Who Owns Gender? 15

Delilah Campbell reflects on the deeper meaning of recent conflicts between feminists and transgender activists.

For a couple of weeks in early 2013, it seemed as if you couldn’t open a newspaper, or your Facebook newsfeed, without encountering some new contribution to a war of words that pitted transgender activists and their supporters against allegedly ‘transphobic’ feminists.

It had started when the columnist Suzanne Moore wrote a piece that included a passing reference to ‘Brazilian transsexuals’. Moore began to receive abuse and threats on Twitter, which subsequently escalated to the point that she announced she was closing her account. Then Julie Burchill came to Moore’s defence with a column in the Sunday Observer newspaper, which attacked not only the Twitter trolls, but the trans community in general. Burchill’s contribution was intemperate in both its sentiments and its language—not exactly a surprise, since that’s essentially what editors go to her for. If what you want is balanced commentary on the issues of the day, you don’t commission Julie Burchill. Nevertheless, when the predictable deluge of protests arrived, the Observer decided to remove the piece from its website. The following week’s edition carried a lengthy apology for having published it in the first place. Senior staff, it promised, would be meeting representatives of the trans community for a full discussion of their concerns.

Liberal consensus

This was a notable climbdown by one of the bastions of British liberal journalism. Only a couple of weeks earlier, another such bastion, the Observer‘s sister-paper The Guardian, had published an opinion piece on ‘paedophilia’ (aka the sexual abuse of children), which argued for more understanding and less condemnation. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile affair that was certainly controversial, and plenty of readers found it offensive. But it wasn’t removed from the website, nor followed by a grovelling apology. Evidently it was put in the category of unpopular opinions which have a right to be aired on the principle that ‘comment is free’. But when it comes to offending trans people, it seems the same principle does not apply.

It’s not just the liberal press: a blogger who re-posted Burchill’s piece, along with examples of the abuse Suzanne Moore had received on Twitter, found she had been blocked from accessing her own blog by the overseers of the site that hosted it. Meanwhile, the radical feminist activist and journalist Julie Bindel, whose criticisms of trans take the form of political analysis rather than personal abuse, has for some time been ‘no platformed’ by the National Union of Students—in other words, banned from speaking at events the NUS sponsors, or which take place on its premises.

More generally, if you want to hold a women-only event from which trans women are excluded, you are likely to encounter the objection that this exclusion is illegal discrimination, and also that the analysis which motivates it—the idea that certain aspects of women’s experience or oppression are not shared by trans women—is itself an example of transphobia. Expressed in public, this analysis gets labelled ‘hate-speech’, which there is not only a right but a responsibility to censor.

The expression of sentiments deemed ‘transphobic’ has quickly come to be perceived as one of those ‘red lines’ that speakers and writers may not cross. It’s remarkable, when you think about it: if you ask yourself what other views either may not be expressed on pain of legal sanction, or else are so thoroughly disapproved of that they would rarely if ever be permitted a public airing (and certainly not an unopposed one), you come up with examples like incitement to racial hatred and Holocaust denial. How did it come to be the case that taking issue with trans activists’ analyses of their situation (as Julie Bindel has) or hurling playground insults at trans people (as Julie Burchill did) automatically puts the commentator concerned in the same category as a Nick Griffin or a David Irving?

Silencing their critics, often with the active support of institutions that would normally deplore such illiberal restrictions on free speech, is not the only remarkable achievement the trans activists have to their credit. It’s also remarkable how quickly and easily trans people were added to the list of groups who are legally protected against discrimination, and even more remarkable that what was written into equality law was their own principle of self-definition—if you identify as a man/woman then you are entitled to be recognized as a man/woman. In a very short time, this tiny and previously marginal minority has managed to make trans equality a high profile issue, and support for it part of the liberal consensus.

