Freaks and Perverts
September 15, 2011
It’s Still Hell To Be Trans In Honduras
September 15, 2011

You Can’t Smash Patriarchy With Transphobia

This guest post is from Ray Filar. Filar is a feminist writer, freelance journalist, and Gender Studies graduate student. Her work has been featured in various blogs and magazines, including Comment is free, Pink News, openDemocracy, The F Word, and Liberal Conspiracy. She writes a blog called Political Correctness Gone Mad. If you like outpourings of anger against gender fascism whittled down into digestible 140 character chunks, you could follow her twitter on @rayfilar.

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”  – Simone de Beauvoir

People chat a lot of shit about radical feminism, mostly because they don’t know what it is. Unsurprisingly, it regularly makes the top five on well-known television programme, Most Widely Misrepresented Ideologies (a show I would be happy to create and host, if there are any BBC commissioners reading this). It’s a shocking, challenging kind of feminism and deliberately so.

Common to all strands of radical feminism is the belief that we live in a patriarchy, a male supremacist society in which a primary oppression is of women by men. What distinguishes radical feminism – what gives it its strength, its passion, its edge – is the further claim that more than women’s full participation in the system devised by men is needed for liberation. Radical feminists argue that what we need is a fundamental restructuring of society from thought upwards. If I had a hammer, I’d smash patriarchy; you know the drill.

As we are often brought up to think that women and men are equal and that everything is now lovely gender-wise; it can be difficult to engage with women writers who take a sledgehammer to the shaky foundations our lives are built on. But nobody said creating a feminist society was going to be easy and why should it be? The harassment, distortion and denigration that radical feminist writers and activists face is partially a consequence of misogyny, but it is also a knee-jerk defensive reaction to the potency of their ideas.

Maintaining such a rigorous opposition to patriarchy and its effects has, on occasion, led in the wrong direction. Transphobia is the great shame of modern radical feminism. Thirty two years since Janice Raymond’s transphobic diatribe The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male was published, we are still struggling to clear our heads. Her book functions as the beginning of a sub-genre which incorrectly uses the label radical feminism as cover for outright hatred.

Raymond’s book created a furore, the fallout of which has been pretty extreme. Like the bits of PVA glue you can spend increasingly frantic hours trying to get off your post-primary school art class hands, we are still, almost unbelievably, arguing about whether exclusion of trans women can be justifiable, and whether transphobia is even a thing. (Hint: no, yes).

Some of the more successful activist events in London have repeatedly come in for their fair share of criticism on this score. Every year, the women-only march Reclaim the Night London is questioned on its attitude towards trans women. As one of the members of this year’s steering committee, I’m pleased to say that it will now be made clear on our website that Reclaim the Night welcomes all kinds of women, whether trans, cis, disabled, of colour, lesbian, able-bodied, white, bisexual, Muslim, Jewish, straight or otherwise.

But the discussion is far from over, and it is a small and rather pathetic step for a group which officially acknowledges that trans women are just as welcome as cis women, but doesn’t really want to say so openly. We still have to appease the transphobes. Their voice is small, but by god it is vocal. The committee that finally agreed to welcome trans women on our website, (but not our flyer, oddly) was split down the middle; a small minority expressed opinions that would make even David Starkey blush.

I can understand what leads some cis radical feminists to transphobia. Part of what sustains it is confused ignorance stemming from the uncritical acceptance of writers like Raymond, Sheila Jeffreys, Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, who have each attempted to normalise transphobia as a part of radical feminist criticism. Part of it is lack of awareness that this is even an issue. Partly it is a lack of interaction between cis and trans feminists. And part of it is plain old hate. Disturbing blogs such as RadFemHub provide plenty of the latter.

Even though they’ve been rebutted again and again, the same befuddled transphobes keep bouncing back. With good reason, some might say. The questions trans issues raise are hugely relevant for feminism, particularly radical feminism. Gender and sex are, if you like your understatements massive, quite complex. What does it really mean to ‘feel like’ a woman? Or a man, for that matter? How exactly could I have the sense that my real and perceived gender identities are at odds? Is the perspective that we have gender identities which aren’t socially constructed one that is always at odds with feminism?

Lack of interaction between cis and trans feminists is a crucial part of the problem and is, to my mind, a major factor which leads initially reasonable enquiry in the direction of hate. Cis women who have rarely if ever been involved in activism alongside trans women may well begin to believe in Raymond’s rabid pictures of infiltrators, rapists, colonisers and whatever else. Maybe it isn’t surprising that when someone like Bindel, whose journalism is otherwise pretty on the money, writes, “transsexual surgery becomes modern-day aversion therapy for gays and lesbians”, or “‘transsexuality’…arises from the strong stereotyping of girls and boys into strict gender roles”, some radical feminists just accept it. There are so few prominent radical feminist figures with powerful public voices that it can be tempting to sympathise with Bindel’s narrative, in which she is the beleaguered defender of radical feminist thought against a censorious smear campaign.

