Radical Reading: Excluded
It’s been a while since we had a Radical Reading column around these parts, and I confess that it’s due to the fact that I read Excluded, written by Julia Serano and published by Seal Press, about three times before I felt like I could really talk about the book. The October 1st release date came and went, and I knew I needed to get a review up, but I just kept dithering about what I wanted to say. In a way, though, I think it’s appropriate to post this review as 2013 comes to a close, as this was such a major year for intersectional feminism and (perhaps more obviously) its discontents.
Excluded summarizes some of Serano’s earlier work since her widely-read (in the trans community, anyway) Whipping Girl and then tackles the issue of trans women’s exclusion from feminist spaces. This topic clearly hits a chord with trans and cis feminists alike, and it’s been brewing in feminist, queer, and alternative sexuality communities for several years. A post I wrote about the cotton ceiling debate back in 2012 remains the most popular post on QueerFeminism.com, a site I founded to give a voice to communities that have been excluded by many mainstream feminists, and rarely a day goes by where I don’t find some example of cis feminists being transmisogynist to a greater or lesser degree on Twitter. Furthermore, Serano’s book comes from an important voice at this important time–unlike some of the other trans authors popular in radical queer communities, Serano is a binary-identified bisexual trans woman. She describes herself specifically as bisexual, a transsexual woman, and a femme tomboy. Much of Excluded reminds us of the danger of assuming that the gender binary is a conservative force, and the continued prevalence of biphobia or perhaps general bi-cluelessness in communities that rally around the term “queer.”
Personally, I’m always a bit surprised when I hear that the trans community is dominated by male and/or genderqueer voices, as the somewhat older demographic of my own communities means that I know quite a few straight white trans women. But this is certainly a tendency I’ve seen in media coverage, as genderqueerness becomes a greater and greater focus, and the influence of Judith Butler and other theorists makes it essential to remind young college-educated folks (particularly those coming out of gender studies departments) that deconstruction is not in fact everyone’s goal. Being “less binary” doesn’t make one more radical, and perhaps more importantly, we need to not lose sight of the very real axes of privilege many of us non-binary folk live on one side of. Trans women, especially, often experience transmisogyny and violence from the larger cis world while experiencing derision and scorn from some genderqueer people and trans men within the community. This may be amplified for trans lesbians and bisexual women, whose perspective is often left out of these discussions.
The first half of Excluded lays out many of these problems, following on the theoretical background laid by Whipping Girl, and is an excellent read especially for those who have not been following these debates generally, or Serano’s work in particular, in recent years. A collection of essays written since the publication of Whipping Girl in 2007 covers topics from the exclusion of trans women from MichFest to bisexuality and binaries. The second half of the book is new material that focuses on the solution for all of these problems, and is the part that I’ve struggled with exactly how to review.
If I had to sum up the legacy Whipping Girl has had since its publication within the trans community, I would focus on the word “transmisogyny.” Serano lays out a whole vocabulary of terms in that book, giving the reader a theoretical background in how to discuss trans women and all the -isms and -phobias against them, but it’s transmisogyny that has been a theme of much of my activism and the activism of others in the community in recent years. Serano’s book was where I first heard the term, and it’s contribution to my personal education was in raising my awareness of the specific issues trans women and trans-feminine people face in this patriarchal world. Since reading Whipping Girl I’ve paid much more attention to whether a particular incident stems from simple transphobia, or whether it’s in fact transmisogyny that’s implicated, and that distinction has reminded me of how important it is to also craft specific solutions focused around the intersecting oppressions trans women (especially trans women of color) face.
Like Whipping Girl, the second half of Excluded lays out a lot of terms, and while they’re theoretically useful, I’m not sure how much practical use they have for activists. Serano focuses a lot on issues with “gender artifactualism” (defined as “the tendency to conceptualize and depict gender as being primarily or entirely a cultural artifact”) in queer and feminist communities, as well as the difference between more exclusionary feminisms and her “holistic feminism.” Although I agree with the underlying arguments, sometimes the theory seems to be getting in the way of making the arguments accessible.
In general, though, I think this book is a useful contribution to feminist discourse, and I particularly appreciate the way Serano engages with the practical questions around how we attack double standards as activists. In comparing “fixed” vs. holistic perspectives, Serano challenges the reader to get beyond the question of single-issue activism vs. a systemic approach and to go even further by focusing on eliminating double standards whether we even fully recognize them are not. I would like to hear more from Serano about what’s wrong with the systemic approach, but I appreciate her suggestion that we should focus more on learning to recognize when people are being delegitimized or invalidated than on trying to pick out a specific “ism” and then work down from there. The argument is interesting coming from someone who does engage so much with language and terminology (for example, she gives substantial consideration to the notion of “cissexism” in her work), and I think does a lot to make ordinary activism accessible to those who might not know all the lingo. It could also be particularly applicable to less-recognized axes of oppression–for example, Serano highlights disability and asexuality as two examples. The strategies of delegitimization and invalidation will be familiar to anyone who’s experienced any kind of oppression, and include questioning the subject’s mental competence, sexualizing the subject, or declaring someone to be immoral, anomalous, or false. These tactics are possible to pick out whether the axis of oppression can be fully identified or not.
I do think it’s important that we balance these arguments by giving credence to the specificity of oppression and avoid falling into traps such as derailing conversations about race by bringing up tangential but fundamentally different kinds of marginalization. I’ve seen far too much of this in the trans community, and thus I’m somewhat wary of strategies that tend towards the abstract. That said, Serano does make it clear that she’s also concerned about the homogeneity of communities, and I like that she focuses on the importance of consent in describing individual behavior, using the example of wearing a dress as an individual act that doesn’t violate anyone else’s consent vs. arguing that all women should (or shouldn’t) wear dresses. I’d also love to hear more from those who do read this book about what you think about Serano’s last few pages on “call out culture.” Her argument is nuanced, and I’m not 100% sure where I stand on it, but I think it’s going to be a big question for feminism in 2014.
I’d recommend this book especially for those who haven’t been very engaged with online feminism in the past few years, as well as those who have an academic grounding in queer theory but are more exposed to young genderqueer communities than to trans women. It’s a useful introduction, and also a good conversation-starter. My hope is that this book will lead to more engagement with Serano and other activists around the questions of trans inclusion in feminism, and around the more nuanced topics of activism that she presents.
Excluded is available from Seal Press. I was provided a review copy free of charge.