Open Letter to Denise E. Brogan-Kator

Some very unpleasant things have been happening lately in the “radical feminist” community. Well, no, they’ve been going on for a long time, much too long, and I want to finally be clear about something. While my political views are most closely aligned with what is commonly classified as “radical feminism,” I do not consider myself in solidarity with Cathy Brennan or her ilk. Here’s an illustration of our differences.

Recently, a transwoman named Denise Brogan-Kator posted an open letter regarding what she perceives as significant points of disagreement between “trans” supporters and “radfems.” She also called for greater cooperation between the groups. There was a Brennan-approved (<link) response posted at wwomenwwarriors.wordpress.com shortly thereafter. Here’s a pdf in case the post gets pulled (for some reason the blog seems to be going intermittently private and I don’t want anyone to miss the stark contrast).

I consider the response at the “when women were warriors” blog to be excessively hostile and inappropriately personalizing. It also presumes that Brogan-Kator has acted in bad faith merely because the writer was born with a penis. Frankly, this is not what my “radical feminism” is about at all. We don’t need more ad hominems; we need to carefully and clearly deconstruct the socio-political issues.

I decided to reply by email to Brogan-Kator directly and respectfully. And guess what? She replied in the same mature way! Can you imagine?? I know, talk about radical.

I will now share my comments on Brogan-Kator’s letter for the purpose of offering an alternative way of “doing” radical feminist analysis. I have not addressed every little thing, of course, but I have selected what I consider the most important political points.

Brogan-Kator’s (BK) letter is shown below in italicized text with the most relevant words in red, then my responses are interspersed in bold text.

_________________

BK: A few weeks ago I got an email from my friend and former law professor, Catharine MacKinnon.  She was reaching out to me for my reactions because others had reached out to her about one or more incidents of violence and/or hate speech between the communities of transgender people and radical feminists.

This “problem” has been nagging at me as I’ve continued to read each side’s “position” and its complaints about the other side.  This writing will attempt to describe my personal conclusions and thoughts on these issues, which I suspect will, forever, be a work in process.

I would like to state unequivocally that I am opposed to ALL forms of violence, for whatever reason.  The incident in question occurred at a recent “Law & Disorder Conference” held in Portland[1] I am told that there have been other incidents of violence, but I’ve not seen any specific references.

Caveats:  I do not hold myself out as, nor believe myself to be, a leading thinker or researcher with respect to sex and gender.  I do not have an advanced degree in queer theory or feminism and I do not have an advanced degree in neurobiology.  What I do have are core beliefs, through which I shape my actions and which are subject to change with new information and evidence.

I believe:

That gender and the entire system of gender is a social construct that has worked to keep women in a subordinate role and, as a consequence, has retarded humanity’s positive growth toward an ideal society where men AND women can accurately be said to be created equal.

That violence, short of defense, has no place in our world and that it not only fails to advance the cause of feminism and social development, but also actually reverses it.  I believe that violence of any kind reinforces the patriarchy and diminishes us all.

That patriarchy is real and pernicious.  It is the common enemy of all fair-minded feminists of any sex and gender.

That sex and gender are not the same.  I believe that sex has its basis in biology and that gender and its attendant roles is the exclusive domain of socialization.

HUNGERFORD:  It is very hard to understand how one would justify radical, irreversible changes to their body for the purpose of accommodating gendered social norms if they truly believed that gender was nothing but a social construct. This seems to be holding two inconsistent beliefs in one’s mind.

BK: I do not know, but I doubt, that sex is anything more than the size of the gamete produced by the body.  In other words, I do not know but I doubt that our brains are different in any way that matters.

That said, I do believe there IS a biological difference between men and women – and that biology, especially the effects of sex hormones, do influence behavior (to a greater or lesser degree that is unknown? in individuals).  HOWEVER, the suggestion that such a difference leads to an inherent male dominance is absurd and destructive.  We need not deny the physical differences between men and women to condemn the destructive effects of patriarchy.  Difference should never be used as an excuse to dominate.

HUNGERFORD: If we were to accept that sex-based hormones influence behavior on an individual basis, it is not “absurd” to extrapolate this to class-based phenomena such as male violence—which is a near universal problem, both globally and historically. Characterizing a logical connection between individual and class-based behavior as “absurd and destructive” without further explanation is an unsupportable assertion.

It also, whether we like it or not, most certainly does create a convenient excuse for male aggression—“hey, it was my hormones!”

