Note: Following some constructive criticism I have deleted part of my post which referred to intersex people. Thanks for the feedback.
What do you think about when you think of the word feminism? Do you think of the suffragettes or the women and men who fought in the 19th century for women’s property rights, for women to have the right to divorce their husbands and for rape to be punished as a crime rather than simply being a man’s right? Do you think of the women fighting against gang rapists in India or fgm in other developing countries?
I’m guessing you don’t think about a reactionary nationalist ideology that fights to demonize a marginalized and frequently despised group of women rather than fighting for the rights of women under a brutal system that is still sexist, discriminatory and still finds ways to divide women and men against each other whether it is by cutting services and benefits which predominantly affect women such as child benefit or funding for domestic violence shelters, or by finding ways to pay women less for similar jobs while making it increasingly impossible for single parents to raise a family on one income. At the same time men who experience, for example, sexual assault or childhood abuse often find it even harder to get support and frequently face the idea that a ‘real man’ should just toughen up.
Contrary to what some in the ‘labour movement’ say, often to create political rationale for their attitudes to rape or other what are seen as ‘women’s issues’ but are actually class issues – equal pay, sex work and the treatment of the most exploited workers, anyone who gives a shit about the working class should be a feminist because without women you can only ever have half a revolution. The majority of people who work in some of the worst most dangerous jobs and in the jobs with the least protection such as domestic service and of course, sex work (but that is another post) are women. And when we get home we are the ones who are predominantly doing the housework and looking after the children.
Given this it is apparent that the view still unfortunately dominant in some circles that ‘the working man’ is the only worker worth bothering about is both damaging and inaccurate. it is also the case that any sort of ideology that seeks to stigmatize an already despised and hated group of women and police the boundaries of who is allowed into this ‘community’ is not feminism and has more in common with nationalism.
I am talking of course about ‘radical feminists‘ who take pride in promoting prejudices against people who they view as men pretending to be women, ie transgender people, and in harassing and intimidating them, even to the extent of outing them to employers or even schools in the case of younger teenagers. Rather than the issues that are mentioned above, it is this that they consider the most important issue facing women today.
Why call it nationalism?
These people have become referred to as ‘trans exclusionary radical feminists’ or TERFs. They claim that they want to destroy gender roles which they claim exclusively harm women as a class as opposed to men as a class, and to do this, women must organize among themselves to ‘fight patriarchy’. Leaving aside the problems with this (what about, for example, intersex people, or for that matter the pressures of capitalist society and the expectation of men to just shut up about their problems leading to eating disorders and the like being ridiculed and under researched?) The TERFs, instead of ‘destroying gender’, enforce a rigid and exclusionary definition of it and are more concerned with keeping out ‘infiltrators’ than actually being any use to anyone.
They reserve most of their poison for transgender women who they accuse of changing their sex because they are perverts and potential rapists who want to get access to ‘women’s spaces‘. They claim that they want to destroy traditional gender roles because they are bad for women, but then go on to try and police the boundaries of what being a woman is, by saying that if you were born a man you could never become one and the only possible reason to is because you are a potential rapist, although they refer to the objects of their loathing by calling them ‘castrated heterosexual men’.
If you were born female and want to become a man, well then your just confused or brainwashed when you should have just been a lesbian (even if you are attracted to men) or at worst you are a ‘traitor’ who is trying to gain access to ‘male privilege’.
Bizarrely, they claim that these people are part of a plot to ‘destroy lesbians‘ (although they are not averse to working with groups who are virulently anti gay and propose trying to cure homosexuality) and claim that bisexuality and the increased use of sex-toys such as dildos is another aspect of this ‘plot’. If this sounds unbalanced that is because it is, but unfortunately prejudiced attitudes towards bisexual and transgender people are not always that uncommon in the gay and lesbian community, I remember my first ex saying that she was upset how nobody could just ‘be a homosexual’. But the TERFs go further than this – they say that lesbianism is being ‘destroyed’, they raise the spectre that everyone will be forced to change their gender, and that women’s cultural scenes such as the now infamous Michigan Womyn’s Festival, notorious for not allowing transgender women to enter, will become ‘colonised’.
Lurid possibilities such as the ‘end of the butch identity’ as butch lesbians will become men instead of staying as they are (what about trans men who are gay?), despite the fact that this itself can be seen as an attempt to fit into stereotyped gender roles, and the idea that trans women only change their gender to spy on women’s toilets, are brought up, along with stories of ‘stabs in the back’ and conspiracy theories involving the idea that transgender people are all willing agents of patriarchy.
when i was involved in the LGBT scene I sometimes encountered a view that bisexual women are just performing for the benefit of straight men and that people need to ‘choose’ between one or the other and ‘make their mind up’ as if this is anything to do with them at all. Sometimes bisexual women were treated with scepticism like they were either straight and going through a phase, or they weren’t really bi and were just trying to impress guys.
The ‘radical feminist’ ideology builds on these prejudices and of a reactionary tendency of feminism that has been there longer than many people want to admit. In 1914 the WSPU, who had been the most militant wing of the suffragette movement, dropped their demand for equality and became fervent supporters of Britain’s war against Germany. Mussolini’s fascist movement also included some women attracted by its initial demands for equality and attacks on ‘traditionalism’.
