Radical feminists are regularly accused of denying trans people’s right to exist, or even of wanting them dead. Here Jane Clare Jones takes a closer look at these charges. Where do they come from and what do they mean? Is there a way to move towards a more constructive discussion?
The claim that certain forms of feminist speech should be silenced has recently become common currency. Notable instances include the ongoing NUS no-platforming of Julie Bindel, the cancellation of a performance by the comedian Kate Smurthwaite (which prompted a letter to the Observer), and, in the last month, the demand that a progressive Canadian website end its association with the feminist writer Meghan Murphy.
The basis of this claim is the assertion that a certain strand of feminist thought is hate speech. Versions of that assertion have circulated on social media for a number of years — complete with obligatory analogies between Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) and Nazis, the BNP or the Ku Klux Klan. But its effectiveness in excising speech from the public sphere was really brought home to me in August 2014, when the journalist and trans activist Paris Lees pulled out of a Newsnight debate with the gender-critical trans woman Miranda Yardley, saying she was ‘not prepared to enter into a fabricated debate about trans people’s right to exist.’
More recently, the claim that TERFs want to ‘debate trans people’s right to exist’ has morphed into the more-or-less explicit suggestion that TERFs are intent on extermination. Blogs defending feminist-silencing have argued that dialogue is impossible when “some at the table are…arguing for the elimination of others at the table,” or “one side is effectively being forced to argue for their entire existence against a group of people… who would like to see us dead.”
The argument that what some feminists want to say is hate speech can be broken down into three interrelated assertions. In ascending order of seriousness, these are that TERFs (1) deny trans people’s existence and/or right to exist; (2) actively want trans people not to exist; and (3) engage in behaviour responsible for trans people’s deaths.
Claim 1: TERFs deny trans people’s existence/right to exist
At first glance, this claim seems absurd. Trans people clearly exist: feminism is not being ripped apart by a conflict with and about non-existent people. Making this claim make sense therefore, requires us to accept an elision between ‘the existence of trans people’ and ‘the existence of trans people according to transgender ideology’s account of the existence of trans people.’ That is, the theory that trans people’s existence is explicable in terms of ‘gender identity,’ an innate quality which is the immutable source of a person’s gender.
This theory seems to have emerged in a clinical and academic context, before being incorporated into the ideology of trans activists. It is a theoretical elaboration of the common trans narrative which focuses on the experience of being a ‘woman trapped inside a man’s body.’ In her detailed chronicle of the backlash which followed the publication of J. Michael Bailey’s 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen, Alice Dreger calls this the ‘feminine essence’ narrative, an account which holds that ‘trans people suffer from a sort of trick of nature, whereby they have the brain of one gender in the body typical of the other… a sort of neurological intersex condition, typically understood to be inborn’.
Feminism, as a political movement aimed at the liberation of women, has long theorized gender not as an innate essence, but as a hierarchical system enforcing women’s subservience. Characterizing certain personality traits – compliance, nurturance, the desire to be pretty or objectified – as ‘natural’ to women, is, according to feminist analysis, a primary mechanism for maintaining gender hierarchy. As a result, many feminists have genuine questions about trans ideology’s assertion that ‘gender identity’ is both natural and universal. It comes perilously close to naturalizing the oppression of women.
This is not trivial, and it needs to be discussed. But it has been decreed that it cannot be discussed, because to discuss it is to ‘deny the right of trans people to exist.’ Trans ideology collapses the fact that trans people exist into the theory of why trans people exist, and judges anyone who questions the theory to be a transphobic bigot intent on denying the very existence of trans people. Indeed, even those trans women who persist in existing despite subscribing to the feminist critique of gender are denounced by many in their community as self-hating or treacherous. This is argument by non-argument, and it functions to close down discourse by rendering feminism’s long-held analysis of gender unsayable.
