Hidden Transphobia, Parts 2 & 3

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”.


Hidden Transphobia, Part 1

Second Council House of Virgo recently published a piece by Mhairi McAlpine called “Cis privilege and the limits of self-identification”. It is the latest in series of posts by this writer thrashing out her opinions on gender theory and practice and it is, to my mind, the most problematic example of what was already a disturbing trend in her writing. I think McAlpine’s writing demonstrates a deep-rooted strain of cissexism, but one which is not always immediately obvious and therefore will require a considerable amount of close reading to properly expose.

 The posts in question are here, here, and here. I will be referring to all three, since they are linked and express similar ideas in different forms (and indeed sometimes contradict each other). Because of this, I recommend reading them first, since my analysis will necessarily not represent them in this original form. It is also impossible to properly address every problematic aspect of these three pieces here, and this response represents a condensed form of several dozen pages of notes. I’ve split it into three parts for legibility, and will post parts 2 and 3 tomorrow.

Part 1: “Non-female Women”

 McAlpine’s theory of gender and sex is based on a separation of those two terms. Women with wombs are “female women”, while those without are “non-female women”. Of course, this is not initially spelled out in such stark terms, but by the time she reaches the end of her analysis it is the only cogent strand to her writing. McAlpine consistently and doggedly presents ideas that are not just associated with radical feminist theory but are the bedrock of it. But she presents these ideas as if she is challenging them. She espouses both the fundamental theoretical bases of radical feminist transphobia (that trans women are not fully women) and displays examples of some of the common tropes they use.

 McAlpine attempts to locate her super-special category of “women but not trans women” outside the classic radical feminist paradox of socially-constructed gender that is nonetheless based on immutable biological sex. She attempts to separate out gender, sex and trans as three different forms of oppression. Trans women are allowed to be oppressed on the basis of being trans, and on their social construction as women, but she reserves the category of sex oppression only for women capable of reproduction. (earlier she pretends she’s talking about people perceived as capable of reproduction, but this is never mentioned again, and all her examples are of cis women with functioning reproductive systems).

 The biological essentialism of defining “female woman” as one capable of reproduction is such a common radical feminist tactic that it is bewildering to think anyone who claims the authority to write about the TERF wars can think that it opposes radical feminist theory. Rooting the essential nature of woman in a shared experience of oppression is hardly a new idea either – and is again a mainstay of radical feminist thought. “Trans women cannot really be women because they have been raised/socialised male and therefore retain male privilege and male thought patterns” – this argument is even more threadbare now (when more girls are living almost their entire lives being assumed cis) than it was in the 1970s.

A baby who is female assigned in some parts of the world is at higher risk of infanticide and risks genital mutilation far beyond that which is imposed on any male assigned child – to the extent that a woman who is male assigned at birth has more chance to have a functioning surgically constructed vagina, than some women who were female assigned do as a result of their mutilation”

 I had to read this part several times to make sure I had it right. Because trans women can “build their own vaginas”, McAlpine is saying, they have it easier than women who have suffered FGM. This is not just breathtakingly ignorant; it is appropriative of women’s suffering in order to score a theoretical rhetorical evasion. An individual trans woman may be more advantaged than a victim of FGM (of course, trans women can be victims of the west’s own more culturally-acceptable form of FGM, which is the surgical mutilation of intersex children) – but this is the case with any privilege or oppression. it should be noted that even in developed countries, less than half (and possibly as few as 1 in 5) trans women seek or can obtain or afford genital surgery. Trans women worldwide are overwhelmingly poor, from ethnic minorities or have health or mental issues that restrict their access to basic medical treatment, much less the perceived “luxury” of transgender surgery. The “privilege” McAlpine identifies pertains only to a very small subset of trans women living in a very few countries. The implication here is that no cis woman could be as privileged as a trans woman because their assigned birth gender alone – with no other qualifications – puts them more at risk of FGM. This is breathtakingly disingenuous, appropriating the risks and dangers faced by a specific set of the population (narrower or broader, again, depending on location) and pretending they apply to all women who were female-assigned at birth.

 What McAlpine is doing here is grasping for a non-biological way of distinguishing “women” – in which she includes everyone assigned female at birth, including trans men – from “trans women”. The idea that the risk of FGM is an essential part of the experience of sex oppression and therefore helps define the category of “female woman” is not just biological essentialism hiding under a cloak of political definition – it is insulting and appropriative to suggest that all women share this risk or that lack of it marks a relative privilege for trans women. The formulation “some parts of the world” seems to nod towards a recognition of this – but the universalising language of the rest of the piece demonstrates what this rhetoric is really trying to do, which is to firmly establish a false dichotomy between woman and trans woman.

