The operation of Kyriarchy in its peculiarly patriarchal forms never fails to impress me. As I look at a certain claque of radical feminists who claim to be fighting against a system of gender oppression in our world I find myself confronting women and men who have, in truth, merely internalised patriarchal power arrangements and are regurgitating them in a strange way. I’m speaking, of course, about radfem transphobia. Joelle Ruby Ryan, a trans woman academic, recently attended a conference in New Hampshire called Pornography as Sexual Violence. In trying to present on the often untold story of how trans pornography impacts both our community and gender in general, she found herself attacked by two transphobic feminists: Robert Jensen and Lierre Keith. Her story, passionate and quite understandably outraged in tone, can be found here.
In it she quotes at length a screed from Ms. Keith. You’ll forgive me if I decide to take a shotgun to yon barrel of fish. Some might say that it only dignifies the remarks of such people to debate them or to fisk them. I prefer, however, to think of it as providing a learning resource to someone who might find themselves oppressed or harassed by such ideas. The power of symbolic violence- the use of rank, position, privilege and entitlement to impose meaning on a subordinate person- should not be understated. I and many other trans people have learned the hard way why such arguments are wrong, but someone still struggling to find themselves and feeling vulnerable might be hurting. To me, the more responses there are to this kind of nonsense, the better. Now, on with the show.
A Journey Down a Familiar Path
Keith begins by saying the following:
Well, I’ve personally been fighting about this since 1982. I think ‘transphobic’ is a ridiculous word. I have no strange fear of people who claim to be ‘trans.’ I deeply disagree with them, as do most radical feminists.
When I was a wee lass back in high school I used to argue with this rather tiresome Republican boy (incidentally his name was Robert as well) who one day angrily declaimed “there’s no such thing as homophobia! I’m not irrationally afraid of gay people! And ‘homo’ means same! I’m not afraid of things that are the same!” Now, I know what you’re thinking. “He has a career waiting for him in Fox News!” Quite. But secondly he sounds quite a lot like our friend here who’s supposedly from the opposite side of the political spectrum, which is not uncommon when dealing with this minority of radical feminists whose stock and trade is inverting reactionary arguments and using them against the oppressed in the guise of being anti-oppression.
When we talk about –phobia in a social science context any person who is not being flagrantly obtuse, disingenuous, or some other flavour of miscreant, understands what is being said. It is not a phobia in the psychiatric sense of the term, like arachnophobia. It is a term that connotes an irrational bigotry, like xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, and so on. To shed association with the word merely because you don’t have a pathological aversion to us does not obviate transphobia because that isn’t what the word means.
Try this on. I am a rich person stuck in a poor person’s body. I’ve always enjoyed champagne rather than beer, and always knew I belonged in first class not economy, and it just feels right when people wait on me. My insurance company should give me a million dollars to cure my Economic Dysphoria.
It’s rather hard to discern what she’s trying to say here. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in a thrashing attempt at coming up with some example of why trans people don’t exist she decided to be classist.
Or how about this. I am really Native American. How do I know? I’ve always felt a special connection to animals, and started building tee pees in the backyard as soon as I was old enough. I insisted on wearing moccasins to school even though the other kids made fun of me and my parents punished me for it. I read everything I could on native people, started going to pow wows and sweat lodges as soon as I was old enough, and I knew that was the real me. And if you bio-Indians don’t accept us trans-Indians, then you are just as genocidal and oppressive as the Europeans.
There is one major problem with this line of reasoning. Race is not gender. The genders that people access, enact, know themselves to be, transition into or out of, are properties of every person in a given society (and most societies have people that might be classed as transitioning in some capacity). Not every person has, say, some version of Hopi culture that is part of their life, identity, socialisation and so forth. Race and gender do operate in similar ways, yes, but are also very qualitatively different. To put it very succinctly, trans people transition for the same reason that Ms. Keith expresses her gender the way she does, because that is what feels best to her. Race does not work like that, strictly speaking.
