The other day while I was riding the subway there was a White man harassing a naturalized Latino immigrant on the other end of the car. The two men were in the middle of very loud and angry argument, which made me feel increasingly anxious since I have also been harassed on the subway.
I have no idea how the argument started or why the White man picked this particular passenger on a car with several other immigrant people of color. But it was obvious that he was targeting this man because he was an immigrant of color with a strong foreign accent. It's possible that the White man may have mistaken the Latino immigrant for an Arab American, given what I was overhearing.
The White man was yelling at the Latino immigrant, shouting variation on a theme: "You're not an American." "Go back where you belong." "Go back to your own country." With each attack the Latino immigrant held his ground shouting back in response: "I am an American." "This is my country." "I belong here." Intermixed with these remarks, the men called each other "assholes" and told the other to "fuck off." Eventually the White man left and the Latino man seemed to gain some support from a few Spanish-speaking passengers.
This interaction, in a different context, could have easily taken place between a trans womon and a cis womon separatist. In this context, the trans womon would be in the role of the immigrant, and the cis womon would be in the role of the nativist xenophobe.
When I saw the "100% WBW" design being marketed in support trans womyn's exclusion from the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival the first thing I thought of was all those racist, jingoist, xenophobic signs that say "100% American" hanging in shop windows. Those signs are used to indicate that the owners are White-Anglo native-born citizens, even if the goods sold are made in foreign factories or the workers in the store are exploited im/migrants.
WBW and the Attack on Trans Womyn
I don't think most people fully understand the roots of the anti-trans usage of the term "womyn-born womyn"—how fundamentally anti-trans womyn that term really is when used to mean cis-womyn only. The exclusion of trans womyn from the concept of "womyn-born womyn" is a form of cis supremacy. Many cis supremacist (mis)conceptions about "womyn-born womyn" can be found in Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology, a notoriously cis supremacist (and, as Audre Lorde pointed out, White supremacist) text.
Cis supremacist connotations of "womyn-born womyn" were popularized in part by Daly's twisting of the first name of prominent womon tennis player Renée Richards into a misrepresentation and stereotype about all trans womyn.Renée, being French for "reborn," was taken up by Daly to support her dehumanizing claim that trans womyn are a type of Frankensteinian monster "re-born" of "male supermothers" identified as "psychiatrists, surgeons, hormone therapists, and other cooperating professionals." On this basis, Daly wrongly attempts to assert the supremacy of cis womyn when writing, "Women, born of women, do not invent a false need to be reborn from, of all things, men." Daly and Janice Raymond used the term "male-to-constructed-female transsexual" to describe trans womyn, where a so-called "male-to-constructed-female transsexual" is the mutually exclusive antithesis of a so-called "womon-born womon."
The Missing Piece of WBW Herstory
What gets missed in debates over womyn-born womyn in relation to trans womyn is that Mary Daly and Janice Raymond were not originators of the concept of womyn-born womyn. Daly's and Raymond's contribution was to infuse the concept with a hatred of trans womyn that didn't exist before but now takes on a dominant role in the term's usage.
Many lesbian-feminists have written about the psycho, social, and sexual bonding between womyn in terms of mothers and daughters. There are writings about coming out as lesbians as being born into a community of womyn-loving womyn—we see this common experience reflected in our us of the term "baby dyke." Relationships between womyn lovers were addressed and discussed through the lens of and in relation to mother-daughter relationships. And there are the writing of womyn who struggled with their love for womyn and their love for mothers who neglected and/or abused them. These are just a small sampling of a complicated, poignant, and beautiful herstory that goes along with being a womon-born womon—and has nothing to do with excluding trans womyn.
Unfortunately, I think that branch of lesbian-feminist herstory is unfortunately distorted and lost to the corruption of "womyn-born womyn" now dominated as a term of division and border policing. Rather than being a positive term that binds all womyn across generations and blurs the boundaries of womyn loving other womyn, I think the cis supremacy advanced by womyn like Daly and Raymond has worked to turn "womyn-born womyn" into a negative term that tends to bind cis womyn over a false opposition and negative assessment of trans womyn. Rather than womyn-born womyn involving processing the complications of loving womyn and dealing with internalized misogyny this can being out, I notice how the anti-trans version of "womyn-born womyn" turns trans womyn into an object onto whom internalized misogyny and lesbophobia can be projected. It pains me to see how "womyn-born womyn" has become a term based in hate and division, as opposed to a term of based in love and connection.
