Radfem and the trans issue.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about when I mention “radfem” or radical feminism, I urge you to take a look at this. The short and sweet version is that radical feminism holds that gender – our socially constructed roles and identities as men or women – is a bad, bad thing. That it bends and shapes our lives and identities, our society, our opinions and actions and choices in negative ways, and that the bulk of the really negative stuff lands on women. I would agree with that.

Radical feminism is for “women who were born biologically female, and who live as women” (and what they mean by this, I think, is that if you were born biologically female and now live as a man, you ain’t getting through the radfem door). So the distinction between sex (ie your physical femaleness or maleness), and gender (ie how you are expected to act and what your priorities in life are expected to be, based on your sex) is a very black and white one.

Consequently, radfem is very, very down on transsexual/transgender women. They view TS/TG women as basically being men who are muscling in on femaleness. And in this area, I have beef with radical feminism, and I’m going to pop open the Tupperware and show you that beef, right now.

I suspect that radfem doesn’t understand the core identity of TS/TG people. It’s not about wanting to be accepted as a woman (I mean my comments to apply as much to trans men as to trans women), I think it goes deeper than that.

If you removed the issue of gender from the world – and by “gender” I mean “how we are socialised to behave as an expression of our biological sex” – there would still be a sense of physical identity unique to and shared by women, and a sense of physical identity unique to and shared by men. That physical identity is how radical feminism defines women. That identity is not about how we interact with the other sex. It is a discrete thing, about the rhythms and cycles and experiences that go along with having an XX or an XY body.

It’s very easy, if you haven’t ever been close to anyone who is TS/TG, to imagine that trans women want to put on a frock and some lippie, and look feminine and be called “Brenda” and be accepted, and that’s the end of it, but what you’re thinking about is transvestites. What transgender/transsexual people want (and I’m generalising hugely and there are an awful lot of shades of grey I’m not going to address here), is to participate, fully, physically, in that sex identity. Transsexualism/transgender isn’t about gender. It’s about SEX.

What happens is that trans people get so much shit for how they look, that they are pushed into conforming in the strongest possible way to cultural gender stereotypes in order to “pass”. Look at the requirements for getting any medical assistance to transition: the first one (I’m looking at the UK, I have no doubt it differs elsewhere), is that you have to live as the sex you feel you are. You have to do that with boobs and the wrong bone structure, if you’re transitioning F2M, and with a growing beard and the wrong bone structure if you’re transitioning M2F.

The desire to appear to be the sex you feel you are becomes confused with the desire to conform to the gender norms of that sex. The confusion is imposed. It is a requirement. Gender identity is a flag forced into the hand of trans people, whether they like it or not.

Be that as it may, by its own definition, radical feminism excludes trans women. In my view, that is wrong of them. The recognition of trans women strikes me as important, because they face a battle against a patriarchal society, the very difficulty of which serves to highlight precisely how loathed femaleness is. Not only are trans women subject to many (not all) of the same risks and abuses as biological women, they’re also subject to a specific hatred from those who cannot understand why someone would ditch male privilege in favour of becoming that most hated and worthless thing – a woman.

To my mind, Sheila Jeffreys attempt to “debate” trans women at #radfem2012 is indistinguishable in principle from abortion laws being “debated” solely by men. “Nothing about us, without us, is for us” and all that – it is a particular irony that an organisation committed to fighting the patriarchy does so by co-opting its methods of “othering” and talking behind closed doors.

I will continue to read up on radfem, and to have conversations with radical feminists on this and other topics, because a great deal of radical feminism chimes with me, and I want to like it, and even if I can’t like it, I want to understand it.

However, I can’t get past this hump because I know TS/TG women. And they are women.

I have a fundamental – one might say radical – issue with anyone who bullies a woman for having the courage to be a woman.

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24 Responses to Radfem and the trans issue.

  1. I would wholeheartedly agree with the idea that transgender people should be viewed as the gender they feel like they belong to, not the gender they were born into. If not, we’re just creating another set of discrimination against a group of people who are already struggling with fitting in.

    • chiller says:

      Yep – but I can see why that isn’t a good enough reason for radical feminists to embrace trans women. However, if trans women’s issue is not their gender but their sex … then that objection doesn’t hold water. I hope they change on this point, over time.

