This is the second part of this post. Part 1 is here.
Part 2: How do you know I’m cis?
McAlpine, like all cis privileged people who seek to deny that privilege, needs to turn her attention to the terms trans people use to describe their experience and invalidate them as a means of invalidating that experience. After denying their right to call themselves female, the second most common linguistic target is the term cis. McAlpine asserts that applying cis to people without their consent is a form of oppression – a “slap in the face” to cis women who may well be gender non-conforming in other ways.
“As a concept, cis is both useful and necessary; as a label it can be as damaging as others which are coercively assigned”
Aside from the shockingly insensitive appropriation of language – your discomfort at being called cis does not equate to an intersex child being mutilated before they’ve left hospital – I have yet to see a coherent explanation of why being called cis is as damaging as misgendering. Being identified as trans may put a trans person at considerable risk of psychological or physical harm. Being identified as cis carries no such risk. Discomfort at having to examine one’s own assumptions (even being forced to do so) is not oppression. The idea that trans activists conceive of a “universal cis privilege” is a strawman argument – all privilege, like all oppression, is intersectional. Cis privilege refers to the axis along which that privilege operates – it does not denote a discrete quality possessed by individual members of the privileged group.
McAlpine’s identification of the label of cis as “a slap in the face” for butch lesbians is an interesting reformulation of hostility to the term, but still ultimately rests on the same misunderstanding of its function. Cis is still accurate for someone whose gender identity conforms with their assigned gender, however they choose to express that gender. I’m not denying that cis, as a term, is often more complex that the formulation “not-trans” implies, but this is because that formulation is a simplification. Firstly, “trans” itself is usually quite broad or vague in its meaning, referring a wide spectrum of states of gender/sex nonconformity, so it follows logically that cis is not necessarily a rigid category definition. Of course, the struggles over the term erupt when attempts are made to ascertain precisely where the line between cis and trans actually lies, which is a fool’s errand. Some gender nonconforming people are unquestionably cisgendered and cissexual, some may be cissexual but not cisgendered and there are undoubtedly occasions where someone who self-identifies as trans may appear to someone else to benefit from cis privilege because of the way they are perceived by others. But these are understandable and normal problems with any social category and not unique to the term cis itself. To raise them as objections to any and all uses of cis is misleading and unhelpful. Like all objections to the term cis that I have ever read from cis feminists, this is rooted in an unwillingness to examine one’s own cissexist assumptions.
Part 3: Why are you always so hostile?
When someone makes a “plea for all feminists to get back to the main point of feminism” I hear an all-too familiar dismissal of the concerns of marginalised groups. Women are not “attacking each other” over the issue of trans exclusion – trans people and their allies are defending themselves from a vicious and sustained assault that wishes to see trans women utterly wiped out. This is not feminism “tearing itself apart” nor is it “infighting” – it a concerted and necessary act of survival resistance by women against an enemy that has no place within any kind of feminism. McAlpine sounds more like “teh menz” she mocks here by misrepresenting the struggle in this way, as some sort of petty squabble above which only she can rise by virtue of her panoptic field of vision. Presenting a campaign of resistance as a clash between two equally petty and unaware parties is a classic liberal narrative tactic, since by refusing to take the side of the oppressed, the current status quo can be presented as the rational, sensible and neutral progressive option.
