Tag Archives: feminism

The bad faith “debate” about trans human rights

Recently, the National Post published a discussion that I engaged in with Jonathan Kay.

I participated in that because it was an opportunity to provide a counterpoint for readers who don’t often see one. It was a chance to challenge some of the distortions and misinformation that have been circulating about trans people and their legal protections. If you read predominantly far right media right now, you would believe that wealthy, well-funded and all-powerful “TRAs” (trans rights activists) somehow control the government (one popular conspiracy theory claims that it is a pharmaceutical company plot) and are forcing some completely unfounded ideology and social engineering on destitute and helpless schools, governments, churches, workplaces and Canadian society as a whole. So it’s worth it for those readers to encounter a discussion that is rational, measured, and provides a glimpse of the reality outside of their own tunnel vision. I doubt many minds were changed, but at least an effort was made for the sake readers who are either still open to considering information outside the range of their predisposed views, or don’t encounter any better information in their travels.

It was framed as a debate, and debates about trans human rights are always a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t proposition. If you participate in a debate, it gives the appearance of legitimacy to the idea that human rights should be debatable, and that opposition to them is an equally valid side. On the other hand, if you don’t, the debate still steamrolls on without you having any voice in it, and not only is your perspective unrepresented, it can even be characterized however your opponent chooses to portray it, without challenge.

It is worth mentioning, however, that the discussion that I had with Jonathan Kay is not “the debate” that gender critical figures are trying to have. I want to be clear that the discussion with Kay, via the Post was conducted in good faith — I don’t want to imply otherwise. The gender critical version of the debate gets framed a specific way, and it’s important to recognize this, and understand why the debate that gender critical speakers are pushing for is one that is inherently flawed and intended to be conducted in bad faith. And forgive me, because I have to generalize here: obviously, not everyone who takes issue with trans people thinks alike, but there are some general similarities, and the debate that most are trying to have has generally developed these relatively consistent rules.

From a gender critical perspective, the debate must be held within certain parameters. This is sometimes accomplished by defining terms at the beginning, but it can just as easily be accomplished by assuming those parameters at the beginning and very consistently and firmly policing anyone who deviates from them, as well as reframing anything that is said to the contrary so that it can be subsumed back into the original parameters.

“Sex ≠ Gender”

The first premise for the GC debate is that sex and gender are two different things. This statement is true, and any misinformed perspective usually begins with a kernel of truth. Sex and gender are two different things, and this is a point that trans folk have long made, when explaining why their anatomy does not define them. But for gender critical speakers, distinguishing sex from gender does the opposite, providing the opportunity to ignore both gender and gender identity, so that trans people can be once again defined according to their genital status (“sex”) at birth.

Gender critical speakers try to claim the moral authority on this point to assert that by extension. when it comes to human rights and accommodations in gendered spaces, physical sex is the only measure that matters. It’s sometimes phrased as though it’s a question of whether “sex is real,” but the intended undertone is that gender and gender identity are not, and are therefore not worthy of consideration. In reality, trans people don’t question whether sex is “real,” but whether one’s biology is their destiny, and whether one’s sex defines absolutely everything about them.

Making physical sex the sole benchmark is somewhat fallacious, given that (at least ideally) we don’t actually see the physical sex of the people we encounter, and instead assume their sex based on their gender presentation — but the folks making that argument are hoping that you don’t think too long on that. This foundation is used a bit duplicitously, though: when the subject of post-operative trans women comes up, the benchmark suddenly moves to chromosomes, socialization or reproductive capability, so that regardless of their apparently all-important anatomy, trans women can still be still essentialized as “males.” Likewise, the argument is made that segregation in gendered spaces is a matter of safety… but when the subject turns to accommodation in general (non-gendered) spaces and fears for safety can no longer be exploited, the imperative to verbally essentialize trans women as “males” (even to the point of harassment and abuse) and consider sex as the only worthy point of consideration is still viewed as being of paramount importance, and uncompromisable. Using “sex” as the one and only measure of value is actually a veiled proxy for considering cis (non-trans) status as the one and only measure of womanhood (it should be noted that gender critical people also abhor the term “cis,” because if the Latin oppositive “cis” is ever accepted as a corollary to “trans,” then it might legitimize the idea that trans people exist — so in gender critical thought, “cis” too must be considered a slur, and the words “normal,” “real,” “natal” or — most often — “biological” should be used instead).

