from feminine identity and womanhood - sends a clear and harmful message: You are not welcome; there is no place for you. Such messages compound into often fatal consequences, with the consistent denial of our existence, and our right to exist, and the reinforcement that there is no place for us, directly contributing to the poor mental health outcomes for trans women which we outlined earlier, as well as tacitly endorsing violence and discrimination against trans women. Indeed, the exclusion of trans women from women’s spaces directly impacts our safety for the simple and unfortunate fact that the reasons cisgender women need safer spaces from cisgender men are the very same reasons trans women need safer spaces from cisgender men. As discussed earlier, the exclusion of trans women is done to define cis as “normal”. Many of the scare tactics, fear mongering and smear campaigns surrounding transgender women are in fact articulating the violence of cisgender male behaviours, misogyny, and patriarchal power: as an example, the constant debate surrounding trans access to bathrooms often cites the risk that a trans woman using the female bathroom is in fact, a cisgender man in disguise attempting sexual predation. Firstly, let us note that in such a situation, the perpetrator is in fact - a cisgender man. Trans women use bathrooms for their necessary and intended bodily functions of excretion. Everybody pees. A cisgender man entering the female bathroom for the purpose of enacting violence is not a trans woman needing to pee. He is in fact, a man, enacting misogyny and violence. Trans women, meanwhile, when forced to use the male toilet facilities, are subject to harassment, violence and assault - from cisgender men.
9 of 14 The problem is not trans women, and the problem is not that we trans women might be fakes: the problem is toxic masculinity, male privilege, patriarchal power structures, and physical and sexual violence enacted by cisgender men and enabled by a broader system of entrenched misogyny. THE FALSE BINARY: BIOLOGICAL DETERMINISM & GENDER ESSENTIALISM CN Lester, academic and activist, observes that: “The idea that trans women are fake women… is one that is currently playing out in schools, prisons, the legal system, public life, the political circus that inflames every other arena. It is an issue frequently dismissed as a simple difference of opinions, characterised by the ‘right to offend’ - but it is no exaggeration to say that, at its worst, this question of realness can mean life or death to the most vulnerable members of our community.”17 These questions of ‘realness’ or ‘fakeness’ are often based in a false binary of two dichotomous sexes and opposite genders - a binary which is reinforced by the dastardly combination of biological determinism and gender essentialism. Almost any understanding of feminism, gender studies or sociology across diverse global cultures recognises that gender essentialism - such as the idea that there are two distinct genders which are distinguishable by certain, supposedly predetermined, behaviours, roles and characteristics - is more often than not based on entirely arbitrary, and usually sexist, oppressive, and hegemonic, ideas of stereotypical femininity and stereotypical masculinity. Gender essentialism harms everyone, not just trans women, by dictating what an individual should be, and punishing any deviation to the norm - all in order to perpetuate the power structures of patriarchy. A focus on biological determinism, such as the presence or absence of certain physical or bodily signifiers as the definitive and final indicators of gender - statistics of height, weight, strength, hair, the definition and mass of muscle and fat, and so on, measured against arbitrary and imaginary universal medians and averages of a stereotypical feminine and masculine - quickly descends into territory which can be considered ableist and racist and indeed, sexist. The very concepts of biological determinism which enforced widely held historical - and far too often, contemporary - views that falsely held cis women as weaker than cis men, as less intelligent, as more prone to hysteria and more inclined to gentle dispositions and household labour, and held these as scientifically verifiable facts, are now the exact same concepts of biological determinism used to oppress trans women. Again, we see extensions of misogyny, and with intersectional feminism, perceive how misogyny and the structural oppressions that enable it are impacting the lives of diverse women in diverse ways. Trans women do not experience all the exact same issues as cis women, and this is often used to discredit trans identity, particularly in regards to issues of reproductive health and reproductive oppression. However using this as criteria for discounting the womanhood of trans women is misguided - situating gender as existing solely within the reproductive system and genitalia - and lacks an intersectional approach.
