Viewpoint: Understanding Anti-transgender Feminism

Viewpoint: Understanding Anti-transgender Feminism

Lisa Kalayji

In an unprecedented turn, the UK Labour Party recently announced that it would extend access to its all-women candidacy shortlists to transwomen, formally indicating recognition of their place within the fold of the diverse category of ‘women’. The backlash was swift and severe: a small but voluble subset of feminists declared the move an attack on women, convening an event at Parliament to decry the change. This, in turn, incited a fresh wave of the hate speech and abuse that trans people have come to know all too well. Commentary on the matter has exploded, even eliciting the first-ever appearance of a trans person on BBC Question Time.

The heated disagreement between trans people and anti-trans feminists frequently makes headlines, but it is widely misunderstood. What is really at its heart takes a bit of digging to get to, and if there is to be any chance of resolving it, we must look to its roots. There is a manifest aversion on both sides to genuinely engaging with one another’s perspectives, because to do so wanders uncomfortably near to empathising with people to whom we would prefer not to extend empathy. Though the terms ‘understanding’ and ‘empathy’ are often used interchangeably, they are not quite the same thing, and it is possible to understand (to make sense of) without necessarily empathising (to share in the feelings and perspectives of). I am a trans-positive feminist, but I have spent the past five years studying anti-trans feminism and its ideological and emotional foundations. In what follows, I will attempt to help the majority – trans-positive feminists – to understand the seemingly opaque interior of anti-trans feminism.

An Overlooked Herstory
The anti-transgender position in feminism is generally attributed to radical feminists, and the theory that gave rise to it comes from that tradition. Radical feminism has a long history, and a critical mass of feminists who were not yet born or old enough to comprehend the early years of the ‘second wave’ of women’s liberation from which it emerged have little knowledge of where the ideological fractures in feminism came from. There are two major implications of that knowledge gap: (1) trenchant anti-trans ideology didn’t materialise out of thin air – it is rooted in a lineage of real, embodied, complex lived experiences of doing women’s liberation; (2) radical feminists know that many of their most determined critics ‘weren’t there’ when the relevant ideologies took shape, and assume that we probably have not taken pains to learn our herstory.

A view of trans-positive feminists as herstory-ignorant is itself a major contributor to the persistence of anti-trans feminism, and gives rise to one of its paradoxes: feminists telling (trans)people that they are not the authorities on their own experience. With feminism being firmly rooted in the view that the best source of knowledge about our realities is our own experience, this is a counter-intuitive stance, but one which is nevertheless vital for anti-trans feminists. Trans-positive feminists, they suggest, are patriarchal dupes, taken in by appealing narratives and our emotional attachments to ultimately harmful practices and paradigms. Trans people themselves, meanwhile, are taken to be either wilful infiltrators on a mission to bring feminism down from within by inhabiting Trojan Horse female bodies (they have a lot less to say on the issue of trans men, except that they are women who have sought to embody the male privilege that they could not readily access otherwise) or dupes of a malevolent endocrinological industrial complex bent on exploiting their discomfort with restrictive gender roles to sell costly and dangerous hormones and surgeries. When transwomen identify as women and trans-positive cis (non-trans) feminists support them, anti-trans feminists claim to understand what we are thinking and feeling better than we do, either because we are maliciously backward-thinking or because we lack the critical analytic capacities to understand our own subjectivities.

This view of trans folks and their allies as self-unaware and herstory-ignorant is the first component to the change aversion of anti-trans feminists. Why would they yield to the persuasions of those who are either duped or willingly malevolent? It would make no more sense than feminists considering the possibility that perhaps women really are inferior to men, or socialists accepting that capitalism really can be righteous, if we all just ‘lean in’. Trans-positive feminists would, of course, argue that these are wildly false analogies, but anti-trans radical feminists don’t think so – any understanding of their lens has to recognise that from their perspective, these parallels are spot-on.

