bell hooks and Laverne Cox Show Us the Way
The schism between certain radical feminists and the trans community is one that pains me deeply. As a trans man who came of age among lesbian separatists, I have deep connections on both sides of the split. About a year ago, I made a heartfelt plea on social media to settle these disputes through open dialog. (See You Used to Call Me Sister). But even after exhaustingly long and compassionate one-on-one conversations with women I know personally, I haven’t yet found any bridges or crossings over.
I felt convinced that if the women I knew on both sides could find the courage to sit down together and talk to each other, they would realize that their fears are rooted in thoughts that have no anchor in the lived reality of the vulnerable person sitting across from them. Looking in each other’s eyes, they would feel compassion for one another, and find mutual understanding. I know it sounds overly romantic. Look at the divisiveness all around us today. I blame it in part on technology. The very medium with which I am able to connect with you, dear reader, also divorces us from each other. We don’t see each other, breathe the same air, bask in the same light, or hear each other’s sighs. That separation cuts the cord of compassion that makes us human. Instead of responding to sensations in our bodies, we go into our minds and allow ideas to override feelings.
Hope for Healing
I know how naïve I sound, but I still believe in the possibility. I tried to think about how I could create a space for dialog right here in my own town. Even if a could secure a space that felt neutral and a mediator who is trusted on both sides, how could I invite women into that space? I tried to imagine going to a trans support group and asking trans women to volunteer to go meet with women who think they should be excluded from support services and events that were designed for women. These trans women have faced so much hatred and scorn, why would they willingly walk themselves right into more of that? Likewise, the radical feminists I know are convinced that trans folks become violent at the mere mention of biological determinism. Both sides have convinced themselves that the other is inhospitable and dangerous. Yet, in speaking to me about it, both sides claim that all they want is respectful open dialog. (When they say that, they usually imagine being listened to and don’t think so much about listening openly to the other).
So just when I was beginning to despair and lose my prevailing faith in humanity, I rediscovered the very dialog I was trying to manifest in a YouTube video that I saw years ago. It was a public dialog between bell hooks and Laverne Cox that was recorded at the New School in 2014. Here we have a prominent feminist, one who touched so many women’s lives when I was coming into my power with her bold and open exposé of the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. We have a celebrity Black trans woman who is also an activist for human rights. What I find so refreshing about this dialog is how clearly the two women show admiration for one another, even when they don’t see eye to eye. bell hooks comes right out and says that she is not a fan of Orange is the New Black, the Netflix series that was Cox’s rise to fame. They are frank with one another and their conversation is real.
I suggest you watch the entire 1:36:08 video, but speaking specifically to the rift I hope to heal, I want to focus on certain segments. First, a word about terminology. I recognize that Laverne Cox does not represent all trans women any more than bell hooks represents all radical feminists. In fact, it is important to note that one can be a radical feminist and be entirely trans inclusive. For simplicity, I will refer to one side as “trans women” and the other as “radical feminists” even though I mean a subset of each of those groups. While the dialog between bell hooks and Laverne Cox does not focus on gender critical theory or the womanhood of trans women specifically, they do speak to some of the issues that divide transwomen and radical feminists. More importantly, they speak to ways to build solidarity. My hope is both to offer a model of positive dialog for people and communities to follow, and also to critique some of the underlying issues that were discussed from a trans perspective.
High Heels and Wigs
The place I want to start is probably the most contentious part of the conversation, where bell hooks calls into question Laverne Cox on her choice of gender presentation. Ms. Cox is wearing a long blonde wig and black high heels with bright red soles. bell hooks comes right out and says, “I was thinking about these shoes that she’s wearing and her hair. Because one of the issues that I think many people have with trans women is the sense of a traditional femininity being called out and reveled in. A femininity that many people, many feminist women feel like ‘Oh, we’ve been trying to get away from that.’ Can you talk about that a little bit?”
