(The first part of this series can be found here.)
I experienced considerable difficulty in starting part 2 of this series. It’s not that there weren’t sufficient provocations. Indeed, the deplorable attempt by TERFs within the Labour Party to fundraise tens of thousands of pounds to exclude trans women from All-Women Shortlists, in their most recently vicious manoeuvre, would be surprising if it weren’t so consistent with their political history of exclusion and division. The malice feels at once acute and debilitating: perhaps the barriers I felt in composing this were raised instead by too many provocations, too much anger, too much hurt and doubt and despondency. One can become disoriented, spent, emptied-out. It’s not as if trans people don’t have enough enemies, after all. That we have to fight so hard against our supposed comrades, as much as wider society, is a bitter truth to process.
I think I didn’t want to have to confront it – the scale of the betrayal, the insidiousness of it, the numbing and brutal predictability of it, how it cascades in shards of personal memories of abuse and harassment from women and men alike, from those who urged it on, participated in it, cheered it, and I laughed along in shame; how shame can sear, how deeply it is etched in my overcompensations and insecurities, how these wounds will not close, how I am the wound, how it festers, how far this poison has seeped, how it clings, how it consumes, how I consume that which is not mine, how I have corrupted, how I embody corruption, how I am a dissimulation writhing on the jagged edges of the relics I have stolen from the gatekept sanctuary of womanhood, how faithless and treacherous and grotesque I am. In part, it’s the pain – in another instance, it’s the vitriol I’ve internalized, that to commit this to paper is to sin, to capitulate to narcissism, to uphold some deleterious distortion and ruse.
These are dark, rotten roads, phantoms of brigands silhouetted by the stained glass windows of churches, storms billowing around us, maps disfigured, marshes gripping upon enervated limbs, some of those we locked arms with against the ranks of evangelical pro-lifers perhaps now residing with them. I recall that day we fought together in the rain. I remember bleeding as the cops pushed us back, how we waited all night in yet another harrowing police station for a comrade’s release. The hailstones sting. The shards of glass are serrated and sharp. The thickets feel impenetrable, lunging out to embroil and bedevil us from the most intimate of recesses, from corners we hoped might be safe, might finally be ours. Our guard is always raised, respite seemingly impossible. I suppose, as always, part of my reason for writing this piece is to attempt to wade through the thorns, to finally settle the din, even if the echo (‘what if they are right?’) continues; to seek out some peace or closure, piercing through that which otherwise seems impassable and irrevocably tangled.
The reflections above are not composed as such simply because of a penchant for the fantastical in grappling with malaise and turmoil. Indeed, these are the frames in which we are rendered – our identities abstracted to reactionary phantasms to be exhibited, debated, interrogated, abhorred, exorcised. In the words of Janice Raymond, one of the seminal theorists of TERF ideology, transness is to be ‘morally mandated out of existence’. The pernicious tropes casting trans women as interlopers, rapists and predators in disguise are not simply conjured by a callous press and Government, but by some of the very people ostensibly committed to contesting gendered oppression. This demonization, mercilessly invoked and reverberated across the political spectrum, is absolutely fundamental to the normalization and sanctioning of widespread violence against us.
Indeed, so-called ‘radical feminists’ not only ideologically collaborate with the right in conspiring against trans rights, but indeed have even actively united with elements of the Christian right – who they might otherwise be facing off against on pro-life demonstrations – to campaign against legal protections for trans people. The extent and insidiousness of anti-trans politics is herein exposed: TERFs will willingly align with some of the most extreme perpetrators of women’s oppression, those attempting to inhibit access to abortions and thus reinforce state and religious control over women’s bodies, as long as it serves an anti-trans cause. Now, in the Labour Party, feminists are fundraising to utilize the courts – which they might in other contexts legitimately critique as bourgeois gatekeepers of the status quo that routinely fail victims of gendered violence – to actively exclude trans women from political representation. Not only should we recognize the gravity of what is at stake here – access to political and public life for trans people – we should also recognize the vindictive political hypocrisy and disingenuousness present.
