I’ve never met Renee Gerlich. She contacted me several months ago and we talked about a protest action she was involved in which targeted the ‘Scale of our War’ exhibit at Te Papa museum. I was impressed by the pictures of her huge Archibald Baxter banner draped over the official banner, and I wrote a short blog about this intervention.
We became facebook friends. Renee often posts links to articles written from a radical feminist perspective. These articles, some written by herself and some by others, attract heated debate. In many respects facebook is an awful medium for political discussion. Complex subjects are not served well by pithy statements which ‘comment’ boxes seem to cater for. The fact that people cannot see each other, but can also interact in real time, means that it is a lot easier for people to resort to insults and abuse. Arguments degenerate into attacks, and thoughtful contributions are often completely absent. Although Renee’s facebook posts about topics such as prostitution and sexual violence attracted a huge amount of vitriolic and abusive comments, there were also some really compelling and well thought out arguments embedded in the toxic and superficial comment-box warfare. I read the comments and the articles, they made me think about topics I rarely see discussed elsewhere (both in the mainstream media and the various leftist niche media I follow). As a human being who is appalled by things like gender stereotypes, sexual violence and patriarchal power structures I am interested in feminist thinking. As a Marxist I am also acutely aware of the danger of adopting ‘party line’ perspectives on divisive issues, so I always find myself drawn to looking into arguments which challenge orthodox positions.
Over the past few months these heated debates have surfaced above the level of facebook and transformed into a campaign against Renee. Rather than writing articles or blogs debating the issues of concern, these critics have accused Renee of “hate speech” and have ostracised her from the activist community she is a part of. Some of these people have signed a vicious petition which denounces her as an enemy of human rights. Renee was blocked from the recent Zinefest in Wellington because her views were considered ‘transphobic’. These political pressures have also resulted in Renee losing her job.
Initially I supported Renee purely on a basis of respect for the principle of freedom of speech. I don’t have fully worked out ‘positions’ on the divisive and heated topics Renee addresses. Nevertheless I do understand the difference between ‘hate speech’ and ideological polemic. It was clear to me that Renee was ‘guilty’ of writing heated and provocative ideological polemics, but certainly not guilty of ‘hate speech’. Cultivating an atmosphere of trust and respect in which people feel safe to express unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints should be a priority for the left. Shutting down debate around heated and divisive topics undermines this fundamental principle.
The facebook response was volcanic. Did I know that Renee was a TERF and SWERF? ['Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist' / ‘Sex Worker Exclusive Radical Feminist’]. In response to my statement that I was supporting Renee’s right to freedom of speech without necessarily endorsing her views, one commentator said “People on the left should be able to choose not give bigots a voice without being scolded for ‘censorship’. The humanity of sex workers and trans people is not up for debate.” Renee’s writings were described as ‘hateful’ and ‘transphobic in the literal sense of the word’. Her views were ‘creepy’ and pathologised trans people. As a 'cisgender' person Renee has no right to comment on the legitimacy of trans people. Renee thinks that transwoman are rapists. Renee is trying to silence the voices of trans people and deny them their right to exist.
I stood back from the battlefield and pondered. Was I missing something here? My understanding of the word ‘transphobic’ is based on my understanding of the word ‘homophobic’. People who are homophobic have a fear based hatred for gays and lesbians. They pathologise same sex attraction and encourage discrimination, violence and marginalisation of homosexual people. Although both women and men can be homophobic, men are much more prone to feeling threatened and hence lash out violently. Men are also threatened by lesbians, who remove themselves from being sexually available to men. Similarly, I thought, men are the people we should expect to be more likely to adopt intense attitudes of transphobia. The existential horror of a man seeing that the woman he is attracted to actually has a penis (as depicted for example in the movie ‘The Crying Game’) is the epitome of this sort of fear based hatred.
Given these assumptions of mine, it seemed weird to discover this battle between trans rights advocates and radical feminists. I thought that Radical feminists were fundamentally opposed to people who demonised gender non conforming people. I thought that slogans like “Biology is not Destiny” would unite feminists and trans people. I thought that trans people would have a similarly critical view of gendered power relations, and would tend to align themselves politically with radical feminists.
There is a massive, frequently ugly and toxic, ‘culture war’ going on internationally between trans advocates and radical feminists. From what I have read the heart of this conflict is in western, English speaking countries like the US and the UK. The battle between Renee Gerlich and the people trying to shut her down is the New Zealand microcosmic version of a larger international trend. Radical feminists are currently on the losing side of this ideological battle, and are frequently 'no platformed' and prevented from speaking by the militant actions of the trans lobby. Preventing Renee from selling her magazines at the Zinefest may seem to be a minor and insignificant affair, but when looked at in the international context of similar types of silencing, it appears much more sinister. For examples of what I am talking about see here and here and here.
