Four Trans Women On What Women’s Equality Day Means To Them

by JR Thorpe
OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

August 26 marks the anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, which gave women across the United States the vote. It's celebrated as Women's Equality Day — but just how equal you are, and how you feel about Women's Equality Day, depends very heavily on where you're standing. Black women in the United States, for instance, may have been given the technical right to vote on that day, but Jim Crow laws repressed their actual ability to vote until the 1960s. For another group of women, the fight for women's true equality (i.e., across the board) has not always been entirely welcoming of them: transgender women.

On paper, collective attempts to better the situation of the female population should automatically include transgender women. A small study of 142 transgender women conducted by a consultancy found that the majority of them were "moderately comfortable to very comfortable" with the progress of women's equality in America, and that they reported "higher appreciation" for equality progress as they transitioned. Michael Barbera, who conducted the study, tells Bustle that 62 percent of the participants were "more than likely to contribute time and resources to equality movements, programs and charities once the individual has announced their transition." The data, in other words, seems to report that trans women feel included in the modern struggle for women's rights, despite the fact that this was not always the case, and that transphobia is still present in some feminist circles today. But aside from data points, how do trans women feel about a day designed to celebrate women's equality? Bustle spoke with five transgender women about why the situation is more complex than it may seem.

Does The Women's Equality Movement Include Trans Women?

Rebecca Kling, who works as the community storytelling advocate for the National Center for Transgender Equality, summed up the feelings of many transgender women who spoke to Bustle. "I don’t know how I feel about the women’s equality movement," she tells Bustle, "because I don’t know how it feels about me."

"If there is one, singular movement for women’s equality — and that’s a big ‘if'," Kling says, "there is no consensus on whether or not trans people should be invited to the party." The sense of being consciously cast out by cisgender women in the fight for gender equality echoed through many transgender women's concerns about Women's Equality Day, and the movement in general. Dr. Erica Anderson, a professor of clinical psychology and chairman of the transgender female housing organization Joan's House, tells Bustle, "Some of the prejudice to which I and other trans women are subjected comes from a segment of women who purport to be liberal and open-minded, but are anything but." Young American trans woman Logan Alcosiba agrees. "I am not seen as a woman," she says. "I am seen as a transgender woman. And, although I hold this trans title with pride, that does not mean it comes without prejudice. The term "real women" is used to discredit the existence of trans women as women, to infer them as less than."

Certain types of women excluding others is, Kling points out, nothing new. "This is not the only time the women’s equality movement has refused to embrace all women," she says to Bustle. "The movement not always seen the necessity of including queer women, or immigrants, or the poor. Women’s Equality Day is observed in late August to commemorate the 1920 passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women in the United States the right to vote. But suffragettes regularly excluded women of color, particularly black women. Theirs was a fight for women’s equality, but with the unspoken understanding that they were mostly fighting for a certain type of woman." According to these women, transgender women continue to be the wrong "type" of woman to be included in the fight for gender equality.

That exclusion has led to mixed reactions. Some, like Joni Dorian Wright, are hopeful. "While the trans-exclusionary feminists are becoming a minority, albeit a very vocal one, it’s important to remember it’s 'sisterhood not cisterhood,' that we have a common enemy, and we’ll achieve much more if we move together as one," she tells Bustle. Jules Larson says that she felt that "being part of a women's movement means just as much to me as the trans movement." The two, for her, could exist side-by-side, and were equally formative parts of her identity.

Kling herself is more ambivalent. "I like to think that more and more cis women (that is, women who are not trans) are coming around to the idea that women’s equality is trans equality, and vice versa," she says. "But I’m pragmatic enough (or pessimistic enough) to know that there are women out there who believe ejecting people like me from locker rooms is part of the fight for women’s equality, rather than in direct opposition to that fight." In that context, embracing Women's Equality Day as a celebration of both cisgender and transgender women's equality feels, for some transgender women, conflicted at best. "This day recognizes our achievements as well as our obstacles, and transgender women face more than imaginable," Alcosiba tells Bustle.

The Deadly Realities Of Leaving Trans Women Behind

Whether transgender women feel deliberately excluded from the women's rights movement or not, the fact remains that they face startling levels of prejudice, discrimination, and physical threat that many cisgender women will never know. While the cisgender female community has been able to make serious gains, transgender women, Dr. Anderson explains, "are still widely misunderstood, feared, and discriminated against in America. The bathroom bills and other pieces of legislation in various states (more than 100 laws in the past two years alone) confirm that ignorance and prejudice abound in America." The relative disadvantage of trans women, from what Larson calls the "outrageous" risk of gender-based violence to concerns about housing, discrimination, and health, concerned every woman who spoke to Bustle — and many expressed frustration and despair at how the broader women's equality movement hasn't yet addressed it.