Here what interests me is not primarily the rights and wrongs of this: rather I want to try to understand it, to analyse the underlying conditions which have enabled trans activists’ arguments to gain so much attention and credibility. Because initially, to be frank, I found it hard to understand why the issue generated such strong feelings, and why feminists were letting themselves get so preoccupied with it. Both the content and the tone of the argument reminded me of the so-called ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s, when huge amounts of time and energy were expended debating the rights and wrongs of lesbian sadomasochism and butch/femme relationships. ‘Debating’ is a euphemism: we tore ourselves and each other apart. I don’t want to say that nothing was at stake, but I do think we lost the plot for a while by getting so exercised about it. The trans debate seemed like another case where the agenda was being set by a few very vocal individuals, and where consequently an issue of peripheral importance for most women was getting far more attention from feminists than it deserved.

But as I followed the events described at the beginning of this piece, and read some of the copious discussion that has circulated via social media, I came to the conclusion that what’s going on is not just a debate about trans. There is such a debate, but it’s part of a much larger and more fundamental argument about the nature and meaning of gender, which pits feminists (especially the radical variety) against all kinds of other cultural and political forces. Trans is part of this, but it isn’t the whole story, nor in my view is it the root cause. Actually, I’m inclined to think that the opposite is true: it is the more general shift in mainstream understandings of gender which explains the remarkable success of trans activism.

Turf wars

It is notable that the policing of what can or cannot be said about trans in public is almost invariably directed against women who speak from a feminist, and especially a radical feminist, perspective. It might be thought that trans people have far more powerful adversaries (like religious conservatives, the right-wing press and some members of the medical establishment), and also far more dangerous ones (whatever radical feminists may say about trans people, they aren’t usually a threat to their physical safety). And yet a significant proportion of all the political energy expended by or on behalf of trans activism is expended on opposing and harassing radical feminists.

This has led some commentators to see the conflict as yet another example of the in-fighting and sectarianism that has always afflicted progressive politics—a case of oppressed groups turning on each other when they should be uniting against their common enemy. But in this case I don’t think that’s the explanation. When trans activists identify feminists as the enemy, they are not just being illogical or petty. Some trans activists refer to their feminist opponents as TERFs, meaning ‘trans-exclusive radical feminists’, or ‘trans-exterminating radical feminists’. The epithet is unpleasant, but the acronym is apt: this is very much a turf dispute, with gender as the contested territory.

At its core, the trans struggle is a battle for legitimacy. What activists want to get accepted is not just the claim of trans people for recognition and civil rights, but the whole view of gender and gender oppression on which that claim is based. To win this battle, the trans activists must displace the view of gender and gender oppression which is currently accorded most legitimacy in progressive/liberal circles: the one put forward by feminists since the late 1960s.

Here it might be objected that feminists themselves don’t have a single account of gender. True, and that’s one reason why trans activists target certain feminist currents more consistently than others [1]. But in fact, the two propositions about gender which trans activists are most opposed to are not confined to radical feminism: both go back to what is often regarded as the founding text of all modern feminism, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 classic The Second Sex, and they are still asserted, in some form or other, by almost everyone who claims any kind of feminist allegiance, be it radical, socialist or liberal. The first of these propositions is that gender as we know it is socially constructed rather than ‘natural’; the second is that gender relations are power relations, in which women are structurally unequal to men. On what exactly these statements mean and what they imply for feminist politics there is plenty of internal disagreement, but in themselves they have the status of core feminist beliefs. In the last 15 years, however, these propositions—especially the first one—have become the target of a sustained attack: a multi-pronged attempt to take the turf of gender back from feminism.

Trans activists are currently in the vanguard of this campaign, but they didn’t start the war. Some of its most important battles have been fought not in the arena of organized gender politics, but on the terrain of science, where opposition to feminism, or more exactly to feminist social constructionism, has been spearheaded by a new wave of biological essentialists. The scientists with the highest public profile, men like Stephen Pinker and Simon Baron-Cohen, are politically liberal rather than conservative, and claim to support gender equality and justice: what they oppose is any definition of those things based on the assumption that gender is a social construct. Their goal is to persuade their fellow-liberals that feminism got it wrong about gender, which is not socially constructed but ‘hard-wired’ in the human brain.