The next question, then, is why might these analogies strike an anti-trans feminist as fitting? Again, we have to turn to history. The fundamental fractures in the Women’s Movement from which (British) anti-trans feminism proceeded began with divisions over the ‘men question’: whether women’s liberationists ought to continue cooperating with men in the radical social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s (in spite of their unrelenting misogyny) or withdraw their energies and form their own groups which wouldn’t relegate women to the roles of secretaries, child minders, sex objects, and punchlines. Socialist feminists gave men a lot of leeway – men were so deeply invested in patriarchy, they said. They are overwhelmed, frightened, and distressed at accusations of misogyny, and need plenty of time and gentle encouragement to let go of their ill-gotten status as the dominant gender. Radical feminists were unmoved by these pleas, seeing men’s commitment to patriarchy as a wilful defence of male supremacy. They were not interested in doing the work of lovingly nurturing men into treating women like fully-fledged human beings, nor did they think that attempting it would yield any such result.

As the Women’s Movement wore on and an array of historical shifts took place from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s (notably the emergence and dominance of neoliberalism and political thinkers’ growing interest in culture and discourse), radical feminism became more marginal and other feminisms more influential. Fast forward a few decades, and have a look at where we are now. Sexual violence is still pandemic. Neither the judicial system nor society at large have reached a consensus that rapists are the ones to blame (and punish) for rape. Women remain under-represented in positions of authority and over-represented in low-paid and low-status work. Women still do the overwhelming majority of household and relationship labour, even if they engage in as many hours of paid work as their male partners. Cultural constructions of what sex is supposed to be like are still organised around the titillation and pleasure of men. Girls continue to be encouraged to see themselves as pretty objects rather than capable and valuable human beings.

The radical feminist ‘we told you so’ muscle, it would appear, has never been deprived of exercise, and the collective memory of an earlier point in women’s liberation when we could have left men’s negotiating table and gone to war with them instead, possibly leading to a quite different 2018, reverberates through the present. So when trans-positive feminists argue that transwomen pose no threat to cis women’s liberation, that the phantom menace of transwomen’s violence against cis women is a fabrication, that trans people exhibit every defining attribute of a seriously structurally oppressed group which merits immediate and full support, that patriarchal cultural paradigms fall even more violently on the heads of trans people than on cis women (a difficult reality to imagine), anti-trans feminists don’t hear a word of it. What they do hear is the same old stories proceeding from the same old ignorance.

The Intersectionality Problem
Trans-positive feminists will find that account grating on a number of levels, beginning with the most obvious one: transwomen aren not men! This raises yet another complex and difficult theoretical problem: many feminisms (still) have a massive intersectionality problem, which in some cases extends to seeing transwomen as men. Virtually all feminists will allow that there are lots of different ways of being a woman, but there remains an impulse to draw a line around the feminist subject – around who feminism is really about. A lot of us have come to see the experience of moving through the world as a transwoman, including being assigned male at birth and being gendered ‘boy’ and ‘man’ for much of one’s life, as one amongst many iterations of what being a woman in the world can be. But a lot of others have not. To anti-trans feminists, it feels too much like the boys locking us out of their club and then accusing us of being sexist if we keep them out of ours. It feels like hypocrisy disguised as democracy.

If we try to understand this purely by reference to concepts and categories, we will inevitably come up short. Thinking is inextricable from feeling, and anti-trans thought on the question of gender categories is rooted not only in theory, but in anxiety which emerged in the 1970s and has amplified exponentially to become the dangerous ideology we see today: anxiety that if we give an inch, misogynists will take a mile; anxiety that if we expand who it is feminism’s business to liberate, then (cis) women will remain on the back burner, being abused, silenced, beaten, raped, and murdered indefinitely; anxiety that this debate is yet another appeal to women’s compassion which will be weaponised against us. If we really want to understand what is at the heart of this issue, we cannot just immerse ourselves in sex and gender theory and deny that affinity, aversion, excitement, hope, love, anger, frustration, and even trauma – and their reverberations and amplifications across historical time – shape what and how we think. The way that we deliberate, reason, frame reality, and situate the present in the context of our narratives of the past emerges from our emotional relationships with ideologies and other people, and if we want an answer to the question ‘how can self-proclaimed feminists be anti-trans?’, then the entanglement of reasoning, emotion, (sub)cultural narratives, and time is the place we should be looking.

