What happened to sisterhood?
Last week, beloved children’s author J.K. Rowling briefly became the world’s most famous transphobe. After the Harry Potter writer spent days defending transphobia on Twitter and in her blog, writing that she was “worried about the new trans activism,” millions of distraught fans and confused bystanders were left wondering what the hell was going on.
But Rowling’s public spasm of self-delusion isn’t unusual. It’s part of a larger, weirder pattern of prejudice. Whenever I’m sharing war stories with American progressives, one of the first things they tend to ask is why there are so many prominent British transphobes, and why respectable left-wing publications like the Guardian publish their writing on the subject so often. They ask me why the only Western leaders speaking the same language on trans rights as these British liberals are right-wing despots.
Well, buckle up, because this is why.
Britain is the epicenter of a strange, savage, and specific cultural backlash against trans rights. That backlash is doing real harm to people whose lives should not be up for debate. Its proponents have recruited a great many decent, well-intentioned people to their cause through subterfuge and scaremongering — including mainstream media figures and celebrities like Rowling.
In the past half-decade, British transphobes have done everything in their power to convince the public that trans women are a sexual threat to women and girls and ought to be banned from women’s changing rooms, public bathrooms, and prisons. They have threatened and harassed trans teenagers and bullied trans speakers off stage. They even picketed Amnesty international for daring to invite a trans comedian to a women’s event. Their zeal is grounded in a totally false conception of what it means to be trans. They accuse trans women of trading in stereotypes and implying that womanhood is, in Rowling’s words, a “costume,” all about makeup, manicures, ‘pink brains’ and “a liking for Jimmy Choos.” Ironically, some of these transphobes are happy to use the tactics of patriarchy against trans women, who find themselves subject to sexual shaming and taunts about their appearance by people who call themselves feminists.
These transphobes have spent years fighting new legislation designed to make it easier to change your legal gender and - for now - they are winning. After years of relentless campaigning and strategically seeding stories into the press, they have managed to convince a significant chunk of the population that trans people are an active threat to women and children. Despite changing attitudes among the younger generation, life in Britain has rapidly become more hazardous for trans people, who are already one of the most marginalised groups in society. Just as I was finishing this piece, the Sunday Times leaked details of new Tory plans to ban trans people from public bathrooms and single-sex facilities. This is being phrased as a victory for women and girls. The people leading the backlash are neither religious fanatics nor conservative homophobes, though they have shared platforms with both. They are, or claim to be, feminists. They’re doing all of this in the name of women’s rights.
Critics call these transphobic feminists TERFs, an acronym that stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist,” in order to distinguish them from other feminists who haven’t yet drunk the transphobic kool-aid. They prefer to be called ‘gender critical’, which is interesting, given that they spend a significant proportion of their time loudly refusing to call trans and non-binary people by their preferred names. “Accusations of TERFery,” Rowling writes, “have been sufficient to intimidate many people, institutions and organisations I once admired, who’re cowering before the tactics of the playground. ‘They’ll call us transphobic!’ ‘They’ll say I hate trans people!’” Today, “terf is a slur” has become a rhetorical tic for people who don’t like trans women but don’t want to be called out on it.
And you know what? They’re right. “Terf” is a slur. It’s a word that’s used to describe a prejudice, and calling someone out on their prejudice is often insulting. People who get called racist feel the same way. The word “racist” is a slur. It’s also, often, accurate -and racists are often far more concerned about the fact that someone has dared to call them a racist than they are about, you know, racism.
So to keep things simple, I’ll just go ahead and call these feminists transphobes. Not all “gender critical”’ women fighting against “transgenderism”’ believe they are transphobes, of course. That’s part of the problem. They genuinely don’t believe that they’re doing anything wrong or harmful, in part because they refuse to listen to anyone telling them exactly why they’re doing just that. They have nothing against trans people — they just want to make sure dangerous men in dresses don’t sneak into the women’s bathrooms. They’re just “concerned”, like Rowling, “about the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition”. A lot of people also say that they have nothing against gay people. They just don’t want them around their kids. Or violating the sanctity of marriage by marrying each other. The people who say these things don’t think of themselves as prejudiced, either.
If you haven’t spent the past few years marinated in internal left-wing debate, you might wonder why on earth one oppressed group would choose to spend most of its limited time and energy harassing another, given how much else is going on in the world. You might well ask: what happened to sisterhood?