Maintaining that anyone who questions the theory of gender identity must be transphobic is equivalent to arguing that anyone who disputes ‘born-that-way’ narratives of homosexuality must be a homophobe. In both cases, this manoeuvre points to a belief that the moral acceptability of gay people or trans people depends on convincing others that their existence is ‘natural’. Given the historical injunctions against ‘perverted’ or ‘unnatural’ desire (in the case of homosexuality) and ‘deviance’ (in the case of gender non-conformity), it is understandable that movements for gay, and more recently, trans rights have invested so heavily in a narrative of naturalness. But to respond to the patriarchal accusation of ‘unnaturalness’ with a counter-assertion of ‘naturalness’ – whether in the form of a ‘gay gene’, or brain-sex as the seat of gender identity – is to remain firmly within the purview of the patriarchal belief that naturalness is the criterion for moral acceptability. And it isn’t. Gay, lesbian, bi- and pansexual people are okay as they are because they are okay as they are. And the same is true for trans people. Perhaps feminists who question the ‘naturalness’ of gender identity are heard as undermining the moral acceptability of trans people’s existence. But that is to assume feminists are invested in the patriarchal coupling of ‘naturalness’ and moral acceptability, when they are the very last people who are.
So, if feminist questions about gender identity are not a denial of trans people’s existence, or, indeed, their moral acceptability, what else might this ‘denial’ consist of? The complexity of the issues here can be condensed into the question of whether a woman is willing to accept the axiom that ‘trans women are women’. And while trans activists claim to push gender ‘beyond the binary,’ it is notable that this axiom exists only in relation to its absolute negation, that is, to the statement ‘trans women are not women’ or indeed, ‘trans women are men.’ When asked, as one often is these days, whether one believes that ‘trans women are women,’ the answer can only be ‘yes’ or ‘no’. One cannot respond, as many women would want to, ‘well, the answer to this question is both yes and no’.
Undergirded by an appeal to boy-brains and girl-brains, trans ideology’s core commitment is that a person’s gender is nothing other than their gender identity. Gender resides entirely in an individual’s private experience of ‘feeling like’ a man or a woman, and therefore, if an individual declares that they feel like a woman, then they are a woman, and moreover have always been a woman, in exactly the same way as non-trans women have always been women. From a feminist perspective what is lost in this account is the entire structure of gender as a system of oppression, a system which functions by identifying a person’s reproductive potential and then socializing women to fulfil the role of a member of the reproductive class. For many non-trans women the idea that the essence of being a woman resides in ‘feeling like’ a woman, is not so much wrong as incomprehensible. Our experience of womanhood is not an internal feeling, but a lifelong process of being subjected to – and revolting against – very specific social sanctions and expectations. Be quiet. Look pretty. Make yourself small. Smile. Don’t be too demanding. Accommodate other people.
When feminists raise these points, we are sometimes accused of indulging in ‘academic’ debates when other people’s lives are at stake, as if the constricting of female persons by patriarchy was somehow not about people’s lives. But this debate is not academic for anyone involved. For both trans and non-trans women, what is at stake is the ability to understand themselves in a way that makes their lives livable. For feminist women, the axiom ‘trans women are women,’ when understood to mean ‘womanhood is gender identity and hence, trans women are women in exactly the same way as non-trans women are women’ is experienced as an extreme erasure of the way our being-as-women is marked by a system of patriarchal violence that aims to control our sexed bodies.
This system of patriarchal violence also marks the lives of trans women, who are indubitably victims of the kinds of male violence feminists have spent years attempting to resist. To cast certain feminists as the principal threat to trans existence, it is therefore necessary for trans-ideology to sideline the patriarchal violence that affects both women and trans people, and instead, position feminists at the apex of a structure of oppression. One of the main strategies for achieving this is the elaboration of the category of ‘cis-privilege’.
In her 1983 essay ‘Oppression’, Marilyn Frye noted that the concept of oppression has a tendency to be ‘stretched into meaninglessness…as though its scope includes any and all human experience of limitation and suffering, no matter the cause, degree or consequence’ (p.1). At a time when axes of oppression seem to be proliferating, unencumbered by any account of the motive of domination, Frye’s essay is increasingly apposite. Privilege — a once useful way of illustrating how certain structures bend the world around the interests of particular classes — is now routinely invoked to describe any advantage that another person lacks, whether or not that advantage stems from a system of structural domination. Indeed, advantage itself is often assumed to be ample evidence of the existence of oppression.
