A recent, much-disparaged thread on I Blame The Patriarchy turned into a reprise of feminist arguments over transsexuality. Because the thread is on the long side, it has the benefit of providing several examples of feminist anti-trans arguments, as well as (thankfully) many feminist rebuttals.
I think the anti-trans arguments are wrong in every case. In most cases, I think they’re also bigoted and hateful. Let’s take a tour.
Argument #1: The argument from freeform, irrational hatred of transsexuals.
Luckynkl provided such an exaggerated example of drooling, bile-soaked hate that if I hadn’t known her for years, I would suspect she’s a sock puppet intended to discredit feminism. Here’s a couple of examples, drawn from a dozen or more similar statements:
You want to know how men can hurt women? **chuckle** You’re joking, right? Oh wait. I’m supposed to believe men in drag are women. And if you put on a werewolf mask, will you also expect me to believe you’re a werewolf? […]
This is about what all this nonsense amounts to. In short, trans are nutjobs. The bathroom is about the last place I want to be alone with a male nutjob. These unfortunate, but seriously disturbed individuals belong on the 5th floor in a straight jacket. Not in a women’s bathroom.
In Lucky’s view, all transsexuals are “male nutjobs,” and they belong in an asylum.1
In this case, the important part of Lucky’s argument isn’t the argument itself (which is based on the nonsensical notion that people who are apt to break the law by being violent against women in public bathrooms, will be stopped by the sign on the ladies’ room door). Lucky’s real argument here isn’t what she says. It’s her derisive, sneering tone: the point is to let trans women know that they are “men” (in Lucky’s view, men are evil) and that they are semi-human objects of contempt.
The most reasonable reply to Lucky’s argument is (to quote Brownfemipower): Fuck you. Lucky’s a bigot and an asshole; the difference between Lucky and a Klanswoman is only in which oppressed minority her hate is focused on. (I should note that although Lucky was the most extreme, several feminists joined her in her hate-fest.)
In an excellent post at Desperate Kingdoms, Winter writes:
I did not come to feminism for hatred; I did not come to feminism in order to use my power and privilege as a white, middle-class, cisgendered2 woman to oppress a group of people more oppressed than myself; I did not come to feminism in order to set up new hierarchies or take up the role of oppressor. I came to feminism because I believed, and continue to believe, that as part of anti-oppression activism, feminist theories and philosophies can offer ways of being, thinking and relating which could make life better for all of us, whether we identify as men, women, or something else altogether.
Argument #2: The argument from essentialism.
SaltyC: “Knowing that someone is a woman does not tell me anything about her fate, but it does tell me she knows what I know about what it’s like to bleed.”
Luckynkl: “Sex is static. It cannot be changed. Men cannot be frogs, they cannot be giraffes, they cannot be trees, they cannot be rocks, and they cannot be women. Get over it.”
Maribelle: “Case in point: my friend’s two year old daughter was so cute the other day my ovaries started to throb…. Face it—women are inexplicable. We are born, not made. We are created. We cannot be made by human hands, sculpted from the rib of Adam. We are something else again.”
All of these arguments are based on the idea that there is an essential, universal “womanhood” which “women born women” have access to, but trans women do not.
This argument assumes that our essence is determined by what’s between our legs at birth. In this view, our abilities and potential is determined not by our individual talents, desires and actions, but by which box the doctor checked off on the form a few minutes after we came screaming into the world (“we are born, not made”). Women are the class that feels longing when faced with a cute two-year-old; men are the class that, I dunno, feels a longing for power tools or something.
Haven’t we heard this before? This is the conservative, anti-feminist vision of gender that feminism has been fighting against for centuries. Feminism was born to fight against this vision; to fight against the harm done to women and men who are shoehorned into these obsolete, confining gender roles; and to fight against the warped culture created when people are taught that gender roles must be respected.
That some feminists are willing to throw core elements of feminism overboard in order to exclude transsexuals speaks volumes.