No problem can be solved unless it is first understood. The persistence of anti-transgender ideology and feeling in feminism is a serious problem, but one which we can do a better job of understanding. This is not a call for transpeople to attempt to empathise with, or even understand, the interior lives of people who advocate their continued oppression (and in some cases would settle for nothing less than their annihilation). What it does mean is that those of us who are not ourselves trans must bear the brunt of this work. It is men’s responsibility to dismantle patriarchy, it is up to White people do demolish racism, to colonisers to decolonise, and to cis people to take down transphobia.

 

Lisa Kalayji is a final-year PhD student in sociology at the University of Edinburgh. She researches the emotion culture of British radical feminism, and the sociologies of emotions and affect. @LisaKalayji

Image Credit: Mark Gregory

14 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    April 04, 2018

    I am a radical feminist who was active in the second wave of feminism, so-called after our realisation of the extent of radical action taken by the suffragettes.
    I dont recognise our analysis in your article above, and suggest that readers investigate actual radical feminist sources such as ‘trangender trend’ and ‘Fair Play For Women and Girls’, and attend one of the many open meetings to discuss the issues arising from the trans phenomena, organised by women under the broad titles: A Womans Place, and We Need To Talk.

    We Radical Feminists recognise the oppression of women by men, under the social system of Patriarchy.

    We define women as adult human females and realise that the control and exploitation of our sexual and reproductive capacities are the lynchpin of our subjugation.

    The normalisation of our oppression is promulgated by male supremacist ideology, most notably in pornography and religion which together operate to imprison womens expression and identity.

    The wider culture of sex role stereotyping produces the social environs within which the notion of gender has emerged, as a collection of sex role specific expectations and behaviours.
    Passivity, deference, sexual availability and such like are characteristic of femininity, which is a loaded political construction of social norms expected from women.

    The fact that some males cannot or do not wish to conform to masculinity does not render them women, since they are not and can never be, adult human females.

    Women are so much more than females without penises, so much more than female eunuchs.

    We refuse to be appropriated and diminished, reduced to this parody of our oppression.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 09, 2018

      I have attended such a meeting, and the atmosphere was charged with hatred and aggression towards TRANS people, and misinformation. I have to say that I left this meeting halfway through the day, feeling that I was lucky to escape in one piece.

      As for your definition of what a woman is, do you suggest a gynaecology inspection of everyone who attends one of these meetings, or should someone like myself wear a pink triangle so there is no mistake ?! There was another group in the 1930’s who also wanted to seperate society based upon on physical features and characteristics.

      However If a room full of Rad Fems can not spot just one Trans person amongst them, it does not bode well for your the very arguments you are attempting to push. My presence at such a meeting makes a mockery of all the claims which you call debate. Debate and discussion is not a means to remove the rights others have already gained.

      We only have to look at Womens Place point 2 to see the reality that Radical Feminsim is trying to reduce the current rights of Trans people.

      Point 2

      “The principle of women-only spaces to be upheld – and where necessary extended”

      As a final note, when I was in the Rad Fem conference I asked some of the people around me if they had ever met a Trans person. The most common answer to this question was no. Can you see the irony in that answer, especially at a Rad Fem conference when they are talking to a Trans person. #thinkingnotsodifferently @Conwayhall

      Reply

    • Avatar
      April 10, 2018

      Thank you. So much more sense and truth in your comment than in the post.

      Reply

  2. Avatar
    April 04, 2018

    Feminists are indeed concerned with ‘female-to-male’ trans-identified women and girls. If you look at the websites of 4thwavenow, Transgender Trend or Lily Maynard (to name but three) you will see numerous articles concerned with how transgenderism affects females: most notably in its worship of stereotypes and gender conformity (changing bodies to fit personalities). It is not a question of being ‘anti trans’: that’s a very simplistic view. Feminists are less concerned with male-to-female trans-identified men because feminism is not about men. I hope this helps.

