How Far Have We Come? Attending the Women's March as a Trans Woman
The women's movement has historically failed to include all women in its fight for liberation. Hundreds of thousands gathered in DC last weekend, and more than a million marched in solidarity around the globe, but can we ever be truly united?
Photo by Olivia Paschkes
It was January 20th in Washington DC and yet somehow I was surprised to see a woman standing in Union Station, wearing a pink t-shirt that read, "adorable deplorable." The inauguration of Donald Trump was about to begin just blocks away and the woman's husband tilted his red ball cap toward their daughter, perhaps to signal: "See, it is possible to 'Make America Great Again.'"
I spent last year documenting discrimination and injustice in America with the courageous, intelligent women at Broadly. The end of 2016 was a painful blur, as we struggled to continue covering the issues that affect women in America while feeling the personal tragedy of the election in our own lives. Still, we were able to continue our work together.
As the nuclear family stood before me in DC, I hoped they wouldn't notice me, or the fact that I'm transgender.
I left the train station to head to my hotel. On Massachusetts Avenue, walking in the cold, young girls hugged their coats, ears warmed by Trump beanies. The day before, from the VICE office in Brooklyn, I'd watched a live stream of a subcommittee hearing at the Virginia House of Representatives. State representatives were considering a bill that would bar trans people from using public restrooms, similar to North Carolina's infamous anti-trans "bathroom bill," HB2.
A mother had addressed the committee. "How would you feel," she asked the lawmakers, her voice shaking, apparently in fear, "if you saw a grown man following your nine-year-old daughter into a restroom?"
In DC, tables lining the streets were covered in Trump t-shirts, hoodies, and hats to commemorate the inauguration. A jogger slowed her pace and pulled out an earbud. "How are sales?" she asked. Around the corner, the glass front of a Wells Fargo Bank had been smashed. People took pictures on their phones. Later, I walked by a Starbucks as employees swept the debris of a glass door that had shattered. And then, I saw the walls of a bus stop kiosk reduced to a mound of bluish glass on the sidewalk.
Across the street, two security guards in a corporate building leaned forward, peering with furrowed brows through tinted windows. Helicopters chopped in brutal circles above as I crossed a street blocked by armored military trucks.
Fuck Donald Trump!
A couple kids wearing black with white paint on their faces were ushered away from a store. "We're leaving," one snapped. Nearby, a man in a blue suit and a red baseball hat hurried along a crosswalk, his wife trailed closely in a mink coat.
In Franklin Square Park, a homeless woman lay under a blanket on a bench. "Fuck Donald Trump!" She shouted, over and over, while holding herself in the cold. "Fuck Donald Trump!" On a curb nearby, young people in flannels with septum rings lit cigarettes. Women of all ages and races carried signs of protest, already hitting the streets one day before the historic Women's March on Washington.
That night, in the lobby of the luxurious Mayflower Hotel, a gay man wearing a tuxedo and a white silk scarf talked with self-satisfaction about why he supports Donald Trump. Women in gowns posed for photos in front of a floral arrangement.
"You're literally hiding in the bushes!" my friend laughed, eyeing me, as I leaned against the wall behind a tall potted plant. He gave me our room key and I went to the elevator. That night, women were descending upon Washington. Thousands were flying, or driving, or riding in trains, hurtling toward the nation's capital.
As I fell asleep, I thought of Broadly, and of my mother, and of all the women in my life who have easily welcomed me as their sister, daughter, or friend. I thought of the gay men and women who supported me growing up, and of our elders and ancestors, the people who had marched for justice against sexism, racism, and homophobia—against the AIDS plague, anti-abortion laws, and segregation.
Earlier that day, I had seen a fractured America, and I wanted to believe that women can bring the country together, can do something with force to reject a government that has flagrantly rejected them. But the movement for women's rights is also fractured, and I couldn't forget that.
"The women's movement has never been all-inclusive," said Susan Stryker, a transgender studies scholar at the University of Arizona and the author of Transgender History. Stryker had written to me earlier in the week, explaining that there's been a long history of division within the feminist movement. There's been a simple, insidious pattern, she explained, "find a difference, use it to exclude someone who is different and less powerful than you."
My friend and colleague Callie Beusman and I were scheduled to conduct live interviews from the heart of the Women's March at 10:30 AM on Saturday morning. As I got ready at my hotel, I thought about what Stryker told me, but I also thought about the wealthy white gay man in the hotel lobby who proudly supports Donald Trump, and the 53 percent of white women who voted for him. I first read Stryker's work when I was beginning my own transition from male to female. As a historian, Stryker expanded my understanding of the way that our country has treated queer people and women.
"We need to move past the idea of a unified LGBT community," Stryker wrote to me. "Milo Yiannopoulos is gay, remember." She told me that we need "as many people as possible fighting for LGBT rights, whether or not they are lesbian, gay, bi, or trans." Our political movements, she explained, can't unify people based around identity categories.
