Adrienne Rich and transmisogyny: We can begin by acknowledging that it matters

(Trigger warning for transmisogyny, transphobia.)

I have complicated feelings about Adrienne Rich’s passing: respect for everyone I know who was deeply impacted by her work, and disappointment at her contribution to pervasive transphobia. This piece is mostly an attempt to compile insights from others. Because as I witness my friends and community members mourn her, I also witness friends and community members who are outraged by the lack of conversation around her transmisogyny. I think this is a conversation we need to have. And for those of us who aren’t trans women, it’s an opportunity to check ourselves.

What’s transmisogyny? “The intersection of transphobia and misogyny that specifically targets trans women,” Tobi Hill-Meyer further articulates in this incredible piece on Bilerico (seriously, please read it).

So what’s this got to do with Adrienne Rich? From Wikipedia:

Janice Raymond cited Rich in the acknowledgments section of her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire, writing “Adrienne Rich has been a very special friend and critic. She has read the manuscript through all its stages and provided resources, creative criticism, and constant encouragement.” In the chapter “Sappho by Surgery” of The Transsexual Empire, Raymond cites a conversation with Rich in which Rich described trans women as “men who have given up the supposed ultimate possession of manhood in a patriarchal society by self-castration.”

If you aren’t familiar with The Transsexual Empire, it’s one of the defining manuscripts for hatred of trans women. In addition to attacking specific individuals, author Janice Raymond makes a (transmisogynist) case for why trans women should be excluded from, and are enemies of, the feminist movement and women’s spaces. One of her most infamous quotes, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” Raymond is still cashing in on this book and has a thriving career in academia. And The Transsexual Empire has far reaching impacts which resound today – MadGastronomer described this well in a conversation on Feministe:

Do you understand that this book has been instrumental in denying trans women access to vital services, and even to basic public accommodations? To name just one example, it has been used to justify denying trans women access to women’s shelters. And women have died because of that…

In conversations about Adrienne Rich’s involvement in this book, her compliance with or endorsement of deep transmisogyny, many have said “nobody’s perfect.” But perfection is not the issue. You can still consider Adrienne Rich a great author and activist while acknowledging her failings. You can love her work and be critical of it. Or you can’t. And that’s more than fine, too.

Folks have also cited that Leslie Feinberg and Minnie Bruce Pratt thanked Adrienne Rich in their books as proof that she probably changed her tune on trans issues. Neither of these authors are trans women. As a trans person assigned female at birth, I’ve known more than a few people (including trans men) who’ve put transmisogyny into action by including/supporting/dating/respecting trans people like me while excluding and ridiculing trans women. So, like many people, Adrienne Rich could very well have supported trans men and/or gendequeer folks who were assigned female at birth, and been actively transphobic towards trans women and/or gendequeer folks assigned male at birth. And whether or not she changed her mind about trans women and didn’t share this publicly, The Transsexual Empire is still contributing to the destruction of trans women’s lives. Pervasive beliefs devaluing trans women’s lives are just as insidious and destructive as ever.

So what can we do? Speaking to this is, again, MadGastronomer on Feministe:

…If you claim to be an ally to trans people, to trans women, this is one of the moments to act like it. Don’t tell me how she did good things, too. Don’t tell me I shouldn’t say things like that. Actually criticize her. Actually talk about the things she’s done wrong. Don’t fucking defend her. Don’t talk about how you hope she’s changed. Talk about how we can change today’s feminisms to work on behalf of trans women as well as cis women. Take fire from one more of the old transmisogynistic guard passing (however much you liked her poetry), and take the opportunity to clean house.

When all is said and done, the conversation we need to have isn’t about Adrienne Rich as a person. It’s about our communities, movements, and transmisogyny.

kiriamaya said it best:

“We (trans* people) are not angry that y’all didn’t know that Rich was a TERF. We’re angry that you don’t seem to think it matters.”   (TERF = Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminist)

If we claim to be allies to trans women, what will we do to eradicate transmisogyny? We can begin by listening to the countless trans women who’ve spoken and continuously speak to this question (just a few examples here, here, and here.) We can begin by acknowledging that transmisogyny matters.

40 thoughts on “Adrienne Rich and transmisogyny: We can begin by acknowledging that it matters

  1. Um, hi? Glad you liked what I had to say. (My GF saw a link to your post somewhere and was entertained to see me quoted and sent the link to me. I think I’m blushing.)

    Excellent post on the topic.

  2. Yeah, what about meeee????? So what if one of the great poets of our time was not only a feminist, but a Lesbian feminist? So what if the contribution she made to the literature and to the women’s movement will live forever? SO WHAT? SHE WAS CRITICAL OF TRANS_____!!! MEEE MEEE MEEEEEEEEE!!!!