A trans woman who conforms to the expected gender role and appearance of woman contrasted with a cis woman who deviates in appearance and manner from what is expected, is likely to have less, rather than more ire, aimed at their gender presentation. This is not to deny that this can change in an instant should a woman’s trans status become disclosed, but in daily life, a conformant trans woman may have less difficulty with acceptance of their gender presentation that a non conformant cis woman.”

 This section, despite its lip service to the dangers of disclosure, is a clear attempt to create a hierarchy of oppression, in which those “conformist” trans women (you know the ones – the make-up, the dresses, the heels) sashay through life with the patriarchy hurling garlands at their (polished, sandal-ready) toes and congratulating them for being such a compliant handmaiden, whereas a cis woman who steps out of the house without her mascara will be instantly imprisoned and forcibly re-educated for her transgressions. This misconception could be dispelled by talking to any trans woman at all, but that would presumably not be a theoretically sound practice. More damningly (for the purposes of this analysis) it is yet another ancient radical feminist standby – that trans women are slavishly devoted to perpetuating exaggerated feminine stereotypes in order to secure approval from a dominant patriarchal society. Lurking behind this idea is the broader concept (expressed in other terms by McAlpine elsewhere in this post) that trans women are still somehow more privileged than cis women, that they retain the socially dominant position they enjoyed when they were perceived as men. “ire, aimed at … gender presentation” is not rational. Like street harassment, it cannot be lessened or negated by wearing longer skirts or less make up. A trans woman who presents in a perceived “feminine” fashion is usually on the receiving end of standard misogyny (if assumed cis) or transphobia, misogyny and transmisogyny if not. Trans women perceived as trans receive ire whatever their gender presentation because that ire is not based on their gender presentation, but their identification as trans. McAlpine has here confused the form of oppression with its cause, and thus fallen into a depressingly standard pattern of victim-blaming.

Oppression on these bases [sex, gender and trans] can be limited by an individual muting of the oppressive [sic] characteristic. For example, women may play down their gendered features, by presenting in a more gender neutral manner; medical intervention such as an IUD, hormonal contraception or sterilisation can move a female body along the sex continuum towards a more neutral sex position, and to “pass” as a cis-sex person, trans* people can be pressurised into medical interventions which give the bodily appearance of female anatomy. But each of the three affects any who fall into its categories.”

 This is such a mess of bizarre assumptions I’ll need to address it section by section. The most obvious problem is the idea that trans people are “pressurised” into medical interventions. This is a deeply damaging and widespread cissexist myth, one that invariably crops up in radical feminist oppositions to trans people’s existence. It is endlessly repeated that either the medical establishment, family members or the queer community are a hotbed of febrile mad scientists, desperate to create as many trans people as possible. I have never met or heard of a trans person who wishes to access medical interventions that has not had to fight tooth and nail to access that treatment. The idea that trans people are actually pressured into having surgery or hormone treatment would be laughable if it were not so prevalent. While I recognise that McAlpine is also talking about the social pressure of needing to present in a certain way in order to avoid transphobic oppression, this is not what medical intervention is about. Medical intervention is a necessary and vital treatment for many trans people for reasons other than their social or physical appearance. Also embedded in this myth is the idea of trans people (and trans women in particular) as obsessed with appearances and adopting a particular exaggerated stereotype of femininity or masculinity.

 Secondly, there is the phrase “to “pass” as a cis-sex person”. Trans people do not transition purely or primarily to be assumed cis – although it is often a major concern. Once again we have the assumption that the only reason trans people transition is to fit socially-determined rigid gender roles1

 Finally there’s the phrase “bodily appearance of female anatomy”. Here we have the classic radical feminist “you’ll never be a real woman” attitude. Trans women do not have the “bodily appearance of female anatomy”, they have female anatomy because they are female. A female body is by necessity female. If a trans woman has had no medical intervention whatsoever, she is still female and her penis is still part of her “female anatomy”. People with a ciscentric viewpoint struggle to understand this, since their understanding of gender and sex is still based, whatever their evasions and sophistry, in biological essentialism.

 “Female women” is an offensive and nonsense term and it is such an obvious attempt to reintroduce biological essentialism that it is astonishing that Second Council House of Virgo think they can get away with it. The corollary of asserting the existence of “female women” (and “female brothers” a term at once patronising and offensive to trans men) is that there must by necessity be “male women”. McAlpine does not use that term (presumably because she recognises that there would be no rhetorical device in the world that would protect her from justified accusations of transphobia if she did), preferring “non-female women” which is hardly better.2 Read those words “non-female women” and ask yourself if that is a term that would not be at home on any radical feminist’s lips.

