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An Open Letter to Roseanne Barr, From a Feminist Sister

Dear Roseanne,

My name is Ariel Silvera, I’m a latina from Buenos Aires, Argentina who has lived around the UK and Ireland for the past 11 years. I am also a feminist trans woman. Now that the election is over, I hope you’ll have time to take a look at this letter.

I’m going to admit I’m not as familiar with your work as I should be. I never watched your famous show, although a good number of my friends of mine swear by it. I’ve occasionally seen you say some quite brilliant things in terms of politics, and my perception of you until now has been one of a rather kickass woman. So, I’m writing this out of disappointment regarding your recent comments about trans women. From a feminist to another feminist.

I want to start with a reality check. I like talking about material reality, about things that actually happen, rather than conjectures and assumptions. This reality check is about toilets. In a heated twitter outburst, you wrote ‘if she has a penis, she’s not allowed in’, continuing with ‘women do not want your penises forced in their faces or in our private bathrooms’.

Roseanne, I honestly wonder, just what do you think I do when I go to the bathroom? I’m going to tell you exactly what I do when I go to a public bathroom. Don’t worry! I won’t be sharing any scatological details or talk about any gross poo stuff. Ick! Okay, so. My public bathroom routine is, more or less, as follows:

1. Enter bathroom, head to nearest cubicle (I’m lazy, what can I say), or, if there is a queue, join it and wait for my turn.
2. Once in the cubicle, I lock the door behind me. If there is no lock, or it’s broken, I try to find a way to hold the door either with one arm, or a leg, or a bag if I have any.
3. I do my business, and I get out of the cubicle. I head towards the sinks.
4. I wash my hands carefully. At this point, maybe eye contact is made with another woman. Maybe we’ll say hi or comment on the weather. You know, small talk.
5. Leave the bathroom in the knowledge of a job well done.

So, there you have it. This is what I do when I, a trans woman, a woman who was assigned male at birth and has transitioned to female, do when I go to the bathroom. I can imagine that you, a cis woman, assigned female at birth, have a similar routine. Maybe you make witty remarks if someone strikes up a conversation, after all you’re a very intelligent person who can come up with a better topic than the goddamn weather.

What I’m trying to point out here is that at no point did I:

1. Talk to other women or girls in the bathroom about my genitals and the status thereof, or
2. Show my genitals to other women or girls in the bathroom or generally expose myself.

I imagine you don’t do this either. Congratulations. You go to the bathroom in exactly the same manner I do, as a trans woman. And before you ask? No, I have not had sexual reassignment surgery.

In your tweets, you say that people like me should not be able to access women’s bathrooms. I imagine you expect me to go into the men’s toilets. Roseanne, are you aware of the violence statistics for trans people in America alone? The fact that a majority of young trans people report verbal and physical harassment, and a third of trans youth have considered suicide? Given the violent misogyny prevalent in American society today, that if someone perceived as ‘a man dressed as a woman’, or someone simply perceived as female or feminine, entered a male-dominated space, do you honestly believe they would not face violence? Did you know that there were 17 recorded murders of trans people in America alone in 2011?

We are just going to the toilet, Roseanne. We’re not there to molest kids. You’ve brought up NAMBLA, and how you fought against their inclusion under the Gay/Lesbian banner back in the day. Good. I despise NAMBLA. I’m glad you did that work and I’m thankful for it! But, I ask, why do you bring it up? Are you implying allowing trans women into women’s restrooms is the same as opening the door to child molesters, rapists and paedophiles?

Now, I want to ask you to do something. Look up all reported cases of trans women raping minors in restrooms. Or of ‘men dressed as women’ doing this. Now, look up statistics of the violence faced by trans people in our society, and the way it maims and murders us for who we are (or, occasionally, when a black trans woman kills a white man, by accident, in self defense, she is sentenced as a mere murderer).

Ask any trans person, trans men, trans women, genderqueer & non-binary folk, and we will all tell you that bathrooms, for us, are TERRIFYING. Almost every trans person I’ve ever met (and being a long-time activist in the community, I’ve met a few from at least a dozen countries), has a horror story. That time they got beaten up for being in the ‘wrong’ toilet, whether it corresponded to their birth-assigned gender or not. The time they got shouted at. The time someone stabbed them. And this violence is mostly faced by those whom patriarchy, heteronormativity and a racist capitalism makes the most vulnerable: trans women of colour. 