The most recent scientific research, on the other hand, contradicts the “folk hypothesis” that hormones have a measurable effect on behavior: Testosterone has not influenced females to behave more aggressively in blind-trials(2009). See: http://www.nature.com/news/2009/091208/full/news.2009.1131.html 

From the study:

Here we show that the sublingual administration of a single dose of testosterone in women causes a substantial increase in fair bargaining behaviour, thereby reducing bargaining conflicts and increasing the efficiency of social interactions. However, subjects who believed that they received testosterone—regardless of whether they actually received it or not—behaved much more unfairly than those who believed that they were treated with placebo.

Despite this evidence, a long-term follow up study on the criminal behavior of transsexuals provides an interesting contrast. Male-to-female transsexuals as a group, despite having undergone Sex Reassignment Surgery, are not less violent than other male-socialized people as a group. This finding is consistent with radical feminist analysis about the longterm effects of socialization on behavior!

Female-to-male transsexuals on the other hand, seem to defy the science cited above about testosterone’s effect on behavior. An alternate explanation is that these individuals have a strong personal interest in and motivation to adapt and identify with “masculine” aggression for the purpose of garnering credibility in the social role opposite their socialization. Or it might just be the placebo effect.

From the study:

“… regarding any crime, male-to-females had a significantly increased risk for crime compared to female controls (aHR 6.6; 95% CI 4.1–10.8) but not compared to males (aHR 0.8; 95% CI 0.5–1.2). This indicates that they retained a male pattern regarding criminality. The same was true regarding violent crime.

By contrast, female-to-males had higher crime rates than female controls (aHR 4.1; 95% CI 2.5–6.9) but did not differ from male controls. This indicates a shift to a male pattern regarding criminality and that sex reassignment is coupled to increased crime rate in female-to-males. The same was true regarding violent crime.”

I don’t think hormonal influence constitutes  sufficient justification for individual behavior, nor for widespread naturalization of sex-based social roles according to gendered constructs. Not by a long shot.

BK: I believe:

That trans-women such as myself, despite an outward appearance which arguably reinforces the system of gender actually help, in a very real sense, toward the deconstruction of gender.

HUNGERFORD:  Essentializing “woman” as an internal state of being is not deconstructing gender. Such a view actually reinforces the naturalism of “femininity” and other specific behaviors for “women.” One cannot make something true by merely declaring it so. She must argue it.

BK: That gender is made not born and, because gender is performative, I also believe, as Catharine put it to me, that there are many ways of becoming a woman including, sadly, sexual assault.

HUNGERFORD:  I strongly disagree that sexual assault is a sufficient or necessary condition for being a woman. Enough said for now.

BK: Although I have survived multiple sexual assaults, I believe that I will never fully know the fear that many, if not most, girls and women are all too familiar with.  I was 17 before I experienced my first sexual assault.  Until that point, I never had a concern about being alone with a man, walking after dark, or in a parking garage.  I grew up with many forms of privilege, but this privilege is often overlooked.

That radical feminists’ attempts to deny transgender people their expression of gender – no matter how based in stereotype they may appear to be – operates from a form of essentialism that contradicts their analysis and diminishes our joint efforts.

HUNGERFORD:  This is a major misunderstanding of radical feminist analysis of gender. It is not an individual’s gender expression that radical feminists fundamentally object to, nor would such objection necessarily be “essentialist.”

Radical feminists offer critique of femininity as a harmful social construct. This critique applies to ALL humans—male or female. There is nothing essentialist or inconsistent about asserting that NO one should perform femininity. It’s a perfectly defensible position.

Instead, our objection relates to whether gender expression is an “essential” part of oneself (the trans view) or whether it is culturally bound, like food preferences (the radfem view).

Radical feminists object to the idea that bodies and behaviors have a correct and incorrect way of “matching” up. We truly believe that gender roles are a social construct; not a reflection of our  neurobiology or existential selves. Women are not fundamentally constituted by our identification nor compliance with “femininity.”

As such, it is my belief that you should express however you want, but such expression (feelings, identity, appearance) should never be confused with the health or “correctness” of one’s genetic sex, genitals, and/or body.

BK: That in order to change the system of male dominance we must both allow and honor individual expressions of gender (even when, as with myself, that expression of gender is borne of male privilege) and engage in collective social activism.

