Trans Inclusive Radical Feminism
Remember this: feminism was in no place monolithic or resolved. —Finn Enke
Located in Park Slope, Brooklyn, within a narrow section of a building that houses the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and tucked away in a box labeled “transsexuals,” is a document that, to the feminist historian, might seem rather unlikely. The document, entitled “A Very Special Discussion with Riki Anne Wilsona Lesbian Transsexual and Radical Feminist,” seems by its title alone to question received wisdom about the relationship between lesbianism, radical feminism, and transsexuals.
Popular histories of the relationship between trans people, lesbians, and radical feminists are often bookended by two events in particular. The first is Beth Elliott’s harassment at the West Coast Lesbian Conference in 1973. As Susan Stryker writes in her germinalwork, Transgender History, the trouble began when Elliott was “ousted from the Daughters of Bilitis, not because of any accusations against her but on the grounds that she wasn’t ‘really’ a woman.” Elliott remained on the organizing committee for the West Coast Lesbian Conference and was asked to perform there as a singer, where she encountered backlash from anti-trans feminists such as Robin Morgan and the Gutter Dykes, who saw her as a man and questioned her place at the Conference. The second event of this popular history is Sandy Stone’s separation from the all-woman Olivia Records in 1973, as the record company became the target of anti-trans boycotts who regarded Stone, too, as a man. The backlash against Elliott and Stone is said to have not only defined the feminism of the 1970s as biologically essentialist transphobia, but also spelled the end of the supposedly flimsy alliances between transsexuals and lesbian feminists in general.
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These ideas have stuck around. In 2014, The Globe and Mail write that “the most bitter battle in the LGBT movement today is between radical feminists and the transgender movement.” A columnist for the New Yorker asks why “at a time when transgender rights are ascendant, radical feminists insist on regarding transgender women as men, who should not be allowed to use women’s facilities, such as public rest rooms, or to participate in events organized exclusively for women.” Barbara Kay at the National Post writes that the idea that true sex change is impossible is “exactly what the radical feminists believe.”
But not everyone is on the same page. John Stoltenberg, longtime partner of radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, somewhat recently argued that Dworkin’s name has increasingly been invoked by TERFs to support an ideology that she did not subscribe to. In her 1974 book Woman Hating, she writes:
One, every transsexual has the right to survive on his/her own terms. That means that every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. . . . Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing, and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised. Three, community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.
This vision of the future of transsexuality is a far cry from what some of Dworkin’s so-called supporters (and the anti-trans sect of radical feminism in general) have argued for. So why, if one of the most well-known radical feminists was in support of trans people, has radical feminism come to be seen as incompatible with trans people since the 1970s? In recounting these stories of exclusion, have we yielded too much historical ground to transphobes that call themselves feminists? A number of trans studies scholars in the past decade have turned to these questions, uncovering a forgotten history of the trans/feminist past.
In 1972, the same year that Beth Elliott was kicked out of the San Francisco Daughters of Bilitis, Marsha P. Johnson had the following to say about the organization:
Once in a while, I get an invitation to Daughters of Bilitis, and when I go there, they’re always warm. All the gay sisters come over and say, “Hello, we’re glad to see you,” and they start long conversations. But not the gay brothers. They’re not too friendly at all toward transvestites. . . . [because] A lot of gay brothers don’t like women! . . . And when they see a transvestite coming, she reminds them of a woman automatically, and they don’t want to get too close or too friendly with her.
This quote stands out to me for two reasons. For one, it shows that the DoB, contrary to some popular understandings, were not a gatekept or exclusionary organization, at least in the early 70s. On the contrary, they not only were accepting of transsexuals but of a self-proclaimed transvestite. The second, and perhaps more important point, is that this quote shows Marsha P. Johnson casually and straightforwardly theorizing the misogyny that she and others faced from gay men. There are two stories here: one is that the cisgender feminists of the 70s were not uniformly exclusionary toward trans people, and another is that the transsexuals and transvestites that they welcomed into their ranks were also contributors to said feminism. As we will see, this is especially true in the case of Beth Elliott.
After being rejected by her parents for being trans, Beth Elliott found a new home in 1971 with the Daughters of Bilitis. Her “unabashed delight in being a lesbian” earned her the love and adoration of her chapter members, and this combined with her perspective as someone who risked her own home and family to be a woman, a lesbian, and a feminist, led to her election that same year as the vice president of the San Francisco chapter.
