A few weeks after I had published online a critique of the ideology of the trans movement, I was at lunch with a friend who has long been part of various movements for racial, economic, and gender justice and works as a diversity coordinator at a nearby university.
The meeting came on the heels of a local activist bookstore denouncing me in an email to its listserv, which had led to tense conversations with some comrades. At the end of lunch, my friend hesitantly brought up the controversy, and I got ready to hear her critique of my writing. Instead, she leaned forward and said, “I don’t dare say this in public, but I agree with you.”
It was reassuring to know that someone whose work I respected shared my analysis. But it was disheartening to be reminded that a progressive/liberal orthodoxy on trans issues has left many people afraid to speak.
Most people involved in feminist movements know how bitter the trans debate has become, and those of us who identify with radical feminist principles are used to being labeled transphobic TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist), sometimes even accused of supporting a climate of violence against trans people. My goal here is not to assign responsibility for the breakdown of dialogue, but to point out one consequence of this state of affairs: Many people are afraid not only to disagree with the trans movement’s policy positions but even to ask questions about the underlying claims.
I have condensed into a question, a challenge, and a concern what I believe are the most important points in the trans debate.
If the claim of trans people is that they were born into one biological sex category, such as male, but are actually female, what does that mean? Is it a claim that reproduction-based sex categories are an illusion? That one can have a female brain (whatever that means) in a body with male genitalia? That there is a non-material soul that can be of one sex but in the body of the other sex? I struggle to understand what the claim means, and to date I have read no coherent account and am aware of no coherent theory to explain it. (Note: The concerns of a people born intersex are distinct, raising issues different from the trans movement).
If the claim of trans people is that they were socialized into one gender category, such as man/masculinity, but feel constrained by the category or feel more comfortable in the norms of the other category — that I can understand, partly as a result of my own negative experiences with the culture’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms. But those norms are the product of patriarchy, which means we need feminist critiques of patriarchy to escape the gender trap. While some in the trans movement identify as feminists, others embrace traditional gender norms, and in my estimation the movement as a whole does not embrace a feminist critique of institutionalized male dominance.
As one pro-trans writer put it after reviewing the dramatic interventions into the body that happen in sex-reassignment surgery — which involves the destruction of healthy tissue — “It can seem and feel as if one is at war with one’s body.” Is this procedure, along with the use of hormones — including puberty-blockers in children — consistent with an ecological worldview that takes seriously the consequences of dramatic human interventions into organisms and ecosystems? With so little known about the etiology of trans, is the surgical/chemical approach warranted?
I have developed these ideas in more detail in online essays, which I hope people will read and consider, and I am working on a book that puts these issues in the context of a broader critique of patriarchy and the politics of rape/sexualized violence, prostitution/pornography, and trans.
The pornography issue was where I first encountered the splits between radical feminism and liberal/postmodern feminisms; a radical critique of the sex industry, in which men buy or rent objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure, often got one labeled a SWERF (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist), as if a critique of institutionalized male dominance was nothing more than an attack on vulnerable women.
But I continue to believe that a focus on systems of oppression is essential. Since my first exposure to radical feminism in the 1980s, I have been convinced that such feminist intellectual and political projects are crucial not only to the struggle for gender justice but for any kind of decent human future.
Is reasoned and principled argument, within and between movements and political perspectives, possible? In some settings, the answer these days appears to be “no.” For example, when I submitted a piece to a website that had previously published my work, I warned the editors that it was a controversial subject. But they accepted the piece, made a few changes in editing, and posted it online. Within a couple of minutes — so fast that no one would have been able to read the whole article — a reader denounced me as transphobic, and the editors of the site, who had originally thought the piece raised important questions, took it down within a few hours (it was posted later on a different site).
Perhaps if these debates concerned purely personal matters, there would be no compelling reason for a public discussion. But the trans movement has proposed public policies — from opening sex/gender-specific bathrooms and locker rooms to anyone who identifies with that sex/gender, to public funding for surgery and hormone treatments — that require collective decisions. There’s no escape from the need for everyone to reach conclusions, however tentative, about the trans movement’s claims.
The trans movement is, of course, not monolithic, and varying people in it will identify politically in varying ways. But after two years of further conversations, reading, and study, I will reassert the conclusion I reached in the first article I wrote in 2014:
“Transgenderism is a liberal, individualist, medicalized response to the problem of patriarchy’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms. Radical feminism is a radical, structural, politicized response. On the surface, transgenderism may seem to be a more revolutionary approach, but radical feminism offers a deeper critique of the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of patriarchy and a more promising path to liberation.”
One of the most common reactions I’ve had from people in progressive/liberal circles who agree with this statement but mute themselves in public conversations is that, in plain language, they just want to be nice — they fear that any question, challenge, or expression of concern will hurt the feelings of trans people. Sensitivity to others is appropriate, but should it trump attempts to understand an issue? Is it respectful of trans people to not speak about these matters? A couple of months after the lunch described above, I had a conversation with a longtime comrade in feminist and progressive movements, who agreed with my analysis but said that she thought trans people had enough problems and that she didn’t want to seem mean-spirited in raising critical questions.
“So, your solidarity with that movement is based on the belief that the people in the trans community aren’t emotionally equipped to discuss the intellectual and political assertions they make?” I said. “Isn’t that kind of a strange basis for solidarity?” She shrugged, not arguing the point, but sticking to her intention to avoid the question. I understand why, but those who make that choice should remember that avoiding questions does not provide answers.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, 2015). You can contact Robert at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jensenrobertw. Find more of his work at RobertJensen.org.
This piece was originally published in Voice Male Magazine and has been republished with permission.