That the increasing animosity and hostility between the radical feminist movement and the transgender movement is destructive to our mutual goal of the liberation of women from male dominance.

HUNGERFORD:   Women cannot be liberated from male violence and dominance if the social roles “man” and “woman” are reified as essential parts of human nature. Gender is the problem, not the solution. See also the testosterone discussion above: it is likely gender roles, not biology, that has enabled male dominance.

BK: That Julian Vigo is right to observe that “[i]f gender is inherently detrimental as the radical feminists maintain and if trans identification occurs in part because gender is rigidly interpreted and represented through normative modalities of behaving, then there will be unceasing dissonance between these two groups.” [2]

Nevertheless, I do not think that the two groups have to be at war with one another.  We need not trade verbal barbs and comments that denigrate the other.  And, most of all, we need not inflict violence upon each other.

I wish we could find a way to lift up one another.  I think that the system of gender has hurt us all for so long.  I do not want the voices of radical feminists silenced.  I just wish they would focus on the very real threats to women (and, in this, I will agree that a physical assault is of course a real threat!) and not turn their anger at this hateful system against trans persons.  On the flip side of that coin, I wish my brothers and sisters in the transgender community could either find a way to lift up the voices of radical feminists in areas where we so obviously agree, or at a minimum, ignore the arguments and words with which we may disagree.

Let us commit to working, together, for common values like the true liberation of women, the advancement of women in this society and around the world.  The real problem here isn’t whether or not trans-women get to claim womanhood. It’s about the number of women on the bench, in Congress, on boards of directors, in the CEO chair of Fortune 500 companies, and being paid less than men. It’s about the ongoing problem of a rape culture and the struggle it took to pass the Violence Against Women Act and the subsequent striking down of its key civil remedy provision.  It’s about the mass murder and mutilation of women around the world.  Please, let’s put our priorities in the right place.


[2]http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/06/07/the-left-hand-of-darkness/

___________________________

I’m not convinced that there is common ground from which to build solidarity between “radfems” and “trans” supporters, but we can’t even properly negotiate the disagreement if we continue personalizing the issues and attacking each other. In that respect, I am 100% in agreement with Ms. Brogan-Kator. 

12 comments

  1. Applause all round. The letter summarizes a clear position, albeit one I disagree with, and does a great job at separating personal attacks from discussion, sadly absent in places like GT.

    Also food preferences are a great analogy that can actually be used in another way too. (Thanks a lot!) It is well known that food preferences often reflect someone’s health. However, preference also reflects the available choice – so the same health condition would show differently in food preferences of people raised in different food cultures. In the same way, it can be argued that feelings of incongruence with the sex of one’s body have different cultural expressions throughout history, recorded at least since ancient Rome (and I only say this because I don’t have the literature for Egypt).

    Regarding a common ground or lack thereof, I’d like to offer you another analogy. There were two differing ideologies in fundamental conflict, Anglo-Saxon liberal capitalism and Communism. Yet there was also a very successful alliance in the Second World War. In a similar way, while trans and radfem ideologies fundamentally oppose each other on a basic philosophical level, there can be alliances on specific issues like those mentioned in the original letter, involuntary female genital mutilation or VAWA.

    Funnily, at that basic level (philosophical as opposed to political or practical) the conflicts themselves are alike. Trans ideology emphasizes individual difference; for trans, gender is a part of “I-dentity” and important because of that. Radfem is a strongly class-based analysis. (This does NOT mean that radfems are responsible for the Gulag or trans activists for homeless people dying of hunger).

    I suspect that there can not be common ground in *ideology* because the conflict is much older than present trans issues – it is, at the end of the day, individualism versus collectivism. For indivdualists, erasing gender, declaring it universally harmful (“no one should perform femininity”) would be erasing yet another form of individual difference and, thus, unacceptable – and, on the same basis, enforcing gender on any individual would be unacceptable.

  2. disfasia · ·

    Excellent analysis! I comment this form of dialogue that retains the necessary respect of which we should all be mindful!

  3. Reblogged this on Sifting Through The Pulp and commented:
    Most excellent.

  4. Again and again these dialogues, even when they are civil become circular and illogical with both parties talking past each other because the words used in the dialog have become conflated to mean things they never should!