The rampant transphobia levelled upon us by the dominant conservative structures of society is thus supplemented by internal threats to our rights from the orthodox feminist left. Our sense of isolation, alienation and distress is amplified manifold by the sheer multiplicity of the attacks waged against us from all spheres. The insidiousness of TERF ideology is thus not simply rooted in its sense of betrayal, wherein vicious anti-trans politics can be legitimized under the guise of a progressive defence of women’s rights, but also the iniquitous political context it inflames and draws its energy from. We can understand TERF ideology as a significant and foundational contributor to a cultural framework of prejudice against trans people. As feminist academics, they occupy a very specific cultural position, and not only veil vulgar prejudice in a veneer of intellectual expertise, but indeed have directly innovated many of the cultural currents and traditions that inform prevailing anti-trans discrimination. Though this terrain is thankfully shifting, much of the history of feminist thought itself has too been moulded by their work – and many of these academics have significant cultural platforms in institutions like the Guardian to proliferate their bigotry (something, perhaps, to consider when imputations of no-platforming are invoked). Many of the Christian right rely and draw upon the very theory that their traditional feminist enemies developed to advance their own cause. Far from being marginal in their influence, a charge through which the left oft falls into complacency around trans rights, the TERF’s capacity to fundraise tens of thousands of pounds on the left to further their own ends and their historical ideological and political role in current conflicts must be addressed with due seriousness.
The historical tactical repertoire of TERFs, alongside their ideological foundations, should also be interrogated. Doxing, outing of trans women publicly to employers, political and physical intimidation, physical gatekeeping over political spaces, public humiliation of trans peoples’ bodies, disruption of trans organizing, bullying and abuse, slander and misinformation etc, are all methods deployed by TERFs to pursue their bigoted aims. Far from the common understanding that TERFs are removed from violence and just seek out abstract ‘debate’ (a charge we need always be wary of in the antagonisms it glosses over and the sheer virulence of views it has come to extenuate) – they have operated and continue to operate through violence. They have furthered not only dire emotional persecution against trans people – which, in the egregious statistics around mental health and suicide for trans people, should be understood as having very material effects – but have actively sought to materially harm some of the most vulnerable women in society in the ostensible name of women’s rights. TERFs have been absolutely integral to forming and stoking the dominant narrative that women and trans rights are necessarily in conflict, an artificial division which has done immense damage to the very working class unity and gendered emancipation that TERFs claim to so rigorously pursue. We underestimate their influence at our peril – the charge that those who have been forcibly denied access to femininity all our lives are undermining other women is immensely damaging.
Trans people are indeed blamed for patriarchy by TERFs, which obfuscates its actual structural mechanics. We must not adopt a solely morally oppositional stance to TERF politics – though that is important – but reckon with the fact that TERFs are also bolstering some of the very same conservative and religious forces that seek to dispossess all women of rights, that their historical tactics are rooted in methods of intimidation not dissimilar to the far-right, and that the deficiency of their analysis mystifies and undermines the cause of overcoming gendered oppression in its entirety. The idea that TERFs defend women’s rights – whilst gatekeeping and wresting away the very spaces and communities that vulnerable and poor trans women have been dispossessed of access to all their lives, thereby perpetuating immense structural harms against them – is ultimately, even on its own terms, a fabrication, for their politics actively derail the left’s activities in reactionary directions.
It perhaps would be useful here to delineate some of the specifics of the arguments of TERFs, so as to more precisely deconstruct their flaws. Much of their ideology is inherited from the currents of thought generated in the second-wave of feminism, wherein women are conceptually constituted as a ‘sex class’ subordinated to men through control over their reproductive capabilities. There is much to learn from this analysis, particularly in its incorporation of class politics into otherwise liberal strands of feminism, positing gender and class not as disconnected, abstract categories but mutually constituted systems of domination, wherein one’s gender is fundamentally implicated in our relationship with the state and divisions of labour. However, this conception of society often comes into tension with the understandings of third-wave feminism due to its lapses into biological essentialism – the idea that gender is rooted in, and determined by, necessarily binary, static biological characteristics as manifested in one’s anatomy and chromosomes (etc). Thus whilst the second-wave of feminism demanded an abolition of gender roles, it also agitated for this within a theoretical framework that promoted the notion of innate, dimorphic biological differences between men and women as the basis of oppression.