 Decoupling sex and gender is precisely what radical feminists do and it is for exactly the same reason that McAlpine does it – to categorise women into those that are “really” women and those that are not. It does not matter what terms are used to justify this distinction – the battle for trans rights is not one of using the right terminology, however much opponents might paint them as being obsessed with petty missteps over ever-more convoluted social justice shibboleths.

 There is no magic formula that will let anyone find a definition of women that will include all cis women and exclude all trans women, and no justification for the attempt. All women are women and all women are female and when you find yourself explicitly using terms like “non-female woman” it takes a wilful act of self-deception not to realise that you are not conducting some brave and innovative analysis of gender theory, but are retreading tired radical feminist tropes that have remained constant for three or four decades.

 1 The terminology is also a little odd here. “cis-sex” is a new one on me, and it has no antonym – I’ve never heard anyone called a “trans-sex person”. Cissexual makes sense because it refers to someone whose sex identity gives them no dysphoria. Cisgender makes sense because it refers to someone who presents as their assigned birth gender. Cis-sex is the opposite of nothing.

 2 “Ah but McAlpine also asserts that gender is a continuum! Therefore trans women aren’t necessarily male, just not-female!” This is a weasel evasion and one which goes against McAlpine’s own stated analysis – gender is a continuum, but one with “concentrations at the ends, however in our current society they operate as binaries: if you are not one category then you must belong in the other” (both emphases mine). Theoretically rejecting a binary does not free you from its practical social operations, and it is disingenuous to use categories such as man, woman, male and female as if they are binaries throughout your writing only to assert that they do not apply when the implications reveal your inherent cissexist prejudices. If you deny the category of “female” to trans women, then you are, in our society, calling them male.


On “Stealth,” “Passing,” and other problematic phrases.

When I first encountered the term “stealth” in relation to trans issues, it was used to describe the very specific and uniquely trans experience of temporarily presenting as one’s assigned gender. There are dozens of perfectly valid reasons why someone might do this, ranging from not being ready to come out to specific people or groups to simply being exhausted of explaining trans issues or having to justify oneself. So the term, as deployed in this way, is useful, describes a real, common phenomena, and accurately conveys the stressful nature of this dynamic.

 However, as I learned more about trans issues, I realised that the vast majority of trans people do not use the term this way. In the wider trans community, the term “stealth” still refers to not disclosing trans status, but while presenting as one’s actual gender. I should not have to explain how utterly messed up this is, but in brief, any intimation that trans people are somehow being deceptive or secretive with regard to their gender plays into a widely prevalent and deeply damaging transphobic myth about trans people “really” being their birth gender. When people, cis or trans, refer to trans people living as their actual gender and choosing not to announce to everyone they meet that they were assigned a different gender at birth as “stealth” it makes me wince. Like “passing,” it is a relic of a time and an attitude when presenting as one’s actual gender was seen as a mask or performance.

 Generally, opposing this use of the term “stealth” is relatively unproblematic. Most people recognise the problems with the assumptions it makes when they’re explained. Recently, however, there has been more pressure from the LGBT community in general on trans people to be “open” about their trans status, mirroring the more long-standing pressure for gay and lesbian people to be unashamedly “out” in all walks of their life, whether they are relevant to their sexuality or not. I won’t comment at length on that model here, save to say that it does not map across to trans people’s needs or experiences.1 It is the absolute right of every trans person not to disclose their trans status. It is also their absolute right not to be regarded as secretive, deceptive or duplicitous if they choose to do so. It is at once ironic and utterly unsurprising that a narrative about truth and honesty and pride would so totally buy into myths about the deceptive nature of being trans. Just because someone chooses not to disclose does not mean they are closeted or ashamed of who they are. Even more so than for cis gay people, disclosure represents a psychological and often physical risk for trans people. To expect or demand disclosure in this context is not just to demand that trans people expose themselves to danger for the sake of someone else’s comfort and ideological beliefs, it is also actively reinforcing dangerous and damaging narratives. Visibility and pride are not the same thing as exposure. Often those trans people that would be most at risk from disclosure are precisely the ones least able to control the circumstances of that disclosure, and every additional pressure is one more avenue of potential harm directed at them.

For most trans people, life is a constant grind of unwanted and unsought disclosure. It is at its most intense when the decision is taken to change one’s legal status and name (if that is the path the trans person chooses) and although it does lessen slightly with time, it becomes a constant background drumbeat as you find that in today’s information society, no-one destroys information unless forced to. Companies and government departments with whom you have had only the briefest of interactions with maintain details on your old and new identities in perpetuity, while you sail on blissfully unaware until an accident of communication brings you once again face to face with your old name and you have to explain to yet another complete stranger details of your intimate medical history. This grind obviously presents in different ways for different trans people. Those often taken as cis may experience it as sudden eruptions of incomprehension and prejudice, whereas others may experience a far more constant and overtly hostile set of reactions, but it is common in some form to all trans experience.