There is no equivalent battle between supposedly ‘transphobic’ men and the trans community. Pretty much all of the writing on this subject comes from liberal feminists who attack so called 'TERFs' or radical feminist women. People like me – heterosexual males – are simply not involved in the ‘debate’ (scare quotes because the conflict rarely approaches debate, and more usually revolves around attacks such as those I noted above). This fact in itself is quite noteworthy I think. I’m fairly confident of the robustness of the analogy I drew between homophobia and transphobia. I would bet large sums of money on the claim that men are more guilty of acts of violence, discrimination and marginalisation directed towards trans people. Yet they are not (apparently) involved in this war.
Who was I defending here? Although I was confident that Renee was not guilty of hate speech, I was not sure if I actually agreed with her political stance. Trying to clarify my own views, I re-read her blog and followed the hyperlinks. I read up on trans activism, gender theory and radical feminism. While I was doing this I decided to post links to articles with questions about these topics on facebook. Instead of focussing on the really ‘hot’ aspects like male violence which Renee tends to focus on, I kept things at a very theoretical level. By engaging people with philosophical questions about concepts to do with sex and gender, I thought I might be able to bypass the tendency for these debates to degenerate into toxic slanging matches. Also, there was a very acute imbalance between the quality and sophistication of the argumentation on Renee’s side (very high) and the ‘pro trans’ side (from what I could find via google searches, very low). I was hopeful that some of my friends who opposed Renee’s views could provide me with links to convincing counter-arguments.
This is one of my posts:
"This notion of “gender identity as essence” has troubling implications. The unclarity about what kind of a property it is, and its inherently entirely subjective nature, means that the doctrine of gender identity becomes unfalsifiable. Positing the existence of a gender identity is thus equivalent to positing the existence of a soul or some other non-material entity whose existence cannot be tested or proved. If we wish to avoid this implication, the only option is to make a claim for the objective reality of gender identity and to try to search for its material basis. And then we come perilously close to positing the existence of gendered brains, and suggesting that people can be born with a brain belonging to one sex but with the primary and secondary sex characteristics of the other sex. I am not qualified to pronounce on the validity of these claims, having no scientific training and very little knowledge of neuroscience. But feminists have long been suspicious of any attempt to argue for the naturalness of gendered traits and dispositions, as these arguments are so frequently invoked to justify women’s social and political subordination. Furthermore, this account of what gender identity is not only necessitates the existence of a “female brain” or a “male brain”; it also requires some plausible explanation as to how the sex of the brain and the sexual reproductive organs of the body might come to be mismatched. (I acknowledge my own scientific limitations here, but like any good feminist, I recommend those who are inclined to believe in the existence of ladybrains to read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender)."
It could be there is something really wrong with this argument (and the associated arguments in this blog), but I don't know what this is. If anyone can explain exactly what is wrong with this argument (or the associated arguments on the blog) without resorting to accusations of 'transphobia' or 'hate speech', please comment.
The quote is from a blog written by the analytic philosopher Rebecca Reilly Cooper, this is the most clear and lucid exposition of the concepts involved I have found so far.
Although there were several commentators who immediately attacked me rather than making actual arguments, there were several who did not and it was possible to have a reasonable discussion. The comment-box debate ended up revolving around the claim that both sex and gender are socially constructed. By ignoring the fact that sex is socially constructed, and assuming that humans are sexually dimorphic in nature, Reilly Cooper’s argument was resting on questionable foundations. I disputed this, and we had an interesting discussion about the significance of intersex people in the debate.
Although I strived to keep things on an intellectual level, it didn’t take long before I was again accused of ‘transphobia’ for daring to discuss the truth of the claim that sex is socially constructed. I came across as an aloof theoretician, playing games with concepts which I didn’t really understand because I am ‘cis’. Even if I wasn’t intending to be hurtful, my public discussion of these concepts was unavoidably transphobic.