    Reply

  3. Avatar
    April 04, 2018

    Firstly the debate about All Women Shortlists is mischaracterised. The Labour party has always allowed trans women who had legally changed sex. The debate is over self identified trans women – ie legal males and whether they should be able to access women’s shortlists.

    Secondly the characterisation of feminism as either ‘trans positive’ or as ‘anti-trans feminism’ is clearly biased and moreover inaccurate. Someone who is pro rights for Palestine is not automatically called anti Semitic by anyone – other than Zionists trying to sling mud, as you are trying to do.

    Feminists are by this very name clearly concerned with the rights of female people. Female means the sex of the species that produces eggs. It is only in the last 10-20 years that the idea a sperm producing person can be called female has arisen.

    Being pro the rights of egg producing people does not mean one is anti the rights of sperm producing people or trans people. Some trans people are egg producers.

    Liberal feminists (who you dub trans positive) include in their feminism trans people who produce sperm. However they exclude trans people who produce eggs. Therefore half of of trans people are included and half excluded.

    Radical feminists include in their feminism trans people who produce eggs. However they exclude trans people who produce sperm. Therefore half of trans people are included and half excluded.

    It is interesting then that you dub one as trans positive one as trans negative given they both include the same number of trans people. The difference is the factor determining inclusion :feelings versus physical reality. Liberal feminists’ see woman as a feelings, an open category that can include any human regardless of physical features – literally indefinable. Radical feminists see woman as an adult human female – or one who produces eggs. This is the dictionary definition.

    The historical split in these two strands is largely down to the development of post modernism. Liberal feminism embraces this doctrine which has effected universities and society and like a modern type of metaphysics states that words mean what you want them to mean. That reality doesn’t really exist, that morality is relative, that science is colonialist and oppressive and that knowledge is best determined by asking oppressed people about how they feel and lived experience.

    Whereas the values of the enlightenment are those which inform radical feminists – the idea that physical reality exists and that we can find out information about the world through sceientific and scientific methods. That words can be defined and have meanings. That all definitions by their very nature exclude other definitions.

    I see post modernism as a regressive religious doctrine which takes us back to the dark ages. It is to me exemplified by the Monty Python sketch about determining who is a witch – by seeing if they weigh the same as a duck.

    So the clash between liberal and radical feminsim is as I see it the age old clash between religion and science. Just as the Pope saw Galileo’s discovery that the earth goes round the sun as anti- Catholic and heretical – worthy of punishment, you see the scientific definition of male and female I’m humans as anti-trans and presumingly deserving of being dismissed.

    The Catholic church finally had to capitulate to scientific discovery and has survived nonetheless. Likewise trans people can also accept science and survive. It is perfectly possible for trans people to accept that their feeling do not change physical reality but they are still entitled to the right to present and modify their bodies as they wish.

    It is possible for society to accept trans people without having to believe in magic. Trans women are male and always will be and that’s ok. Society can accept that some males wish to resemble women and should be well treated whilst realising that some spaces need to be seperated by reference to physical reality rather than feelings.

    Eggs producers and sperm producers have different needs and sometimes need different spaces. Insisting that sperm producers have the right to demand access to the spaces of egg producers regardless of the feelings of the egg producers is tyrannical. It’s like the lord of the manor claiming he has the right to enter his labourers cottages at any time – droit de seigneur.

    The fact its couched in terms of being a civil rights movement is a red herring. No other civil rights movement has trampled over the rights of an oppressed group or allows an oppressor to claim oppressed status on the basis of his feelings. In all other arenas this idea is rejected. A white person can not claim to be black, a grown man can not claim to be a child, a rich man can not claim he is a poor man on the basis of his say so alone. Only in the realm of sex is it being suggested that any male can claim he is female and demand to be accepted as such? Magic it seems is only allowed to exist in certain places – where it exclusively benefits males.

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    • Avatar
      April 08, 2018

      Calm, fact based, undeniable. Thank you.