This right not to disclose (and, just as importantly, the right not to be implicitly judged by other LGBT people for that decision) is even more important as the UK continues towards criminalisation of non-disclosure. Non-disclosure of trans status is now a crime that has no parallel in our legal system. It has become a legal obligation that pertains to no other group in our society, not sex offenders, not violent domestic abusers, not convicted murderers (I should note here that I don’t necessarily think these groups should be forced to disclose these statuses – merely that the targeting of trans people has become so concentrated that it outstrips even the traditional hate figures of our society). Non-disclosure of trans status (or rather, a cis person’s perception of non-disclosure) is now enough to turn consensual sex into “obtaining sexual intimacy by fraud”, and to provide grounds for the annulment of marriage. Disclosure on these terms is not about openness and pride; it is about control and repression. It is about identifying, isolating and suppressing trans people. Taking control and agency of trans people’s own bodies and identities away from them has a long history of which this legal and social assault is merely the latest chapter. To imply, in this context, that trans people are somehow being deceptive by “concealing” the gender they were assigned at birth plays directly into this pre-existing narrative and should be resisted at every turn – and that resistance starts with examining our own language and the assumptions it carries.

 1 It should probably be noted here that in terms of the medical and psychological model for transitioning trans people, precisely the opposite pressure applied and was (at least until recently) official medical advice. Trans people were advised to move home, change jobs, and cut off relations with everyone who knew their old identity. This was justified under the name of “passing” but in fact presented a brutal isolation for already-vulnerable people. Julia Serano notes how this was almost certainly more about hiding trans people from public (cis) visibility rather than protecting them. Though no longer pressed quite so thoroughly, there is still an assumption that non-disclosure is the norm. Note the media coverage of the Lucy Meadows tragedy, and the disingenuous assumption from both journalists and the public that remaining in her job and forcing cis people to deal with her transition was the problem, not her transition itself. It will be interesting to see how this conflict between two equally damaging and incorrect official narratives is resolved.

 A request.

 This post has been very much written with binary trans people in mind – people who transition from one socially and culturally recognised binary gender to the other. I would be interested to hear the experiences of non-binary or otherwise non-gender-conforming trans* people with regard to disclosure and the concept of deception. What are the demands made on you to disclose? How do you experience the narrative of “deceptive” trans people? How do you cope with demands to justify your “real” gender when that gender may not even be recognised as a gender? How do concepts like “passing” and “stealth” apply when your actual gender is erased or unrecognised?

 Thank you.

Postscipt: Just after I finished this piece, cisnormativity published an excellent demolition of the concept of stealth by Patience Newbury, touching more thoroughly on many of the same ideas and problems I outline here. It’s well worth a read.


Text of my letter to Baroness Stowell

The vast majority of prejudice directed at trans people comes not through deliberate, knowing acts of malice, but from ignorance and misinformation. People who are not trans view the world as though this condition is natural, and make decisions about trans people based on that assumption. When it comes to legal prejudice against trans people, these assumptions and a lack of understanding of trans people’s needs can lead to situations in which trans people are disempowered, unable to access the basic legal, medical or social rights that cis (non-trans) people take for granted.

The right to be treated as your actual gender is one so fundamental and taken for granted that cis people rarely realise that it even is a right – only those who are denied it understand how utterly humiliating and dehumanising it can be. Trans people are forced to “prove” their gender ever day, sometimes in small social ways, but often in important interactions with the law of the medical establishment. As a cis person, ask yourself how you would prove your gender to a judge, medical professional or bank clerk in a way that was not invasive and humiliating and you can begin to see the difficulties that trans people face.

Part of this prejudice is the idea, since gender is something so fundamental to our society and the way we treat people, that society has a right to know about and control trans people in a way that we would never countenance with cis people. We would never demand that a spouse had the power of veto over essential or even elective surgery, yet this is the reality facing many trans people. People who would rightly balk at the idea of a husband banning his wife from having a hysterectomy or parents refusing access to birth control for their children have no qualms about approving such a veto when it comes to gender confirmation surgery. The clause in the Marriage Bill that requires a spouse’s consent before a Gender Confirmation Certificate can be granted is effectively just such a veto, since the GRC is still, sadly, a prerequisite for much essential treatment and legal recognition.