The next extension of that initial premise is that there are only two sexes. This statement is true-ish in an overly general sense, but ignores the complexity of the science on the topic, and fails to consider intersex persons who have established medical conditions which cause developmental variances in their chromosomes, genitals or gonads. Any mention of intersex in the gender critical debate is usually met with a quick twist of pretzel logic to claim that these are merely exceptions that prove the rule, and then proceed once again under the premise that there are only two sexes — thus quickly evading the possibility that trans people (especially those who are compelled to transition between sexes, but not necessarily only them) vary in simply less visible ways than currently recognized intersex conditions, and deserve the same consideration.

Erasing Gender and Identity From Human Rights

The second major premise is that gender should be dismissed as being nothing more than a collection of outdated roles and stereotypes. This is incredibly reductive (deliberately so): gender can include them, but is not only them. Gender is the meaning that we find for ourselves inwardly and how we express it outwardly: this is usually based on our sex, but this meaning can also be chosen antithetically to what is expected based on sex — in short, it’s about who we are and how we decide to present that to the world, whether in accordance with stereotypes, despite them, or regardless of them.

As in the first point, there is a kernel of truth here too, namely, that gender roles and stereotypes are problematic. This is why “gender critical” became the new term preferred by trans-exclusionary feminists (who had previously self-identified as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” until they’d heard the acronym “TERF” in anger enough to decide that it should be considered a slur): certainly, there is a lot about gender roles and stereotypes to be critical of. On this point, gender critical thinkers and trans people should theoretically be in agreement, given that the latter challenge, question, traverse and defy those roles and stereotypes more than anyone. But there is duplicity in how gender critical people apply their argument here, too: whenever trans people happen to be in alignment with traditional stereotypes, they’re accused of reinforcing them; but when they challenge or deviate from those stereotypes, they’re mocked for being visibly trans, for how they look, and for visibly failing (by that person’s individual assessment) to meet those same expected stereotypes.

By extension of this second premise, then, gender identity is said to simply not exist, according to gender critical feminism. The collective weight of medical evidence in dealing with trans people says otherwise, but this is quickly dismissed as the medical establishment (at best) humouring trans people out of a misguided sense of sympathy, or (at worst) being in on the “gender ideology” conspiracy to reshape and destroy society. By defining gender identity as mental illness, a delusion, or even a destructive ideology, trans people then become entirely irrelevant to the debate that gender critical people want to have, and it becomes completely appropriate to dismiss them, their life experiences, and their needs from consideration. The gender critical debate, then, is entirely about us, but doesn’t involve us, as they assert that we can’t be trusted to have anything of value to contribute.

These are the starting points of the gender critical “debate,” and they are hallmarks of a debate in bad faith. From these parameters, trans women can only be considered to be “men,” and therefore everything that predatory men do can be ascribed to them, by default.  From these parameters, allowing trans women into a gendered space is automatically phrased as though those spaces are being opened up to “men” — even though that is not what is actually happening. There is no argument that can be made within these parameters that will lead to any acknowledgement that trans people exist, let alone that they should have rights or be accommodated in society in any way. This is by design: the easiest way to win a debate is to control the framing of it, so that it becomes impossible to come to any other conclusion than the one that you had allowed at the outset.

Human rights should not be up for debate in the first place… but when the debate is framed so asymmetrically, it becomes absolutely toxic.

In the discussion that I had with Jonathan Kay, it was on the condition that legitimacy issues (who I am or whether trans women are women, for example) would not be the focus of that dialogue. It is telling that he considered that “not realistic,” because the debate as he’s been hearing it has been taking place within the constraints above, and his thinking remained clearly influenced by these premises.

Many of the apparent “problems” of trans inclusion have already been considered over the past decade or more, and have been in the process of being updated based on real life experience, medical evidence, legal practicalities, and the duty to accommodate in a balanced way that considers context. By changing the parameters of the so-called “debate,” opponents hope to reset this all back to zero in a way that centers fears about trans people, and dismisses the voices of trans folk, solutions that have already been arrived at, nuances that we as a society have already learned to deal with, the context of any given situation, and any evidence that supports inclusion. It is, in a way, a means to reverse everything that has happened in the past several years, simply by insisting that it should be so and denying the validity of anything or anyone that says otherwise. It also provides a reset on language so that those who refuse to accept the existence of trans people have a sometimes-stealth / sometimes-duplicitous language with which they can be hostile, without incurring the wrath of the public at large (although we see from the complaints about infringements on freedom of speech that this doesn’t always work).