Well, I’ve a theory about that. I suspect that anyone who thinks that feminism is about the sort of sisterhood where we all sit around making friendship bracelets and brushing each other’s hair has never actually had a sister. I happen to have two. They are my favorite people, and nobody in the world can make me so cross so quickly. Sisterhood, in my experience, is largely about trying to grow up in the same house without killing each other, which is also really good training for progressive politics in general. Sisterhood means you fight. You disagree. You infuriate each other. But you have each other’s backs when it counts.
Sisterhood means that you call up your sister when she’s in crisis — and you also call her out, gently but firmly, when she’s doing something dreadful. You tell her when she’s making a really catastrophic and embarrassing mistake. And it is in that spirit of sisterhood that I would like to address many of my fellow feminist activists, some of them respected elders in the movement, and say: you’re being badly misled, and you need to stop this bigoted, wrongheaded nonsense right now.
What happened, more or less, is this.
Back in the early twenty-teens, during what Time Magazine called the “trans tipping point”, a new generation of millennial trans people started to come out en masse. American celebrities like Caitlin Jenner went public with their real identities, and the British media was suddenly full of young trans people like model Munroe Bergdof, broadcaster Paris Lees, activists Juliet Jaques and Shon Faye, artist Travis Alabanza and writer-musician CN Lester. As social media exploded, the language of gender orientation became more accessible, leading — among other things — to a dramatic increase in people of all ages coming out as transgender or non-binary. For many, this was liberation. People who have to hide their trans status are still uniquely vulnerable to self-harm, stigma and suicidal ideation. It is now estimated that the number of British people who are trans or non-binary is somewhere around 1%.
But not everyone has been comfortable with the speed of that change. A number of British cis progressives had reactions to this which were largely ignorant and bewildered as opposed to actually hateful — asking, for example, why it was suddenly so important to refer to other human beings by their preferred pronouns (answer: basic manners), or opining that someone “raised as a boy” could never be a woman. This was new territory, and not everyone who made comments like this was being rude and cruel on purpose, but the internet reacted as the internet is wont to do, particularly the parts of the internet full of angry left-wing queers in their teens and early twenties. In turn, establishment liberals reacted to that as establishment liberals are wont to do when called out by angry young lefties. Instead of listening, they got defensive and doubled down and…. well, you can guess what happened next.
What happened is that the whole cycle repeated itself with escalating frenzy for about a decade.
It would have been hard enough by itself, but alongside these irascible media liberals and defensive internet queers was a third group. A small but committed cadre of British feminists who had, since the 1980s, been adamantly against trans people in every context, who believe, in the words of feminist activist Janice Raymond, that in an ideal world trans people would be “morally mandated out of existence.”
These were the original TERFs: second-wave feminists, political lesbians and lifelong campaigners who all knew each other from back in the day. A small number of these people — like transphobic campaigner Shelia Jeffreys — are simply swivel-eyed zealots and always have been, which is a shame, because some of their other work on women’s issues has been brave and important.
They are committed to an essentialist understanding of womanhood, grounded in a radical reclaiming of the female body- a reading of gender and power that identifies binary reproductive difference and male violence as the root of women’s oppression. They believe that if anyone can ‘become’ a woman, then the word ‘woman’ means nothing, and therefore, apparently, trans people are out to destroy the entire concept of womanhood by their very existence. This essentialist philosophy, incidentally, is also why many trans-exclusive feminists also campaign for the legal abolition of sex work, which in their view is always a form of male violence. TERFS believe that sex workers are either abject victims or betraying womanhood by siding with a culture where “female bodies are for sale.” By that same logic, trans women are corrupting womanhood by trying to be part of it.
All of this is part of a feminist politics that seeks to protect women and girls as a sex class. That’s a noble, worthy instinct, which is why it’s so dispiriting to watch it weaponized and twisted against marginalized trans and working-class women who need feminism more than just about anyone.
Before we go any further, I want to take a moment to note that there is, actually, a point to this essentialist feminism. Even when it’s misguided, sisterhood is powerful. From the inside, it can be life-saving and life-changing. For women and girls who have grown up being taught to hate their own bodies, who have, like Rowling, experienced violence and sexual assault, who have struggled to find solidarity and self-esteem outside of abusive relationships, there is enormous comfort and, energy to be drawn from that sort of protective sisterhood. There’s a heady in-group mentality that is very precious to those who are part of it. That, alone, makes it hard for some people to raise objections when sisterhood goes sour and starts spending half its time frothing about trans people who only ever wanted to be able to declare their identity without declaring war.
The problem with essentialist in-groups, however well-meaning, is that they usually end up picking a convenient group of “‘outsiders”’ to punish, preferably a group even more marginalised and vulnerable than themselves. In the discomfort of media liberals and the fervor of young trans activists, these essentialist feminists saw an opening. They reached out to cis women in the media who were sick of getting called transphobes by trans people online, offering sanctuary. They made in-roads with a number of prominent men who, while they had little interest in women’s rights, were only too happy to leap into the free-speech wars and kick down at some trans women with the smug, sadistic sophistry that is the birthright of a certain sort of centrist intellectual. They also made connections with other “‘gender critical” groups that were growing in number online — women who had no stake in the relentlessly incestuous liberal media drama, but who were panicked by the number of young people they saw coming out as trans and wanted what so many of us seem to want in these febrile times: a safe place to be prejudiced. Transphobic conspiracy theories were seeded among communities deemed most receptive- including mothers of young children, which is how parenting website mumsnet.com briefly became the nation’s most torrid hotbed of anti-trans recruitment.
I’ve spoken to cis women involved in that side of the debate who have lost everything that mattered to them over years of austerity, cuts to services and welfare, who have been ground down by male violence and are now being told by people with an agenda that men in dresses are coming to take the last safe spaces they had. They are hearing, again and again, that trans people are coming to corrupt their children and convert their daughters to deviance — but if they sign up to an ideology that portrays trans women as “poison” (as transphobic feminist Shelia Jeffreys recently declared in the House of Commons), they can fight back.
This is how a lot of concerned, well-meaning women who only want a fairer, safer world came to be convinced that trans people are out to pervert children, prey on them in public toilets and refuges, and force lesbians to have sex with them against their will.
And that’s how a massively misguided, deeply weird, highly specific special interest group was born. Organisations like Mayday4Women and A Woman’s Place UK were formed to bring these disparate groups together under the auspices of defending womanhood from the encroaching threat of what they call “transactivism”. These groups, as mentioned, also functioned as sanctuaries for women and girls who were new to feminism and desperately needed it. Their main obsession, however, was trans people. When these groups met, and when transphobic feminists like Germaine Greer were invited to speak at universities, trans campaigners peacefully picketed their events. This gave transphobes exactly the publicity and sense of persecution they’d been waiting for and, again, if you have been on Twitter Dot Com at any point in the past decade, you can probably guess what happened next.
I’m giving you the Cliff Notes version here, and glossing over about ten years of pain, personal vendettas, harassment, burnout, stalking, smears, lost jobs, broken friendships, enemies who knew each other of old and people who should be old enough to know better. I had a front-row seat for all of it. When the transphobic feminist backlash began, I was both working for the establishment liberal press and an angry internet queer weirdo with a headful of gender theory. At one point, two of the key ‘voices’ on the ‘gender-critical’ and trans-ally sides of this ‘debate’ were, respectively, my immediate boss and my ex-girlfriend, which was exactly as edifying as it sounds.
There are a few reasons this happened in Britain rather than anywhere else. The ecosystem of liberal media and left wing activism is smaller and more quarrelsome in Britain than it is in America, and a lot of people know each other, and a lot of it comes down to in-group loyalty and personal drama. Over time, any attempt to build bridges became impossible. Tensions on both sides were so high and the wounds so raw that it was way too late to get anyone to hear one another. Soon enough, the TERFs went right off the deep end. These days, increasing numbers of them really do truly actually believe that a sinister group of “transactivists” are conspiring to destroy the entire concept of womanhood, and that trans women are not ordinary people trying to live their lives authentically in a way that brings them peace, but “perverted” men in dresses determined to destroy feminism, force lesbians to have sex with them and prey on little girls in changing rooms.
There’s a certain twisted interior logic to it, until you think about it for five minutes and start asking such heretical questions as why on earth, for instance, a man would go to all the trouble of legally changing his gender just to commit sexual assault in a society that already allows most rapists to walk free. Such questions are not encouraged by ‘gender critical’ purists. “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman,” wrote Rowling, “then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside”.
