How the Women's March's "genital-based" feminism isolated the transgender community
In the weeks approaching the Women's March on Washington, a woman in Los Angeles accidentally created what became the most popular accessory among protesters: a pussy hat.
"I wanted to do something more than just show up," Krista Suh told the Los Angeles Times. "How can I visually show someone what's going on? And I realized as a California girl, I would be really cold in D.C. — it's not tank-top weather year-round. So I thought maybe I could knit myself a hat."
Suh made the knitting pattern freely available online, and soon women across the country were working quickly to finish their own pink hats before the big day. The hats became a movement within a movement, turning President Donald Trump's infamous "grab them by the pussy" comment on its head.
While clever, Suh's pussy hats set the tone for a march that would focus acutely on genitalia at the expense of the transgender community. Signs like "Pussy power," "Viva la Vulva" and "Pussy grabs back" all sent a clear and oppressive message to trans women, especially: having a vagina is essential to womanhood.
"The main reason I decided not to go was because of the pussy hats," 28-year-old Jade Lejeck said in an interview Sunday night. "I get that they're a response to the 'grab them by the pussy' thing, but I think some people fixated on it the wrong way."
Lejeck, a trans woman from Modesto, California, said the hats signaled to her that there would be other trans-exclusionary messages at the women's marches.
She expected her local march to have its fair share of trans-exclusionary radical feminists, known as TERFs. As Lejeck described it, there are two categories of TERFS: One is the accidental TERF — "the ones who have signs that equate womanhood with having a vagina," she said. The other category, Lejeck explained, includes feminists who argue trans women are actually men in disguise trying to infiltrate their spaces.
Lejeck decided she would avoid both kinds of TERFs by abstaining from Modesto's women's march altogether; she had grocery shopping to do anyway.
"I believe there's a lot of inequality that has to do with genitals — that's not something you can separate from the feminist movement," Lejeck said. "But I feel like I've tried to get involved in feminism and there's always been a blockade there for trans women."
"I feel like I've tried to get involved in feminism and there's always been a blockade there for trans women."
For 20-year-old Sam Forrey, a nonbinary student in Ohio, and their girlfriend Lilian McDaniel, who is trans, there had been other warning signs that the Women's March might be a dangerous space for them.
Forrey said that a blurb from the Cut's "Ultimate Guide to Preparing for the Women's March" suggesting trans protesters bring identification that matches their gender identity or use the "buddy system" had been the first red flag.
Since legally McDaniel's sex is still male, she worried that if she were to be arrested she would be placed in a men's jail, a concern she said always lingers at the back of her mind. McDaniel said she'd planned on attending the march despite these fears — until she saw that people were using it as an excuse to invoke what she called "genital-based" womanhood.
A friend told McDaniel about a protester they'd seen marching with a two-foot-tall hand-knit uterus. She was glad she stayed home.
"I think it ended up being a white cis women march," McDaniel said. "There were other marginalized communities there, but it didn't seem like they were the focus."
Forrey suggested that the saturation of vagina-related messages and imagery reinforced the same oppressive structures the march was meant to oppose, which was a loss for everyone.
"As a nonbinary person, the emphasis on genitals just bought into the rigid, Western concept of gender," they said. This two-gender system, of course, is excluding of Forrey, too.
To their credit, the Women's Marches in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., both prominently featured trans women of color Laverne Cox and Janet Mock. In LA, Cox spoke out on North Carolina's House Bill 2, which requires the state's residents to use the bathroom that corresponds to their sex assigned at birth, rather than their gender identity — a direct affront to trans rights.
"If you are a girl like me, a woman like me, a transgender person like me, you live in a country that shames you, that stigmatizes you, that discriminates against you and criminalizes you," Cox said.
Empathy, she maintained, is the only antidote to this societal ill.
On the opposite coast, Mock gave a rousing speech on the importance of intersectional feminism, stating simply, "Our approach to freedom need not be identical but it must be intersectional and inclusive. It must extend beyond ourselves."
However, the need for intersectional feminism had never been more apparent than when the Women's March on Washington's organizers revised a line Mock had contributed to the march's platform on sex workers. Whereas Mock had written that the march would be "in solidarity with the sex workers' rights movement," organizers changed the language to refer to sex workers as "those exploited for labor and sex."
Also in D.C., Raquel Willis, a communications associate at the Transgender Law Center, alleged that her microphone was cut off during her speech at the march, just as she mentioned trans activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson.
"Still silencing trans women," she wrote on Twitter. "I see you and so does everyone else."
"And although I'm glad to be here now, it's disheartening that women like me were an afterthought in the initial planning of this march," she said, according to the full speech which she shared on her website. "Trans women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera lit the fire on the LGBTQIA Right Movement but were quickly pushed aside."
If the estimated three million women's march protesters in the United States are to start a revolution, they need to address these weaknesses, Lejeck said. And marginalizing the trans community seems to be one of them.
"If this movement with the Women's March keeps going and ends up being a major opposition to President Donald Trump then they are absolutely going to use every chink in our armor as a target," Lejeck said. "It's better to fix any problems now before they use them against us — not to mention that fixing them will mean even more people fighting for the same cause."
Lejeck continued, "It's a win-win. It just takes some effort."