If you don’t know bell hooks and you don’t understand the branch of feminism that she speaks to, let me try to summarize quickly. hooks recognizes high heels as a tool of the patriarchy. They are designed to objectify women as a commodity to please men. It’s true that years of wearing high heels leads to back problems and they are not at all ergonomic in their design. Men within the constructs of the patriarchy are taught to believe that women exist to be aesthetically pleasing to them and that women should be expected to play that role by conforming to beauty standards designed around that ideology. Thus, some feminists reject the entire charade of makeup, hair products, high heels, and scanty attire in favor of clothing and hairstyles that are natural, comfortable, and allow women freedom of movement.
Laverne Cox responds first by pointing out that not all trans women dress the way she does, which I think is important because hooks is speaking directly to a stereotype when she says the elevation of traditional femininity is an issue that many people have with trans women. hooks doesn’t say “some trans women” and the implication is that all trans women are in agreement on this. So I think it’s important that Ms. Cox begins by dispelling that assumption. But then she goes on to acknowledge her personal participation by saying, “My choice is to wear all this … show business. But some of this is just about what I find aesthetically pleasing for myself. You know, I’ve gone through lots of phases where I’ve had braids and where I’ve been sort of androgynous. I went through this very androgynous phase. And this is where I feel empowered, ironically, and comfortable. I think that it’s important to note that all trans women are not embracing this. That this trans woman does. And this trans woman feels empowered by this.”
Laverne Cox receives a lot of applause in response to this line and I want to acknowledge the importance of self-determination. A woman being conscripted to a ban on beauty products is not more free than a woman being held to societal expectations of meeting standards of beauty. There is a huge difference between the two scenarios, to be sure, and we must acknowledge the role of power that dominant capitalist patriarchy holds. But in terms of individual freedom, every women should be autonomous in deciding her gender expression. So, Ms. Cox identifies a place where she feels empowered. But even that is complex. Remember, the patriarchy awards power to those who align with and conform to its standards and expectations. The question we might ask is how much of Laverne Cox’s empowerment is the result of self-actualization and how much is from selling out to the patriarchy?
Ms. Cox addresses this complexity when she goes on to say, “It’s something that I wrestle with, you know, having an understanding of your work and an understanding of patriarchy and it’s like ‘Am I sort of feeding into the patriarchal gaze with my blonde wigs?’ And I think that’s an issue. My brother’s like ‘Yes! Yes! Yes, you are!’ And you know, it’s one of those things where I’m just sort of like ‘OK, here I am, I’m embracing a patriarchal gaze with this presentation.’ It’s the way I found something that feels empowering. And I think the really honest answer is that I have not wanted to … I’ve sort of constructed myself in a way, so that … I don’t want to disappear. And I think so often there is an erasure. And I’d like to add this is normative, hetero-normative imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, where there’s an erasure. Where there’s an erasure of certain bodies and certain identities. And I have not ever been interested in being invisible and being erased. And so a lot of how I’m I guess negotiating these systems of oppression is trying not to be erased, is perhaps buying into or playing into some of these ideas, of the patriarchal gaze, of the white supremacy.”
Trans Visibility is Subversive
I am fascinated by this response both in her open admission of the ways she plays into societal expectations and, more importantly, in her claim to her right to exist and defy erasure. This is a critically important issue when talking about the trans community. hooks is known for her stance on the violent erasure of Black womanhood. This is especially true for Black trans women who are literally erased through homicides at the highest rates, murders that have been condoned based on what was once considered a justifiable “panic defense.” It’s interesting to me, as a trans man, to hear Cox talk about not wanting to disappear, to be invisible, to be erased. So many trans folks of my generation were focused on passing, on being embraced in their chosen gender, even at times denying their past or their identity as trans. Stealth, we called it. Assimilation and erasure, bell hooks might call it. I compare Laverne’s desire to be seen, in my heart, to the visibility of homosexual existence that grew out of the influence of Harvey Milk in the 70s and I harken back to the “flaming queens” extravagantly marching in the streets chanting, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” At the time, even queer circles (usually white closeted queers with prominent social status) considered these acts with judgement. Such actions were deemed tasteless, flamboyant attempts to attract attention to oneself. But were it not for that exaggerated bold refusal to be erased, all sexualities besides heterosexuality might still be in the closet today. In my mind, what hooks refers to as reveling in traditional femininity is actually a direct action to thwart the expectations of the patriarchal gaze.