The women's movement has never been all-inclusive.
So, just as all people need to unify behind a movement that demands equality for LGBT Americans, "we need as many people as possible fighting for the right to contraception or abortion, whether or not they have a uterus, and for rising up in resistance against the police shooting unarmed black men in the streets whether or not that are black or male, or for housing and food and health care for people who don't have those things even if they themselves do," Stryker said.
The Women's March on Washington wasn't just about women. Intersectional feminism—the idea that social issues exist in overlapping ways, that black women and white women don't experience womanhood equally, for instance—appeared to be on the minds of women marching, and was built into the march's mission statement. Stryker told me that Women's March on Washington was the largest gathering of trans and cisgender women ever. "I was extremely pleased to see in the vision and principles statement issued by the march organizers that it directly addressed trans women, honored leaders of the community, and expressed solidarity with issues of particular or unique significance to trans people like name-change or pronoun usage," she said. "Reading that, I felt that the feminist mainstream had truly come a long way."
But who decides where the issues relating to women begin and end? "As the intersectional feminists have been reminding us all for decades, 'woman' is never a sufficient category for encompassing or analyzing women's oppression," Stryker wrote to me. "Trans issues bring this point powerfully into the foreground, in that some trans women need things that are not usually considered 'women's' needs, and some trans men need things that usually are." For instance, trans women and men have bodies that are different than the popular understanding of male and female. So if a trans guy needs an abortion, is that a woman's issue? "Cis-privilege in feminism has not been fully dislodged," she explained. "Really taking trans issues to heart transforms feminism, just as really taking race or ability or class to heart transforms feminism. It makes it bigger."
We need as many people as possible fighting for the right to contraception or abortion, whether or not they have a uterus.
The crowd was so big on Saturday morning that I couldn't move through it. In every direction, women—and men—stood together in protest. They were kind and peaceful, a balm to the painful division I'd witnessed on Inauguration Day. Gloria Allred marched with some of the women who had accused Trump of sexual assault. Cecile Richards, the President of Planned Parenthood, walked to the stage through a sea of women, her hands raised high, clasped together with the hands of other women. Janet Mock, a black trans woman, addressed the crowd. Angela Davis spoke. Native women sang marching songs.
While it is easy to segment our politics into those that appeal to us or appear to represent our interests, Stryker says that the real issues we're facing are much bigger. "The greatest social issues we face today are the same big three we've faced for hundreds of years: colonialism, racism, and capitalist violence," she wrote. "Because we live in a kind of society that perpetually surveils our bodies, that appraises and ranks and norms them, that sidelines or disposes of the ones that aren't easily used to reproduce the nation or the workforce or capital, all of our particular bodily capacities and characteristics—that is, our identities—will always be at stake in how the 'big three' play out their particular forms of violence in concrete, embodied ways."
During the march, I talked to a black woman who'd been assaulted at a gas station. She had traveled to Washington DC from Chicago with her husband to stand up for her rights as an American citizen. She told me that for black people, gay people, and women, our citizenship is often taken from us—our rights viewed as special interest, niche and unimportant minority issues. But we are Americans; this is our country. Our government, she explained, is meant to be representative, yet Congress—made up mostly by white men—does not represent America. "How can Donald Trump possibly represent this country?" She asked me.
A lesbian woman told me that there isn't a single lesbian bar left in San Francisco. Her friend teaches teenagers, and worries about how young LGBT kids are going to thrive under this new normal, where many fear hate is being normalized by politicians who are hostile to LGBT equality.
During these times, it can feel impossible to keep going—and then hundreds of thousands of people rise up to mobilize, together. "Focus on the way that your own body and life is targeted and resist the violence directed against it," Stryker said. "Own whatever privilege you have and direct the resources that privilege offers you toward the most vulnerable."
Stryker urges people who want to work together to be self critical, to examine how "we each can reproduce forms of violence and marginalization against others, even when we are in a marginalized position ourselves." We want to do better, to build on the at times flawed work of our predecessors. "The women's movement has never been all-inclusive," Stryker said. "It's always been that case that some women get to be more women that others—right back to Sojourner Truth's 'Ain't I A Woman' speech.
"There were some amazing socialist feminist organizers in the early 20th century, people like Kate Richards O'Hare, who were out-and-out racists. Betty Friedan famously warned of the '[lavender] menace.' Feminists like Robin Morgan were trans-exclusionary." But Stryker also told of people who have sought something better. "There have always been people who are both fierce and humble and smart who look beyond the things that divide us and articulate a more encompassing vision of justice," she said.
I saw those people in the sea of faces and heard their cries as they threw their fists upward and held their banners of protest in the air. "This is the beauty of intersectional feminism, whose work is never finished," Stryker said.