Shifting gender can be defined a myriad of ways. You can, for example, be a cis woman who was raised with frilly pink dresses but grew into a butch or Gothic inspired style. That is clearly not socially the same as transgender transition, but it is a kind of gender change that exists on a smaller scale. Comparing it to switching races is something a conservative-minded individual would do, however. For example, many racists argued against allowing people of colour to love, marry, and raise children with whites using very naturalist language on the subject. Whites and people of colour were likened to different species. A similar operation of power exists when trans people are compared to non-existent race switchers- a sense is created of an uncrossable boundary, no attention is given to how we put the boundary there in the first place. The ideology that once brutally attacked interracial relations now attacks certain gender evolutions: as something unnatural and as something that denies some essence.
A person can express the full range of genders, but it is far harder for an individual to do so for race because when it comes to race there is a culture to appropriate. Contrary to certain assertions, however, women en toto do not have a culture. We are a gender that is part of a welter of cultures and women exist at multiple social localities. People of certain racial backgrounds do too, but we also have unique cultures and histories qua our ethnic, national, and racial origins that cannot very easily be transitioned into. This also does not even begin to address how white supremacy and patriarchy necessarily had to operate differently in order to function as regimes of power; such distinctions in ideology and cultural construction of race and sex were necessary because of the qualitative differences inherent to each social location.
Thus gender and race are not simply transposable and any analogy based on that will break down, or at least require more qualified buttressing than Keith gave it. Unless Keith is willing to say that her own gendered evolution is akin to “race change” there is no logical reason for her to say mine is.
Now, she can argue correctly that gender is quite often oppressive. The problem is, both she and Mr. Jensen are accessing the same system of gender. Indeed, Mr. Jensen because of his appearance and the clothes he wears accrues many privileges to himself because of this, as does Ms. Keith in certain milieux. She and Mr. Jensen also argue that I am constructed. That’s true, but only insofar as they are.
You see, we return to a point I’ve had to make again and again recently in various guises. There is no outside to power; there is no outside to gender.
Gender is no different. It is a class condition created by a brutal arrangement of power. I can’t fathom how mutilating people’s bodies to fit an oppressive power arrangement is frankly anything but a human rights violation. And men insisting that they are women is insulting and absurd.
There is no such thing as ‘woman’ or ‘man’ outside of patriarchal social relations. These are not biological conditions–they are socially created, by violence in the end. If I can’t be a rich person born in a poor person’s body, then I can’t be a woman born in a man’s body. Not unless you are going to argue that man and woman are biological or essential conditions. The whole point of feminism is that they are neither
Now we come full circle here to a particular meta-critique of this… argument. Remember when I said recently that the “x trapped in a y’s body” trope was problematic? This is exactly why. If you note the structure of all of her examples and her ‘critique’ of trans people you find a common theme that is familiar to us all: the Great Trans Narrative, which is the “single story” of our people. The way she’s describing things is based not on trans people’s stories, really, but such stories as they’ve been filtered through the cis dominated media which has a penchant for telling happy little stories of hyper-stereotyped transformation. When they don’t find it, they browbeat us into telling it, luring us with promises of getting the word out and all the rest. So they insist on photographing us when we’re putting on makeup or binding or getting dressed. They insist on focusing on surgery and physical changes. They always talk to doctors who are sure to be our chaperones, the men in white coats we’re supposed to need to validate our “condition.”
So this is what Jensen and Keith are working from, and most trans people will tell you that’s not them. It’s certainly not me. Yet we’re forced to defend ourselves as if that’s what’s really happening to us, as if that’s what the majority of us are saying. If one trans person repeats this narrative in sincerity, we are all called to account for it, in a way these two would no doubt find misogynist if the same standard were applied to a cis woman having to account for something problematic espoused by another cis woman.
Thus, we are tarred with a “single story” that they caricature and pin to us, considered a monolithic group, and all experience to the contrary is ignored. But there is yet more to unpack from this.