Why was this discussion so sensitive and dangerous? Simply put, if you think that anatomical sex is not socially constructed, then slogans such as “transwomen are women” are not true. Facts about physiology are independent of the language we use to describe them and the social and cultural interpretations we make of them. Males who take hormones and have sex reassignment surgery might look more feminine afterwards, but they are still biologically male. This claim hurts the self identity of many trans people. Helen Highwater (a transwoman) describes this acute pain:
“So I was set up to face the world. I’m a woman born in the wrong body if anybody doesn’t like that it’s because of their own issues. I started to meet other transsexuals through support groups. It seemed the world was a tough place, full of bigots and transphobes. Full of people who thought that those of us who looked, sounded and acted like males were not proper women. It became so important to pass. The more we looked, sounded and acted like woman the less likely we were to get “violently misgendered” by the public. I heard tales of transwomen being called “guys” and the transwomen involved being deeply hurt by this. My friends were being hurt all of the time and this took an enormous toll on their validity and their ability to see themselves as worthy members of society. It seemed that those people closest, wives, partners and parents found it the hardest to accept that the person they knew is actually a woman. Being told you’re a man by the people you love hurts the most.
Some people, who were known as “TERFs” thought it didn’t matter how much we pass or integrate, it doesn’t make us women. Despite what we’d been told by medical professionals. Despite what it said in official NHS literature. Despite what is said by every trans support group out there. It’s so easy to see why the words “transwomen are not women” are so hurtful and triggering. They cut at the very foundations of everything that has helped to build a level of self-worth and to finally deal with the shame.”
I have absolutely no idea what this experience feels like, and I am acutely conscious of the fact that I am treading on highly sensitive territory here. At the same time, through reading Renee’s blog and the work of other radical feminists, I am also acutely aware that the issues at stake here go far beyond the emotional sensitivities of people who identify as ‘trans’. To get a good sense of the broader picture, and the radical feminist case against transgender ideology, I would recommend Sarah Ditum’s article Be that you are: on gender as class .
This quote outlines some of the concerns relating to the ‘sex is socially constructed’ thesis:
Yet what we are, we cannot say. The condition of the human female in society is becoming increasingly one that is unspeakable. This is something that is to do with trans politics, but I want to be absolutely clear at this point: it is not something that has been caused by the existence of trans people, the vast majority of whom simply wish to live without harming or being harmed. The backlash has taken several forms. The first was the “choice feminism” of the 1980s and 90s – a decontextualised sort of anti-politics that told us whatever a woman does is good, particularly if what she does is what she would have done without feminism to tell her she can be a person in her own right. Then we had the neurosexism of the 1990s and 2000s (so deftly addressed by in her book Delusions of Gender), which reassured us that whatever women choose, they choose because that is what women do.
And from these, in the late-00s and 2010s, has been birthed the rhetoric of trans advocacy (which, I reiterate, is not the same as trans people themselves), a chimerical compound of the two previous strands of backlash. Within the lore of trans advocacy, as seen in the extract from Lauren Rankin above, the individual’s stated choice is always the ultimate arbiter, to the point that physical sex may no longer be considered as a material condition: “male” and “female” are said to be “assigned”, and should the individual disagree with their “assignation”, the individual’s judgement is sovereign. This leads us to a situation where, counter to all that is known about mammalian biology, it is possible for trans theorist and activist Julia Serano to claim that the presence of a penis is perfectly consistent with a state of “femaleness” (Whipping Girl, p. 16).
Does this conflict mean that we have to choose between two groups of people, and side either with radical feminists or trans people? Do all trans people share a politics based upon a concept of gender as self identification, together with an extremely emotive focus upon correct pronoun usage?
The answer is No.
There is a small yet highly articulate group of trans people, particularly but not exclusively transwomen, who reject gender identity politics and embrace a ‘gender critical’ perspective. From what I can gather the ‘gender critical’ umbrella includes both trans people who have a radical feminist perspective and others who share other varieties of ‘unorthodox’ views about gender. In 2014 a group of gender critical transwomen gathered in Portland to discuss their political views. The blog which covers this conference is interesting to read because you get a sense of the complexity and difficulty of the political questions these people are dealing with. They make jokes about ‘solving all the problems of trans politics’ and openly admit to failing to agree on a number of fundamental issues. At the same time they are very clear about the basic difference between their outlook and the dominant trans ideology:
For several of us, being able to articulate that we are still male even when we pass socially as female, or that one can be a “male woman”, is a key concept in understanding our lives. We all agreed that actions and behaviors are more important than intentions and self-identifications, and attempts by trans activists to be the world’s pronoun police are misguided and futile. It is absurd to imagine we can legislate other people’s reactions to us.
