Why I no longer hate ‘TERFs’

I used to hate so-called TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). I thought they were mean, vicious, horrible people — an affront to feminism, to social justice, and to political purity. They were no better than puppy-kickers and kitten-killers in my mind. But, while I continue to fully embrace my transgender sisters in the fight against patriarchy, I will no longer vilify my feminist sisters who don’t. And beyond its convenience in writing this article, I will no longer use the word “TERF.”

Women are socialized to be caretakers. We learn to put everyone else’s needs before our own and, likewise, we are socialized to believe that everyone else’s oppression is more important than ours — especially the oppression of biological males. The oppression of men of colour by whites, for example, has always been taken more seriously than the oppression of women of colour. Police violence against women of colour receives far less coverage than police violence against men of colour.

In a recent interview, Fay Blaney criticized male leaders in Indigenous communities for failing to address the violence that happens against women in these communities. The most marginalized people in the world are poor women of color, yet progressives seem more concerned with the rights of gay men to marry than they are with confronting the trafficking and exploitation of these women by the multi-billion dollar sex industry. Lesbians were front and center supporting gay men during the AIDS crisis, but gay men could hardly be called “front and centre” when it comes to fighting for reproductive justice for women. Men on the left have a long history of ignoring women’s issues, seeing feminism as “bourgeois” and women’s concerns as unimportant — personal, not political.

Recently Caitlin Jenner was honoured at Glamour’s “Woman of the Year” awards, but Chaz Bono has yet to be nominated as “Man of the Year” by his brothers. The closest he got was a “Person of the Year” award at LA’s gay pride festival. I can only imagine how enthusiastically men would embrace an Esquire or GQ cover proclaiming Chaz Bono “Man of the Year…”

Yet Caitlin Jenner, a conservative Republican and deadbeat dad, who used to hang out at the Playboy Mansion and who can’t even be bothered to support gay marriage (because it’s not “traditional”), is championed by women. We celebrate her even though she supports a political party that seeks to systematically eliminate the reproductive rights of women. But because Jenner is transgender, understood to be a member of an oppressed group (despite her wealth and whiteness), we must consider her feelings and needs above our own. Because that’s what women are socialized to do. Is it impossible to understand why some women might be angry about this?

Females have never been the “default” human — that honor has always gone to males. And now we don’t even get to be the default woman. We are now labeled non-trans or “cis” women. Some trans activists are even claiming it is “cissexist” or “transmisogynist” just to refer to pregnant women as women. The Midwives Association of North America (MANA) will no longer use the term “pregnant woman” because they have been informed this is transphobic. Instead, they will use the term “pregnant person,” because it is now considered bigoted to imply a direct connection between women and pregnancy. So “womanhood” has been erased from the language of midwives in order to protect the feelings of a tiny percentage of the trans community.

It isn’t uncommon for transactivists to take offence to the acknowledgement of us breeders and bleeders. Author and trans activist, Julia Serano, tweeted that “contraception-centric feminism” has been “alienating” for her. Yeah, well, that tweet is pretty alienating to the hundreds of thousands of women who have lost access (or are in danger of losing access) to reproductive freedom over the past few years in the U.S. and to those still struggling for basic rights. I mean, what’s more important? That women have access to abortion and contraceptives or that people who aren’t female don’t feel “alienated?” Another popular genderqueer activist, Laurie Penny, wrote an article for Buzzfeed complaining that feminism’s “focus on women” was “alienating” to the queer community. We are talking about the women’s movement here, aren’t we?

Is it really so unreasonable that many women are offended by their own erasure? What equivalent erasure are men asked to accept in deference to the trans or queer community’s feelings? I can’t think of a single one.

Yes, transwomen deserve to be protected from employment and housing discrimination. Yes, they deserve to be protected from transphobic workplace harassment and referred to by their preferred pronouns. Yes, they deserve to be protected from street harassment and violence. But do they really have the right to demand access to every safe space reserved for women? Should a non-trans woman in prison really be forced to share a prison cell with a pre-op transwoman? (Or vice versa — the danger of having a penis in a women’s prison cuts both ways…) Whose needs come first and why?

Transwomen are not the same as biological women. So what? That’s why they’re called transwomen. Acknowledging that transwomen are different from females does not mean they are less than. What feminists who acknowledge that difference are asking is that the oppression of transwomen not be made more important than the oppression of women-born-women and that we not be asked, yet again, to sit down and shut up.

