Gender turf/TERF wars between feminisms and trans viewpoints

Published May 16, 2013 by Katy J Went
Delilah Campbell has written a slow to the foray catch up piece, Who Owns Gender, on the radfem-trans turf wars – or TERF wars (“trans-exclusive/exterminating radical feminists”). It re-rakes over the Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill Observer op-ed comment is free piece of January that was subsequently pulled but republished in the Telegraph. I found it posted on Julie Bindel’s facebook page, considered enemy territory to some.

Forget biological essentialism, there seems to be more belligerent and bellicose essentialism to the spats between certain radfems and certain trans activists. Rather than seeking common ground the fight continues to draw up definitions, establish battle lines and perpetuate the gender war.

My thoughts below assume you have open and/or have read Campbell’s article.

TERF wars indeed! Not entirely sure that I agree that 1) gender is constructed and 2) gender relations are power relations. I guess as a trans-feminist (and one with whom many trans disagree) I understand the trans search for a scientific basis for gender (cf Pinker and Baron-Cohen, whose books I have devoured,  debated and disagreed with), for legitimacy, and some science does show that trans brains are different, nether male nor female but in-between. Perhaps trans activists would be better fighting the gender binary rather than certain radfems. But some feminist rejection of women-born-men/trans lies also in a power relation struggle, gatekeeping the “who can be called woman” bastion as much as the psychiatrists and surgeons who allow access medically, and the legislators who control its legal definition.

“the trans account puts little if any emphasis on gender as a power relation in which one group (women) is subordinated to/oppressed by the other (men).”

Indeed, trans feel oppressed by the very definition of gender, its differences, division and the power of cisgendered men *and* women to bar admission to its ranks of gender non-conformists. If gender were merely constructed, letting trans “in” would be a rebellion and power statement against its construction.

So the truth lies somewhere between the two (or more!) positions, IMHO.

That those constructions some think are inconsequential is laid bare by both women’s and trans’ experience of gendered prejudice and oppression, often exacerbated for the trans by their internal self-oppression, hatred of external birth gender, and ongoing emotional and psychological confusion and quest for gendered calm in an integrated body-mind-chemical continuum and holism.

Campbell writes that:

“it denies the reality of the alienation and discomfort which leads people to identify as trans. This is a reaction feminists ought to be able to understand, since it parallels our own response to the dismissal of issues like sexual harassment as trivial problems which we ought to be able to ‘get over’—we say that’s not how women experience it…Radical feminists, then, would actually agree with the trans activists who say that gender is not just a superficial veneer which is easily stripped away.”

If she’d stopped there we’d have a starting point for dialogue, understanding and co-fighting of the patriarchic hegemony and false-binary (for many trans oppose the gender-binary, biological and/or constructed, but some buy in to it, lock, stock and all). Instead she says trans have got it wrong and misinterpreted the meaning of feminists as saying that gender constructs are “trivial and superficial”, anyone who is or understands a trans knows that we would never say that. It is the least trivial most plaguing aspect of our existence.

“For feminists, the effects of lived social experience are not trivial, and you cannot transcend them by an individual act of will.”

Exactly, nor can trans transcend their gendered experience and discomfort by an act of will, therapy or otherwise. HRT and surgery provide the greatest (but not always total for some) relief. If society were to change as campaigned for by feminists, queergenderists and non-binarists then it would be interesting to see how a future ungendered utopia would affect both the experience of women and trans. In the meantime the socially unacceptable 30-40% trans suicide rate requires compassion and understanding not turf wars.

Trans and Intersex, not to mention others, have fought to join the LGB and women’s movements and their sexual and gender utopic agendas. Both have been reluctant to add us, not wanting any “tiny and previously marginal minority” to wag the tail of the larger dog.

Whether “born this way” essentialism or “plastic” freedom of choice are true, it is the “one or other” approach that fails, that divides, that reinforces polarisms, binaries and the gendered social construct. By accepting the in-betweeners and in-between positions we celebrate “the [radical] possibility that we can not only imagine but actually create a different, better, juster world.” Long may trans and radfems work together to create just that.

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