Transphobia has no place in feminism

TRIGGER WARNING for transphobia

I write this as a cis woman. If I’ve fucked up anywhere due to cis privilege, please, please CALL ME ON IT. 

Hundreds of women have been killed violently. Many more live in fear of violence, sexual assaults and are at a greater risk of suicide. It’s a fucking travesty.

Yet there are some feminists who don’t really give a shit about this particular group. There are some feminists who actively partake in systemic oppression of others. There are some who call themselves feminists yet express hate-filled transphobia which, on closer inspection, is thoroughly indistinguishable from that coming from outside our supposedly safe space.

The vast majority of feminists are perfectly accepting of trans people. As far as I can discern, the transphobia comes from a small, though noisy minority. Unfortunately, this minority seems to be influential, and still get the platform to speak: I write this post after seeing that people are still paying attention to Julie Bindel, who spouted transphobic thought in an Oxford student newspaper today.

Bindel argues that trans people reinforce ideas of gender essentialism: that by getting surgery, or by living as a women when born a man one somehow metaphorically scabs as they “fly in the face of the feminist notion that feminized behaviour or masculinized behaviour is a social contract”. The logic here is flabbergasting. Apparently gender is a social construct, but it cannot be changed. So much for malleability. In arguing that people must stick with their biologically-assigned gender, Bindel herself is the gender essentialist.

Likewise, transphobic feminist Sheila Jeffreys labels reassignment surgery as “self-mutilation” and suggests that transmen are just lesbians trying to be more manly. It’s nothing more than a nasty hateful diatribe, and by arguing this line, it removes bodily autonomy from people. Bodily autonomy is apparently a privilege that only applies to some in Jeffreys’s book.

The “theory” underlying feminist transphobia is as flimsy as an Argos flat-pack, which suggests to me that it is not theoretically-driven at all, but rather a manifestation of a lack of understanding of intersectionality, combined with a hearty dollop of spite and prejudice. Twitterer @scattermoon recently found herself responding to Julie Bindel’s tweets about Channel 4 show My Transsexual Summer, pointing out that many trans people agreed that the editing of the show presented gender essentialism. This was retweeted by Bindel, yet hours later, Bindel bemoaned the fact that there was little to no condemnation of essentialism in the show from the trans community. Either Bindel has a goldfish memory, or, more likely, she is disingenuously pushing an agenda which is harmful to trans people.

Beyond hate speech dressed up as theorising lies another worrying fashion among some feminists. A few months ago, pseudo-feminist Caitlin Moran casually used the phrase “pre-op tranny”. This is hardly the first time Moran has used oppressive language; she has a history of throwing around words like “retard” to get a cheap giggle. When called out on her use of a word which is used as a weapon, Moran decided to block her critics, so desperate was she to hold on to such a vile word.

The shit from these influential transphobic feminists rolls downhill. The thorny issue of inviting trans women into women-only spaces periodically rears its ugly head, when the patently obvious answer to this debate is “of course. It’s a women-only space. We should allow women into the women only space.” Sometimes this manifests as dangerous, aggressive bullying, such as a feminist blog outing trans women. Given the very real threats many trans people face, I cannot believe that some feminists would gladly expose fellow people to such risk.

Transphobia has no place in feminism. None whatsoever. You can dress it up in as much theory as you want, you can stick your hands over your ears and deny you’ve done anything wrong, you can wilfully twist the truth into lies, but if you’re transphobic, you have no place in feminism.

For too long, we have been giving platform to those who actively harm members of an oppressed group, people on the same team as us. Enough is enough. We don’t need our Bindels or our Morans; they are not part of the struggle, they are manifestations of the problem we are tackling.

We do not have to listen to them. We must not.

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28 responses to “Transphobia has no place in feminism

  • Thyge

    Thank you – you really sum it up well.

  • mhairi

    I think you have to draw a distinction between transphobia and criticism of of the narratives at play among some in the trans community as well as of the trans industry itself. There is money to be made in gender reassignment surgery, and the demand for some in the trans community for surgery mean that those who don’t want or can’t access that surgery are considered “not real” (trans)women.