  3. These are good points. The second wave feminist movement was often at odds with other groups/identities fighting for rights. But I think that it’s going to be hard to get people to stack up criticisms about someone who has just died.

  4. Pingback: Essential Reading for a Friday | The Transadvocate

  5. Reblogged this on The Baffled King Composing and commented:
    One of the hardest things to do for me as a writer is hold the creators of beautiful work accountable for the things they have put into the political discourse. While many people are mourning the passing of the poet Adrienne Rich, it is important to realize that many of her views helped further marginalize trans women, and to hold her accountable for this brand of misogyny.

  6. I am thankful that you’ve posted this – and that the conversation on transmisogyny continues to evolve (? slash not progress, but that we continue to make such systemic prejudices visible in order to confront and discuss them). I do think it would be fruitful to take account of the context in which Adrienne Rich contributed to The Transsexual Empire… and that may muss up a neat “Adrienne Rich was transmisogynist” statement. Considering the climate in which she came to political power regarding her own lesbianism and search for social justice may reveal a more complex relationship between radical lesbianism and transmisogyny. Understanding Rich as encompassing and outside of a label such as “transmisogynist” does NOT ameliorate her complicity or accountability, rather such a move seeks to understand how complicity is bound up in radicality (For all of us!) – how change happens in craggy, uneven movements. And accepting this or rejecting this are not the only two ways in which to come to terms with this. There are third, fourth and fifth ways. And more…

    Rich was an immensely complicated figure who, yes, did damage but also healed and helped many. As a young queer kid in Texas she was one of my first tastes of activist methods in art. So nostalgia may be responsible for some of my words here… although I’m careful to evaluate too! :) She was a voice for many kinds of political activisms (in her denial of the Presidential Medal for the Arts she robustly took a stand against a neo-liberal administration that did little to end economic and racial disparity – and that’s not nothing!) That she did not stand for every person does not discredit her output. Our understandings about our world will no doubt be critiqued by future generations – as well they should be (!) – but when those critiques come I hope they’ll see us as people who did our best to end the oppressions we felt we could. That some struggles are at direct odds with others which have the same core value of ending oppression should not come as a surprise to anyone reading your blog. Claiming multiple ambivalent positions is part of the difficult work we do, and it is under these grounds that your post contributes to a larger activist conversation, which is really rad(ical)! :)

    I take issue with your article only that it seeks to discredit Adrienne Rich on these grounds alone. There are many more (MANY more) who blaze a more destructive transmisogynist path.

    “There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”

    By engaging with Rich’s transmisogyny you are, in fact, enacting the dynamic between writing/struggle/social activism that is at the very heart of Rich’s work. And speaking for myself, I think that’s part of Rich’s legacy too.

    Thanks for posting, and keep up the good work!

  7. Thanks for this blog post, I’m not familiar with Rich’s work or impact in any way, but I read this poem by her the other day and wanted to share. Let me be clear that I don’t think Rich was/is a saint or that anyone is for that matter. Cheers….

    “Reliquary”
    The bones of saints are praised above their flesh,
    That pale rejected garment of their lives
    In which they walked despised, uncanonized.
    Brooding upon the marble bones of time
    Men read strange sanctity in lost events,
    Hold requiem mass for murdered yesterdays,
    And in the dust of actions once reviled
    Find symbols traced, and freeze them into stone.

  8. I see KittyBarber is here with the same defense people use for every misogynistic and racist “seminal” Dead White Man.

    And @AndyCampy, no not really – there is possibly no more destructive book for trans women than The Transsexual Empire and the *concrete* effects of it do outweigh how inspired you were by someone’s poems. there is a difference between second wave feminists who could be called “essentialist” in a contemporary context (a lot of great women) and someone who contributed to a book stating that we should be INHERENT RAPISTS who should be “MORALLY MANDATED OUT OF EXISTENCE.”

    quit trying to inject phony nuance where there isn’t much to begin with just because you enjoyed some poems. it’s disingenuous and transparent as shit.

