Gloria Steinem does a 180

 photo MonicaR11_zpsc5b732e7.jpgIn late September TransGriot writer Monica Roberts took Gloria Steinem to task for her writings in the 1980s about transpeople.

You long time TransGriot readers know I’m not a feminist and I cringe when I hear Black women even say the term because of its history of marginalizing women of color to the point they left the movement.

And don’t even get me started on its outright hostility to trans women, which is why I identify as a womanist.

And yes, it’s time to unmask another one of the feminist icons, Gloria Steinem as a transphobe.


Steinem wrote at the time, “At a minimum, it was a diversion from the widespread problems of sexual inequality.” She writes that, while she supports the right of individuals to identify as they choose, she claims that, in many cases, transsexuals “surgically mutilate their own bodies” in order to conform to a gender role that is inexorably tied to physical body parts.  She concludes that “feminists are right to feel uncomfortable about the need for and uses of transsexualism.”


Steinem concluded the article with the famous quote:

If the shoe doesn’t fit, must we change the foot?

 photo gloria-steinem-31_zps64e0a2e2.jpgIn her book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions Steinem includes a five-page essay on transgender identities in which she promoted Janice Raymond’s infamous harangue, The Transsexual Empire.

In it Steinem wrote:

Was it fair for women to face someone trained physically and culturally for forty years as a man?


In other words, transsexuals are paying an extreme tribute to the power of sex roles.  In order to set their real human personalities free, they surgically mutilate their own bodies…

Instead of serving more lifesaving but often less lucrative needs for their surgical and hormone-therapy skills, some physicians are aiding individuals who are desperately trying to conform to an unjust society.  It’s a small group of successful physicians she [Janice Raymond] names ‘the transsexual empire’.

On October 2 Steinem did an about face with an op-ed in the Advocate: On Working Together Over Time in which she is interpreted as saying, We must put the rights of transgender community first.

The actual money quote is the following:

So now I want to be unequivocal in my words: I believe that transgender people, including those who have transitioned, are living out real, authentic lives.  Those lives should be celebrated, not questioned.  Their health care decisions should be theirs and theirs alone to make.  And what I wrote decades ago does not reflect what we know today as we move away from only the binary boxes of “masculine” or “feminine” and begin to live along the full human continuum of identity and expression.

She follows that with:

I know we’ve all worked hard on and are celebrating the Supreme Court marriage rulings this spring, but there is so much work to do to reach full LGBT equality – and ensuring that transgender people also have equality under the law has been the most left out and therefore should become foremost on that list.  A stunning 90% of transgender employees have faced discrimination or harassment at work – and no federal law explicitly protects transgender people in the workplace, though nearly 80% of voters in the U.S. support such a law.  In weeks, the Senate is expected to take up the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would provide basic protections against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity – ensuring that no one can be denied employment or a promotion, or be fired, simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.  It’s time that law passed.  Obviously, no LGBT person should be denied the ability to be who they are because their boss disagrees.  I’m grateful for this opportunity to say that I’m sorry and sad if any words floating out there from the past seem to suggest anything other than support, past and present.  As feminists know, power over our own minds and bodies comes first.

So there it is:  an actual apology.  Some will eject it, unable to gain release from the three decades of harm done by her words.  Some of us will strive to embrace it…and hope that the ears of others among the feminists who have joined forces with our oppressors over the years will become attuned to a new reality and realized their grievous errors.

Together, we are learning the deepest lesson.  Families are not about form but content.  Humans are not ranked; we are linked.



    • Robyn on October 5, 2013 at 00:08

    …from the July/August, 1996 special issue of Ms., the one with Xena on the cover.  Suzanne Pharr wrote an article entitled Taking the High Road.  She also was interviewed.  The first question and its answer is below.

    How do we root out our own racism or homophobia or prejudice against poor people?

    One way is to examine the place in yourself where you have experienced discrimination and imagine someone else there.  If you’ve experienced sexism or had a hard time advancing at work, you might examine that closely and ask yourself, Could this be how a person of color feels in terms of discrimination?  Could this be how a lesbian or gay man feels in terms of discrimination?  We need a politics of empathy: If this is what it feels like to be me, isn’t it possible that this is similar to the experiences of other people?  What also breaks through is hearing other people’s stories.  I cannot tell you how important this is.

    May I tell you a story?  For 15 years the Women’s Project has had a women’s retreat in Arkansas.  This year for the first time a transgendered person came, a post-operative male-to-female lesbian.  On the first day, we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves, and she said she would like to create a workshop on transsexuality.  Only then did everybody realize she was a transsexual.  All hell broke loose the next day.  One lesbian couple came up to several of us who had organized the retreat and said: “How dare you let him stay in a dorm where our daughters are?”  We said: “We stand on 15 years of fighting for sexual freedom.  You have to deal with this…”  Personally, I love femmy men and butch women because they break barriers.  We have got to bust up gender roles.

    Anyway, the next night this transgendered woman got up and told us about her life, what it felt like to be at a university in central Arkansas having no community, no intimacy, her only contact with other transgendered people occurring online.  Eighty to 90 percent of the women in that room listened and changed their minds.  They came up to us and said, “You did the right thing.”  This is an example of the power of story.

    Stories must be built into our political work.  We live in a time where people feel so disconnected and isolated.  We have to speak that.  The Right does that.  They say, “We will give you a home in this church or this program and help you feel together by naming all these things as the enemy.”  They preach the myth of scarcity combined with the mood of mean-spiritedness:  there’s not enough to go around and someone else is taking something from you.  We have to speak to people’s better selves, find ways to make people in our communities feel better.  Let’s foster generosity and inclusion.

    I was that transwoman.

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