How it feels to be a trans feminist academic in 2018

Trans feminist symbol, designed by Helen GThis piece is based on an email I wrote, in response to a message about “smear campaigns against gender critical academics” on a feminist academic mailing list.

I have updated and posted it here in the final day of the Gender Recognition Act consultation in order to give my cis readers some idea of how the past few months – and especially the last few weeks – have felt.

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I would like to say something about how it feels to be a trans feminist academic right now, with the emergence of a growing number of “gender critical” voices in academia.

In the wake of Brexit and Trump, and with the renewed growth of far-right movements across the world, it seems that everyone feels empowered to speak out about their own personal prejudice. Trans issues are no exception.

When I first came out and transitioned as a teenager, almost two decades ago, one of the scariest things for me was using public toilets. Let that sink in for a moment. I was scared simply to use the toilet – for fear that people might shout at me, drag me out, maybe even beat me up. While that fear has dissipated for me, I have not been to a public swimming pool since my mid-teens, and have not even been swimming in the sea since my early 20s. This is because I am scared. I am scared of violent men, but I am also scared of violent women. Cis violence against trans people is a reality. I have an enormous amount of admiration and respect for trans people who are able to overcome this fear.

It was hard to come out in the early 2000s. There was an enormous amount of casual transphobia in the media. Guardian columnists wrote pieces such as “Gender Benders Beware”, TV programmes such as Little Britain and the League of Gentlemen were immensely popular, and 90s films such as Silence of the Lambs and Ace Ventura remained popular with my friends. Trans women were variously represented as a pathetic joke, a burly men in self-denial, deceptive liars or outright sexual predators.

Legislation such as the Gender Recognition Act 2004, Sex Discrimination Act Regulations 2008 and Equality Act 2010 were yet to see the right of day. It was therefore legal for employers and service providers to know all about my gender history; it was also legal to refuse to hire me because I was trans, fire me from a job because I was trans, deny me services and kick me out of shops, pubs, post offices, leisure centres (etc etc) because I was trans.

It was not easy to come out in this environment. There were exceptionally few openly trans people involved in public life – and none of them looked, sounded or acted much like me. I certainly hadn’t knowingly met any other trans people. I delayed coming out for years because I wasn’t sure if I was “really trans” (a phenomenon common among participants in my research). I thought that I might ruin my life. It was only the knowledge that my life would likely be ruined regardless, and the sheer awfulness of the alternative – becoming a man – that persuaded me to take the enormous step of coming out.

Consequently, I was very isolated during the first few years of my transition. I find it very hard to express how intensely lonely that experience was. Fortunately, my friends (mostly cis girls my own age) were immensely supportive, but it was difficult not to have any people with similar experiences to me to talk with. People who had a very deep complex relationship with our gendered movement through the social world, and/or our sexed bodies, such that we knew the assignation we received at birth was not right for us. People who felt a deep, deep relief upon transitioning socially and/or changing our bodies as appropriate.

It wasn’t until my 20s that I began to slowly, gradually meet trans people my own age – and what a relief that was! We could relax completely around one another, talk about our issues and experiences, reflect on our differences as well as our similarities. It was at this time that I encountered the term “trans bladder” – used to refer to the pain and urinary infections that could follow from not being able to use toilets outside of the home. Let that sink in.

I also began to realise the wider extent of the damage caused to other trans people by both external and internalised transphobia.

Many of my trans friends have attempted suicide, sometimes on multiple occasions. The first trans person I knew to take their own life was a member of a trans youth Internet message board I frequented when I was 16. Others would follow, including a housemate, whose body I discovered shortly before I was due to head into work to teach a class. When I see “gender critical” people disputing well-established trans suicide statistics, it feels like gaslighting. I know what happens in our communities when people are not affirmed and don’t have access to adequate support.

Other trans friends have experienced severe sexual violence, often in their youth, often in very public spaces such as school playgrounds. Trans people are at particular risk of various forms of sexual assault, violence, coercion and control – for example, 28% of trans respondents to a large Stonewall survey had experienced domestic abuse within the past year alone. When I see “gender critical” people talking about the supposed violent threat that trans women pose, I think about how when trans friends of mine are raped, our first conversation about accessing support is usually about whether or not it is safe for them to go to the local rape crisis centre. This is not something we can necessarily take for granted.

