I’m a cisgendered radical feminist. I’m not transphobic.
For some people, those two sentences are just incompatible. I was slightly hurt (yeah, call me butthurt) when a friend made reference on her blog to “the transphobic feminists,” as though we’re all one hive mind. But from time to time, I see why.
So today’s facepalm of the day goes to Sheila Jeffreys, for this article
on the Radfem Hub. Now, I don’t have 38 years experience as a radical feminist, largely because I’m not yet 38 years old, but here’s why I disagree so strongly with her.
She argues that trans* people are targeted as children, that once a small child steps outside the pink / blue gender boundaries delineated for them at birth, a cackling horde of transactivists in white coats are ready to pounce and forcibly realign them into the opposite gender in order to keep the gender boundary alive. She compares the existence of transgendered people to the forced sterilisation of “unfit persons” in the first half of the twentieth century, the majority of whom were of course women.
She offers three strands to support this assertion: the forces which create the practice, the choice of victims and the removal of reproductive activity.
This of course ignores the most important dissimilarity: choice.
The force which creates, if creates is the right word, transgendered people, are those people themselves. Jeffreys suggests that
"Those who do not conform to gender rules, and homosexuals, are surgically reconstructed to fit in."
Really? Because last time I wandered down Canal Street, there were plenty of homosexuals who were not being surgically reconstructed. As a lesbian there has never been any sort of pressure on me to transition – and the statistics make such a proposition ludicrous: if Jeffreys were right, then the proportion of gay men and women transitioning would be much, much higher.
She goes on to say that "Any challenge to the idea of gender threatens the main justification for the subordination of women."
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. But if we take the premise that transgenderism occurs to keep alive the male-dominated system of male supremacy / female submission, then how do we explain MTF transition (which doesn’t really feature in her article.) How about the genderqueers? What of the transwomen who ID as butch, or the “trannyfag” phenomenon of the deliberately effeminate gay transman? Transgendered people are not as binary as Jeffreys likes to think, and if she were right that the system is created by and for binary-obsessed cis men, there would be no room for these people. But there clearly is.
Where else do we go with the comparison between trans* and forced sterilisation? Ah, that’s right, "a similar set of victims, lesbians and gay men."
I see no evidence, and Jeffreys offers none, to suggest that lesbians and gay men are more likely to be trans* than straight or bisexual men and women. (It’s also discordant with her final point, discussed below, which is that very small children are ‘targeted’ for treatment. As many gay and bisexual people can tell her, children are presumed to be heterosexual.)
All this is a form of eugenics, she argues, forced onto boys, girls, men and women who put a foot outside the narrow gender boundaries of our society: "Another similarity lies in the result of transgenderism, i.e. the removal of reproductive capacity."
This will come as news to Thomas Beatie, the transman who recently gave birth to his third child, or to the trans women who have stored sperm in anticipation of reproductive urges in the future. Many trans people opt not to have surgery, or make arrangements for the storage of eggs or sperm for the future. The idea that being trans equals “the removal of reproductive capacity” is as risible as the once-common theory that gay men and women “couldn’t” have children.
Jeffrys argues that the element of choice which distinguishes trans* identity further than anything else (and let’s face it, there’s plenty) from eugenics is a fallacy. We’re familiar with the fallacy of choice (will you be a working mother or a stay at home mum? presumes that you will be a mother at all, for example, and likewise the “choice” to do something harmful may not be a choice freely made; if society says you’re only sexy in painful heels, how free is your choice to wear them?). Jeffreys places the choice to transition in this latter category: "the offer by the medical profession of in [sic] the present of transgenderism as a cure for the extreme psychological distress that those who suffer anxieties created by the gender system can experience can be seen as an inducement that negates the idea that the practice is freely chosen."
However, this is simply to ignore two things: firstly, it is jolly hard to transition, and the medical profession certainly doesn’t “offer” it around to anybody experiencing “anxiety.” It is a process initiated by the patient, not by the doctor. Indeed, the experiences of trans people (presumably Jeffreys felt little need to actually consult any for her article) described on blogs and websites would suggest that doctors are very reluctant to diagnose gender dysphoria. Secondly, to conflate “anxiety” over the gender system with gender dysphoria is to conflate two very different things.
