There are a handful of fights going on in contemporary feminism right now, and one of the most heated is about the issue of trans-acceptance. Like any good fight, we can rudely simplify it down to two sides. On one side, you have trans-inclusive feminism. On the other, you have what are generally known as TERFs: trans-exclusive radical feminists. For context, I am a transwoman.
TERFs claim they want to destroy gender. The thing is, though, that us trans-accepting feminists are doing a better job of it.
The fight between these two sides is, fundamentally, incapable of resolution — we both use the same words but we mean different things, so each of our viewpoints is all but absurd to the other party.
Both groups understand that “gender” is a social construct. That is to say, what it is to be a “man” or a “woman” (or any other number of gendered positions) is created by a kind of cultural consensus — or at least a cultural majority. That’s… that’s pretty much the only similarity.
TERF ideology advocates for gender abolition. On the other side, some trans-inclusive feminists would like to do away with gender, others just want to see gender explode with possibility, becoming infinite and multifaceted.
What I wish TERFs better understood (besides really basic shit like “isolating some of the most vulnerable members of society on the basis of their gender is deplorable and anti-feminist”) is that it’s exactly this explosion of gendered possibility that is wreaking havoc on gender. Trans-acceptance, whether of gender-non-conforming or gender-conforming trans people, has contributed more to the destruction of gender roles than the combined might of every TERF in history.
I don’t expect any TERFs will ever understand that, because we’re divided by a common vocabulary. The TERF position (as I understand it) is, essentially: “based on my genetics, society has determined that I am a woman and assigned me certain roles in society. I accept that I am a woman [and this is beyond my ability to change, because it is a label forced upon me by society] but I refuse to accept that I must fulfill certain gendered roles as a result.”
The trans-accepting position is, essentially, “based on genetics, society has determined that I am a woman and assigned me certain roles. I do not accept society’s determination of my gender and instead I will determine it for myself.”
It’s funny how slight those differences seem when I write them out, but it’s not funny at all how those differences carry out into the world.
The TERF position is essentially a conservative one in that it grants society the power to determine our gender without fighting against that determination. It’s also an absurd position from both a scientific point of view — it ignores the existence of intersex people and the understanding that biological sex is not nearly so binary as we were led to believe as children — and an anthropological point of view — gender has been, on some level, fluid and not completely binary across cultures and across the entire globe as far back as anyone has been able to tell. And of course, anything that tells ciswomen that they must remain ciswomen is limiting their freedom as well.
I’m not here to argue against anti-trans feminism on an intellectual or ethical basis — though I apparently can’t avoid a few jabs on the way — but instead on a strategic one.
What I don’t think TERFs understand is that my friends are doing an incredible job destroying gender. Gender is an absolute goddammed mess right now in the US at least, and it’s explicitly because of the unprecedented visibility of trans and gender-non-conforming people. At the risk of some seriously un-anarchist appeal-to-authority logical fallacy, let me just tell you that there are states in the US where you can get official identification marking you as nonbinary. Even cis people are abandoning gender roles at an astounding rate. Trans-acceptance is paving the way for an actual world in which you are not expected to conform to the gender or the gender roles you were assigned at birth.
Which is the whole goddammed point, whether you want to call it “abolishing” gender or claiming gender is so multifaceted that there are as many genders as there are people.
Dear TERFs: I’m sorry if the method of victory isn’t the one you had hoped for (I’m not actually sorry), but by fighting against your own stated goals, you’re making it clear that you’re really just in this fight against trans-acceptance because either you’re more concerned with ideological purity than gender liberation, you’re too stubborn to reconsider a framework once you’ve committed to it, you are bad at understanding strategy, or you are bigoted against trans people.
Ciswomen and transwomen are discriminated against — systemically and globally — on the basis of their sex and gender. Our experiences are not identical — nor are mine identical to those of other transwomen — but they’re deeply interrelated as we suffer within a patriarchal world. We’re natural allies, and to be honest almost everyone I interact with already knows that. Anti-trans feminism is a vocal but tiny minority. It also, despite its claims to seek gender abolition, absolutely reifies gender.
Which sounds like a terrible plan to me.
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