We wanted to explore the ground between the polarised, entrenched positions in the so-called “TERF-war”. Radical feminists on one pole, trans-inclusionary feminists and trans activists on the other. The disputed territory being women-only space, language and the ever changing legal framework surrounding gender.
Entrenchment leads to stalemate. Stalemate is no friend to progress.
We want to know how feminism can progress when it comes to these gender debates. Can we stop hurling abuse and start listening? What would happen if people in these polarised positions began to empathise with each other? Is it possible to find common ground and start building towards a shared vision of the future? Fighting common enemies?
We asked Finn Mackay, a radical feminist, and Ruth Pearce, a trans feminist, if they would help us explore the place between the poles, this no (wo)man’s land, with some radical empathy.
The disagreements between some feminist theory and the growing movement for trans rights and recognition perhaps began most publically with Janice Raymond’s 1980 book The Transexual Empire and Sandy Stone’s famous riposte in The Empire Strikes Back. The main two critiques were that Raymond denied a history for trans people and stated that trans people are not ‘real’ men or women.
It’s not difficult to see why the latter would cause offence, and indeed Raymond does suggest this in her book. Mainly she is concerned with critiquing the medical industry and its pathologisation of gender in the clinics of the 1970s, which she sees as charm schools for gender stereotyping.
Raymond does not deny a transgender history; she is not naïve to the fact that gender rules are different around the world and are often flouted. However, Raymond argues that it wasn’t until legal and medical advancements that it became possible to talk about the identity of transexual.
This highlights an important distinction between gender and sex. I am not an essentialist; I believe gender is a social construct – by which I mean masculinity, femininity, camp, butch, high femme or androgynous, for example. Sex describes the biological features of our bodies, such as genitalia, reproductive capacity and hormones. In patriarchy of course, sex equals rank and gender roles are used, promoted and policed so that sex rank is obvious and unequivocal.
I don’t believe gender is natural, fixed or innate, but made and not born. It is made by all the stereotypes around us about how men and women are supposed to look, act and dress. Everyone works hard at their gender, it does not come naturally. Men and women work to live up to narrow and impossible gender ideals; they diet and spend vast amounts on cosmetics and plastic surgery. In that way we are all performing gender, and it is difficult to say if anyone is a ‘real’ man or woman.
Therefore, I don’t believe that trans people are any less ‘real’ men and women than anyone else, and I don’t believe trans women are ‘men’. I respect self-definition and use the pronouns individuals identify as; I would never refer to trans women as ‘he’ or to trans men as ‘she’. I agree that women-only spaces should be open to all women, including trans women. However, I also respect the right of all oppressed groups to self-organise. For example, recently a mixed feminist conference in Manchester held a workshop on girlhood sexual abuse which was open only to women assigned female at birth. I do not think it was right that the conference was attacked as a result.
I do not agree with the term ‘cis’ and do not use it. It suggests that all non-trans people are gender normative Stepford wives, which is far from the case. I do not get read as a woman in many daily interactions and experience harassment and violence as a result. I do not have the privilege of not being questioned about my sex and gender in the street, in passport control or in interactions with health services. I also do not believe that being categorised as female in a patriarchal world can ever be seen as a privilege, and the facts of sexual violence, marginalisation and poverty bear that out.
In you, I see the girls who spat in my face as I walked home from school.
In me, you see every man who has ever treated you like a lesser being.
In you, I see the boys who always wanted to pick a fight.
In me, you see someone who just won’t listen.
In you, I see my father, a man I’ve always considered to be wise and thoughtful, telling me that I’ll be outed by the press and kicked out of university for using the women’s toilets.
In me, you see a forceful male penetration of women’s spaces.
In you, I see a thousand tabloid headlines screaming “tranny”.
In me, you see a blind adherence to the oppressive system of binary gender.
In you, I see the doctor who tells me what I can and can’t do with my body.
In me, you see the stooge of a patriarchal medical system.
In you, I see how friends who have been beaten or raped were told that they brought it on themselves.
In me, you see a systematic desire to control and define womanhood.
In you, I see a systematic desire to control and define womanhood.
My truth and your truth are both derived from a fierce feminism, but somehow remain diametrically opposed. Why is it that we disagree so much over the meaning of my body, over the meaning of your lived experience, over the existence of feminist events that exclude trans women?
I would tell you that my subconscious sex, the mental matrix that somehow marks the flesh I expect to see and feel when I behold myself, maps snugly onto the body I have inhabited since undergoing hormone therapy and genital reconstruction. I would tell you that for the last six years I have been happy and at ease with myself in a way I could never have been before.
I would tell you that yes, I agree that gender is a social construct which ascribes hegemonic power to the masculine. I would tell you that I, like you, am forced to negotiate a society where we cannot simply reject gender because we are constantly gendered by others. The body I inhabit, the things I enjoy, the manner in which I communicate, the clothes I prefer to wear all fit better into the artificial category of “woman” than the artificial category of “man”.
I would tell you that I too am subject to sexism and misogyny in many of their vile forms. My transness does not spare me. I would further tell you that I have experienced worse for being trans than for being a woman, although such unpleasant experiences have been limited by the privileges that come with my class background and the colour of my skin.
I would tell you that I believe in the importance of women’s spaces. I would argue that no group of women should be rejected from such a space.
I would tell you that I am a woman because I identify as a woman and because I move through the world as a woman. That I reject outdated ideals of “appropriate” female behaviour. That I rage against sexism and misogyny, and fight alongside my sisters for equality, for liberation, for choice.
I would tell you that this is my truth, and that there is no universal trans truth. I would ask you to acknowledge the diversity and complexity of trans truths.
And you would tell me your truth. You would tell me of the pain that comes from growing up as a girl and then living as a woman in a patriarchal world. You would tell me that I can never know what this is like, that I will always be male, that my chromosomes and life experience cannot be erased. You would tell me that you have a right to organise without me. That I should just leave you alone.
And our argument could roll on for a long time. I might draw upon the wisdom of black feminist thinkers to argue that there is no universal experience of womanhood. And you might respond that I, nevertheless, will always have with me the privileges that come with being raised as a boy. And I would say yes, I accept that, but seek to acknowledge and check this in the same way I seek to acknowledge and check my other privileges, and moreover this intersects complexly with the oppression I experienced growing up as a trans girl, learning to hate myself and unable to access hegemonic forms of masculinity.
Where does this leave us?
At the end of the day, we have to draw a line in the sand. So you read and write and share your critiques of my existence, and attend your conferences from which I am explicitly excluded. But I necessarily object to writings and events that actively oppose or undermine my liberation: articles that turn me into a joke or demean my struggle for survival, activists who out vulnerable children, keynote speakers who say that we are all rapists and call for the abolition of gender clinics.
I am left with no choice but to actively oppose the public manifestation of opinions that will do harm to myself, to my friends, to my trans sisters, to my trans brothers, to my queer and/or non-gender-specific trans siblings.
I oppose you not because I hate you, and certainly not because I oppose feminism. I oppose you because you would cause me harm.
And in doing so, you believe that I cause you harm.
And so the dance goes on.
Ruth’s piece is adapted from her 2012 blog post, which you can read here.
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