I was not a frilly child. I can confidently say that there have been stage of my life where I “suffered anxieties created by the gender system.” (I wrote terribly angsty poetry about it as a teenager. I’ll spare you those.) I’ve never once doubted that I am a woman. Julie Bindel, something of an acolyte of Jeffreys, has suggested that her own childhood reluctance to play dolls and wear pink would get her forcibly gender-reassigned these days, and Jeffrey’s article echoes this in her concern for the children: "In the UK in 2011 the government agreed to an experiment in which puberty blockers will be administered to children identified as failing to conform to the rules of gender from 12 years old."
She goes on to say that administering puberty blockers to children is to negate consent, as the children are too young to give informed consent.
However, unlike Jeffreys and Bindel, I don’t believe that my experience of being a non-frilly girl is exactly the same as every unfrilly girl’s experience and that the experience of a transboy is the same as that of an unfrilly girl. Despite the pinkification of girls, there is clearly plenty of room for tomboys and for sporty girls, girls in jeans, girls in science, girls with ambition, girls with short hair, and girls who stretch the gender boundaries in every other way, and as a society we are slowly becoming more accepting of boys who are unboyish.
The haircuts and the clothes and the toys and the interests are all, I believe, fripperies. These are a manifestation only of our conscious gender: I am a girl; girls like pink; I like pink. If girls were meant to love green, pink wouldn’t get a look-in. If young girls were being ‘forced’ to transition because they fail to meet the expectations of conscious gender, I would agree that this is a dreadful thing.
But I prefer Julia Serrano’s definition of ‘subconscious’ gender, a more abstract part of us which (regardless of the conscious gender-specifications of the day) tells us what our gender is. There must, I think, be such a thing; otherwise, how to explain the case of David Reimer? Why else would more effeminate gay men not transition, and more butch women? I might not be a frilly girl (what I’ve described in the past as gendermeh) but my subconscious gender is female. I can entertain the thought that other people’s subconscious gender does not match their assigned gender. It’s not my experience, but my experience is not universal.
One quick word on Jeffrey’s point that “puberty blockers will be administered to children identified as failing to conform to the rules of gender from 12 years old.”
This, no doubt deliberately, suggests that children will be identified by shadowy authorities and compelled to have gender reassignment. That is not true. It’s exceptionally rare and will only be done for children who have expressed gender dysphoria at a very young age, and simply delays puberty. This “targeting the children” concern trolling was nonsense when it was applied to homosexuals in the 1980s and it’s nonsense now. I’ll also point out that children at 12 are generally considered capable of giving informed consent to other medical procedures.
There is, I’ll concede, room for feminist debate about transgender issues. Why should “living as a woman” mean some sort of 1950s housewife role in make-up and skirts, would be one such question. What constitutes “a woman” for the purposes of women only space is always a fun one (where by ‘fun’ I mean ‘generally futile.’) There are plenty more. I'd love to have those discussions without first having to argue about whether trans* people exist: that ship, my friends, has sailed.
I think it’s pretty clear that transitioning, contrary to Jeffrey’s views, is led by the individual not by the medical profession. If she were right, and medics were pushing a diagnosis of gender dysphoria onto those who were not dysphoric as punishment for disregarding conscious gender boundaries, then there would be a) more than one clinic treating kids, b) many more clinics for adults and c) a lot of very unhappy post-transition people suing the shirt off the charlatan who diagnosed them. There aren’t. That means that the decision to transition is a “choice” at least insofar as it’s patient-led not medic-led. In other words, to respect the identity of a trans* person is to respect their autonomy. And as far as I’m concerned, the most radical thing a rad fem can do and can call for, is respect for the autonomy of other women, not denial of it.[Postscript: it occurs to me that this post could potentially be seen as just as problematic as Jeffreys' one, in terms of being a "here is my view on someone else's identity" post. I wrote it because I think it's important that cis people challenge other cis people's views, in the same way that it's important that men challenge misogyny and straight people challenge homophobia. I hope it's come across in the way it was intended.]