Ultimately, this question comes down to a prejudice that trans people face every day – society believes that it has a right to know about and control their bodies and their identity. The spousal veto clause in the Marriage Bill codifies that sense of entitlement in law, and confirms that rans people do not have the right to their own bodies or identities. A spouse’s gender identity has no bearing on the rights, person or legal status of their partner, and demanding their consent circumscribes the essential human rights of the trans person concerned. It is a backward, unnecessary and unworthy stain on a Bill that should be seen as a step forward, but in this regard confirms all the prejudices that trans people have faced for decades. It serves no protective purpose, but it stigmatises and dehumanises.


A Response to Lierre Kieth and Derrick Jensen of Deep Green Resistance

Note: This was originally written as a response to a series of articles in Counter-Punch that repeated some tediously damaging radfem ideas. They never got back to me.

Content Warning – Transphobia, radfem obsession with genitals

Bigots are the first to complain about their freedom of speech being infringed. The rallying cry of “why won’t you tolerate our intolerance?” once a joke, has been taken up in earnest by everyone whose particular brand of politics would see groups they disapprove of silenced. There is a reason why progressive groups have no-platform policies, and it is because they recognise that to give space to organisations that espouse reactionary and oppressive ideas is to legitimise these ideas, even if they are robustly refuted, and indicate that allowing hate speech by oppressive groups is a more important ideological principle than listening to marginalised ones. Such is the substance of radical feminism’s demand for “tolerance” in the face of their profoundly intolerant rhetoric and practice. Whether or not a reactionary is actively engaged in hate speech at the time is irrelevant – the presence of oppressive groups or individuals makes a space fundamentally unsafe for marginalised ones and it is the responsibility of progressives not to facilitate this process.

Deep Green Resistance and its figureheads, Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen have been making great play of their transphobia in recent weeks, holding up acts of resistance to their oppressive speech as examples of oppression and assault. This renarrativisation of their activities is insidiously plausible, especially since they are well-experienced in co-opting the language of progressivism to push their profoundly reactionary ideas. I will attempt to refute some of the most glaringly false statements they have made in their recent article. Most blatant is their tendentious account of an incident at the Law and Disorder Conference in Portland in May in which several women expressed their opposition to DGR’s stated and explicit transphobia. In order to recast this incident with themselves as the victims, they utilise that same transphobia, misgendering several protesters. In order to understand why DGR and radical feminist thinking generally is so hostile to trans people, it is necessary to pick apart their own analysis of gender politics.

Female socialization is a process of psychologically constraining and breaking girls—otherwise known as “grooming”—to create a class of compliant victims. Femininity is a set of behaviors that are, in essence, ritualized submission.”

You would be hard-pressed to find a woman, much less a feminist that would not find this definition deeply insulting, but it is taken as canon in radical feminist rhetoric. Women are made, not born, they parrot, but only people born as women can be made women. The circular nature of this argument allows no room for discussion – only people assigned a female gender at birth based on an assessment of the appearance of their external genitals can be socialised as female, and only people socialised as female can lay claim to the category of woman. By basing not just an experience of womanhood, but the very identity of woman in the experience of oppression, radical feminist rhetoric simultaneously excludes differing female experiences and negates the possibility for a positive model of femininity.

It is worth deconstructing this notion of “socialisation” because it underpins the circular logic of radical feminist claims to the absolute inescapability of one’s assigned gender at birth. Children assigned a male gender at birth are socialised as men, while ones assigned female are socialised as women, the argument goes, and this dichotomy is the basis for all patriarchal oppression. Few would argue that the social construction of binary gender is a powerful and destructive means of oppression, but the model espoused by radical feminists allows no room to interrogate individual experiences of that mechanism. In this model, anyone “socialised male” receives all the perks, privileges and benefits of a patriarchal society for life, regardless of how they identify, while anyone socialised female is broken equally on the same wheel. But trans people do not experience this process in the same way as cis people. It is fundamentally impossible for a trans person to receive this training in the same way as a cis person because the gendered nature of this socialisation is always apparent to them. There can be no false consciousness that these gendered roles are “natural” and “normal” because every attempt at socialisation into one of these binary genders highlights how unnatural and artificial they are. Cis people notice the artificiality of the social construction of gender only when it is particularly galling or overt – for example when they are denied the right to certain activities or clothes reserved for the “opposite” gender. The hollow explanations then given for these social boundaries are ones that trans people hear every second of every day, usually inside their own heads, since even asking questions about them is considered “weird”, “gay” or absurd. To say that a trans woman has been “socialised” male is as absurd as saying that a gay child has been “socialised” straight because they weren’t treated as gay until they came out. Trans women may well have once been treated as if they were men, but their experience of that treatment is not the same as the less complicated and oppositional experience of a cis man who has never questioned his gender, and the results are similarly not the same.

