All of a sudden, we seem to be suddenly back in the early nineties, or at least it feels like it. An article published in the New Yorker (which, incidentally, seems to be getting much more publicity and comment while its archive is open – here’s hoping the interest stays after the firewall goes up) last week about the dispute between some (and nobody knows how many – 20? 50?) radical feminists and transgender activists over, essentially, who is a woman, seems to have reignited interest in what was always a fairly obscure and academic point in feminist politics. This is not to say that the issue was (is) not important, or to dismiss the real pain caused by it, but it seems like such a throwback, such an old argument that has not been aired in so long, that I almost expect to find myself back in Joe’s Cafe on Commercial drive, wearing purple Doc Martens and arguing about sex-positive feminism with someone wearing a Queer Nation t-shirt (don’t ask me how much I miss those things).
I say seems to have reignited interest, because the article is getting considerable discussion, and response in many places, but I’m not seeing any support for the exclusionary side (abbreviated as TERFs, for Transgender-Exclusionary Radical Feminists), nor really any debate. In fact, I’m not seeing much to prove the continued existence of transgender exclusionary radical feminists at all. The original article mentions a meeting in New York in May, and previous meetings in 2013 and 2012 of the same group, but doesn’t actually quote anyone from that organisation. The meeting was organised by Radfems Respond, who state that they want to “end gender”, but not that they explicitly exclude transgender people. There is a discussion of tweets and contemporary comments condemning TERFs, in aggressive terms. There are no tweets (or any other form of quotes) from anyone defending the TERF position. Goldberg does quote a radical feminist, Lierre Keith, but does not link her explicitly to Radfems Respond, or even mention whether she herself is in favour of excluding transgender people from the feminist movement. The New Yorker’s copy editing and fact checking is far too good for that to simply be an omission.
The article then goes on to rehash academic arguments from twenty and thirty years ago, and to ignite a fire, all condemning the supposed TERFs among us. The responses, including an excellent piece by Juliet Jacques in the New Statesman and a column by Lucy Mangan in the Guardian all condemn TERFs in no uncertain terms. Jacques’ column is more about the exclusion of transgender people from all aspects of society, about the liminal space in which transgender people live, especially in a society in which social support structures are heavily gendered. She writes eloquently about her own experience of gendered violence, and her unsureness as to whether she would be welcome at a rape crisis centre. This trepidation is based on her understanding of the debate (erstwhile debates – these are old arguments) within such centres over whether women would feel safe with a transgendered person, and not on her own experience of being excluded. I am not questioning her fear, or her response to it, but this is not evidence that rape crisis centres are barricading the doors and excluding anyone from entering without a chromosome test. Yes, the Michigan Woman’s Festival still holds the old line, but really, when was the last time you ever even heard of the festival? Do you know anyone who has been? Can you name a performer? It matters to the people involved, I am sure, but it is not important. They will win, or lose, the latest court case, and eventually they will either change, or dissolve, or both. That is what happens to outdated ideas and ways of doing things. There is still a minority of feminists who explicitly reject the idea of gender, and through that the idea that anyone could be transgender, and without wanting to discount their right to believe what they believe, or to be heard, they are such a small minority that expecting all feminists to respond and defend them is ridiculous. Yet, respond is what we have all done, although there’s not a lot of defense.
And this is my problem with the whole “debate” that is being discussed. This is not a debate, it’s a pile on a straw man (hah!) that we have no real basis for believing in. It is, as Lucy Mangan says (in paraphrase), another way in which feminism eats itself. We are all fired up about these TERFs, but nobody’s ever seen one, that I can see. Yes, there are academic discussions, yes Sheila Jeffreys is still writing, but for what audience? I’ve not seen a single positive review of her work. There are people who question the narrative of transgender, especially binary transgender. There are people who question the surgical/medical intervention for transgender people, especially in adolescence (not to mention Intersex Activists, many (most? all?) of whom also decry medical intervention – where are they in this “debate”?). There are people who dislike the word “cisgender”, and have been called TERF because of that. These are all valid points of view, and should be aired. We are still working on transgender issues, our understanding of gender is evolving daily, and public discourse about this evolution is essential. It is inevitable that there will be arguments, and disagreements, but name-calling and death threats are not inevitable.
We don’t have public discourse, we have another manufactured spat on our hands, like the Lavender Menace of the seventies, a genuine discussion about the goals and boundaries of feminism, turned into another justification why feminists are pointless and too busy getting caught up in internal squabbles to be taken seriously. Yet another catfight they say. See, women can’t even discuss politics correctly.
And this is where I stand on this issue. It’s not a real debate, it’s not a real division, it’s a sideshow, and one we are spending far too much energy on. It’s another example of the way in which hegemonic control is exerted. Any internal disagreement within the feminist movement is leapt on and dissected, held up as an example of the irrationality of the movement and its members, another reason to discount us all (to accuse us of behaving like “girls” as Mangan does). It’s divide and conquer. It’s belittling the goals of the movement. It’s a distraction, for both feminists and transgender activists. Jacques herself says that she should not have to take time out from important issues to refute this argument again, and she is right. I rather wish she hadn’t, but had simply dismissed the whole thing and written the article about the erosion of the NHS. The answer is not to engage with it. The answer is to say “there are disagreements, of course, any movement has disagreements, and old ideas which are no longer supported”, and then move on to the important issues. I’m not saying transgender issues are not important – they are very important. I am not saying that feminist issues are not important – they are very important. I am saying that the idea that the feminist movement is in conflict with transgender activists is a lie, and one that is damaging to both. We should refute the lie, and focus on the real fight.