I've avoided writing anything on this subject for over three years (my last was in 2014), regarding it as a waste of both time and spoons. However, it becomes harder to refrain in the course of another clickbaiting run in the opinion pages, following an incident at Speakers’ Corner (about which Sam Hope writes perspicaciously here). Fortunately for me, a lot of papers are now paywalling their online content, and I'm certainly not going to part with actual money to read anybody's tripe. The Guardian, on the other hand, has so far kept its access commendably free, thus requiring me to exercise strength of will to ignore it, something I can't always manage to do. Latest in the Guardian's own series is a piece by radical feminist, Claire Heuchan, aka Sister Outrider.
I'm not going to critique her article line by line here, since it contains little which has not been said (and answered) a thousand times already. I might perhaps reiterate that, as history has repeatedly shown, most recently post-Brexit and in Trump America, normalizing prejudice contributes in no small way to the incidence of prejudicial violence, so she is being somewhat disingenuous in downplaying that factor for violence (etc) against trans people. If you help to foster an atmosphere in which such violence (etc) proliferates, in this case a dehumanizing atmosphere of disbelief and disrespect, you are at least partly culpable for it.
But leaving that aside (supposing you complacently can) to focus on feminist politics, I just want to highlight one short passage which, like the author, I think gets to the root of the "problem" – but, unlike her, think it's a problem that some (not all) radical feminists continue to make for themselves:
“The tension between radical feminists and queer activists stems from two contradictory ways of defining gender. Queer politics positions gender as an innately held identity. The radical feminist understanding is that gender exists as a political system, not an identity. Recognising gender as innately held, a factor that should be enshrined as a protected characteristic, totally contradicts radical feminist principles.”
Because, no, it does not contradict them. The fact that some people are trans has no impact at all on feminist principles, radical or otherwise. More specifically, trans feminist politics (more relevant than queer politics here) in fact position gender as a personal identity and a political system, without any contradictory issues. It's simply a matter of allowing a word (in this case “gender”) to have meaning in more than a single context. Whereas radical feminism, at least as Claire Heuchan describes it, understands gender only as a political system.
Within that context radical feminist analysis is indeed very powerful. Statements such as “Gender roles are the pillars of patriarchy. Therefore, challenging gender is a necessary step towards the liberation of women.” are ones with which most trans feminists tend to agree, even if we might not express it in quite the same language.
But crucially, a radical feminism that cannot consider gender in any other way is also unable to understand it in any other. For instance, the author's use of “innately held identity” above (never mind its immediate association with "born this way" narratives, which many of us find problematic) is then always misrepresented, logically but fallaciously, as the belief that gender norms are therefore innate, which we definitely do not believe. On the contrary, trans feminists are natural allies of radical feminists here, both being severely critical of gender roles and of essentialist notions that they might be somehow fixed according to binary sex. Cordelia Fine's work is as much revered in our feminist world as it is in hers.
To put it bluntly, given such a monolithic view of gender, radical feminism has virtually nothing useful to say about trans. Which is totally fine, by the way. There's no need for radical feminists to theorize about trans. It's not their turf. And trans realities are not a threat to radical feminist principles, whatever Claire Heuchan might think.
Nevertheless, some radical feminists do seem to be completely obsessed with trans, to the extent that they've been perpetuating a pointless and hateful conflict with us for over forty years (and are still being given endless platforms from which to do so). Throwing in lip service now, as the author does, to trans rights (their equivalent of “I'm not racist, but...”) isn't a whole lot of progress to have made in all that time. Similarly, criticizing one's obstreperous sisters, while repeating the essence of their views, is little more than tone policing – or, to paraphrase Stewart Lee, cloaking their inherent transphobia behind more creative language.
So it can't really be a surprise, can it, if trans people (and very many others nowadays) are utterly uninterested in listening to certain radical feminists blather about trans, no matter how impressive their feminist credentials might be. From a purely trans perspective, after four decades plus of your not listening to us, why on earth would we want to listen to you, let alone "debate" you? Instead, we're increasingly resorting to the only sensible option left, to tell you in so many words to talk to the hand, a strategy I shall now revert to once more myself.
See you again in another three years no doubt.