Absurd as well is the radical feminist insistence that this process of socialisation is total, complete and instantaneous – since our understanding of trans issues now allows some boys and girls to present as their actual gender far earlier than was once the case, there are many trans people now who have been treated as the gender they were assigned at birth for less and less time – yet radical feminists will insist that these people are still “really” that assigned gender and have not been “socialised” as their actual gender. This lays bare the biological essentialism at the heart of radical feminist thinking – for all their talk about socialisation, ultimately gender rests on the that which you were assigned at birth based on an external inspection of your genitals, and nothing can change that, however logically absurd this position becomes under examination. This attitude reveals itself in the throwaway line: “And if female is “passé,” well, there goes life on earth.” For all their talk of female being a social category, it is clear that female = woman and woman = womb. Being “biologically female” is held up as the standard which both defines and constrains women. One can only shudder at what role Jensen and Keith envisage for women in the post-collapse society they champion, given their expressed callous disregard for the millions of poor, disabled or otherwise useless members of society that they imagine dying off in that collapse.

The “female brain” concept of trans people is another myth, one which some trans people do indeed believe, but they are a minority to the extent that this objection is a strawman argument. Like the “gay gene” hypothesis, it is a damaging and ultimately nonsensical idea. Since trans people have often had to fight entrenched medical ideas in order to access treatment, it is not surprising that they have often latched onto ideas that appear to grant medical legitimacy in terms that establishment will accept, regardless of other consequences.

And it’s the genderists who conform. For all their talk of gender-bending, their goal is cosmetics, costumes, and surgery to match their bodies to gender caricatures.”

Despite accusing their opponents of focusing negatively on appearances, as Keith and Jensen do here (“The insults usually reference bad haircuts and fashion—because how women look is vastly more important than what they might try to do”), radical feminists are never shy of insulting trans women based on a tired misogynistic idea of what they think they look like. The stereotype of trans people excessively conforming to gender norms is a particularly prevalent one, usually expressed in misogynistic terms of “hyper-feminine” trans women, both because it is easier to evoke disgust at expressions of femininity in a patriarchal culture, but also because expressions of masculinity are valourised in the radical feminist community.

Trans women of course display a full range of gendered behaviour, just like cis women, but they are particularly scrutinised and place in a double bind – when they express gendered behaviour that is read as “feminine” they are accused of “faking” or “mocking” femininity. When they express behaviour read as “masculine” it is seen as “proof” that they are not “really” women. Since in a binary-gendered society almost all behaviour is gendered, this places trans women in particular in an impossible position. The stereotype itself is perhaps prominent because trans women have historically been more visible than trans men, in part because “feminine” behaviour in people perceived as men draws more attention and opprobrium than “masculine” behaviour in people perceived as women. There is also the fact that historically (and still, sadly, today) access to treatment for gender dysphoria is largely based on outdated perceptions of a “failure” to conform to one’s assigned birth gender, and the greater the gap between one’s gendered behaviour and assigned birth gender, the greater the chance of successfully convincing the medical establishment of the need for treatment, a dynamic trans people are all too aware of and are forced to conform to for their own survival.

The idea that children are being subjected to genital surgery is a hugely damaging myth but one that seems unwilling to go away. Surgical interventions are never carried out on trans children (with the exception, ironically of intersex children, who are operated on without their consent in order to make them conform to a largely arbitrary assignation of gender at birth – the terrified haste with which doctors rush parents into approving this “treatment” on new-born babies speaks volumes about the medical establishment’s attitude to gender, and it is exactly the opposite of the attitude radical feminists think it is). The only medical treatment available to children who identify as other than their birth gender is hormone treatment to delay the harmful and distressing effects of going through puberty as a gender with which they do not identify – treatment that is safe, proven and entirely reversible. And trans status is not, as the reductio ad absurdum has it, “liking things traditionally preferred by another gender”. It is a deep and abiding lack of identification with the gendered characteristics of one’s body. Cis people do not experience this, so is understandable that they would attempt to translate it into terms that they are familiar with, and we have all, trans and cis, experience the mild dissatisfaction of being denied something that “belongs” to another gender. But this trivialises and misrepresents the nature of being trans.

An equally durable fantasy is the one about “trans regret” where cis people are forced or tricked by a proselytising trans-dominated medical establishment into transitioning against their will, with horrific lifelong effects. This is simply not the case. Trans people have to fight very hard, often for years or even decades to obtain treatment, and cases of trans regret are vanishingly small. Of the less than 12% of trans people who express regrets about their transition, almost all of these were in regards to surgical outcomes – in other words, they do not regret transitioning, simply that it was not as effective as they had hoped. The tragic but tiny number of non-representative cases of genuine regret are endlessly recycled as evidence of a vast conspiracy of forcing people to transition against their will, something that not only flies in the face of the evidence, but is also profoundly insulting to those trans people who have or are currently battling tooth and nail with the medical establishment for basic recognition of their rights.