Echoing Renee’s concerns about male sexual violence and the appropriateness of gender transition for children:
Well, all of us agreed that convictions for sex offenses (other than prostitution) and/or violent crimes should permanently disallow trans women from legal change of sex. We all agreed that fighting against childhood gender policing was a more pressing issue than transitioning children, which many of us were skeptical of. We all thought that further scientific research on transition was important, including evidence-based studies on who transition helps and how it helps them, in addition to who transition doesn’t help and how it hurts them. We all agreed that we wanted to hear more trans women’s voices, and we wanted there to be more narratives of the experience of gender nonconformity and transition, since none of us felt like the traditional narratives had fully explained our lives.”
Miranda Yardley is a UK based transwoman who takes a completely uncompromising radical feminist stance. Her twelve point Antigenderism Manifesto is worth reading to get a sense of the vehement and passionate opposition to the gender identity paradigm. The embedded links will take you to various blogs written by gender critical trans people and radical feminists. Point number twelve of the manifesto explicitly counters the popular slogan ‘transwomen are women’:
12. Accept that ‘trans women’ fails in making ‘trans women’ a subset of women because reality gets in the way. Saying ‘transwomen are women’ is an erasure of the actual lived lives of both women and transwomen and at best makes transwomen appear broken. Do transwomen really feel like that? What anyway is the ‘trans’ for if that statement is true? Similarly ideas of being ‘coercively assigned male/female at birth’ immediately makes us start from a point of inferiority or defectiveness. This is not self acceptance, this is a crass denial of reality.
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Another charge laid against Renee Gerlich and other ‘TERFs’ is that they pathologise transgender people. Just as gay and lesbian people were subjected to a medical discourse which framed their sexuality as an abnormality to be solved through psychiatric treatment, trans people are now subjugated to a similarly oppressive approach towards their identities. Radical feminists openly discuss theories which seek to explain the reasons why people are driven to transition away from their gender. Does this mean that they are trying to ‘solve’ a problem that does not really exist? Are they guilty of the same kind of blinkered moral paternalism which motivated the bourgeois psychiatrists to ‘cure’ homosexuality?
To do justice to this question would require a lot more than I will attempt here. One thing that is outstandingly clear is that the motives of radical feminists are fundamentally different from the motives of the bourgeois psychiatrists who attempted to ‘cure’ homosexuality. The psychiatrists were effectively trying to preserve the status quo gendered power relations of society, whereas radical feminists seek to destroy these relations. Also, as Sarah Ditum emphasises in the quote above, feminists are not at all ‘threatened’ by the existence of trans people, they are opposed rather to the gender identity ideology which legitimates a range of practices which effectively prop up and maintain the status quo gendered power relations. Some of these practices, especially the current set of regulatory and political practices which pertain to gender dysphoric youth seeking gender transition in the US, effectively encourage people to transition. So it follows that if radical feminist critiques gained political traction, there would very probably be smaller numbers of people undergoing sex reassignment surgery.
Should we cry out ‘Genocide!’ and join in the chorus of TERF denunciation because of this? I don’t think so. The most convincing piece of evidence for this response comes not from any radical feminist but rather from Maria Catt, a young ‘detransitioner’ from the US who suffered from sexual assault trauma prior to her transition. In an interview with ‘Youth Gender Professionals’, Maria explains that the various therapists who worked with her failed to recognise and deal with the significance of her trauma. They focussed instead on the apparent evidence which backed up the ‘brain sex hypothesis’, the idea that Maria had a ‘true’ male identity mistakenly matched up with a female body:
I’ve talked to therapists who specialize in trans care and I know this is already a concern for a lot of them. The political climate makes them nervous to speak openly about it. They need the voices of detransitioned people talking about trauma to create a climate where they can talk about trauma. More transitioned people being willing to speak openly about the role of trauma in their gender dysphoria would help a lot too. We are so constrained by this “brain gender” narrative. The political emphasis on sticking to that story, and editing life stories to affirm that narrative, ends up hurting trans people. At the end of the day, people get to transition because of their human right to autonomy. Part of respecting people’s autonomy is creating therapeutic contexts where they are making these big decisions with their most relaxed, calm, realistic mind. Therapists who treat trans people incorporating trauma education and treatment into their practices is a base level necessity to fulfill the ethical requirement of respecting their patients’ autonomy.
This is a clear example of a case in which the prevailing gender identity orthodoxy led to a harmful outcome that may well have been avoided had the therapeutic model been different. Critical and humane investigation and engagement with the causes of gender dysphoria is surely possible and desirable. It doesn’t have to set out to ‘cure’ trans people, and it does not prohibit gender transition. There is nothing I have read in radical feminist accounts which would contradict this sort of common sense and humane approach.