It is clear that being trans presents challenges and difficulties within a social system which does not recognize the possibility of trans-ness, and is not designed to cater for the particular needs of trans people. The demand for recognition, visibility, social acceptance and political organization around specific interests is necessary and important. However, according to Frye, understanding a limitation as an instance of oppression requires more than ascertaining ‘if it is part of an enclosing structure of …barriers which tends to the immobilization…of a group…of people.” (p.10). It also necessitates looking at “how the barrier…fits with others, and to whose benefit or detriment it works’ (my emphasis; p.11).
The oppression of women-as-women is established by understanding the function of that oppression: women-as-a-class are oppressed by men-as-a-class for the purpose of, Frye continues, “the service of men and men’s interest, which includes the bearing and raising of children” as well as a variety of other “service work” including domestic and personal service, sexual service and ego or emotional service (p.9). Women are oppressed as women because that oppression enables men to extract resources — in the form of reproductive, domestic, sexual and emotional labour — from women. Similarly, class- and race-based oppression is structured around the extraction of labour-resources from the oppressed group. And the question we must then ask is, in what sense are the real limitations experienced by trans people to be understood as part of a specific structure of oppression aimed at extracting resources from trans people as a class?
Again, it is useful to compare this case with discrimination against homosexuals. Gay men and lesbians experience, or have experienced, profound limitations on their ability to lead flourishing lives. Those limitations did not, however, arise out of the desire of non-homosexual people to appropriate the labour of homosexual people as a class. Rather, limitations on the free expression of homosexuality arose as an adjunct of patriarchal ideas about the ‘naturalness’ of heterosexual coupling, and the ‘natural’ gender roles of the sexed individuals within that coupling. That is, the injunction against homosexuality is part of heteronormativity, and since the primary function of heteronormativity is to naturalise men’s appropriation of women’s bodies, the restrictions on homosexuality are a variant of patriarchal oppression.
Similarly, the limitations on trans people’s freedom to determine their gendered-expression results from the fact that such expressions have been gendered by patriarchy. But this is an explanatory framework which trans ideology – with its conception of innate gender – is totally unable to access. In its place, transgender ideology posits an entirely unmotivated system of cis-gender oppression which inheres, not in the yoking of particular sexed bodies to acceptable gendered behaviours, but in the very identification of sexual dimorphism in humans.
Here we encounter a perfect inversion of feminist thought. In the place of the material reality of sex and the social construction of gender, we find the social construction of sex and the material reality of gender. What feminist thinkers have traditionally identified as the essentialist yoking of sexed-body to gendered behaviour is rewritten as the privilege of alignment between one’s gender identity and the sex one is coercively assigned at birth.
This privilege (which is really an oppression), is then invoked to position non-trans women as the oppressors of trans people. There can be no question of to what end non-trans women are invested in the oppression of trans-women. As the oppressor, non-trans women are not permitted to question this: we must understand that the only just course of action is to acquiesce without a murmur to the stated needs of the oppressed. And so the possibility of solidarity between non-trans and trans women, based on the recognition that we are equally—though differently—constrained by heteronormative ideologies of gender, is thoroughly blocked. There is no acknowledgement that we are both suffering under the same system, and there can be no negotiation of how to accommodate our varying needs within feminism as a political movement. There can be no conversation. After all, you do not negotiate with an oppressor who is interested only in exploiting you and doing you untold harm.
Claim 2: TERFs want trans people ‘mandated out of existence’
The positioning of cis-women as agents of domination is crucial to the claim that gender-critical feminism is a form of hate speech, because it endows radical feminists with sufficient social power to sustain the story that skepticism about the concept of gender identity is a prime factor in the violence experienced by trans people. Although, as we will explore later, such violence is best understood in the context of patriarchal enforcement, it is trans-ideology’s constant concern to position feminists as trans people’s principal oppressor.
This strategy is bolstered — as suggested by the blog quoted above — by the claim that feminists actively desire the deaths of trans people. To the best of my knowledge, the sole textual basis for this assertion is the endlessly recycled quote by Janice Raymond from The Transsexual Empire:
I contend that the problem with transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.
It’s not my intention here to defend Raymond’s body of work — or to deny that some radical feminists have expressed themselves in a way that is deeply derogatory towards trans women. But what is clear is that ‘morally mandating transsexualism out of existence’ is not an expression of the desire to annihilate transsexual people. The claim — once read through a feminist critique of gender — is evidently that the patriarchal system of gender normativity is the condition of possibility of transsexuality. That is, if behaviour was not socially coded as masculine or feminine, individuals could not experience a disjunction between the apparently gendered nature of their personality, and their sexed bodies.
