A Trans Woman’s Impassioned Defense of the Women’s March AND the Pussyhat
Thoughts about the Women’s March, feminist inclusivity, transphobia, black activism, trans activism and where we go from here.
First published on Medium Feb 2, 2018
A random thought about groups, circles, opinions:
People all across the United States adjust their clocks backwards in the Fall, and forward in Spring. All across the US that is, except for Arizona. You see, Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time. All of Arizona, that is, with the exception of the Navajo Nation — which DOES. Well, excluding a small zone inside of the Navajo Nation — the Hopi Reservation, which does NOT.
This piece is not about timezones. It isn’t about hats, either. It’s about inclusion in activism. It’s about injustices and microaggressions, about human rights. And ultimately, it’s about Unity against Oppression. Please read on.
Why I love the Women’s March
On Tuesday night, November 8, 2016 I sat in a roomful of women — all dressed in white, all filled with optimism and hope. That hope became dread, became consternation, became shocked bewilderment and defeat. A man who we all saw gloating openly about sexually assaulting women was elected the 45th President of the United States. I went home that night, weeping as I drove. Not only because I’m a woman, but also because I am a transgender woman. And the new administration threatened to do a lot of damage to both women AND LGBT folks. (a threat it has amply delivered upon.)
For the next few weeks I felt despondent, empty and defeated. Then came news of the Women’s March. It energized me, invigorated me, rallied me and focused my energies.
On January 21, 2017 over half-a-Million women flooded the streets of downtown Los Angeles, holding signs and chanting together. It was an amazing sight, and it made me feel I matter. I have a voice. I can stand up to the bully who callously bragged about “grabbing them by the pussy.” (transcript here.)
(Image found on social media. Contact me for attribution.)
Talking about the pussy — the crowd was a sea of pink with pussyhats — those square knitted caps that, when worn, form the shape of cat’s ears on the wearer’s head. When my friend Kate first showed me hers (donated by a friend, who had knitted it especially for her), she was proud and elated. At first I was nonplussed, not getting the pun (I’m slow sometimes). But once I got it, I grinned. The pun was eventually made much clearer by a sign held by a woman at the March — reading “This Pussy Fights Back.”
The pussyhat meant women standing up for their rights, women standing in the face of brazen misogyny. The hat was for all of us.
I didn’t wear a hat simply becase I was afraid of mussing my hair. Hat-hair is a fashion disaster, and I couldn’t risk it. 🙂 But I happily, proudly stood with women of all shapes and colors who wore their hats.
Not long after the March, I was made aware of an outcry against the Hat. The outcry came from women of color and from trans women — and was best expressed by the sentence “Not all women have pussies — not all pussies are pink.”
This spawned a difficult debate, a debate that followed the pussyhat all the way to the second March in 2018. And it wasn’t just about the hat — the symbol, and the outcry against the symbol — stirred up unresolved conflicts between women’s groups, and many voices argued on either side.
Women’s March 2018
On January 20, 2018 women all over the U.S. gathered together for the second Women’s March. Weeks before the March, women all over social media began preparing their pussyhats. Meanwhile, in the transgender Facebook groups, I saw more and more posts complaining about lack of representation, exclusion, transphobia.
A few days before the March I started a thread on Facebook, inviting a conversation about the pussyhat. And I got a great number of comments from white cis women, from trans women, from women of color. As in my example about time zones, it becomes obvious that large groups are not homogenic, and that inside of large groups there are smaller groups — with a different focus, a different story and a different point of view than the larger group.
Not all pussies are Pink!
But, was it ever about pink vulvas?
Pussyhat creators Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh never thought about actual labia or skin color during their design process. Jayna Zweiman was recovering from a debilitating injury in late 2016 and was painfully aware that she would not be able to march. Having found knitting as a form of therapy during her recovery, it occurred to Jayna that she could contribute by creating a knitting project that would become a symbol for the March. Krista Suh was planning on attending the March, and she felt a hat would be useful in the chilly weather. They naturally chose the color pink as emblematic of WOMEN (pink for girls, blue for boys, right? reductive, simplistic — sure. But immediately recognizable, bright, cheerful).
Zweiman and Suh explored pattern ideas with Kat Cole, owner of Little Knittery, where both women were taking a knitting class, and friend Aurora Lady, an illustrator who did all the artwork for The Pussyhat Project. They chose the shape because it’d be easy to replicate by knitters everywhere — and the cat ears created by the square pattern elicited a perfect response to the boorish “grab them by the pussy” remark spoken by Donald Trump on the Access Hollywood video.