The worst part of it all is that the entire bad faith gender critical “debate” threatens to divide feminism against itself at a time when Canadian religious conservatives are attempting to reboot abortion criminalization and American religious conservatives are eagerly awaiting the overturning of Roe v Wade. It allows traditionally misogynistic personalities and organizations — ranging from the Heritage Foundation to Tucker Carlson — to deflectively posture as feminists or allies at a time when the so-called “populist” nationalism they tout is threatening to erase feminist awareness from higher education and push women back toward those very same stifling gender roles and limitations that women are still struggling to break. In the UK, it has even been used to locate and recruit gay and lesbian transphobes in order to turn them against that nation’s primary LGBTQ+ rights advocacy organization, and undercut, defund or even destroy it. Beyond that, it has also managed to turn up some transphobic lesbian, gay and feminist personalities willing to validate religious conservative talking points about “gender ideology,” without realizing that “gender ideology” is veiled code that in many uses also encompasses LGBTQ+ rights, feminism and many other aspects of social justice.

There are so incredibly many things that trans feminism and general feminism can and should agree on, and yet gender critical efforts seem to discard all of that, in order to pretend that the single most important challenge facing women today is whether trans women should be accepted as women. This absolutist, sort-of-fundamentalist and all-consuming focus is as troubling as it is self-defeating.

(This commentary also appears at rabble.ca. Image: Adobe Stock)

Reblog: A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism

This is how you decolonize activism.

A wide swath of people have demonstrated how to decolonize activism: not with negativity, but with constructivity.  The following is being reblogged from Feminists Fighting Transphobia, and you will need to follow the link to see the ever-increasing number of signatories who have signed on.  I did not take part in authoring this, but gladly lend whatever support I can — M.

A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism

We are proud to present a collective statement that is, to our knowledge (and we would love to be wrong about this) the first of its kind.  In this post you’ll find a statement of feminist solidarity with trans* rights, signed by nearly 100  feminists/womanists from at least eleven different countries [it’s now 383 individuals and 17 organizations — exactly 400! — from at least 15 countries] who wish to affirm that feminism/womanism can and should be a home for trans* people as well as cis.  It has been signed by activists, bloggers, academics, and artists.  What we all have in common is the conviction that feminism should welcome trans* people, and that trans* people are essential to feminism’s mission to advocate for women and other people oppressed, exploited, and otherwise marginalized by patriarchal and misogynistic systems and people.

If you are a blogger/writer/academic/educator/artist/activist/otherwise in a position to affect feminist or womanist discourse or action and you would like to sign on to this statement, let us know!  You can use the form on the contact page or you can email us at feministsfightingtransphobia1@gmail.com.  We’d love to hear from you. [NEW: You can also just sign right on in the comments, particularly if you’re wanting to sign in a personal, rather than professional capacity–this will be much quicker and also easier on our moderators!]

Note: this blog in general and this post in particular are places where trans* people can come and find welcome and support from feminists.  For this reason, all comments are moderated for now, and hateful or abusive or bigoted discourse directed against marginalized groups or their members will not be approved.  It will either be deleted or it will be replaced with mockery of that discourse, depending on what the moderators feel like doing.  To be clear, transphobia, misgendering, racism, misogyny, slut-shaming, etc. are unwelcome.

We particularly welcome comments regarding ways in which feminists and womanists, both cis and trans*, can organize to demonstrate solidarity with and support and acceptance of trans people.  Reading the names of prominent feminists on statements of transphobia is heartbreaking to many of us, but as Joe Hill said, “Don’t mourn; organize!”

– Moderators

A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism

We, the undersigned trans* and cis scholars, writers, artists, and educators, want to publicly and openly affirm our commitment to a trans*-inclusive feminism and womanism.

There has been a noticeable increase in transphobic feminist activity this summer: the forthcoming book by Sheila Jeffreys from Routledge; the hostile and threatening anonymous letter sent to Dallas Denny after she and Dr. Jamison Green wrote to Routledge regarding their concerns about that book; and the recent widely circulated statement entitled “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Critique of ‘Gender,’” signed by a number of prominent, and we regret to say, misguided, feminists have been particularly noticeable.  And all this is taking place in the climate of virulent mainstream transphobia that has emerged following the coverage of Chelsea Manning’s trial and subsequent statement regarding her gender identity, and the recent murders of young trans women of color, including Islan Nettles and Domonique Newburn, the latest targets in a long history of violence against trans women of color.  Given these events, it is important that we speak out in support of feminism and womanism that support trans* people.

We are committed to recognizing and respecting the complex construction of sexual/gender identity; to recognizing trans* women as women and including them in all women’s spaces; to recognizing trans* men as men and rejecting accounts of manhood that exclude them; to recognizing the existence of genderqueer, non-binary identifying people and accepting their humanity; to rigorous, thoughtful, nuanced research and analysis of gender, sex, and sexuality that accept trans* people as authorities on their own experiences and understands that the legitimacy of their lives is not up for debate; and to fighting the twin ideologies of transphobia and patriarchy in all their guises.