Trans women are not, therefore, in a “continual attack mode” they are in a continual defence mode, and this recasting of trans women as the aggressors is a depressingly familiar radical feminist tactic. Typically trans activists’ concerns are seen as at once hysterical and petty, as in McAlpine’s tendentious description of the acts of resistance at the Law and Disorder Conference in Portland. Trans people (no mention of their cis allies) are depicted as the instigators and aggressors, while their victory over DGR is portrayed as laughable.1 Ending the “terf wars” is not a goal in itself. These wars are happening because TERFs literally want trans women to die or disappear. Sheila Jeffreys has called for vital medical treatment to be reclassed as torture and banned under UN human rights laws. She is not a fringe voice, as McAlpine’s uncritical quoting of her as one of the “strongest” critics of trans discourse shows. To uncritically cite Jeffreys as a “strong” “critic of trans discourse” is not to maintain political neutrality – it is to explicitly side with a rhetoric and theory of gender that demands the genocide of trans women. The other post McAlpine links may not be from one of the more well-known radical feminist blogs, but it’s still violently and aggressively transphobic enough for me to be wary of linking to it, knowing as I do the radical feminist tactics used to assault and silence critical voices online. This is the level of paranoia that anyone who opposes radical feminist ideas in person or online has to maintain. To describe that struggle against an oppressor as being in a “continual attack mode” is to buy into a complete reversal of the actual state of the battlefield.
Despite asserting that calls for a “female women only space” are “usually” transphobic, McAlpine proceeds to call for these spaces as a means of “stopping the terf wars”. Not winning those wars, mark, but stopping them. She is not wearied by the terf wars (because she is not a participant) – she is weary of having to hear about them. It is a basic tenet of liberation struggles that you side with the oppressed against their oppressor – by painting this struggle as an equal one, McAlpine avoids this necessity and can pretend to be an impartial and disinterested observer, but neutrality in a political struggle is to side with the oppressor. She may imply she is in the third, lofty group that “couldn’t give a flying fuck about it all” (what would we say of someone who expressed that sentiment about any other women’s rights struggle?) but to attempt to avoid entanglement is to support the status quo and the status quo is cissexism and transphobia. The enemy of my enemy is my friend – but if you “couldn’t give a flying fuck” about my struggles then you are the friend of my enemy.
Imagine if someone made this sort of generalisation about the struggle of any other oppressed group – not that the struggle must continue until it is won, but that the oppressed must stop resisting their oppressors in the name of solidarity. You cannot end a war with an oppressor as a marginalised group because that would be to surrender and victorious oppressors eliminate people who surrender.2 It’s a peculiarly liberal demand for a Marxist to make, and highlights once again the limited ways in which liberation applies with regard to trans people in groups that purport to be leftist. It’s not as if we haven’t seen this same tactic used against other marginalised groups in the past – attempts to enforce solidarity are a surefire means of division, not unity. It is unclear as to why a “female woman only space”3 would stop the “TERF wars”, since McAlpine explicitly states that “there will be trans hostility” – once again painting trans people as the aggressors in this exchange. McAlpine envisages these space as “refocusing on what unifies female women” – in other words, getting the real work of feminism and smashing patriarchy done without that annoying distraction of having to deal with women who are oppressed. Personally I find I am capable of discussing how “sex and gender interact and differ” whether there are trans women present or not4 – indeed I usually find a mix of experiences of oppression help avoid lazy generalisations and assumptions. I find it hard to understand how such a space would benefit from the explicit exclusion of trans women – aside from making it attractive to transphobes, it would imply that problems of oppression can only be solved in isolation from one another. A trans-exclusive space is a perfect recipe for coming up with “patriarchy-smashing” strategies that step on and ignore the needs of trans women.5
McAlpine and Second Council House of Virgo care about the plight of vulnerable trans people. They speak out on behalf of oppressed and attacked trans women around the world. They rightly and explicitly disassociates themselves from transphobia and the toxic voices of radical feminism. But their writing shows a consistent adherence to the fundamental principle of radical feminism on which all transphobia is based – they do not believe trans women are women. Not “female women”, not “biologically female” not “anatomically female” not “politically women” not “oppressed as female”. McAlpine comes up with dozens of categories, ostensibly to better understand intersecting axes of oppression, but in every case serving as one more way of defining the category of woman so that it does not include trans women. This is the basis of radical feminist transphobia and it is at once ethically bankrupt, theoretically unsustainable and demonstrably wrong in practical terms. The basis of all thinking on gender and sex is simple, and it attracts hostility and derision perhaps partly because of that simplicity: all women are women, and all men are men. From that starting point the complexities, nuances and potential for analysis and discussion are literally infinite, but reject that fundamental principle and you are moving closer to a place of darkness and hatred that already dominates too much of the world.