Trans ideology, as well as much of what passes for contemporary feminism, considers gender identity to be an essential property of persons, rather than the way society shoves personalities into gendered boxes. And as such, it’s unsurprising that few people seem able to even hear what Raymond is saying. Whether she is right is another question: we cannot know what would remain of gender norms, or if and how trans identity would manifest itself, in the absence of patriarchy. But what is clear is that without gender normativity, the type of trans narrative we hear so often today — one which, say, associates ‘feeling like a boy’ with a disinterest in dolls and domesticity — would lose its mooring and quite simply cease to be meaningful.
Claim 3: TERFs are responsible for the deaths of trans women
Despite the increasing prevalence of exterminationist rhetoric, it has not, to my knowledge, ever been suggested that TERFs actually kill trans people. Rather, the suggestion is that a) the type of transphobia attributed to TERFs feeds wider social conditions that contribute to the deaths of trans people and b) TERFs engage in specific behaviours — such as harassment and preventing access to services — which contribute to the deaths of trans people.
A typical version of the first claim goes something like this:
We believe that it is violence when Germaine Greer announces “I don’t believe in transphobia”, or when Rupert Read describes trans women as “a sort of ‘opt-in’ version of what it is to be a woman”. These are violent acts both in themselves and in their perpetuation of a culture in which physical and sexual violence against trans people and sex workers is both extremely high.
Or like this:
The problematising of trans identity on college campuses or elsewhere amplifies an already endemic mainstream mindset that sees trans women… as laughable at best and dangerous predators at worst. A result of this transphobia is that trans people are eight times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
This claim relies on positing a continuity between the alleged transphobia of gender-critical feminists, and an ‘endemic mainstream mindset’ conceived as responsible for harm to trans people. This example cites the disproportionately high number of trans suicides, but a similar claim is also made in relation to trans deaths by lethal violence.
The issue of the murder of trans people is the instance in which the alleged continuum between feminist speech and substantive harm is the most difficult – which is to say impossible – to maintain. The violence which affects mostly trans women, and disproportionately trans women of colour, is almost entirely male violence, very often at the hands of partners or other family members. It is therefore related (though not identical) to the patriarchal violence also directed at non-trans women. Women are killed by men for being women. And trans women, it seems, are killed by men for being women and/or for being trans women. As of March 2015, the murders of eight trans people (seven of them women of colour) had been reported in the US (Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Yazmin Vash Payne, Taja de Jesus, Penny Proud, Bri Golec, Kristina Gomez Reinwald and Sumaya Ysl). Of the six whose killers have so far been identified, four were killed by men known or believed to have been their boyfriends, one was killed by her father and one was killed during a robbery.
Men do not murder their girlfriends, or commit homophobic or transphobic violence against people they perceive as gender non-conforming, because they have been whipped into a fury by feminists. Violent heteronormative masculinity is not maintained by the assiduous study of Sheila Jeffreys or Janice Raymond. Male violence is committed, day in and day out, by people who have never even heard of Sheila Jeffreys or Janice Raymond, or ever had contact with anyone who has. If you don’t like what Janice Raymond has to say, by all means, take Janice Raymond to task. But to suggest that anyone asking questions about trans ideology must be silenced because Janice Raymond somehow made men kill trans women is so utterly absurd it would be laughable, were it not trotted out so often to silence women, and did it not bear such striking resemblance to the tried and tested technique of blaming women for inciting the violence of men.
Blaming feminists for men’s violence against trans women is not only slanderous, but inordinately frustrating, because such violence is the principal site of the actual erasure of trans women. This is the place where trans and non-trans women could most obviously come together in shared resistance. But instead, trans ideology would rather erase the possibility of that solidarity, and martyr murdered trans women to an amorphous TERF-inspired hatred, in order to score rhetorical points off feminists.
The claim that feminist speech is responsible for the suicide of trans people depends, once again, on forging a strong connection between gender critical feminism and an ‘endemic mainstream mindset’ hostile to trans people. The causes of suicide are complex: each case is different and there are no simple, general explanations. But considering that the feminist critique of gender is obscure, whereas the patriarchal policing of gender norms is all-pervasive, it seems far more likely that the ‘endemic mainstream mindset’ which most contributes to the challenges and constraints trans people face is — like the lethal violence of men — the product of patriarchy.