When academics and journalists “come out” as “gender critical”, scaremongering about changes to the law we have been fighting for for decades, representing trans women and girls as sexual predators, debating our access to legal rights and public spaces and women’s services, I wonder if they know who we are, what our stories are, what our experiences are like. Is it simply that they don’t know any trans people, that they are ignorant? Or is there a deeper cause for their hatred? Do they realise they sound less like feminists, and more like the fundamentalist religious right? (for an example of how fundamentalist Christians and “gender critical” feminists basically employ the same language and discursive anti-trans tropes, I recommend a look at the responses from organisations to the Scottish government’s recent consultation on gender recognition).

As for the notion that anti-trans campaigners are “gender critical”, and my use of inverted commas in my use of this term – I spent an enormous amount of time thinking about gender, sex and sexism as a teenager. I read about the social construction of gender, and it made sense to me as a concept, but it took me a long time and a lot of theorising to figure out how to make sense of that with relation to my own body and experiences. I began to figure out that sex was a social construct too, reflecting the construction of gender, many years before I would encounter the work of Emi Koyama and Judith Butler. In my 20s, I was heavily involved in the NUS Women’s Campaign, and I am now (among other things) a gender theorist. In recent years I have been interested as a scholar and campaigner in the drawbacks and possible benefits of gender equality schemes such as Athena SWAN, and the fight to tackle staff-on-student sexual misconduct.

People who object to pro-trans legislation and oppose our access to public space do not have a monopoly on being “gender critical”, any more than those who oppose abortion rights have a monopoly on being “pro life”.

The growing number of academics who hold “gender critical” positions wield an enormous amount of power over their trans students, and have the potential to cause an enormous amount of harm. There are more and more of these trans students every year – of course there are. The exponential growth in the visible trans population is an outcome of the assertiveness of trans activists, our increasing visibility in public life, and a more positive legislative environment. It was predicted on multiple occasions many years ago – by Lynn Conway in 2001, by GIRES in 2009 and 2011. This is the outcome of an invisible population gradually becoming visible – just as the number of young people prepared to be out as lesbian, gay and bisexual also continues to rise. This growth will, eventually, flatten out – but it will be a fair while before this happens, especially if the current backlash continues.

I hope that cis people reading this post reflect on what it feels like for me to be involved in feminist and women’s groups at this time, especially as conversations such as this become more common. It feels terrifying. I am petrified about where the discourse is heading within feminism as well as within the wider social world, and I am very scared about what might happen next, what violence might be perpetuated or excused in the supposed name of women’s rights.

I am hardly alone in this: I see trans friends freaking out en-masse every time I sign into social media. We know our history. Some of us survived Section 28. Many are also black, or disabled, or gay, or bi, or Jews or Muslims, or migrants. We know what happens when minority communities are scapegoated, and we know that the rise in transphobia is not an isolated phenomenon. We know that the most vulnerable among us are the easiest targets for hatred.

I worry every time I see a post goes up or message is written on a feminist Facebook group or blog or academic mailing list, every time somebody organises a feminist seminar or conference. I fear that someone will start raising “reasonable” concerns about my existence or civil rights, or lying about the supposed threat that I and others like me pose. For all that I move through the world as a woman, for all that I am a woman and have lived my entire life as a woman, for all that I am subject to sexism by clueless male colleagues and internalise the need to constantly apologise for myself at work, for all that I am harassed in public by men and fear male violence every time I leave work after dark, I start wondering what place I have in these groups. I start to wonder how many cis women think that somehow I am more privileged than them in terms of sex and gender even though I am subject to both sexism and transphobia. I wonder how many feminists hate me.

When “gender critical” blog posts are written or emails are sent, I feel like I have a choice. Either I respond – and it may well take the form of an essay like this – an enormous outflow of nervous energy, fear and anger, energy that I will not get back repeating stories I am quite frankly bored of telling. Or I may attempt to remain cool and rational, encouraging calm and thoughtful debate even as I attempt to stem the rising panic inside. Or I try to ignore the message, even as it plays on my mind for the rest of the day, rest of the week, rest of the month, knowing that the environment has become a little less safe for other trans people – and especially other trans women – and especially other trans women less privileged than myself.

Or I just leave these feminist groups and mailing lists and academic collectives, which is of course what “gender critical” women would like me to do.

But not today. Today I stay. Today I fight. And I do not do this alone. For I know also that the majority of women support our cause.

As ever, I do this with my sisters.

Solidarity.

Statement of trans-inclusive feminism and womanism

Several individuals have been working hard over the past couple of weeks to put together an international statement supporting trans inclusion in the struggle for women’s rights. The publication of this statement comes as the inclusion of trans people within feminist and womanist groups is once again under question, and as trans concerns gain an increasingly public profile.

I was honoured to be asked to sign this statement. I feel it provides a timely response to the aforementioned issues, as well as a recent radical feminist statement on trans exclusion, and the forthcoming publication of Sheila Jeffreys’ new book.

