Out in the Rain: Gender Activism and its Discontents

Last time on Nuclear Unicorn I took down an MRA’s  transphobic blog post on trans peoples’ lives. What was most striking about the article were things I didn’t even get to discuss despite the prodigious girth of my response; chief among them was the fact that the author’s entire supposed purpose in writing it, his thesis, was left largely unproven. It became clear that he was following a very classic pattern that cis people indulge in when criticising trans people publicly. It’s a classic transphobic syllogism:

I don’t like x. I also don’t like trans people. Therefore x causes and enables trans people.

This idea afflicts most gender activism as trans people of various types tend to be excluded from it or cast as some kind of bogeyman in various gender studies narratives. Some genderqueers, androgynes, and other non-binaries rail against transsexual people for, as they see it, playing into the gender binary. The execrable Julie Bindel, and feminists like her, follow a similar pattern. She doesn’t like patriarchy and proscriptive gender roles, therefore they cause the existence of the trans people she so loathes. Christians don’t like modernisation, pluralism, diversity, and what they see as decadence, therefore all of those things cause the existence of the trans people they so despise. For Jack Donovan, his hatred of feminism and of women in general, which occludes all else, leads him to believe that trans people could only be a feminist conspiracy.

The mutual exclusivity of all of these theories should be proof enough that they’re wrong and bear little relation to reality. Their purpose is to buttress the ideologies of the speaker rather than actually address the concerns of trans people or discuss our place in society.

The fact that Donovan barely addressed his own thesis and spent a great deal more time whacking trans people with tired old bigotry and inapt comparisons is a reminder of what the real purpose was in writing the article: to be transphobic. His performance in the comments speaks for itself. When a trans woman challenges him he is reduced to a bingo-card ready script. He objectifies her, calls her ugly, calls her a man, and then essentially devolves into gibbering cursing every other sentence while simultaneously claiming he faces lots of discrimination as a white cis man.

All very droll, as Sir Humphrey Appleby might say.

I have to be entirely honest here. In addition to feeling mistrustful of radical cis feminists and most cis feminist websites, I also feel threatened by most MRAs. The Spearhead article is Exhibit A in my case for this. One could easily write it off as one radical that shouldn’t define the movement, but given that Spearhead is linked to so approvingly on many Men’s Rights websites, that the comments were all praising Mr. Donovan for the piece (except a couple of trans people who came in to question it and two others), and that the Spearhead is cheerfully endorsed by fantasist conspiracy theorists, it’s hard for me to trust MRAs or their sincerity.

Like many cis radfems, MRAs have a major centering problem. They define the “What about the menz?” fallacy. Indeed, the entire movement is built around that premise. But the simple reality is that everything is about them and their needs.

Take for example this thread from Reddit. I’m a bit biased, of course, since the thread in question links to your humble correspondent’s journal but it is very instructive to consider what happened there. The thread was meant to call attention to the hypocrisy of radical feminists in regards to their transphobia. But out of 34 comments over 20 of them were written by MRAs or people arguing with them about their “but what about how feminism treats men?” points of view. For context the forum in which this was published is called Equality, and is largely devoted to getting male and female (almost exclusively cis) gender activists to talk to each other. Thus the question of feminism’s problems vis a vis (cis) men is addressed daily.

By contrast this was the first post about trans issues for a while and one of a tiny number discussing trans women’s relationship with feminism. Despite this, the cis men couldn’t help but make it entirely about themselves and their needs. For my money, this was the best, and most telling comment by one of the MRAs about my piece:

“it discussed penises. it was therefore partially about men. Men who changed their gender, but men (or at least, formerly men) all the same.”

I don’t need to dwell on what’s wrong with that statement or why it’s transphobic. What’s most important to consider right now is that it’s appropriating, trying to shoehorn my argument into a pro-Men’s Rights agenda, never mind that you have to completely mangle trans women’s identities to do so. It is a reminder of the fact that when it comes to cis centering MRAs are as bad, if not worse, than a lot of cis feminists.

Every discussion about feminism must be about them and their cis male concerns. Never mind that trans women are routinely silenced and marginalised, rarely spoken of, and often spoken for in absentia and very poorly.

“Not supporting people who were born biologically male, and infact demonizing them and trying to strip rights from the non-females, is exactly what feminism is all about.”

Here’s a clue, sweetie. I am not you. Nor am I a man. Do not include me in your chest-beating ranting. Please. Seriously.

It ought to go without saying that I do not support discrimination against men, and my writing record does speak for itself on this matter. I believe that feminism must have a good relationship with as many men as possible. Just as Patriarchy could only operate with the consent of large swathes of women, the solution to Patriarchy must come with the cooperation of many men. I also never bought into the arguments about the power of the penis, whether used against pre or non-operative trans women or cis or trans men.

