Sunday, 24 March 2013

Trans ("vs.") feminism.

Consequential to the Moore/Burchill debacle (referenced in this post), BBC Radio Four recently (on March 18th last) devoted an Analysis programme to a trans/gender discussion. In ‘Who decides if I'm a woman?’ (available as an mp3 download or PDF transcript), “Jo Fidgen explores the underlying ideas which cause so much tension between radical feminists and transgender campaigners, and discovers why recent changes in the law and advances in science are fuelling debate.”

The contributors were (using the BBC précis): James Barrett (consultant psychiatrist and lead clinician at the Charing Cross GIC), Julie Bindel (feminist and journalist), Lord Alex Carlile QC (Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords), Melissa Hines (professor of psychology at Cambridge University), Richard O'Brien (writer of The Rocky Horror Show), Ruth Pearce (postgraduate researcher in sociology at the University of Warwick), and Stephen Whittle OBE (professor of equalities law at Manchester Metropolitan University). Some spoke well, others less so, but it was a decent programme in the main and well worth listening to (or reading). For me the stand-out comment was:

Jo Fidgen (11:52): Can you tell me then, in pretty basic terms, how you would go about determining what sex somebody is?
Melissa Hines: I would ask them.

Damn right! And you can't get much more basic than that.

Radical feminist Julie Bindel was, as might be anticipated, on the “less so” side of things. JB has a dubious reputation in trans circles, mainly because of an obstreperous article she wrote in 2004 (which I'm not going to link). She's apologized for that more than once (her interview with Paris Lees, which is up on youtube, is worth seeing too), but she's still trotting out some tired old stuff. For instance (08:21): “What, ultimately, feminists want to do is to eradicate the straitjacket of gender. What transgender people want to do is defend gender and keep a very strong hold on it as integral to their identity. They rely on gender to showcase femininity and masculinity.”

JB sees gender (I'm assuming) as a social construct (of the patriarchy), which imposes oppressive gender roles on men and women, especially women. And to a large extent I think she'd be right there. Gender roles and "rules" can be very oppressive, and I'd agree that they need to be eradicated. Indeed, trans people are often on the very sharp end of such rules (for all sorts of reasons). So far so good; as trans/feminist activist Ruth Pearce replies (09:27): “a trans perspective and a feminist perspective aren't necessarily at odds.”

Where I think we differ is as follows: JB's particular brand of radical feminism believes that the gender system and gender are one in the same, that the gender system is gender, that it's intrinsically harmful and must be abolished. Whereas trans (and queer) feminists believe – okay, I'm really speaking for myself here – that gender is merely a human attribute, infinitely varied but intrinsically neutral; something each of us has (in some form) as individuals, but which is constrained, forced into a false and oppressive discrete binary, by the prevailing gender system (or culture). Rather than trying to abolish gender, it's the gender system that needs dismantling, thereby leaving us free to develop and express our individual genders in whatever way we need or desire. In other words, trans feminism wants “to eradicate the straitjacket of gender” and “keep a very strong hold on it as integral” to our identities. We want to have our cake and eat it too. Julie Bindel would probably say that isn't possible. I think she'd be wrong.

Fundamentally, this is an ideological difference (albeit grounded in our lives and experiences) as to what gender actually is, and we're unlikely to resolve it any time soon. Perhaps not until we step back and accept that applying our own (differing) perspectives indiscriminately on everyone else is neither possible nor sensible. In the meantime, what I'd like JB's radical feminists to bear in mind is this:

Trans people are not (necessarily) doing what you think we're doing just because your politics say we are.

Trans people do not (necessarily) believe that sex and gender correlate in an essentialist and biological binary, even when we might look as though we do.

Trans people do not (necessarily) perpetuate or support that oppressive binary, either by our existence or our choices.

Trans people do not (necessarily) think that women and men are inherently and discretely different, nor that these are the only two possibilities.

But most of all, when you're holding forth about trans issues and are about to say “they” — please just stop.


  1. I do recommend that everyone watches the Youtube clip of Julie Bindel being interviewed by Paris Lees (thanks for the link, J). Julie comes across to me as so wise and humane that I was actually quite moved. She easily transcends Paris Lees' attempt to cast her as a villain, and proves without doubt that she is no transphobic monster. The way she apologises so thoughtfully and unreservedly is the act of an exceptional person.