I stand fully behind the statement, and am also heartened by its international scope. As I write this post, the statement has been signed by 150 individuals and 8 organizations — from 13 countries.

However, I feel it is worth noting the anglo-centric nature of the statement. That is somewhat inevitable given that this is a debate happening largely within the English-speaking world. Still, it would have been good to see signatories from the United States and United Kingdom note their country of origin; at present, I feel that signatories from outside these countries are singled out as unusual through the highlighting of their national location. I hope that this disparity and US/UK-centrism might be addressed in future efforts.

I have reproduced the statement below, and encourage others to disseminate it further.

 

A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism

We, the undersigned trans* and cis scholars, writers, artists, and educators, want to publicly and openly affirm our commitment to a trans*-inclusive feminism and womanism.

There has been a noticeable increase in transphobic feminist activity this summer: the forthcoming book by Sheila Jeffreys from Routledge; the hostile and threatening anonymous letter sent to Dallas Denny after she and Dr. Jamison Green wrote to Routledge regarding their concerns about that book; and the recent widely circulated statement entitled “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Critique of ‘Gender,’” signed by a number of prominent, and we regret to say, misguided, feminists have been particularly noticeable.  And all this is taking place in the climate of virulent mainstream transphobia that has emerged following the coverage of Chelsea Manning’s trial and subsequent statement regarding her gender identity, and the recent murders of young trans women of color, including Islan Nettles and Domonique Newburn, the latest targets in a long history of violence against trans women of color.  Given these events, it is important that we speak out in support of feminism and womanism that support trans* people.

We are committed to recognizing and respecting the complex construction of sexual/gender identity; to recognizing trans* women as women and including them in all women’s spaces; to recognizing trans* men as men and rejecting accounts of manhood that exclude them; to recognizing the existence of genderqueer, non-binary identifying people and accepting their humanity; to rigorous, thoughtful, nuanced research and analysis of gender, sex, and sexuality that accept trans* people as authorities on their own experiences and understands that the legitimacy of their lives is not up for debate; and to fighting the twin ideologies of transphobia and patriarchy in all their guises.

Transphobic feminism ignores the identification of many trans* and genderqueer people as feminists or womanists and many cis feminists/womanists with their trans* sisters, brothers, friends, and lovers; it is feminism that has too often rejected them, and not the reverse. It ignores the historical pressures placed by the medical profession on trans* people to conform to rigid gender stereotypes in order to be “gifted” the medical aid to which they as human beings are entitled.  By positing “woman” as a coherent, stable identity whose boundaries they are authorized to police, transphobic feminists reject the insights of intersectional analysis, subordinating all other identities to womanhood and all other oppressions to patriarchy.  They are refusing to acknowledge their own power and privilege.

We recognize that transphobic feminists have used violence and threats of violence against trans* people and their partners and we condemn such behavior.  We recognize that transphobic rhetoric has deeply harmful effects on trans* people’s real lives; witness CeCe MacDonald’s imprisonment in a facility for men.  We further recognize the particular harm transphobia causes to trans* people of color when it combines with racism, and the violence it encourages.

When feminists exclude trans* women from women’s shelters, trans* women are left vulnerable to the worst kinds of violent, abusive misogyny, whether in men’s shelters, on the streets, or in abusive homes.  When feminists demand that trans* women be excluded from women’s bathrooms and that genderqueer people choose a binary-marked bathroom, they make participation in the public sphere near-impossible, collaborate with a rigidity of gender identities that feminism has historically fought against, and erect yet another barrier to employment.  When feminists teach transphobia, they drive trans* students away from education and the opportunities it provides.

We also reject the notion that trans* activists’ critiques of transphobic bigotry “silence” anybody.  Criticism is not the same as silencing. We recognize that the recent emphasis on the so-called violent rhetoric and threats that transphobic feminists claim are coming from trans* women online ignores the 40+ – year history of violent and eliminationist rhetoric directed by prominent feminists against trans* women, trans* men, and genderqueer people.  It ignores the deliberate strategy of certain well-known anti-trans* feminists of engaging in gleeful and persistent harassment, baiting, and provocation of trans* people, particularly trans* women, in the hope of inciting angry responses, which are then utilized to paint a false portrayal of trans* women as oppressors and cis feminist women as victims. It ignores the public outing of trans* women that certain transphobic feminists have engaged in regardless of the damage it does to women’s lives and the danger in which it puts them.  And it relies upon the pernicious rhetoric of collective guilt, using any example of such violent rhetoric, no matter the source — and, just as much, the justified anger of any one trans* woman — to condemn all trans* women, and to justify their continued exclusion and the continued denial of their civil rights.