If men and women are social creations, quite an indisputable statement when you look at it, really, then this opens up quite a can of worms when used to attack trans people. First of all:
- If men and women are socially created that means that birth assignment is meaningless. If birth assignment is meaningless, then on what basis are you asserting a trans woman is “really” a man?
- If man and woman are socially constructed and oppressive categories only, then why do you identify as a woman (and presumably Mr. Jensen as a man)?
- If they are oppressive and the binary is a social problem, how do you square that with identifying as a lesbian, which presumes an ontological and biological figure of “woman” and a gender binary in most interpretations of the term?
Now I dare not say that there’s anything wrong with identifying as a man or a woman or a lesbian. There isn’t, intrinsically. And that’s the point. She’s playing a rhetorical shell game here where she has access to an ostensibly unproblematic identity of woman because she was born with a vagina and her attending physician at birth put an F on her birth certificate- while simultaneously arguing that gender is socially constructed and that’s why we as trans people do not exist.
Theories of Biological Foundationalism: The Feminist Intervention Against Transphobia.
The argument completely gridlocks under any close scrutiny; in the terms of her own logic it does not make any sense. If there is no biological basis to gender and sex, then people should not only be theoretically able to occupy any gender position regardless of birth physiology, they should be doing this all the time, and it should be looked on as something that disproves a fundamental patriarchal tenet (the use of birth genitals to assign an ineluctable sex caste to an infant that is guaranteed to mark their entire life- one of two castes).
You see, in order to say I’m a man, Mr. Jensen and Ms. Keith have to argue that even though I know myself to be a woman, have been treated as such by society (and thus experienced patriarchy as a woman firsthand repeatedly), and thus for all social intents and purposes exist as a woman, there is still some ontological base they can hearken to and say “look! It’s all fake!” That base, of course, is biology. What my knobbly bits were at birth. Biological essentialism. In the words of feminist scholar Linda Nicholson- “biological foundationalism.” You see, in 1994 Nicholson coined this term to separate out a kind of essentialism she had found among certain feminists in the 1970s and 80s, one that claimed to be constructivist but nevertheless moored its assumptions on the true existence of two unproblematic, absolute sexes, male and female, that were knowable from birth and inexorable. This was the “coat rack” theory of sex that held gender was like clothing hung on the rack, but the rack itself (the foundational sex) was unchanging, rigid, and would always be there.
Later feminist theorists, including many transgender ones, would question this reasoning; in no small part because they recognised that it allowed too many lazy assumptions to creep into feminist discourse and allowed an easy reification of patriarchal essentialist ideas (women are bad at maths, etc.).
That same year, another feminist, Marxist feminist scholar Hilary Rose, would say the following:
My difficulty with radical feminism… is not that it admits the body, for I welcome this, but that in a peculiar mirror image of the patriarchal ideology it opposes it frequently reduces women (and men) to nothing but biology…
If you are going to discard experience, one’s life and self-knowledge, one’s agency, you have little recourse but to the indefatigable patriarchal mainstay: essential sex. That’s how Ms. Keith “knows” I’m a man, because of what’s on my birth certificate and nothing more. Whatever else she thinks she knows comes from media made by cis people for cis people. Even allegedly trans positive media, like the movie Transamerica, are made for the cis gaze, not for trans people in any real sense. All too much academic writing about trans people, again, is by cis people who read back to the cis population certain things they already “know” about us. Thus we come back to that fundamental truth.
Believing is seeing.
And Ms. Keith and Mr. Jensen believe quite passionately that the patriarchal media is right about us. After all, when has that media ever gotten something wrong? Thus they can look at us and simply confirm what they think they already know.
