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.

5 thoughts on “Transphobic feminism as patriarchy”

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. …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*.

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