It is not intolerant or oppressive to refuse a platform with people who are intolerant or oppressive, but some groups on the left seem to be increasingly taking the view that it is their role to be neutral providers of space for “debate” between oppressive, intolerant views and the people they target. This is the equivalent of allowing a fascist to debate at a conference on socialism. Attendance may well rise as good progressives flock to refute their ideas and their speech – but at the cost of both actual progress and the absence of those threatened by their presence. DGR is currently haemorrhaging members and chapters fast as the bigotry of its leaders becomes more and more apparent and I wish those people luck in building a more inclusive environmental resistance movement. Several progressive outlets have made it clear that they will be providing no platform for DGR’s oppressive ideas, even under the camouflage of “debate” something I can only hope CounterPunch will also consider. (note: obviously not, but I was trying to be polite)

Gender is still a hugely important issue, and while it is understandable that those who see it as an oppressive category would be attracted to the idea of its abolition, it is dangerous to see any identity category in such stark terms. Few would argue that race is not used to oppress people, yet if you were to suggest that racism would be solved, not by getting rid of racists, but by eliminating all racial differences, you would be rightly derided. Gender is undoubtedly deployed oppressively, as a means of social control, but the problem is not gender, it is the rigidity and hierarchical nature of the gender binary. DGR’s confused stance on gender is not just theoretically illogical, it is actively oppressive in practice, and flies in the face of the evidence of a decades-long history of trans resistance to gender oppression. In regards to the oppressive nature of the gender binary, trans activists (as well as non-binary, genderqueer and intersex activists) were and have always been the vanguard of its destruction, not its handmaidens.


Please, No Moore: a snapshot of transphobia in Britain’s broadsheets

This article was originally written in January 2013 and posted on Rory MacKinnon’s blog

If you’re UK-based or keep up with trans issues on the web, you’ve probably come across at least some of the fallout from the recent storm over articles by Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill in the Guardian and the Observer. Reaction to these articles and comments made by Moore on Twitter have touched off a firestorm of debate about trans issues that swept rapidly across the media, touching off related debates on internet “bullying”, free speech, feminism, “infighting” on the left and media visibilty for trans people.

Various commentators, some with high profile platforms in the national media, weighed into the fray, and some people desperate to show off their liberal credentials revealed their innate transphobia. After spending a lot of time over the last few days ranting and chopping down ancient, tired, transphobic and cissexist arguments, I wanted somewhere to set out a timeline of the whole furore and work out where we now stand.

On Tuesday the 8th of January, the New Statesman published an article by Suzanne Moore (actually republished from a print anthology of women’s writing from last year) on the necessity for anger directed in a feminist way. It was relatively unobjectionable, making several important points, save for one stand-out line:

We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.

Before I move on to what happens next, it’s worth noting what’s actually wrong with this line. It is not (as many, many, people said) the fact that Brazil has the highest reported rate of assault and murder for trans people in the world. This is a related issue which speaks to a lack of intersectional understanding, but it is not the primary problem. The main issue is that it is dehumanising – it posits a stereotype as the norm, and uses it for a punchline. Moore is relying on the reader’s mental image of a transsexual woman for her joke’s humour and force, assuming that her reader shares her prejudices and preconceptions, mainly that a “Brazilian transsexual” is a) a trans woman, b) of a particular physical appearance, and most importantly c) not a real woman. Moore’s “Brazilian transsexual” is not a woman who happens to be trans, but a transsexual-as-noun, a formulation as offensive as “a black” or “a gay” and this should be held in mind going forward to look at some of the reactions below.

Moore was then criticised by several people on twitter who pointed out why this was an unfortunate choice of phrase, and here I’ll hand over to a leftytgirl’s timeline because the sequence of events is crucial.

The three standout tweets here are:

I dont prioritise this fucking lopping bits of your body over all else that is happening to women Intersectional enough for you?

I dont even accept the word transphobia any more than Islamaphobia You are using ‘intersectionality’ to shut down debate. Its bollocks.


People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.

Moore, ever since this exchange, has painted herself as a victim of bullying, subject to vicious attacks and death threats because of this one “throwaway comment” about Brazilian transsexuals. Not once in either of her published defences (see below) does she mention the escalation of her rhetoric from inadvertent casual transphobia to overtly transphobic language in response to a relatively gentle call-out. She also pulled out an Indy article from 1997 which refers to hermaphroditic worms and freshly-mutilated bodies as evidence of her LACK of transphobia…

Moore’s most visible response, though, was this article in the Guardian of Wednesday 9th Jan (note the quick turnaround time) which was really where it all kicked off. Moore is highly disingenuous here, farting privilege in all directions like some sort of collapsing cis Hindenburg. Firstly, she establishes that she can’t be transphobic because she wanted to have sex with David Bowie, once met some (exotic) trans women, and did “a lot of queer studies”, before going on to spout yet more boring transphobic cliches about trans people, including the classic radfem dogma that transsexual people somehow reinforce gender norms (as if cis people are somehow all wonderful genderfluid snowflakes). Finally she finished off with a wonderful bravura performance of that old privilege classic: “why aren’t we talking about what REALLY matters – the economy! Or possibly rape in India. Or maybe the Tories! Anything but the thing I’ve been accused of doing!”