Note that essentialism isn’t limited to just biological essentialism. There is also “experience essentialism”; in this case, certain experiences are said to define womanhood, always in a post hoc manner designed to exclude some unwanted class of women.
As Brownfemipower points out, making “womanhood” an exclusive space in order to keep out unwanted, marginalized groups is not something new, or something that has been done exclusively to transsexuals. Throughout history, the experiences of relatively empowered women has been positioned as the norm; the experiences of other women is then positioned as non-representative of “womanhood.” This has happened (and is still happening) to women of color, to lesbians3, to Jewish women, and it is currently happening to trans women.
To my eyes, a lot of the “womanhood is our exclusive domain” arguments strongly resemble anti-same-sex-marriage arguments. “Womanhood,” like “marriage,” is described as if its implications and social meaning has never changed in thousands of years; this false description of unchanging history is then used to argue that all change must therefore be not only bad, but a threat to those who are currently married and/or women. Consider this quote from Magickitty, arguing against accepting trans women as women:
Why should a newcomer to my knitting group insist that I re-define the meaning of my group? This person has never been to my knitting group before, which I’ve had for thousands of years. This person shares no history with the other members of my group, and yet demands full status in the circle. I am sympathetic; this person had always wanted to knit (since birth, even) but only recently learned, this person is oppressed within their own world because they are a knitter, and this person strongly identifies with my group. But why would this newcomer want to claim equal status when they’ve only been knitting for a short time, and why would they want to insist that knitting includes crochet, when in all the thousands of years of the circle, we’ve only ever knitted?
And to be really crude… the newcomer knits English. My group knits Continental. The finished product may look exactly identical, but… well, you know.
The above quote could be used, without any alteration, to argue against same-sex marriage. It’s the same argument.
Argument #3: The argument that the word “transphobia” is a form of censorship.
Sly Civilian quotes this comment, left by Heart at BFP’s place:
Here, my experience, again, is, if someone offers a differing view of transgender issues than the one you hold, bfp, then that person gets immediately labeled “transphobic.” At that point, the discussion really ends. There’s nothing more to be said.
(By the way, Heart’s description of how BFP acts is unfair; there are myriad examples of BFP disagreeing with people about transgender issues without immediately labeling them transphobic.)
Conservatives frequently use this exact argument to try and put discussions of racism, sexism and homophobia out of bounds.4 The idea is that because these concepts make (some) people in the majority culture so uncomfortable that they hesitate to speak, these concepts should therefore not be included in our discussions.
The emptiness of Heart’s argument is, I think, obvious. Transphobia does not become an illegitimate concept to discuss merely because discussing transphobia makes some cisgendered5 people uncomfortable.6
It’s true, of course, that someone could be accused of being transphobic when they’re not. This is obviously hurtful when it happens, but not nearly as hurtful — or harmful — as refusing to talk about transphobia at all! The need for transsexual and transgendered people to be able to talk about how bigotry harms them outweighs whatever “need” cisgendered people have to not be pushed outside their comfort zone.
Argument #4: Transsexuals are dupes of the medical establishment.
Over at Little Light’s blog, in comments, Ravenmn writes:
One of the more sensible arguments that some radfems make against transgenders is the idea that you are choosing to mutilate and drug your body, therefore are some kind of dupe of the medical establishment.
(Ravenmn wasn’t endorsing that argument, only referencing it.) Nanette responded:
I, of course, am not attempting to answer for anyone who is transgender and has had surgery or anything, but I am not sure I would consider that a sensible argument, unless they are just anti medical or surgical intervention for anything, as a general practice. If not, (or even if so) then someone’s personal medical decisions are none of their business, any more than it’s anyone else’s business if you get your tonsils out, have an abortion (that’s also one of the arguments anti abortion people use), have moles cut off, have cochlear implants (some in the non hearing community oppose that, as well), and so on.
The only way they can make that argument, in my view, is if they feel the same sense of ownership over the bodies of transfolk as the right wingers and others feel they have over women. Funny how sometimes the language, actions and tools of oppression or marginalization take such familiar and similar forms, across beliefs, political views and boundaries.
