I want to make it clear that most feminists are supportive of trans women and I will refer to them as supportive feminists. Feminists who are anti trans women I shall refer to as exclusive feminists. Also I support no action on either side which involves violence or bullying. This is not an academic text and so I will put references in only where I feel it important to do so.
Over the last ten years or so a toxic, antagonistic atmosphere has developed between exclusive feminists and some trans women who have become known as “transactivists”. The exclusive feminists blame the bullying, “masculine” behaviour of transactivists. Transactivists blame the refusal of what they call Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) to accept them as women in any form as the reason for the growth of mostly peaceful, but very occasionally allegedly violent transactivism. TERF and transactivist have now become terms of abuse used by the opposite sides.
I want to try and examine where this impasse has come from. I am an older trans woman who has been around long enough to witness the growth of this phenomenon from its beginnings. I am a feminist and regard it as being as much a part of me as my trans identity.
The major problem for exclusive feminists is that trans people generally think being trans is more about what is in your head than what genitalia you have. These feminists argue that having male genitalia and thinking you are anything other than a man is mental illness and many refuse to call trans women anything other than “he”.
Since the 1970’s, particularly in America to start with, the development of second wave feminism* and the gay liberation movement gave rise to trans women wanting to become more accepted and they asked, quite politely at first, if they could be officially included in women only spaces. Quite a few trans women had in fact been coming to women’s gatherings quietly without ever being “sussed” as trans, but they wanted to make it more acceptable or official. The result was a resounding no from the growing anti-men elements of the women’s liberation movement. In many places lesbians were only just becoming accepted into women’s lib groups and trans women were a step too far. This seems to have been the start of the antagonism between trans women and feminists. (At this point in time trans men were almost totally invisible and many feminists and lesbians questioned whether such people even existed. They thought trans men were really butch lesbians.)
At this time there were an estimated one million people in the US who received no treatment for gender dysphoria (the mental stress caused by being trans in an unsympathetic society), and so the number of people having Gender Confirmation Surgery (GCS) was limited to those who could afford to pay. GCS was impossible for most of those who wanted it. The majority of trans people then, as now, do not want GCS and so continue to have male genitalia. This is the main stumbling block for exclusive feminists. In respect of treatment, things were possibly a tiny bit better for trans people in the UK as they have had various options available for treatment by the National Health Service (NHS) for a long time.
In 1979 a major feminist book was published, “Transsexual Empire” by Janice Raymond1. Its intention was to deny trans women acceptance as women by women and by society as a whole. It sought to demonise trans women as men wanting to “invade women’s space”. It made the argument that trans women were no more than men in drag trying to reinforce an “outmoded stereotype” of women. She was against treating trans people as a medical problem because it normalised being trans and made trans people more acceptable. The irony of that is that modern self-identifying trans people want to get rid of the medicalisation of transgenderism too, but as soon as they started arguing for that, the exclusive feminists changed the goal posts and said how are we going to know who are “real” trans women (i.e. have had GCS).
On this side of the pond Germaine Greer waded in with many offensive comments over the years, such as, famously, “Just because you lop off your dick doesn’t make you a fucking woman.” Nowadays she says it’s “unfair” that trans people should be able to decide what gender they are.2 Raymond and Greer’s effect on trans people living in the English speaking world, has been quite catastrophic. Whole generations of feminists have grown up believing their opinions to be fact. Their theories were wound up with old school sociological theory to give it more moral authority, and they have been reiterated as fact by exclusive feminists all over the western world.
Since the 1970s, feminists in Europe and America have used mostly fairly peaceful means to get their feminist message across. Marches and demonstrations, sit-ins, trying to shout down speakers at political meetings, infiltrating and disrupting high profile events of which they did not approve. In the long run the most effective strategy has been to educate people. The development of women’s studies/gender studies as an accepted subject in tertiary education is a testament to this.
More recently, younger feminists, many of them highly educated, have vociferously joined in the anti-trans argument. Over the years some became lecturers and professors, some columnists in newspapers. Positions of power which have allowed them to disseminate feminist theory of all kinds. Some use the respect they have rightly earned for their work on, for example, male violence towards women as a means to add weight to their views. These days websites such as Mumsnet provide an open platform to spread exclusive feminism. Some volunteer on websites which do things like trying to track every trans woman who commits a violent crime, particularly if it is against a cis gender woman.