The high heels and the blonde wig have become weapons against the entrapments of gender expectations.
Laverne Cox is choosing to subvert the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy by fooling them at their own game. Like an aikido move, she takes the force of the push for femininity to be a certain way and, instead of pushing back against it, she redirects the energy of that force against its perpetrator. She does this with grace and humor. She refers to her own appearance as “all this show business” and later modifies the phrase “buying into” to say “playing into” the ideas of traditional femininity. It’s hard to say which comes first, the expression being a self-empowering affirmation that is at the same time a rebellious act, or a defiant move against erasure that makes her feel empowered and celebratory of who she knows herself to be. Either way, I find it bold, strong, revolutionary and true. The high heels and the blonde wig have become weapons against the entrapments of gender expectations.
To be clear, when hooks states that feminist women have been “trying to get away from all that,” she is also talking about empowerment and rebellion to defy erasure. I’m not saying that feminist women should not continue to push back against societal expectations that women remake themselves to appeal to the patriarchal gaze. It is still important to recognize that those shoes were designed to cripple and undermine women as free agents and position them as sexual commodities. My point is that once you recognize the enforcement of gender roles and gender expression to be a tool of the patriarchy, how you go about dismantling it depends up on who you are and how you are positioned. If hooks were to say that women should “get away from all that” would create an oppositional gaze that works for some, but she can’t speak for all. If Laverne Cox were to adopt that political approach, she would not be who she is, she would not hold the power to create change that she now does, and she would not be as empowered.
Power to Create Change
bell hooks appreciates these points in her response, but she sees it a concession and not for the subversive act that it is. She says, “We can’t dismiss how certain representations allow us greater visibility within the existing social structure. And I hear Laverne honestly owning ‘I want that greater visibility.’” From here, hooks compares Laverne Cox to Beyonce and attributes her appearance to an excusable desire to be seen, recognizing that it results in positioning her in a way that allows her more power to act. But she doesn’t seem to recognize that, unlike Beyonce who promotes traditional femininity in girls, a trans woman appeals to gender fluidity for persons formerly confined to masculine expressions. Laverne’s pumps are subversive in a way that Beyonce’s are not.
Trans rights are about breaking the bonds of gender expectation and that is perfectly aligned with breaking the bonds of misogyny and with freedoms of sexuality.
Ms. Cox recognizes that her choices are political, that she does not make these choices uncritically. “But I don’t think this presentation makes me any less aligned with feminist politics and anti-white supremacist politics, with wanting to create spaces of freedom,” she adds. I think Laverne Cox deserves credit here, because so often I hear radical feminists claim that the expression of femininity presented by trans women is an undoing of their work, that it turns against their politics. In reality, trans women who “dress up” are in a position to thwart the policing of gender presentation in a way that, while it may not match the broader feminist politics, works towards the same end. My personal point of contention whenever we have these kinds of debates about feminism is that people tend to get caught up in their own approach to an issue to the exclusion of all others. If we stop focusing so much on the high heels and whether or not to wear them, and we start thinking about what we are fighting against, it becomes clear that both sides are working towards the same freedoms. Trans rights are about breaking the bonds of gender expectation and that is perfectly aligned with breaking the bonds of misogyny and with freedoms of sexuality.
Understanding Each Other
A point of contention that I hear some radical feminists express is that they believe trans women adopt traditional femininity out of ignorance of feminist theory around it. They see trans women as having been conditioned as men, and as such, they only see the world through the male gaze. Thus womanhood, to them (according to these feminists), equals traditional femininity. I believe the extension of this concern is that these transwomen will not understand or support feminist women in their struggles, because their appearance reveals that they obviously do not understand ‘natural’ femininity. hooks admires Laverne’s ability to speak to the issues, “Well, I think the very fact that you can name it, I mean, most Black women dealing in that kind of politics of representation get pissed off if you try to get them to name it.” From my perspective, I find that in general, trans women understand feminism far better than cisgender radical feminists understand trans women. This is often the case with intersectionality. The less dominant culture must always have an understanding of the more dominant culture. It is the very nature of a dominant culture to take itself for granted and to be unaware of that which it erases. Most radical feminists I know who exclude trans women from their spaces or who are reluctant to recognize trans women as women have an extremely hard time hearing that they are more dominant than trans women.