  2. You continue to open my mind and make me think about issues of gender and equality. Thank you.

  3. elaine4queen says:

    it’s a really thorny subject and people – many of whom are women – have behaved very badly. there is a problem with self righteousness in rad fem thinking which constantly looks to ‘other’ or scapegoat one individual or group or another.

    • chiller says:

      Yeah. What’s uncomfortable for me is that I can understand where they’re coming from. I just don’t think they are basing their opinion of trans women on the reality of trans women, which is a strong identification not with female gender roles, but with being of female sex. Weirdly, I think radfems have become bogged down by their belief that “my-gender-is-my-identity” is something that applies strongly to everyone but them.

      • elaine4queen says:

        i agree, and i think this reductionism has been there all along. i remember in the 80s hearing tell of a lesbian disco that had refused entry to women wearing leather jackets because in their opinion leather reminded black women of slavery? sounds ridiculous and made up to me now, but i have no reason to think the person who told me this tale was lying. this is largely because i lived in a seperatist household for a while and the sorts of justifications for things often were bonkers.

  4. bugbrennan says:

    Trans women are women, but they are not female. Trans women have done much damage to issues females care about. I wish you were concerned about how trans women could be better allies to females. Trans women allies:

    1. Recognize that sex matters.

    2. Respect that females will want to organize as females, and will not derail.

    3. Support female-only spaces.

    4. Support issues that impact females uniquely (e.g., reproductive choice) without derailing (a la Julia Serano).

    5. Don’t personalize feminist objections to gender identity theory.

    6. Speak out against violent threats made by trans activists against females.

    7. Recognize that sometimes we will disagree – and that’s ok.

    8. Do not view female sexuality as a political obligation (e.g., lesbians need to “overcome” their aversion to penis to “affirm trans women’s realness”).

    There are trans women I accept as my friend, colleague, ally, sister. Indeed, I don’t really care about qualities based on identity politics in my *personal* life and dealings.

    In short, trans women/trans men that I know realize that it’s not either/or. Sometimes our interests align, sometimes they won’t – where they don’t align, we should be able to hammer out how we can reach a more balanced compromise (this is what we proposed with the letter to the United Nations – that resulted in death threats).

    Please, females don’t work for trans women. Your framing of this issue reinforces female submission.

    • chiller says:

      First of all, thank you for engaging with this post – I really appreciate it. I have tried to talk to a few RadFems about this on Twitter, but have only encountered fairly sneery or aggressive responses. It’s great to actually talk to someone.

      Your point 7 says it all, for me, but becomes lost in application, in threats and othering from both sides.

      The problem is, there ARE, indisputably, issues that affect bio-female women that do not affect trans women. The reverse is also true. Both groups need a space where those issues can be discussed without derailing. That we cannot find a way to do that without excluding the group that is not affected by those issues is … well, it’s testimony (ha) to human frailty. As long as both sides feel the need to defend their position against the other, we are in a sad situation. Given that both groups are accustomed to being talked down and oppressed, I suspect that both groups are equally liable to stand up and get angry if they feel it is being done to them in an arena they thought they would feel safe and welcome in.

      Where I take issue with you is your final sentence there, where you say alignment with trans women reinforces female submission. I don’t think it does, where the female-women and the trans-women are well informed, open-minded, not defensive, and do not equate the fact that there are physical and social differences in the challenges both groups face. Translating “we are not identical” into “you are not like us, so you are part of the problem we face” strikes me as really sad.

      But perhaps there is something I haven’t grasped, yet?

      If we eradicated the tendency to detail XX-women’s discussions, in what other ways would supporting trans women reinforce female submission?

      • bugbrennan says:

        Trans women cannot dictate what females should prioritize. They should stop doing that. Period. If and when they stop doing that, we can regroup. Mind you, I don’t anticipate this ever happening, because trans women as a group (not talking about individuals) have demonstrated that they cannot think beyond themselves. That is fine, but females should not be expected to jump to when trans women say jump, just like females should not be expected to jump when males say jump.

        If trans women demonstrated in the least that they respect the right of females to organize as females, maybe some healing could occur. Again, I don’t see that happening. Instead, I see females being forced into smaller and smaller spaces until there will be no more space for us. This horrifies me. I will never prioritize male feelings over female boundaries.

