This is my response to the reactionary and misguided “A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism” (The Statement) posted at FeministsFightingTransphobia.wordpress.com.
We can all agree, I think, that people’s actual lives are more important than theoretical abstractions– including those related to “identity.” This is precisely why, as feminists, we demand acknowledgement for the lived realities and material conditions of women’s lives, including the social mechanics of sex-and-gender-assignment that ultimately give rise to women’s oppression. But beyond this, there are a truly alarming number of misrepresentations, inconsistencies, and logical errors in The Statement. I will address many of them below.
First things first, I want to point out that characterizing gender critical feminists as “transphobic feminists” remains unsupported where “transphobia” is not defined. Repeated use of this term to demonize a certain kind of political speech or political actor is clearly intended to be insulting rather than instructive; it serves as a way to shame us and any of our potential supporters into silence. Personally, I have no intention of insulting other feminists and escalating hostility by using similar epithets to describe them or their political views.
Throughout this response I will refer to myself and others who share my general view of gender as gender critical feminists (no acronym). Because that’s what we do. We are feminists who criticize gender as a harmful social construct that distributes power unequally.
I will begin at the third paragraph of The Statement:
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.
The first phrase in this sentence-long paragraph collapses sexual identity and gender identity into one. This in inaccurate; they are not the same thing. The only connection between sexual identity1 and gender identity is the one created by patriarchy via compulsory heteronormativity.2 Naturalizing gender as if it were programmed from within3 is the very definition of gender essentialism.
Gender critical feminists are critical(!) of gender essentialism because it is the primary basis of and ideological justification for women’s oppression, including but not limited to the deadly epidemic of violence against women.4 The paragraph further suggests that gender-critical feminists’ refusal to accept a false equivalency between the experiential and material realities of female-socialized and male-socialized people is somehow less nuanced, less thoughtful, and less supportable (not rigorous) than the lazy conflation of women’s embodied oppression with a skin-deep “woman” identity that anyone can claim. In no other context and along no other axis of oppression would we be comfortable with members of the oppressor class appropriating the social identities of those “below” them in the social hierarchy. Nowhere does The Statement address or acknowledge this inconsistency. I can only assume that the writers either believe in the pseudo-science of “brain sex,” an obvious form of gender essentialism, or they have failed to consider the dire consequences of privileging “identity authenticity” over a responsible analysis of the material realities of (women’s) oppression.
IDENTITY AS REALITY
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.
It is not a moral imperative to acknowledge subjective “identification.” Sarah Palin has also identified as a feminist. That does not make it true or accepted. Attaching the term “gender” to “identification” does not render it sacred and above social analysis. This is a fundamental disagreement, one that we probably cannot transcend, but there is a saying that I find appropriate here: “don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” You can call yourself whatever you want; being a feminist does not require me to agree with you. You cannot force others to perceive you according to your own subjective construction of reality. It is simply an unreasonable request.
Next, I want to address feminist-blaming for the medical profession’s “gate keeping.” “Medical necessity” is the technical term at issue for both entitlement to medical treatment generally and to insurance coverage of said treatment. “Medical aid” in the form of surgery and hormonal therapy (I am excluding psychotherapy here) necessarily requires a scientifically provable biological connection between sex and gender identity. Proof that gender is more than a psycho-social phenomenon, in other words. Fortunately for females, centuries of patriarchal science have been unable to prove that “brain sex”– in the form of innate behavioral and personality differences between the sexes– actually exists. Further, it is not logically possible for one to be “born in the wrong body” when the body is medically healthy and functions normally. There is therefore no “medical necessity,” no entitlement to special “medical aid,” and no human rights crisis relating to so-called “transition” procedures. This is not feminists’ fault! Blame patriarchy, don’t blame women.
That should be dispositive of the “medical aid” issue but moreover, there is an obvious logical error here: one cannot simultaneously seek authenticity within the binary and destroy or undermine the binary at the same time.5 By identifying within the binary, trans people seeking “medical aid” to transition reinforce the legitimacy of the binary itself. It is intellectually dishonest not to deal with this logical inconsistency.
WOMAN IS, WOMAN ISN’T
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.
This is pure misrepresentation. Gender critical feminists do not posit “woman” as an identity. Identity politics is not our game; it is “gender identity” activists who argue that woman is nothing more than an “identity.”
In our view, identifying as a “woman” is neither necessary nor sufficient. Our criticism of “gender identity” politics is that it erases the lived realities and material constraints placed on women and girls from birth– regardless of whether they enjoy being “women” or not, and regardless of whether they “identify” with other women. To be a “woman” is to have been assigned6 the girl/woman social position from birth; subjective identification with that social position is irrelevant and varies wildly.