This attack on the first feminist proposition (‘gender is constructed’) leads to a reinterpretation of the second (‘gender relations are unequal power relations’). Liberals do not deny that women have suffered and may still suffer unjust treatment in male-dominated societies, but in their account difference takes precedence over power. What feminists denounce as sexism, and explain as the consequence of structural gender inequality, the new essentialists portray as just the inevitable consequence of natural sex-differences.

Meanwhile, in less liberal circles, we’ve seen the rise of a lobby which complains that men and boys are being damaged—miseducated, economically disadvantaged and marginalized within the family—by a society which has based its policies for the last 40 years on the feminist belief that gender is socially constructed: a belief, they say, which has now been discredited by objective scientific evidence. (Some pertinent feminist criticisms of this so-called ‘objective’ science have been aired in T&S: see here for more discussion.)

Another relevant cultural trend is the neo-liberal propensity to equate power and freedom, in their political senses, with personal freedom of choice. Across the political spectrum, it has become commonplace to argue that what really ‘empowers’ people is being able to choose: the more choices we have, and the freer we are to make them, the more powerful we will be. Applied to gender, what this produces is ‘post-feminism’, an ideology which dispenses with the idea of collective politics and instead equates the liberation of women with the exercise of individual agency. The headline in which this argument was once satirized by The Onion—‘women now empowered by anything a woman does’—is not even a parody: this is the attitude which underpins all those statements to the effect that if women choose to be housewives or prostitutes, then who is anyone (read: feminists) to criticize them?

This view has had an impact on the way people understand the idea that gender is socially constructed. To say that something is ‘constructed’ can now be taken as more or less equivalent to saying that in the final analysis it is—or should be—a matter of individual choice. It follows that individuals should be free to choose their own gender identity, and have that choice respected by others. I’ve heard several young (non trans-identified) people make this argument when explaining why they feel so strongly about trans equality: choice to them is sacrosanct, often they see it as ‘what feminism is all about’, and they are genuinely bewildered by the idea that anyone other than a right-wing authoritarian might take issue with an individual’s own definition of who they are.

The gender in transgender

Current trans politics, like feminism, cannot be thought of as an internally unified movement whose members all make exactly the same arguments. But although there are some dissenting voices, in general the views of gender and gender oppression which trans activists promote are strongly marked by the two tendencies just described.

In the first place, the trans account puts little if any emphasis on gender as a power relation in which one group (women) is subordinated to/oppressed by the other (men). In the trans account, gender in the ‘men and women’ sense is primarily a matter of individual identity: individuals have a sovereign right to define their gender, and have it recognized by society, on the basis of who they feel themselves to be. But I said ‘gender in the men and women sense’ because in trans politics, gender is understood in another sense as well: there is an overarching division between ‘cisgendered’ individuals, who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, and ‘transgendered’ individuals, who do not identify with their assigned gender. Even if trans activists recognize the feminist concept of male power and privilege, it is secondary in their thinking to ‘cis’ power and privilege: what is considered to be fundamentally oppressive is the devaluing or non-recognition of ‘trans’ identities in a society which systematically privileges the ‘cis’ majority. Opposition to this takes the form of demanding recognition for ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ as categories, and for the right of any trans person to be treated as a member of the gender group they wish to be identified with.

At this point, though, there is a divergence of views. Some versions of the argument are based on the kind of biological essentialism which I described earlier: the gender with which a person identifies—and thus their status as either ‘cis’ or ‘trans’—is taken to be determined at or before birth. The old story about transsexuals—that they are ‘women trapped in men’s bodies’, or vice-versa—has morphed into a newer version which draws on contemporary neuroscience to argue that everyone has a gendered brain (thanks to a combination of genes and hormonal influences) which may or may not be congruent with their sexed body. In ‘trans’ individuals there is a disconnect between the sex of the body and the gender of the brain.

