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.
In the long march into academia one naturally becomes intimately acquainted with the geeky and esoteric minutiae of whatever discipline one has chosen for their career. Over the last two years I’ve found myself up to my eyeballs in gender studies text and find it utterly fascinating. I’m often seen scurrying to and fro with a book or two tucked under my arm and my desk is covered in all manner of books appertaining to my passions. But importantly, when you are trans-anything and delving into the wild and woolly world of gender studies you have to be ready for the fact that there will be lots and lots of highly credentialed, intellectual academics theorising about you who do not know what the hell they’re talking about.
This occupational hazard is, to put it bluntly, both annoying and the reason I’m doing the sociology of gender in the first place. The only way this is going to be truly fixed is when we start writing the theory and we start conducting the research, casting our eyes not just on this wild and strange tribe of “transgender” but also on cis people whose views are far more powerful in shaping how our fractioned community is gendered and understood. What I’m looking at today is a particular strain of thought that is increasingly common in Third Wave feminist theorising; it is ostensibly trans positive but ends up being highly fetishising, stereotypical, and ultimately transphobic. It stands in contrast to that Janice Raymond school of theorising that constructs us purely in terms of an outsider, an enemy who constitutes a patriarchal invasion-cum-Body Snatchers. This vision instead sees us (or some of us) as ‘useful’- we have utility in the quest of certain cis feminists to smash the gender binary. Yet what unites both of these seemingly oppositional philosophies is that they are theories formed by cis people about us, relative to their gender ideology, and that construct us as ‘other.’
There are a few major currents in this new feminist theory that merit deconstruction and they will likely be familiar to most readers in one way or another: