Transphobic feminism as patriarchy

This is a fol­low on from Erica’s bril­liant piece on trans-exclusive rad­i­cal fem­i­nists, “Doing the Patriarchy’s Work and Call­ing it Fem­i­nism”, which I highly sug­gest peo­ple read before read­ing this. It’s a bril­liant post and should only take you a few minutes.

Fin­ished it? Okay.

In a dis­cus­sion between me, Erica, and Natalie, among oth­ers, last night, we touched upon the ideas of bio­log­i­cal essen­tial­ism within the trans­pho­bic fem­i­nist move­ment as a way to always exclude trans women, no mat­ter who else gets included or excluded. The gen­eral feel­ing was that it would still be hor­ri­ble, but at least hon­est, if they were to just admit they don’t like trans women. And then Erica, being inter­sex and trans her­self, recounted her own expe­ri­ences with her and her (non-XX but cis) sis­ter not being accepted as women on account of their chro­mo­so­mal make-up. This was beau­ti­fully summed up in the fol­low­ing comment:

 The road bends the sec­ond they want to exclude. It’s how TERF­pa­tri­archy works.

The idea has been pointed out by other peo­ple too. And so, with some inspi­ra­tion from Derail­ing for Dum­mies, I present a com­par­i­son of exam­ples of trans­pho­bia (essen­tially from the rad­i­cal fem­i­nist side), racism, and sex­ism, and how they are very much like each other.

A ear­lier ver­sion had race as the sec­ond col­umn; it was edited to homo­pho­bia after it was pointed out that com­par­isons to race tend to be problematic.

Argu­ment Trans­pho­bia Homo­pho­bia Sex­ism
Bio­log­i­cal essentialism Women are only 46XX non-chimeric females. Gay peo­ple “reject the bio­log­i­cal impulse to procreate”. Women are “nat­u­rally weak”.
Goal­post moving “True women were socialised as girls” > “True women were born women” > “True women have two X chrom­somes”, etc. “Mar­riage is for the pur­poses of pro­cre­ation only.” > “Mar­riage is between one man and woman.” > “Mar­riage is between one cis man and one cis woman.” “The wage gap doesn’t exist.” > “Okay, so women are paid less than men, but what about the draft?” > “It doesn’t mat­ter if no-one’s been drafted since the six­ties, the fact the draft exists is a penalty against men.”, etc.
“Some of them agree with us!” Trans peo­ple iden­ti­fy­ing as rad­i­cal fem­i­nists often offers a sense of vin­di­ca­tion to trans­pho­bic fem­i­nists, even if said trans person’s fem­i­nism is not trans­pho­bic itself. The Log Cabin Repub­li­cans, even called out by Bar­ney Frank (D-MA-04) as “Uncle Toms” before his retirement. Ann Coul­ter, who claimed that the 19th Amend­ment (grant­ing women the vote) is the only thing putting Democ­rats in the White House.
Bad apples Michelle Kosilek mur­dered her wife, there­fore all trans women are murderers. One or two gay men were also pedophiles, there­fore all gay men are child molesters. Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol, there­fore all fem­i­nists are crazy.
Ban­ter “But that was meant as a joke! Can’t you lighten up and grow a sense of humour?”
Vic­tim­hood complex/Conspiracy of the Oppressed  “Trans peo­ple are eras­ing the iden­ti­ties of true females!” “Gay peo­ple are under­min­ing the very moral fibre of Amer­ica! Soon cats will be able to marry dogs!” “Soci­ety is ruled by fem­i­nazis! You can’t get ahead in your career if you’re a man!”
Stri­dency “How can you expect any­one to take you seri­ously if you say “die cis scum”?” “How can you expect any­one to take you seri­ously if you agree with Peter Tatchell?” “How can you expect any­one to take you seri­ously if you say all men are rapists?”
Outdated/debunked the­ory All women are 46XX/All men are 46XY, with no exceptions. Homo­sex­u­als are really just straight peo­ple in a body that does not match their gen­der iden­tity (see: fem­i­nine gay men, butch lesbians). Women are irra­tional because of the shape, or func­tion, or chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion of the brain.
 And so on…

And these inter­sect, of course. Erica, for exam­ple, is a trans woman of color, and her tweets reflect the inter­sec­tional nature of how the patri­archy affects her, and con­versely, how her pol­i­tics have become more inter­sec­tional. The tech­niques used to oppress minori­ties are often the same basic argu­ments and log­i­cal fal­lac­ies, just slightly edited to set the sights on the peo­ple they want to oppress.