What the authors of this statement misguidedly interpret as “policing the identity” is actually a neutral statement of fact regarding how individuals are classified at birth. Gender critical feminists demand that feminists acknowledge the tools of oppression (including gender essentialism and reproductive exploitation) harming female-bodied and girl/woman-socialized people under patriarchy and that critical analysis of these tools not be sacrificed in a hasty bid to “validate” the identities of non-female people. To be a woman is an experience that begins at birth. Difference exists.
It is yet more circular logic to deny that “woman” exists as a coherent and stable social category, then demand recognition for individuals who insist that they definitely, without question, belong in the social category “woman” because they know exactly what it feels like to be a “woman.” Either the class “woman” exists as a social category or it doesn’t. Either being a “woman” is something important and meaningful or it isn’t. You can’t have it both ways.
WOMEN’S POWER AS WOMEN
Last up in this section is an argument that sounds like it came from the men’s rights movement: “They are refusing to acknowledge their own power and privilege.” The only social characteristic that all gender critical feminists share is that we are women, so the implication must be that gender critical feminists are granted power and privilege on the basis of being women. The Statement’s signatories, apparently, take a ‘reverse-racism’ approach to sexism.
Power analysis is the core of feminist thought, but there is none here. Women are actually oppressed by the social construction of gender. How would you like to count the ways? Women, as a social category, fare worse than men, as a social category, by every measure of power we can think of: wealth, property ownership, dominion over public space, professional standing, education, governmental representation, and more. This disparity in power is caused by accepting the naturalization of gender in the form of sex-based social roles. If one believes that women are privileged as women under patriarchy, they cannot sincerely expect us to consider them as feminists…then again, maybe they can. Because identity politics is king.
VIOLENCE IS AS VIOLENCE DOES
We recognize that transphobic feminists have used violence and threats of violence against trans* people and their partners and we condemn such behavior.
If this is true, I am so sorry! I also condemn such behavior. I do not, however, know of any violence against trans* people from any of those who might be considered “transphobic feminists.” Violence is a very serious allegation. When, where, and from whom did this violence happen? Without an offer of proof, I must ask for it. And actually, that’s exactly what FireWomon did and she was told to shut up because her question might hurt someone’s feelings. Oh yeah, that happened.
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.
To say that feminist criticism of gender is effectively an incitement to violence against trans people, and trans people of color in particular, is logically and legally absurd. Such political speech does not meet the test for harm. The outrageous claim that gender critical feminism is equivalent to violence is meant to shame us and any potential supporters into silent agreement with the circular identity-logic that prohibits discussion of the material basis of women’s oppression. It is false and manipulative to assert that analyzing gender as a social construct that unequally distributes power between the sexes is in any way responsible for violence against trans people. Further, there is absolutely no evidence that violent thugs have read or are influenced by feminist writings. No really, there isn’t.
MALE VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
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.
Again, feminists are not responsible for other people’s violence! That is woman-hating, victim-blaming nonsense. Male violence is a problem. But it’s not women’s responsbility, nor is it in our power, to prevent it.
Additionally, domestic violence shelters are available for men. While this alternative does not “validate” one’s identity as a “woman,” it is still an available option to transwomen. And men. In any policy, there must always be a balancing of interests, and in this case, the law has ruled that women have the right to define woman-only space.
But if we take the analysis further, and we should, one must question why a transwoman would be in more danger at a men’s shelter than at a women’s shelter. And please note that this is a common argument used by trans advocates. Is it because “cis” men are more violent and abusive than “cis” women? Is it because gender-based violence is primarily perpetrated by men against women? And not the other way around? Statistically speaking, the disparity in violence and aggression between men and women is undeniable. The bitter irony is that cultural tolerance for male violence is a direct result of accepting gender as natural and inevitable.7
IF GENDER IS INNATE, MALE VIOLENCE IS TOO
Now, if gender is innate and male masculinity is the most “authentic” presentation of the male gender (see also the narratives of transmen), then it follows from this argument that some iteration of male aggression is also innate. This is not the view of most gender critical feminists, of course, because we believe that gender is a purely social construct. But the grave and enduring harm caused to women by men is a problem that must be explained. If gender is biologically fixed, as those who believe that all humans have an innate and unchanging “gender identity” say it is, then male violence is inevitable. I call on trans advocates to address the epidemic of male violence against women in light of the gender essentialism they preach. It is, yet again, a massive hole in their reasoning. Gender hurts women; address the problem.
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.
If having to choose a binary-marked bathroom is the problem, I suggest advocacy for the desegregation of bathrooms altogether. This is a serious proposal. For those who posit sex and gender as mutable and/or irrelevant social categories, there would clearly be no point in sex-segregation at all.
