Trigger warning: discussion of transphobia, sexual violence and murder; exploration of “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” ideology
On the 20th of November, trans people will light candles and read the names of the people in our community that have been murdered. Last year we heard names like Evon Young, a 23 year old that was taken into a basement, choked with a chain and beaten with tools until they died, and an unnamed 13 year old child that was strangled to death. This is a world in which 63% of trans people have experienced some form of serious discrimination (including but not limited to eviction, physical assault and sexual assault) and 51% of UK trans students say they have seriously considered dropping out of their studies.
With this in mind, I was greatly upset to read Elsa Field’s piece in the St. John’s College (SJC) Gender Equality Festival Zine (entitled “What is a woman? In defence of a Radical Future”). The article is typified by two statements. First, it is telling that the article opens with a defence of FemiFest (http://www.femifest2014.com/about/4582419922), a trans exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) event which included three of the most prominent transmisogynists around today. Perhaps the worst of the line-up was the ‘academic’ Janice Raymond, author of “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male” in which she claims that “all transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artefact, appropriating this body for themselves …. Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive”. With her was Germaine Greer, who called trans women “a ghastly parody” of women with “too much eyeshadow”, and Julie Bindel, author of the infamous “shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man” quote. By platforming transmisogynists, Field immediately aligned herself with the people that uphold institutionalised transphobia. Secondly, the article is typified by her complaint that “radical” feminists shouldn’t have to face no-platforming because they “challenge the view that a man who has his penis surgically removed has become a woman”. This statement reveals a number of myths about trans women such as that they all go through surgery, that trans women aren’t women until they have genital reassignment surgery, or that all designated male at birth trans folks identify solely as women. Moreover, the violence enacted through the intentional misgendering of the abstract trans woman (who is not a man) given contributes to the wider dismissal of transphobia, and specifically the gendered aspect of trans-related violence – note for instance that the majority of the names we heard on the Trans Day of Remembrance names women of colour.
What is most damaging about Field’s piece is the section on the science of gender where she asks “how can a child of 12, who thinks they are transgender because they display non-gender normative behaviours, possibly understand enough about the complexity of our society to warrant taking puberty blocking drugs?”. It is tempting to dismiss this statement as simply factually incorrect – a Dutch study (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2014/09/02/peds.2013-2958.abstract#__utma=149406063.23235221.1413722672.1413727086.1413744686.3&__utmb=149406063.1.10.1413744686&__utmc=149406063&__utmx=-&__utmz=149406063.1413744686.3.2.utmcsr=google|utmccn=%28organic%29|utmcmd=organic|utmctr=%28not%20provided%29&__utmv=-&__utmk=164010431) of earlier this year found that psychological functioning in trans youth “steadily improved” in those that took blockers. However, the arrogance displayed by Field in thinking that she knows more about someone’s gender than they themselves do (particularly when children often understand the social construction of gender better than adults) feeds into a healthcare system that removes autonomy from trans people and allows our bodies to be controlled by cisgender gatekeepers. Indeed, it is telling that she so idolises Janice Raymond, who in addition to “The Transsexual Empire…” wrote a paper for the US government that advocated the limiting of trans-related healthcare services and is the reason why it was only in May this year that hormones were first given in the US under Medicare, and is why Medicaid and most insurance policies still don’t provide hormones for trans people. It is also important to be clear that the denial of healthcare to trans people is violence – study after study has shown that happiness greatly increases following transition, and considering the combined facts that 19% of trans people are denied health care and 41% have attempted suicide, this can have a life-changing effect. If Elsa Field truly thinks that denying trans people healthcare is a radical act, then I would point her to Andrea Dworkin, who said that “every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her (sic) own terms. That means every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions”.
The crux of Field’s essay comes down to a confused notion of gender abolition – the idea that if we just got rid of gender, there would be no sexism. The problem with this is not only that gender is never accurately defined (and indeed when it is so socially constructed and bound up in the irreducibility of culture, I doubt it ever can be), but also that there is a huge conflation of gender and gender roles. Trans people, just like cis people, internalise social pressures to perform gender, which makes the problem not trans identities, but gender roles. Indeed, Field mentions time after time how conformist trans women are, but forgets that every day we go out into the streets we face threats of violence because we are undermining people’s assumptions about gender roles in society, because we are deconstructing the rigidity of the gender binary – a concept that Field ironically clings to when reducing our bodies down to our genitals.
It is such a shame that this was published in the SJCs Gender Equality Festival Zine, an incredibly diverse and open festival. It is a credit to the rest of the committee that they have taken such swift action in publicly decrying this hateful, bigoted piece, and I hope this one deeply transphobic piece doesn’t take away from the rest of the week. However, considering this piece was meant to be in a zine encouraging equality, it is now the time to talk about whether we should be giving a platform to TERFs in our spaces. This is not an argument between equal parties; TERFs command huge sway in the wider feminist community whilst trans activists face discrimination at every turn. Providing these so-called “radical” feminists with a space to spread their literally deadly lies should be fought against wherever it springs up, and I would strongly recommend any policy that no-platforms transphobes.
(All statistics from the NUS research “Education Beyond the Straight and Narrow” (2014) (http://www.nus.org.uk/Global/lgbt-research.pdf) or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force research “Injustice at Every Turn” (2011) (http://www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf) )