Rowling clearly believes this bunkum. So do a great many transphobic feminists. That’s important. If you want to understand why this is happening, and why these people are prepared to traumatize strangers and torch their reputations, you must understand that they have a very specific ideology that makes total sense to them, they believe what they’re saying, and no amount of evidence to the contrary can convince them otherwise and believe me, I have tried.
It’s like talking to young men who have been redpilled. It’s also, oddly, a little like talking to pro-lifers. Trying to argue that trans rights matter with people who believe, as an article of faith, that trans women are an existential and mortal threat to the very concept of womanhood is like trying to persuade an anti-abortion fundamentalist that abortion should be legal because women’s rights matter. “‘Pro-lifers”’ don’t think of themselves as hating women- but they’re prepared to force women, non binary people and trans men to give birth against their will in order to protect their own notion of the sanctity of ‘life’. Likewise, transphobic feminists claim to have nothing against trans people — but they are perfectly prepared to see them shut out of public space and demonised in the press because they think that’s what has to happen to protect their own purist idea of womanhood. People who think of themselves as moral crusaders can do a great deal of damage.
Today, trans women in Britain are embattled and exhausted. As the anti-trans headlines continue to be published, with respected public figures declaring them predators-in-waiting, I have several friends who are talking about leaving the country. Hate crimes against trans people increased 81% in the year 2018–19. Britain is becoming so transphobic that only last year, a British trans woman was offered asylum in New Zealand.
Hurt people hurt people. A small number of trans people and their allies have sent threats and abusive messages to prominent transphobes. Some of them threatened J K Rowling and her family. That is awful, and I’m not trying to minimise or excuse it. Nobody wants that nonsense to stop more than the trans people and trans allies who are sick and tired of seeing every single abusive tweet catalogued and weaponised by TERFs to justify crackdowns on the entire trans community. There are also cis men on both sides who are taking full advantage of suddenly having plausible-deniability permission to shout at women and queer people on the internet, and those men have absolutely zero place in any discussion of violence against women. Frankly, they can fuck right off.
Trans people and their allies, too, are getting abused. I am receiving abuse right now, as I write this. I have been harassed, smeared and bullied by ‘gender critical’ people online and in the British media since I was 23 years old. I have had my own gender identity mocked in the press and by respected journalists. My loved ones have been harassed. I’ve been told over and over again to go choke on trans cock if I like it so much. After coming out as gender queer, I was called a sexual tourist in the Guardian, which was both very rude and very slightly brilliant. I have faced professional obstacles for standing up for trans rights as a journalist, and I will likely face far more now that I’ve finally put this essay into the world, which I should have done sooner. I’ve actually had a draft of this piece on my hard drive for eighteen months, but I was tired of the bullying and afraid of the consequences of hammering my colors to the mast. I don’t want to be shunned by feminists I’ve looked up to my whole life. I’ve spent my entire professional career, not to mention a decade as an adult in the feminist community that fucking saved me, trying to get frightened, traumatised people to listen to each other before they tear their whole movement apart.
But seems to be too late, now, for listening- too late, too loud and too toxic. The ideological drawbridge has been pulled up. On both sides, a lot of confused bystanders who didn’t know they had to pick a side are now doing so because all they see is their friends getting screamed at, including by cis men. And on both sides, level-headed people are appalled by some of the extreme behavior that they feel they can’t call out, or call in, without letting the team down. Privately, a number of ‘gender critical’ feminists have told me that nobody knows what to do about Sheila Jeffreys and they wish she and all the other headcases literally screaming ‘penis!’ at strangers would tone it down a bit. Likewise, when trans elders see a young trans woman going off on one online, they’re likely to feel unable to publicly call her in, because that would be taken as ammunition by the other side and…you get the picture. It’s awful. I hate it. And at this stage, I just don’t know where it’s going to end. I am specifically not saying ‘there are good people on both sides’. I’m saying there are people on both sides who have been bang out of line, and because of that, by this point, the fight has developed a momentum all of its own. Only one side, however, has centuries of transphobia, the institutional power of the British liberal and the global conservative establishment backing it up — and that makes all the difference.
The fact that, yes, some trans people have sent ugly messages to ‘gender critical’ feminists is taken as evidence that the entire movement for trans rights is misogynist and that trans women are dangerous, violent males who must be shut out of public life. But here’s the thing: denying a marginalised group human rights on the basis that a member of that group might one day commit a crime is the very essence of prejudice.