It’s more than just a numbers game. When you look at the numbers, transwomen are a clear minority. A quick Google search estimates that the percentage of people who identify as transgender is measured somewhere in the range of 0.6%. About 4.5% of women identify as lesbian or bisexual. Of course, women are around 51% of the total population. Only 29% to 38% of those women identify as feminist depending on which poll you look at. But any way you look at it, transwomen are far outnumbered. Yet cultural dominance has more to do with who is deemed acceptable, and whose existence is elevated. I hear some radical feminists react to a recent rise in the positive visibility of trans people, claiming to be overshadowed. Feminist women know that men are dominant to them in the social hierarchy and these radical feminists attribute some of that male dominance to transwomen. Some lesbians have decried being wiped out by the “trans agenda,” claiming that young would-be lesbians are being pushed into becoming trans identified instead. But I posit that most cisgender radical feminist women have very little understanding or recognition of the lived experiences of trans women, in the same way most white feminists in the 70s had very little understanding or recognition of the lived experiences of women of color. This is the very erasure that Laverne Cox lives to defy. This ignorance is itself a symptom of living in a dominant culture that is unaware of a subculture.
Expanding Ideas of Womanhood
Laverne Cox draws attention to the split between feminists and trans women and appeals to bell hooks to address it. “I also wanted to say how important it is, because there’s certain folks who call themselves radical feminists who are not accepting of trans women, and who … and that’s another reason I was very emotional in coming here today,” she says. “Because I was hoping that this moment could model for other folks what this kind of thing can look like. I was wondering if you, as a thinker who has taught and written extensively about expanding our ideas of womanhood, what some of your thoughts are, perhaps, as the feminist in my opinion.”
bell hooks is given a chance here to speak to her feminist sisters and call a truce to this needless in-fighting. However, I feel she sidesteps the opportunity. “So truthfully, I would probably get rid of all these categories of trans and whatever, and we would just all be queer,” hooks states. “And the demands of queerness would be, as Baldwin writes in ‘The Male Prison’ in Nobody Knows My Name, would be that we would have to work out what our selves are.” This feels, to me, like the way white women used to talk about race, asking why can’t we see past skin color and all get along? The trouble with that would be erasure. We need to recognize each other and validate one another. You see, when we leave it up to working out what our selves are, we run into conflicts. There are cis women, who prefer the term natal women, who work out that their selves are biological females and that their politics revolve around the issues that are tied to that biology: reproductive rights, sexual harassment of their pussies and breasts, workplace concerns related to menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause, etc. They will say that their selves are women and that people AMAB (assigned male at birth) do not share their biology and are not welcome to share their identity as women. Meanwhile, you have trans women who work out what their selves are and they identify as women.
Trans women, though fewer in numbers per capita, are still over a million people from all different racial, religious, and economic backgrounds. What they have in common is their identity with womanhood. And, like cisgender women, they span all different possibilities of political beliefs and opinions as well. Some are feminist and some are not. Some wear high heels and some would never. Some want to be in women-only space, and some couldn’t care less. Even in terms of gender identity, it varies. Some trans women have always known themselves as girls, while others didn’t have a clue growing up and discovered their selves later in life. Some, though not enough, grew up in loving acceptance and have enjoyed a girlhood. Others grew up with what they identify as boyhood and male indoctrination. Still others, far too many, knew themselves to be a girl and suffered through a childhood that was a constant attack on their very being, having to hear day in and day out that they can’t be what they know themselves to be, that to even consider it is an abomination. Besides all that, I identify as a person assigned female at birth who was raised with male privilege. Although I was not held to the standards in the same way my brothers were, I, too, was indoctrinated in the boy code growing up. Gender assignment and how you are raised are not a one-to-one correlation. For radical feminists with cisgender privilege to declare that all trans women were raised with male privilege is a statement born of ignorance and should not be used as grounds to deny a trans woman’s right to identify as a woman. And yet, this is what we are dealing with, identity being pitted against identity. How do we reconcile this? It doesn’t seem like simply all being queer will resolve these issues.