I agree with Nanette, but I’d add that it’s true, historically, that the medical establishment has used access to medical treatments (like prescription hormones and surgery) as a means of forcing transsexuals to endorse and live by traditional gender roles. As far as I can tell, this has become less true in recent years, to a great extent because many transsexuals have actively resisted the conservative status quo of the old medical establishment.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the “dupes of the medical establishment” analysis ignores the fact that not all transsexuals and transgendered people seek medical help to transition. There are a wide variety of trans narratives: One persistent flaw of the anti-trans critiques is that they frequently are framed as if male-to-female surgical transsexuals who describe themselves as “women trapped in male bodies” are the be-all and end-all of transsexual and transgendered experience.
Which brings us to the next anti-trans argument….
Argument #5: Transsexuality implicitly endorses essentialism and traditional gender roles.
In the I Blame The Patriarchy thread, Edith (of the blog Because Sometimes Feminists Aren’t Nice) wrote:
Radical feminists are also against oppression and against gender roles, but they simply do not see being transgender as a good way to fight gender roles — rather, they see transgender as a way of ENFORCING gender roles. […]
If gender is inborn, something neurologically wired, then being “born” in the wrong body makes sense. But actually, radfems tend to believe that gender is socialized and therefore, no one is “born” in the wrong body. […] In this way, I personally think that the more modern, “biological” view of transgender is the more essentialist.
I agree with Edith that the “female brain trapped in a male body” — or the “male brain trapped in a female body” — view of transsexuality is essentialist. But it’s hardly as if “X brain trapped in Y body” narratives are a fair way to describe all of transsexual and transgendered thought! There’s no doubt that some individual transsexuals — like some individual cisgenders — have essentialist views. But to take disagreements with how some transsexuals view gender as a criticism of the entire idea of transsexuality is unwarranted.
In a sense, those transsexuals who move from one sex to the other “entrench the system” of gender as a binary, because they are willing to dress and be identified in society as one gender and not the other. But all of us go along with the gender-binary system in some ways, whether its women who shave their legs or faces, men who avoid wearing dresses and gowns, or any of a thousand ways people adapt to the gendered society we live in.
It’s simply unfair to single out transsexuals for criticism on this score. (I discuss this in more detail in this post). To (once again) quote from Winter’s excellent post:
Moreover, why are transgendered and transsexual women scapegoated and made responsible for upholding gender roles and the patriarchy when every single one of us upholds gender roles every day of our lives? I uphold gender roles every time I call myself a “woman,” every time I answer to my gendered first name, or use my patronymic surname, every time I buy an item of clothing classed as female in a shop for women, every time I use the toilet with that symbol on the door which is supposed to denote womanhood. We are all of us thoroughly gendered under the current conditions. If gender eventually disappears, it will go in its own time; we cannot just get rid of it and we certainly can’t get rid of it by denying other people their rights to their own gendered embodiments.
There have been a lot of excellent responses to the thread at Twisty’s; some are direct rebuttals, others are just thoughts brought to the fore by the current mess. Some of the posts I especially enjoyed: Little Light, the entire discussion at Women of Color Blog, The Silver Oak Leaf, Angry Brown Butch, and Tiny Cat Pants.
- Spotted Elephant has a good post decrying anti-disabled rhetoric used by some folks on both sides of this debate. [↩]
- Cisgendered is a term meaning, roughly, “not transsgendered or transsexual.” [↩]
- Remember when Betty Friedan argued against “The Lavender Menace”? [↩]
- One prominent anti-gay-marriage blog, Family Scholars Blog, in effect banned all discussion of homophobia from its comments. Later on they banned comments altogether, which was probably a mercy for all concerned. [↩]
- Cisgendered is a term meaning, roughly, “not transsgendered or transsexual.” [↩]
- I think a lot of what I wrote about how white people react when criticized for racism also applies to many cisgendered feminists criticized for transphobia. [↩]