Thursday, October 11, 2007

Doris Lessing, Trans People, and Feminism

Okay, first off, the news, which you probably already know:

Doris Lessing Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Doris Lessing, the novelist whose deeply autobiographical writing has swept across continents and reflects her feminist engagement with the social and political issues of her time, today won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Announcing the award in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.” The award comes with a 10 million Swedish crown honorarium. (from the New York Times)

Okay. So first off-- I'm glad Doris Lessing has won the Nobel. She is the eleventh woman to win it, and one of the most articulate voices for feminism. That's fantastic.

I remember reading "The Golden Notebook" when I was 21; I'd been given it by a good female friend, one of those people who may have had some fundamental understanding of my trans nature without our having an intimate talk about it.

What I remember is a profound sense of sadness from Golden Notebook, and particularly a scene in which the heroine finds her flat-mate, Ronnie, in the bathroom, using her moistureizer. It's not clear to me if Ronnie is meant to be trans, or a gay man, or some combination of both, but our fightin' feminist heroine is, in any case, repulsed, grossed out, and contemptuous of him.

"... Anna, speaking out of her disgust, was ashamed of doing so before the words were out. Good Lord! she thought, to be born a Ronnie! to be born like that-- I complain about the difficulties of being my kind of woman, but Good Lord! I might have been born a Ronnie!"

So. There you have it. The Nobel Prize winning feminist author weighs in on trans folks.

Today I will join in with other feminist women around the world in being glad for Doris Lessing, and glad for us all.

Except: I wonder if anyone, in the accolades which are sure to shower down on her in days to come, will note this cruel swipe at trans people? And feel bad about it? In just the way I felt bad about it, as a twenty-one year old feminist transwoman, looking for someone who might give voice to the things I felt in my heart, and heard, from my heroines, only disgust and shame.

I know that Doris Lessing represents, perhaps, an earlier kind of feminism, and that in the 60s and 70s there were plenty of feminists who found trans people perplexing and some kind of affront. I know that things have changed, mostly.

But the spirit that is in this small moment of the book (and it IS a small moment) lives on. And as long as it does, my joy for the progress women have made will remain muted.

In the Feminist Mystique, Betty Freidan wrote of "the nameless problem of modern women." I remember, in 1975, reading this work and knowing even then that Betty Freidan probably didn't include me among that nameless problem's sufferers. But you should, Betty, I thought. You should.

Doris Lessing's heroine said that the only thing worse than being born female is "to have been born a Ronnie!" and I don't know. Maybe she's right. But what makes it hard to be born this way, in part, is not the condition itself; it's being put down and belittled by the people you hoped were your sisters, your allies, and your friends.

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