    As she indicates at the end, the real conflict is between caring people with bold, discriminate intelligences and those (on whatever side) who revel in 'us versus them' conflict, who thrive on distortion and caricature, misrepresenting people, taking quotes out of context, highlighting one side's aggression and ignoring that of the other, refusing to grant that any views different from their own are worthy of respect.

    I am sure that JB would respond to your comments thoughtfully, J.

    Trans commentators, if you are holding forth about radical feminists and are about to say 'they', please just stop. xx

  2. Hi Deborah :)

    I am sure that JB would respond to your comments thoughtfully, J.

    Well, I don't know about that; she's probably heard it all before ;)

    As for the youtube interview (for META magazine), I wouldn't say that Paris was trying to cast JB as a villain there. She was just asking the relevant questions. How she wrote it up afterwards, on the other hand... Yes, it did seem to me like JB had held out a hand and Paris had pretty much spat on it.

    Then again, JB does come out with some nonsense. For instance, from the Analysis transcript:

    (07:30) “The Gender Recognition Act is further entrenching the notion of gender. It's saying that there is such a thing as a female brain, that there is such a thing as a real man and a real woman, and this is precisely what feminism is tasked with challenging.

    No, it really isn't saying that. The idea of male and female brains is a red herring anyway. All the research might indicate is a possible biological aetiology for some trans natures, which is interesting but otherwise mostly irrelevant. It doesn't imply at all that there's such a thing as a "real" man or a "real" woman.

    For one thing, men's and women's brains are almost identical, the only significant difference being size. And in any case, the existence of physical difference – or even an apparent difference in operation (men's and women's brains sometimes light up differently under neurological scans) – doesn't necessitate a difference in function, or behaviour, or inherent capability, or anything based on binary sex. The scientific evidence (laid out in Cordelia Fine's ‘Delusions of Gender’) seems pretty clear on that, and ideas of trans selfhood don't threaten it at all; i.e. the feminist challenge to essentialist conclusions drawn from binary sex isn't suddenly rendered invalid just because someone is trans.

    (18:03) “Many children who present as transgender end up identifying as either lesbian or gay in later life and no longer identify as transgender. Definitely, had I been taken to a psychiatrist when I was, you know, in my early teens and was being bullied because of living outside of gender rules [JT: or possibly "roles", not sure], I may well have been given a diagnosis of being transgender and I could be sitting here talking to you as a male. So, I think hormone blockers for children are a dreadful idea.

    Okay, I can certainly see where she's coming from here. The gay and trans communities – and historically, women too – have hard experience of medicine and psychiatry trying to eradicate gender "non-conformity" by all sorts of appalling means. JB is probably worried that diagnosing children as trans could lead to something similar, in that they might thereby be "forced" into a normative gender binary (including compulsory heterosexuality), albeit one "at odds" with their morphological sex. So yes, we do need to be careful that doesn't happen. But in general, the fact is that hormone blockers can make actual trans children's (or rather, teenagers) lives much better, without permanent physical consequences.


  3. (18:41) “I was volunteering at a service near a street prostitution area where the women had an appalling history of child sexual abuse and who were being abused on the streets. And a male to female transgender person, pre-op, came in – beard, stubble, very short skirt, sat with her legs very widely splayed and obviously had male genitals – and proceeded to behave aggressively to the other women. And there was nothing that the manager of the service could do to tell her to leave because she legally has the right to be in that space as a woman.

    Ooo, an anecdote, hurrah! Yes indeed and I was in the pub the other night and my mate Steve said something happened to a bloke at his work and you wouldn't believe it except that you would it's just typical nowadays I don't know what the world's coming to and they should all be locked up...

    Sigh. Using the misbehaviour of one person (or a few people) to condemn a whole group by association is just plain bigotry. Even considering this one case, I find it hard to believe that the manager could do nothing. If someone is being a total jerk, they can always be asked to leave, and if necessary the police can be brought in. The problem here may have been that the police would be even more unwelcome in that particular space.

    (19:19) “There are also examples of trans women who are in women's prisons, and often these trans women are in there for inflicting violence upon women; that their rights are viewed as more important than the women in those prisons.

    And this is blatantly silly. A woman whose crime is against other women is not therefore sent to a men's prison.

