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.