Why Trans-Exclusionary Feminism is Anti-Feminist

Isn’t it so disappointing when you realise just how problematic your favourite [celebrity/feminist/commentator/Lena Dunham] is? The most recent of these wake-up calls came when I read UK columnist Hadley Freeman’s appalling article in The Guardian, which focuses on changes to the Gender Recognition Act (2004) currently being debated in the UK. Freeman’s concern centres around “self-identification”, that is, the (apparently) radical idea that individuals can determine their own gender identity.

635974934671095018-1669878180_11.17.11news-trull-trans-activists-editFor a bit of background, the GRA allows persons to obtain a “Gender Recognition Certificate” needed in order to obtain a new birth certificate, but currently requires persons to have “lived in the acquired gender throughout the period of two years”. The current Act requires persons to “prove” their case to a Gender Recognition Panel at the end of the two year period. Changes to this process are currently being considered given that it is over-medicalised, bureaucratic and demeaning, and does not currently allow for recognition of non-binary people.

Gender-Recognition-ActIn her article, Freeman praises recent protests against the GRA changes, organised by Mumsnet (a mummy-blog-turned-radical-feminist group). As she outlines, Mumsnet activists have been flippantly identifying as men in order to access men’s-only swimming sessions, to “prove” how “ridiculous” self-identification is. The fear, according to Freeman, is that changes to the GRA will mean “predatory men could now come into female-only spaces unchallenged”. Freeman also laments trans critiques of reproductive-organ-centred feminism, but then takes a u-turn and suggests that the real problem is all of the “liberal men” she’s been fighting with lately who have been trying to defend trans women (Jeremy Corbyn to thank there in part, I imagine).

il_570xN.1149917172_8vmkI was shocked that The Guardian would run this on Transgender Day of Visibility (or at all, and without any responses in the week following), but also at the huge amount of praise that Freeman seemed to receive online for “speaking out”. Though I am a cis woman and don’t speak here as a trans person, I feel obligated to challenge Freeman. The trans-exclusionary ideas bolstered by Freeman’s article should be extremely concerning to any feminists who would like to see a world where gender is liberated from violent rules and strict social expectations. Here’s why:

1. The pathologisation of gender isn’t good for anyone
Pathologisation means determining what is “normal”, and “treating” people to better align with the “normal”. Imagine. Being subjected to a bunch of medical practitioners and psychologists considered more of an “expert” on your identity than you are. Imagine having to “prove” that you have “lived in the acquired gender” for two years (never mind how weird the terminology of “acquired” is, as if gender identity is an effect of an injury or serious accident). This whole process risks reinforcing ideas about what “acting and looking like” a man or woman involves, that is, the gender role and presentation expectations that feminists have historically fought against.

transfeminism-500x421Luckily, changes to the GRA would reduce the clinical barriers needed to have gender identity recognised, which would mean less stress and burden for trans people and would reduce some of the pathologising elements of the process. If gender was truly liberated, we wouldn’t need to diagnose what expressions of gender are “normal”, we would celebrate a diversity of expressions, embodiments and feelings.

2. Feminism should reject the idea that gender is solely about biology
At this point there might be some people reading this who are thinking “BUT THERE ARE LADY PARTS AND MAN PARTS AND THAT IS SCIENTIFIC FACT”. I’m not going to give you an introductory gender studies lecture here (though it might help to read some Fausto-Sterling). I will say that the point of feminism shouldn’t be to work out exactly how “gender” works on a biological “sex” level, but rather, to fight for gender emancipation beyond the narrow dictates of biology. In basic terms that means we should be fighting for people’s ability to live a happy and healthy life no matter what chromosomes and dangly fleshy bits they had at birth or not. Seems obvious eh.

tumblr_n4chv8Kp7V1suxeeyo1_500-300x300As Simone de Beauvoir famously stated, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. Her main point was that the barriers women face are not naturally determined by “sex”, but rather, are the result of a sexist society where women are enculturated into the punishing rules of “womanhood”. Meanwhile, the Freemans of the world would prefer much stricter barriers about who counts as a “woman”, and thus sit in direct contradiction to de Beauvoir. When Freeman says, “there are significant physical differences between male-born bodies and female-born ones, and the latter have long been at a disadvantage” she strangely re-naturalises sexism as founded in biology. Ironically such an approach merely strengthens the rules of “womanhood”, rather than understanding that the issue definitely isn’t as simple as birth-biology (we are left wondering, for example, what about trans men in all of this?!).