For exam­ple, reli­gious texts have been used for cen­turies to oppress peo­ple, and selec­tive read­ing of cer­tain pas­sages has been used to oppress Protes­tants, women, the dis­abled, peo­ple of colour, LGB peo­ple, trans peo­ple, while the oppres­sors pay no atten­tion to the fact they’re vio­lat­ing sev­eral laws just verses away from the ones they love so much. The irony has not been lost on those peo­ple say­ing that Michele Bachmann’s entire biblical-based polit­i­cal career vio­lates 1 Tim­o­thy 2:12.

The vic­tim­hood com­plex is one of the major trump cards in the armory of the patri­archy of recent times. Priv­i­leged peo­ple, espe­cially those who deny part of their priv­i­lege, often make them out to be the most griev­ously oppressed. Rush Lim­baugh cry­ing over the fact that some peo­ple might need to fund vital med­i­cine for women. Chris­tians who see the rise in sec­u­lar­ism as a direct war on their reli­gion. White peo­ple see­ing affir­ma­tive action as the most heinous form of “reverse racism”. And trans­pho­bic fem­i­nists see­ing trans women want­ing to be treated as women as a direct attack on their bod­ily auton­omy. To sum it up in those five immor­tal words: “It’s polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness gone mad.”

And all the while using divide-and-conquer tac­tics to set one against each other. The National Organ­i­sa­tion for Mar­riage “driv[ing] a wedge between gays and blacks”. The BNP using Sikhs as a way of antag­o­nis­ing the Pak­istani com­mu­nity. The Con­ser­v­a­tives set­ting the work­ing class against the dis­abled. The Rad­i­cal Right mobi­liz­ing Chris­tians and Jews against Mus­lims. Julian Assange sup­port­ers pit­ting fem­i­nists against anti-establishment Wik­ileaks sup­port­ers. Trans­pho­bic fem­i­nists using influ­ence to set cis fem­i­nists against trans fem­i­nists. And it always results in one thing: the patri­archy keep win­ning. And unless the dis­priv­i­leged can all unite, they’ll keep on winning.

I think it’s unwise to be involved in activism if you are prej­u­diced, espe­cially against a char­ac­ter­is­tic that is either immutable or strongly ingrained. How can you take fem­i­nism seri­ously when you dis­count trans wom­ens’ expe­ri­ence of sex­ism? How can you take anti-racism seri­ously when you don’t take into account how racism and other forms of oppres­sion go hand in hand? How can you take sec­u­lar­ism or athe­ism seri­ously when you ignore how sex­ism and homo­pho­bia are key tools of reli­gious oppres­sion? It goes on and on. Any activism done by or for dis­priv­i­leged peo­ple does need to take into account the priv­i­lege of the activists them­selves, oth­er­wise it’s doomed to failure.

So, yes, I do agree that trans­pho­bic fem­i­nists form, at least right now, part of the patri­archy. The patri­archy is, after all, the home of the priv­i­leged who abuse or deny their priv­i­lege. And, indeed, trans­pho­bic fem­i­nists have done more to harm trans peo­ple than the Chris­t­ian right have ever done. Why do 41% of trans peo­ple attempt sui­cide? Why are so many trans peo­ple forced into debt, into home­less­ness, to fund their tran­si­tion? It wasn’t Ronald Reagan’s idea to cut Med­ic­aid for trans women (and inspire insur­ance com­pa­nies to drop cov­er­age). It was Jan­ice Raymond’s. Rea­gan just latched onto it.

But, as Erica points out, the power the patri­archy grants them is only illu­sory. Trans­pho­bic fem­i­nists should not be sur­prised when, after trans men and women have been beaten down into sub­mis­sion, the patri­archy turns on them. It’s how it’s always hap­pened. And they bet­ter realise that and join the right fight before it’s too late.