It is worth returning to Linda Nicholson, however, as she represents an interesting intervention against feminist essentialism and transphobia by a cis woman, which was even less common at the time. She asks a very obvious series of questions:
Janice Raymond claims that no one born without a vagina can claim to have had comparable experiences to those born with one. My question is, How can she know this? How can she know, for example, that some people’s parents were not operating with a greater slippage between biology and character than is true for many in contemporary industrialised societies and thus really did provide their children with male genitals experiences comparable to those born with vaginas? Historical change is made possible by some people having experiences that really are different from those that have predominated in the past.
To this I would add, of course, from the trans side of the discussion, that what we experience as we are growing up is not a perfect analogue to what the average cis person of our coercively assigned gender experiences. As I have written, how I experienced my childhood was in part through internalising both male typed and female typed socialisation, and the problems that arose from that (the self-loathing, self-objectification and so on) are not easy to talk about with someone who is angry at you for existing. It’s hard to talk about at all due to how charged it is, but in those painful stories lie a certain truth: that a Manichean vision of how boys and girls are raised is inaccurate and problematic, for more reasons than just transphobia.
Nicholson also says quite explicitly here:
A feminism of difference and the biological foundationalism on which it rests, however, are also false not only because of the failure of both positions to recognise the historicity of their own insights but also because neither allows for the ways in which even within contemporary European-based societies the belief system their insights reflect possesses a multitude of cracks and fissures.
In other words, they do not account for the historical inaccuracy of their own ideas (gender and sex have changed over time) and there are too many exceptions to a biologically foundationalist schema for the theory to be acceptable by itself. Not putting too fine a point on it, Nicholson goes on to say that trans women are one such “crack” in the “insights” of such foundationalist thinkers.
I could quote Nicholson all night simply because her mind is amazing and her work, especially for its time, is thoughtful. But the point has been made, and it’s useful to quote feminist theorists here as well for two reasons. One, it demonstrates that feminism does not belong to Keith or Jensen, and two, it lays bare the reality that transphobic feminism does rest necessarily on essentialism and imports unexamined patriarchal assumptions. Allow me the indulgence of bringing her words back into the discussion once more:
…Inevitably characterisations of women’s “nature” or “essence”- even if this is described as a socially constructed nature or essence- tend to reflect the perspective of those making the characterisations. And as those who have the power to make such characterisations [note: remember what I said earlier about symbolic violence, this is it- QM] in contemporary European-based societies tend to be white, heterosexual, and from the professional class, such characterisations tend to reflect the biases of those from these groups. It was thus not surprising that the gynocentric move of the seventies soon gave way to outcries from women of colour, lesbians, and those of working-class backgrounds that the stories being told did not reflect their experiences.
And I would add, trans people. Quite a few people, from Lou Sullivan to Carol Riddell to Sylvia Rivera to Sandy Stone, articulated a trans feminist criticism of transphobia and transmisogyny very early on. There is a rich history to draw on here.
But let’s, alas, go from intellectually stimulating historiography to low rent screed once more and return to Ms. Keith. We’re not quite finished yet.
[The Trans Community is] in fact deeply misogynist and reactionary when it comes to any understanding of male power. Indeed, they often claim it ‘oppresses’ them to even use the words ‘men’ and ‘women.’ Meanwhile, men are raping and brutalizing women on a mass scale. I hate to say this, but it’s porn culture that really created the whole concept of trans. I watched it happen… for your own edification, you might want to read up on Pat Califia, whom I talk about at length, and whose life and writing proves every point radical feminists make about queer politics, pornography, violence against women, sado-masochism, the eroticization of power and breaking boundaries (including the boundaries of children), and trans. All of it is right there”
To first take on the fact that she “watched it happen” I would simply again reiterate: believing is seeing. By the late 70s and 80s trans people were gaining a little more visibility in left wing communities. But speaking from a privileged position as she does, Keith doesn’t believe we existed until she saw us. If you want a good living and breathing definition of cis-centric, you’ve found it. The visibility she observed was the outcome of a lot of fighting. Inasmuch as it was a genesis of any kind of trans identity it was one that grew out of new empowered understandings of trans ness born from not being ashamed of having that history.