3. Being trans-inclusionary doesn’t mean we have to stop talking about bodies
Taking on board the idea that “one is not born…a woman” doesn’t mean we should ignore the material body altogether, as if bodies aren’t at all relevant to identity or feelings or our experience of the world. Just because the rules of gender are “social” doesn’t mean that these rules are not deeply felt and embodied, or perhaps feel at odds with one’s bodily experience.

6eaa122977ccb679383bedef266050c3Freeman claims that there is a massive issue with trans feminists who critique the centring of reproductive systems. She states, “I’m trying to think of anything more patriarchal than telling women to stop fussing about vaginas at a Women’s March”. What Freeman misses is that the issue isn’t talking about bodies and the material experience of gender altogether, the problem is creating a reductive version of feminism where vagina = woman and where this is made into the central focus of collective action. This doesn’t mean we can’t talk about issues like abortion, pregnancy, or periods either (all issues which affect a range of gendered peoples), it just means that we shouldn’t make biology the basis for our collective resistance.

4. Lots of people experience violence because of gender and that could be the basis for solidarity 
Making things harder for trans people won’t make cis women safe from gender based violence. Trans and gender non conforming people are subjected to staggering levels of violence on a daily basis, particularly in places like the UK where trans-exclusionary debates are rife, and where commentators like Freeman can get a platform with little rebuttal. It is a strange thing to claim that reducing the burdens on trans people via the GRA somehow endangers cis women, particularly when you don’t generally need whip out a birth certificate to access things like swimming pools or change rooms.

42B7CC9A00000578-4733888-image-a-4_1501115365120The claim that somehow “predatory men” will be emboldened to “come into female-only spaces unchallenged” is a transphobic furphy that’s been trotted out by right wing commentators for a long time now, and that has been extensively debunked. Instead of this smokescreen argument that merely acts to reinforce transphobic ideas, understanding the violence that trans and gender non conforming people also experience could be the basis for a shared movement against gender-related violence. The fact that gay men are also often the target of hate crime on the basis of homophobic ideas that gay men aren’t “manly” enough or are “too feminine” could also be something to keep in mind in terms of collective action here.

The fact that Freeman turns to “liberal men” as her problematic interlocutors in the trans feminism debate is absurd (hello, there are cis women who disagree with you too!) and it shows just how much she: a) doesn’t see solidarity beyond anti-trans cis feminists as an option; and b) sees “men” as the problem, rather than the (sexist, racist, homophobic) system. The ability to have a solid political response to issues around gender and transphobia isn’t determined by biology. That doesn’t mean cis men should be dominating panels on trans inclusion, but it does mean we shouldn’t see these men as the problem. The real problem is transphobia, let’s not get confused here.

tumblr_ow1ckfDbLX1ryh1zlo1_500If all of this seems pretty basic, it’s because it is. Fundamentally it doesn’t matter what  the relationship between biology (“sex”) and identity (“gender”) is, what really matters is treating human beings with dignity and celebrating the possibilities of gender. Because loosening the rules of gender, understanding gender and sexism beyond biology, talking about body issues but not reducing people to bodies, and thinking about how to have solidarity around the lived experiences of gender, should be fundamental to feminism. The alternative – the world that Freeman seeks to enforce – is not only a trans-exclusionary, it works against what decades of feminists have been fighting for.

