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Serano talks trans-misogyny at CIIS

by Sari Staver

Author and activist Julia Serano. Photo: Sari Staver
Author and activist Julia Serano. Photo: Sari Staver  

Trans-misogyny, the double discrimination faced by trans women, is starting to ease, said trans author and activist Julia Serano.

Serano, author of the 2007 groundbreaking book, "Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity," appeared in conversation with California Institute of Integral Studies Professor Zara Zimbardo May 24 at its campus in San Francisco.

An Oakland resident who spent 17 years doing post-doctoral research in genetics and evolutionary biology at UC Berkeley, Serano, 51, turned to writing about the same time she transitioned in the early 2000s, when she realized that trans women face negative attitudes and put downs because they are women and because they are transgender.

Serano told the audience she has been on a mission "to make feminist and queer movements more inclusive," challenging the widespread notion that trans women cannot be true feminists.

Explaining her own journey, Serano told the story of observing a trans woman "dressed like an average feminine woman," walk past a straight couple on the street in San Francisco. The man turned to the woman and said, "Did you see all the shit he's wearing?" presumably referring to the jewelry, makeup, and dress the trans woman was wearing.

While it is certainly possible that the same couple would also have made a snide remark about a transgender man, "I doubt very much they would've made fun of his masculine clothing," Serano said.

"It really struck me that while transgender men certainly are harassed, calling her clothing 'shit' is misogyny," she said. "I'd be surprised to hear people saying a suit or a T-shirt and jeans on a transgender man looked like shit."

While it may or may not be conscious, many people see femininity as "artificial, contrived, and manipulative" while viewing masculinity as "sincere and practical," Serano said.

By ascribing manipulative characteristics to females, it reinforces the notion that trans women "are not real women," said Serano.

The concept is widespread, Serano said, and is seen everywhere from mainstream movies to activist spaces.

"It's the idea that we, as trans women, are some sort of parody" of biological women, she added.

Because so many activists - including gays and lesbians - see themselves as rebels against a system, they see themselves as the "good guys" challenging the "evil system," noted Serano. People who are different thus become a "marked group" who may be construed to hold up the evil system, she said.

When she first transitioned, Serano was surprised to see prejudice come up so often "in activist circles," which she said is "horrible" for a number of reasons.

"None of us get to pick gender and sexuality," she said, "so let's not accuse people of doing gender 'wrong.'" Social movements, while fighting for a just world, become intolerant themselves when they exclude other minorities, she said.

Many social movements would benefit from "strength in numbers," said Serano, but they still exclude people and dilute their effectiveness. Activists can also be guilty of marginalization, she said.

Media depictions of trans women have improved "but are still a mixed bag," Serano said. While high-profile celebrities such as Laverne Cox have made progress in educating the public, it is still not unusual to see an "ignorant" television talk show host using inappropriate language, she said.

"We've made inroads but the phenomena of exclusion continues unabated," she concluded.


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