  9. While I recognize that transmisogyny is a matter of importance, I don’t think it’s wholly necessary to tear down a persons entire body of work on one point of personal failings. Her work is good, give her that. She had some inappropriate social views, great. Everybody does. If you have such an issue with the book, educate people about why the message of the book is wrong. You do not need to demonize Rich and state, more or less, that she should be hated for statements made in the past. Keep in mind that 20-30 years ago, things were much different within the LGBT community, particularly in regards to how trans people were treated. Isn’t it possible that at that time, she was simply not enlightened enough to know better? Rich grew up and into a generation and thought tank that is very much different from the current. This doesn’t make her statements ok by our standards, but you have to remember that things have changed since. Ask your grandparents how they felt about African Americans in the 1950′s and how they feel now. Chances are they were taught to be racist in one way or another, but as times and ideas have changed, they either longer feel that way or that way of thinking has become obsolete. Before you become enraged by something that someone has done, consider the situation and mind frame of the era, recognize that some tools were simply not available then.

    • However, there is no record of Rich changing or otherwise repudiating her views. She had the tools to express a more trans-positive view, but she didn’t.

      I simply wonder how many people who are talking about nuance and separating her views from her work feel the same way when an influential but racist/sexist/homophobic writer/artist/whatever dies.

    • A really excellent essay.

      I’ve loved Rich’s poetry for years. Her transmisogyny and transphobia, not so much.

      For me it’s like loving the poems of Ezra Pound. I do, and many of his essays. Most especially those on money.

      But his notions that Mussolini was the equivalent of Thomas Jefferson. Well … those are very misguided. Yes, he was a man of his time. He lost friends and colleagues in the madness of WWI and something in him snapped and he began to hate banking Jews and love many aspects of Fascism.

      Should he have known better? Yes. He was a man of his time, but that doesn’t grant him a reprieve, because other people in his time who had experienced similar events and losses certainly did not become generically anti-semitic nor sympathetic to Mussolini’s Fascism.

      The same is true for Rich, and Janice Raymond. Not all radfems became transmisogynists and transphobes.

      Lots of us experience horrific abuse and fight very hard to remove ourselves from the slavery to others — but we don’t expound hatred and cheap shots toward other people who are somehow different than we are. Praise the poetry, but recognize, interrogate and call-out the hatred and appeals to hatred for others for what they are.

      This isn’t rocket science. It’s plain understanding, empathy and tolerance. There is NO justification for hatred, regardless of how beautifully written it may be.

      Instead, I think those of us who appreciate beautiful writing have a greater responsibility to call out the chancres that sometimes lie beneath the surface of the beauty.

    • That book set access to transition medicine in the United States back about 15 years… considering the incidence of suicide in the trans community, and the flowering of the prevalence of transition in recent years, it’s a pretty conservative estimate to say that Transsexual Empire and the memos to the US government that followed (Nothing Reaganites liked more than having a popular feminist give them cover for denying women health care) created a climate where upwards of 50,000 trans women died prematurely.

      Proctoring that hate screed is not some small personal failing. In other countries it would be considered a capital crime.

  10. Just posted this on the following site:

    http://rafeposey.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/my-complicated-mourning-rip-adrienne-rich/#comment-196

    I continue to be blown away that a woman, both progressive and representative of her time could be so vilified so quickly with no discussion of her alliance work. What makes me really sick is that the text was from 1979. Most people haven’t even read it. She helped with the editing, and yes quite likely she held that position. Do we know her position at 82?

    Further could she have been allowed to change her position with the way “Transsexual Empire is held up as the ONE text? It’s as if it’s the `One Ring’ that once a person holds it, it will take over your thoughts! I think of how it is not publicly available and in a search in my state/province I can find more copies of Mein Kampf available. So is this text so influential or should I step faster to reading Dean Spade’s Normal Life on Administrative violence to see where the real issue of transphobia lies?

    What kills me, as a woman, as a lesbian and as a person of colour is the invocation of race as an equalizer – when it is not dealt with equally. The truth is, I could blow up so many obituaries in the queer community on the topic of race.

    What becomes even more apparent to me in the dismissal is how race and trans-ness come together every year in the Trans Day of Rememberance where racialized names are stumbled over and what’s highlighted the serious issue of folks incorrectly identified as male being killed for stepping over the gender boundary imposed by society. However, after so many years of attending TDOR it is rarely pointed out this intersection. Race matters, but it really doesn’t in the general queer community so let’s just own that shit right now as a group.

    For straight people out there wondering what the hell they stepped into. QUEERS don’t have their shit together around race as much as you might think they have what with being sexual minorities and all. No joke.

    So what do I need to call out more? The overwhelmingly white queer/trans community silence or overt racism? How do either plau out at TDOR on some more murdered than others?

    Or do I need to call out Adrienne Rich and other women of her time who’s push around gender actually is the precedent for public dialogue on how we see gender actually is part of how we are where we are now in understanding the boxes aren’t real?

    Perhaps everyone is at fault. Perhaps we can only hold one piece at a time and therefore where Adrienne and her colleagues worked on race and made public alliances that were deep and meaningful. We now have trans-issues as what is labelled as more important for public loyalty.