This is at the root of much transmisogyny – the pernicious idea that trans women are ‘biologically male’, and so necessarily oppressive, thus only ‘acting’ as women on a whim, so as to infiltrate, disrupt and prey upon women’s spaces under false pretexts. Trans women, TERFs posit, appropriate the female form and defile women’s spaces as ‘men in disguise’, contorting the sanctified category of womanhood into mere performance. Gendered oppression, in their estimation, is rooted solely in biology, with women’s reproductive function the fundamental site of social and economic control – and so those who did not grow up with a womb cannot truly understand the lived experience, vulnerabilities and pangs of womanhood; that trans women have been ‘socialized’ as men and are thus haunted by the spectre of male privilege. In effect, they believe trans women are not ‘real’ women, but only masquerading as such – the charge we hear on repeat in the static of relentless media bigotry.
Quite apart from their overt bigotry, and the more practical arguments to combat these claims – one might point to the erasure of intersex people and even infertile women in this analysis, that trans women are transitioning earlier and earlier in their lives, that it disregards the horrific lived experiences and oppression of non-binary people – there is also a number of glaring theoretical flaws here. Primary among these, I think, is the naturalization of a reality of gendered oppression: physical and biological differences are upheld as an intrinsic fact from which oppression necessarily flows. We should be wary of this gesture because it is how oppressors themselves have justified the enactment of oppression throughout history: that is to say, domination is rendered acceptable by recourse to the argument that a specific arrangement of power is bounded by realities that are ‘natural’ and thus immutable (the abuse of lesbian and gay people under the logic of ‘nature’ being a relevant and harrowing parallel here). Indeed, TERFs often level very worrying arguments on these very grounds – for example, prohibiting women from their spaces because they do not ‘look’ or ‘speak’ like ‘women’, defining women by their anatomy when this is exactly what they might otherwise critique in the patriarchal objectification of women’s bodies, or exalting reproductive properties such that roles of motherhood or nurturance that feminists have traditionally questioned as sites of subservience instead become naturalized. For those who denigrate trans people for upholding stereotypical ideals of gender, this seems oddly like a form of politics designed to preserve the very gendered norms they purport to want to dismantle.
‘Gender is a social construct’ is a common retort to TERF arguments – however, this can omit detail, and is something in the abstract, at least, that TERFs might also subscribe to. It speaks to the notion that the ideas of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are not biologically but in fact artificially produced through a set of cultural norms and a compulsion to undertake specific behaviours and roles: thus being an inverse of the argument made by some seminal radical feminist theorists. The rhetoric of gender not only as a construct but as a performance has been popularized by third-wave feminism, and there is much to be said of this argument, especially as it contests the notion that trans women ‘perform’ femininity and instead posits that gender is always performative. This is, indeed, where I think we can usefully reconcile the ideas of second- and third-wave feminism: the cultural cues of gender that are imposed on us, as rituals we must adopt and perform at risk of social punishment or economic dispossession, are formed so as to functionalise specific roles within a gendered division of labour. Rather than being a biological fact in which men unilaterally command power over women, gender is constituted by our social and material conditions – by our relationship to society, to the state and its institutions, and to a means of production wherein reproductive labour is appropriated through its feminization. Economic exploitation and social oppression are intrinsically interrelated and mutually reinforcing, and must be overcome together.
This, I think, is where we can dispel the argument common amongst TERFs that gender identity is individualist, neo-liberal or a post-modernist distraction – instead it is the politics of gender identity that, deployed correctly, can help enable us to upend the artificial social divisions through which exploitation is upheld and social identity itself formed. Far from the accusation TERFs often level that the politics of gender identity seeks to preserve gendered norms, it instead is an attempt to reckon with a world in which gender is deeply etched, to resist, disturb and experiment with the rigid classifications that underpin our social reality. Indeed, TERF’s insistence on excluding trans women from their spaces and politics to gatekeep a sacrosanct womanhood speaks to the very instinct they warn against: the ossification of artificial social categories through the homogenization of a uniform experience of ‘womanhood’, mobilized again and again to dispossess the most marginalized women from political organizing, to divide us along lines of race, sexuality, class etc.
