I suspect that some of my readers must be wondering by now why I haven’t responded with my thoughts on the recent outbreak in the transgender/TERF hostilities.
In case yoIu have been completely unaware of the issue, TERF stands for “trans exclusive radical feminists,” although I’ve always thought they were more reactionary than radical. I should note that they don’t like the term, viewing it as an insult, even though it was invented by other feminists…feminists who wanted to distance themselves from the TERFs.
Although the hostility has been simmering for quite awhile, the most recent outbreak can be traced to the publishing of an article in The New Yorker by Michelle Goldberg, entitled What is a Woman?, which presented a very one-sided treatment of the dispute.
To quote a TERF, from the beginning of the rift in 1973:
I will not call a male “she”; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman”; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.
To summarize what appears to be the TERF issues with transpeople:
1. Sex is binary and immutable.
Now one of the things I find puzzling about it is that, when I look at the House of Lords debate on this legislation, those I agree with most are the radical right. Particularly the person I find that I agree with most, in here, and I’m not sure he will be pleased to find this, is Norman Tebbitt… Tebbitt also says that the savage mutilation of [transgender people], we would say if it was taking place in other cultures apart from the culture of Britain, was a harmful cultural practice, and how come we’re not recognizing that in the British Isles. So he makes all of these arguments from the radical right, which is quite embarrassing to me, but I have to say, so called progressive and left people are not recognizing the human rights violations of transgenderism or how crazy the legislation is.
–Sheila Jeffries, TERF leader
2. Planned Parenthood conspired to help teach trans people how to force lesbians to have sex with them, which amounts to corrective rape.
The actual blurb about the workshop being referred to was:
Overcoming the Cotton Ceiling will explore the sexual barriers queer trans women face in the broader queer women’s communities through group discussions and the hands-on creation of visual representations of these barriers. Participants will work together to identify barriers, strategize ways to overcome them, and build community. Open to all trans women and MAAB (male-assigned at birth) genderqueer folks.
Proof of a conspiracy, right there! Oh, wait…what? There were exactly 7 attendees?
3. Men, acting as tools of the patriarchy, created gender confirmation surgeries as the ultimate act of rape of the female form.
See The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond.
4. The words “cis,” and “cisgender” were created as slurs against lesbians, women, RadFems and/or feminists.
They were invented because it was inconvenient to refer to the vast majority of the human race as being “non-transgender”…in the early part of the twentieth century.
5. Laws protecting trans equality promote rape, public indecency and assault.
They expect we’ll be shocked to see statistics about them being killed, and don’t realize, some of us wish they would all be dead.
–Bev Jo Von Dohre
6. Parents who support their transgender children are child abusers.
You might note that there is not much difference between these essentialist ideas and those of the conservative forces who wish to deny our existence and remove us from the human species.
There has been plenty of pushback against that article and the release of Jeffries’ new book, Gender Hurts.
At the Transadvocate Cristan Williams has been running TERF Week. Or you could read Riki Wilchins’ Op-Ed at the Advocate: Antitrans RadFems Are on the Wrong Side of History. Or Roz Kaveny’s Woman Enough. Or Lucy Mangan’s If we get bogged down in the TERF war we’ll never achieve anything. Or Julia Serano’s letter to The New Yorker. Or Mary Brighe at Autostraddle: The New Yorker’s Skewed History of Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism Ignores Actual Trans Women. Or Leela Ginelle at Bitch: TERF War: The New Yorker’s One-Sided Article Undermines Transgender Identity.
…one might think TERFs and trans people have a philosophical or semantic debate. Trans people’s identities, for which they and their allies are waging a worldwide human rights campaign to define as legally legitimate-backed by decades of medical and psychological data-and TERFs’ hateful academic theories carry equal weight and import. If those two sides were balanced in the piece, readers might walk away with a shoulder shrug, “Who knows whether trans identity is legitimate or not?” The title of the piece certainly encourages this confusion, making it a question as to whether transgender women should be seen as women.
So how do I come down in all this? I’ve already written about that…on July 25, 2007: Women-only Space: who belongs details my own efforts to break down barriers.
And out of my experiences there is this statement by Suzanne Pharr from the July/August, 1996 special issue of Ms. (the Xena issue), from her article Taking the High Road:
How do we root out our own racism or homophobia or prejudice against poor people?
One way is to examine the place in yourself where you have experienced discrimination and imagine someone else there. If you’ve experienced sexism or had a hard time advancing at work, you might examine that closely and ask yourself, Could this be how a person of color feels in terms of discrimination? Could this be how a lesbian or gay man feels in terms of discrimination? We need a politics of empathy: If this is what it feels like to be me, isn’t it possible that this is similar to the experiences of other people? What also breaks through is hearing other people’s stories. I cannot tell you how important this is.
May I tell you a story? For 15 years the Women’s Project has had a women’s retreat in Arkansas. This year for the first time a transgendered person came, a post-operative male-to-female lesbian. On the first day, we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves, and she said she would like to create a workshop on transsexuality. Only then did everybody realize she was a transsexual. All hell broke loose the next day. One lesbian couple came up to several of us who had organized the retreat and said: “How dare you let him stay in a dorm where our daughters are?” We said: “We stand on 15 years of fighting for sexual freedom. You have to deal with this…” Personally, I love femmy men and butch women because they break barriers. We have got to bust up gender roles.
Anyway, the next night this transgendered woman got up and told us about her life, what it felt like to be at a university in central Arkansas having no community, no intimacy, her only contact with other transgendered people occurring online. Eighty to 90 percent of the women in that room listened and changed their minds. They came up to us and said, “You did the right thing.” This is an example of the power of story.
Stories must be built into our political work. We live in a time where people feel so disconnected and isolated. We have to speak that. The Right does that. They say, “We will give you a home in this church or this program and help you feel together by naming all these things as the enemy.” They preach the myth of scarcity combined with the mood of mean-spiritedness: there’s not enough to go around and someone else is taking something from you. We have to speak to people’s better selves, find ways to make people in our communities feel better. Let’s foster generosity and inclusion.
So that is where I stand.
If you made it this far, you deserve some reward. I have a few.
CN Lester writes an important essay at A Gentleman and a Scholar: This is what dysphoria feels like.
Julia Serano performs the spoken word piece, Cocky:
And trans-activist Paris Lees was invited to participate in a “debate” about trans people’s right to exist at BBC Newsnight a few days ago. Thinking she had been invited to discuss Kellie Maloney, former boxing legend who recently came out as a transgender woman, Lees left when she discovered the truth of the situation:
I’m not prepared to enter into a fabricated debate about trans people’s right to exist/express themselves.
There is no “debate”. Some people are trans – I’d have been very happy to go on & talk about the simple issue of human rights for trans people.