The Place of Identity Politics Within Feminism
bell hooks continues to say, “That, to me, is so much harder to think about. I mean, the way we use labels, and the way labels isolate people, and what does it mean to imagine a world where we’re not bound by labels? I’m always talking about Frank Browning’s book A Queer Geography. Because I feel like it’s one of the few books where he tries to say you know, identity politics has its place, but the more important place in our lives is who we connect with, who we find we can love.” This last statement leaves me with two unanswered questions. What is the place of identity politics? And how do we cultivate love with people who are different than we are?
Later in the conversation, hooks mentions that she will never wear high heels again. Laverne Cox comes back to the question of how to bridge the gaps between trans women and feminists. “You say you won’t wear high heels,” Ms. Cox says. “I think the piece is that we, for me anyway, is that we don’t demonize the woman who is in high heels, and we don’t demonize the woman who is out of high heels. I think there is a culture that, particularly that I work in in mainstream media, that wants to say that all women should be in heels and all that — I think that’s ridiculous. How do we begin to celebrate all the ways in which we want to comport ourselves and not say there was one person who was more feminist than the other? So that we can again find ways to come together across difference.”
bell hooks’ response is “I think it’s difficult because some people are more feminist than others.”
Laverne Cox laughs and replies, “This is why we love bell hooks.”
bell hooks does not actually say that wearing high heels makes someone less feminist. She uses abortion as a defining line. “If feminism is all things to all people, then what is it? How do we locate it as a radical political movement in our lives if everybody just makes it up — which doesn’t mean that we should demonize. But we do have to be clear about what are the boundaries? What is the line that you cross that you can in fact say ‘I’m a feminist’? Like, for me, my students will say ‘Well, I’m anti-abortion but I’m a feminist.’ And I’ll say, ‘But that isn’t possible, because you can be … You can say “I would never choose to have an abortion, because I don’t support that for myself” But there is no one who is genuinely a feminist who doesn’t support reproductive rights for women.’ And it’s … again, it’s so hard for us because we live in this binary world that’s always saying ‘choose one thing or the other.’ I don’t try to get someone to choose my values about abortion. But I do feel that part of the essence of feminism is that women have control over women’s bodies. That women have reproductive rights. All women. And so, you can’t want to take that away from somebody and then brag about how feminist you are.” The implication here is that trans women who are pro-choice can be feminist. But it doesn’t say anything about a trans woman’s identity as a woman, nor does it address the demonizing of trans women that happens in feminist circles.
How to Move the Conversation Forward
At one point in the conversation, bell hooks describes a moment where she chose to defend Janet Mock by telling her sister, who felt like trans women are an abomination, to stay away because she doesn’t allow that kind of violence. So, hooks recognizes an attack on trans women’s right to exist as an act of violence. I have heard many radical feminists claim that they are supportive of trans women because they do support trans women’s right to exist, just not in their spaces. Like the student claiming to be an “anti-abortion feminist”, you cannot say you support trans women and also say that anyone AMAB does not belong in women-only space. I like to think that if Laverne Cox and bell hooks spent a weekend together, that these conversations would begin to go deeper than “let’s just drop all the labels” and love each other. I want to believe that bell hooks would begin to see that there is a lot she doesn’t know about the lived experiences of trans women and that she would come to recognize the parallel to her own invisibility as a Black feminist woman.
The imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy does not build its hierarchy in a neat tower with one identity clearly placed atop another. Systemic oppression is more multi-dimensional than that. One who is oppressed in one dynamic can also be dominant in another context. Likewise, society is fickle about the status and power awarded to Laverne Cox and bell hooks. At times, Laverne Cox is deemed more acceptable and popularly embraced and bell hooks is seen as the radical outlier. But at other times, Cox is seen as a despicable mutant, and bell hooks is a natural woman. It depends on the topic and the voice and the arena where that voice might affect change. At all times, however, the imperial white patriarch sits on top, and he doesn’t mind one bit who beneath shuts the other down, as long as they keep each other away from his position. It is only when those beneath him join forces, honoring each other and working together to fight domination and control, that he becomes concerned and acts to divide us.