You are asking us to face real violence because of the fact that a small percentage of us (just like a small percentage of ANY GROUP IN SOCIETY) may be rapists or paedophiles. There’s probably paedophiles or rapists in your own party, Roseanne, statistically speaking. By your own logic, we shouldn’t let members of the Peace and Freedom party into women’s bathrooms either.

You’ve brought the misogyny present in much of the LGBTQ movement into this conversation. I couldn’t agree more that this is a hugely important thing to address, and we need to continue to make LGBTQ groups understand that misogyny exists, that women are particularly oppressed in this patriarchal society. I think we can agree on this quite easily. I’m a long-time feminist activist, and have seen how misogyny tears movements apart, and how we must bring a feminist consciousness to bear on these problems.

Near the end of this blog post, you talk about vitriol aimed your way by members of the trans community. Threats and misogynist insults are unacceptable! But when you imply that an entire community is made up of rapists and paedophiles, many people are going to be angry and upset. And they may have very base reactions based on the fact that a massive percentage of us deal with massive self-hatred, and are made to feel alienated and suicidal by a society which, largely, promotes hatred towards us. A hatred we have to confront in the streets, every day, when we leave our front door.

Your reaction to the anger of members of a persecuted and marginalised community, which you ignorantly insulted, was this:

“The level of their misogyny is akin to racist fascism from the nazi’s in 1930′s pre war berlin-The GLBTQ community needs to confront this and challenge it.”

As a trans woman who is also jewish; as a trans woman who is also the daughter of parents who survived two military dictatorships (in Uruguay and Argentina, supported by America, might I add); as a queer feminist activist fighting for liberation, as a person who has seen her friends bleeding after being beaten up at protests, evicted from their homes, as someone who fights the good fight against oppression, just as you do… This is disgusting and offensive.

The anger and vitriol from a bunch of pissed off people with very, very little power is not comparable to the campaigns of terror perpetuated by the Nazis in the build-up to their ascension to power. And that’s just the key here: power. Do you think that trans people really have the institutional and societal power to oppress you? In the United States, trans people keep being murdered, keep surviving horrible violence and discrimination, particularly trans women of colour, as I said above. Do you really think that their communication of anger through twitter is the same as a bunch of german dudes beating up an elderly jewish shopkeeper? Is this it?  I eagerly await your compilation of tweets, which the blog post promises.

I don’t know how to end this, Roseanne. I was shocked to hear you treat trans people as if we are your enemies, as if we are part of the powers that be, which continue to keep people fighting against one another, in poverty and misery, fighting wars for profit and propagating patriarchal attitudes. I hope you read this letter, and that you consider my words in it.

I leave you with a link to a video of me giving a speech encouraging Irish LGBTQ people to become allies of the pro-choice movement, at the March For Choice, Ireland’s largest pro-choice demonstration in 20 years, only a few months ago. One of my main involvements in feminism for the past five years has been campaigning for free, safe and legal abortion in Ireland, something which I imagine you strongly support. We have a lot in common Roseanne. I hope you consider what I’ve written here today.

Regards,

Ariel Silvera

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About Ariel Silvera

Writer, journalist, Argentinian feminist-punk-trans-geek-dyke based in Ireland, trying to make sense of shit. Ask me about Power Rangers or Alison Bechdel.

35 responses »

  1. “I want to start with a reality check. I like talking about material reality, about things that actually happen, rather than conjectures and assumptions.”

    This is the point where I knew it was going to get good. Bravo.

    Reply
  2. That was excellent. Heartbreaking, educational and excellent.

    Reply
  3. Ariel Silvera – I am sorry I missed you in Dublin. This letter, which so eloquently describes some of what trans people face, is true, funny, disarming. I look forward to your next piece.

    Reply
  4. Well said, Ariel! I wish I was as elequont as you. FWIW, the long-standing rule over on this side of the pond has been that the first person who introduces Hitler or the Nazis into a discussion has lost. Sorry Roseanne, you lose!