She did not hold this position for long, however. In 1972, a younger generation of lesbians joined the Daughters of Bilitis. In contrast to the older members, who wished for the DoB to account for a greater diversity of women and were wary of purist definitions of who could be considered a lesbian, the younger members, whose radicalism largely centered around a refusal of male dominance, focused on Elliott’s transsexual identity over her identity as a lesbian woman. It was at this point that many of the older members stopped attending chapter meetings, allowing a now younger organization to ban transsexual women from participating in the DoB. While this story is often told as one of trans exclusion, these narratives miss the fact that this was not as much a conflict between cissexuals and transsexuals, but a conflict between an older, trans-inclusive generation and a younger, trans-exclusive generation of feminists, with Elliott caught in the crossfire.
Still, Elliott continued to form friendships and connections with other local organizations, such as the Los Angeles DoB and the Orange County Dyke Patrol, who she met at the LA Gay Women’s Conference. Together, they began planning another conference for the next year. At one meeting, the following conversation was recorded:
But should it be for all women or just lesbians?
That’s impossible. Even if we wanted it to be for lesbians only, how could we tell?
Yeah Right, ha! I can just see us. . . . Please raise your right hand, sister, and repeat after me, ‘I swear upon the honor of my dykehood that I am a bonafide lesbian.’
Elliott’s relationships with the LA lesbians deepened, who viewed her ousting from the Daughters of Bilitis as “an idiosyncratic blip led by a few purists, rather than as a threat internal to feminism.” They suggested she perform at the conference.
At 9 PM, on the opening night of the conference, Beth Elliott takes the stage. The exact events that followed are not totally certain, but they likely involved two women coming onstage and taking the mic away, calling Elliott a transsexual and a rapist.One or two organizers, who were not expecting this attack on Elliott, put her attendance to a vote, probably to deescalate the situation. The audience voted in Elliott’s favor both times, and she went on to perform, shaking, to a standing ovation. This is the story that is usually told, but with no preamble and with no real sense of what happens next.
This narrative does not even do justice to what takes place while Beth Elliott is still on stage. As the two other women rushed the stage, Barbara McLean, one of the conference organizers, writes in her notebook,
OH GOD NO. . . . This woman is insisting that Beth Elliott not be allowed to perform because Beth is a transsexual. Beth was on the San Francisco steering committee for the conference, a part of the original group that gave birth to the idea last October, in Sacramento. She’s written some far-out feminist songs. That’s why she’s here. No. We do not, cannot relate to her as a man.
After Elliott’s performance, another group took the stage and said, “If Beth Elliott can’t perform, then no one performs.”
For the rest of the night, Robin Morgan rewrote the keynote speech that she would deliver the next day. She was originally supposed to deliver a forty-five minute message on the power of unity (unity being the conference theme), but instead spent double that time criticizing the conference organizers, women who worked with men, and transsexuals, Beth Elliott in particular. The next few days of the conference were full of debates about biology and male socialization, with many feeling like their discussions were shut down by Morgan.
In her original speech, Morgan criticized the conference organizers for daring to invite Beth Elliott. In 1977, however, Morgan published a sneakily altered version of her speech that removed any suggestion that Elliott was ever invited, much less a core member of the lesbian community and planning committee. When Morgan’s rhetoric eventually became so influential that Elliott was forced to retreat to the suburbs, it seemed that she had successfully erased Elliott’s feminism from the historical record. Of course, traces of her contributions still remain, even into the next decade where she wrote for TransSisters and related publications under the name Mustang Sally. Following the West Coast Lesbian Conference, transsexuals were not sidelined by feminism so much as they were removed from feminist historical archives.
In 1978, feminist writer Janice Raymond published The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, in which she writes the following:
Masculine behavior is notably obtrusive. It is significant that transsexually constructed lesbian-feminists have inserted themselves into the positions of importance and/or performance in the feminist community. Sandy Stone, the transsexual engineer with Olivia Records, an ‘all-women’ recording company, illustrates this well. Stone is not only crucial to the Olivia enterprise but plays a very dominant role there. The . . . visibility he [sic] achieved in the aftermath of the Olivia controversy . . . only serves to enhance his previously dominant role and to divide women, as men frequently do, when they make their presence necessary and vital to women. As one woman wrote, “I feel raped when Olivia passes off Sandy . . . as a real woman. After all his male privilege, is he going to cash in on lesbian feminist culture too?”
Following her decision to leave Olivia, Sandy Stone responded to Raymond’s tirade in her foundationalessay, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” This is where most exclusion narratives end. What is ignored is that Olivia Records was avowedly trans-inclusive, going as far as to pay for trans medical care. These narratives also eclipse the fact that Stone, being “crucial to the Olivia enterprise” in Raymond’s words, was also crucial to the sound of women’s music of this era.
