‘We need to be braver’ — women challenge ‘gender identity’ and the silencing of feminist discourse

gender-identityWomen who challenge discourse around “gender identity” have been largely isolated on the front lines for the past decade. Liberal feminists and progressives have chosen identity politics over feminism many times over and this is no exception. Those who are not invested in women’s liberation are well aware that the power they seek cannot be gained from supporting the independent women’s movement, and most haven’t bothered to think hard enough about the roots of patriarchy to understand what it is we are fighting in the first place. But even many of those whose politics are otherwise rooted radical feminist principles have felt afraid to publicly question the dogma of gender identity discourse. We are only too aware that refusing to accept and parrot back commonly accepted mantras places you on the wrong end of a modern witch hunt.

I don’t deny that I felt afraid, for many years, to take a firm position on discourse surrounding gender identity and trans politics, despite my opinion that women-only space and organizing is central to the feminist movement and to supporting women recovering from male violence.

In fact, for many years, I wasn’t quite sure what my position was, and worried that speaking out against the naturalizing of sexist gender roles that has come hand in hand with support for what is called “trans rights” would distract from my fight against the sex industry and violence against women. Punishments for questioning trans politics include losing one’s job, censorship, blacklisting, being physically and otherwise threatened and attacked by transactivists, and social ostracization — all things that prevent women from speaking out. (I have suffered many of these punishments already, of course, for failing to toe the party line and for allying with women labelled “TERF” or “transphobic.”)

We live in a time wherein basic feminist ideas have become unspeakable, while anti-feminist slurs and smears are widely accepted and even celebrated by those who claim to be social justice activists and progressives.

Regardless of the risks, I cannot, in good faith, support the neoliberal, individualistic notion of “gender identity”  — not as a feminist who understands how patriarchy came to be and continues to prevail or as a leftist who understands how systems of power work. I do not wish to be silent in the face of regressive and anti-feminist discourse, because I know that my silence does not help empower other women to speak out. I do not wish to abandon my sisters who have already suffered immensely for speaking out.

In July, a conference organized by Julia Long took place at Conway Hall in London, England — the aim was to question the unquestionable. Thinking Differently: Feminists Questioning Gender Politics featured feminist speakers such as Sheila Jeffreys, Lierre Keith, Julie Bindel, Stephanie Davies-Arai, Mary Lou Singleton, Jackie Mearns, Magdalen Berns, and Long herself. They discussed the silencing of feminist speech that has been taking place across the UK (and beyond), as well as the impact of trans discourse on the ongoing fight for women’s rights and towards women’s liberation from patriarchy. Video recordings of the talks were released just last week.

Sheila Jeffreys argues, in her talk, that “transgenderism is an invention that is socially and politically constructed,” and that, rather than being innate, exists in direct connection to the forces of power that exist in a heteropatriarchal society.

Jeffreys connects the notion of “gender identity” to American neoliberalism in that it is, of course, a very individualistic notion, but also in the way that it connects to capitalism and the cash cow that transgenderism is for Big Pharma, gender identity therapists and clinics, and cosmetic surgeons. It seems odd to discuss gender identity outside the context of capitalism, considering the way “identity” and “expression” is so connected, in modern society, to consumerism. Femininity itself has been marketed to women for decades in an entirely sexist way, yet suddenly we are expected to accept things like cosmetics as “empowering” because men claim it as part of their feminized “gender expression.”

In fact, Jeffreys suggests feminists drop the term “gender” entirely. She says instead, “We need to talk about sex class or sex caste” as “gender” has become meaningless and conflated with biological sex.

As feminists, what we really are doing is working towards an end to gender — a thing that was invented and imposed in order to naturalize the sex class hierarchy that positions men as dominant and women as subordinate. One has to ask how progressive it is, from a feminist perspective, to accept the notion that gender is both real and innate — a thing that one can be born with, as this is precisely the tactic used historically by men to defend the idea that women should not be permitted to vote, work outside the home, or hold positions of power in society. Women were constructed as naturally “feminine,” which meant we were too emotional, irrational, and weak to engage in the public sphere as men did. Men, by contrast, were said to be more suited for public office and to hold positions of power as they were innately assertive, rational, unemotional, and tough.

Are we, as feminists (and as a society) really comfortable moving backwards in this way, by accepting gender roles (which exist only to naturalize and enforce sexism) as innate rather than socially constructed?

“Cis” is another term that has been adopted by those who wish to see themselves or present themselves as progressive but that is rejected by radical feminists. “Cis,” we are told, means “a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex.” Therefore, a “cis woman” would be a woman who identifies with femininity, which I most certainly do not, nor do many other women. I reject the notion of femininity and I therefore reject the notion that women who have femininity imposed on them are either privileged or are naturally inclined towards their subordinate status. “Cis” is a regressive term, as it pretends as though women somehow identify with their own oppression. Nonetheless, women who reject the term are labelled “transphobic” — yet another way feminist speech is shut down and the general questioning of gender politics is disallowed.

Like Jeffreys, Lierre Keith connects the concept of gender identity to liberalism, pointing out in her talk that radicals understand that “society is organized by concrete systems of power, not by thoughts and ideas.” Therefore, she says, “the solution to oppression is to take those systems apart.” She points out that racism was reinforced through propaganda that said black people were naturally inferior, in the same way women and the lower classes were said to simply have different (inferior) brains, effectively naturalizing inequality. Gender, like class and race, is not a binary, Keith says, but a hierarchy.