Holding an entire category of humans hostage to the propriety of every individual member is unethical and abusive. The reason for this is that there has never been category of human beings on Earth that does not include the thoughtless, the petulant, the petty and the cruel, those who are drunker than they realized, angry teenagers, obsessive adults and perfectly nice people who have put up with years of bullying and bullshit and have chosen today to really let rip and be totally out of order.
Every single group of human beings contains these people, and most of us have been all of them at some point, but transphobes, like most political groups that tend to the cultlike, take any uncivil criticism as evidence that they were right all along: trans people are deluded, violent and a threat to women. On the subject of the ‘tactics of the playground’, everyone has encountered that sort of bully -the sort of bully who hassles and harasses their victim, goads them until they finally snap and say or do something stupid, then uses the reaction to justify more and worse abuse.
Transphobic feminists are right to believe that there is a crisis in women’s liberation. But it’s not because of any sort of insidious neoliberal trans agenda. The people who are actually undermining women’s rights around the world are not being at all subtle about it. They’re not sending in trans women to invade domestic violence shelters. They’re just closing the shelters and taking away legal aid protections for women fleeing abusive relationships. In Britain, over half the domestic violence shelters have closed in the past decade. Around the world, misogyny and violence are becoming more acceptable, women in the public eye are being attacked and killed, and reproductive rights and sex- and gender- based protections are being torn up by right-wing governments led by tyrannical strongmen. Those right-wing strongmen, surfing to power on a wave of white male conservative resentment, are also attacking LGBT people. Just this week, Donald Trump passed a law taking away healthcare protections for trans and gay people in America. While transphobic feminists focus their energy and attention on trans activists, the common enemy gets on with dismantling the basic rights of women and queer people of every gender.
Feminist transphobes are far from the only people actively working to undermine trans rights, but they are the most vocal, and the most instrumental in normalizing public anti-trans sentiment. Falsely claiming that by attacking trans people you are somehow defending women’s rights gives the whole sordid business an air of respectability. When conservative men attack trans people in public, they use the concern-trolling language of feminist transphobes to do it. When American lawmakers propose laws to ban trans people from public restrooms, they claim to be concerned about the dignity of (cis) women and girls (a concern that mysteriously disappears as soon as abortion rights are on the table).
The far right is only too happy to get on board the TERF train as it swerves off the track of progressive logic into the ravine of new-right conspiracy-mongering. At a recent meeting of the American anti-LGBT hate group Family Research Council, Meg Kilgannon, executive director of Concerned Parents and Educators of Fairfax County, identified a wide coalition of potential allies outside the Christian Right who could help drive trans people back into the closet. Here’s her advice on how to draw them in:
“Explain that gender identity rights only come at the expense of others…Divide and conquer. For all its recent success, the LGBT alliance is actually fragile and the trans activists need the gay rights movement to help legitimize them…Trans and gender identity are a tough sell, so focus on gender identity to divide and conquer… If we separate the T from the alphabet soup we’ll have more success.”
It’s important to speak as clearly as possible when you’re dealing with important issues of gender and power and structural violence. I try to avoid being too “inside baseball’ on these matters. I know almost nothing about baseball, but I do know an unhealthy amount about the history of feminist theory and activism. To me, a wilting European intellectual, baseball is incomprehensibly foreign, I don’t understand the rules, I don’t understand why I should care, and the whole thing makes me feel ignorant and therefore angry. This, I imagine, is exactly how a lot of people feel about feminist theory, including most feminists. But right now, when it comes to feminism and trans issues, inside baseball actually matters, because the substance of the current, ongoing, decades-old disagreement is one of high theory as well as lived experience.
Not everyone who is trans, or an ally, is well-versed in the history of feminist and gender theory, and not everyone needs to be. It so happens, however, that I am. So let’s have it out. Deep breath. Here we go.
You want to talk about the material basis of women’s oppression? Fine. Here’s how it is. Bodies are sites of social, economic and political repression on the basis of gender. It is impossible, in a society where gender is so woven into systems of oppression played out on the body, not to be somewhat complicit. We all make choices, and the politics of those choices, however small, depend on who we are and how we are commanded to be. Since we’re obsessing about makeup and manicures, when a trans woman paints her nails neon pink, that is, in fact, a tiny action with different implications than when a cis woman does the same — because when a trans woman paints her nails she is betraying the uniform of her assigned sex and gender, and there is courage in that. These things are not frivolous. They matter. They are small, intimate acts of identity formation, which are experienced differently depending on who we are.