Understandably this cemented what most of us already knew, that Moore was one of a particular breed of self-described feminists, cis, white, middle-class-claiming-working-class-roots, utterly convinced that their prejudice was actually solid feminist principle, and therefore sure in their conviction that anyone who disagreed with them must be anti-feminist. There it might have lain, until for some baffling reason, the Observer (the Guardian’s sister Sunday paper, technically a separate entity, but practically strongly linked in both the public mind and sharing offices and a website) decided to publish a hate-filled screed from Julie Burchill on Sunday January the 13th. The piece drew over 2000 comments in one day, several PCC and police complaints for hate speech, and was eventually pulled down by the editor (it remains to be seen if this Sunday’s printed Observer will contain an apology) with a weaselly statement that can be seen here.
While most people agreed that this was naked clickbait designed to drive traffic, the overt discriminatory language displayed in this piece raised connected issues with regards to hate speech and incitement, and several commentators noted that, even as a deliberately “controversial” piece designed to attract negative comments and attention, it would never have been approved for publication in the first place had it refered to any other marginalised group.

Several more right-wing publications and writers immediately went with the “censorship” line, especially after Lynne Featherstone (the laughably ineffectual former minister for equality and current minister for international development) called for her to be sacked and for the Observer editor, John Mulholland, to resign. Prominent among this mob was shameless self-promoting half-man half-frog Toby Young, who immediately leapt on the chance to [MAJOR CONTENT WARNING FOR VIOLENT TRANSPHOBIA] republish Burchill’s article on his Telegraph blog [MAJOR CONTENT WARNING FOR VIOLENT TRANSPHOBIA], which also featured the usual gleeful handrubbing about fractious lefties (such as this horribly hateful article by Rod Liddle, which, bizarrely, more accurately identifies the reason Moore’s language was offensive than most people managed.

The Independent ran an opportunistic poll on whether her (scare quotes!) “transphobic” comments went too far (as if there was an acceptable level of transphobia!) declining to mention they had employed Burchill for a year and a half to write precisely the same kind of attention-grabbing rants, and were quite happy to give space to Moore’s original 1997 transphobic article dressed up as concern for trans rights, as well as an opinion piece on the 15th by Tony Peck which was overtly transphobic.

Depressing as all this was, it did give rise to some comment that was, more or less, enlightening. Here, in no particular order, are people smarter and more articulate than me discussing various aspects of these events:

(The latter are two of the best pieces on the original Moore response in my opinion, identifying the major issues and problems that it brought to the surface.)

  • Trans journalist Paris Lees’ polite response written before Moore decided to triple-down on everything. Paris Lees was due to debate Moore on C4 news, but Moore chickened out, so instead of interviewing Lees about trans issues, they dropped the piece altogether. (Can’t discuss racism without a racist to provide balance!)

Further developments: First, Moore (who had quit Twitter), briefly returned to give this non-apology apology (still marked as an apology in this headline, despite the fact that Moore stated categorically that she had NOT apologised), once again refusing to acknowledge her most transphobic remarks and painting herself as a victim of unprovoked attacks. Julie Bindel (another transphobic radfem with a long history, but canny enough to be more circumspect in her recent writing) denounces the “trans cabal” “bullying” Moore.

Moore has now published a second Guardian article today (17th Jan) which again paints herself as a victim and the only person concerned about the real issues. She also still refuses to acknowledge her transphobic tweets, pretending everything has been about the “Brazilian transsexual” line.

UPDATE:  I’ve just realised that in concentrating on Moore, I’ve skipped over some context. This last week, in response to the prosecution (some might say persecution, with some justification) of a trans doctor by the GMC for treating trans people, a hashtag #transdocfail was launched, for trans people to tweet about their mistreatment at the hands of the wider medical community.

http://www.complicit…cfail-lowlight/ (Content note – harrowing descriptions of bad experiences with the medical community)

Also relevant to the generally terrible state of trans representation in all sections of the media was this fantastic post about trans “regret” and why it’s bullshit even though it seems to be a mandatory topic in every story about trans people: http://cisisnotadirtyword.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/trans-regret/