One of the many ironies of the trans life is the fact that oftentimes your worst enemies can be found among the very people you should be able to trust most. One who spends much time in any number of activist circles will not take long to learn this the hard way. The LGBTQ movement as a whole is legendary for its internal strife and battles between cis LGB people who feel the T really ought not be there. Never mind the Q. But today we’re going to focus on the other bastion of sad, activist irony in this sordid and political mess: feminism.
Feminism, near and dear to my heart, is a force for good in this world, ultimately. Its basic tenets have lent me much strength in recent years, and a great deal of pride in myself; the perfect antidote to the shame that trans women are so often made to live with. It was second nature for me to find the numerous intersections between feminism and trans activism, and to see how the issues trans women face are often times part and parcel of wider misogyny. What has so often puzzled me is why some feminists like the execrable Julie Bindel can’t see them. The answer, at the end of the day, lies in the fact that they do not know us and they do not care to know us.
Otherwise they wouldn’t destroy the work of their foremothers with every stroke of their pens, now would they?
How can I make this charge? It’s quite simple really: there are a lot of arguments transphobic ‘feminists’ use against trans people and all of them are entirely hypocritical from a feminist point of view. The arguments only make sense if you see trans people are some kind of set type, where we’re all the same and all caricatures in precisely the same ways.
What are those arguments?
- Trans women are parodies of femininity. This is a popular mainstay among radfems who insist that we’re all caricatures of women who, as Julie Bindel might put it, wear ‘fuck me heels’ and have ‘birds nest hair’ or who all look like 50s-era, Mrs. Cleaver style women. This idea allows them to portray us as agents of patriarchy who fetishise clothing and other feminine trappings and thus pose as ersatz women to complete the illusion. So we become the bad guys! Emphasis on guys, of course. I do not need to go into great detail about why this is stupid. Suffice it to ask: how many trans women do you know who dress and act like fembots? We encompass the same vast diversity that is reflected in all women: from butch to femme and everything in between, to every character trait, interest, spiritual pursuit, comportment, or ideal you can think of. There’s a trans woman for that. But this neglects a broader point, after all. How is it a hypocrisy to feminism? Because it relies on media stereotypes and nothing more. The only way you could get away with believing that, as Ms. Bindel does, the world would look like the set of *Grease* if everyone were transsexual people is by not knowing real trans people and going by the ample number of caricatures of trans women readily available throughout the media. This violates a feminist shibboleth:hear the voices of real women. Real trans women would show them such stereotypes are untrue, and the testimony of their experience should matter more than what one sees in *The Crying Game.* It also violates a second shibboleth: do not take media imagery as gospel. We as feminists spend a great deal of time critiquing the media precisely because it presents a false image of the world, and of women in particular. To go by what the media says about trans women with total unquestioning faith, when one knows what’s going on, is rank hypocrisy.
- Trans women’s femininity is imposed on them by doctors. This may sound somewhat innocuous, if conspicuously lacking in detail, but it is another popular trope of certain ‘feminists’ to suggest that we are made into fembots who wear pounds of makeup and favour hairstyles that went out of fashion in 1969 because psychiatrists made us do it in an effort to reinforce the patriarchy. The funny thing is, that statement by itself is not wrong. Many trans women have unpleasant stories to share about how psychiatrists would chide them for wearing trousers (even those cut for women) and would not consider them to be ‘making progress’ unless they acted as feminine as possible, often hyperbolically feminine. The stories get much worse certainly and there is a lot of room for a feminist response to this barbarous behaviour on the part of psychiatrists, which even continues to this day in some (thankfully diminishing) quarters. After all, it is misogyny that motivates these therapists who gleefully seek to control women. Yet what do the ‘feminists’ do? Blame us for it. This violates what is perhaps Rule 1 of Feminism 101: don’t blame the fucking victim. Many trans women who underwent this harrowing will tell you they didn’t enjoy it and shrugged off the mantle of false femininity at their earliest convenience. But for feminists to blame us for this as if we were in collusion with the psychs and in control of the whole process is laughable. Our lack of control over the psychiatric establishment’s response to us has been a major problem for years.
- Trans women should use the men’s restroom and other male sex-segregated facilities. One may note that this is an irony among ironies in that it’s a popular demand of the Christian Right as well. But this one is often trumpeted by feminists and I find it to be a very curious demand indeed coming from a movement that quite rightly spends a great deal of time fighting the ongoing sexual and physical abuse of women in the world. How could a feminist in good conscience demand that by law a woman should force herself into a male sex-segregated facility with no regard for her personal safety? Do these people sincerely believe there’s no risk to trans women? It is not a part time job, being a woman. It is not something I can switch off so that I can take a wazz. It’s who I am. I am a woman. At best you are asking me to humiliate myself by walking into a men’s room only to get tossed out, and at worst you’re putting me in a place where I could easily get hurt, whether or not I have conditional cissexual privilege at the time. How can a feminist violate one of the highest rules of all: reduce violence against women? Under any circumstance if such a law were being proposed feminists would rightly tear it down as misogynist madness. A law that made Muslim women use the men’s facilities, for example. This is no different.