In other versions we see the influence of the second trend, where the main issue is individual freedom of choice. In some cases this is allied to a sort of postmodernist social utopianism: trans is presented as a radical political gesture, subverting the binary gender system by cutting gender loose from what are usually taken to be its ‘natural’, biological moorings. This opens up the possibility of a society where there will be many genders rather than just two (though no one who makes this argument ever seems to explain why that would be preferable to a society with no genders at all). In other cases, though, choice is presented not as a tactic in some larger struggle to make a better world, but merely as an individual right. People must be allowed to define their own identities, and their definitions must be respected by everyone else. On Twitter recently, in an argument about whether someone with a penis (and no plans to have it removed) could reasonably claim to be a woman, a proponent of this approach suggested that if the person concerned claimed to be a woman then they were a woman by definition, and had an absolute right to be recognized as such. In response, someone else tweeted: ‘I’m a squirrel’. Less Judith Butler, more Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Proponents of the first, essentialist account are sometimes critical of those who make the second, and ironically their criticism is the same one I would make from a radical feminist perspective: this post-feminist understanding of social constructionism is trivializing and politically vacuous. What trans essentialists think feminists are saying when they say gender is socially constructed is that gender is nothing more than a superficial veneer. They reject this because it is at odds with their experience: it denies the reality of the alienation and discomfort which leads people to identify as trans. This is a reaction feminists ought to be able to understand, since it parallels our own response to the dismissal of issues like sexual harassment as trivial problems which we ought to be able to ‘get over’—we say that’s not how women experience it. But in this case it’s a reaction based on a misreading: for most feminists, ‘socially constructed’ does not imply ‘trivial and superficial’.

In the current of feminism T&S represents, which is radical and materialist, gender is theorized as a consequence of social oppression. Masculinity and femininity are produced through patriarchal social institutions (like marriage), practices (like the division of labour which makes women responsible for housework and childcare) and ideologies (like the idea of women being weak and emotional) which enable one gender to dominate and exploit the other. If these structures did not exist—if there were no gender—biological male/female differences would not be linked in the way they are now to identity and social status. The fact that they do continue to exist, however, and to be perceived by many or most people as ‘natural’ and immutable, is viewed by feminists (not only radical materialists but most feminists in the tradition of Beauvoir) as evidence that what is constructed is not only the external structures of society, but also the internalized feelings, desires and identities that individuals develop through their experience of living within those structures.

Radical feminists, then, would actually agree with the trans activists who say that gender is not just a superficial veneer which is easily stripped away. But they don’t agree that if something is ‘deep’ then it cannot be socially constructed, but must instead be attributed to innate biological characteristics. For feminists, the effects of lived social experience are not trivial, and you cannot transcend them by an individual act of will. Rather you have to change the nature of social experience through collective political action to change society.

The rainbow flag meets the double helix

When I first encountered trans politics, in the 1990s, it was dominated by people who, although their political goals differed from feminism’s, basically shared the feminist view that gender as we knew it was socially constructed, oppressive, and in need of change through collective action. This early version of trans politics was strongly allied with the queer activism of the time, emphasized its political subversiveness, and spoke in the language of queer theory and postmodernism. It still has some adherents today, but over time it has lost ground to the essentialist version that stresses the naturalness and timeless universality of the division between ‘trans’ and ‘cis’, and speaks in two other languages: on one hand, neurobabble (you can’t argue with the gender of my brain), and on the other, identity politics at their most neo-liberal (you can’t argue with my oppression, my account of my oppression, or the individual choices I make to deal with my oppression).

Once again, though, this development is not specific to trans politics. Trans activists are not the first group to have made the journey from radical social critique to essentialism and neoliberal individualism. It is a more general trend, seen not only in some ‘post-feminist’ campaigning by women, but also and perhaps most clearly in the recent history of gay and lesbian activism.

In the heyday of the Women’s and Gay Liberation Movements, the view was widely held that sexuality was socially constructed, and indeed relatively plastic: lesbianism, in particular, was presented by some feminists as a political choice. But in the last 20 years this view has largely withered away. Faced with well-organized opponents denouncing their perverted ‘lifestyle choices’, some prominent gay/lesbian activists and organizations began promoting the counter-argument that homosexuals are born, not made. Of course the ‘born that way’ argument had always had its supporters, but today it has hardened into an orthodoxy which you deviate from at your peril. Not long ago the actor Cynthia Nixon, who entered a lesbian relationship fairly late in life, made a comment in an interview which implied that she didn’t think she’d always been a lesbian. She took so much flak from those who thought she was letting the side down, she was forced to issue a ‘clarification’.