      Reply

    • Avatar
      April 09, 2018

      You’re saying that if you don’t produce eggs, you’re not a woman.

      Surely you can see this as both ridiculous (meaning that all post-menopausal people; all those who for whatever medical, developmental, hormonal etc reason do not “produce eggs” are not women?!) and very effectively doing the work of patriarchy by further reducing women to their reproductive function. “Do you ovulate? No? Then I’m afraid you’ll have to find another group, you’re not welcome here!”

      (I’d hope that anyone could see this language/concept as ridiculous, regardless of their other views, but for me this is just yet another example of desperate grasping at simplistic and inaccurate biological claims in order to justify trans-exclusive practices.)

      Reply

  4. Avatar
    April 04, 2018

    As with post-modernist theorists and identity politics in general this writer fails to understand that radical feminism has an analysis of power, based in material reality, it is very far from a set of feelings. Consciousness raising, invented by Second Wave feminists, used personal experience and feelings to understand our collective situation as women ie the personal is political. That gave us insights into, not only our individual situations but also a political theory and consequently political action. Whilst not espousing biological determinism, because the radical feminist analysis sees gender as socially built onto biological class, it does recognise the lived reality of living in a female body and the way that the oppression of women is worked out on those female bodies and via a system that stigmatises and disempowers those who are biologically female. Trans people gave a different lived reality and a different form of oppression. Trans people who identify as women have neither the biological reality of the female body nor the experience of being raised a girl in a society that devalues and subverts the female. They are not women by any meaningful definition of the word women. That is not to say that they aren’t entitled to name and organise against their own oppression, but women are also entitled to name and organise together against theirs. You need to understand the radical feminist analysis of patriarchy in order to understand what radical feminism us about. This author clearly doesn’t.

    Reply

  5. Avatar

    > they have a lot less to say on the issue of trans men, except that they are women who have sought to embody the male privilege that they could not readily access otherwise

    This is false. You are just parrotting anti-feminist trans agitprop when you claim that feminists have not paid attention to transmen. I have a copy of the second edition of The Transsexual Empire and the author spends several pages discussing Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. That was already in 1994. When Leslie Feinberg died in 2014, her death was widely discussed by radical feminists in the blogosphere and the vlogosphere, who needless to say blamed her death on her transition. Their comments showed that these feminist dykes were very well informed about the specifics of the f2m transition process:

    http://dirtywhiteboi67.blogspot.nl/2014/11/leslie-feinberg-murdered.html

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oe2Xr9TX6kA

    Contemporary anti-trans tendencies in radical feminism are very much driven by the alarmingly increasing amounts of dysphoric girls being pushed to become transmen, and the assumption that these girls are dykes who are pushed to become transmen because a homophobic society wants to “trans away the gay”:

    https://www.transgendertrend.com/surprising-referrals-children-tavistock-clinic-continue-soar/

    So the claim that anti-trans feminism does not concern itself with transmen is definitely not true. Anti-trans feminists who are lesbians are deeply disturbed by the idea that a homophobic society would push young girls who refuse to be femme to go and become boys instead. The very visceral reaction that many of these anti-trans dykes have towards transpeople comes from the realization that, had they been born in this day and age, they themselves might have been pushed to become transmen.

    Reply

  6. Avatar

    I think this is a really balanced piece – it definitely helps me understand the anti-trans perspective a little more, if not empathise with it (I like the separation of the two – it’s a helpful way to think about it).

    It’s interesting that the anti-trans perspective can frame the trans-positive perspective as lacking knowledge of “herstory” when trans-positive feminists could make the same challenge back – I regularly see trans women of colour being erased by anti-trans feminists when talking about LGBT history. Trans women of colour were fundamental in the fight for LGBT rights, and the T has been fundamentally present in queer history.

    I wanted to comment to offset the usual anti-trans agitation I can see present in the other comments, with wilful misunderstanding of what “self id” means, reduction of gender down to reproductive function, and links to propaganda groups such as “transgender trend” (a name that gives itself away before one has even looked) although it could be said that many of those comments rather prove your point.