- I know this trans woman and she likes pink/wears makeup/likes sexy lingerie, no real woman does that! You’ll notice a lot of these are related and are often variations on the same argument (most feeding into the Big Fallacy at the end of this list), but I’m taking them separately to address key issues with each manifestation. In this instance what you have is an ostensible feminist talking about what good women ‘ought to be.’ This is playing with fire, certainly. Patriarchal fire, one might say. At its heart, it’s cissexism. Cis women can shop at Victoria’s Secret and not be misgendered, but a trans woman cannot. One might argue there’s a No True Scotsman fallacy in this as well. It’s also a feminist hypocrisy in particular because it involves one woman guilting another over her choices. A great many women, quite a lot of feminists among them, are sexual and proud of it. It’s been a time honoured feminist tradition to not shame women because of their sexual behaviour. So why do it to trans women for their choice of dress, underwear, makeup or whatever? Making a woman feel dirty because of those choices has long been the preserve of patriarchs and their enablers. Why carry that water just to splash a trans woman with it? In the case of pink and other stereotypes, would you presume to go up to a cis woman wearing a pink blouse and tell her that her Woman Card was revoked? I didn’t think so.
- Trans women’s penises are symbols of male power and thus threatening. This is, in particular, an argument often used to exclude trans women from women-only safe spaces on the grounds that it might upset a rape victim. It is, however, very much worth mentioning that this argument is oftentimes not made by those rape victims, only ever in absentia by women who claim to be speaking for them. That’s known as appropriating, especially when it’s done in bad faith (as it is here to justify discrimination). In stereotyping, speaking for, and using rape victims feminists are committing a pretty grievous sin that is only compounded by its use to legitimise hateful stereotyping. Against other women. But back to the matter of this symbol of male power… Aside from the matter that they wouldn’t know I had one unless I told them (Schroedinger’s Cock?), are these so called feminists seriously suggesting to me that they are going to allow a penis to have that much power? Well, what if I were post operative? Evidently, I’m told, the ghost of my penis is sufficient to disqualify me from true womanhood. I see, so a feminist is allowing the mere spectre of a phallus to overshadow all else? Alternately, she is reducing everything about this woman to a penis. Everything she is: her personality, her way of life, her hopes, dreams, fears, experiences, and all else about her, is erased and reduced to that knob of flesh. That is the exact opposite of feminism. Too often women are reduced to their body parts. How is this any different? Feminism stands against phallocentrism. Why indulge in it so much just to discriminate against women?
- Trans women seek to reify the gender binary! This is a biggie and it often starts off most “feminist” rants against us. But I saved it for last because it rests on such an elementary and basic fallacy that I’m astonished people still use it. The fiction goes like this: instead of seeking new and vibrant ways of expressing ourselves as, say, men, we’re resorting instead to this parody of femininity that only serves to reinforce the gender binary that feminism has tried to smash. After all, gender is a social construct, yes? We’re rocking the boat! We’re totally reifying the idea that a person is stuck in a predetermined role into which they are born! ..Wait. Remember the whole reason trans women are being picked on in the first place, yes? Because we were born with wee wees, that’s essentially why. Emphasis on the word ‘essentially.’ Now, remember that they’re saying we are reinforcing the binary? Well, what pray tell, is more binary than asserting someone born with a penis could only ever be your idea of a man? In attempting to tar us as being anti-constructionist they ended up making a mind bogglingly essentialist argument that undermines the whole enterprise. Wrapped up in that is the corollary that a woman is, and must be, essentially a vagina. How could any self respecting feminist ever court that kind of nonsense? If gender is indeed societal, then what difference do genitals make? What’s more transgressive than seizing my womanhood in the face of mountains of societal opposition to the idea? That, to me, seems pretty bloody feminist. A woman forced to be a man instead fights proudly for her womanhood! It’d make a good movie. Maybe if Julie Bindel saw it she’d realise we don’t all have ‘birds nest hair’? She seems to swallow everything else the media tells her…
Bitterness aside, these are some of the biggest hypocrisies of the feminist movement for certain. For feminists to take a group of women and judge them entirely by media images, blaming them for their victimisation, silencing or failing to hear their voices, devaluing their experience, and applying biological essentialism to them is beyond bad faith hypocrisy. It’s something that undermines the very foundations of the movement. Women cannot do this to other women. Least of all if they claim the mantle of women’s rights. Feminism is for all of us, and that is what I’ve always stood for. It was never meant to be the club of upper class white cis women that it became.
Pursuant to that idea, I’m taking it back.
I’m normally not the sort to police labels, but I put feminist in quotes many times in this article because I have a very hard time accepting that any person calling themselves a feminist could simultaneously be so hateful to any group of women. To say “I’m a feminist for everyone except trans women” is a contradiction in terms. The term feminism is marvellously elastic and encompasses many definitions and many ideas, several of them mutually exclusive or contradictory. Yet that elasticity simply snaps when one throws bigotry against a group of women into the mix. It is, as I said, a contradiction in terms.
There is one final matter I have not explained in great detail and it is the notion that in feminism experience matters more than anything and is the testimony from whence our strength and knowledge derives. For any group of people that have been marginalised this is a fine policy. Shared experience is strength, for it reminds one that they aren’t alone and reminds one of realities and institutional problems others would deny out of ignorance and privilege. Lived experience tells one’s story and can light the fire of one’s activism. It is to be heard and not silenced; valued and not cast aside. Yet these radical feminists who make the arguments I’ve debunked above are failing on that most basic premise: honour the experiences of your fellow women. Do not just go by what you see in the media. Hear us. Read us. Learn about us.
As I said before, the only way those arguments could possibly work in your mind is if you don’t know us.