Whether we are cis, trans*, binary-identified, or genderqueer, we will not let feminist or womanist discourse regress or stagnate; we will push forward in our understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality across disciplines.  While we respect the great achievements and hard battles fought by activists in the 1960s and 1970s, we know that those activists are not infallible and that progress cannot stop with them if we hope to remain intellectually honest, moral, and politically effective.  Most importantly, we recognize that theories are not more important than real people’s real lives; we reject any theory of gender, sex, or sexuality that calls on us to sacrifice the needs of any subjugated or marginalized group.  People are more important than theory.

We are committed to making our classrooms, our writing, and our research inclusive of trans* people’s lives.

Signed by:

Individuals

Hailey K. Alves (blogger and transfeminist activist, Brazil)

Luma Andrade  (Federal University of Ceará, Brazil)

Leiliane Assunção (Federal University of the Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil)

Talia Bettcher (California State University, Los Angeles)

Lauren Beukes (novelist)

Lindsay Beyerstein (journalist)

Jamie “Skye” Bianco (New York University)

Hanne Blank (writer and historian)

Kate Bornstein (writer and activist)

danah boyd (Microsoft research and New York University)

Helen Boyd (author and activist)

Sarah Brown (LGBT+ Liberal Democrats)

Christine Burns (equalities consultant, blogger and campaigner)

Liliane Anderson Reis Caldeira (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil)

Gloria Careaga (UNAM/National Autonomous University of Mexico)

Avedon Carol (activist and writer; Feminists Against Censorship)

Wendy Chapkis (University of Southern Maine) – “I don’t love the punch line ‘people are more important than theory.’  More to the point, it seems to me, is that feminist theories that fail to recognize the lived experiences and revolutionary potential of gender diversity are willfully inadequate.”

Jan Clausen (writer, MFAW faculty, Goddard College)

Darrah Cloud (playwright and screenwriter; Goddard College)

Alyson Cole (Queens College – CUNY)

Arrianna Marie Coleman (writer and activist)

Suzan Cooke (writer and photographer)

Sonia Onufer Correa  (feminist research associate at ABIA, co-chair of Sexuality Policy Watch)

Molly Crabapple (artist and writer)

Elizabeth Dearnley (University College London)

Jaqueline Gomes de Jesus (University of Brasilia, Brazil)

Sady Doyle (writer and blogger)

L. Timmel Duchamp (publisher, Aqueduct Press)

Flavia Dzodan (writer and media maker)

Reni Eddo-Lodge (writer and activist)

Finn Enke (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

Hugh English (Queens College – CUNY)

Jane Fae (writer and activist)

Roderick Ferguson (University of Minnesota)

Jill Filipovic (writer and blogger)

Rose Fox (editor and activist)

Jaclyn Friedman (author, activist, and executive director of Women, Action, & the Media)

Sasha Garwood (University College, London)

Jen Jack Gieseking (Bowdoin College)

Dominique Grisard (CUNY Graduate Center/Columbia University/University of Basel)

Deborah Gussman (Richard Stockton College of New Jersey)

Dr Sally Hines (University of Leeds)

Claire House (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, Brazil)

Astrid Idlewild (editor, urban historian)

Sarah Hoem Iversen (Bergen University College, Norway)

Sarah Jaffe (columnist)

Roz Kaveney (author and critic)

Zahira Kelly (artist and writer)

Mikki Kendall (writer and occasional feminist)

Natacha Kennedy (Goldsmiths College, University of London)

Alison Kilkenny (journalist and activist)

Matthew Knip (Hunter College – CUNY)

Letícia Lanz (writer and psychoanalyst, Brazil)

April Lidinsky (Indiana University South Bend)

Erika Lin (George Mason University)

Marilee Lindemann (University of Maryland)

Heather Love (University of Pennsylvania)

Jessica W. Luther (writer and activist)

Jen Manion (Connecticut College)

Ruth McClelland-Nugent (Georgia Regents University Augusta)

Melissa McEwan (Editor-in-Chief, Shakesville)

Farah Mendlesohn (Anglia Ruskin University)

Mireille Miller-Young (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Lyndsey Moon (University of Roehampton and University of Warwick)

Surya Monro (University of Huddersfield)

Cheryl Morgan (publisher and blogger)

Kenne Mwikya (writer and activist, Nairobi)

Zenita Nicholson (Secretary on the Board of Trustees, Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, Guyana)

Anne Ogborn (frightening sex change)

Sally Outen (performer and activist)

Ruth Pearce (University of Warwick)

Laurie Penny (journalist and activist)

