I see a lot of people valorising Adrienne Rich in the wake of her death, ignoring her contributions to hateful second wave attitudes about trans people, specifically trans women. Rich contributed directly to texts that continue to be used by trans-exclusionary radfems (TERFs) to deny personhood and humanity to trans women. She was part of a movement that concerts to keep trans women out of feminist and women’s spaces, and that perpetuates a lot of vile slander about trans women; I’m choosing not to use the kind of language they use here because I want trans women to read this without being triggered.
These second-wave attitudes are still very much present in modern feminist thought, as can be seen by the fact that exclusion of and hatred for trans women continues to be a problem in feminist spaces. This is not a ‘thing that happened in the past’ or a ‘product of her times’ problem. This is a feminism problem.
As a transgender person, I’m deeply troubled and upset by the attitude that it’s okay to sweep Rich’s sins under the carpet in the interest of focusing on her poetry, which was, yes, amazing. And, yes, had a huge impact on many readers. And I know that trans women are hurting even more than I am right now because it’s yet another reminder for them that ‘their issues’ don’t matter, and that it’s acceptable to celebrate ‘feminist heroes’ who wanted them to die.
Rich did contribute immeasurably to feminist thought and dialogue in the US, and it’s okay to admit that not all of those contributions were good. Really, I promise. Someone who produced amazing art can still have horrific attitudes. And we can talk about that, although it’s really unfortunate that this wasn’t talked about before she died.
And a part of me wonders if some of this resistance to admitting that Rich was not quite the unblemished icon people want to make her out to be is not just from a general disregard of trans women, but also from a place of fear about admitting ignorance.
Because I will freely admit to you: Until her death, I knew Rich as an amazingly talented poet who had a profound personal impact on me. Only in the aftermath did I learn about her other contributions, and I was horrified. And ashamed that I didn’t know these things. And frustrated about the fact that so many ‘icons’ have legacies like this that are rarely discussed outside of closed spaces because the community in general is so hostile to any kind of critical evaluation of people who are leading movements or shaping the way movements think and respond to political issues.
I think some of us cover our shame by maintaining our ignorant front because we don’t want to admit that information new to us has arisen, and we don’t want to adjust our responses accordingly. Admitting that we were wrong or not fully informed is hard.
It’s okay to say you loved Adrienne Rich’s poetry. It’s also okay to admit that that’s the only thing you knew about her until you were made aware of her other activities in the political sphere. What’s not okay is to made aware, and to deliberately choose to continue acting as though Rich didn’t leave a terribly damaging and hateful legacy along with her art.
Unless, of course, you agree that transmisogyny is an ‘important feminist legacy’ and you support Rich’s political ideas. In which case, as you were.