A Pity Party for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists

Jul 28, 2014 • Trans

Define woman

“What is a woman?” asks the New Yorker in its most recent issue. It is a compelling question with different answers. In his book Inheritance, the neurogeneticist Sharon Maolem acknowledges that physical sex mirrors a wide spectrum rather than the binary we are familiar with, saying, “This has left the classically basic and narrow ‘XY-means-male and XX-means-female’ model of sex largely out of date.”

But the article with the provocative title in the New Yorker isn’t about science, but rather about ideology. At the heart of the “dispute between feminism and transgenderism,” as the article bills itself, is the question of privilege. Most feminists will agree that men enjoy a level of privilege in society that creates systemic disadvantages for women.

Many of them see the physical, emotional, psychological and sexual violence and other social penalties faced by transgender women as confirmation of a social bias that favors men, brutally penalizing any people identified as men who willingly abdicate their position. But a small subset believe that transgender women (individuals who were identified as male at birth but feel their gender identity is female) are, by living out their gender identity, committing an act of aggression, diluting the experience of women — specifically, cisgender women (individuals who were identified as female at birth and who feel their gender is female).

Some go as far as to dismiss trans women as fetishists who are aroused by the idea of themselves as women, the logical conclusion of a culture that objectifies the female body. This subset of feminism is called “trans-exclusionary radical feminism” or TERF as a means of differentiating it from other ideologies under the feminist umbrella. TERF is considered a slur by those so described, as they don’t believe that trans women have any place in the conversation to begin with and thus cannot be excluded from it.

But for this ideology to fit into its wireframe, it must ignore or at least radically deemphasize the violence, discrimination and oppression that transgender individuals face, and unfortunately, that is also the trap into which the author of the New Yorker piece, Michelle Goldberg, falls. Instead of giving an overview of the issues at stake, she frames her piece around the difficulties faced by this subset of feminists in finding conference spaces, getting speaking engagements and receiving attention for their work.

The piece is over 4,400 words, and almost 2,000 of them explicitly outline the transgender exclusionary ideology, often using direct quotes that include highly inflammatory language. The piece quotes from eight figures in trans-exclusionary radical feminism, many of whom are prominent, and additionally name-checks six more. It discusses six trans-exclusionary events, two organizations and three transphobic radical feminist works.

A little over 700 words describe trans-inclusive feminism. The first quotes from transgender individuals and allies that a reader encounters are hardly intelligible threats the author hand-picked from Twitter and Tumblr, directed at TERFs. Four trans individuals and allies are quoted in the piece, and all of the quotes are neutral and paraphrased. Laverne Cox is name-checked, but only as a way to illustrate how hip it is to be trans and support trans rights. A single trans-focused event is mentioned — Camp Trans, a campground that exists near Michfest, a music festival for “womyn-born womyn” — but the reader is quickly informed that vandals from this small gathering defaced property belonging to Michfest attendees.

The rest of the 1,700 words are devoted to illustrating how difficult it has been for radical feminists to get support: locales don’t wish to host their conferences; organizations don’t want them giving keynotes even about unrelated topics; bands don’t want to play their festivals; people protest their engagements; people boycott them; they face abuse and threats online; they have been forced to resign from positions; they feel afraid.

Goldberg acknowledges that it is difficult to be trans: “In most states, it’s legal to fire someone for being transgender, and transgender people can’t serve in the military,” she writes. She concedes that transgender individuals face violence and are more likely to attempt suicide, before continuing: “Yet, at the same time, the trans-rights movement is growing in power and cachet.”

While trans-exclusionary radical feminists are turned away from conference locations and speaking engagements, Goldberg masterfully details the triumphs of transgender individuals and their allies, who are depicted as going on lecture tours, seeing their works translated into more and more languages, and becoming part of university curricula. Some liberal art colleges allow students to select their preferred pronouns, and gender-reassignment surgery is included in dozens of student health plans, Goldberg writes. Transgender people are on mainstream magazines. Reproductive health services are working to use more inclusive language so as not to leave out transgender men.

