03
Aug
13

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.

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3 Responses to “Hidden Transphobia, Part 1”


  1. August 5, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    Thanks for this. I appreciate your analysis.

    I’m not sure if you’ve read the previous three pieces on gender, sex and the cis/trans binary, but they clarify my thinking some of the things that you refer to. (I’ve put links to them at the end). Being neither a radical nor a libertarian feminist, I find myself weaving between the two more common strands – I agree with elements of both, but I feel quite quite constrained with some of the baggage that comes with them, not to mention the mainstream normative views of sex and gender in which the whole conversation takes place and I feel like some of this has leaked into your analysis – probably because I’ve been insufficiently clear in defining 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. ”

    Kindof, but not quite. As a political category, I see “female” as those who have the capacity to gestate and birth babies: a womb is a necessary, but not sufficient element of being (politically?) female. I think this political category is completely necessary, but my thinking on it differs from the traditional (and radfem) definition of female, in that it includes all genders who have this capacity.

    “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).”

    Its possible that I have done this as an error by omission, but again I would also include other genders who have the capacity to gestate and birth babies as suffering sex oppression, including trans men, genderqueer and genderfluid individuals.

    ” 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.”

    I agree with you that there are medical interventions that are desperately needed and that accessing them can be incredibly difficult, but at the same time, there is also a medical industry being built up around trans women, selling expensive and unnecessary surgery, particularly in the States. The distinction made between “post-op” and “pre-op” women in some circles as well adds to that pressure – that women who have had not had, and especially those who do not want, surgery cannot be considered “real women” IMHO its an extension of the pressure on all women to conform to ideals, which leads to women – cis and trans alike to undergo unnecessary medical interventions. It is notable how much less medical interventions trans men tend to have, partly that is technological limitations, but also because capitalism preys on women’s insecurities, in a world where women are overly-valued for their appearance.

    I avoid the term “male woman”, because IMHO it is almost always inaccurate, women who have been assigned male at birth usually have medical intervention which impedes their ability to reproduce as a male, although I should note that Virginia Prince was an advocate of the term, so the term “male woman” does have a history within trans theory.

    “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.”

    I’d actually argue with the idea that radfems *do* decouple sex and gender. They claim they do, but their analysis is based on the idea that only those who are born with a vagina are female; only females can be women; only women can be female and only females are born with vaginas. I totally disagree with that. To me “woman” is a social category. It is an ideological construction designed to control those who are identified on the basis of their external genitalia as those who are potentially possible of gestating and birthing babies. It is a category which although it manifests differently in different cultures, is global and lumps together a whole heap of different things from liking cupcakes and cleaning to enjoying sexual domination. The radfem analysis is sometimes based on piecemeal attacks on the “essence” of womanhood as patriarchially constructed, and at other times, based on shoring up an essentialist analysis of womanly superiority (esp. Mary Daly and the later tradition of cultural feminism).

    Radfems and I diverge massively on this. I see no necessary or essential link between gender and anatomy, but purely a coersive and ideological one which can and should be overcome.

    ““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.”

    Ok – first off, I regard gender and sex as different things.

    Sex unfortunately has two meanings – firstly in the assignation of a characteristic about a person (ie male or female), and secondly as the fun-squishiness that you do for pleasure. These are normatively related because sex (fun-squishiness)=PIV=babies(reproduction based on sexed characteristics). That normative conflation of the terms is a massive problem in discussing this area.

    I dont actually see gender as a continuum, but as comprising two different elements – the gender that you are assigned (initially at birth with the announcement “its a girl”, and subsequently the gender that you are assigned in each and every interaction) and your own internal “genuine” gender (gender identity) – that is to say your own sense of self as a sexual-being-in-the-world, in the sense of “fun-squishiness”, which combines a whole heap of things, including sexual preferences, sexual orientation, sexual behaviour, sexual presentation, sexual attraction etc (all in the sense of “fun-squishiness”). You influence your assignation (once you are old enough to) through your gender presentation, but you are always constrained by existance of the two normative genders.

    The gender that you are assigned will fall into “man” or “woman” because these are the only two genders that are allowed in this society. The gender that you actually have (gender identity) is unique, but will be influenced by your birth assignation and you will be at best encouraged and often forced to conform to a standardised patriarchal ideal of it, but actually may be closer to the other “allowed” gender from the one which you are assigned.

    On the other hand, I do see sex as a continuum with clusters at the ends. Female and male as *political* categories relate to the relationship to reproduction, thus I would argue that a massive amount of people who we assign the term “female” to are not actually female at all (although neither are they male), including each and every FAAB at the time that they are assigned to the category: they are proto-female, in that they are assumed to be people who will become female (capable of gestating and birthing babies). I would also argue that FAAB women who are on the contraceptive pill for example are “non-female women”

    Again – thank you for this. I am aware that there are some people who fundamentally disagree with my conceptions of sex and gender, and I’m happy for them to do so, but its awful hard writing in this area which has so much normative baggage, is compounded by the difficulties that the trans community has with TERFs, and the fact that identity is a very personal thing and one which trans folk are understandably protective of.

    Links:
    http://www.2ndcouncilhouse.co.uk/blog/2013/03/26/reflections-on-gender/
    http://www.2ndcouncilhouse.co.uk/blog/2013/03/29/reflections-on-sex/
    http://www.2ndcouncilhouse.co.uk/blog/2013/05/01/reflections-on-the-cistrans-binary/

    • August 5, 2013 at 4:48 pm

      Thanks for your considered and careful response. As you say, we fundamentally differ on this issue, but I appreciate the respectful dialogue, as well as your material efforts on behalf of trans people, even if I do still believe that your analysis is itself disrespectful to trans people of all genders.


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