Further Reading:
Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw
The Transgender Studies Reader edited by Stephen Whittle and Susan Stryker
This amazing Transgender Studies Syllabus from Amy Billingsley
The Keywords special issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly
This report on LGBT Hate Crime and Discrimination in Britain 2017
This great video from ABC Comedy, So You Think You Can Trans

Edit: An earlier version of this article stated that the Gender Recognition Certificate would be used in place of a birth certificate, but is in fact used to issue a new birth certificate. For more information see: https://www.gov.uk/apply-gender-recognition-certificate/what-happens-next


Total synthesis and the cult of the natural

"Unaltered" food is a big selling point

Yesterday, I got into a discussion about genetically modified crops. My perspective was that while one might have ethical concerns about the practices of companies such as Monsanto, this is different from having an issue with genetic modification (GM) itself. This apparent blurring of lines between the science of GM and the corporatisation of GM products was most clearly evidenced in July 2011, when Greenpeace activists whipper-snipped a GM field trial in Canberra. Despite CSIRO publicly stating that they have no known links to Monsanto, Greenpeace defended their actions on the basis of possible dangers to humans.

But it seems to me that there is a fear underlying the GM debate that is about more than concerns for human health. In a time when many people are anxious over the future fate of the planet,  it seems we’ve also developed a fetish for the natural. On the surface of things, this doesn’t sound bad. In fact, words that might spring to mind when we think of “natural” include healthy, normal, organic, green and well being, not to mention those mental images of makeup-less women standing under waterfalls in luscious rainforests. This is probably somewhat due to the plethora of advertisements that claim their products are good for you because they are “100% natural“. Ironically, by definition something can be deemed all-natural, even if produced through an entirely synthetic process (chemical synthesis of organic molecules).

But chemicals aside, how can we ever grasp a rigid definition of the natural?

Railing against the purportedly unnatural is often brought up in arguments against bodily modification such as plastic surgery, including sex affirmation surgery. In these debates, surgery is posited as a mutilative act. Apart from the religious idea that the “body is a temple“, I’m not sure where this idea of the sanctity of the body comes from. We alter our bodies and appearance on a daily basis- we put makeup on, we cut our hair, we wear different clothes, do or don’t exercise, eat different foods, pierce our ears, or even put coloured contacts in our eyes. While these effects may not be as skin deep as surgery (with tattooing as a modificatory middle-ground), our appearance and the way that we intentionally shape it are an important part of who we are in the world- who we show ourselves to be, for others to perceive.

Corsets: body modification back in the day

The differences between GM soybean crops and having a mastectomy for sex affirmation are obviously very very vast.  Some people may have radically different opinions about GM versus surgery. Granted, there are also ethical considerations to be made on these subjects that warrant discussion. However, I think that public reactions to these issues often reveal deep-seated sentiments about what is natural (and whether that is good), which need to be acknowledged as separate biases.

One day I imagine that we will be able to grow our own spare body parts, making modifications all that much easier. And perhaps by definition, through this act of synthesis we will consider it natural…

Getting real

"He doesn't smell right!" he exclaimed. "He isn't a rabbit at all! He isn't real!" "I am Real!" said the little Rabbit. "I am Real! The Boy said so!" And he nearly began to cry.

Yesterday I saw a production of the children’s classic, The Velveteen Rabbit. The story is about a little stuffed bunny’s relationship with a young boy, and the soft toy’s desire to be a “real” rabbit. After much time, the velveteen rabbit does become real in the boy’s eyes. At the end of the story, a fairy gets involved and the rabbit becomes really real, and goes to play with the other bunnies in the woods. The particular theatrical version I saw opened with something wonderful like, “realness isn’t how you look, it’s something you hold in your heart”. It got me wondering, what does it mean to be real?

The other reference to “realness” that came to mind (apart from Pinocchio), was Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning. Set in New York in the late 1980s, the film explores the world of underground drag-ball culture. At these balls, gay men and trans* folk (of predominately African American and Hispanic backgrounds), would compete performing various categories of “drag”. Several categories necessitated the effective portrayal of “realness”– for example, Butch-Queen realness was judged on whether the competitor could pass as a heterosexual in the sub-categories of executive, thug, pretty boy, etc. Below is a clip from the film about realness:

For the participants in drag balls, demonstrating realness was a way of showing your potential, if boundaries such as race, class and gender didn’t exist. However in Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler discusses the way in which doing realness creates the boundaries of realness itself- the rules of realness are reinforced. Butler teaches us that getting real is tricky business.