CN Lester “Trans Like Me: A Journey for All of Us” p119 - Virago Press, 2017
10 of 14 To claim trans women are not women based on reproductive organs and gynaecology also becomes spurious when contrasted to the status of cis women who, through circumstance or through medical intervention, find themselves without those same organs - a hysterectomy does not render a cis woman genderless, or automatically transition her identity to masculine if she innately identifies with womanhood. As another example, changes in hormone levels following menopause do not automatically strip a cis woman of female status. Similarly, to consider trans women who have undergone gender affirmation surgery as simply men with penis removed denies the innate self-knowing of gender which all human beings experience. Ask any assigned-male-at-birth, cisgender, self-identifying male whether he would immediately begin living life as a woman, despite not ever identifying as one, after orchidectomy - the surgical removal of the testes - or after, say, losing his genitals in a freak accident - and we can again refocus the lens to understand how gender is not necessarily genitalia. Beyond such sociological and anecdotal arguments, I would like now to review the words of scientists who know far better than most the gender situation. Biologically, our scientific understanding of human gender is continually revealed to be more complex than originally believed. Gender in nature and animals is scientifically acknowledged to be far more complicated and far more diverse than dichotomous binaries, and the widespread belief that human gender maintains rigid binaries may be influenced by a hangover from earlier religious and scientific beliefs that divided the human as distinctly separate from ‘the animal’. Molecular cell biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling wrote in her landmark 1993 paper, “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough” “If the state and the legal system have an interest in maintaining a two-party sexual system, they are in defiance of nature. For biologically speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male; and depending on how one calls the shots, one can argue that along that spectrum lie at least five sexes - and perhaps even more…Indeed, I would argue further that sex is a vast, infinitely malleable continuum that defies the constraints of even five categories.”18 Within mainstream media and popular discourse, outside of the scientific sphere of constantly updated knowledge, biological determinist arguments for a sex dichotomy and a gender binary are largely obsessed with chromosomes, and frequently use reductive arguments based around the so-called “sex chromosomes.” However, science writer Ian Steadman explains that: “The influence of the XX/XY model of chromosomal sex has been profound over the last century, but it’s founded on faulty premises and responsible for
Anne Fausto-Sterling “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough” - The Sciences, March/April 1993 http://capone.mtsu.edu/phollowa/5sexes.html
11 of 14 encouraging reductive, essentialist thinking. While the scientific world has moved on, its popular appeal remains.”19 Summarising the extensive work of science historian Sarah Richardson, Steadman writes that: “existing sex and gender stereotypes were projected onto chromosomes by early researchers, in turn creating and reinforcing the misunderstanding among the wider public that the strict XX/XY binary is a true synecdoche for sexual dimorphism. In reality, there are extremely few sexual characteristics solely controlled by the presence or absence of a Y chromosome – and just as there are plenty of characteristics controlled by genes found on other chromosomes, the “sex” chromosomes also carry genes that determine traits that have nothing to do with sex. Y is not the essence of masculinity, nor is X that of femininity… Calling them “sex chromosomes” ran against the accepted convention of naming other chromosomes after their size and structure within a cell, not their function… The idea of the X and Y carrying “sex itself” was entrenched, helped by the fashionable eugenics of the time that saw biology as the justification for a range of racist, sexist and classist prejudices.”20 Sarah Richardson’s extensive research powerfully demonstrates the evolution of current scientific understandings of sex and gender, beyond the 19th century taxonomic systems which were built on the dangerous bridge between biological determinism and gender essentialism, and to “the complex model we know today” where it is “the interplay of different genetic and environmental factors gives rise both to physical sex characteristics and aspects of the psychological feeling of gender identity.”21 TRANS IS NOT A NEW PHENOMENON It is worth noting that culturally, trans is not a new phenomenon. Various cultures and societies throughout human history have articulated and recognised gendered identities within the trans spectrum and outside the cisgender female/male binary, interestingly preempting, corroborating and reflecting Richardson’s assessment that our contemporary scientific understandings of sex and gender form a “complex model” involving many genetic and environmental factors with physical and psychological consequence. Recent work by leading historians indicates that identities which fall within what we would now term “transgender” have existed since nearly the inception of human societies. Oxford University historian and former British Museum curator RB Parkinson notes:
Ian Steadman “Sex isn’t chromosomes: the story of a century of misconceptions about X & Y” New Statesman, February 23 2015 https://www.newstatesman.com/future-proof/2015/02/sex-isn-tchromosomes-story-century-misconceptions-about-x-y 20
Ian Steadman “Sex isn’t chromosomes: the story of a century of misconceptions about X & Y” New Statesman, February 23 2015 https://www.newstatesman.com/future-proof/2015/02/sex-isn-tchromosomes-story-century-misconceptions-about-x-y 21
Ian Steadman “Sex isn’t chromosomes: the story of a century of misconceptions about X & Y” New Statesman, February 23 2015 https://www.newstatesman.com/future-proof/2015/02/sex-isn-tchromosomes-story-century-misconceptions-about-x-y