    Ultimately I cannot agree with a feminism which would forcibly identify me as a woman purely because I have a certain set of reproductive equipment. I don’t feel like that’s a progressive way of looking at either gender or sex. I might be oppressed due to my genital configuration and reproductive capacity, but I am not defined by them – and I think it should be a fundamental part of trans-positive/intersectional feminism to be able to recognise that.

    Reply

  7. Avatar
    April 09, 2018

    Disappointed, but not surprised, to see a lot of anti-trans comments on this article dressed up as “reasonable” argument. Some of these rely on particular ideological commitments of the kind that Kalayji examines in her piece, while others are grounded in factual inaccuracies about the current state of trans-inclusive feminism and/or the function of the law.

    To respond in brief to a few points:

    – Being trans does not mean we conform to stereotypes. Some trans women and men do, just as some cis women and men do. Some trans people are non-binary or genderqueer.

    – Trans feminism seeks to promote a world in which no-one is restrained by gender norms, in which the minority of us who need to change our bodies can do so, but more widely people are free to express and explore themselves as we wish (my writing on this several years ago: https://ruthpearce.net/2011/04/11/mission-statement/).

    – No-one is “pushing” anyone to become trans. In my extensive experiences of trans communities as a community member and as a researcher, I most commonly see people encouraging others to think, explore, maybe experiment with clothing before taking any further steps. It is immensely difficult to get access to NHS gender identity services in the UK, with waits of months or years. If someone manages to actually get a first appointment at one of these institutions, they must navigate a process of gatekeeping in order to “prove” themselves sufficiently trans to medical providers. This difficulty is intensified for young people, who must insistently and consistently assert themselves to be trans over the course of many years in order to access treatment. As for the idea that parents would prefer children to be trans than gay, that’s completely inaccurate – on the contrary, trans adolescents are frequently asked, “why can’t you just be gay?”

    – As a trans feminist, I agree that women are oppressed as a “sex class”. What trans-exclusionary feminisms miss is that trans women are oppressed as members of this sex class. If we pass as cis women we are mistreated accordingly. If we do not, we risk being violently punished for our perceive femininity. And regardless, from a young age we internalise the sexist messages society constantly promotes the role and value of women. This is not just about reproduction. It’s about how women are perceived relative to men. Women who do not or cannot reproduce are also subject to sexism.

    – Trans feminism is absolutely concerned with the rights and needs of both trans and cis people who produce eggs. This is why so many of us are involved in pro-choice campaigns, access to reproductive technologies etc. Moreover, reproductive activists and trans activists (and intersex activists, who are often sidelined in these debates) share an interest in campaigns around bodily autonomy. This can be a point for unity rather than division.

    – Sex is not binary. Gender is not binary. Not all women have XX chromosomes. Not all women have wombs. Not all women menstruate. Not all women can give birth. Not all women have breasts. Girls (including trans girls) share in the experience of being raised under patriarchy, but have very different experiences of girlhood and socialisation, shaped by factors such as class, dis/ability, racialisation, religion etc. Building a feminism that is about more than eggs and sperm and the assumption of shared girlhood benefits all women.

    – Leslie Feinberg died of Lyme disease. I would recommend that people interested in the tragic circumstances around hir death actually read what sie had to say about hir own experiences in hir final years. Sie was a victim of the misogynistic and classist medical system, a topic sie wrote about extensively in hir later years. I’m profoundly disturbed that people would use hir death to peddle inaccurate claims about the “dangers of transition” in a manner that both seeks to ignore and override hir lived experience and detracts from the actual challenges sie faced.