Two thirds of illiterate adults in the world are women. Ninety eight per cent of sex trafficking victims are women and girls. Every day, 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

Thousands of women around the world are forced to give birth to their rapists’ children, even if the rapist is their father. In 31 states, rapists can sue their impregnated victims for custody or visitation rights. Thanks to dozens of abortion restrictions enacted over the past few years, less than a third of women living in the U.S. have reasonable access to abortion, and women throughout the world are subjected to forced child marriage, dowry murders, and female genital mutilation.

When women of all ethnicities, abilities, and classes are referred to as “privileged” in relation to transwomen — even transwomen who are white and middle or upper class — it feels to many of us as though we are being erased, that the systemic oppression of women, based on sex, is being erased, and that still the default human is someone else. Is that concern really so hateful? So evil? So beyond understanding or empathy?

Many liberal feminists and trans activists say yes. Even in the women’s rights movement, women’s oppression must never be centered.

And yet, I am trans inclusive. Personally, it costs me nothing to embrace the womanhood of transwomen. It’s a cheap and easy way for me to feel morally superior and politically righteous (which, I suspect, is why it’s so popular among the liberal feminist set). Luckily for me, being trans-inclusive and being a radical feminist is perfectly consistent with tradition. Andrea Dworkin, one of the great founding mothers of radical feminism, not only accepted transgender people (they were called transsexual people in the early ’70s), but advocated for free surgery and hormone treatments.

In Woman Hating, she wrote, “… every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her 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.”

Pioneer radical feminist, Catharine MacKinnon, had this to say about transwomen: “Anybody who identifies as a woman, wants to be a woman, is going around being a woman, as far as I’m concerned, is a woman.”

I embrace my transgender sisters, and I refuse to reject them. But I will not reject my so-called “trans-exclusive” sisters either. I will listen and be respectful of their point of view. I will stand with them to dismantle systemic misogyny and I will fight for women’s liberation from our seemingly eternal sub-human status. And if transwomen are smart, they’ll do the same.

Transphobia cannot survive the dismantling of male supremacy. Neither can racism, classism, homophobia, or environmental destruction. Male supremacy is based upon gender extremism, and violence against trans people is committed by gender extremists (not gender abolitionists) who feel seriously threatened by any transgression of the strict gender binary. The same is true of homophobia. Researchers have discovered that sexism, racism, and classism all result from the same mental processes:

“Sexist people accept hierarchies and social inequality, they believe that different social groups have a status that they deserve and they feel that the social class to which they belong is the best.”

Male supremacy is destroying the planet. Under systems of male domination, women lose the freedom to control their reproductive lives. When women have the power to choose, they choose to have fewer children. Overpopulation puts an enormous strain on the Earth’s resources, contributing to famine, mass migration, deforestation, and climate change. Male supremacist societies are also more violent and likely to engage in warfare, which exacts a horrific (and potentially fatal) toll on the planet.

No more “might makes right” or the mindless confusion of violence with strength. No more “death is glorious and birth is disgusting” or “women are meat and men must eat.” No more promoting the hideous lie that some humans are born more valuable than others.

As Winona LaDuke said, “We don’t want a bigger piece of the patriarchal pie. We want a new pie.”

So you see, my trans sisters, when you assert your womanhood, what feminists really want to know is if you’re here to maintain the status quo or to change it. Because the status quo isn’t working too well for most of us. It’s hurting us. Women are still treated like shit. And unlike liberal feminists, we’re not interested in spraying the shit with perfume and calling it a flower bed. We’ve come with shovels and we want the shit gone. Will you shovel along with us? Will you march with us for reproductive freedom? Will you lobby for universal pre-k and paid parental leave? We need those things. Will you fight with us against the idea that there is such a thing as a “lady brain” and that it’s “naturally” pink and fluffy and emotional and drawn to makeup and restrictive — but sexy — clothing? Will you fight with us against women’s sexual objectification? Will you take a stand against sex trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women and girls? Or will your transition serve to reinforce those injustices? Do you come to womanhood offering support or just to make demands?

These are not unreasonable concerns. Women matter. Whether you help women or hurt women matters. If targeting a folk music festival or suing a women’s rape shelter is more important to you than dismantling male supremacy, you can’t really blame some women for questioning how well you’ve overcome your male socialization. Blaming women for anti-trans violence, which is committed almost exclusively by males, isn’t helpful either…

Whether or not we can work together depends on our collective political and ideological goals. We want to liberate women from patriarchy and transform the world  — do you?

Penny White is a radical feminist freelance writer living in San Francisco. She has a master’s degree in psychology with an emphasis on childhood sexual trauma, and has worked for over 10 years as a case manager/peer counselor for mentally ill people living in poverty. Penny is currently a volunteer at The Gubbio Project in San Francisco, which serves people of all ages and abilities who have no homes. Follow her @kindsoftheart.

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