Another way of looking at this issue is to examine whether or not people would suffer harm if they were influenced by radical feminist thinking and decided to embrace gender non conformity rather than transition. Again, I am aware that this is a complex topic with all sorts of intricacies. I don’t pretend to understand any of these intricacies. Yet there is at least one very striking example of a person who became a transwoman and then decided to de-transition because of the influence of radical feminist theory. Miriam Afloat describes this influence:
If I had not made the deliberate choice to tell myself, with regards to radical feminist analysis, “hey, just re-read this article and try to understand what they are saying, from their perspective, and keep an open mind,” I would likely not have detransitioned. There was a specific article that started me down that path of analysis, written by Elizabeth Hungerford, titled “A feminist critique of cisgender”,
Did Miriam suffer harm from this change of perspective? I don’t think so. This interview with Miriam is perhaps the most moving, sincere and intelligent piece of writing I have come across which provides a window into the complexities of gender dysphoria. Miriam is empowered and validated by radical feminist thinking about gender:
Limiting my self-expression based upon some obligation to represent myself as someone easily understood to be a man by others is antithetical to my goals. It would involve falling back on conservative notions of gender. Seriously, fuck that. I transitioned not only because of a desire to not be physically male, but also because I felt unable (unwilling?) to express myself as a man in this society. Two years of transition, and I realize that being a man trying to be a woman was limiting in simply a different way. I went from one box to another, because I was still operating within the framework of the gender straightjacket.
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What position should Marxists take on these disputes? Shortly after my most recent round of facebook gladiator combat, one of my Marxist friends posted this statement:
Race is socially constructed, it is also real. Class is socially constructed, it is also real.
Gender is socially constructed, it is real, and it oppresses trans people. The radfem claim that gender is not real only serves to deny transgender identification, imposing biological essentialism on trans and non-binary people.
The problem with this statement is that it is not true. The radical feminist claim that gender is socially constructed doesn't equate to claim gender isn't "real". It is challengeable and contestable and malleable, because it is socially constructed. That means it isn't 'real' in an absolute or naturalistic sense. But of course radical feminists recognise the reality of things like division of labour, male violence and so on as a part of a larger and very "real" system of oppression. Renee replies: "Radical feminism asserts that race, class and gender are all real, social constructions that are exploitative. Gender is an hierarchical system which assigns traits and roles to people based on their biological sex. The institutions of marriage and prostitution are based on this. Radical feminists don't claim gender is not real – they just claim that it is a system of power whereby men oppress women on the basis of biological sex, and women cannot “identify” their way out of this situation. A girl sold into child marriage or born into a brothel is being subjected to a very real system of gender whereby power is held over her by men, who treat her as property because of her sex. Identity politics totally evaporate this real system of power and abuse into an ephemeral matter of identification."
What about the claim that radical feminism ‘imposes biological essentialism on trans/non binary people’? Again, this is simply not true. To recognise and acknowledge things like sexual dimorphism and the facts around women's oppression as they relate to physical bodies is not 'essentialist'. A better word would be 'materialist', which is what Marxists are supposed to be. Everything about radical feminism is opposed to 'essentialist' ideas about the body.
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It feels very odd writing this blog. I'm sure that many people will vehemently disagree with what have said, and will attack me with the same slurs that have been directed at Renee. I'm also fairly sure that some people will not only disagree with my arguments but deny that I have any right at all to make them. Although I strongly oppose the silencing effects of privilege theory politics and 'call out' culture, I do recognise that my views on this subject come from a position of ignorance. I am a fairly ordinary heterosexual male. I don't know what it is like to feel things like gender dysphoria. As a male I don't know what it is like to experience things like regular sexual harassment or patronising sexist behaviour.
Having said that I do know how to critically evaluate arguments, and I strongly believe that people should be able to speak their minds on sensitive topics without fear of censure. I also think that people have a right to be wrong. By putting forward views and arguments about a topic I have little familiarity with, I am taking quite a big risk. It could be that I have missed something vital, or that my presentation of these arguments is distorted by the fact that I am really pissed off about people I know ostracising a sincere and passionate activist. Another aspect of all this is the fact that all of the links I have provided are to overseas content, except for Renee's blog. It could be that the New Zealand context does not quite 'match' the contours of the debate I have sketched.
Acknowledging all of these caveats, I welcome sincere and respectful debate.