Many years ago in reading the book Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, by Fatima Mernissi, I was introduced to the concept of heterogeneity. Mernissi describes how the meaning of ‘harem’ encompasses two different possible ways of life, that have no elements in common with each other.
The concept has proved useful to me in talking about two different kinds of diversity in the disability community. There is the usual kind of diversity which is intersectional, meaning that we may be alike in one way but we are diverse in others, e.g. disabled people are male or female (or intersex), of one or another ethnic group, homosexual or heterosexual or bisexual etc. Then there is the diversity that comes from the heterogeneity of disability, what disability is depending on whether you are a survivor of psychiatry, a blind person, a wheelchair user, a Deaf person, an autistic person, or any of the other disability experiences. Another way of saying that is that disability is a coalition. It cannot even be said that we are all disabled by social barriers in relation to our impairments – for a survivor of psychiatry, the concept of impairment is both offensive and meaningless, it is solely the fact of being discriminated against through the ‘selection process’ of psychiatric diagnosis by which perpetrators identify us as suitable victims of violent experimental interventions. This relates to disability because these perpetrators regard us as persons with disabilities, they regard us as having an impairment, and when the disability community comprises those who have been subjected to such life-changing discrimination along with those who experience having an impairment of any kind, we are equally a constituency whose rights are encompassed in the disability framework.
The transgender movement that claims that ‘trans women are women and trans men are men’ for all purposes can be seen in a similar way – aiming to make the category of sex/gender a heterogeneous one. The term ‘woman’ in their view encompasses both those who are female (or intersex and assigned female at birth) and do not reject being identified as women, and those who are male and self-identify as women. Is this a move that we should accept or reject?
Feminists argue that treating ‘woman’ in particular as a heterogeneous concept (the concept of ‘man’ hasn’t come under such scrutiny from the transgender movement) harms women. I have written that it reverses the polarities and allows members of the oppressor class at will to reclassify themselves as members of the oppressed, and to consider themselves as more oppressed than actual women since they claim that being transgender is intersectional as well as a heterogeneous way of being ‘woman’.
I don’t hear from the transgender movement an argument as to why the move to remake sex classifications into sex/gender-identity as a heterogeneous concept is warranted or justifiable. I hear appeals to concern for transgender people, for their mental health and well-being which is claimed to require acceptance of their self-declared identity – their identification into a desired sex and remaking of the classification of ‘woman’ in particular into a heterogeneous category of sex/gender-identity – as socially and legally valid for all intents and purposes. I hear appeals to be inclusive, as if the remaking of our political, social, legal, cultural and physical identity as the female sex into a heterogeneous category that allows males in somehow is akin to demands by women of color, disabled women, lesbians, to be known in our femaleness and not be limited by white, heterosexist, ableist concepts of womanhood. The transgender movement has taken our painful and disruptive failures to fully recognize each other, all women, as sisters, and turned them inside out to say, well you can’t recognize a woman so therefore there is no such thing outside of what anybody, male or female, can claim it is for themselves.
As I may have said elsewhere, I support the possibility of having gender identities for those who claim them – as feminists do not, contrary to the transgender advocacy position that claims all persons have a gender identity – and the possibility of having multiple genders (as some indigenous people and non-western cultures do) if we retain gender as a cultural construct without forcing anyone into a role related to sex stereotyping and gender has no implication for sex-classification. I think that accommodations of transgender and nonconforming people’s needs for safety in dealing with police and in situations of bodily privacy and state custody need to be worked out similarly to other intersectional identity groups, without making transgender operate as a requirement to treat sex-classification as heterogeneous – i.e. without requiring the state and private individuals to accommodate the needs of male transgender persons *as a subclass of women*.
I don’t want feminists to label transgender people, gender nonconforming people, or anyone else as mentally ill or to deride anyone for their appearance. However in an environment where male transgender advocates and their female, male, heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual allies physically attack and threaten lesbians and feminists routinely with actual violence and exclusion from communities – which endangers us greatly as already marginalized people in mainstream society – I cannot say that the situation is in any way a battle with two equal sides. The first step towards any reconciliation is to end the transgender attacks against lesbians and for the rest of society to ally with lesbians and all women now.