    The demand to become wo/men from some of the trans community drowns out others who want to stay in a neutral or ambivalent role with regard to gender. Just as gay marriage is considered progressive, yet in practice is used to assimilate the insurrectionary power of homosexuality, narratives which medicalise the “problem” of trans and the “solution” of surgery mute those who demand that they are neither/both/outside/inbetween/other.

    As for the suggestion that transwomen are not women, there are some radical feminists, such as Monique Whittig who would (approvingly) not consider Julie Bindel a woman, just a lesbian in a dress.

    • Dreki

      First of all: Regarding issues IN the trans community, that is for TRANS PEOPLE to sort out. Cis people walking in and flaunting their privilege, telling us what’s what about our own life is insulting, unwelcome, and just another abuse of their privilege.

      Second: Everything you’ve listed is a symptom of cis people shoving their views on us. Trans people needing surgery, and it is a need for some, does not invalidate those that don’t. CIS PEOPLE putting cis supremacist views of bodies on us does. CIS therapists telling us that if you don’t want a specific transition you aren’t “really” your gender are a far bigger problem.

      And as a non-binary person, throwing my identity around to try to deny people access to medical treatment that they NEED to live disgusts me.

      The “trans industry” is all about cis people. The vast majority of surgeons, therapists, and other medical people int he “industry” are cis. There is no money to be made for trans people.

      • stavvers

        Hi,
        Thanks for replying. Re point 1, did I do that at all? I accept that I probably could have, but I’d like to know where so I don’t screw up again.

        Re point 2: certainly surgery isn’t for everyone, but the point you made was something I hadn’t really thought of. Thank you very much for making this point.

      • mhairi mcalpine

        Issues in the trans community affect all of us. The demand from some therapists that transwomen live as women according to their definition of womanhood (dresses,.skirts, makeup, grooming) presents a model of femininity that is sexist.

        Secondly, the narrative of surgery as “the solution” means that there is pressure to go down a surgical route for validation. I’m not suggesting that transbods make money from the industry (and I’m not equating transbods with the trans industry), but that there is money to be made and some are exploited by this. The trans industry has a vested interest in promoting surgery

      • Risa

        @stavvers, just wanted to point out that Dreki was responding to mhairi mcalpine’s first comment and ::not:: directly to your article!! this may explain why you were surprised that you “did all that.” read mhairi mcapline’s and then Dreki’s comments first. Again, Dreki wasn’t responding directly to you… BUT thanks for reminding us allies of how humble and open we must be when a trans* person problematizes something we’ve said if we are to in fact be allies.

        Also… @Dreki, thanks so much for sharing your “second point” comment. This is something that I have heard discussed by trans* women before (I myself am cis), and your comment articulates this point really clearly and is something that I think is really accessible to a lot of feminists. Great comment to quote, share, and reflect upon when discussing cis privilege.

        • stavvers

          Ah. That makes more sense. It doesn’t display replies in the “moderate comment” bit of WP, for some reason. It was certainly a very eye-opening comment!

  • Ruth

    One thing I would (tentatively, given that I’m cis and so might be missing something) suggest feminists can do is, if they are creating a woman only space- be explicit about not excluding transwomen in leaflets, flyers, etc. Obviously this shouldn’t be necessary, but I’ve naively gone to women only spaces or been involved with woman only groups in the past, assuming that of course everyone would be on the same page as woman=anyone who defines as a woman. I avoid going to women only spaces now, (and tbh am quite wary of feminist ones) unless they make it clear that they’re not transphobic, which I actually rarely see happening. (Additionally, I would suggest this should be done in a way that doesn’t imply women and also transwomen are welcome, as though they’re two separate groups, which I have also seen)

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  • valeriekeefe

    Great post. If I had to take issue with anything, it’s the description of (coercively-)assigned-male-at-birth as born male.

    Trans women are born female, and then assigned male based on a cursory examination of the genitalia. After attempting to eschew that assignment and the distress it causes the coerciveness of that assignment is made clear.

    But still, wonderful stuff from an ally otherwise.