As an alternative, offering the reasonable accommodation of a private, unisex bathroom—even if somewhat inconvenient to the user– is the usual compromise given to people with special bathroom needs of any kind, trans or otherwise. We are not entitled to convenience, we are only entitled to reasonable accommodation. But this is usually unacceptable to trans advocates. It would make sense, then, for them to advocate for desegregation entirely. Their current strategy requires individuals to fight anew for each and every identity-related exception to standard bathroom procedure. Every trans individual must still wage his or her own time-consuming battle for “correct” bathroom use. I question the wisdom of this and wonder why trans-activists do not take a more inclusive approach to their world view that sex is utterly irrelevant to everything. Maybe because they actually support sex-segregation for all the reasons that gender critical feminists do.
CRITICISM≠SILENCE, BUT CRITICISM=VIOLENCE
We also reject the notion that trans* activists’ critiques of transphobic bigotry “silence” anybody. Criticism is not the same as silencing.
Yeah, well, criticism is also not the same as violence. Or even incitement to violence. See my arguments earlier. These same authors have claimed that gender criticism is equivalent to violence. Internal inconsistency undermines the supposed “rejection.” Continues below.
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.
Here, the well-documented violent rhetoric from transwomen is trivialized as “so-called”– as if it didn’t really happen– while dissenting political speech by feminists is framed as actually violent. What an incredible double standard! In fact, the recent emphasis by gender critical feminists on the use of violent rhetoric against women is entirely appropriate because it is real and is entirely unacceptable. This statement also belies ignorance of feminist history. Feminists and radical feminists have been continuously fighting against gender essentialism– a view apparently embraced by the writers of The Statement– for at least that many decades.
AN EYE FOR AN EYE
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.
The behavior–or if you prefer the arguably justified anger– of one gender critical woman who has been viciously targeted by multiple sources (documented!) is being used here to justify the dismissal and condemnation of ALL gender critical feminists. Wait, that’s what you just said not to do.
If one wishes her point to be taken seriously, she is well-advised not to do the very thing she complains about in the following two sentences! If certain violent transwomen are not representative of all trans people, then by the same token, the actions of one gender critical feminist must not be representative of all gender critical feminists. One begins to wonder if the authors understand or have read what they’ve written at all.
“The pernicious rhetoric of collective guilt” would more accurately describe the emotional appeal to trans victimhood used to activate the liberal guilt of privileged people while usurping the resources of established LGB organizations and the language of previous civil rights movements; to fetishize overwhelmingly male violence against trans people as the most pressing political cause of our time without confronting the gendered nature of all violence; and best of all, to circumvent power analysis of gendered social categorization.
IDENTITY POLITICS DOES NOT FIGHT OPPRESSION, POWER ANALYSIS DOES
Fighting oppression requires us to understand how it operates. Oppression is not caused by and cannot be cured by identity-switching between pre-fabricated social categories that demarcate who shall be privileged and who shall not be. Musical identity-chairs is a nice thought, but it is not an informed response to the power structures that create and maintain social hierarchies of oppression. Identifying-out of the class “woman” is simply not possible for most of us.8 And that’s just another one of the many problems with identity politics: it offers the large majority of women in the world absolutely nothing in terms of understanding or finding relief from their sex-and-gender-based oppression. Because there is no power analysis.
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.
My bold, not in original. That statement reads like it could have been written by, wait for it, a gender critical feminist. It’s absolutely stunning. They fail so completely to understand our arguments that this irony is lost on them. I will clarify:
RESTATEMENT OF CONCLUSION
Females are exploited daily, globally, and historically on the basis of biological sex. Females are materially oppressed on the basis of being born with a vagina and a (presumed or actual) “baby-maker.” All of this occurs in the context of a rape culture, I might add. That is fucking significant. Pun intended. Theories of gender identity are not more important than acknowledging real females’ real lives and the material conditions of women’s oppression; we reject any theory of gender, sex, or sexuality, or identity that calls on us to sacrifice the needs of any subjugated and marginalized group– including sacrifice of the need to acknowledge, discuss, and directly confront the material and embodied forms of women’s oppression on the basis of both sex and gender.
We are committed to making our classrooms, our writing, and our research inclusive of trans* people’s lives.
And I am committed to discussing the ways in which gender oppresses women, no matter how many times I am insulted and dismissed and misrepresented. People’s lives and material realities most certainly are more important than theory.
1 Unclear as to whether this means sexual-identity as in sexuality (homo/hetero/bi), or in reference to the fiction of sex-identity. I suspect the latter, but either usage is consistent with my related criticism.
2 I intend to include both compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory gender-normativity in my use of the term “heteronormativity.”
3 Thank you, redfeminist, for the “programmed from within” phrasing: http://theredfeminist.tumblr.com/post/61486399816/the-vicious-circularity-of-gender-essentialist
4 See culturally accepted sentiments such as “boys will be boys.”
5 “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” ~Albert Einstein
6 Assigned by patriarchy and patriarchy-compliant actors, please note.
7 See the “cult of masculinity” analysis here: http://www.womenundersiegeproject.org/blog/entry/Sexual-violence-against-women-is-the-result-of-the-cult-of-masculinity