But because her politics comes preheated, she simply saw in that what she needed to see.
In appropriating the rape of women to make her point she says “meanwhile” as if trying to say while we trans people are whinging that we are being called men or women, this atrocity is occurring, she also engages in another rhetorical sleight of hand: positing that we do not care about and are not affected by rape. I have a friend, a trans woman, who suffers badly from PTSD born of a sexual assault tinged with transmisogyny. I would… kindly ask Ms. Keith not to tell me what my issues are, and what the people I love have and have not experienced. The terrorising of women through rape is real and has been of pressing concern to trans women for some time. Because we’re raped too, and often murdered right after. Men try to dominate us with sexual violence as well. Because in the end, Ms. Keith, we’re typed as women- and thus people that need to be put in their place.
When we fight against misgendering, we’re fighting against the same forces that see us placed six feet under all too often. We are defined as un-rapeable because we were “born as men”- just as women of colour were defined as un-rapeable due to their supposedly innate sexuality. This we return to Joelle Ruby Ryan’s entire reason for being at the conference: conducting a presentation that expounds on this point and elevates the often marginalised voices of trans people who find themselves sexualised, objectified, and targeted because of it. Like many marginalised peoples’ patriarchal men have used sexualisation and a myth of lasciviousness to oppress us. Hence, transmisogyny. Ms. Keith would do very well to learn this. She had quite the opportunity at this conference.
Escape From Male Privilege: Robert Jensen’s Failure
With all of this said, I would not like anyone to think that Robert Jensen is being let off the hook. I’m just going through this in chronological order.
He, like a small number of white cis radical feminist men, tends to gravitate uncritically towards white cis women who are radfem and look to them to set the tone of what constitutes the most radical, most anti-patriarchal feminism. In his exercise in achieving a cathartic cleansing of his male privilege, he looks to people he perceives are the most enlightened, most radical, most transgressive feminists. Unsurprisingly, the people he finds are largely white, cis, and from the middle classes like himself. According to Dr. Ryan, Jensen defended, up and down, 70s lesbian feminism. Whither the many criticisms of it from radical women of colour (see: The Combahee River Collective manifesto, or, as always, This Bridge Called My Back), never mind trans people? Apparently that doesn’t matter as much, to him. White privilege much?
In his grand exercise to be the best rad fem possible he simply ends up enacting unexamined white male privilege in a new way. What he did at the conference put him, a man, in the bizarre position of claiming the utmost fealty to feminism while attempting to silence a woman, define her history and identity for her, define the meaning of her body, and politely tell her that she could not speak for herself. He then would claim any attempt to assert herself would be “anti-feminist.” If there is a patriarchal appropriation of feminism to be found, it is in his person and in his words. A commenter on Dr. Ryan’s blog makes the following point about a different project of Jensen’s:
Jensen and Dines attempted to force models to engage in discourse where they tell the women working for a porn site that they essentially suffer from “false consciousness” while refusing to actually listen to or believe the women when they disagree and talk from their own lived experience. They also dismiss the women’s interest in disengaging from an insulting and abusive conversation that invalidates and devalues them. For Jensen and Dines, harassing adult models and actresses is “free speech.” Additionally, they go as far as suggesting it is “anti-feminist” for women to resist submitting to some White, cis male’s impositions and entitlement regarding their bodies and sexuality. There is also language in the article that show utter contempt for any models and actresses in the porn industry and for masturbation in general. There is a complete absence of any attempt to empathize with or understand the models, but rather only attempts to impose an abstract narrative of women’s objectification upon them, which in itself is objectification — that is, treating the women as mere objects due to their line of work; objects to be debated and theorized about rather than treated as actual people with agency and self-knowledge.
Perhaps you’re seeing a pattern here, as I am. A man telling a woman what to think and how she should feel. How quaint?