Since ‘born that way’ became the orthodox line, there has been more mainstream acceptance of and sympathy for the cause of gay/lesbian equality, as we’ve seen most recently in the success of campaigns for same-sex marriage. Though it is possible this shift in public attitudes would have happened anyway, it seems likely that the shift away from social constructionism helped, by making the demand for gay rights seem less of a political threat. The essentialist argument implies that the straight majority will always be both straight and in the majority, because that’s how nature has arranged things. No one need fear that granting rights to gay people will result in thousands of new ‘converts’ to their ‘lifestyle’: straight people won’t choose to be gay, just as gay people can’t choose to be straight.

If you adopt a social constructionist view of gender and sexuality, then lesbians, gay men and gender non-conformists are a challenge to the status quo: they represent the possibility that there are other ways for everyone to live their lives, and that society does not have to be organized around our current conceptions of what is ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. By contrast, if you make the essentialist argument that some people are just ‘born different’, then all gay men, lesbians or gender non-conformists represent is the more anodyne proposition that diversity should be respected. This message does not require ‘normal’ people to question who they are, or how society is structured. It just requires them to accept that what’s natural for them may not be natural for everyone. Die-hard bigots won’t be impressed with that argument, but for anyone vaguely liberal it is persuasive, appealing to basic principles of tolerance while reassuring the majority that support for minority rights will not impinge on their own prerogatives.

For radical feminists this will never be enough. Radical feminism aspires to be, well, radical. It wants to preserve the possibility that we can not only imagine but actually create a different, better, juster world. The attack on feminist social constructionism is ultimately an attack on that possibility. And when radical feminists take issue with trans activists, I think that is what we need to emphasize. What’s at stake isn’t just what certain individuals put on their birth certificates or whether they are welcome at certain conferences. The real issue is what we think gender politics is about: identity or power, personal choice or structural change, reshuffling the same old cards or radically changing the game.

[1] A more detailed discussion of feminist ideas about gender, which looks at their history and at what is or isn’t shared by different currents within feminism, can be found in Debbie Cameron and Joan Scanlon’s article ‘Talking about gender’.

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15 thoughts on “Who Owns Gender?

  • punknine

    Everyone has the right to self determination, to define themselves in their own terms. But nobody has the right to command anyone else to buy their self definitions. Nobody can expect that every potential employer will see one’s work record as qualification for a job, nobody can expect that a desierd potential sex partner will find someone attractive.

    The schtick that we present to the outside world is ours and there are no guarantees that anyone else will buy it.

    The best we can hope for is legal protections that prevent those who don’t buy anyone else’s self construction from causing harm in the public realm.

  • whatevermate69

    As a transwoman I don’t view men’s/women’s brains as patriarchal attitudes assume – that men and women are hardwired to have different mental abilities, different behavior, etc. It’s purely a neurological self-identification with a female body.

    It’s not gender in the sense that society considers gender – as a set of roles and assumptions about the supposed dimorphic nature/behavior of men/women; it’s “gender” in the sense of the sex identification of the brain.

    I’m by no means a liberal feminist; I don’t think that prostitution, pornography, or any other institution of patriarchy are empowering. I do believe that cis’gender’ women have a different experience than trans’gender’ women do, in many cases substantially different, although the common root of oppression is the same. I think that perhaps the trans’gender’ conception of gender should be more accurately be termed “sex identification” instead, as it isn’t the same as the social construct of gender. On the same note, I have a certain ire for people who describe them as genderqueer, since I doubt that they actually suffer the actual dysphoria that trans’gender’ people feel, and they seem to base their identity on the social constructs of gender rather than the sex identity that distinguishes trans’gender’ people. They base their identity on social constructs of gender like gendered interests, etc, which completely negates their so-called “smashing” of gender.