Because challenging the attacks (subtle or overt) of cissexism or transphobia is seen as “hostility” to cis women or feminists, trans activists are placed in a double bind (as if they didn’t have enough of those to deal with already) Defending themselves and challenging transphobia invites accusations of being aggressive, hostile, anti-woman, “handmaidens of patriarchy”, MRAs. But staying silent allows these ideas to take root and grow. Cissexism and transphobia are so dangerous precisely because they are the unchallenged norm in our society, but more than that they often manifest in new and more subtle forms even amongst people who claim to be allies. The problem with McAlpine’s writing is not just that she is overtly transphobic, it is the creeping legitimisation of cissexist assumptions and attitudes that have no place in progressive ideas or practice. Trans women are women, and no level of rhetorical or linguistic evasion can make the opposing position anything but a transphobic one.
As I was writing this postscript, a radical feminist group posted a transphobic screed in defence of the same “female women only” spaces that McAlpine and Second Council House of Virgo advocate. I’ll leave you with a quote from that piece (I’m not linking to it) and ask you to consider if it expresses any sentiment that does not agree with and flow from their writing:
“Women aren’t allowed to even discuss that trans-women, post or pre-op are not exactly the same as females. The push has been so hard and so intense that we can’t even acknowledge that under certain circumstances there may be a reason that females want to gather without people who were socialized as males in their formative years. We are not allowed to even suggest there is a reason. We are immediately attacked as hateful oppressors. It’s not just radical feminists who are attacked, we are mercilessly attacked also. ANY woman who even wants to discuss it is attacked as transphobic.”
1“trans cabal” “trans mafia” “trans bullies” – all terms used by mainstream cis feminists to describe criticism they receive for espousing overtly transphobic ideas or philosophies.
2 Cis feminists accused of being transphobic often complain that trans women are attacking them instead of the real enemy – patriarchy-enforcing men and institutions. But there is a reason trans women are particularly ill-disposed to transphobia coming from the ranks of TERFs and cis feminists, and it is because these groups have more capacity to damage us. A fundamentalist pastor or unrepentant bigot require no sophisticated critiques of dog whistle language or subtle patterns of thought or rhetorical tricks – they can simply be called transphobes and opposed. The cissexist ideas coming from inside feminist and leftist discourse is especially damaging because it cloaks itself in the language of equality and liberal feminism and so gains easy access to public discourse. It is hard enough to challenge overt transphobia when it appears in the public sphere – challenging the more subtle cissexism of feminists and leftists capable of deploying cissexist ideas in superficially progressive language is not only more difficult, but also more risky in terms of backlash.
3 Another piece of context McAlpine misses is the fact that we still live in an overwhelmingly transphobic world. In practical terms, all women’s spaces are “female women-only spaces” unless they are explicitly trans inclusive – it is the default of our society. Calling for these spaces to be permitted paints cissexists and transphobes as oppressed and marginalised by trans activists when the undeniable reality is quite the reverse.
4 On the other hand, I find the presence of cis feminists who deny trans women’s experiences and identities to be highly disruptive and non-conducive to productive discussion.
5 An objection that I know will be raised is that including trans women in women-only spaces means that there should be no exclusion whatsoever – that men should be allowed access to women only spaces, or white people to spaces for people of colour – this is simply not true. The exclusion of trans women from the category of women is the basis of their oppression, and to perpetuate it is oppressive. Men are not oppressed by being excluded from the category of women, nor are white people oppressed by being excluded from the category of people of colour. Trans women “demanding” access to women only spaces are not perpetuating oppression or displaying “male privilege”.