All four of Zweiman’s grandparents are emigrants from Eastern Europe. Her grandmother was a WWI refugee. Her Jewish heritage includes the concept of “Tikkun Olam” — healing the world. “This project is about bringing people together,” Zweiman said in a 2017 interview.
Speaking at Barnard University, Krista Suh shared how to her, the act of knitting and sharing the hats conveyed “I got you,” and “you are enough” — while the concept of a “sea of pink” would become a powerful message of unity. (It’s not lost on me of this piece that Krista heself is a woman of color — and it should not be lost on the reader either.)
An important component of The Pussyhat Project was the reclaiming of the word “pussy,” a word that had been used by men to convey weakness, a word that had been associated with shame. Shining a light on this word was in itself a feminist protest.
Not all women have pussies!
It can be argued that the symbol is reductive. Symbols tend to be. The sign for ‘women’s restroom’ has long been a stylized human figure in a dress. Not all women wear dresses. Often pizzerias depict their product with a stylized pepperoni pizza, and yet they may serve Greek pizza, or even calzones. Detroit pizza is not even round. The pepperoni-pizza signage does not portray all pizza choices, but it says, we’re a pizza place. Likewise, generally speaking, women have pussies. It’s an over-simplified archetype for the sake of symbolism. And it works.
Generally speaking, women have pussies. It’s an over-simplified archetype for the sake of symbolism. And it works.
But is the pussyhat transphobic?
In her recent Medium piece ‘Thoughts on Transphobia, TERFs and TUMFs,’ trans activist Julia Serano highlights the difference between being trans-antagonistic, trans-suspicious, or trans-unaware. Some seemingly transphobic expressions can simply stem from lack of awareness, from being uninformed — which is quite different from being antagonistic.
In writing this piece, I came up with the following spectrum: Centering, Including, Welcoming, Ignoring, Discouraging, Excluding, Rejecting.
To use an analogy, the #NoDAPL protests in Standing Rock in early 2016 CENTERED the Standing Rock Reservation. They included ALL indigenous peoples, and they WELCOMED White allies. While the protests didn’t actively EXCLUDE anyone nor DISCOURAGE anyone from joining their ranks, it was clear they were REJECTING the proposed Dakota Pipeline route.
The difference between centering and including is important. CENTERING, in this context, means “the focus of our efforts.” INCLUDING, in this context, means “you are part of this effort — But not the current focus.”
The Women’s March CENTERS women. On its website, the March lists its values as reproductive rights and ending violence against women — along with a litany of intersectional values. And the March SHOULD center women. It IS a Women’s March.
The March INCLUDES Latina women, Caucasian women, Asian women, Indigenous women, Trans women, women with disabilities, senior women, immigrant women.
The March WELCOMES men to come march as allies for women — and many men came, marched and chanted alongside women (many of these men wearing pussyhats themselves).
Does the March EXCLUDE anyone? Yes it does. The March explicitly excluded Pro-Life groups, as Reproductive Rights are part of its core values, and the March REJECTS the regulation of a woman’s reproductive agency.
Are Women of Color Being Ignored?
This question has layers. To understand this concern in a historical context one needs to go back to the way Second-Wave Feminists notoriously pushed aside the needs of Women of Color, hushed their voices and discarded their thoughts (PDF). To understand entirely, one needs to empathize with the bedrock of hurt under the sea of pink — the five centuries of women of color experienced victimization while White women sipped their tea and enjoyed their privilege. Or the role of white women in white supremacy.
But this piece will not delve that deep. We will bring our focus to the present.
The Women’s March came to fruition thanks to three Women of Color: Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour.
Women of Color are being included, in the sense that its National team is composed of two Black women, one Latina, two women of Middle-Eastern heritage, one Jewish woman, one Indian woman, five White women and one White man. Tamika D. Mallory, a NYC-based activist and the national organizer of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, is the current Co-President of the Women’s March.
Women of Color are included, in the sense that Roslyn Brock, Ilyasah Shabazz (daughter of Malcolm X), Wendy Carrillo, Sybrina Fulton, Melissa Harris-Perry were among last year’s speakers.
Women of Color are visibly included in the logo of the March itself.
However, arguments can be made that the concerns of black women are not being surfaced with enough tenacity. Absent from the Women’s March Core Values is any reference to #BlackLivesMatter. Recently, a photograph of a statue of Harriet Tubman, on which someone had placed a pink pussyhat, went viral and became the object of much ire.