  • Melanie

    I’m also a cis-woman, and am equally appalled by the at best, narrow minded, and totally misguided (or at worst, hateful and spiteful) view of transwomen that certain “feminists” such as Julie Bindel have. Having actually spoken to a few transwomen themselves, it is blatantly clear to me that such “feminists” actually know very little (and in some cases, nothing whatsoever) about the subject at all. Yet they feel they have the right and the knowledge, to not only tell all transwomen who they are, but also how they think, and how they act.

    They say transwomen can never be “real women”, because they have (or have had) “male priviledge”. I fail to see any “priviledge” in being a transsexual. Statistically, transsexual woman have to endure far greater hardships, higher levels of discrimination levelled against them, and a higher risk of being victims of violence and harassment than cis-women. So where is the priviledge in this? Far from having “male priviledge”, most cis-women are far more priviledged than the average transwomen. The moment a transwomen states she is a woman, she automatically renounces “male priviledge. Not to mention the transwomen who never had “male priviledge” in the first place, due to rejecting the male label at an early age in childhood. The vast majority of transwomen have to endure, ridicule, harassment, bullying, discrimination, lower employment opportunities,, and dehumanization. Most cis-women, at least in the modern western world, do not have to face these issues to the extreme degrees that many transsexuals have to. And MEN are more likely to be disgusted by, and discriminate against transwomen, so all in all, I fail to see how transwomen are more priviledged than us. We are in fact, way more priviledged.

    As a final point, and as you pointed out, many transwomen actually subvert culturally enforced feminine stereotypes. And equally I know of transwomen who were dismayed and appalled at the hoops they were expected to jump through from psychiatrists in order to “prove” they are female. It is cis-gender people imposing narrow gender stereotypes on the trans community, rather than them being bastions of those stereotypes. Sure, some do naturally fit into those stereotypes, but then, so do many cis-women too. But equally, there are transwomen who do not naturally fit into those stereotypes, and I have also heard some deriding the institutions who expect them to fit into a narrow gender stereotype in order to be considered “female”.

    I very much agree with you stavvers that transphobia has no place in feminism, And the likes of Bindel, Greer, et al, certainly don’t speak on behalf of myself, or I’m sure the majority of feminists, when it comes to their demonizing of transsexuals. Specifically transwomen.

    • elisehendrick

      What gets me about the male privilege angle, even more than what Melanie has pointed out above, is the transparent hypocrisy of it. A lot of the same “feminists” who will scapegoat and exclude trans women for having at some point in their lives experienced male privilege (though, of course, male privilege is not distributed equally, and is often denied to male-bodied, male-identified people when and to the extent that they fail to embody the conventional notions of what “a man” is supposed to be) will then turn around and welcome trans MEN into supposedly “women-only” spaces.

      There’s simply no way to take the entire “argument” seriously the minute that fact is taken into account. Trans men, who live in, and are perceived and treated by society as men, are certainly accorded male privilege (especially once the T kicks in and any prior perceived androgyny goes out the window). They get called “sir” by the same people who will condescendingly address women as “hon”. They’re more likely to be taken seriously, less likely to be shouted down or insulted for making a contrary argument in a discussion. They’re MUCH less likely to have to plan their days around the possibility of sexual assault, etc. etc. etc.

      This is not in any way to ignore or minimise the number of trans men who are committed feminist allies – and there are quite a few – but, seriously, if anyone on the trans- spectrum experiences male privilege as a current feature of their lives, it’s THEM, and yet they’re invited, male privilege and all, into “women-only” spaces from which trans women are excluded on the alleged basis of the male privilege they may at some time have experienced.

      Leaving that aside, it’s just as easy to turn the male privilege argument into a strong argument in FAVOUR of including trans women, as a matter of course, in women’s space: Who will feel the denial of male privilege, and the attendant relegation to second-class status, more acutely than someone who previously experienced male privilege? If anything, it would seem that trans women would be sources of extremely valuable insights into the way male privilege works.

      Of course, the above paragraph is a gross oversimplification in a number of ways, but it has the benefit of making a lot more sense than the attempts to use past male privilege as a justification for present exclusion from women’s space.