Keith knows as well as anyone how scary it is to speak out. “My career is over,” she says. “I can’t ever speak at universities — even if I get an invitation, within two weeks it’s rescinded.” She compares this trend to McCarthyism, saying, “There’s this lock down on public debate — you have to follow this certain line.”

Julie Bindel, a prolific and established feminist journalist, has been officially no-platformed by the National Union of Students (NUS). She explains, in her talk, that a motion against her, enshrined at an NUS conference, read only, “Julie Bindel is vile.” Her crimes included an article written in support of Vancouver Rape Relief’s fight to define their own membership, after Kimberly Nixon, a transgender male, attempted to sue the longstanding rape crisis shelter after being refused training to become a counselor for rape victims and which argued against the sexist stereotypes transgenderism appears defined by. Bindel’s vilification was also based, she explains, on a 2007 article she wrote about trans people who were pressured into and regret having “gender-reassignment surgery.”

Many women refused to support Bindel back then out of fear, and some feminists still, she says, tell her they can’t put her on their conference programs lest their event venue get shut down. “This is not the way we should do feminism,” she says. “We are leaving behind young women in university who are desperate to be out and proud radical feminists and cannot.” Despite what many believe, this silencing of discourse is not about supporting marginalized people — it’s about destroying feminism.

Essentially, political critique has been relabeled as “phobia,” thereby shoving what is a feminist analysis of male domination and systemic power into the category of “bigotry,” which serves to justify censorship. And this is specifically happening to radical feminists who, Bindel says, refuse to “capitulate to the identity politics that is liberal or ‘fun feminism.'” Meanwhile, misogynists and pornographers are permitted on campus without protest.

Ironically, it is university students who seem to be leading the charge — bullying radical feminist students into silence, banning women from their campuses for challenging liberal doctrine (something Magdalen Berns speaks to in her talk, as she was banned from just about every women’s and LGTB group at the University of Edinburgh in her final year — an institution that has apparently placed a “trigger warning” on radical feminism itself). I say “ironically” because it is, of all places, on university campuses that these conversations should be encouraged, as indeed higher education is about studying ideas and learning how to think critically.

It’s time to put our fear aside. Here is what I have learned about feminism (the real kind of feminism — not liberalism, not queer politics, not pro-capitalist rhetoric centered around personal feelings of “empowerment”): Regardless of what we do or say, as radical feminists, we are persecuted, smeared, and silenced. This happens because we stand up for women, hold men accountable, and criticize patriarchy unapologetically. We are called “SWERF,” “TERF,” “whorephobic,” “femmephobic,” “transphobic,” “anti-sex,” “moralistic prudes,” and so on, not because we are terrified of trans people, prostituted women, and sexuality, or because our politics are centered around “excluding” particular individuals (unless, of course, those individuals are anti-feminist — then yes, you will likely feel “excluded” by feminism), but because these terms and slurs effectively silence and exclude us. We are no-platformed and blackballed, discredited at any opportunity, to the point that others cannot associate with us, support us, or share any of our work (regardless of the content of said work), lest they too be tarred with the same brush.

It is a strategy used to keep other women afraid and silent, and it’s working.

We are losing the right to speak about our bodies, as Berns points out. Women have rights that are directly connected to the understanding that we have been oppressed, historically, because we were born female. Patriarchy only exists because 6000-odd years ago, men sought a way to control women’s reproductive capacity. “Gender” was solidified in order for men to claim ownership of women’s bodies and in order to naturalize their dominance. Feminists had to fight for women’s rights on the basis that females were not inferior and that they needed special protection — not because of their personal feelings or “gender identity,” but because of their biology and the discrimination attached to that biology. “You might be worried about your job or your friends, but your rights are more important than anything else,” Berns says.

I have come to the conclusion that there is no point in living in fear of being labelled in these ways — with various acronyms or as some version of “phobic.” It is nothing more than a divide and conquer strategy. There is no avoiding these witch hunts, unless we are prepared to lie or be silent — something that is, in my opinion, a much worse sentence than being smeared, targeted, and called nonsensical names by anti-feminists.

I do not ever again wish to put any energy into hiding from these slurs because in doing so, the goal is achieved. I stand by my sisters who speak out and continue to speak out, despite being no platformed and attacked.

You can call us whatever you like, because we know what you really mean: Feminist. Not the fun kind.

Anti-feminists are winning and will continue to win so long as we stay silent. They will continue to claim the identity of “feminist” while smearing and vilifying movement women. Leftist men will continue to proudly call us anti-feminist names and censor our work, comforted by the support and silence of these “queer activists,” “sex worker rights activists,” and liberal feminists — people who have shown themselves as traitors to women and whose politics consist of inventing new words to disguise male supremacy and violence against women. It’s up to us to speak out and to stand by our sisters, despite the repercussions.

Bindel concludes her talk by saying:

“We need to be braver… Those of us who are a bit older and who have been in feminism for longer owe it to the newer feminists and the younger feminists. Because how on earth do we expect them to ever be involved in a cohesive, vibrant movement if they are terrified of being thrown out of their friendship groups and their own communities?

… Please let’s not capitulate anymore. I understand how scary this is.

There are still feminists saying, ‘I can’t have you on our program, I can’t ask you to speak at this, I can’t include your name in that because they’ll come after us.

Well let them come after us — because we’re waiting for them.”

I’m with you, sister.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.