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Why Trans Women Belong in the Fight for Abortion Rights

We spoke with experts to uncover the truth about the supposed tension between feminism and trans people, and how these two controversial movements are actually fighting for the same thing.

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Jun 2 2016, 8:03pm

Photo by Jose Coello via Stocksy

Women's reproductive rights and transgender liberation are two of the greatest and most controversial political movements in the 21st century. In the last few years the conservative right has struck legislative attacks against women's access to abortion; meanwhile, the now-notorious anti-trans "bathroom bills" that have been proposed, and even made into law, in states across the country are just one example of how the civil rights of transgender people are also being stripped away. While these movements may not seem similar on the surface, they could actually be fighting for the same thing.

Carole Joffe is a professor at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco. In an interview with Broadly, Joffe explained that there is a "a very strong conceptual link" between abortion rights and the transgender movement. In addition to being opposed by right-wing forces and stigmatized in wider culture, "both movements are about bodily integrity and autonomy."

In other words, both movements are about the right to choose. The freedom to determine what happens to one's own body was fought for throughout the 20th century, culminating in the historic abortion case Roe v. Wade.

"During the half century leading up to Roe, the Supreme Court decided a series of significant cases in which it recognized a constitutional right to privacy that protects important and deeply personal decisions concerning 'bodily integrity, identity, and destiny' from undue government interference," the national pro-choice nonprofit NARAL said in a paper called "Roe v. Wade and the Right to Choose."

But there is more than a conceptual link between reproductive and transgender rights. "In practical terms, the abortion-providing community has been in the forefront of incorporating reproductive health services for trans people, including abortion care in some instances but also a range of other services, such as hormonal treatment," Joffe said.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects people from discrimination on the basis of sex. Historically, Title IX has been used to protect cisgender women from discrimination—including measures that endanger their reproductive rights. But in 2016 it has also come to serve as a counter to anti-trans bathroom bills like North Carolina's HB2. On May 13, 2016, the Department of Justice released a letter on transgender students that made it clear the sex protections of Title IX include transgender people. "The Departments treat a student's gender identity as the student's sex for purposes of Title IX and its implementing regulations," the letter read. "This means that a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity."

While Joffe reiterated that there is an overlap between the trans and abortion rights movements, there is also a long-running tension between feminists and trans people. "Historically, cisgender feminists have not gotten along very well with trans women," Laurel Westbrook, a professor of sociology at Grand Valley State University who specializes in transgender studies, said in an interview with Broadly.

Particularly in the 1970s and 80s—though vestiges of this ideology linger today—some second-wave feminists maintained a binary view on gender, positioning men and women as true opposites at either end of a gender system that was rooted in biological sex. "In that moment, some second-wave feminists believed that women are inherently good and men are inherently bad," Westbrook said. "Thus, if you allow[ed] a woman who was labeled male at birth into those spaces, that person [was] an intruder. The narrative of the time was that trans women [would] rape feminist spaces."

Anti-trans feminists have come to be known as Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), and they have often come up against inclusive feminists. In one of these instances of conflict, the transgender theorist and artist Sandy Stone became the target of hate-mongering, anti-trans author Janice Raymond, who wrote a garbage 1979 book called The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the Shemale, a text that made ridiculous and objectively disgusting claims against trans women, arguing that they colonized and appropriated the female body. According to an interview Stone did with the watchdog media network TransAdvocate in 2014, an armed TERF group called the Gorgons once showed up to a performance put on by the feminist music collective Stone was member of; they threatened to kill her. Couple stories like these beside the long-held anti-trans policies of feminist projects like the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and a scary history creates an unnecessary gap between the women's liberation movement and transgender rights movement.

Lost in these popular representations of radical feminism is its long and courageous trans inclusive history.

But that history may not be as fraught as some believe. Cristan Williams is a trans historian, activist, and the managing editor of TransAdvocate. In the Transgender Studies Quarterly, Williams recently wrote that although radical feminists did enact violence and hatred against trans women, and although the damage inflicted upon the transgender community by TERFs has been significant, the tension between feminists and trans people may not have been as broadly sweeping as is commonly thought today. "Lost in these popular representations of radical feminism is its long and courageous trans inclusive history," Williams writes.