Aside from the drag-ball scene, the realness issue seems pervasive across so many experiences of sexuality and gender. As discussed previously, it’s easy to find oneself in a situation or community where you feel that you don’t meet the “criteria” for acceptance. The trans* community is very often subjected to the rules of realness, as this piece by Tobi Hill-Meyer reminds us (e.g. “you’re not a real transsexual woman if you don’t wear dresses and skirts all the time“).

Haters gonna hate

But back to Velveteen. I think we can take a lot away from this story on the subject of the real. When the rabbit encounters some “real” forest bunnies, they mock the toy for having no legs (“fancy a rabbit without hind legs!”). And while the fairy at the end assures the velveteen rabbit that for the young boy the rabbit was 100% real, she still changes the rabbit and says, “now you shall be real to everyone”. Despite this ending, when the forest bunnies tease earlier in the story, the velveteen rabbit exclaims, “I know I am Real!”. Maybe then, this little rabbit really does teach us that it’s what’s in our hearts that makes us real- despite what we look like, or what the haters say. And when the fairy transforms the rabbit into a real forest dweller (though she may be reinforcing what it means to be a real bunny), we know that actually, the velveteen rabbit  was real all along.

When is enough, enough?

I came across the above clip the other day. In the video, a young man identifies his troubles being recognised as “trans” within the trans community, given that he no longer wishes to take hormones, have surgery, or do a number of other things that might be seen to be important to passing as a man (such as packing). Importantly, the guy in this video is expressing a desire to be recognised for who he feels to be (a trans boy), whether that means being less masculine than stereotypically expected, or not altering his “female” body. This perspective seems incredibly radical, as it troubles all of our notions of what it means to be a “man” or a “woman”. He’s not saying that people shouldn’t have surgery or take hormones, etc, but is saying that this approach isn’t for everyone that is trans.

I do not identify as a trans person, but this issue of feeling that you have to meet particular “criteria” to fit in definitely extends beyond the trans community. We all want to be seen to be who we say (and feel) we are. This raises issues of visibility – “how can I be seen?” – and sending the right message – “how can I effectively communicate who I am?” (see also previous discussions on femme).  When we have certain assumptions of what being X, Y or Z means and want to conform to those meanings, we also reinforce and reiterate their very basis.

sometimes we want to be seen to stand out from the crowd...

For example, the stereotype that “all butch lesbians have short hair”, might lead a baby butch to feel that she needs to cut her hair off to ensure both visibility and the right message (after all, can you really be a “boyish” lesbian with long hair…). There’s nothing wrong with this strategy- until it means you ignore those people still speaking an identity but not conforming to the expected image that goes with it (for example, if you denied someone that said, “I’m a baby butch, and I have long hair like Fabio dammit!”).

Unfortunately we’re all part of this process- and indeed, many people might claim that my “feminine” disposition means that I am also supporting a system whereby female = feminine = woman. This really hit home for me when I suggested to a friend that we start a femme group at our university. When we started thinking about the “criteria” to join we got stuck- if we write rules about what being “femme” is, we’d just be undoing all of our queer beliefs about gender and sexuality (we couldn’t come up with any good reason why everyone couldn’t define as femme if they wanted, straight, gay, bi, man, woman, whatever!).

...and sometimes we just don't want to feel like the odd one out

In the end I guess we settled on the idea that as long as the person felt they were femme and wanted to identify as such, then that would be fine by us. But then came issues of how we would explain our group, and what activities we’d do together. Sure, I may want to watch Mean Girls and wear pink eating cupcakes every Friday, but presumably this proclivity would not be shared by all…

This is tricky stuff. But I’m excited to see that the boundaries of gender are continually being critiqued, through mediums like the public video blog above. So, when we’re finally out of the semantic mud and into the post-postmodern quicksand, at least we’ll all be in it together.