A nuance I seek to convey with this piece is the importance of a cohesive message, of top-down communication of core values, of education. The yarn color chosen by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman for their iconic knit hats was a bright hot pink — which proclaimed a loud, undaunted femininity. This color could not possibly be understood as matching the anatomy of any human part, of any race. However, as thousands of women took to knitting hats, many of them chose a much lighter, crepe pink or even a blush. The nickname of the hat, combined with color shades easily equated with a caucasian skin color, created a hard-to-miss allegory. Just like the knitting pattern traveled virally among women, such important lessons on racial sensitivity should’ve traveled alongside it.
A racially insensitive effort (well-meaning as it might have been) such as donning a pussyhat on Harriet Tubman’s statue, is an opportunity for the organizers of the March to speak and educate. To our knowledge, this was a missed opportunity. The fact that many Black women were upset, combined with the fact that some White women were puzzled at this anger, shows the extent of the lack of awareness and need for education.
Just as Julia Serrano spoke of ‘trans-unaware’ as different from transphobic, one could speak of ‘Black-unaware’ racial insensitivity as different from racism.
I might as well mention the problem with White women in American Politics. 53% of White women in America voted for Trump. 94% of Black women voted against him, voting instead for a White woman. And more recently in Alabama, where 63% of White women would’ve gladly put a pedophile in Office, it was the Black vote, specifically the vote from 93% #blackwomen, that put Doug Jones in the Senate. This creates distrust and sharply separates women along racial lines.
Add all this up and you have a paradigm where Black women don’t feel a helluvalot of sisterhood with their White sisters — where efforts at unity are mired in suspicion and skepticism. “So many times when I look for sisterhood from white women, I don’t find it,” said activist Brittany Packnett at the Women’s Convention in Detroit last October.
All of this points at a problem larger than a choice of yarn, or a type of headgear. A problem that the Women’s March did not start, did not mean to foster — but a problem it must not flinch from — a wound it can help heal.
“So many times when I look for sisterhood from white women, I don’t find it” — activist Brittany Packnett, speaking in Detroit last October.
Are Trans Women Being Ignored?
To understand the layers of this question, one has to delve into the decades of victimization, marginalization and abuse endured by trans women everywhere. One has to understand how trans women have been openly rejected by medical practitioners, threatened with violence, ridiculed, persecuted and erased in legislature. One needs to understand that, historically, trans women have simultaneously been defined and stigmatized by their genitalia and refused access to surgical remedies. But this piece will not delve that deep. We will bring our focus to the present.
Trans women are certainly being included, as proven by Raquel Willis, Janet Mock speaking from the D.C. podium in 2017, Stephanie Mott speaking in Topeka KS, and Bamby Salcedo, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox participating as speakers in various cities in 2018.
An article in The Advocate pointed out that the 2017 March included only three trans speakers, in a lineup of 60. The article complains that’s “just two more trans women than were featured at Donald Trump’s inauguration” (which bends the truth to the point of breaking — Caitlyn Jenner was present at the Inaugural Ball, but she wasn’t given a microphone or an audience). My reaction is to do Math. Depending on who you listen to, trans folk might be somewhere around 1:250 people. So, 3:60 is pretty darn good representation.
One might make issue of the fact that trans rights are not specifically mentioned in the March Core Values (LGBTQIA rights are). However, trans women are specifically mentioned and included in the Women’s March Unity Principles.
One could echo the complaint of transgender activist Katelyn Burns — “Why is my voice confined to just one panel?”
One could share the anger felt by trans activist Raquel Willis, of the Transgender Law Center, over her mic being cut short at the 2017 D.C. event in order to make room for Madonna, Emma Watson, and other high-profile women.
True to its core value of standing for Reproductive Rights, the March is rife with images of the cis female reproductive system, and allusions to cis female reproductive function. Not only are there signs with graphic representations of vulvas — there are images of the uterus, Fallopian tubes, menstruation. Protest messages are scrawled on menstrual pads. To cis women, this is empowering, reclaiming and affirming imagery. To trans women, this is abstract at best — exclusionary or triggering at its worst.
(One could argue that these images might also be triggering to menopausal women, to women with endometriosis, to women with fistulas, and to women unaccustomed to graphic images of genitalia.)
The challenge of terminology
It is inconceivable for a movement seeking to center WOMEN, an movement with reproductive rights as a core value, to shy away from powerful, woman-centric words such as “vagina,” or “womb,” or “pussy.” To most cis women, concepts such as menstruation, ovary, motherhood are a core component, an essential and foundational part of their female experience.