  1. Nicky says:

    Good post, but I have to say that Trans can never, ever be inter­sex. One has to be Born inter­sex from birth. Those who claim to be both are in real­ity NOT Inter­sex but are pre­tend­ing to be inter­sex because they want to jus­tify and legit­i­ma­tize their trans­sex­u­al­ity at the expense of inter­sex peo­ple. Which is why Trans peo­ple always love to use inter­sex peo­ple to jus­tify their trans­sex­u­al­ity to people.

    • Sarah says:

      From the med­ical per­spec­tive, you are right, one can not be diag­nosed with gen­der iden­tity dis­or­der and have inter­sex characteristics.

      I think the way Erica describes it — you may have to ask her your­self — is that she does have inter­sex char­ac­ter­is­tics (from birth, obvi­ously), but was assigned at birth in the wrong gen­der. It hap­pens, some­times, espe­cially when inter­sex peo­ple are oper­ated on at birth to ensure that they fit the doc­tors’ expec­ta­tion of what gen­der they should be. I’m not inter­sex, nor would I ever claim to be, so I can’t speak with informed author­ity on that.

      How­ever, there is a sort of gen­der essen­tial­ism regard­ing trans peo­ple which does affect inter­sex peo­ple too. There are all sorts of cri­te­ria that make you a proper woman, unless a trans woman fits them (or a cis woman doesn’t), at which point they don’t apply. It’s a clas­sic moving-the-goalposts strat­egy. And inter­sex peo­ple do fall through those cracks. Ger­maine Greer’s com­ments on women with Turner syn­drome (X0 women) are an example.

      Trans­pho­bia does include inter­sex­pho­bia. Both trans peo­ple and inter­sex peo­ple are part of the Other which the patri­archy wants to oppress, and con­cep­tions of sex and gen­der are very impor­tant to both sets of peo­ple. So it’s unsur­pris­ing that trans peo­ple would want to talk about inter­sex­pho­bia. Though I haven’t myself seen any­one say their trans iden­tity *actu­ally* stemmed from an inter­sex con­di­tion; most of the time it’s either chi­canery to get essen­tial med­ical treat­ment or an attempt at try­ing to explain being trans to a cis person.

    • …except that like every­one else, intersex/ed peo­ple, of which i’m one, are coer­cively assigned a gen­der. some of us, of which i’m one, change that gen­der. some, like my sis­ter, don’t.

      that, by def­i­n­i­tion, makes me transgendered/transsexual/whatever and makes my sis­ter cisgender.

      you can indeed be both given that these labels have mean­ings. sug­gest­ing that all intersex/ed peo­ple who are also trans are “pre­tend­ing” means that either i’m not intersex/ed (which is tricky since i can ground this in genet­ics in my case) or means that i’m not trans, which is a pretty dif­fi­cult leap to make given that i have changed my gen­der dur­ing my life­time. so if i can never, ever be inter­sex, what’s up with my genet­ics? and if i can’t be trans, well, not really sure how that works. so, Nicky, what am i? am i a magic gender-crossing cis­gen­der uni­corn? i think not, btw, the horn on my head is totally unflattering.

      being trans requires no “jus­ti­fi­ca­tion” other than that one is trans so your argu­ment holds no water what­so­ever. that said, peo­ple, regard­less of gen­der iden­tity, who coopt intersex/ed iden­tity for any rea­son can go to hell. i believe i’ve beeen firm on this mat­ter for years.

      ps: Nicky, “trans *peo­ple*”, not “Trans” as a group. i am not “a trans”, i’m a trans *person*.

  2. […] This is a fol­low on from Erica’s bril­liant piece on trans-exclusive rad­i­cal fem­i­nists, “Doing the Patriarchy’s Work and Call­ing it Fem­i­nism”, which I highly sug­gest peo­ple read before read­ing this. It’s a bril­liant post and should …  […]

  3. […] Tues­day night, I wrote and pub­lished this piece on trans­pho­bic fem­i­nism, and how it’s inher­ently part of the […]

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