Transphobic feminism ignores the identification of many trans* and genderqueer people as feminists or womanists and many cis feminists/womanists with their trans* sisters, brothers, friends, and lovers; it is feminism that has too often rejected them, and not the reverse. It ignores the historical pressures placed by the medical profession on trans* people to conform to rigid gender stereotypes in order to be “gifted” the medical aid to which they as human beings are entitled.  By positing “woman” as a coherent, stable identity whose boundaries they are authorized to police, transphobic feminists reject the insights of intersectional analysis, subordinating all other identities to womanhood and all other oppressions to patriarchy.  They are refusing to acknowledge their own power and privilege.

We recognize that transphobic feminists have used violence and threats of violence against trans* people and their partners and we condemn such behavior.  We recognize that transphobic rhetoric has deeply harmful effects on trans* people’s real lives; witness CeCe MacDonald’s imprisonment in a facility for men.  We further recognize the particular harm transphobia causes to trans* people of color when it combines with racism, and the violence it encourages.

When feminists exclude trans* women from women’s shelters, trans* women are left vulnerable to the worst kinds of violent, abusive misogyny, whether in men’s shelters, on the streets, or in abusive homes.  When feminists demand that trans* women be excluded from women’s bathrooms and that genderqueer people choose a binary-marked bathroom, they make participation in the public sphere near-impossible, collaborate with a rigidity of gender identities that feminism has historically fought against, and erect yet another barrier to employment.  When feminists teach transphobia, they drive trans* students away from education and the opportunities it provides.

We also reject the notion that trans* activists’ critiques of transphobic bigotry “silence” anybody.  Criticism is not the same as silencing. We recognize that the recent emphasis on the so-called violent rhetoric and threats that transphobic feminists claim are coming from trans* women online ignores the 40+ – year history of violent and eliminationist rhetoric directed by prominent feminists against trans* women, trans* men, and genderqueer people.  It ignores the deliberate strategy of certain well-known anti-trans* feminists of engaging in gleeful and persistent harassment, baiting, and provocation of trans* people, particularly trans* women, in the hope of inciting angry responses, which are then utilized to paint a false portrayal of trans* women as oppressors and cis feminist women as victims. It ignores the public outing of trans* women that certain transphobic feminists have engaged in regardless of the damage it does to women’s lives and the danger in which it puts them.  And it relies upon the pernicious rhetoric of collective guilt, using any example of such violent rhetoric, no matter the source — and, just as much, the justified anger of any one trans* woman — to condemn all trans* women, and to justify their continued exclusion and the continued denial of their civil rights.

Whether we are cis, trans*, binary-identified, or genderqueer, we will not let feminist or womanist discourse regress or stagnate; we will push forward in our understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality across disciplines.  While we respect the great achievements and hard battles fought by activists in the 1960s and 1970s, we know that those activists are not infallible and that progress cannot stop with them if we hope to remain intellectually honest, moral, and politically effective.  Most importantly, we recognize that theories are not more important than real people’s real lives; we reject any theory of gender, sex, or sexuality that calls on us to sacrifice the needs of any subjugated or marginalized group.  People are more important than theory.

We are committed to making our classrooms, our writing, and our research inclusive of trans* people’s lives.

Signed by:

Individuals

Hailey K. Alves (blogger and transfeminist activist, Brazil)

Luma Andrade  (Federal University of Ceará, Brazil)

Leiliane Assunção (Federal University of the Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil)

Talia Bettcher (California State University, Los Angeles)

Lauren Beukes (novelist)

Lindsay Beyerstein (journalist)

Jamie “Skye” Bianco (New York University)

Hanne Blank (writer and historian)

Kate Bornstein (writer and activist)

danah boyd (Microsoft research and New York University)

Helen Boyd (author and activist)

Sarah Brown (LGBT+ Liberal Democrats)

Christine Burns (equalities consultant, blogger and campaigner)

Liliane Anderson Reis Caldeira (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil)

Gloria Careaga (UNAM/National Autonomous University of Mexico)

Avedon Carol (activist and writer; Feminists Against Censorship)

Wendy Chapkis (University of Southern Maine) – “I don’t love the punch line ‘people are more important than theory.’  More to the point, it seems to me, is that feminist theories that fail to recognize the lived experiences and revolutionary potential of gender diversity are willfully inadequate.”