To complicate matters, trans-friendly alternatives are not easily accessible. There is no consensus among us trans women for what to call our genitalia. For one thing, transition is a traumatic and personal experience and each person finds the best way to cope. Secondly, with gender as the wide spectrum we now understand it to be, we see folks identifying as transgender, transsexual, transfeminine, genderqueer, gender anarchists, non-binary. And to add additional layers of complexity, there are gals who transitioned early in life, or always carried themselves with feminine expression — and there are gals who are transitioning late in life. As women who sadly missed out on a female-centered childhood or adolescence, many of us are still “learning the language” and finding our footing. I sometimes think of us as immigrants, fresh off the boat in some cases, clutching a battered suitcase, with our Old World clothes and strange accents, trying hard to adapt to our new home.
The symbols stand for women — for women’s agency over their bodies. And that’s a cause that touches my very Soul.
The trouble with TERFs
As I argued on Facebook with a trans woman over the message conveyed by the pussyhat and the imagery of the signs, she volleyed “regardless of its original intent, you can’t deny the many times cis women have used the hat to exclude trans women.” I argued I hadn’t seen one single such instance, had not heard of any such instance.
I had heard the personal accounts of trans women describing their own emotional reaction to the hat — which I have experienced first-hand. I personally find it easy to dismiss this emotional reaction. Fine, the vulva-centric messaging might not physically represent me. But I DO feel ideologically represented by them. The symbols stand for women — for women’s agency over their bodies. And that’s a cause that touches my very Soul.
But then she shared with me an image of a TERF. Pictured at the Vancouver March, this woman smugly dons a pussyhat while clutching a poster aimed not at the Trump regime, not at patriarchy, but aimed solely and specifically at undermining trans rights.
Drawing from bad science and rigid ideology, ‘Trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ (TERFs) target and harass trans women under the guise of feminism.
For those who do not know: TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) are the bane of trans women’s existence. Their sentiments towards trans-folk are reminiscent of the vitriol the Ku-Klux Klan aims at black people — they do not want us to exist; they want to erase us from the fabric of culture.
TERFs are an ideologically fanatical fringe group of radical feminists who, in reaction to male oppression, choose to in turn oppress trans women by refusing to see them as women — by identifying them as men and openly attacking them with insults, taunts, jabs, mockery, and basic bullying tactics. TERFs convince organizers of women’s events to exclude trans women, or to demand that trans women show proof of having undergone genital surgery before being admitted into women’s spaces. TERFs form unholy alliances with fascist and extremist groups on the Right with the single purpose of trans erasure. I am astounded this woman was allowed to march with that sign — that no one told her those words are based on bad science, that gender and biological sex are different, that being transgender is not performative — gender expression is. I am astounded no one asked her to leave. Going back to my Inclusion Spectrum chart, he values should’ve been REJECTED, her sign would’ve been EXCLUDED because both of these attend against the Core Values of the March.
As I recently explained to a friend of mine: When I walk into a congregation of women, I am aware that my appearance announces me as a trans woman. It is not something over which I have agency. Just like a Black woman entering a room cannot hide her Blackness, I cannot hide my trans-ness. And, just like the Black woman is unable to know which person in the room is a racist, I am unable to know which person in the room is a bigot, or a TERF. The unfairness of this paradigm makes us feel exposed and vulnerable, and ready for a fight.
This leads trans women to become reactionary, guarded and defensive in women’s spaces.
And, sadly, the vicious cycle of animosity and hostility is formed: Trans women reacting to perceived exclusion, and trans-unaware cis women reacting to perceived hostility, leaving with a negative opinion of trans women.
An exhortation to Cis Women
Please don’t abandon the pussyhat as a symbol. I believe it is a powerful symbol and it has gathered a lot of momentum — it’d be a waste to lose that. We can fix the problematics aspects by a. standarizing the hot-pink color and discouraging the ‘blush’ pink shade, and b. educating folks on the origins, intent and message around the hat, around knitting as a female-centric community-building action, around the March itself.
I am grateful, relieved and happy when I see signs, flags and other symbols that support me, represent me, SEE me. Please make more of these! (Oddly, I wouldn’t feel comfortable carrying such a sign myself — it would feel grossly self-serving. But it warms my heart to see cis allies doing it.)
I was surprised and grateful to find these messages of inclusivity at the L.A. March 2018.
Please include “trans women’s rights” into the core values. We are one of the most vulnerable demographics, please show actively that you protect and defend our rights.