There are lots of different ways to be trans. Everyone’s journey to transition is different. Some trans people have always known they were trans; some trans people come out to themselves later in life. It is not transphobic to acknowledge that trans women have a different political experience of womanhood than cis women, just as white women have a different political experience of womanhood than black women, just as rich women have a different political experience of womanhood than poor women. There is, in fact, no universal experience of womanhood, no essential feminine principle — the insistence that such a sketchy concept exists is normally predicated not just on transphobia but on latent racism and classism. When people talk about womanhood as a universal experience, they are usually imagining not just a cis woman, but a white, straight, middle-class cis woman. Essentialism is relentlessly conservative. If we insist that our politics comes from a place of common experience we’re going to be marching to battle in columns of one. Lastly, homophobia, transphobia, sexism and misogyny are fundamentally connected. They are part of the same structure and logic of oppression. And they affect everyone.
Is womanhood a social construct, a personal identity or a material form of oppression based in biological reproductive difference? The answer is yes. The answer is all of the above. If womanhood is a political category, trans women are part of the political category. The fact that they’re part of that category doesn’t make the category of “woman” — a category fundamentally based on reproductive difference — irrelevant. That, in fact, is the kicker: sexual and reproductive injustice is the root of misogyny, and misogyny affects every single woman, whatever we’re planning to do with whatever we happen to have in our knickers. Trans women face that same misogyny with an extra helping of transphobia. Women of color face the same misogyny with an extra helping of racism. Misogyny is about controlling women’s bodies —especially the bodies of queer, black, brown and poor women.
Nobody is actually saying there is no such thing as natal sex. Nobody is demanding that cis lesbians literally have sex with trans women to prove that they are not prejudiced. Nobody is seriously suggesting that it’s transphobic to say the word ‘vagina’. Well, I say ‘nobody’, but I’m sure there’s at least one person out there saying all of those things, because one of the only absolutely iron-clad unbreakable rules of progressive politics or, indeed, any politics, is that there is always one idiot.
Honestly, I hate to generalize, but there really is always at least one idiot, and if your politics implodes on impact with the ‘there’s always one idiot’ rule, then your politics are bad and you should feel bad. And by the way, it’s possible that that one person out there spending her whole weekend listlessly insisting to anyone on internet who will listen that it’s literally transphobic to say ‘vagina’ is, let’s say, a young woman who has spent every day of the past five years having to deal with strangers screaming at her that she’s a sick pervert who will never be a real woman because she doesn’t have a vagina. Strangers who are old enough to be her mother. Strangers who should be treating her with the care and patience that any confused young woman coming into the feminist movement deserves — because that’s what sisterhood is supposed to mean.
It’s honestly quite embarrassing. This ugly, endless, pointless, pernicious, stupid fucking fight really does makes me embarrassed to be a British feminist sometimes. But here we are.
And yes, there’s a place for long conversations about the complexities of female identity, about the material realities of women’s subordination as a sex class, about what it even means to feel “like a woman” when men still get to define what a woman ought to be. I’m perfectly happy to have those conversations, even though I’ve sworn off arguing about the ontology of gender with angry transphobes on Twitter because some spiteful invertebrates decided to weaponise second-wave feminist philosophy to punish and harass some of my dearest friends.
So yes, we could talk about the awkward place where what people actually want wrestles with what they think they ought to want. We could talk about the impossibility of knowing what gender would look like outside patriarchy because there is no control group for “outside patriarchy” because we still live in a vicious nightmare white supremacist patriarchal death cult which is not going to be brought down by bullying trans teenagers on the internet. We can and should make time to talk about all of that, but we can’t do it while we’re also screaming abuse at one another as the entire world spins out into chaos. There is a reason that people don’t do family therapy in the middle of a firefight.
It is perfectly possible to believe that gender is a spectrum, an experience of identity that cannot be crammed into the categories culture has handed to us, and to believe at the same time that women are oppressed as a class. In fact, it is more than possible — it is essential. Trans women have always been part of feminism. Trans people have always been part of the LGBT movement, too, ever since trans women of color threw the first rocks at the Stonewall riot.
