Transsexuals in the Lesbian Community: The Ultimate in Male Power-Tripping?
Philadelphia Gay News – May 29, 1981, pp, 22, 27
by Victoria A. Brownworth
On May 2, 1981 approximately 150 women met in West Philadelphia to vote in an emergency community meeting. The issue, which had been raised in March, was whether or not a post-operative transsexual, Leslie Phillips, could be a member of the leadership collective for the Lesbian Feminist Weekend (LFW) 1981. In a two-part vote it was decided that Phillips could neither be a member of the leadership collective nor could Phillips be a member of a committee for the LFW. The vote seemed relatively decisive and simple: 75 percent of the group opposed Phillips. But in the course of the 3 1/2 –hour meeting many issues were raised and tempers and emotions ran hot. And a major question remains: Why did this meeting have to be called at all? There are many who believe that gay men and women must band together in a show of solidarity of oppression. There are others who believe that all sexual minorities should band together. And there are still others who believe that all minority groups should band together against the common oppressor. But what are the facts? The most salient one is that oppression – the common denominator – finds its root in the original oppression, that of men over women. All other oppression within our culture devolves from that original act of enslavement. Every oppressed group in our society is “feminized” – that is, it is viewed as female. Gay men are oppressed because they are seen by the culture as having a feminine persona (no matter how “butch” they may appear). Women – politicized women – are aware of this evolution of power, of the hierarchy of oppression, and have attempted, within their own movement, to be sensitive to the needs of minority subgroups within that movement. The language of the women’s movement is inclusive, not exclusive. And it is just that level of exclusivity that was raised as part of the Leslie Phillips issue. Should we, the lesbian community, allow a post-operative transsexual to rise to power within our lesbian ranks? If we say no are we being exclusive of another minority? There were many women on Saturday afternoon who genuinely feared that. I believe that there were women who felt that this vote of what they saw as exclusivity could begin a trend, or at least set a precedent. This is not what I believe. When we talk about the role of male-to-female transsexuals in the women’s movement as a whole and the lesbian movement in particular I feel we are talking about the ultimate in male power-tripping. It is difficult for me to believe in the principle of transsexualism in a culture in which the sexes are not equal. I believe that given the male-dominated state of society there are going to be men and women who do not identify with their given roles. But I cannot believe that a person who spends 30-some years reaping the benefits of being a white male in our society can understand what it has been – and is – for me, a woman, in this society. Phillips may be oppressed as a particular minority group but Phillips cannot know what i[t] was like for me or any other woman to grow up in a male-dominated culture where we are the lowest members in the caste system. I could not choose my oppression. It is this issue, the issue of male privilege, which was ultimately what led many of the women at the meeting to vote as they did. Many women asked the question: Is a post-operative transsexual really a woman? The answer, of course, is yes and no. Phillips now has most of the physical components which the majority of the women at that meeting have, but does Phillips – can Phillips – understand what it is to be a woman simply because there has been a change in genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics? I think not. Phillips spent 30-some years acting in the role of the oppressor. I believe that it is in that role that Phillips continues to function. I believe that Phillips’ behavior in terms of Sisterspace and the LFW is manipulative in the same way that men manipulate women in every other culture. The question becomes: Why should the lesbian community allow itself to be manipulated by a man from within its own ranks? The lesbian community in Philadelphia has a long and rather unhappy history as far as its ability to maintain organizations is concerned. Sisterspace and the LFW have managed to survive – but not without the very concerted and considerable effort of many women. Trust is a major issue for the community in Philadelphia and for those like myself who have been involved in that community for a long time we can remember back six years to Susan Saxe and the questions that her underground presence raised for us. We have been in contact with people with questionable motives before, but now we are strong enough to face the issues raised by the conflict. I and many – 75 percent – of the women at the May 2 meeting had questions about Phillips’ motives. Why should Phillips want to be involved in the leadership of a lesbian group? Why, if Phillips is truly interested in the concerns of women, was this person not willing to work in a less sensitive position within the ranks of Sisterspace or LFW? Why would only a leadership position be sufficient? Is it because Phillips is used – as a man – to being able to be in power? Does Phillips feel that only a leadership in a lesbian group will be the final qualifies of “her” as a “woman”? There are many of us within the community who are angry over this issue. The world is a male-dominated space, the minimal changes of the last 15 years notwithstanding. As a woman and as a lesbian – one who is not a separatist, per se, I might add – I feel that my space, my woman-only space, is a very precious commodity. (Not one white among us would consider intruding upon the space of blacks – yet men feel that they can intrude on women’s space, wherever it may be.) To me Phillips’ presence within my lesbian space is a violation. Women need to be concerned with the growth of women, the support of women, the strengthening of women. That is their – my – primary goal. Until we are strong within our own ranks we cannot effect change without. Until men recognize that the oppression of women comes from them and in turn causes their own oppression, there can be no lasting or meaningful humanity. Final note: The facilitators of the May 2 meeting were excellent and helped to provide an atmosphere where women with very volatile feelings could express themselves without losing respect for one another. It was a painful and difficult meeting but we have learned from it and it shows how strong we can be when our interests, our welfare, is in question.