  • whatevermate69

    Also, trans’gender’ sex identification is not similar to preposterous liberal identity bullshit like “transracial” or “otherkin”, etc. Not only are those absurd and highly improbable, there is no neurology that can back such things up – one can be born a different sex, but one cannot be of a different societal construct of race, or biologically of a different species. Trans’gender’ism has the material basis of neurological sex identification.

  • cmason

    First, any discussion of “innate” differences between one (biological) gender and another is to be greatly suspect. For literally decades, western male scientists (legitimately) spent time investigating *why* men were better at math than women. Because in Western society they, in fact, did do better. Unfortunately, they never questioned whether or not this might be culturally defined, not biologically defined. And later research has, of course, shown that in some societies women vastly outperform men in math. So, the initial assumption was completely invalid.

    This doesn’t mean there are not biological differences between men and women (clearly there are), but this should never be used as a justification for sexism or discrimination of any kind. There are also obvious biological differences between people evolved to different climates and evolutionary circumstances (i.e. disease susceptibility, lactose tolerance, etc.) This has also resulted in a very minor variation of physical appearances. Unfortunately it’s not that long ago that some groups tried to use these differences as a justification for all sorts of crimes and atrocities.

    Second, no one should be discriminated against, or subject to violence or oppression, based on the way they wish to express themselves outwardly, nor how they wish to establish relationships with others.

    Third, gender is clearly culturally defined. Any method of external expression an individual might want to use is fine. Attempting to define specific examples of such expression as “male” or “female”, however, is very problematic. I have never seen a transgendered woman who adopted the external expression of a 16th century Hindu woman, or an indigenous native American matriarch from 5000 BC, or a young female red guard leader from 1960’s China. Why not?

    No one has the right to abuse or oppress someone based on how they dress or otherwise express themselves. At the same time, no one has the right to take one cultural stereotype and presume to suggest that this is an accurate representation of “true” masculinity or femininity. It may well be the dominant stereotype for the society in which you live, but there is a much larger world and range of historical experience beyond this. In fact, I would argue that any attempt to reinforce such a stereotype is, in fact, the definition of sexism. It doesn’t mean you or I are wrong if we sometimes fit the stereotype, as I’m sure we all have, but when we try to make the stereotype universal, we have done something else.

  • sklaw

    I don’t see how the experience of being a transgender person who identifies as female is identical in all instances to being female-bodied (born?) in terms of life experience and risk. What about female sex selective abortion? The decision to abort or not is based solely on the fetus’ biological sex. This is how deep the hatred of the female principle seems to run in human culture.

    It almost seems a kind of biological determinism to claim that people are born gendered or even with a particular identity – we are all the product of both nature and nuture. If you have your genome sequenced using a company like 23andme.com they discuss probabilities of illness or the degree to which a disease condition is caused by one’s environment, certain behaviours (diet) or genetics (markers). There are very few traits or disease conditions (except the completely heritable ones and even then outcomes can vary) that are wholly caused by nuture (environment, parenting, diet) or nature (genetics). There is also a little something called epigenetics which can throw a ‘spanner into the mechanism’.

  • dhc

    (Right. For starters, as a response to the comments: Is the very recognition of difference, an oppression?)

    (Secondly, the answer to “Who owns gender” is strangely left unanswered so here’s my shot at it – everyone, even the most unreconstructed misogynistic b*stard, owns gender.)

    What struck me time and again as I read the article was the irrepressible narrative of “this” or “that” – trans/cis, male/female, sex/gender, man/woman, nature/nurture, choice/inevitable…

    …and even though the article is mostly examining the differences of identity, philosophy, opinion and elses that people have grouped themselves into… and personally I found it really interesting, educating, thought provoking and enjoyable….

    … it concludes with a challenge to decide between identity/power, personal choice/structural change, reshuffling the same old cards/radically changing the game.

    It’s this, this constant dichotomising, this obsession with drawing lines between x and y and then studying those lines and discussing where they ‘should’ be drawn and trying to draw them more and more finely and exactly…

    Life ain’t like that. People ain’t like that. Gender and identity ain’t like that. Society ain’t like… you get the idea.

