Transphobic feminism makes no sense, argues Laurie Penny
For decades, the feminist movement has been split over the status of trans people, and of trans women in particular. High-profile feminists such as Germaine Greer, Jan Raymond and Julie Bindel have spoken out against what Greer terms “people who think they are women, have women’s names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody”. Some prominent radical feminists have publicly declared that trans women are misogynist, “mutilated men”; trans people have responded to this harassment by vigorously defending themselves, demanding that anti-trans feminists are denied platforms to speak on other issues and, in some cases, by renouncing feminism altogether. The deep personal and ideological wounds suffered by women and men on both sides of the argument are reopened with vigour every time the mainstream press gives space to an anti-trans article by a cis feminist.
Many otherwise decent and sensible cis feminists have fallen prey to lazy transphobic thinking. In the vast majority of cases, cis feminist transphobia does not stem from deep, personal hatred of trans people, but from drastic, tragic misapprehension of the issues at stake. Recently, outspoken feminist Julie Bindel declared in an article for Standpoint magazine: “Recent legislation (the Gender Recognition Act, which allows people to change sex and be issued with a new birth certificate) will have a profoundly negative effect on the human rights of women and children.” Her views are founded on the assumption that “transsexualism, by its nature, promotes the idea that it is ‘natural’ for boys to play with guns and girls to play with Barbie dolls… the idea that gender roles are biologically determined rather than socially constructed is the antithesis of feminism.”
Bindel and others have, initially with the best of intentions, misunderstood not only the nature of transsexualism but also the radical possibilities for gender revolution that real, sisterly alliance between cis feminists and the trans movement could entail.
(This article focuses primarily on the experiences of trans women, as these experiences have been the main focus of controversy over the past three decades of feminist thought – the intention is not to erase the experiences of trans men and boys.)
Femininity is a social construct and Bindel is right to identify it as such. She is utterly wrong, however, to claim that transsexual men and women are any guiltier than cis men and women of re-enforcing damaging stereotypes. In fact, the misogyny and sexist stereotyping that Bindel identifies as associated with trans identities are entirely imposed on the trans community by external forces.
Sally Outen, a trans rights campaigner, explains: “It is only natural for a person who strongly wishes to be identified according to her or his felt gender to attempt to provide cues to make the process easy for those who interact with her or him. That person cannot be blamed for the stereotypical nature of the cues that society uses, or if they can be blamed, then every cisgendered person who uses such cues is equally to blame.”
Even a casual assessment of the situation indicates that the problem lies not with transsexual people, but with our entire precarious construction of what is ‘male’ and what ‘female’, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. Bindel’s description of trans women in “fuck-me-boots and birds-nest hair” are no different from today’s bewildered 12-, 13- and 14-year-old cissexual girls struggling to make the transition from deeply felt, little-understood womanhood to socially dictated, artificial ‘femininity’. Like teenage girls stuffing their bras with loo-roll and smearing on garish lipstick, the trans women for whom Bindel, Greer and their ilk reserve special disdain are simply craving what all growing girls crave: social acceptance.
Amy, a 41-year-old trans woman, says: “Transition in later life is a really weird experience, in that you’re suddenly and unexpectedly plunged into being teenage, plus you have teenage levels of female hormones coursing through your veins. You haven’t grown up through the sidling-toward-teenagerhood that girls get, the socialisation and the immersion in society’s expectations and realities. Trans women get to learn those, just a quarter of a century late, in my case. The results tend to be a bit wild.” Or, as one cis friend of mine put it: “If I’d had the income that some trans people do when I was a teenager, I’d have owned a cupboard full of fuck-me-boots.”
Indeed, the fact that socially accepted female identity is something that must be purchased is something that trans women understand better than anyone else. For socialist feminists like myself, who locate patriarchal oppression within the mechanisms of global capitalism, the experience of trans women, who can find themselves pressured to spend large amounts of money in order to ‘pass’ as female, is a more urgent and distressing version of the experience of cis women under patriarchal capitalism. In our society here in the UK, where shopping for clothes and makeup is a key coming-of-age ritual for cis women, all people wishing to express a female identity must grapple with the brutal dictats of the beauty, diet, advertising and fashion industries in order to ‘pass’ as female.