    – Here’s brief primer on what the current (and proposed) gender recognition laws do and don’t actually do: http://www.transmediawatch.org/Documents/Gender%20Recognition%20The%20Facts.pdf

    Reply

  8. Avatar
    April 09, 2018

    There are some complicated points being raised here, so it might be helpful, especially for readers less initiated in these debates, to clarify a few things:

    Sex vs gender: ‘Sex’ refers to anatomical attributes (chromosomes, reproductive anatomy, and what are called ‘secondary’ sex characteristics such as body hair, fat distribution on the body, and other traits which are generally but not universally sex dimorphic). ‘Gender’ refers to the social roles of ‘girl/boy’ and ‘man/woman’, and since the emergence of non-binary identities, others such as agender, bigender, and genderqueer. Crucially, the binary model of both of these is a human invention. A significant proportion of the human population is ‘intersex’, meaning they have physical attributes of both sexes (this is sometimes chromosomal only), and they are not accounted for in the binary sex model. Additionally, natural scientists could have determined that there were, say, six sexes, and counted various levels of particular hormones or variations in secondary sex characteristics as totally distinct sex categories. That there are only two sexes is a human notion which could have been otherwise, and the same goes, obviously, for gender.

    To clear a misconception articulated in one of the comments above, feminisms are social movements concerned with the abolition of patriarchal gender norms. I refer to feminisms in the plural because there are many of them, they differ widely by locality, context, history, and ideology, and any generalisation about feminism writ large is necessarily inaccurate (and usually represents White, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, colonial, and able-bodied women’s highly culturally visible feminism as the measure of what feminism ‘officially’ is). The piece I’ve written here is about a specific sub-feminism, and, crucially, one which is changing shape as we speak. As I mentioned, anti-transgender feminist thought in Britain (and other local contexts where feminism is ideologically very similar, such as the US and Australia) is rooted in radical feminist theory and ideas, but increasing numbers of self-identified radical feminists are finding space to rethink their feminist theory in order to allow for the legitimation of trans identities.

    The question of trans inclusion in or exclusion from feminism has hinged on three issues: (1) women-only space and activist organising, (2) sex/gender essentialism, and (3) the specificities of the local historical contexts in which feminist thought has taken shape in relation to feminists’ own daily lived realities, experiences, thoughts, feelings, observations, and struggles. With respect to each of these:
    (1) Anti-trans feminist thought emerged from frustrations with misogyny within activism, a problem which persists today. One of the consequences of feminists’ need for spaces free of men was that collaboration, community, and relationships between women became a profound source of highly politicsed emotional nourishment (this is how we got ‘political lesbianism’ during the ‘second wave’, with many women making a conscious choice to become lesbians because they wanted their emotional and sexual energies to benefit other women rather than men). As a result, the women-only space took on a sort of sanctity within feminism, and who gets past the threshold of a space designated women-only continues to be at the heart of many controversies about where trans women should be allowed to go (this includes the common disputes about bathrooms, but includes other women-only activist groups, which anti-trans feminists think should be free of anyone who has ever benefited from male privilege, including trans women who were gendered ‘boy’ and ‘man’ earlier in their lives, before they transitioned).
    (2) Both sides of the dispute are largely concerned with the idea of ‘essentialism’. Essentialism is the claim that our personal attributes and senses of self (including our gender identities) and our anatomical characteristics are directly correlated in the way that patriarchal society (and patriarchal health science) say they are: male-bodied people have masculine personal traits and ‘naturally’ think of themselves as boys and men, and female-bodied people have feminine personal traits and ‘naturally’ think of themselves as girls and women. (Feminists’ opposition to this idea is succinctly captured in the slogan ‘biology is not destiny’.) Both sides of the debate accuse one another of essentialism. Anti-trans feminists say that trans people wouldn’t feel inclined to transition unless they believed that a ‘feminine’ personality had to be housed in a female body and a ‘masculine’ one in a male body, and therefore that trans people are essentialist. Trans-positive feminists say that forcing people to accept the sex and gender designations that are prescribed for them by a patriarchal sex and gender binary which assigns personal identities based on body parts at time of birth conforms exactly to the patriarchal sex/gender binary, and so is itself essentialist.
    (3) Which brings me to the third point, and the one most often glossed over: the historical context in which anti-trans feminism emerged. ‘Second wave’ British feminism (and some other, similar ones) emerged in the mid-20th century, in liberal democratic countries a couple of decades after World War II. The norms and value systems of these contexts were liberal, ostensibly (though obviously not actually) egalitarian, and capitalist. What that meant for feminist activists was that they had to frame their claim to liberation from oppression in a way which would work in that specific context – they had to justify why it was ‘common sense’ according to the moral logic of their society that subjugating women on the basis of their gender was wrong. In that particular context, the social movement framing strategy that would strike the right chord would have to be one that would resonate with the underpinning moral logics of democracy, capitalism, and egalitarianism. What consequently made sense at the time was a social movement discourse predicated on the idea that women are not in any way inherently inferior to or less capable than men (or otherwise put, that having a female body did not make women any less worthy of full and equal recognition of their rights, capabilities, and democratic subjecthood than men). A similar logic prevailed in the radical social movements of the 1960s and ’70s, alongside which radical feminism emerged – though these movements were generally anti-capitalist, they subscribed to a more radical version of the idea that all human beings are equal human subjects and should not be subjugated, and they took this idea more seriously than their capitalist counterparts. In either case, though, it was important for feminists to reject the idea that ‘biology is destiny’. What happened as a result was that as transpeople’s experiences have shown that the body does have something to do with our senses of self (though we don’t really understand exactly how this works, as any epistemically responsible medical doctor, psychoanalyst, or social scientist will acknowledge), anti-trans feminists have rejected that reality – not because it’s not true, but because it doesn’t reconcile with the framing strategy adopted by the ‘second wave’ in order to meet the demands of their specific place and time in history. (We see something similar today with sexual orientation, where people who experience some degree of elective control over their sexualities are silenced by some segments of the LGB rights movement, because that movement committed early on, due to the values of the contexts in which it emerged, to the claim that LGB people are ‘born this way’ – not all of us are ‘born this way’, but that is the framing strategy the movement went with, and some segments of it are sticking to that whether it accurately describes all queer people’s experience or not.)