    So I get to read the slippery slope which is an indirect attack – by erasure -of her commitment to people of colour.

    I think when I read these `complicated’ pieces I see what’s missing is the dialogue around her work with Audre Lorde for example on issues of race and gender and sexuality. But geez, that get’s left out and she’s just listed as a `poet’ and for current generations of queers all they get to see is her listed as transphobic.

    It’s an utter disgrace, and reminds me that the days of actually cracking a book open and knowing what you are reading before talking about it have been killed via quick short wiki search references which are totally lacking. Before you slice her – READ what she said because right now, all I am seeing is wiki (jesus, it’s now god’s bible right?) quotes on what Janice Raymond said about her.

    Here’s what I think. If you can cut down Adrienne Rich utterly- rightwinger delight in it. You form the attack they don’t have to formulate. You say that her lifework to be an ally to herself, to people of colour, and to the word and experience of *some* women is INVALID.

    What are you telling me: When I put myself out there, my printed word can come back to haunt me, that my association with my friends will be put on trial even if folks have no idea if we struggled and disagreed?

    You are telling me that TRANSPHOBIA matters more than RACISM and that a few lines of acknowledgement from a vilified author can destroy people’s right to mourn another writer’s passing?

    So, something written 33 years ago, that is an important text relative to feminist theory but insignificant relative to administrative laws of the society can wipe out someone entire body of written worth?

    I can see some budding authors withering and dying on the limb of poison. I can see certain exploratory texts being ghosted and therefore we will continue not to have space for people to figure things out.

    Trust me, as a Black lesbian I have to make space for countless white people every day with little manouever room for my own mistakes from the system.

    Every day I have to make some room in myself to be called out on my cis-gendered privilege.

    So, how do you want to work this thing? Shame elders entirely but leave them no room to talk things through because they should be with it already? What I’d like is to be able to support Michelle Cliff mourn. Then I’d like to think that somewhere, there’s a modicum of respect in the community for what Adrienne’s personal papers would reveal. if all you are hunting for is her position on trans – you will have missed the point of much of her life and the context she existed in.

    One woman. People, she was just one woman. If you don’t want POC to jack one person up for the whole system of white privilege then THINK this through, seriously.

    I really appreciate David Beck’s comment on this site:https://yrwelcome.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/adrienne-rich-and-transmisogyny-we-can-begin-by-acknowledging-that-it-matters/

    I’d say it’s not the only thing that matters. Ever. Check your TDOR list please and then return to considering you, your actions and your capacity to be intersectional.

    Did Adrienne Rich fail on this at the end of her life? I DON’T KNOW.

    Was she working on other intersectionalities? YES

    Does working through your process on trans publicly possibly get you beaten up? The answer is not looking good to me, not in the last 20 yrs.

    How do we want to care for the living elderly in our communities? How do we want to treat their complicated lives? How do we want to treat the long learning curve that is this life?

    I don’t know how to answer this, but as someone who has sat with the dying and the dead. It’s awfully quiet, except sometimes for the labouring breath where our mortality is so clearly fragile. The reality of that fragility so stark not just at this closing but clearly through the whole extension and expression of being.

    You don’t get to take back the hard words you say and you never said it to her face when she was alive. This is like someone digging up some muck to thriow and frankly I’m not sure if it’s hers.

    I suppose her estate, her family,her children, her life partner weren’t even a thought.

    Here’s my commitment, as someone who’s had to write more obituaries than she’d ever dreamed she’d have to do in my process of assessment and as a part of how I want to move forward with memory. I riff Dorothy Allison:

    I will give up nothing. I will give up no-one.

    So I’m taking some time and I’ll be putting Dean Spade beside Janice Raymond and when I am done reading both of those texts with that I’ll spend long moment with Adrienne Rich’s work and some to be named current poet or poetry I might find talking about this business.

    Maybe, if I’m not to freaked out by the response to this… It might just be me.

    Good luck to all of us thinking it through from our varied positions.