    It’s all fuzzy. It’s a mess. And treating them as anything other than fuzzy, inexact, imperfect – ever-changing – feeds back into the problem, doesn’t help ‘solve’ anything (not that anything can be ‘solved’ – but maybe if we had a bit of a more realistic attitude the problems could be diminished, made more manageable, made less impossible).

    Mostly the answer to “this” or “that” is “a bit of both” – in various amounts maybe, but mostly it’s a mix. Even areas where at first you’d think it should be pretty easy to draw tightly defined lines get difficult when you look closer. Biological sex is generally either this or that, but not exclusively.

    That’s not to say it’s not worth thinking about the differences, and where the lines are generally drawn, and why, and what that might imply…

    …or analysing how the concept of glbtish people being ‘born like it’ has facilitated a better acceptance of them and their relationships, even if the concept isn’t necessarily accepted by all those glbtishes themselves.

    But maybe everyone needs to take a step back sometimes, and recognise the problem IS impossible to ‘solve’. Possibly we need to agree that we gonna disagree, that the lines are only guidelines and not worth arguing over so badly that it distracts attention and energy from where they’re probably better directed – at effecting better lives for everyone. Which involves (as an answer to part of the question posed) both identity AND power, personal choice AND structural change, self-understanding AND social acceptance. Shuffling the same old cards AND radically changing the game.

    (apologies for stream of bs untidiness)

  • Sundazed

    dear whatevermate69, Thank you for your post! If all those who claims to be “trans women” out there on the web (I highly doubt that many experiences anything near to what you wrote here and are sadly just riding on this bandwagon for their own personal vendettas) would be understanding and actually engaging like you did here in constructive talk, things would look a lot better.

  • Jaqueline

    Thank you so much, for this wonderful article! I am a trans woman, who have become critical and even suspicious of the current trans politics. Even I have been called a TERF; trans activists have expanded this to mean any woman or transwoman who disagrees with their politics. You were very kind to the trans activists. They have enabled trans women, in particular, who have been very violent toward “TERFs.” I have come to have a lot of respect for gender critical feminists; I am becoming gender critical myself. I believe that for certain accomodations, there needs to be medical proof of a transition. It isn’t necessarily surgery, but it is a professionally recognized doctor verifying one’s transition. I don’t feel that someone’s claim to be a woman or man, based on how they feel, should be accepted. I love honest discussions about gender; thank you for your willingness to discuss this.

  • Amanda

    The idea that a man can “transition” into “a woman”-(“I’m a transwomen”) is a smile on the face of a malesupremacist.

  • Jo

    “It is notable that the policing of what can or cannot be said about trans in public is almost invariably directed against women who speak from a feminist, and especially a radical feminist, perspective. ”

    This is only right and proper.

    If it is right and meet for women to set the narrative when it comes to feminism, then it is only right and meet that trans people set the narrative when it comes to being trans.

  • Ray


    “But maybe everyone needs to take a step back sometimes, and recognise the problem IS impossible to ‘solve’. Possibly we need to agree that we gonna disagree, that the lines are only guidelines and not worth arguing over so badly that it distracts attention and energy from where they’re probably better directed – at effecting better lives for everyone. Which involves (as an answer to part of the question posed) both identity AND power, personal choice AND structural change, self-understanding AND social acceptance. Shuffling the same old cards AND radically changing the game.”

    I get the appeal to both/and, but your suggestion on agreeing to disagree is convenient and exactly why someone like me is so hostile to the current wave of gender-related “activism” that has the end goal of diversity but claims to disrupt a binary. If we’re going to be armchair activists in an ivory tower, sure, it’s absolutely both/and in terms of the theoretically sound explanation. In reality, though, oppression is real, and whether we actually aim high and try to fully dismantle it should NOT be negotiable. To treat oppression as something to be merely negotiated rather than something to inevitably be fully destroyed is to make light of the the severest forms of gender violence because “all we can get is acceptance” (which conveniently leaves imperialist patriarchal violence intact and all beneficiaries of empire still comfortably in their parasitic role). If we are theorizing for action, we cannot agree to disagree when one option very clearly is currently being used to forward a neoliberal agenda. It doesn’t matter if we KNOW it’s both/and when NOW it’s absolutely the less desirable of the two (I.e. diversity and other neoliberal friendly positions that further white supremacy, male supremacy, and imperialist capitalism).

