Men’s cross-dressing and feminism now and then
by Sheila Jeffreys
My new book on the history of lesbian feminism, The Lesbian Revolution: lesbian feminism in the UK 1970-1990, is published on 22 August. It documents the breadth and scope of the lesbian feminist culture, theory, practice and community that we created and shows how this has all been disappeared from history. It demonstrates many differences between the historical context at that time and that of today in which a new generation of lesbians are striving to recreate a lesbian feminist movement. One difference is the existence today of an influential men’s cross-dressing rights movement which enforces men’s access to lesbians wherever we seek to meet or network. Back in the 1970s there were men who cross-dressed and tried to enter lesbian spaces, but these were very few in number. They were isolated individuals such as the man who attended the 1973 West Coast Lesbian Conference in Los Angeles and created hugely damaging divisions. Robin Morgan gave a speech against what she called ‘the obscenity of male transvestism’ at the conference in honour of his presence. In London too, there were just one or two of these men who sought to enter women’s spaces and they were overwhelmingly opposed. The term ‘transgender’ had not been adopted at the time. These men were called transvestites or cross-dressers if they did not have penectomies and transsexuals if they did.
They were unable to divert or prevent lesbian organising at that time not just because there were only one or two, but because they did not have a political movement or ideology to support them. It was not until the 1990s that some male cross-dressers were able to use the Internet to organise internationally and create a unified set of political demands for the right to act out their proclivities in public, under the rubric of ‘gender identity’ or ‘gender expression’. Today gay rights organisations, governments, the UN, political parties, education and medical systems support these men’s rights. The queer ideology which supports them has been taught to generations of young people in universities so that they now assemble to chant and jostle at any feminist meetings they have not been able to get cancelled. This is a very different context in which to recreate lesbian feminism.
In the 1970s cross-dressing was an entirely male and adult hobby. None of us (lesbian feminists) knew of any lesbians who were taking hormones or embarking on surgery to impersonate men. Children were not being transgendered at all. Rather than this behaviour being supported by a global ideology, as it is now, which argues that gender is essential and everybody has to have one and get medical treatment if theirs goes astray, the problem was limited to the weird antics of a few men. Knowing this history is important because it undermines the notion that transgenderism is something essential rather than a very recent political and historical construction. At that time, feminist organising was overwhelmingly and uncontroversially women only. In London, lesbians and feminists opposed the entry of cross-dressing men to women’s discos, meetings, marches and conferences on the straightforward grounds that they were clearly men.
My new book is based upon archive research into newsletters and documents from the 1970s and 1980s and from interviews with 12 lesbian feminists who were active in the movement. It covers the origins of lesbian feminism, lesbian culture, lesbian feminist theory, the critique of heterosexuality, and the forces which contributed to the demise such as sadomasochism, the revival of butch/femme roleplaying, identity politics and the Thatcher government of the 1980s which forbade the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ and transformed the political climate. The clarity with which men’s cross-dressing was understood at the time to be specifically a men’s rights issue, is startling, considering the extent to which transgender ideology has affected popular understandings today. The following extract from my chapter on separatism in The Lesbian Revolution illustrates the determination and strength of feeling that existed in the lesbian feminist movement on the incursion of cross-dressing men into women’s and lesbian spaces:
Cross-dressers mostly still kept their proclivities secret and they were not claiming to be women or lesbians. Also, the feminist politics of the time was strong. The very basis of the WLM was a belief in the importance and strength of womanhood, which was based on women’s biology and honed through growing up to face oppression as a girl and as a woman. There was an overwhelming sense, at least as revealed in the London Women’s Liberation newsletter in the late 1970s, that the handful of male interlopers who sought to gain entry to women’s discos could never be women and should be determinedly excluded.
The lesbian feminist, Maria Katyachild, for instance, wrote in the LWLN in 1979 that a male cross-dresser claiming to be a woman had attended a women’s disco,
On Saturday night a formerly accepted ‘womin’ confessed… to being a transsexual (male-to-constructed female) – i.e. a man who has had his prick cut off!… I personally am not a humanitarian, I am a feminist, there’s a difference! … It is a totally political issue…. which must …be worked out once and for all (LWLN 104, 1979, 24 January).
In the next newsletter, Pauline Long, later known as Asphodel, wrote in support of Maria, ‘And all of us say NO. Putting on skirts and make-up, even having “the” operation doesn’t turn a man into a woman. What makes us women is the put-down since birth’ (LWLN 105, 1979, 31 January). She expressed herself with much feeling, saying, ‘I am born a woman, and I reflect the pain that millions of women as well as myself have borne. I will not be put down by this new kind of person…. He does not and cannot feel it. He invades the Women’s mysteries. He degrades us’. Like other feminists at the time who sought to protect their women-only spaces, she exhorts these men to form their own groups to further their own interests. They should not ‘muscle in on us’. She says, ‘Do not divide us… Transsexual infiltration of our groups is just one more male ploy to get us down’ (Ibid). My interviewee, Sandra McNeill, wrote a piece in the newsletter at this time entitled ‘Transsexuals and the Women’s Liberation Movement’ in which she rejects the idea that such men should be admitted to women’s spaces in no uncertain terms. She writes,
The issue is men.…. Whether there is a place for men in the Women’s Liberation Movement.…. it is an insult, an insult greater than a white choosing to wear blackface, an insult greater than a member of the middle-class choosing to drop out and not use their money or education to call themselves working class, an insult to the suffering and oppression of all women for these ex oppressors to claim to be women. To accept male-to-constructed female transsexuals as women is to allow men to reassert their control over women (LWLN 106, 1979, 8 February).
Lesbian feminist theory on transsexualism was honed by the first feminist book on the subject, which was published later in the same year, The Transsexual Empire, by the American lesbian feminist philosopher Janice G. Raymond (Raymond, 1994 1st published 1979). The issue of the right of men who cross-dress to enter women’s spaces continued to be the subject of passionate commentary in the Newsletter. On July 25, 1979 there was a one-day workshop on “Transsexuals – Men or Women” at the London women’s centre, A Woman’s Place (AWP). The policy of AWP was not to allow transsexuals to have access. The report back said that there were 25 women present and transsexuals were excluded (LWLN 131, 1979, 8 August). The majority of those at the meeting was firmly against the idea that men could become women. Furious discussion continued in the Newsletter.
In August, Mary Stott, feminist journalist, first and longest serving editor of the Guardian Women’s Page, set up in 1956, and later a Chair of the Fawcett Society and one of its original trustees, wrote a piece arguing that transsexuals should be in the WLM (LWLN, 134, 1979, 29 August). Stott’s views were those of an older generation of feminists whose politics were very different from the radical and lesbian feminists of the WLM. The historian June Purvis describes her as a ‘liberal feminist’ (Purvis, 2002). I joined in the discussion in October, stating that whether these men thought they were ‘women, ducks or Boeing 707s’ they were actually simply men and had no place in the WLM (LWLN 141, 1979, 17 October). The vast majority of the opinions in the Newsletter rejected the idea that these men should be admitted. The issue continued to be important, such that adverts for events in succeeding years specifically stated that they excluded transsexuals. The National Lesbian Conference, for instance, in January 1981, stated that they would not admit them (LWLN 199, 1981,18 January). This degree of unanimity is hard to imagine today, when a powerful movement of transgender activists has, in the absence of a strong feminist movement, made strides towards the inclusion of male cross-dressers not just in women’s meetings, but in women’s toilets, prisons, refuges and sport (Jeffreys, 2014).
[Bolding, images, added by me- GM]