Only two sentences in the entire piece address the abuse and assault faced by members of the transgender community. The word “murder” appears twice: in a threat directed at trans-exclusionary feminists and in relation to the doctor George Tiller, who was killed in 2009 for his role in making abortions accessible to his community. The word “rape” appears twice: to describe one of the topics about which one of the prominent members of trans-exclusionary radical feminism writes, and in a quote from another, which accuses trans women of “raping” cisgender women’s bodies by “reducing” the “real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.”

By far, the trans issue that receives the most attention is that of detransition — the return to the sex assigned at birth — which scored four paragraphs in the piece, and is a major talking point for trans-exclusionary radical feminists. One of these paragraphs, detailing the experience of Bradley Cooper, is borderline alarmist, thanks to Goldberg’s paraphrasing of Sheila Jeffreys, a well-known denier of the experiences of transgender people. Jeffreys refuses to acknowledge that Cooper’s decision to live as a man is overwhelmingly based on the difficulty of living as a trans woman in a cis-centric world, and Goldberg provides no context to help the reader see beyond Jeffreys’ interpretation that it is irresponsible for parents to allow preteens to make such a decision about their lives.

The takeaway from the article is that feminists are being silenced by a violent group whose antics are enabled by a coddling, liberal left. In actuality, transgender individuals are at risk of incredible violence and the rhetoric of trans-exclusionary radical feminists grievously aggravates the stigma, alienation and lack of support already faced by this group. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program (NCAVP) 2013 Hate Violence Report, there were 2,001 total incidents reported in 2013, consistent with the increase of violence in 2012. However these more recent incidents marked a 21 percent increase in the severity of violence reported. Seventy-two percent of homicide victims were transgender women, yet transgender survivors and victims only represent 13 percent of total reports to NCAVP.

In addition, the report found that transgender people of color were 2.7 times more likely to experience police violence, and 6 times more likely to experience physical violence from the police compared to white cisgender survivors. Transgender women were 4 times more likely to experience police violence compared to overall survivors, and 6 times as likely to experience physical violence when interacting with the police compared to overall survivors. Transgender men were 1.6 times more likely to experience violence from the police, and 5.2 times more likely to experience physical violence perpetrated by the police.

There is no mention of any of this in Goldberg’s piece — a very real aspect of this conversation.

Michelle Goldberg is an incredibly talented writer, capable of digging deeply into complex topics. Her 2009 book The Means of Reproduction was an investigative triumph discussing the rising stakes in the global battle for control over reproductive rights and freedoms. It was easy to read such a book and assume that the call for solidarity in the battle against societies that wish to control our bodies applied to us all, that when Goldberg talked of “transcending borders” she wasn’t just talking about lines on a map, but lines in ideology, too.

Yes, it was easy. But it’s also wrong. This was never more clear to me than reading the response to Parker Marie Molloy’s article on Slate last week detailing her concerns with the name of Lizz Winstead’s activist organization, Lady Parts Justice. The idea that someone would question the name of an organization seeking to further reproductive rights drew eye rolls and even derision from even the most inclusive advocates. Like the trans-inclusive feminists mocked in Goldberg’s column, Molloy had pointed out that the name “Lady Parts Justice” reinforces biological reductionism, noting:

Not all women are the owners of a uterus, and not all owners of a uterus are women. A transgender man — that is, a man who was assigned female at birth — may very well have a uterus, may become pregnant, and may very well need the same access to reproductive health options as your average cisgender woman. The same can be said for non-binary individuals who were assigned female at birth. As people who don’t identify as a woman or a man (though they may identify themselves as both, neither, or a combination of the two), some may feel that this language erases their identity or leaves them out.

It may be true that only a small number of feminists believe that trans women have no part in this conversation. But it’s equally true that the rest of the umbrella is full of its own kind of privileges and blind spots, and while those under it might not wish to exclude others, we often do. Let’s start paying more attention.

Earlier this year, Tina Vasquez covered this dispute on Bitch magazine, devoting a significant amount of time and research to the other side of the conversation. It’s worth a read. For a deep history of trans issues wrapped up beautifully in personal narrative, see this piece by Juliette Jacques.

Header image by Carley Comartin.