  11. Pingback: In Search of Our Queer Gardens: Adrienne Rich « ShoutOut! JMU

  12. When someone has just died we do not have a duty to critique them. We only have a “duty” to process in the which the way we see fit. If individuals feel the need to critique her, that is fine. But do not go telling everyone that they must grapple with her complexity just now. How controlling can people be? For those who want to wrestle with her complexity and the negative parts of her legacy, fine. For those who simply want to honor the good that she did right now, fine. Some people want to see only the good when they mourn. I think if you’re asking them to be critical at that point, it can actually cut off their feelings. And that is extremely controlling. Everyone is different, of course, but I think this is what being in community is all about. It’s about making room for what we all feel, not just what one group of people feel. So if someone needs to critique her fine, just don’t expect that everyone is going to be or should be on board with that right now. It is your right to critique, but it is not within your right to say what anyone else should do, or how they should feel. I agree that when it comes to writing her history/autobiography this will have to be dealt with, but I’m absolutely sickened by this version of political correctness that tells us we must contend with these things when a person has just died. People who pass mean different things to different people. She has just passed. How dare anyone try to say how that should be dealt with. Let each person process a person’s passing in their own way. That’s what we owe to each other as human beings.

    • More accurately, I think some people are taking Adrienne Rich’s death to note that she’s never really been critiqued meaningfully by cis feminists and that those of us who resent her misogyny aren’t going to stand idly by as someone takes advantage of social structures surrounding mourning to begin to cannonize her.

      • Actually, I think I was quite “accurate” in what I said. But I understand how you feel you have the “accurate” view. Isn’t that always how it is?

        Feelings of grief or appreciation are not “social structures”if that is what an individual is truly feeling. As I said, it’s fine for you or anyone who wants to critique her, or for that matter, anyone who has passed. What is not okay is the idea that people who do not feel like critiquing someone who has just passed should have to join in.

        “Actually criticize her. Actually talk about the things she’s done wrong.”

        This is the exact attitude I take issue with. When someone who means something to an individual dies, they do NOT have to see what every single person and community on this earth has to say and then adjust their reactions to suit that particular person or community. They can have their OWN feelings. They do no have to criticize her; they do not have to talk about the things she’s done wrong. On the other hand, if that is what they are feeling/thinking, then by all means they should criticize her and talk about the things she’s done wrong. I’m not one of those people who feels that people shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. People can certainly do that if that’s what it takes to process their thoughts/feelings around that person’s death.

        It is the FORCING of a particular reaction onto other people that I find morally repugnant and unethical. Talk about “social structures.” So people must bend their processing/grieving of someone’s passing to fit the “social structures” of a particular community? How “liberating.” Dialogue is fine and, indeed, welcome. Telling people what to do is not.

        A person should be able to say in response to the critique of someone who has passed something like this, “I understand that that is how you feel and it is your right to feel that way, but I can’t join you in a critique at this point. Here’s how I feel [insert here whatever the individual is actually feeling, not what they think they should be feeling]. I’m not trying to change your mind about this person at all and I welcome future discussion when I’ve processed what I’m feeling.”

  13. I am new to this blog and late to this subject but just to be sure i understand this…Adrienne Rich did not write Transexual Empire. Is there no record of her actual involvement with the book outside the author’s acknowledgments? Are there no comments by her in later years about the subject? Surely this is relavent to the discussion.
    Many great artists have had “associations” with groups/ideas some people find objectionable: to reject such artists out of hand is nothing short of blacklisting.

    • Read the transcript of the acknowledgement. She proctored the work, in addition to providing the rhetorical framework of one of the book’s most damning chapters, Sappho by Surgery.

      This isn’t Janice Raymond, advocate of trans genocide saying “I like Adrienne Rich,” This is Janice Raymond, advocate of trans genocide saying, “Adrienne Rich proctored this work and her feedback was invaluable in having me craft the book you’re holding.”

      This is too big to gloss over.

      • Hello, everyone. This may be late in the game, but as a number of people on this thread and elsewhere have wondered if there was any evidence of Rich’s endorsement of Raymond other than Raymond’s book, check out the 1995 edition of Rich’s collection, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1978 address, “Motherhood: The Contemporary Emergency…”). Raymond is cited on p. 265 in a footnote and by name in the text on p. 268. I don’t want to ramble here, so I invite interested people to check out the context of these citations. I think they’re fairly indicting (especially in a 1995 edition), but Rich’s larger critique of the medical establishment in the piece is important to consider, too.
        Rich is really, really important to me, but we have to be honest about her, as the above essay says so well. Rich at her best gives us the courage and resources to criticize her at her worst.

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  15. That’s cool that you feel conflicted about her trans misogyny. It’s not like we trans girls are sitting around waiting for cisfeminists to finally get it or anything. (Sarcasm)

    I’m imagining from reading your post that you wouldn’t sit around and feel “conflicted” about any other misogyny, so why the apologetics for Rich’s trans misogyny? She was a trans misogynist. Trans misogyny is misogyny. Apologetics for trans misogyny is misogyny. Get with the program.

  16. Pingback: Adrienne Rich的跨性別恐懼症 « 跨性別punk

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