        I have written about various apsects of this issue if you want to read:


        Also, I have never seen threats from a radcial feminist to a trans woman – but I have seen PLENTY of threats from trans women against females. If you have evidence of specific threats by radfems against trans women, please post links.

        Threats by trans women against females:

        BTW, I may have been aggressive or sneery to you on Twitter – sorry about that. I use Twitter for a specific purpose, and not for actual discussion. Twitter is where i stiff arm people.

        Be well,
        Cathy Brennan

      • chiller says:

        A comprehensive response – thank you! I will go through and read all your links this evening. I must say, I am troubled by the language you use when speaking about trans women: “I will never prioritize male feelings over female boundaries,” which, to me, is basically you categorising trans women as MEN. Likewise the use of “female” meaning “XX-chromosome women”, which implies that trans women are men.

        And I think that’s where we differ. I do not view trans women as men. Not even slightly. I guess the best way I could describe how I view trans women is that they’re women who have a specific subset of issues that relate only to them, in the same way that women with functioning reproductive systems have a specific subset of issues that relate only to them. Both sets need safe space to talk about their issues, and a respectful silence from unaffected parties while they do. I don’t believe this is beyond us.

        Anyway, I shan’t say more until I have read your links. I have not seen any threats by anyone to anyone else yet.

        I have no recollection of the name of the person who went OMG CAPS LOCK THOUGH on my ass on Twitter, but judging from this, I don’t think it was you!

        Have a great afternoon.
        Rachel Coldbreath.

      • bugbrennan says:

        I accept trans women as women, but trans women are not female. Sex matters. Here is another one http://bugbrennan.com/2011/12/14/difference-exists/

        Woman is a gender word; female is a sex word.

        It might have been me, I do capslock on twitter – I am a super meanie on the Twitter. I do apologize. Twitter isn’t meant for actual discussion, I think.

      • chiller says:

        Haaa! Well, if it was you, I’m all the more pleased to be talking to you now.

      • bugbrennan says:

        LOL! You too, have a good one.

  5. Radical Hugger says:

    Please make sure to read through all pages tagged “pretendbian” while you are there.


    Nice shaming tactics.

    • chiller says:

      Will do! Thanks.

      Between reading up on this and fielding the inevitable mansplaining going on via various mediums, I’m busier than I’ve been for a long time.

  6. Thank you for this.

    How do I feel about a word like “Pretendbian”? Guess? Bug says that trans women threaten radfems- “Die, cis scum” and all that, yes, trans women do- and cites a page called “Pretendbian”. That is hate speech.

    So it is difficult for us to get past.

    Also, on “females” organising- do we muscle in? In my experience, I have been several times in women-only spaces, and when there has been objection it has been from one loud and offensive individual. And women generally, lesbians generally, are fine about me being in women-only space- weekend gatherings or changing rooms. So the Radfem objection is not speaking for “Women” but for their own tiny minority with their own hangups.

    Bug gives her list of demands. Well, sorry, but she does not get to make demands. She gets to explain requests- “From my own position of weakness, I just cannot listen if you do X”- but not to make demands.

    And why, when there are so few of us, do the Radfems devote so much mental energy to judging and condemning us? Yes, it is all about us, when you tell us we are tools of patriarchy. It is about individual, hurting, women.

    We do need people in the middle to make a dialogue.

    • chiller says:

      Some of RadFem’s ideas really jibe with me, and say things which, I think, badly need to be said and said as boldly and baldly as they are saying them. I am glad someone is saying those things (and I’m referring here mostly to the way men and women relate to one another and to the lack of space women have in society and the lack of questioning of the patriarchy).

      But there are issues with RadFem which alienate me from the movement in such a way that I cannot embrace it at all, and the way it treats trans women is the biggest of them, and the most readily identified.

      My other discomfort with it is personal: as a woman who has no uterus, I feel excluded by RadFem. To me, it feels like a little club for women who are capable of becoming pregnant. That may not be how it is, but it’s how it feels, to me, as a woman who cannot. Now, fair enough: women who can become pregnant DO need a space to talk about the huge and very particular problems they face, and that MUST happen without it being derailed. I can get behind that and support it.

