Archive for August, 2013


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.

August 2013
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