12 of 14 “What different societies consider to be abnormal or normal has varied widely… looking at a range of societies across time makes it clear that the realities of existence are actually more complex and contingent when it comes to both gender and desire.”22 It is clear that in more recent times, history has been written and constructed in ways that erase, silence, obscure and bury evidence of transgender lives throughout the human past. However, in RB Parkinson’s queer history trail through the collections of the British Museum, and in an accompanying book, glimpses and traces of evidence throughout the archaeological, artistic and written records are revisited and reassessed by historical experts, without the restriction of heteronormative and cisgender-centric preoccupations. Amongst the many artefacts Parkinson cites is a statue panel from Mesopotamia dating to 1750 BC which represents Inanna, an aspect of the goddess Ishtar, a woman depicted with a beard who surviving writings from the time describe as “changing man into woman and woman into man.” Her cult of devotees, the kurgarrus, were people assigned male at birth who identify as women and were accepted as such by their society - and I quote the written record of the time - “whose masculinity Ishtar has turned into femininity to make the people reverend.”23 Other historical examples recorded that allow us glimpses of trans women’s lives before our own times include the notorious case of the Chevalier d’Eon, who lived in eighteenth century France and identified, dressed and lived as a woman, but who post-mortem examinations declared would have been assigned male at birth;24 or the winkte of the Indigenous North American Sioux, who were assigned male at birth but lived as women, and fulfilled feminine social roles and occupations;25 and across time and place, to mention just a few of the many understandings of people who are assigned male at birth but are innately female, the Indian hijra, Hawaiian mahu, Samoan fa’afafine, and from my own cultural background, the Indonesian and Javanese waria. More modern examples of trans history include notable transwomen such as Christine Jorgensen, one of the earliest and most high profile transgender people to transition using gender reassignment surgery, Lilli Elbe, made infamous as ‘the Danish Girl,’ Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who were all instrumental in the LGBTI liberation movement and who are widely understood to have instigated the 1969 Stonewall protests, and Carmen Rupe, a transgender Australian & New Zealand icon who pioneered trans visibility. Whilst visibility and representation across history are important and significant, as well as the emergence of celebrity trans voices in a contemporary global setting, with international figures such as Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock approaching household 22
RB Parkinson “A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across The World” p11 - British Museum Press, 2013 23
RB Parkinson “A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across The World” p37 - British Museum Press, 2013 24
RB Parkinson “A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across The World” p78 - British Museum Press, 2013 25
RB Parkinson “A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across The World” p89 - British Museum Press, 2013
13 of 14 name status, we must never forget to acknowledge and amplify the work and voices of our local trans women - within Victoria and across Australia. This list is by no means exhaustive, but as some high profile, public and visible examples, we can see the tireless work and activism of women such as:
• • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Simona Castricum - musician, performance artist, architect, advocate, author June Jones - musician, singer, activist Laura Davis (InfraGhosts) - musician, artist Brooke Powers - DJ, performer, musician, advocate Peta Friend - advocate, organiser, skincare professional Sally Goldner - activist, advocate, broadcaster, presenter, writer, community organiser Amao Leota Lu - advocate, public speaker, performer, policy advisor and health sector administrator Iris Lee - activist, writer, broadcaster, community organiser, advocate, performance artist Hannah Mouncey - AFL player, spokeswoman and advocate Margot Fink - advocate, photographer, and community organiser Melissa Griffiths - spokeswoman, community organiser and consultant George Munro - advocate, performer, singer, and tertiary sector diversity & equality champion Brenda Appleton - politician, advocate, leader and policy advisor and many, many more…
CONCLUSION: PRESS FOR PROGRESS So. Tonight we have talked. I have talked a lot. But talk is one thing, and action is another. So, what is to be done? To reiterate the theme of International Women’s Day 2018, it is time to press for progress. It is my belief that recognising trans women as real women can be the first powerful step in eliminating discrimination, stigma and violence against trans women, and in dismantling systemic transmisogyny. We can also recognise transmisogyny as an extension of misogyny, and recognise that many intersecting issues of misogyny impact the lives of trans women as well as all women, whilst approaching our feminism with intersectionality to acknowledge and understand the unique and diverse complexities of women of all kinds and from all circumstances. Pressing for progress is a long and arduous process, and dismantling the interlocking systems of structural oppressions which impact the lives of trans women is not an overnight endeavour. In the meantime, our energy and resources can also be used to agitate and advocate for trans women in immediate danger. In this regard, I urge you all to support CJ Palmer, a trans woman and sex worker detained in a male prison in Western Australia, and to protest her incarceration in a male prison - as well as to protest the way her status as a person living with HIV has been used to stigmatise and inappropriately, unjustly, criminalise her.
14 of 14 I urge you all to counter sensationalist and inaccurate representations of trans lives in mainstream and tabloid media, and in popular culture. Counter these extremist narratives with sense, empathy, understanding, respect, compassion, and intersectionality. I urge you all to be informed and take action for the increasing dangers faced by trans women and waria in Indonesia, one of our nearest neighbours, who have increasingly been subject to police brutality, public assault, and the threat of vigilante violence stirred up by religious and political conservatives in a growing anti-LGBTI movement. Amnesty International is currently running a campaign and petition online regarding this humanitarian crisis which I urge you to participate in. Help the push to ensure that being transgender is decriminalised and destigmatised worldwide. Whilst the Australian statistics I have mentioned tonight are far from ideal, we must maintain our awareness of, and rally action for, the many places in the world where the situation for transgender people is dire. Include trans women in your feminism, in your activism, and in your advocacy. Strive to educate yourselves and each other about transgender people, transgender issues, and transgender inclusion. And as I always like to say, four last words to leave you with: Persist. Survive. Resist. Thrive. Thank you.
### Mama Alto - March 8th, 2018
Published on Mar 8, 2018
Published on Mar 8, 2018
Mama Alto was invited to give the keynote 2018 Molly Hadfield Social Justice Oration for the City of Darebin International Women's Day obser...