      What I can’t support is lumping all the things that need to be said on behalf of ANYONE who defines as a woman, and locking them all behind that same closed door with the uteri. What I can’t get behind is hatred and derogation, of trans women and of anyone who disagrees, and of men. What I can’t get behind is the idea that discussing such huge issues behind closed doors is in any way socially helpful to most women, whether they’re equipped with functioning uteri or not. :\ That space needs to exist for biological women facing oppression specifically because of their biology, yes. That that space needs to close doors to women who don’t fit that mould: I don’t understand. Because if that happens you end up with nobody outside that closed circle understanding what those women need. If there are issues with particular activists who seek to derail any such conversation, kick those individuals out.

  7. Sarah says:

    Cathy Brennan says “There are trans women I accept as my friend, colleague, ally, sister.” which sounds an awful lot like “some of my best friends are…” (fill in the dots). It would be great to hear from these trans women who are such good friends of Cathy Brennan. Anyone?

  8. Sarah says:

    Hmm… Thought not.

  9. Brennan does not give a toss about transwomyn being women or female. brennan has intercalated itself into the discussion to argue against trans rights at every opportunity, and then turn around and decry transwomyn as a “sorry about your dick” lark, IGNORE that evil unloved crusty old dyke hater, and MOVE ON. We do NOT need to convince the brennan of ANYTHING, and we CERTAINLY do not need a dialogue, or bridge-building; who really CARES what a fringe hater nutcase thinks?

  10. Rod Fleming says:

    An interesting perspective. Jeffreys et alia in the ‘radfem’ camp do not accept TS/TG people as their self-identified gender.

    To them, being a man or a woman is defined by birth sex: born with a penis, always a man, and men are (to them) the oppressors. So they see the world purely in terms of sex and to them, transpeople form some sort of fifth column trying to debase their sex-based conception of female. This notion is succinctly expressed by Cathy Brennan in her support for the segregation of access to certain spaces to be based on sex and not gender–in other words, that a person presenting and self-identifying as a woman, should use the men’s washroom. A moment’s reflection should be enough to see this for what it is–a blatant attempt to deny the existence of transgenderism as anything other than a cultural practice, as mere crossdressing.

    For Jeffreys et alia, gender is a ‘social construct’. In this they are following the long-since discredited ideas of John Money. This is very much the ‘nurture’ viewpoint, which holds that gender can be determined by peer pressure and socialisation. However, transpeople typically take the completely opposite view and say that their gender is innate–that transwomen were ‘always women’, ‘women trapped in the wrong body’ and so on. This is the ‘nature’ viewpoint and is incompatible with the ‘nurture’ one. Since they cannot afford to have anyone’s gender being innate, because it is an item of faith for them that it is a social construct, Jeffreys et alia then argue that transpeople should be victimised and denied access to medical care, banned from using public spaces appropriate to their gender, discriminated against because of their trans status, and everything that we have become used to hearing from them, all in order to eradicate transpeople completely.

    Jeffreys and those like her would prefer that transpeople be eliminated from society, but if that is unavailable, then they will campaign to prevent them living normal and complete lives. This is like saying ‘it’s ok to be gay as long as you never ever have a relationship with a person of your own gender’. People have a basic human right to a full life untrammelled by the political preconceptions of others and radfems must be opposed when they seek to attack this right, just as we would oppose anyone else.

    We should agree with feminist ideals of equality and absence of gender discrimination, but the ideas of Jeffreys, Brennan and their allies should not be tolerated since they seek to eradicate, or at least render invisible an entire group of humans, who are already disproportionately more discriminated against and subject to violent attack than any other social group including ciswomen. Their ideas clearly qualify as ‘hate-speech’ and they should be denied a platform. This is why we should commend the authorities and Conway Hall, where RadFem2012 was to have been held, for banning it on the grounds of its policy of discrimination.

    • chiller says:

      Agree. I can’t get behind any system which allows person A to police person B’s identity. Or which says issue X is an issue of nature, not nurture for everyone, or issue Y is an issue of nurture not nature for everyone. It just isn’t that black and white. Gender isn’t that black and white. Sex isn’t that black and white. Nature/nurture isn’t that black and white. I wish we all had a lot more gentleness and tolerance for one another, but it ain’t so, is it.

      • Rod Fleming says:

        No unfortunately it ain’t, and I agree with you: shades of grey. Extremists of any persuasion rarely see them.

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