Saturday 7 October 2017

Trans "vs." feminism. (5)

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.


  1. I'm not a trans activist, but.... :-)

    Let's say we see a woman in the street and she's being victimised or even bullied. Name your cliché: everyday sexism, religious persecution, slut shaming, etc.

    If she was a friend, a partner, a relation: would we not step in and try to help? Would we not be furiousky disgusted by the behaviour of the bullies?

    Yet, many will read the printed hate and nod, or even join in. This does no one any favours. Do we really want a society in which it's okay to pick on someone because of who they are? No, we bloody well don't.

    In closing, I wonder if this is a media fire feed through advertising oxygen. Hate sells if you will. Bias confirmation doubly so.

    I very much doubt there's anything I could say to a TERF that would change their mind. But I don't think that would stop me challenging their hatred to another trans person.

    Well, unless the other's a Nazi ;-)

  2. No indeed, it's hard to change people's minds. Hence I duly promoted the above as "another pointless blogpost" on Twitter.

    I dunno. It's the absolutism of their position which tires me out: sex is biological, gender is a social construct. Well, yes, sure. I believe that myself to a very large extent, and it's certainly very useful theoretically to consider them in that way. But are they only that? In all contexts? For everyone? Everywhere?

    It's rather like the supposed difference between TV and TS, such that TV is about crossing boundaries of social gender and TS is about crossing boundaries of sex, which is sort of true, sort of. But as anyone who has ever partaken of a trans label "debate" will know, when you actually get to people it all becomes much more complicated, and absolutist positions don't really make much sense. (Never mind making people very cross.)

    I think perhaps the best we can say is these things are true most of the time, and make useful generalizations on that basis. Isn't that good enough? Why does it have to be all the time?