Rosalind Petchesky (Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Sexuality Policy Watch)

Rachel Pollack (writer, Goddard College)

Claire Bond Potter (The New School for Public Engagement)

Nina Power (University of Roehampton)

Marina Riedel (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil)

Mark Rifkin (University of North Carolina – Greensboro)

Monica Roberts (Transgriot)

Dr. Judy Rohrer (Western Kentucky University)

Diana Salles (independent scholar)

Veronica Schanoes (Queens College – CUNY)

Sarah Schulman, in principle (College of Staten Island – CUNY)

Donald M. Scott (Queens College – CUNY)

Lynne Segal (Birkbeck, University of London)

Julia Serano (author and activist)

Carrie D. Shanafelt (Grinnell College)

Rebekah Sheldon (Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis)

Barbara Simerka (Queens College – CUNY)

Gwendolyn Ann Smith (columnist and Transgender Day of Remembrance founder)

Kari Sperring (K L Maund) (writer and historian)

Zoe Stavri (writer and activist)

Tristan Taormino (Sex Out Loud Radio, New York, NY)

Jemma Tosh (University of Chester)

Viviane V. (Federal University of Bahia, Brazil)

Catherynne M. Valente (author)

Jessica Valenti (author and columnist)

Genevieve Valentine (writer)

Barbra Wangare (S.H.E and Transitioning Africa, Kenya)

Thijs Witty (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Groups:

Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ (Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia)

House of Najafgarh (Najafgarh, India)

House of Kola Bhagan (Kolkatta, India)

Transgender Nation San Francisco

There’s something oddly reassuring about Radfem Hub

A (cis, feminist) friend of mine posted in horror on Facebook this afternoon. Said friend had just visited Radfem Hub for the first time. “UNBELIEVABLE,” she exclaimed.

I’m fairly certain I had a similar reaction when I first went to the site. It’s always unpleasant to stumble across a series of staggeringly unpleasant attacks upon your being and personhood; as such, I recommend that any readers approach Radfem Hub with extreme caution.

At the same time, I don’t find it particularly threatening any more.

I mean, let’s take a look at what Radfem Hub actually stands for. It’s described as “a radical feminist collective blog”, and as such you might expect to find articles on all kinds of different subjects related to patriarchy and the oppression of women. Instead, the current front page of the site displays article after article dedicated to the evils of trans people, trans activists, trans allies, and the insidious influence of trans ideology upon the wider feminist world. You have to scroll way down the page before there’s even mention of a pro-choice agenda and a now-obligatory potshot at  50 Shades of Grey*. And then the transphobic posts start up again.

Radfem Hub isn’t really a radical feminist site. It’s an anti-trans hate site.

I don’t say this because I’m interested in redefining radical feminism. I say this because, surely, a radical feminist site – even a radical feminist site populated by transphobes – would have something else to talk about beyond hating on trans people. There are so many other things to worry about in the world! I mean, take for example the London Feminist Network yahoo group: it’s pretty clear that trans people aren’t welcome there unless they toe a particular line, but the group’s members at least have far more to discuss than whatever it is we’ve done to annoy them lately. In contrast, the population of Radfem Hub seem to have little to do other than hate on trans people.

Ultimately, it’s not that threatening. Sure, the actions of those such as bugbrennan (who has a nasty habit of publicly outing trans people) are pretty disturbing, but the site itself is bound to only ever appeal to a small group of bigots. There’s no way it’s going to appeal to the radical feminist mainstream, who are way too busy tackling stuff like the gender pay gap, capitalist exploitation of women’s bodies, nasty propaganda from “pro-life” groups and the like.

In a way, I’m reminded of The Christian Institute. This lot are a non-denominational group who state that they exist for “the furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom”.  Their actual activities seem to consist largely of posting homophobic witterings on the Internet and shouting in vain at the government to do something about that awful homosexual agenda.

The Christian Institute cast their net a little wider than Radfem Hub (going for Muslims and pro-choice activists almost as much as they go for LGBT people) but it’s pretty obvious what they are. They’re a hate group. And as such, they’re never going to gain too much sway within the world of mainstream Christianity, even as the Catholic and Anglican churches desperately try to block the government’s plans for the legalisation of gay marriage.

So here’s the thing. As long as groups like Radfem Hub and the Christian Institute remain dedicated to hate, they’re only going to gain so much traction. I’d be much, much more worried if they had much to say on issues that might actually interest anyone beyond their core audience.

* For the record, I agree with Radfem Hub that 50 Shades of Grey is deeply dodgy, although I dislike their predictable “kink is necessarily bad!” approach to the issue.