    Gender, for example is not and never has been the issue with those born transsexual. It is their sex! That said, the effects of this “wrongness” in their lives is in fact manifest both in sex as well as in the way that person’s gender is inculcated by society. It was for this reason that SRS was created and it is still the only reason SRS is or will be asked for by those who actually are transsexual! For them, if you fix the sex, well as much as is humanly possible, any gender issues that have arisen will sort themselves out.

    The problem is that Transgender is something else entirely from transsexual. They have different needs and different trajectories and no matter how it is approached, just as the effect of conflating the two has negative effects on women, the same holds true for “the community” as well! If you cater to one, you must diminish the other.

    What has to happen if there is ever to be any resolution to any of these problems is to divorce Transsexual from Transgender! if you an get beyond the misogynisticly rooted fears to draw that bright line between those with an issue of anatomy from those with an issue of social roles. Then you can honestly and openly address the issues of “trans” and the patriarchy and the myriad of negative effects is has not just on women but on both the sexes!
    MKIA

  5. darliegoddess · ·

    Here is the problem, testosterone was tested on female brain structure. A feminized brain functions entirely different and studies already prove that. Why would you test it ONLY on a female brain ? Not even a transmans brain !

  6. darliegoddess, you’re missing the point. First of all, there is no such thing as a “feminized brain,” please don’t make me laugh/cry. If you have studies, please share them. But I will not rely on your proof-by-assertion when I have an entire page on this very website called “BRAIN SEX DOES NOT EXIST.” Check it out.

    Transmen are female. If they weren’t female, they wouldn’t need to “transition.” Know what I mean?

    The point is that testerone is NOT responsible for increased aggression. It seemed a diversion at the time, but since you mentioned it, testosterone realted aggression doesn’t seem to be provable on men either:

    http://jcem.endojournals.org/content/89/6/2837.full

    Effects of Testosterone on Mood, Aggression, and Sexual Behavior in Young Men: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Cross-Over Study
    Daryl B. O’Connor, John Archer and Frederick C. W. Wu

    Research is fun, isn’t it? So no matter which way you slice it– male or female– I’m not buying the assumption that hormones are responsbile for behavior…which directly implies that gender is chemical. It’s not.

    http://www.warandgender.com/

  7. Tobysgirl · ·

    Another question. I think it’s easy to accept that male aggression is a socialized behavior and not determined by hormones. But what about when males take additional testosterone, and often in large quantities? Is their behavior affected by the hormone or are they already of the mentality that they are super-macho and entitled to do what they please?

  8. Toby, your guess is as good as mine. But until the bioloigcal explanation has better evidentiary support, our permissive social environment is CLEARLY the primary contributing factor to (if not sole cause of) male aggression and violence.

    When a phenomenon has another reasonable explanation (nurture), deductive reasoning cannot be relied on as proof of causation (nature). This is basic logic.

  9. One question. I saw this:
    “Radical feminists offer critique of femininity as a harmful social construct. This critique applies to ALL humans—male or female. There is nothing essentialist or inconsistent about asserting that NO one should perform femininity. It’s a perfectly defensible position.”
    My question here is with the word ‘perform’. Nobody should perform gender, certainly, they should just be who and as they are. My perform, do you mean ‘Nobody should perform – i.e. pretend – to be feminine when they are not’, or do you mean ‘Nobody should be feminine, because I don’t think femininity exists’?
    And how would your feelings change if instead of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ they were called two random words, without the socially attached implications, but still with the denoting of a kinder and gentler (weaker?) approach on the one hand, and a more stern/violent/strong one on the other?

  10. *Small addendum: *By perform, not ‘My perform’. And also I’d like to apologize for sneaking another question in there.

  11. Hi echoe, thanks for your question. No, I don’t mean “pretend to be feminine when they are not.” I don’t think femininity is a natural state of being. It exists as a cultural construct, but it is not natural to anyone. I believe that femininity and masculinity are false *groupings* of characteristics. All humans display, or can display, ASPECTS of so-called femininity (emotionalism, care-taking, listening, etc etc etc).

    I also don’t want to retain binary social roles that are defined by kinder/gentler and stern/strong, rather than man/woman or masc/fem. That is no better. Femininity teaches women to accept subservience. I want all people to be more balanced.

    If you are interested in my personal analysis of female femininity, I wrote about it most recently here: http://revolutionarycombustion.wordpress.com/2013/06/28/femininity-revisited/

  12. Tobysgirl · ·

    Elizabeth, I am looking forward to reading both your article on identity politics and the article linked to above. Thank you very much.

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