    This is my personal gripe with the current wave of gender activism. There is a valorizing of theory that actually is unresponsive to the current big picture. Like all of neoliberalism, it is short sighted and offers nothing to those subject to imperialist capitalism and white supremacy. It fails to address how patriarchy USES A GENDER BINARY to identify targets for its violence even before they are born and that much of that violence has been historically linked to the need to annex women’s bodies for use by men for reproduction. You aren’t dismantling a binary if your solution leaves some people (e.g. Women or gender queer people who do not perform the gender society assigns them) subjected to the violence the binary justifies. If the oppression is rooted in what is perceived as a biological thing (femaleness), that oppression can only be dismantled when that component is honestly addressed. There IS a need to dichotomize here because the problem resides in the inability of some approaches to accomplish more than diversity and acceptance for empire sympathizers and other bourgeois-imperialist elements.

  • May Loo

    Thank you for this article. I consider myself a liberal but I am totally tired of the translobby, especially after the Bruce/Caitlyn coming out. The media seems to be bending over backwards in this new atmosphere of political correctness to recognize him as a her. He isn’t a ‘woman’. How can a man be called a woman when he still has a penis? Likewise, how can a woman be called a man when she still has a vagina? Talk about up is down and vice versa. I noted the comment from the mother who wondered whether her daughter shouldn’t trans into a boy because she didn’t fit into the new narrow constraints of what it means to be a girl or a boy. I’m 55 and I feel that the women’s movement was ahout breaking down society’s sexual stereotypes. It saddens me that the younger generation seems to be dismissive of what earlier feminists (who have fought over the last several centuries, and not just the last 40 years) were trying to accomplish. I’m reminded everyday of those early struggles due to the sstatues of women in the Canadian city in which I live who fought to give women the right to vote.

  • Truth Sets Us Free

    I believe that the current/fad “trans” censorship of gender-critical feminists is no more ethical nor admirable than McCarthyism during the “red scare” years or the egregious excesses by Maoists during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The people advocating this post-moderation, censorship and de-platforming of women’s gender-critical voices are nothing but misogynists, whether they are male misogynists or females with internalized misogyny. The very notion of preventing women from speaking critically about gender or of saying anything truly relevant about the abuses and excesses of the current/fad “trans” cult’s and their propaganda about “brain gender” should be obscene to any thinking human being, much less to any actual feminist. When so-called “experts” are diagnosing children as young as 18-months with being “trans” based on their preference for toys or colors?! When they are giving untested, unproven, possibly dangerous puberty blockers and then sterilizing cross-sex hormones to youngsters – and we’re not allowed to express our extreme concern about the inherent dangers and sexism of this whole approach to gender-nonconforming kids? (Eugenics! Hello?!) We might as well be living in some irrational, anti-democratic hell hole like Iran or North Korea. This is an extreme human rights issue, and pseudo-progressives are (apparently) oblivious to both the abuses and the implications.

  • Truth Sets Us Free

    “If it is right and meet for women to set the narrative when it comes to feminism, then it is only right and meet that trans people set the narrative when it comes to being trans.”

    WTW?!? Gender critique is the natural province of women and feminists. That’s like telling African-Americans that the can’t discuss racism without the prior permission and approval of not just white people, but of members of the Aryan Nation. Men telling feminist women that we can only discuss gender with their prior permission and approval? You’re setting back human kind four hundred years.

  • Sophie Jameson

    Thank you so much for this. Spurred on first by the transition of a husband and father in my circle and then by finding out about the cotton ceiling I’ve been reading round this topic for a couple of years now but your explanation adds a very large chunk to my understanding. For me, a het woman in her 50s, Simone de Beauvoir’s account of gender underlies my understanding. Other blogs I’ve read shred the pomo approach but without specifying exactly what that is or where it comes from. So thank you. Now I understand better and you’ve provided further reading too.