    That being said, my family is Norwegian and I have an “uncle” who spent three years in a forced labor camp in Poland after being arrested for Resistance activity. Not only does Ms. Barr lose for introducing the Nazis, she fails to make a valid connection. So, she fails to make her case and she loses even more for faulty logic.

    Speaking solely for myself as a lesbian all I can say is this: “Ms. Barr – go away. We don’t want or need people like you, we already have all the enemies we can handle.

    That’s my two cents.

    Reply
    • You’re referring to Godwin’s Law and that’s not what it says, but it’s certainly how everyone interprets it. Her comparison was ridiculous though.

      Reply
  5. Thank you for writing this. Eloquent, respectful, well-illustrated and very moving.

    Reply
  6. Respectful? Respect would entail getting the facts right. This was not about bathrooms. It was about a women’s sauna where male genitalia was purposefully exposed to teenage girls. As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I don’t see that as a transgender issue but as an assault on those young girls.

    Reply
    • Can you give a source, please?

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      • Regarding the particular phrase “genitalia was purposefully exposed…” in Patty’s comment, there is no basis for the claim that anyone purposefully exposed genitalia (or as Roseanne herself suggested, that genitalia was being waved around in some young woman’s face).

        It’s a locker room. Some women will be naked in the locker room, get over it.

        And in fact, one of the reasons I suspect that RB hasn’t revisited the issue on her blog (at least not yet) is that all her sources for these nefarious claims are coming from “radical feminist” sites that are pretty open about the fact that they hate trans women and have a pre-existeing agenda to eject trans women from women’s spaces.

        Reply
        • You mentioned the radical feminist sites/events/ect that are bent on excluding trans women. I have seen this a lot myself and can vouch for that.

          Not only that, but they make a point of welcoming trans men. Both of these things are inherently wrong and offensive.

        • fadedwinter: That’s because radfems consider transgendered men to be women.

          I kind of get where they’re coming from. Gender and sex are not the same thing and I will probably never understand why a strong drive to express your gender in a nonconforming way means you must have the “other side’s” hormones and possibly genitalia. I’m thinking maybe it was a mistake to dump the word “transsexual” because in some of these cases it would have been more accurate.

    • No one was exposed to male genitalia, because penises are not inherently male. Some women have them. In the case you’re talking about, a woman who happens to have a penis was walking around a women’s locker room without clothes on, as millions of women–of every shape, size, and configuration–do every day. Two children saw this woman naked and were surprised because they weren’t aware that some women have penises; clearly the adults in their lives had failed at educating them. Their mother then made claims that the woman was at fault for being naked in a place that children might come into, because apparently existing and being naked in a locker room is inherently wrong and bad if one happens to have a particular sort of body.

      Had the woman been someone with mastectomy scars, or a third nipple, or no arms, the children would have been told not to stare and that some people’s bodies are like that. The only reason this was handled differently is bigotry against trans people and fear of penises.

      It’s true that sexual assault against children is committed far more often by people with penises than by people without penises. However, that does not make penises inherently bad and scary. There are many cultures in which co-ed all-ages nudity is common, and children in those cultures are not harmed by seeing genitalia that differs from their own. Walking around naked in a place that is designated as a space where people walk around naked is not assault. Having a penis is not assault. Existing while trans is not assault. Even the rude language and behavior directed at the trans woman is not assault. And nothing in this story comes remotely close to being sexual assault or abuse.

      I am very sorry for your personal experiences. I hope you will not let them deter you from respecting the rights of all women to use women’s spaces, regardless of how their bodies may be configured at the time.

      Reply
      • This. Exactly this. Such a great response, thank you. :)

        Reply
      • Can I just say that you’re asking an awful lot of a mother to be able to read the mind of a person with a penis and ascertain that yes, they really are a woman and they really do not mean the children any harm?

        I mean, society already expects us to read cisgendered men’s minds and ascertain that they will not harm us or our children. We’re the ones punished if we guess wrong. But we’re just supposed to put up with someone who appears to be male just showing up in our sauna or our locker room without so much as a by your leave.