TERFS’ behaviour contributes to the deaths of trans people
Trans activists routinely claim that TERFs engage in two types of behaviour linked to the deaths of trans people: harassment and denying access to services. The harassment is said to include doxxing, contacting people’s employers, threatening communication, and in at least one case, stalking. All things which are emphatically not okay. But anyone who tells you that this behaviour is confined to only one side of this conflict — or tries to draw a distinction between the abusiveness of their adversaries and the ‘legitimate’ violence of their allies — should be treated with extreme skepticism. Such unconscionable and unnecessarily hostility is not the product of any specific system of belief so much as a dogmatic narcissistic righteousness fundamentally inimical to any purported operation of justice.
This issue is complicated, however, by an increasing tendency among some people to conceive of mere exposure to people you disagree with as a kind of harassment. The concept of ‘safe space’ — which once meant knowing you could speak without someone coming down on you like a ton-of-judgmental-bricks — now means almost the opposite: ensuring you are never exposed to views you find ‘oppressive,’ or ‘triggering.’ A safe-space enshrines judgment about someone else’s speech with such rigour that they never open their mouth at all.
Any group which coalesced around the aim of denying another group access to vital services could rightly be considered a danger to that group. In the case of healthcare, questioning the theory of gender identity does not entail denying trans people’s real experience of dysphoria, nor saying they shouldn’t be given whatever medical support they need. No one should be denied treatment vitally necessary for their well-being or flourishing. But conflicts around access to other services are more difficult, because the issue has become entirely enmeshed with affirming the axiom ‘trans women are women.’ The position of feminists critical of the concept of gender identity is that trans women are like non-trans women in some respects (through performing the social role of woman they are subject to the same violences and erasures), and not like non-trans women in others (particularly with regard to reproductive issues, and the trauma which stems from female socialization and early exposure to sexual objectification and male violence).
These differences mean that our needs and interests are not identical, although they coincide in several places. I am an advocate of a care-based concept of justice, which means I believe adequately attending to people’s needs is a crucial component of justice. I therefore think that the most just way to negotiate this situation is to consider the needs of all parties involved, and try and provide solutions that meet everybody’s needs as far as is humanly possible. But to do this means accepting that everyone involved has legitimate needs, without one side accusing the other of trying to kill them.
There are real questions about the way in which trans and non-trans women’s experience of being women inflects their needs, and we should take these seriously. But the endless fight about toilets and changing rooms is also about something other than toilets and changing rooms. It is about what access to toilets and changing rooms signifies for trans women. It is about access to women’s space as a validation of the identities of trans women. Were this not the case, we could have sat down and sorted all this out by now. We could have thrashed out where our needs were similar and where they were not, where we could work together and where it might be more appropriate to focus on divergent goals. But to do that requires an acknowledgement of the fact that we are both similar and different, and that acknowledgement is one that trans ideology will not countenance.
And so we reach an impasse.
A final reflection on reflection
To be a woman, under patriarchy, is to be a mirror. We are raised to reflect, to efface ourselves and accommodate. We are the surface and material upon which men make themselves, winnowing out our subjectivity in the service of others. And feminism is the practice of refusing to empty ourselves in order to receive the impressions of others.
It is not ethically impermissible to refuse to be a mirror. For some women, sometimes, it is survival itself. But it is ethically impermissible to demand that someone else erase themselves in order to reflect back to you exactly what you need them to reflect.
Affirmation cannot be taken, only given freely, or not at all. And when someone does not meet your needs, they are not killing you.
We are not sovereign beings: what we are exists between us and others. What we are, and how others experience us, is outside ourselves, in the warp and weft of the world, beyond our control.
And at the same time, there is, in each of us, a place inside, a warm spot, just below your belly, where none of this may matter. It can take years of work to find it, but what you need is there. And it cannot come from any other place.
You are okay just the way you are.
Jane Clare Jones blogs at www.janeclarejones.com
Marilyn Frye, ‘Oppression’, The Politics of Reality (The Crossing Press, 1983). Link