In the 1970s a book was published called ‘the transsexual empire: the making of the she-male‘ by Janice Raymond. This work is essentially the TERFs’ equivalent of the Protocols in that it gave their views an ‘intellectual’ appearance and was influential in codifying their beliefs into a logical sounding system rather than just irrational hatred. It was, unfortunately, somewhat influential, and its author went on to successfully push for the US government to deny people gender reassignment surgery and other medical care – even cancer treatment.
In this book it was stated:
All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves …. Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive
“Transsexually constructed lesbian-feminists show yet another face of patriarchy. As the male-to-constructed-female transsexual exhibits the attempt to possess women in a bodily sense while acting out the images into which men have molded women, the male-to-constructed-female who claims to be a lesbian-feminist attempts to possess women at a deeper level, this time under the guise of challenging rather than conforming to the role and behavior of stereotyped femininity”.
Raymond also said that
“I contend that the problem with transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence”
The language in this screed and the undisguised hatred in the statement that all transsexuals are raping women’s bodies by appropriating them is not something a normal person would associate with feminism. It’s…something else. The equation of the individual body with ‘the body of the nation‘, saying that we are all ‘raped’ by whoever the enemy is, is a concept common to the most reactionary forms of nationalism.
Raymond pointed to a ‘sociological’ view of what she calls ‘transgenderism’ – in addition to referring to transgender people throughout the book as ‘he’ or ‘she’ in quotation marks, she claims that gender reassignment operations reinforce traditional gender stereotypes, which may be partially true for some people – it would be nice to live in a world where nobody felt that women can’t do traditionally ‘masculine’ things for example (although this is nothing to do with transgender people, who are a tiny minority of the population), but at the same time admits that the number of people having surgery is ‘largely static’ and goes on to attack people who ‘mix and match’ gender roles or don’t fit in to these categories, a completely contradictory standpoint!
However with the growing acceptance of transgender people in society has come a growing recognition among many that these categories are unhelpful. In addition, if anything reinforces gender stereotypes it is likely to be the criteria medical professionals use for whether someone can have this sort of surgery, not the person themselves. Her book has been said to have done more to increase transphobia than any book ever written. If you really want to download it and have a look for yourself, it’s on Google.
However, while she made a ‘scientific’ study of the issue and claimed, at least, to be opposing the idea of traditional gender roles (while promoting the idea that gender could never be changed, and that only women could be harmed by such ideas), individuals such as Sheila Jeffreys and Cathy Brennan have taken the nationalist element even further. Jeffreys calls herself a ‘political lesbian’ and claimed that ‘all feminists can and should be lesbians‘ and central to their arguments is the view that trans women in particular are trying to get into ‘women’s spaces’. Others such as Guardian columnist Julie Burchill have expressed their views in far cruder terms, talking about ‘having your cock cut off’, ‘trannies’ and ‘bedwetters in bad wigs’.
I remember going to a talk when I was a lot younger about the difficulties in transitioning and the speaker talked about what was known as the ‘trans bladder of steel’ and the difficulties he found in using public bathrooms because of the fact that he looked too much like a man at that point to use a women’s bathroom but could not use the men’s bathroom because he had not had the operation yet and was embarrassed and frightened of the reaction he might receive.
I take the view that the majority of people are probably bi or at least that socialization forms a large part of who people end up sleeping with – that many apparently straight people would probably be more open to sleeping with the same sex if it was not for societal expectations and unconscious prejudice, so OK – but ‘should’? I used to think that I was gay for a long time. The homophobic abuse I received at school made me for a long time sort of cling to that identity even when I started to have feelings for men but could not admit to myself that is what they were. Demanding that people suppress their sexuality in pursuit of some ‘political’ goal is not just insane, it is hugely damaging, and seems almost unimaginable. The idea that lesbians will disappear or be forced to change their gender is equally so – due to cutbacks, it is increasingly difficult for transgender people to get surgery on the NHS, let alone the idea of forcing people to have such surgery because they are gay.
To many reading these views must seem bizarre and unbelievable – why are some people so completely obsessed with everyone else’s genitalia and what they choose to do with them?
Unfortunately they are all too real. They have had a real life impact; Raymond successfully lobbied the US government making it extremely difficult for transgender people to access medical care after surgery, even for conditions such as cancer, because this is viewed to be a result of the surgery, and Brennan’s group Gender Identity Watch has been lobbying the UN to deny them legal protections.
Inevitably it is people who cannot afford to pay who are hit the hardest by these reactionary measures. These people are quite happy to line up with ‘ex-gay’ organizations such as the ‘Pacific Justice Institute‘ in pursuit of their agenda. To argue as the TERFs do that transgender people are ‘tools of patriarchy’ is a despicable line of argument when they are a vulnerable and extremely stigmatized minority who face ignorance and casually prejudiced attitudes from employers and members of their communities including family members, reactionary views promoted by some forms of religion, attacks from the far right and in many countries, the state itself. This movement is more about defining and defending an exclusive national identity in which ‘womanhood’ or ‘lesbians’ are the nation rather than a racial group, than liberating women or for that matter, anyone else.
At a friend’s recommendation I am putting some links to transgender support groups in case some people read this post and want to speak to someone.