    What we see in anti-trans feminism, then, is not sound gender theory, but a historically-rooted, entrenched commitment to the idea that genders, identities, senses of self, and lived experiences cannot and should not have anything to do with our bodies, because if we acknowledge that they do to some degree, then we are undermining the feminist claim that women’s bodies are not an encumbrance to our ability to function as legitimate, full democratic subjects. Trans-positive feminism does not capitulate to this patriarchal discursive hostage situation (‘if your body is in any way linked to your selfhood, then we get to oppress you’): it is based on a political claim that freedom from encumbrance, oppression, and non-consensual control is rooted in our status as human beings. It recognises that basing a demand for freedom from oppression on an insistence that what bodies we have should not matter to or affect our sense of self in any way is merely a concession to capitalism’s claim that human value is rooted in productivity, to ableism’s claim of the same, and to colonial claims that people who are represented as being heavily associated with bodies (consistently the oppressed, including colonised peoples, peoples of colour, the disabled, and women) are inherently inferior and ought to be oppressed.

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  9. Avatar
    April 10, 2018

    A lot of anti-trans arguments assert a binary division where:
    – a man is a human with a penis and XY chromosomes
    – a woman is a human with a womb and XX chromosomes
    and focus on the power imbalance (and consequent abuse) of the first group over the second.

    Any attempt to make the line between these groups fuzzy gets rejected: intersex people are ‘irrelevant’, trans people need psychological help, etc. The idea that these various people form additional groups that have been oppressed by both ‘men’ and ‘women’ groups is denied absolutely. In part because they are seen as a new thing; certainly, school biology texts make the division of humans into man=penis and woman=womb look very simple and certain.

    But… The reality is that throughout history, even to present day, many cultures have sought to quietly eradicate, deny and/or conceal anyone who fails to conform to the binary. Feminists who uphold the binary are perpetuating this great injustice; even if they claim not to be anti-trans, very often the binary definition seems to boil down to: “If you were born with a penis, you are (and will always be) a man.”

    I find it quite bizarre, really, that so many anti-trans feminists seem perfectly happy with the idea that possession of a penis doesn’t determine sexual orientation, but emphatically refute the suggestion that possession of a penis doesn’t determine gender identity.

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