But it is simply not true that such transphobic sentiments have much to do with radical feminism. There’s an eye-jiggling contradiction in these beliefs. If we, as radical feminists, are for the idea that biology is not destiny, we cannot simultaneously hold the opinion that, “a trans-sexual ‘woman’ will always be a biological male” (or vice versa). To deny that sex-reassignment surgery works backhandedly reaffirms the gender essentialism that we were at the beginning setting out to oppose. Yes, there’s a bitter irony in that.

It is strange that the same feminists who abhor the use of the free speech defence as justification for pornography will sometimes utilise it in defence of transphobia. I have seen it argued that calling out someone as a transphobe is used as a bullying shut down of fair radical feminist criticism. That’s bullshit and it needs to be recognised as such. Asking questions about sex and gender doesn’t justify demonising a class of people or denying their existence. The two are quite clearly different. That some radical feminists have been transphobes doesn’t make transphobia intrinsic to radical feminism, and to say so betrays a complete misunderstanding of what radical feminism is.

Let us not forget that this is not the first case of a dominant feminist majority oppressing a feminist minority. I guess we can’t run away with the idea that ticking the box marked ‘feminist’ automatically makes you aware of all your privileges and immune from acting on them. We shouldn’t pretend that white feminists didn’t openly discriminate against feminists of colour at the outset of the women’s rights movement, that the actions of women of colour were not overlooked, and that feminism isn’t still dominated by white women today.

Radical feminist transphobes might be surprised to learn that trans writers and activists are, and have been for a long time, taking on these important questions about gender and sex. The difference is that trans writers are doing so in a way that usually manages not to stigmatise a group of people who are also dealing with the fall out from patriarchy. My favourite trans feminist writer, Patrick Califia, puts it beautifully when he says, “There are many levels of gender dysphoria, many aberrant accommodations other than a sex change. Feminism, for example.”

cross-posted from Political Correctness Gone Mad

  • Stephanielynnkeil

    What do radical Feminists make of someone like myself: a highly educated transman? As a transman I am well aware of gender bias even though I now identify myself with the male gender. Will I now fall under the radical Feminist “all men are pigs” mantra or will I, as a transman with insight, be assigned to some sort of special category within radical feminism?
    If radical fems treat transwomen as women will they then treat transmen as men? This seems a bit unfair since I was born and identified as female in my youth. I look forward to this discussion among rad fems.

    • Anonymous

      Having been under the impression that you were a woman due to birth assignment does not make you one. Yes, trans men are men, and women like me have too much respect for your gender than to let you fall back on cissexism to gain special snowflake status.

      Are you ‘the enemy?’ No, but neither are most cis men. This is part of the problem I have with a unidirectional-power analysis of male-female relations, not to mention that it ignores other axises of power, especially class, and their intersections.

      I was born female, assigned male, and spent years figuring out the difference. I hope it doesn’t take you as long.

  • Guest

    “That some radical feminists have been transphobes doesn’t make
    transphobia intrinsic to radical feminism, and to say so betrays a
    complete misunderstanding of what radical feminism is.” But it’s still true that, and I would qualify this by saying that it doesn’t prevent a radical analysis of patriarchy, a great deal of what’s described as radical feminism adheres to a perspective on gender which, while on the surface rejecting biological determinism, is pretty essentialist and erasing. Anti-trans views are definitely a logical extension of that perspective. It’s not a simple misunderstanding, well it is a misunderstanding but one that’s a LOT bigger than the trans issue (and certainly trans* folk aren’t the only ones to criticize the essentializing tendencies in a great deal of radical feminism). 

  • Anonymous

    First off thank you for speaking up. However the fact that a clear vocal majority of radical feminist can be said to be transphobic is a failing of radical feminism. Part of the whole point to belonging to a group is to associate with it’s values. It is always up to the members of a group to be clear or not so clear what they are about.  When white supremacists start joining a group it is up to the group to define itself as separate from that or become known as supporting of it. Much the same radical feminism is the home for a lot of transphobia and hate therefore it is up to radical feminists to define themselves in opposition to their transphobic peers or remain known as transphobic. Say you were a part of some coffee time conversation group at your favorite cafe(or appropriate place and activity). One day everyone else starts talking about how whites are better than non-whites or how women should be subservient to men. Would you remain a part of such discussions (assuming no chance to educate or change the other members opinions)? 

  • Anonymous

    “But it is simply not true that such transphobic sentiments have much to
    do with radical feminism. There’s an eye-jiggling contradiction in these
    beliefs. If we, as radical feminists, are for the idea that biology is
    not destiny, we cannot simultaneously hold the opinion that, “a
    trans-sexual ‘woman’ will always be a biological male” (or vice versa).
    To deny that sex-reassignment surgery works backhandedly reaffirms the
    gender essentialism that we were at the beginning setting out to oppose.
    Yes, there’s a bitter irony in that.”

    I’m somewhat confused as to your meaning here… are you then, in the camp that says that transition makes a woman, and that gender is in no way innate? My seventeen-year-old self, now with the benefit of hindsight, would take issue with that assertion…

    Trans women do not spend their lives pre-transition being gendered uncritically as men, and we’ve got the scars to prove it.

    That said I was heartened to hear that Take Back The Night London is now going to be unambiguously inclusive of trans women.