“But I do believe that learning takes place in the harmonious space, the space that you and I are embodying tonight.” — bell hooks
There are those who would chide me as a white man, albeit a trans man, for calling out bell hooks on her cisgender privilege. In fact, my entire attempt to address the schism between trans women and radical feminists has been written off by some as mansplaining. This is something for me to reflect upon and examine what I say and how I say it. Still, as hooks stated, we do use the labels and identity politics to isolate and shame one another. And yet, we need our labels and vibrant expression of our identities to celebrate the multiplicity and beauty of all our many ways of being. How do we come together? Laverne Cox asks bell hooks about creating that space, “I think about the world that we live in that is so polarized. A world that we live in that we don’t know how to have conversations without yelling at each other when we have differences. And I think about your work, and I think about how you talk so beautifully about creating safe spaces in the classroom, specifically in Teaching to Transgress, where folks feel safe to have conversations.”
But bell hooks cuts in, “I have to interrupt you, because I actually am critical of the notion of safety in my work. And what I want is people to feel comfortable in the circumstance of risk. Because I think that if we wait for safety, the bell hooks that wasn’t sure she could get on the stage with Janet Mock would never have gotten on that stage. The bell hooks that was afraid of ‘What if I used the wrong words?’ ‘What if I said the wrong thing?’ I would’ve stopped myself. So that, to me, I’m very interested in what does it mean for us to cultivate together? Community that allows for risk, the risk of knowing someone outside your own boundaries, the risk that is love. There is no love that does not involve risk. I’m a little wary, because white people love to evoke the safe spaces. And so I have a tendency to be critical of that. But I do believe that learning takes place in the harmonious space, the space that you and I are embodying tonight.” I find this distinction between safe space and harmonious space to be an important one, especially in speaking to white feminist women. Creating safe space implies that others must address my fears, changing the environment for me to feel safe. Creating harmonious space falls on each person to act in harmony with the others who are present.
When I lived on women’s land in the 90’s, we had this saying “There’s no safe space, so we might as well be brave.” I don’t know where we got that, but it speaks to the risk that is love. I feel like we have moved away from valuing riskiness. Now that the internet has given us a way to find and connect with so many others who are like us, so many who will agree and see things the way we see them, we seek out the safest spaces, the places least likely to challenge us to do the brave work of bridging our differences and learning about one another. In fact, if someone within our “safe space” happens to challenge us, we unfriend them. Thus, friendship and alliance are now equated with avoidance of risk, and this reveals an aversion to critical self-reflection.
bell hooks speaks to the need to always remain open to that self-criticism. “One of the concepts that I’ve written about that matters to me is radical openness,” she says. “And as you know, if you walk around the streets with me or sit around in the hotel with me, I pretty much like to be open to everyone. And that doesn’t mean that … and that becomes a question of, you know, where do you draw the line? Where do you say, ‘Well this person isn’t worthy.’ And I try not to engage that kind of rhetoric, ’cause I see it as so central to domination. The choice that some people are worthy and some people are not. But radical openness requires discernment. It requires, again, a critical vigilance about how you live your life.” According to this concept, hooks implies that to deem trans women as unworthy of being in women’s spaces is itself an act of dominance. She calls on us not only to be wary of judging each other, but to constantly reflect upon ourselves.
A Recipe for Healing
I am so very grateful to Laverne Cox and bell hooks for their bravery and for offering us this model. They have given us all a starting point. They challenge us to be brave, show loving kindness, and be discerning not only of the actions of others, but of ourselves. We shape our own identities and they shape us. To make conscious decisions about who we are and how we express ourselves is how we acquire the power to create change. To subvert domination, we must remain open to those who are different than we are. We can act harmoniously with one another without agreeing with one another when we love each other in our differences. I will take on this challenge, and it kindles my hope that we can one day set aside our differences and join forces to make this world a better place for all of us.