In my opinion the growth of transactivism is mostly due to the historical intransigence of exclusive feminists and is a monster of their own making. By seeing everything in terms of the patriarchy and trans women being men, they have blinded themselves to the fact that the more unpleasant they have been to trans women and the more they refused to engage in genuine debate with moderate trans activists, the more trans people have organised and done stuff in spite of them rather than with them. For example, in the UK, trans people formed self-help groups such as The Gender Trust and campaigning groups like Press for Change. They campaigned for the 2004 Gender Recognition Act and inclusion in 2010 equalities legislation, at the time amongst the most forward looking set of rights for trans people anywhere.
The younger generation of trans women are able to organise a lot more easily and effectively than the older generation, through use of social media, and many are impatient and less ready to be nice. One of the things which has increased the tensions between the two groups is that for the first time ever there are trans teenagers who are out and proud, at least on the internet. These teenagers often have not finished their secondary education, let alone been to college or university. They are young and behave like… well… teenagers. They blast off on Twitter, or whatever the latest social media craze is. They mostly are not only going through puberty, but the wrong puberty. Teenage cis (not transgender) girls and boys often think they don’t like their bodies, but think what it is like for the trans girl whose voice is dropping, and she’s developing a beard! Why should she be nice to people who are often trying to deny her access to the treatment she feels is right for her? It’s not her fault if she is now nearly six feet tall and is perceived as threatening.
From the moment they declare themselves trans these youngsters are the objects of smear campaigns, they are told they are unnatural, ill, or delusional narcissists and that the last thing they are is women. I have been shocked by the scorn, vitriol, misinformation and crushing negativity about trans people I have found on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. I find it very difficult to cope with. What must this be doing to these trans children and young adults? No wonder when faced by older, more knowledgeable and far better educated women their response is to stand and chant that they are women. (A common complaint of exclusive feminists.)
I keep hearing that these trans girls are behaving like males and using male privilege and physicality to prevent (usually older, well educated, articulate, middle-class) women from speaking at meetings, whose aim is perceived as being to make life as difficult as possible for these trans youngsters. Well, they have learnt from from second wave feminists. The Angry Womyn’s tactics of the late twentieth century were not a lot different from the ones of the young transactivists of today. They also use demos, sit-ins and disruption in the same way you did before you became respected matriarchs. I don’t agree with “no platforming” personally, but I can totally see why trans students are using it as a strategy. They feel totally out-gunned and have developed a siege mentality. Continually repeating that trans women are mentally ill narcissists may be debate to you, but to the young trans women growing up this is damaging hate speech. Transgenderism is gradually being taken out of the lists of mental illness in many countries, in much the same way homosexuality was in the 1990s. Gender dysphoria, however, is on the rise.
There are many aspects of this ongoing antognism I have not touched upon, for instance the debate, or lack of it, over proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, but that was not my aim in this piece. Maybe I will write more later.
I tried really very hard to maintain some semblance of impartiality whilst writing this post. I realise that I failed in the end. What it has developed into is the view of a moderate trans woman trying to understand the mutual hatred that has developed amongst the transacitivsts and exclusive feminists. The amount of horrible stuff about transgender people, on the internet is amazing. It far outweighs many, many times the stuff being flung at the feminists. Most of the anti trans propaganda is stated as fact, but is usually far from the truth, often from highly suspect sources (e.g. “experts” who turn out to be Christian right bigots who are peddling their beliefs as fact) . I find it hard to understand how obviously intelligent women, many of whom I have respected for years, can put such a mountain of suspect objectivity on the shoulders of a small number of vulnerable young people and then not expect them to react badly. To those of you who are trying to argue the rights and wrongs of transgender people’s place in the world using your knowledge, reason and experience to attack or support us, remember that to transgender people, young and old, your reasoning is always deeply personal and often very hurtful to us. You are arguing over our very right to exist. Whether you believe we are deluded or not, choose your words carefully as they may be the ones which send someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister over the edge. If you think that is a bit melodramatic, three quarters of trans people have self-harmed and 50% have attempted suicide. Who knows how many others succeeded at their first or subsequent attempt? Of those who did not succeed, almost all give negativity and discrimination as the reason they attempt suicide, not the actual fact of being transgender.
Thank you for taking the time to read to the end.
*First wave feminism was the women’s suffrage movement in the late 19ThC- early 20thC