Indeed, to relate politics to the personal, to our everyday lived circumstances, is not to repudiate collectivism, but instead to acknowledge the cultural realities that inform the mechanisms of exploitation we endure, and to emphasise the importance of cultural affirmation to the sustenance and horizons of emancipatory activity. It is not to propose individual adjustment or a fetishization of personal feeling (though that impulse does of course exist on the left, and is a much wider phenomenon that should not be blamed on trans people) but rather to reckon with a fundamental question of the kinds of social lives we wish to lead, the kinds of ideals and ends we strive towards. TERF ridicule of trans people as coddled and delusional should be understood in the context of a fatalism where we are completely determined by fixed social realities and not agents within them.
Indeed, there is much potential, and perhaps common ground, to be found in examining gender identity in the context of our relationship to reproduction: to recognize how transness is implicated in our material conditions and thus how gender more broadly is implicated in class relations. The traditional class analysis of reproductive labour, whilst significant, is particularly heteronormative, relying conceptually upon the nuclear family and the invisibilisation, privatisation and appropriation of domestic labour to replenish labour power therein. Transness (and indeed queerness) is often defined by a fraught relationship to this reproductive unit, such that even the indirect fruits of wage labour are not enjoyed as we become estranged from oppressive families. Our transness renders our relationship to labour precarious, often contingent on self-mutilation, as we toil in poor conditions in feminized service sector work, become criminalized in sex work, or are forced to languish in destitution and unemployment. We are derided and punished at the Job Centre, compelled to perform ruses to even access the most basic subsistence to reproduce ourselves, with sanctions commonplace. We are harassed on the street and at work and in the home, subject to gendered abuse and sexual violence in disproportionate numbers, social violence an ever looming shadow across our lives. We are denied healthcare, forced to submit to degrading and cumbersome bureaucratic processes to realize our bodily autonomy. Prisons and police discipline and abuse us as if we are abominations.
This, then, should not sound unfamiliar – state control over our bodies, street, workplace and domestic abuse and intimidation, material devaluation of labour – all these structural forces impact the lives of trans people and cis women in a similar fashion. Though no trans person would ever deny that women’s oppression is, in significant part, historically rooted in attempts to control biological reproduction, to maintain this is the sole source of gendered oppression is to myopically restrict liberatory praxis. It not only disregards the myriad experiences of vulnerable women and trans people but also poses a limited understanding of the exploitative relations undergirding the totality of reproductive processes in society. There is more space for unity than we might imagine, and though TERFs might brand trans people as their enemies, turning against us only does harm to their cause, to the whole cause of confronting the multifaceted oppression of class society. The idea that our rights are in competitive tension with one another, that trans rights must necessarily be at the expense of women’s rights, simply plays into the reactionary narratives that pit us against one another, fracture common cause, preserve social hierarchies and the zero-sum, bitter deceit that similarly marginalized groups are to blame for our conditions, misunderstand the interdependence of our struggles, and draw our gaze away from our common enemies of the state and the ruling class.
There is, as always, reason for hope. The attempts to exclude trans women from All-Women Shortlists have been officially – if not politically – overturned, with many Labour MPs and the NEC declaring that trans women can stand for women’s places regardless of GRC status. Without an active integration of trans politics into a revolutionary analysis, we not only neglect the pursuit of justice for trans people so habitually persecuted by society, but fail to grasp the complete dynamics of gendered oppression that affect and are propped up by us all. With a deficient analysis of how exploitation and oppression operate in class society, we will not be able to strategize, organize and act effectively to confront its complex mechanics. Indeed, this is a question of fundamentally respecting and defending the humanity of a marginalized people who suffer intense violence in society. Bigotry has no place in our feminism – and though the path toward emancipation is always an arduous one, the landscape is indeed shifting, and the ranks of those forging through the foliage swelling. Sometimes I struggle to see past the briars to the glade beyond, but I never waver in knowing that it will be beautiful, that there are worlds here – within us, amongst us – aching to be realized, dreams blossoming despite the tempests they invite.