Another Complicated Mourning of Adrienne Rich
Poet Adrienne Rich died yesterday. When I heard the news I felt nausea, and then told myself that I could not mourn a voice who took part in the violent vilification and erasure of trans women that was Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire. Raymond’s book legitimized systemic transmisogyny for the feminists who wanted to hate us; Empire made that hatred academic, and elevated the voices of those who engaged in it to mantra. As Adrienne Rich was one of those voices, I could not mourn her.
Janice Raymond cited Rich in the acknowledgments section of her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire, writing “Adrienne Rich has been a very special friend and critic. She has read the manuscript through all its stages and provided resources, creative criticism, and constant encouragement.” In the chapter “Sappho by Surgery” of The Transsexual Empire, Raymond cites a conversation with Rich in which Rich described trans women as “men who have given up the supposed ultimate possession of manhood in a patriarchal society by self-castration.”
From her Wikipedia page.
Not mourning isn’t the same as celebrating or diminishing her death, however. I feel nothing positive in her death, no smug dismissal of her. What I feel is sadness. The sadness I feel when I hear of any human being dying. But also the sadness that someone otherwise so talented and insightful could hold the position that who I am is not valid or real, and worthy of such scorn and derision. The belief that I am delusional and an assault on women’s space merely by my presence. Even if someone contributed 95% of their work to positive, affirming efforts, that last 5% is still pretty much impossible to shake if you’re the one in the sights.
Still, as I thought on it further, I realized I am mourning Adrienne Rich. It is a sickly, melancholy mourning. Like the passing of a relative who inexplicably hated you, their disapproval sealed by death. If someone came to me with a document or transcription of a conversation or pretty much anything showing that she explicitly disavowed her transmisogyny I wouldn’t feel like I lost the argument, I would be glad. I get to have precious few women in Feminism I can embrace fully, without the expectation for the other shoe to drop. But I can’t look up to someone who thought I shouldn’t exist – you have no idea how much I wish I could – and that makes me sad about Adrienne Rich.
(I seem to have inadvertently named my post quite similarly to this excellent piece by Rafe Posey. Consider mine another complicated mourning.)