Recently, a trans woman walked into a bookstore in New York City and sat down in the audience waiting for Rose McGowan to make an appearance.
Rose was in town promoting her memoir that, in part, chronicled her abuse at the hands of Harvey Weinstein and made her one of the leaders of the #MeToo movement. Taking the opportunity to stand up during the talk, the trans woman started in with charges of transphobia against Rose based on earlier statements made in a podcast. Voices were raised to the point of screaming. Rose, not a paragon of stability herself, handled it badly by screaming back at the trans woman to sit down and shut up. She then made more statements that both deflected the charges of transphobia and reinforced them. When the dust had cleared, video of the exchange was a viral sensation. It became the story du jour on countless outlets and Rose attacked everyone from her own team, handlers, security and even the audience for not coming to her defense. Soon thereafter, fearing similar incidents, Rose announced she was canceling her book tour.
Predictably, opinions broke upon constituent membership. Outside the transgender community the incident was met with derision for the trans woman and accusations of bullying for attacking a woman who was herself a victim. There were transphobic statements floating around the Twittersphere and article comments in support of Rose. Inside trans world the tone was decidedly different. Ignoring the extreme methods used to elicit them, Rose’s previous and current comments were dissected for indications of cisgender privilege and anti-transgender sentiment. Admittedly, it wasn’t hard. Rose was certified to be a TERF and many in the transgender universe cheered. Another hater had been rooted out, exposed to the world and the ends justified the means.
For those of you who don’t know, a TERF is pretty much the worst thing you can call a woman who claims to be a feminist, but discriminates against trans women. The word itself stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist and is pretty self-explanatory: They simply don’t believe that trans women are women. We are an extension of the patriarchy into female spaces and a particularly insidious form of male oppression. TERFs at their most benign are sign-carrying nuisances at the Women’s March. At their worst, they actively call for the extermination of trans women. To many trans women, Rose had just been exposed to be a card-carrying member of this extremist feminist sect, but from what I could surmise after straying from the transgender echo chamber, the rest of the world didn’t see it that way.
You know, I love trans women and there is a lot to love. We are a strong bunch. We’ve had to to survive in a world that still largely barely tolerates us. I have dedicated an entire YouTube channel to promoting greater understanding of the lives we lead and the challenges we face. However, there are times that I want to slap all of us for being so tone deaf that we would shoot ourselves in the foot and praise it as a triumph as we limp around our victory lap. The Rose McGowan incident was a disaster of the highest order for us. Not only were the “optics” of a trans woman screaming at a crying abused cisgender woman terrible, it pitted trans women against feminist allies and not just TERFs. The footage was practically a TERF recruitment video.
Now, did Rose McGowan say transphobic things? Absolutely, and she should be held accountable for them. Let me be clear: I do not think we shouldn’t challenge our allies and call them out. We must have the courage of our convictions to say the hard things to our friends. What I am saying is that we must always keep in mind that they ARE our friends and on our side. Just like us, they were brought up in a society that taught them some very negative things about transgender people. It is inevitable that they would absorb some of these lessons. Unlike us, they didn’t have to get past them to bring authenticity to their lives. They didn’t have to suffer to have what most other people are granted at birth. Rose wasn’t the only abused and hurting person in that recording.
If we as transgender people are to survive and advance, we need to cultivate allies by educating them. Rose herself stated that she believes trans women are women and we are fighting on the same side. She’s right, and that assertion itself sets her apart from those feminists who deny our legitimate existence. It is the basis of greater understanding that can grow into more if we nurture it. Instead at times it seems like we are satisfied to run around and label those people who say things we find the least bit offensive as transphobic. We are demanding absolute perfection from those who would fight on our side and burning the rest to the ground. That’s how you turn allies into frenemies. What does that get us exactly? It’s easy to get offended and turn our backs. It is much harder to do the work to change people’s hearts and minds, but if we don’t, change will slow to a crawl as we wait for the passage of time to do the work for us. I don’t want to wait that long.
Melody Maia Monet is the Multimedia Assistant for Watermark and owns a YouTube channel on lesbian and transgender topics. You can view her videos at youtube.com/melodymaia.