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  • Morgan

    I suspect perhaps that there’s a subset of women who hate transwomen because they themselves vie for male priveledge and they see transwomen as having thrown away that opportunity to be men, that they themselves might want, or think they want.

    Just to clarify, I say this as a transman, asside from being a feminist, assigned-female-at-birth and non-binary, I’m not a woman and can’t speak for women. It’s just an idea.

    • valeriekeefe

      Intersting theorizing, but it’s not “women and transwomen” but rather cis women and trans women to whom you are referring respectively. Trans being an adjective, it’s nonsensical and degendering to make a portmanteau of it.

  • sophi

    Reblogged this on sophia daniels and commented:
    this is kinda why i feel like i get mixed messages from the feminist community…. all of the cis feminists that talk to me are usually pretty up on trans* issues…. and then i encounter the organized rad scum feminists and the whole movement looks just as oppressive as it did half a lifetime years ago.

  • Walking The Black Dog

    Thank you for this excellent piece.

  • tristan

    The argument that “transmen are just lesbians trying to be more manly” fails when you consider that not all transmen start life as lesbians… many go on to become gay transmen. And that’s not taking into consideration the vast number of trans people who identify with other genders at an age where they’re not even aware of their sexuality. The link between sexuality and gender is becoming more and more tenuous.

  • Martha Rose

    The trans* ‘industry’ (and honestly I can’t see any use for that term other than as a dog whistle), consists primarily of structures that have been put in place to LIMIT the bodily autonomy of trans* people.

    A trans* person who needs to modify their body (and as has already been pointed out, this isn’t a universal desire) doesn’t just get to rock up to a doctor or surgeon for medical advice and the treatment they request. They are required to prove their gender. They are required to jump through hoops until they have satisfied the gender understanding of a cis-dominated profession (often including orientation requirements that make zero sense).

    This is where the ‘gender binary’ is reinforced: in exactly the same place it’s usually reinforced. The dominant heterosexist, cissexist, hegemony is the problem, not trans* people.

    To attempt to use this excuse as a shield for transphobia is pathetic: if anything it’s just another reminder that the liberation of all genders requires active engagement with trans* liberation.

    Natalie Reed writes extensively about this, and is awesome:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/05/15/mandated-femininity/

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/01/27/talkin-bout-my-s-s-s-socialization/

    (NB: I have a lot of privilege in this situation, so as per the disclaimer at the top of the article, if I fuck up I apologise and hope you’ll call me out. Although I know it’s not anyone’s job to teach allies how to be better).

    • valeriekeefe

      Thank. You.

      I was denied spironolactone while I had a blood pressure of 155 over 95 because the doctor knew I was interested in the antiandrogenic effects. So I was kept hypertensive for five months so that my presentation and identity could be more intensively policed by other cis people. That is NOT an industry trying to sell products. It is cissexism at its most toxic: Promoting kapoism in terms of operative essentialism and cisessentialst beauty standards. I shudder to think how long I would have had to wait for medicine if I hadn’t been blessed with good bone structure, if the timing of my last laser session hadn’t softened the appearance of my jaw, if I hadn’t had someone to help with voice training and a willowy vocal range to begin with…

      Doctors are not trying to get trans women to transition. The only counterbalance to a cissexist society screaming against the very existence of trans people is the organization of transfeminists and other trans-liberation-activists who have one intensely radical message: Your CASAB doesn’t define you.

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  • Just Another Woman

    Thank you.

  • Shelli Anne

    As a transwoman myself, I see being a feminist is basically being a female humanist. Whats wrong with that ? To deny me my identity is to deny me my humanity, is that so radical a concept ? I want to be accepted as a fellow human being, nothing more and nothing less. Are trans people to be considered a lesser breed of human ? I sometimes feel like a modern day Shylock, don’t trans people share in being human with everyone else ? Do we not bleed when cut ? Cry when sad ? Die when poisoned ? Or die when we suicide ? Please consider, Thank You. Peace & Love, Shelli Anne Mulka

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