Not a single person on this planet is born a woman. Becoming a woman, for those who willingly or unwillingly undertake the process, is torturous, magical, bewildering – and intensely political. In the essay ‘Mama Cash: Buying and Selling Genders’, trans author Charlie Anders explains: “Transgender people… understand more than anyone the high cost of gender, having adopted identities as adult neophytes. People often work harder than they think to maintain the boy/girl behaviours expected of them. You may have learned through painful trial-and-error not to use certain phrases, or to walk a certain way. After a while, learned gender behaviour becomes almost second nature, like trying to compensate for a weak eye. Again, transgender people are just experiencing what everyone goes through.”
The concept and practice of sex reassignment surgery is the territory over which radical feminists and trans activists traditionally clash most painfully. Bindel, along with others, believes that the fact that SRS is carried out at all means “we’ve given up on the distress felt by people who identify as gender dysphoric, and turned to surgery instead of trying to find ways to make people feel good in the bodies they have.”
Bindel makes the case that the SRS ‘industry’ is part of a social discourse in which homosexual and gender-non-conforming men and women are brought back into line by “nutty bloody psychiatrists who think that carving people’s bodies up can somehow make them ‘normal'”. Were SRS an accepted way of policing the boundaries of gender non-conformity here, Bindel’s equation of the surgery with ‘mutilation’ would be more than valid – it would be urgent. However, SRS is nothing of the sort.
In face, SRS is carried out only very rarely, and only on a small proportion of trans people, for whom the surgery is not a strategy for bringing their body in line with their gender performativity but a way of healing a distressing physical dissonance that Outen vividly describes as “a feeling like I was being raped by my own unwanted anatomy”.
Surgery is normally a late stage of the transitioning process and falls within a spectrum of lifestyle choices – for those who opt for it at all. Trans activist Christine Burns points out: “Julie Bindel is quite right that we ought to be able to build a society where people can express the nuances of their gender far more freely, without feeling any compulsion to have to change their bodies more than they really want to.
“However, that is precisely what many trans people really do. Only one in five of the people who go to gender clinics have reassignment surgery – the other four in five find accommodations with what they’ve got. Bindel’s thinking cannot admit that, far from emphasising the binary, 80% of trans people are doing far more to disrupt gender stereotypes than she imagines. With or without surgery, trans people are living examples of the fact that gender is variable and fluid.”
Of course, like any other surgery, SRS has its risks and a minority of patients will regret the procedure. But for most of the trans people who decide to pursue SRS, the operation allows for potentially live-saving progression beyond the debilitating effects of gender dysphoria. Moreover, many post-operative trans people have found that the operation actually lessens their overall distress around binary gender identity. Amy explains: “‘Being female is an important part of my identity, but it’s not an all-consuming part any more. Until I transitioned and completed surgery, it was much more so. I woke up from surgery, and the burning dissonance, the feeling of everything being wrong, wasn’t there any more. These days, I realise that I don’t actually have that strong a sense of gender any more. Isn’t that strange, given all I went through to get here?”
The radical gender fluidity within the trans movement is exactly what Bindel, when I spoke to her in the process of writing this article, emphasised above everything else: “Normality is horrific. Normality is what I, as a political activist, am trying to turn around. Gender bending, people living outside their prescribed gender roles, is fantastic – and I should know. I’ve never felt like a woman, or like a man for that matter – I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. I live outside of my prescribed gender roles, I’m not skinny and presentable, I don’t wear makeup, I’m bolshie, I don’t behave like a ‘real woman’, and like anyone who lives outside their prescribed gender roles, I get stick for it.”
What Bindel has failed to grasp is a truth that could re-unite the feminist movement – that trans people too, far from “seeking to become stereotypical”, are often eager to live outside their prescribed gender roles and frustrated by the conformity that a misogynist society demands from those who wish to ‘pass’. Marja Erwin told me that “gender identity and gender roles are not the same. I am trans, and I am not the hyperfeminine stereotype. I am a tweener dyke and more butch than femme. I know other trans womyn who are solidly butch, and others who are totally femme, and, of course, the equivalents among straight and bi womyn.”