    Well, anyway, leaving that sort of stuff aside, I actually have a lot of time for Julie Bindel. But I do wish she'd leave trans issues alone.

  4. Hi J,

    I beg to differ.

    1. Re (07.30): A lot of transsexual commentators do use scientific evidence to support the notion that they are essentially female - 'real women'. There's a lot on Jack Molay's blog about such research, for instance. Some trans people take different attitudes; my point is we shouldn't assume that JB wouldn't acknowledge such differences of attitude and respond fairly and thoughtfully.

    2. Re (18.41) I don't think JB is condemning a whole group. She is pointing out an unfortunate consequence of legal acceptance of Melissa Hines' take on gender determination.

    3. Re (19.19) I think there is good reason to keep abusers of women away from women's prisons, where the abusers have abused - and might still abuse - in a distinctively male way.


  5. Hi Deb

    I beg to counter-differ ;)

    On #1: Yes, sure – the HBS crew, for example. But personally, I don't think claims for trans aetiology are all that relevant. Biological evidence (if it exists) of trans – and, especially, of being a particular sex – doesn't need to imply anything more than that. A claim to be a woman, for instance, isn't in itself a claim that women are all... well, whatever. Okay, some trans people do have an essentialist, conservative view of sex and gender, but that's true of some people whether trans or not. (It's true of some feminists for that matter.) It doesn't mean that trans itself is inherently conservative. (And if JB did really acknowledge that, I don't think she would be implying the contrary.)

    On #2 & #3: Sorry, but I think those viewpoints only make sense if you dispute that trans women are really women. Otherwise, #2 is a case of someone needing to be expelled from a particular space for behaving badly; their trans status is only relevant if the claim is being made that trans women in general are likely to behave in that way (which is bigotry). As for #3, where else would a criminally violent woman go but to a women's prison? As far as I know, people aren't allocated to prisons according to whether inmates of the same group as their victims are there as well.

    It all comes down to the crucial point made in the Analysis programme, highlighted by presenter Jo Fidgen's closing remarks (27:05): “Who, then, decides if I’m a woman? I do. Scientists and policy makers agree on that.” Whereas certain radical feminists reject that, basically saying “we do, and they're not”. Obviously I take the “I do” point of view.

    PS These debates are almost always about trans women, aren't they. It was quite a treat to listen to a programme that (despite the title) acknowledged some of the rest of us too :)

  6. But most of all, when you're holding forth about trans issues and are about to say “they” — please just stop.

    A thousand times yes. Oh, and top marks for the addition of the word 'necessarily'. A useful little add on, which I wish more folk would use. What's going on in your head, may not (necessarily) but what's going on in my head..... although not doubt there's some common ground.

    I've downloaded the MP3, so I'll pop off and have a listen. I'm curious to what Richard O'Brien has to say. There's an interview with him - in New Zealand? - in which he talks about what it is, for him at least, to be trans. I found his take very moving.

    Where I my gender? I've no idea. Somewhere in the middle, I suppose.

    Yes, I do tend to dress and cross-dress into either binary, but that's just me and that's appearance; not what goes on inside my head.

    Would I mix the two images if I felt I could? I honestly don't know. Maybe - and from an appearance point of view - I'd slide very heavily towards one pole, and then back towards the other. I'm not in that space to attempt it, so I guess we'll never know.

  7. Thanks, Lynn :)

    Yes, inserting "necessarily" seemed necessary – because, well, some of us do believe and think things like that. But for some radical feminists to stereotype trans on the basis of what some of us think is equivalent to, I dunno, stereotyping women on the basis of what *insert right-wing gender-essentialist anti-feminist woman of choice* thinks.

    On my own gender... Yes, if gender is viewed as a continuum between "opposite" poles male and female, then I guess I'm somewhere in the middle too. And that's a useful sort of shorthand. But I don't really view gender in that way any more. Rather (if we're using mathematical models) as a multi-dimensional array, with my gender being what it is wherever it is, and consequently very hard to visualize (being in multi-dimensional space). Alternatively, the label "genderqueer" describes it quite nicely, in that it says my gender is "queer" (i.e. non-normative) in some way, without actually specifying how. So, again, it just is what it is. Probably some people might find that annoying ;)