The plain fact is that trans people make a lot of cis people uncomfortable. Some of those cis people claim to be uncomfortable because trans identity is hard to understand if you haven’t lived it. But many others use that complexity as a cover when what is actually threatening is the concept that gender might not be a fixed binary. Transphobic feminists, along with many other small-minded people, are very worried about what the trans rights movement might mean for their own gender identity. As Rowling says, “I’ve wondered whether, if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition.”’ To which one can only reply: it’s not about you. But if you were a young person thinking about transition today, I suspect that what you’d probably want is kindness and support and not to have to watch beloved public figures demonise trans youth and imply that you and your loved ones are deluded and sick.
The truth is that trans people are a threat. Of course they are. The threat is cultural. It’s existential. Trans people threaten the idea of sex and gender as immutable and fixed. They are ideologically untidy, and we just can’t have that, can we? We can’t have them marching in and messing up our nice, neat rigid gender binary, rearrange the furniture in the prim parlor of political philosophy. The very existence of trans people is an existential peril to anyone whose identity — let alone their political program — is based on one fragile, essentialist idea of what it means to be a woma.. They are a threat to the idea of biology as destiny. And that is exactly why trans and non-binary people belong in the feminist movement.
Gender and sex are straitjackets for the human soul, and we are all wrestled into them when we’re too young to give consent. What if the so-called “‘trans trend”’ is the best way a lot of young people have found to express their feelings about gender and to survive in patriarchy? In a world where gender is already being imposed violently on your body, scored into your psyche without your consent, what if coming out as trans or genderqueer or non-binary is a means of taking back control?
And what if…. that’s okay?
Young people are always already having someone else’s ideas about gender roles imposed violently on their bodies. Most feminists would agree with that. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting with your gender expression and identity. I am extremely relaxed about young people changing up their names, their pronouns, their hairstyles, even their hormones, if that’s what feels necessary. Some of them will probably stick with that switch forever, and that’s okay. Some of them will decide differently over the course of their lives, and that’s okay too. There are lots of different ways to be trans, just like there are lots of different ways to be cis. When I hear about the huge increase in teenagers applying for hormone treatment and therapy, I’m just glad we’ve got the resources to make that available.
A decade ago, this is how the thinking went: if there was no taboo against being gay, nothing making it legally or socially hazardous to come out and stay out…..well, then people would just go around being gay. Not just a few people, but thousands. Millions! Gays everywhere you look! Gays in every office, every congregation, every street, coming out of every closet this side of Narnia. Making everyone else’s barely-examined repression socially intolerable! Brazenly living their lives without fear of violence or stigma! Without at least a little structural homophobia, what was to stop homosexuality being not just tolerated, but normal?
Well, guess what. All of that happened. And the world isn’t ending. Well, it is a little bit, but I’m confident enough in my analysis to blame that on straight people. (And Peter Thiel.)
Here’s the thing: trans people aren’t going to go away. They can be bullied back into the closet, but they cannot be reasoned out of existence. And if people suddenly have an opportunity to do something that makes their lives better, hurts noone and does not come with quite such an elevated risk of harassment, arrest, unemployment and murder as it used to, they will usually get around to doing it. Yes, trans rights are a “trend’, in the same way that when you unlock every jail cell in a nation, there will be a “trend” for prisoners legging it to lives where they don’t have to ask permission to use the bathroom. This is not a difficult idea. It might be an uncomfortable idea, especially for those who would prefer trans people live quietly in the margins of society, grateful for any favours flung at them, but it’s not difficult.
And what I really want to ask my fellow feminists who have been misguided enough to join the anti-trans lobby is: why now? Is this really the right moment to be fighting over whether trans women are ‘really’ women? Really? With everything else that’s going on? Right now?
Even if it weren’t bad politics and bad manners, it would be bad tactics. It would be, when you boil it down, bad feminism. I remain wildly uninterested in the party game of feminist taxonomy, of policing who ‘is and is not a feminist’. I’m not saying that TERFs aren’t feminists. I’m saying they’re misguided, morally suspect, and doing a great deal of harm.
Now, more than ever, cis queers and feminists need to stand behind their trans siblings in solidarity. Any other position is intellectually and ethically bankrupt. It is shameful to see feminists fall prey to the same policing of gender and sexuality that patriarchal logic has laid on us for so long. I’m sick and tired of it all, and trans people everywhere are exhausted and scared, and in a terrifying, misogynist, fast-changing world, all of us, trans and cis, could do with a little more sisterhood.