        Physically transition first, maybe? THEN go to the sauna or the locker room? I’m trying to imagine a scenario in which any individual would ever need to visit a sauna or a locker room that allowed children, and I’m drawing a blank. The sorts of locker rooms an athlete would use normally don’t have kids in them.

        As much as you’re forced to focus on your own issues thanks to people who want you dead, and I really do get that even if I can never understand it from direct experience, you still need to think about where other people are coming from, because not everyone’s out to kill you.

        Reply
    • For those looking for the original story, here’s a tolerable summary:

      http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/11/transgender-student-in-womens-locker-room-raises-uproar/

      And I must correct my own summary: the report was filed on behalf of one girl, not two. She’s 17, incidentally, which in my book is definitely old enough to know and understand that women come in all shapes and sizes.

      Reply
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  8. Yes! No words can express how I feel about this post, other than simply saying, “Thank you.”

    Reply
  9. Reblogged this on Zander's Blog.

    Reply
  10. Thank you for this informative, powerful, honest letter. You definitely educated me (and I thought I already was somewhat educated on this subject), and I hope Roseanne – who has of course been very outspoken on gay/feminist issues, and was speaking out long before it was PC to do so – will read this and reflect upon it.

    Reply
  11. Funny how Roseanne says that after appearing in drag in a male toilet in her own show:

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  12. well done Ariel. fucking briliant

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  13. “What I’m trying to point out here is that at no point did I:
    1. Talk to other women or girls in the bathroom about my genitals and the status thereof, or
    2. Show my genitals to other women or girls in the bathroom or generally expose myself.”

    “Roseanne, are you aware of the violence statistics for trans people in America alone?… Given the violent misogyny prevalent in American society today, that if someone perceived as ‘a man dressed as a woman’, or someone simply perceived as female or feminine, entered a male-dominated space, do you honestly believe they would not face violence?”

    It seems to me that both sides of this discussion are afraid of people who they – rightly or wrongly – predict will have internalised this culture’s violation imperative. So no one wants to enter male-dominated spaces and no one wants people they consider males to enter/dominate the delineation of their spaces.

    It all seems to stem from fear of that patterned, sexualised, gendered violence that issues from the cis male/man class and is directed at the feminine, at the ‘not male’, ‘not man’, at women, transfolk and genderqueer. I’m sure that they would empathise with you not wanting to enter male dominated space, and wanting an alternative. But would you empathise with them, not wanting you violating their self-built boundaries?

    Everyone is scared of people they believe have been raised, trained, to exhibit the more predatory traits associated with masculinity. You have no proof that the individual men in the men’s bathroom have internalised the abusive gender prescriptions of patriarchy to the point that they would commit predatory violence against you, and yet you fear it. Roseanne et al have no proof that any individual trans women have internalised the abusive gender prescriptions of the patriarchy to the point that they would commit predatory violence against them, and yet they fear it – moreso than they fear people who were assigned the ‘girl’ gender at birth, because people assigned ‘boy’ at birth tend to be trained differently.

    That different training program is quite probably why you fear men’s toilets, and why cis men also fear men’s toilets, and why cis women fear men’s toilets and men or trans women entering theirs. Maybe we need to remove this idea of communal toilets.

    Reply
    • It takes up less materials and less space to build a “communal toilet” than it does to put in a bunch of separate little individual bathrooms. If it would cut down on discrimination and ugly bathroom scenes I’d be all for it, but face it, no building owner would ever go along if it meant more expense for them.

      And it still wouldn’t solve the problem of locker rooms and saunas.

      Reply
  14. Ariel, Thank goodness not all Americans 1) are Roseanne Barr and 2) hate trans* people. You are welcome to use any ladies’ room I am in. I got your back. Roseanna Barr made ner name being a filthy-mouthed butthole. I think sometimes, she forgets to stop.

    Reply
  15. This is a well-written letter. I had no idea Roseanne said that, and I’m really disappointed. I’d like to echo what Mary Tyler said. I support trans people using the same restroom I am in, and know lots of other Americans who feel the same way.

    I’m embarrassed for Roseanne and quite disappointed, but she hasn’t tried to portray herself as a squeaky-clean comedian.

    Reply
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