As I have said many times before, I did not transition so I could better fit beneath the heel of patriarchy. I did not transition to have men tell me what to do, what to think, and what I mean. If you’ll allow me a bit of my own righteous anger for a moment: I did not transition to have men tell me a goddamn thing. It matters not to me how they identify. Mr. Jensen’s pro-feminism is merely another guise of the same old transphobia. Where he should be exercising the utmost caution in exercising his white and male privilege, he’s using it with the most reckless abandon. Where is he most cautious and hands off? White, bourgeois cis women. And the beat goes on, as they say.
So you have radical feminist women importing patriarchal biological essentialism, and a radical feminist man using trans people as a means of enacting as much white male privilege as he can bring to bear.
For yet another shell game, let’s consider what Dr. Ryan recalls here:
It was a humiliating and grueling experience—having your identity attacked and told that your politics are reactionary and inherently anti-feminist. And when I complained about the oppression of transgender women, Bob informed me that that was not due to radical feminists, but due to the patriarchy.
Mr. Jensen seems to forget one critical fact. There is no outside to patriarchy. Thus, yes, transphobia and transmisogyny do indeed find their ultimate roots in patriarchy. But, critically, that does not obviate the fact that radical feminists could be influenced by patriarchy, and thus act accordingly. Thus they could be said to be perpetuating patriarchal norms and ideas, and thus the distinction between them and the source is an academic matter only. The oppression of trans women may not have found its origins in radical feminism, but Jensen’s version of radfem is not helping, and it only promotes hatred against trans people.
Put it another way, his abrogation of responsibility for transphobia and his insistent denials that he is not being bigoted put him in exactly the same shoes of another white cis patriarch: Carl Paladino. Many of you will remember his recent tirade against gay people wherein he asserted that gays were unfit to teach, were not normal, and has in the past spent an inordinate amount of time talking about gay men wearing speedos. All the usual. He then defensively went on to say that any assertion that he’s a bigot or promoting violence against LGBT people is a dirty lie. Jensen has engaged in the same, classic, reliable white male prejudice bait and switch (which as people like Juan Williams and Sarah Palin demonstrate, is not limited to just white males, it’s there for all your internalised and horizontal prejudice needs): say something bigoted, then deny responsibility for the way such words construct peoples’ reality. Words have meaning, power, and impact. They shape the world. It’s why I write. But they also can do great harm, and in Jensen’s ill considered verbiage is contained exactly the same patriarchal ideas about gender and sexuality that see trans people attacked, raped, and murdered.
Denying responsibility for that is an exercise in every privilege he possesses.
What is striking about both Mr. Jensen and Ms. Keith is that what they are attempting to do is a very clear attempt at finding that theoretical El Dorado that lesbian separatists searched in vain for in the 1970s, which is an outside to patriarchy; indeed this was built on a political fixation on finding an outside to society as a whole, which was a major goal of certain radical projects in the 1960s and 70s. The quest for outside, the quest to escape patriarchy, male privilege, society, was particularly strong among white cis men and women, because in part there was an allure to shedding the privileges of their skin and, if applicable, their gender. If it was possible, they as individuals would not be responsible for Kyriarchy any longer.
But of course, to posit a way out of patriarchy built on the experiences of middle class white cis women required denying the voices, experiences, and histories of just about everyone outside of that privileged circle. The dream was one that, ultimately, obviated everyone else’s.
That dream still transfixes Robert Jensen, to be sure. Yet he seeks to pave his royal road to the mythic Outside to Patriarchy on the backs of women: sex workers, women of colour, trans women. We are to bend knee to the service of his quest to be free of male privilege and free of patriarchy’s imposition of responsibility on his shoulders. To reiterate myself, I did not sign up for that, Mr. Jensen.
Individuals like Robert Jensen represent a major reason trans people feel unwelcome in academia, he is one of the cis people blowing that stiff headwind against those of us trying to produce knowledge. How ironic that for all his protests to the contrary, he’s just another white man attempting to obstruct the progress of trans women of colour.
Get out of my way, Robert.