Much of the stereotyping imposed upon trans women is enforced by sexist medical establishments – a phenomenon which radical feminists and trans activists are unanimous in decrying. Bindel, like many trans feminists, objects to the fact that psychiatrists are “allowed to define the issue of gender deviance”, giving medical professionals social and ideological influence beyond their professional remit. Clinics in the UK require trans people to fulfil a rigid set of box-ticking gender-performance criteria before they will offer treatment and SRS demands this conformity with special rigour. To receive SRS, trans women patients will normally be expected to have ‘lived as a woman’ for two years or more – but individual psychiatrists and doctors will get to decide what ‘living as a woman’ entails. A UK psychiatrist is known to have refused treatment because a trans woman patient turned up to an appointment wearing trousers, whilst Kasper, a trans man who was treated in Norway, was pressured to stop dating men by surgery gatekeepers.
“I had to answer a lot of invasive questions about my sexuality and my sex life, and one of the doctors I had to see lectured me about how transitioning physically might make me stop being attracted to boys,” he says.
All this is a far cry from some feminists’ fear that surgery is prescribed to ‘transform’ cissexual gay men and lesbians into transsexual heterosexuals.
The demand that trans people conform to gender stereotypes in order to be considered ‘healthy’ or ‘a good treatment prospect’ is something that cis women also experience in their dealings with the psychiatric profession. It is standard practice for women in some inpatient treatment facilities to be pressured to wear makeup and dresses as a sign of ‘psychological improvement’. The institutional misogyny of the global psychiatric establishment is something that radical feminists and trans activists can usefully oppose together.
Feminists – even prominent ones with big platforms to shout from – do not get to be the gatekeepers of what is and is not female, what is and is not feminine, any more than patriarchal apologists do. Intrinsic to feminism is the notion that such gatekeeping is sexist, recalcitrant and damaging. If feminists like Greer, Bindel and Jan Raymond truly believe that having a vagina, breasts, curves, a uterus, being fertile or sporting several billion XX chromosomes is what makes a person a woman, it clearly sucks to be one of the significant proportion of women have none of these things.
There are cis women all over the world who lack breasts after mastectomy or a quirk of biology; women who are born without vaginas, or who are victims of FGM; women who are androgynously skinny, naturally or because of illness; women who are infertile or post-menopausal; or, significantly, the 0.2% of women who are intersex. Is the female identity of these cis women under question too? If it is, feminism has a long way to go.
Greer and her followers seem singularly uninterested in the science behind their binary thinking, which establishes that prescribed gender roles still fall largely into the binary categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, but human bodies do no such thing. The spectrum of human physicality belies gender essentialism – as must feminism, if it is ever to be the revolutionary movement our culture so desperately needs.
Trans activism is not merely a valid part of the feminist movement: it is a vital one. The notion that one’s biological sex does not have to dictate anything about one’s behaviour, appearance or the eventual layout of one’s genitals and secondary sex organs, now that we live in a glittering future where such things are possible, is the radical heart of feminist thought. It is essential for cis as well as trans feminists to oppose transphobia and transmisogyny.
Conversely, at the very heart of sexist thought is the assumption that the bodies we are born with ought to dictate our character, our behaviour, our appearance, our choices, the nature of our relationships and the work of our lives. Feminism puts forward the still-radical notion that this is not the case. Feminism holds that gender identity, rather than being written in our genes, is an emotional, personal and sexual state of being that can be expressed in myriad different ways that encompass and extend beyond the binary categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Feminism holds that prescribed gender roles are a tyranny that no-one – whether trans, cis, male, female or intersex – should be forced to conform to in order to prove their identity, their validity or their human worth.
Feminism calls for gender revolution, and gender revolution needs the trans movement. We must put aside the hurts of the past and look towards a future of radical solidarity between all those who are troubled by gender in the modern world. Whatever our differences, until contemporary feminism fully and finally accepts trans people as ideological allies, it will never achieve what Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Christine Burns, Sally Outen and every feminist who has ever longed for a better world are all working towards: an end to the damaging and demeaning tyranny of gender stereotypes. Whatever our differences, only with trans people on side can feminism hope to work towards the type of equality our radical foremothers dared to dream of.
This piece was completed on theInternational Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.It is offered in recognition of the ideological and (sometimes) physical violence that has been done to trans people by cis feminists, in the hope that all feminists can one day stand together to resist violence against women, and in memory of the hundreds of trans women who have been murdered at the hands of misogynists over the past decade, in particular the latest UK victims, Andrea Waddell and Destiny Lauren.