But the fact that so many cis male MRAs got huffy about the fact that I didn’t make half the article about them was quite significant. I spent 100% of my energy discussing trans women’s relationship to feminism because it doesn’t get talked about very often in the public square. So to have that public discussion derailed by cissexist MRAs was incredibly telling. That only one other known feminist chimed in to give her support or say anything at all was equally telling.

This is what leads to my complicated relationship with gender activism and my mistrust of MRAs in particular stems from the fact that they don’t notice or care about their erasure of trans people, never mind the men they routinely leave out or refuse to speak for directly (men of colour, disabled men, etc.). This is not to say that feminism has reached the mountaintop, only that more and more feminists appear to be acknowledging that there is a mountaintop to reach.

There is quite a long road ahead, for certain. Feminism at least has the tools of liberal liberation ideology to work with that make it a much easier fit with the cause of trans rights. As discussed last time, Men’s Rights being largely a reactive movement of the privileged, draws its intellectual inspiration from the right.  Halting steps forward are being taken by feminist groups. More and more are at least operating from the basic premise that trans women are women and trans men are men, and that all other gender identities on the spectrum are also to be respected. That MRA websites like the Spearhead are 50 years behind on this is a reminder of why trans people should be very wary of that movement.

Yet before feminists begin patting themselves on the back for how tolerant they are, as white liberals are often wont to do, it would be instructive to consider the higher level failures that feminism has stumbled into of late. Feminists should think long and hard about Recursive Paradox/Genderbitch’s withering criticisms there, and ask themselves why such a strong willed and beautifully passionate activist could be turned off to feminism, to the point of downright despising it. The answer matters a great deal.

In many ways, the failure she talks about isn’t even especially “high level”. The fact that I feel tempted to call it that simply because the feminist in question that she lambastes is self proclaimed trans positive is a terrible reminder of how far we have to go. Much like the cis men in the Reddit thread, Melissa McEwan centered her own feelings and ideas in a discussion that had everything to do with real life discrimination against trans people, and in that sense there’s nothing ‘high level’ about this failure at all. It’s the same thing, except with a smile on its face.

It is not enough to mouth the words about trans people, and to say that you accept and tolerate me. That comes with a great deal more responsibility than many feminists are willing to accept it would seem. Many recoiled when we challenged them for their public mourning of noted transphobe and radfem writer Mary Daly. Feministe got it right with this excellent obituary written passionately by a cis feminist who told a complete story of Ms. Daly’s life and how her journey with feminism was tainted by it.

That is called accepting responsibility and being accountable for the history our movement has, which is often very chequered and complex.

This excellent comment by another cis feminist is still another example of how to get it right while still remaining committed to feminist principles. But far too many other cis feminists clearly didn’t even try, thinking that footnotes or lofty claims to ‘starting a debate’ would mollify the many trans people who were offended at endless pictures of Mary Daly with that goddamned axe of hers (or labrys, as one pedant corrected) and the glowing obits she received from many feminists who claimed to be trans-positive.

All of the comments there are worth reading, of course. The words of little light, an excellent trans woman blogger are powerful as always.

Without a doubt, MRAs are still trying to pass Trans 101. Many don’t even realise they have to take the course. Feminists are fucking up, by and large, at the 301 level. Annoying and even angering but still a sign of (oh so slow and iterative) progress of a sort. But if you stop there and disown us for those failures, then it’s all for naught. As Melissa McEwan and others must come to understand, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot be trans-positive and still wallow in cis privilege when it is convenient. You have to give up some of your idols, yes, because you ought to believe that the higher commitment to human rights, to women’s rights, and to equality matters much more than burnishing the image of Germaine Greer.

Individuals like her need not be feminism.

Feminism is more than a person, or a building, or a blog, or a Women’s Studies Department, or a single march, or a Guardian column. You have to let go of that sense and remember that feminism is about all of us, and that feminism is liberation. It is a higher ideal that should always transcend the worldly and human failings of individuals, and thus you should be unashamed to call them out for their failures and acknowledge their role in the movement. There need be no contradiction in any of this. If we are to be better than our enemies then we must own our failures, not make cheap excuses or go on privileged tirades about “the important things.”

Fighting bigotry is the important thing.

Celebrating it or eliding it is the antithesis of that.

Don’t let feminism go the way of Men’s Rights; an insular, reactionary, ideology that spends its time boxing with shadows and kicking the oppressed while they’re down.

Be feminist.