One of the examples Williams uses is the work of Andrea Dworkin, one of the grandmasters of feminist theory. While Dworkin is famously billed as being anti-trans, Williams thinks that framing may be fallacious. "These narratives don't tell us that Dworkin ensured that her 1980s-era prowoman legal activism was trans inclusive," Williams writes.

According to Williams, the TERFs were a minority within the feminist movement. In the paper, Williams describes a moment that symbolizes the support that radical feminism has had for transgender women: the 1973 West Coast Lesbian Conference (WCLC), "the largest lesbian gathering to date." There, anti-trans feminists tried to attack Beth Elliott, a trans woman and conference coordinator. But their plans were quickly foiled. "[T]he radical feminists of WCLC stood in the way of the violent TERF activists—physically protecting a WCLC trans woman—and TERFs turned on those brave radical feminists and physically beat them instead," Williams writes, painting a complex portrait of the intersections between feminist and trans histories.

Today, the relationship between trans and cisgender women is becoming more reciprocal. "I am not aware of any group within the larger pro-choice movement that has been opposed to the participation of trans people," Joffe said. "I have not seen any data, but I would assume that most trans people are pro choice, so in that sense they are natural allies."

Nevertheless, Westbrook is concerned that trans women who wish to join the fight for abortion rights might experience a backlash by the movement. "'What do you care about women's reproductive health?'" Westbrook asked, mimicking those arguments. "'You can't have a baby.' As if trans women wouldn't care about making the world a better place [beyond] just promoting their own identity."

We all value the right to control our bodies.

Westbrook emphasized that the obvious unity between women's reproductive and transgender rights may be hard to see because of the way we compartmentalize and are galvanized by identity today. "That's one of the dangerous things with identity politics," she said. "We try to police the borders of who gets to talk about those people's right, so now we have a group of people fighting for abortion rights and a group of people fighting for access to restrooms based on self-identity, rather than [based on] what someone sees them as."

While there may not seem to be a problem with identity politics, it's possible that more could be accomplished if the distinction between various identities were dissolved. "Those two types of identity politics groups haven't been able to see that, actually, what they are both fighting for is a certain bodily autonomy, the ability to decide what happens to your own body," Westbrook said.

The social conditions that produce violence against women also produce anxieties around issues like abortion and transgender rights. "Some cis women don't realize that they're facing the same issues trans women are facing, and it actually creates a lot of fighting—which helps keep the people in power, who were doing the labeling in the first place, in power," Westbrook said. "Rather than saying, 'I am a woman, so you should give me rights to control my body,' we should say, 'We all value the right to control our bodies,' or, 'We all value access to health care.'"

There has been pushback against the fact men are often those legislating against abortion in the US, and there is a similar disconnect between the people legislating against transgender rights and those affected by them. North Carolina governor Pat McCrory has led the way in discriminatory laws against trans people, yet publicly stated he'd never met a trans person before.

Read More: Gay Men Share What It's Like Taking Female Friends to Get Abortions

"I think some of those men must believe that women are too stupid to make decisions for their own bodies," Westbrook said, "so they're protecting those women from their stupid decisions. In the same way, those same straight, cisgender white men say trans women can't use a women's restroom."

But Westbrook is quick not to condemn men. "There's nothing inherent about being a man that makes you do these things," she said. "It's just that they're the people who have the power to enact these policies at this moment."

The rights of both women and transgender people are under assault. As a result, the category of woman is broadening, which is liberating for both women and trans people; both groups have long had to confront a society that determines their role based on their physiology. In 2015, the feminist activist and author Catharine MacKinnon—who also wrote a civil rights legal proposal with Dworkin in 1983—gave an interview to the NYU Shanghai publication On Century Avenue (OCA). MacKinnon told OCA that she didn't believe biology should define womanhood.

"To me," MacKinnon said, "women is a political group."