Fayetteville resident Jewel Hayes is at the center of a year-long conflict between lesbian feminists and transgender women over the politics of space.
She is among an estimated 13,000 transgender women and men in Arkansas facing discrimination in housing, public accommodation and the workplace who are standing up for civil rights, alongside lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer Arkansans.
But last year Hayes discovered that not all lesbians want to share political ground with transgender women.
Several dozen transgender activists demonstrated in front of the Washington County Courthouse on College Avenue in Fayetteville on March 31st to celebrate National Transgender Day of Visibility.
The event was organized by Intransitive, a new Arkansas transgender liberation group. But instead of a rainbow flag, Jewel Hayes held up a handmade pink, white and blue glitter transgender flag towards traffic rushing by.
“There’s a lot of things going on today with the trans community," she says, "and I’m glad we are here to show ourselves."
Hayes, at age 28, is new to transgender politics. Born in Texas, and raised in rural Carroll County, she was assigned male at birth, but declines to say her "deadname" — the male name given to her by her parents. She says she's always felt female. Even as a child, she preferred to wear her light brown hair down to her waist.
“The games I would like to play with my friends was pretending I was a girl,” she says, speaking softly.
She was often bullied growing up, she says, and continues to be stalked and verbally harassed, a problem shared by other trans women in Fayetteville.
“Two years ago a person presenting female was beaten outside of Walmart,” she says. “When they took her to the ground, they peed on her and beat on her wig.”
One place where Hayes assumed she would find acceptance is Fayetteville’s annual Goddess Festival, first organized in 2008 by a group of lesbians
But last year, when Hayes decided to join the festival, she heard a disturbing rumor.
“I heard they were having a biological women-only class, which was basically about how trans people oppress women.”
Taught by a trio of local lesbians Paula Mariedaughter, Jeanne Neath and Susan Wiseheart, the class, Hayes discovered, was closed to transgender women.
“I’ve never heard that there were women who didn’t like trans women within the liberal community,” Hayes says.
After much heated debate, the workshop, “How Transgender Politics Harms Women and Undermines the Women’s Liberation Movement,” was rejected by festival organizers.
But the controversy continued to reverberate. A third-party team of volunteer community mediators called “NWA Creative Dialogue Team,” met to try to resolve the conflict. A year later, that work is ongoing says one mediator, who declined being identified.
Paula Mariedaughter attended one of the first mediation meetings to share her historic perspective.
“Women's liberation was central in my life,” she says.
The retired flight attendent who lives in rural northwest Arkansas is noted for forcibly being removed from a TWA flight by the captain in 1973 for refusing to wear lipstick. As a leader of Stewardesses for Women’s Rights, her protest, and others, eventually led to the adoption of airline industry-wide gender-neutral flight attendant policies.
Now 73, the veteran radical lesbian says she’s working on a new front: to preserve women's liberation and feminist culture.
“Women’s liberation thrives on women-only groups, actions and events,” she says. “Today in 2018 we are fighting for our rights to even gather as women, or lesbians, in women-only events, conferences and organizations.”
Mariedaughter says she supports transgender civil rights. As a self-identified "dyke" she admits that she too is gender-nonconforming. But she worries about what she calls growing transgender extremism: transgender women demanding to be included, even at traditional women-only gatherings.
"Some transactivists are using tactics including intimidation and ‘de-platforming’ to shut us down, shut our events up, silence, erase and make us invisible,” she says.
In reaction, Mariedaughter, her spouse, Jeanne Neath, and colleague Susan Wiseheart built a new digital platform: XXAmazons.
In expressing her views online and in public, Mariedaughter refuses to refer to transgender women as female.
“The nomenclature of women and girls is part of the whole issue here,” she says. “So what we say is ‘male to transgender person,’ or ‘female to transgender person’.”
Mariedaughter is intentionally pushing back against the transgender community's demand for politically-correct gender terminology, usage now widely adopted by media, lawmakers, healthcare providers, and educators.
Even though transgender women and lesbians share common oppression — harassment, physical attack, even murder — Mariedaughter says transgender activists who force entry into women-only circles perpetuate the patriarchy.
"An ally would see how valuable women-only space is to girls and women,” Mariedaughter says.
Mariedaughter represents a niche movement concerned that the “L” in LGBTQ is disappearing beneath the political battle over transgender identity politics. Adherents believe men do not have a right to declare themselves women, nor should women cede their rights to men who define themselves as women. Transgender women, they say, were born male, often raised male, socialized as male, so have been provided all the privileges the gender status conveys, compared to women and girls.
Efforts to maintain female as a distinct biological class is expressed under the term female erasure, newly promulgated by certain neo-feminist thinkers.
In late winter, Jewel Hayes asked to meet with Mariedaughter and Neath to try to find common ground. Mariedaughter declined talking about the encounter, but Hayes remains optimistic.
“At least I planted a seed that maybe we’re not so different,” she says wistfully.
At this year’s Goddess Festival, which Hayes helped coordinate, she taught an art workshop showing a half dozen women, including lesbians and trans women, how to make goddess effigies out of clay.
Last year, she says, she was invited to speak at the National Transgender Law Center in San Francisco about her experience growing up trans in the South. She hopes to someday work for a transgender civil rights nonprofit.
“People aren’t born knowing trans politics,” she says, “so they have to be told somehow.”
But given that transgender women demand validation and inclusion, and more radical lesbian feminists demand they be excluded from their political circles, Hayes has a deepening impasse to negotiate.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.