Olivia started receiving letters, many of which were written by one author under several names, complaining about Stone’s position in the collective. Ideas about “male” and “female” styles of music mixing were invoked, adding musical components to the list of elements by which one’s feminist credentials were measured. The record company got behind Stone, however, saying in a lengthy press release that
In evaluating who we will trust . . . our focus as political lesbians is on what her actions are now. If she is a person who comes from privilege, has she renounced that which is oppressive in her privilege, and is she sharing with other women that which is useful? Is she aware of her own oppression? Is she open to struggle around class, race, and other aspects of lesbian feminist politics? These were our yardsticks in deciding whether to work with a woman who grew up with male privilege. We felt that Sandy met those same criteria we apply to any woman.
Leading up to Stone’s decision to leave the collective was a worsening pile of letters threatening violence. Olivia was informed that a group called The Gorgons claimed they would murder Stone if and when they toured in Seattle. Between musical numbers, someone called out from the crowd, “GORGONS!” and Sandy ducked under a table, hiding there until it was clear she was not going to be shot. “The death threats were directed at me,” she said, “but there were violent consequences proposed for the collective if they didn’t get rid of me.” Sandy Stone stepped down by her own volition.
At the start of this essay I quoted Andrea Dworkin from 1974, but the support of radical feminism for trans people has not since gone away. Stoltenberg, in his aforementioned article, writes that
Lately some trans-critical radical feminists have told me I am wrong because Andrea died before what they call transgender ideology threatened to undermine the biologically binary basis of feminism; Andrea could not have known, they say, what a “menace” to women’s sex-based rights transwomen [sic] have become. To which I reply: Andrea absolutely did know, as a woman and a Jew, what biologically essentialist scapegoating looks and feels like.
In addition, radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon, when asked whether her views have changed over the years, replied that
I always thought I don’t care how someone becomes a woman or a man; it does not matter to me. It is just a part of their specificity, their uniqueness, like everyone else’s. Anybody who identifies as a woman, wants to be a woman, is going around being a woman, as far as I’m concerned, is a woman. Many transwomen are more feminist than a lot of born women who don’t much want to be women (for understandable reasons), who don’t really identify with women, some of whom are completely anti-feminist. The fact that they’re biologically female does not improve things.
How has the feminism of the 1970s, including its legacies, come to be remembered as exclusionary? How come when we recall the second wave, we fail to recall the trans, queer, and feminists of color whose experiences and critiques were central to its progression? Why do exclusion stories stick in our memory more than others?
As we have seen, there is a vast archive of not only trans-inclusive feminists but trans-identified feminists making up the movements of the 70s and beyond. It’s about time we start to recognize this complex and varied history, as if we choose to simply write off the feminism of this era, we lose its more radical critiques. Exclusion narratives have some utility in explaining and dissecting the tensions between trans and other queer and feminist groups, but in the process they further these divisions and make the separation of trans people from feminism seem natural, denying feminism its long trans history.
As noted by Emma Heaney in her article “Women-Identified Women,” one of the papers I draw from in this essay, this is almost certainly a misprint of the transfeminist writer Riki Anne Wilchins.
The Daughters of Bilitis were an early lesbian organization formed in San Francisco as an alternative to lesbian bars, which were frequently raided by police. Bilitis is the name of a fictional lesbian contemporary of Sappho and was chosen for its obscurity, as the founders of the organization said that "If anyone asked us, we could always say we belong to a poetry club."
This is the first of many block quotes that this essay is littered with. I don’t resort to block quotes out of laziness, and I don’t intend for this essay to become a dissertation-esque patchwork of other people’s writing. My reason for quoting so many people at length is to recover a sizable archive of trans-inclusive and trans-identified feminists.
Most of this essay draws from three articles: Finn Enke’s “Collective Memory and the Transfeminist 1970s,” Cristan Williams’ “Radical Inclusion,” and Emma Heaney’s aforementioned “Women-Identified Women” (footnote 1).
Stryker writes in Transgender History that “Elliott discovered her feminism, lesbianism, and womanhood in the context of a college friendship in the late 1960s with a young woman who was also in the process of coming out. . . . Her former teenage relationship came to haunt her in the early 1970s, when her former college friend, by now a member of the lesbian separatist Gutter Dykes Collective, publicly accused Elliott of having sexually harassed her years earlier—a charge Elliott vigorously and vehemently denied, but which, by the very nature of things, could never be extricated from the circular round of “she said/she said” accusations, denials, and counteraccusations.”
I hesitate about using this word, as Stone’s essay, which she wrote under the supervision of feminist scholar Donna Haraway, is too often considered foundational to trans studies without a recognition of its importance to feminist and queer theory. Still, Empire is sometimes referred to as the origin of trans studies, which is deserving of celebration.