Jan Clausen (writer, MFAW faculty, Goddard College)

Darrah Cloud (playwright and screenwriter; Goddard College)

Alyson Cole (Queens College – CUNY)

Arrianna Marie Coleman (writer and activist)

Suzan Cooke (writer and photographer)

Sonia Onufer Correa  (feminist research associate at ABIA, co-chair of Sexuality Policy Watch)

Molly Crabapple (artist and writer)

Petra Davis (writer and activist)

Elizabeth Dearnley (University College London)

Jaqueline Gomes de Jesus (University of Brasilia, Brazil)

Sady Doyle (writer and blogger)

L. Timmel Duchamp (publisher, Aqueduct Press)

Flavia Dzodan (writer and media maker)

Reni Eddo-Lodge (writer and activist)

Finn Enke (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

Hugh English (Queens College – CUNY)

Jane Fae (writer and activist)

Roderick Ferguson (University of Minnesota)

Jill Filipovic (writer and blogger)

Rose Fox (editor and activist)

Jaclyn Friedman (author, activist, and executive director of Women, Action, & the Media)

Sasha Garwood (University College, London)

Jen Jack Gieseking (Bowdoin College)

Dominique Grisard (CUNY Graduate Center/Columbia University/University of Basel)

Deborah Gussman (Richard Stockton College of New Jersey)

Dr Sally Hines (University of Leeds)

Claire House (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, Brazil)

Astrid Idlewild (editor, urban historian)

Sarah Hoem Iversen (Bergen University College, Norway)

Sarah Jaffe (columnist)

Roz Kaveney (author and critic)

Zahira Kelly (artist and writer)

Mikki Kendall (writer and occasional feminist)

Natacha Kennedy (Goldsmiths College, University of London)

Alison Kilkenny (journalist and activist)

Matthew Knip (Hunter College – CUNY)

Letícia Lanz (writer and psychoanalyst, Brazil)

April Lidinsky (Indiana University South Bend)

Erika Lin (George Mason University)

Marilee Lindemann (University of Maryland)

Heather Love (University of Pennsylvania)

Jessica W. Luther (writer and activist)

Jen Manion (Connecticut College)

Ruth McClelland-Nugent (Georgia Regents University Augusta)

Melissa McEwan (Editor-in-Chief, Shakesville)

Farah Mendlesohn (Anglia Ruskin University)

Mireille Miller-Young (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Lyndsey Moon (University of Roehampton and University of Warwick)

Surya Monro (University of Huddersfield)

Cheryl Morgan (publisher and blogger)

Kenne Mwikya (writer and activist, Nairobi)

Zenita Nicholson (Secretary on the Board of Trustees, Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, Guyana)

Anne Ogborn (frightening sex change)

Sally Outen (performer and activist)

Ruth Pearce (University of Warwick)

Laurie Penny (journalist and activist)

Rosalind Petchesky (Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Sexuality Policy Watch)

Rachel Pollack (writer, Goddard College)

Claire Bond Potter (The New School for Public Engagement)

Nina Power (University of Roehampton)

Marina Riedel (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil)

Mark Rifkin (University of North Carolina – Greensboro)

Monica Roberts (Transgriot)

Dr. Judy Rohrer (Western Kentucky University)

Diana Salles (independent scholar)

Veronica Schanoes (Queens College – CUNY)

Sarah Schulman, in principle (College of Staten Island – CUNY)

Donald M. Scott (Queens College – CUNY)

Lynne Segal (Birkbeck, University of London)

Julia Serano (author and activist)

Carrie D. Shanafelt (Grinnell College)

Rebekah Sheldon (Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis)

Barbara Simerka (Queens College – CUNY)

Gwendolyn Ann Smith (columnist and Transgender Day of Remembrance founder)

Kari Sperring (K L Maund) (writer and historian)

Zoe Stavri (writer and activist)

Tristan Taormino (Sex Out Loud Radio, New York, NY)

Jemma Tosh (University of Chester)

Viviane V. (Federal University of Bahia, Brazil)

Catherynne M. Valente (author)

Jessica Valenti (author and columnist)

Genevieve Valentine (writer)

Barbra Wangare (S.H.E and Transitioning Africa, Kenya)

Thijs Witty (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Groups:

Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ (Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia)

House of Najafgarh (Najafgarh, India)

House of Kola Bhagan (Kolkatta, India)

Transgender Nation San Francisco

[See http://feministsfightingtransphobia.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/welcome-to-our-most-recent-signatories/ for our newest signatories, as of the end of the day on September 16, 2013]

[See http://feministsfightingtransphobia.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/six-hours-later-we-have-a-new-signatory-list/ for our newest signatories, as of the end of the day on September 17, 2013]