Alcosiba lays it out starkly. "In the majority of the United States, because of my identity, I can legally be denied work, housing, healthcare, service - the list goes on. I have citizens and politicians voting on if and how I will live, setting a limit on my rights. And that's just the legal perspective," she tells Bustle. "We transgender women face denial by loved ones, harassment by peers, criticism by strangers, violence by police, and death. Transgender people are killing themselves because of these conditions and are being killed because of ignorance."

Part of the problem, says Dr. Anderson, is a failure of empathy among cisgender activists for women's equality. "Those whose gender identity matches the one assigned at birth rarely give any thought to what it might be like for one’s gender to be out of alignment with how one has been or is perceived. Hence the social challenges of transgender women, who fare more poorly on every health measure possible, in part because few healthcare professionals were ever trained to accommodate the special needs of transgender persons."

Healthcare is a particular concern because of the specific needs of transgender women at any stage of transitioning. "While there’s been leaps and bounds in the legal and cultural recognition of trans people in the last five years, we still face huge hurdles," Dorian Wright explains. "Namely, it’s so difficult to receive appropriate medical care, whether it’s due to unwilling or unknowing doctors, or, as is the issue here in the UK, the congested wait lists that leave people like myself waiting for over two years just to be seen by a specialist, then a further three to six months to receive hormones." The fact that "women's health includes trans women's health," as Larson says, is something that the movement for better healthcare for women often leaves out.

It goes far beyond the waiting room, though. "We’re still being excluded from spaces, and our safety is still jeopardized, and that’s not slowing down anytime soon," Dorian Wright tells Bustle. Transgender women "who do not easily pass in their identified gender as women," notes Dr. Anderson, "fare the worst. Because I have been discriminated against in every way possible in housing, healthcare, employment and public accommodations," she added, "I know first hand the sting of marginalization."

In the opinion of these women, the women's equality movement hasn't done enough to fix this deliberate marginalization.

How To Make The Women's Equality Movement More Inclusive

The first step towards making things better, as these women tell Bustle, is acceptance by cisgender women. "If the women’s equality movement is truly fighting for the autonomy and independence of all women, as I believe it should be," Kling says, "it’s not enough to limit the movement to a certain type of woman." Ignorance, Dr. Anderson believes, is part of the driving force behind this exclusion. "Most people, even educated people, do not know that by our best estimates, one in 200 persons born in the USA are transgender, and one in 600 are intersex," she explains.

Beyond acceptance, there are many strategies for women's equality to become more inclusive, and the steps it could take to reframe it. Dorian Wright emphasizes the importance of discussion. "We really need to have conversations about womanhood and learn to broaden our definitions of it," she tells Bustle. "In my journey to discover what womanhood meant to me, I confronted constant policing about how I should be a woman or how I should look or act, from within the queer community and from society at large. And, of course, I face constant invalidation and abuse by men who find my gender disorienting, who I’ve discovered are often the very same men having battles with their own gender or sexuality." Openness and education, she believes, could make women's equality more of a universal reality. Kling highlights that a gender-equality movement that helps trans women needed to focus on issues that particularly effect them. "Women’s equality must mean transgender rights. It must mean criminal justice reform. It must mean labor rights, and immigrant rights, and voting rights, on and on. It must mean all those things and more," she says.

Expanding the definition, for Larson, might mean fighting for equity, rather than equality. "Women of color's struggles, trans women's struggles, undocumented women, poor women, queer women's struggles, all illuminate the differences we each face to exist," she tells Bustle.

Dr. Anderson echoes the importance of inclusiveness. "I am working for the day when all women are accorded respect and opportunities commensurate with their abilities," she says. "In such a society, one’s competence and character matter more than one’s history, pedigree or body." And Alcosiba adds that transgender people add a necessary perspective to ideas about gender. "Transgender people are living proof that men and women are innately equal," she explains. "There is no masculinity nor femininity, but simply humanity. We deserve as much respect and rights as anyone. Nothing more. Nothing less. We ask for equality."

Anderson and Dorian Wright also emphasize the importance of being visible as trans women. "So long as it is safe to do so, we need to make ourselves visible and occupy space within society, because we slowly change minds and enlighten just by existing," Dorian Wright notes. "I wish every cisgender woman could become acquainted with a transgender woman, and in turn every man with a transgender woman," Dr. Anderson says. "Each week, I make the acquaintance of someone who has never really known a trans woman. I believe that I make a difference just by living my life and being authentic."

A women's equality movement that emphasizes and helps the transgender female community, actively addresses its concerns and helps to redress the balance that leaves trans women so far behind, says Kling, "is a women’s equality movement I would be able to believe in." But, she adds, "Is that a movement that will believe in me?"