Gethin Jones argues that feminist demands for the right to bodily autonomy must also include trans people
This is a guest post by Gethin Jones.
I’ve been a feminist since I first heard of the Suffragettes. As a teenager I remember reading the biography of Emmeline Pankhurst and feeling appalled when my grandmother mentioned earning less than her male colleagues before the 1970 Equal Pay Act. To me, “feminism” and “egalitarianism” have always been synonymous words: why would anyone aware of one form of prejudice wish to perpetuate another? That’s why I was shocked when I learnt of a certain brand of transphobic feminism, of which some followers own blogs for the purpose of defaming trans people. They tend to mostly deride trans women, but a few defamatory statements are made against trans men too.
As a trans man, they accuse me of being a misogynist, having transitioned to gain male privilege and of being a “lesbian in denial” (unlikely, considering my bisexuality). Allegations of transitioning for the purpose of gaining privilege irritate me, considering the cisgender privilege I’ve lost through doing so. But mostly, accusations of misogyny irk me because I make a conscious effort to be mindful of sexism and to call others out if they use misogynistic language (e.g. “you throw like a girl”). When trans men are arbitrarily accused of misogyny, it boils down to the erroneous idea that all men are misogynists. It ignores the reality that one can be male-identified, yet strongly support equal opportunities for all and vehemently oppose all forms of discrimination. Secondly, it ignores the fact that some of the earliest feminist philosophers were men.
The reasoning behind transphobic feminism seems to be that trans people “reinforce the gender binary“. As Sheila Jeffreys put it “The idea of [transsexualism] is a living fossil, that is, an idea from the time when there was considered to be a correct behaviour for particular body types”. In other words, Jeffreys theorises that we flip to the other sex due to some minor difficulties conforming to gendered stereotypes. Yet, of all trans people I’ve surveyed, not one has cited gendered behaviour as their motivation for transitioning (many trans people reject the gender binary altogether). Instead, most trans people cite body dysphoria, a condition for which there are known biological causes, the symptoms of which can be alleviated through altering the body.
Besides, as Julia Serano points out, accusing others of reinforcing binaries involves hypocrisy. By critiquing men/women for being traditionally masculine/feminine, we create yet another gender binary: a one where subversive gender expressions are considered “good” and traditional ones “bad”. Ergo, the binary hasn’t been smashed at all – merely flipped over.
Another puzzling notion is the idea that transphobic feminists should work to ban transsexualism. Sheila Jeffreys argues that trans people shouldn’t have the legal right to transition, but as Roz Kaveney makes clear, what Jeffreys proposes has negative implications for all women. If we remove a transsexual’s right to bodily autonomy, what is to stop us doing the same to women seeking abortions? Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects bodily autonomy – a right that must be universally extended, not taken away from certain people because we disapprove of their private decisions. When we feminists stoop to the level of policing each others’ bodies and/or gender expressions, we become just as oppressive as the patriarchy we’re supposed to be fighting.