Dear Patient Friends: Yes, this is short, long overdue, has nothing to do with baking, and is politically charged, to boot. I’m starting, slowly but surely, to flex my writing muscles while I continue to freelance and wait for my bar results. This essay is cross-posted to Facebook, where I meant to only write a sentence or two about it, only to see a floodgate of contemplation burst open, so to speak. A friend of mine *cough’mousecough* insists, vociferously, that Facebook and Twitter have ruined social discourse by moving it off blogs and onto privacy-eating Web 2.0 sites. Normally I just remind him that he used to make the same complaint about blogs ruining social discourse by moving it off of chat rooms, and then I make fun of him a little more. This time, though, he’s right. There’s no reason that Facebook should get the exclusive fruit of my labors on this issue.
Confidential to Momerina: Yes, “My Adrienne Rich Problem” is a riff on John Thorne’s “My Paula Wolfert Problem.” Nice catch, Mom.
I am aware that in posting this, I will be angering and/or breaking the hearts of a lot of people who I really love, and for that, I’m sad. Keeping silent on this issue, though, makes me sadder (and is wrong, to boot).
Adrienne Rich died last week. When I was in high school, I devoured her poetry and essays on feminism and social justice. Because I was a poetry geek, I would yammer on about “Reliquary” and “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” to anyone who would listen. With that in mind, a few people have asked me why I haven’t commented on Adrienne Rich’s death, or contributed to memorial events to her.
Here’s why: Even as she was a brilliant poet, a fierce activist, and a coalition builder (who was not shy about telling white feminists that they needed to step up their game on advocating for women of color), Adrienne Rich had “read through...in all its stages, and provided resources, creative criticism and constant encouragement” to Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire, the most hateful, damaging screed against trans women ever written. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I say this. It is impossible to overstate the damage this book has done to the world in which trans women live. And Janice Raymond not only thanks Adrienne Rich for her help with the book, but also reproduces a conversation with her in the text of the book.
Rich’s defenders have pointed out that Janice Raymond is not a credible source, and that it’s possible that Raymond overstated Rich’s contribution to the work, or that Rich’s attitudes towards trans women became more enlightened in her later years. It’s certainly possible. On the other hand, in the 33 years between the publication of The Transsexual Empire and Rich’s death, she has never repudiated the work, or stated that Raymond had misrepresented her point of view.
The bottom line: I cannot, in good conscience, call myself either a feminist or a trans ally if I’m willing to look the other way when Adrienne Rich contributes to a toxic body of work, no matter how much I love her poems. It does, indeed, matter.
Postscript: In addition to the You’re Welcome essay linked above, these essays are also excellent and worth reading:
My complicated mourning: RIP, Adrienne Rich
Another Complicated Mourning of Adrienne Rich
Postpostscript: Over on Facebook, a friend asked me what I’d hoped to accomplish by writing this piece, as it won’t affect the role that The Transsexual Empire plays in society, and would only serve to discredit Adrienne Rich’s body of work for some people. Here is my reply to her question:
Well...hmmm. I’m not entirely sure that it needs to accomplish anything to be worth discussing. (Upon typing, that reads as kind of snarky, but I promise, [name redacted], I’m not being snarky, and I *am* both reading and answering in good faith.) Are we “accomplishing” anything when we point out that an asshat writer on Two and a Half Men made gross comments about women in an interview? Probably not. Is it worth discussing? Absolutely.
I have no illusions that my little post here will affect anything vis a vis the availability of The Transsexual Empire. That ship sailed 30 years ago. But I don’t know if it will continue to have its power and resonance within the establishment, simply because trans civil rights activists are pushing back like hell on it. I’m more concerned with its power and resonance among feminists. Not all feminists are transphobic (or transmisogynist), but the ones who *are* transphobic are, in my opinion, an embarrassment to the sisterhood. The hate rhetoric they spout about trans people, particularly trans women, is almost indistinguishable from the hate rhetoric of the right wing. Right-wing ‘phobes may call them perverts, while radical feminist ‘phobes call them men trying to appropriate “real” women’s space, but the net result is still the same: a refusal to recognize trans women as women.
So what does all this have to do with Adrienne Rich? She may not have created the idea that trans women are not real women, but she certainly facilitated it. And that’s shocking to me, because Adrienne Rich was a vigorous critic of white feminists who refused or neglected to address issues affecting women of color. She recognized that black women needed more than an “inclusive” environment where white women were nice enough to invite them but not necessarily to let their voices be heard. So to hear that a coalition builder like Adrienne Rich not only didn’t include trans women in the coalition, but also provided constructive feedback to a woman who described trans women as monsters and sleeper agents in a plan to replace “natural” women with “artificially-constructed women”...well, it’s a shock. Kind of like it was a shock when I learned that Dostoevsky, who wrote the most beautiful prose in the world on how to live with grace and humility and love, had a little bit of an intense-hatred-of-the-Jews problem.
Ultimately, I guess I’m just pondering that old question about how we think of people who make beautiful art, yet think or do ugly things. We hear this question over and over again—how do we think of Ezra Pound? Of Leni Riefenstahl? Of Roman Polanski? It’s not an easy question to answer, but I know how I don’t want to answer it: Adrienne Rich did so much good for so many people that it’s mere hair-splitting to call her out on an issue that only affects a certain group of people. That certain group of people comprises my friends and sisters, and they matter.