Let’s come up with symbology that conveys “trans women are safe and welcome here.”
Some creative Etsy sellers have already come up with ideas:
(Etsy sellers have gotten creative! Links below.)
Get them here:
Black pussyhats on Etsy | Trans-Flag pussyhat on Etsy
I also propose using a ribbon or bow to indicate your solidarity or to surface your personal identity.
To explain: Whenever I host women’s events, I write women* with an asterisk — explaining below that women’s events are open to ALL women. It occurred to me that a bow or a ribbon could serve the purpose of this ‘asterisk’ — and this further brought me to play with ribbons carrying specific messages of identification for the wearer. Also, it occurred to me that this bow could mean “…or whatever genital configuration you happen to have.”
I’ve also put together some buttons I invite you to wear:
(Images are not clickable, but links are provided below.)
Get them here:
Follow Black Women | Black Votes Matter | Black Lives Matter
I March for ALL Women | I’m with HER | Trans Lives Matter
An exhortation to trans women:
Get involved in women’s spaces. Participate. Show up. Fight battles for trans-equality from within — in organizing meetings, in written memos, through phone calls and discussions with organizers.
It is my personal belief that signs like this one do not help us. They just antagonize trans-unaware cis-women who, had they been approached non-confrontationally, might have become vocal allies.
In PUBLIC spaces, be HELPFUL to the main effort, not a distraction. Put your shoulder to it, and push. I strongly believe that the best way to be accepted as a member of a group is to act like an exemplary member of that group. Be good citizens, good activists for women’s causes.
Also — and this is from personal experience: In your daily life, be part of women’s spaces, not just trans women spaces. Show up, be present, lend your voice, be counted. Sometimes the ones excluding us are our own selves. Let’s not isolate ourselves — let’s think less about the cis/trans divide and think more about women’s rights and the challenges facing us — all of us.
Choosing a side within a side
In the seventies, racially-insensitive Second-Wave feminists forced Black women to make a hard decision: Are you a Woman-first, or are you Black-first, and then a Woman? Many chose Black-first, and poured their energies into the Civil Rights movement instead, leaving feminism to White women.
Today’s trans women are faced with a similar hard choice. And because of the massive amount of discrimination and rejection we face, many of us choose Trans first.
As I digested all of this for the purposes of assembling this piece, I was surprised by the realization that I am a Woman First, Trans Second. Trans does not define me in the way that Woman does. Trans is a circumstance I’ve had to endure — to be free to live my life as a Woman. I relate deeply and strongly to women who have had to undergo a similar journey. But I don’t feel separate and apart from cis women — they are like me and I am like them.
Further, I believe there is a context and a time for every message. At organizing committee meetings within the communities I belong to, I will fight for queer inclusivity. Internally. But when we march, united in sisterhood, with the eyes of the media upon us, with the world watching and (hopefully) our tyrant enemies witnessing our defiance of their despotism, I cannot abide divisiness, distractions, infighting. We form a line, shoulder-to-shoulder, and we #resist.
A Note on ‘Impact vs. Intent’
Several times I’ve been scolded about “impact over intent.” The context meant that, if the impact on trans women is one of exclusion, it does not matter that the intent is one of affirmation and unity. While I do agree that impact is paramount, I disagree with this argument and, further, I believe “impact vs. intent” is an incomplete sentence.
I believe the impact of the Women’s March is exactly as intended — it sends a powerful message of female unity, bravery and defiance against toxic masculinity and misogynistic hegemony.
I believe the impact of the pussyhat is exactly as intended — a sea of pink, conveying unity, solidarity and strength in numbers.
What is missing in the “impact vs. intent” phrase is “impact to whom?”
The intended recipient of this March’s message are the agents of the current administration. The intended recipient is the male legislator, the male politician, and his accomplice: the Trump-supporting 53% of White women who voted him in.
The purpose of the March
As a trans woman, I am being asked to do a bit of emotional labor around the vulva-driven signs, the reproductive emphasis, the emphasis on “pussy.” I am willing to do that labor. Because I care for and support my sisters. Because I believe in this cause. Because the purpose is not to soothe me personally, but to stand together in defiance to a bully.
As a trans woman, I believe I have a choice. I can get caught-up in my own wistfulness, my own insecurity over my physical imperfections, my own internalized transphobia — OR I can stand alongside thousands of my sisters (cis and trans alike, of many races, colors, ethnicities and faiths) as, together, we stand up to misogyny, fascism and tyranny.