Reclaiming My WBW Identity
I'd rather reclaim what I believe is the original intent womyn-born womyn than spend my time fighting it's hateful doppelgänger. I refuse to give up the lived reality that I am a womon, born of a womon—a relationship just as much real for me as it is for any cis womon. I have a relationship and bond as my mother's daughter that is disregarded and disrespected by those cis supremacist invalidation that claim I am anything less than a womon-born womon.
I think what the cis supremacy in the legacy of Daly and Raymond has failed to understand is that if there are "male supermothers" or a "medicalization of gender" then we need to recognize that this occurs immediately after we are born. It occurs when we are taken from our mothers and assigned a sex by a medical professional, usually a man.
I was not born "male" by my mother when in fact I was coercively assigned "male" after I was born—by a man and by the patriarchy. So the sex I was assigned after I was born came not from the womon from whom I was born, but from a White male patriarch invested with the power to do so by the State and the institutionalization of his profession.
Sex Assignment ≠ Destiny: WBW and State-Institutionalized Patriarchy
I believe that this institutionalized practice of assigning a sex immediately after birth is one of the most fundamental (perhaps even the most fundamental), yet most consistently over looked, means of reproducing the oppressive social construction of gender. It is from that point on that gender and sexual roles are imposed onto us. That is, a quick assessment by a medical professional of our genitals after we are born is registered on our first State issued document of identification and used as an ongoing basis for coercively assigning and mapping out our destinies.
I think when we conflate womon-born womon—that is, a womon born of another womon—with one's coercively assigned sex after birth, we are collaborating with the very patriarchal institution that, immediately after the moment we are born, asserts control over the sex and gender of everyone. Far from subverting the authority and control of the State and medical institutions over our sex, gender, and sexuality, cis supremacist conceptions of "womyn-born womyn" uphold, perpetuate, and enforce this patriarchal authority and control over our lives. (I'd say the assignment of sex at birth has effects that could even better be described as "kyriarchal," as opposed to the more limited "patriarchal.")
If under cis supremacy we confuse the coercive assignment of a sex given to us by the State and medical institutions with who and what we are born to be, then it seems we can hardly fault any trans womon for conceiving of her resistance to this assignment as a means of being "reborn." If under a cis supremacist capitalist patriarchy where being born is first confused with an institutionally imposed sex, then these trans womyn are no more wrong than those cis womyn separatists who, as Daly did, conflate being assigned female after birth with being a "womon-born womon." And if it wasn't for that first instance of a coercive assignment of "male" after birth by the State and medical institutions, then it seems unlikely that many trans womyn would feel the need to conceptualize their resistance as a form of rebirth.
I'm a Trans Womon and I Belong in WBW Space
On a deeply personal level, I don't need nor do I desire to be "reborn." I'm perfectly capable of separating the event of my being born from the coercive legal and institutional event that immediately followed my being born and which continue to control my life as a member of an oppressed group. I was not born "male"; rather, I was legally and institutionally designated "male." Contrary to Daly's assertion, I don't need to be "reborn from, of all things, men." I challenge that my being born of my mother is at all reducible to the coercive sex assignment imposed on me by men of the patriarchal State and medical institutions. For me, my own resistance to my experience of oppression includes opposing the cis supremacist conception of "womyn-born womyn" as exclusively reducible to cis womyn.
So I'm not opposed to "100% WBW" shirts. I'm opposed to the bigoted bias that those shirts are being associated with and used to promote. I'm opposed to WBW being used in the way the United States flag gets used as a symbol of White-Anglo power. When the White man on the subway kept saying that this country is for "Americans" and telling the Latino immigrant to go back where he belongs, the Latino responded that he is an American, this is his country, and the he does belong here. (As an obvious descendent of people indigenous to the Americas the Latino man actually has a better claim to calling himself "American" than the White man who is a descendent of Europeans.) Similar to the Latino immigrant I witnessed on the subway train refusing to back down to the xenophobe harassing him, I choose to resist and speak my truth. Every time WBW is used to tell me to go back where I belong, I'm going to assert that I am a womon-born womon, womyn's space is my space, and, yes, I belong here.
I think I could proudly wear a shirt or button that say "100% Womon-Born Womon" on it—although, not from a company that would support excluding me from my own community. I'd even be willing to encourage other trans womyn, particularly lesbian-identified trans womyn, to also proudly reclaim womon-born womon for themselves. I know this term is now so loaded with hatred and pain that many trans womyn will justifiably reject it altogether. But I'm not willing to concede the entire herstory of WBW over to cis supremacy any more than I'm willing to concede to xenophobic, White supremacist border policing.