My complicated mourning: RIP, Adrienne Rich
I fell in love with Adrienne Rich and her poetry in the late 1980s, when I got my first job at a bookstore. I was 17, and Tim, the bookstore’s manager, put me in charge of the poetry section. Up until then, most of what I knew about poetry was stuff I had learned almost by accident on the rare occasions that I actually went to my lit classes, or what my girlfriend, who was good at school, read to me. Working the poetry section changed that by degrees – there was an awful lot of stuff I didn’t like (Rod McKuen, anyone?), but there were also books by Nikki Giovanni and Adrienne Rich, and they moved on me in deep and mysterious ways. Diving into the Wreck was one of the first books of poetry I ever bought, and when Blood, Bread, and Poetry came out that year, I bought it joyously. I had imprinted on her poetry, and now I could read her prose as well. I swallowed every word.
At the same time, I was exploring my own identity first as a young lesbian, and then as a young queer person with gender troubles. This was during the AIDS years, and I chose the label “queer” deliberately, as a signal against the homophobia that I encountered daily. Adrienne Rich taught me about my literary heritage as a woman who wrote (yes, I’m trans, so I guess technically I was a man, but I lived as a woman for most of this time, so…). She taught me how to confront and explore racism and heterosexism. She taught me how to find poetry in daily life, in tragedy, and in community. For all of this, I remain profoundly grateful.
When the news came across the internet yesterday that Adrienne Rich had died, my first response was a painful welling of sorrow that she was gone, because her contributions to American poetry and the lives of innumerable women have been uncountable. Her contribution to my own writing has been tremendous. But then I felt a different kind of sorrow, because I couldn’t just mourn her without complication. I had to ask myself about her transmisogyny, which has been largely overlooked in the wash of admiration. What I needed to know was whether or not she had ever disavowed statements about trans women in which she called them “castrated men” and other hateful things. I needed to know whether she had ever stepped back from her friendship and collaboration with Janice Raymond, who made a career out of her virulent, dangerous hatred of trans women.
I can’t just think, “Oh, well, she was a poet, and she changed poetry, so her views on trans women are private and don’t matter.” That would be dangerous, and it would also be untrue.
It’s not like Adrienne Rich existed in a vacuum, or as if she wrote a century ago. She lived and worked now. We admire Susan B. Anthony, but acknowledge her racism, to use an example from Rich’s Blood, Bread, and Poetry. In the essay “Resisting Amnesia: History and Personal Life,” from 1983, Rich writes that she and her friends and colleagues were challenged to deal with the whiteness prevalent in the feminist movement, that they had to carry on Anthony’s legacy of progress while at the same time making a point of dismantling her legacy of false inclusion. In fact, part of what I find most troubling is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of Rich’s writing in the world in which she faces her own history head on. She readily accepts that she, and most other white feminists, have a lot of work to do about not merely “including,” but really listening to and welcoming people of color, not-Christians, and others into their movement. And yet…
As far as I can find, she never evolved in her stance on trans women. I have no idea what she thought about trans men (I imagine she thought we were sort of like lesbians, only confused or broken, a viewpoint I find extremely irritating when I encounter it in real life). In “Resisting Amnesia” she challenges her readers to look at their curricula, their classwork, their reading lists, and their own work and figure out which women are missing, and then to change that, with respect and sincerity. Nowhere in the list of which women are missing does she mention trans women. I gather that she believed trans women were not women, which I find both misguided and abhorrent, and that dilutes my mourning.
Does it matter? Yes. It matters because we salute her contribution, but if she had spoken out against the inclusion of African-American women or suggested that Jewish women or Latinas were somehow less than human, we would talk about that. We would critique that.
It also matters because when prominent lesbian feminists cut trans women out of the movement, their actions create a space in which transmisogyny flourishes. Especially when the method of the exclusion includes hate rhetoric like that employed by Janice Raymond and Mary Daly. In the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time working with cisgender lesbians at another bookstore, and one of the topics we discussed at length was the Michigan Womyns’ Music Festival. Now, I should mention that even without their policies on trans women, Michfest is not a place I ever would have wanted to go. Camping? In the woods? In August? With a zillion patchouli-scented women? No. So my coworkers liked to try and convince me to go, and I liked to explain all of the reasons why this was never going to happen. At some point, I learned about the trans policies (I have no idea where – possibly Outweek magazine?), and I brought this into the conversations. What I learned was that perfectly sensible, educated, brilliant, interesting women like the women I worked with thought that trans women were not women, that they had no place in womanspace, and that they themselves were comfortable supporting this view with a) myths about safety that echo today’s bathroom rhetoric and b) the sure knowledge that the cis women they admired, like Adrienne Rich, would agree with them.
Imagine how different poetry and the women’s movement would be if cisgender women like Adrienne Rich had stood up and said, “Trans women are our sisters, and they are welcome in my womanspace, and if you don’t like it, you can piss off.” Imagine what a difference it would have made for trans women who wanted to be part of the community of women, and were instead shunned and vilified. I am vastly sad that Adrienne Rich is gone, but I wish her legacy were pure, untainted by transphobia and transmisogyny. As they say, With great power comes great responsibility. She should have used hers better.
(cross posted from the Faunboy blog)