Viewpoint: Understanding Anti-transgender Feminism

Viewpoint: Understanding Anti-transgender Feminism

Lisa Kalayji

In an unprecedented turn, the UK Labour Party recently announced that it would extend access to its all-women candidacy shortlists to transwomen, formally indicating recognition of their place within the fold of the diverse category of ‘women’. The backlash was swift and severe: a small but voluble subset of feminists declared the move an attack on women, convening an event at Parliament to decry the change. This, in turn, incited a fresh wave of the hate speech and abuse that trans people have come to know all too well. Commentary on the matter has exploded, even eliciting the first-ever appearance of a trans person on BBC Question Time.

The heated disagreement between trans people and anti-trans feminists frequently makes headlines, but it is widely misunderstood. What is really at its heart takes a bit of digging to get to, and if there is to be any chance of resolving it, we must look to its roots. There is a manifest aversion on both sides to genuinely engaging with one another’s perspectives, because to do so wanders uncomfortably near to empathising with people to whom we would prefer not to extend empathy. Though the terms ‘understanding’ and ‘empathy’ are often used interchangeably, they are not quite the same thing, and it is possible to understand (to make sense of) without necessarily empathising (to share in the feelings and perspectives of). I am a trans-positive feminist, but I have spent the past five years studying anti-trans feminism and its ideological and emotional foundations. In what follows, I will attempt to help the majority – trans-positive feminists – to understand the seemingly opaque interior of anti-trans feminism.

An Overlooked Herstory
The anti-transgender position in feminism is generally attributed to radical feminists, and the theory that gave rise to it comes from that tradition. Radical feminism has a long history, and a critical mass of feminists who were not yet born or old enough to comprehend the early years of the ‘second wave’ of women’s liberation from which it emerged have little knowledge of where the ideological fractures in feminism came from. There are two major implications of that knowledge gap: (1) trenchant anti-trans ideology didn’t materialise out of thin air – it is rooted in a lineage of real, embodied, complex lived experiences of doing women’s liberation; (2) radical feminists know that many of their most determined critics ‘weren’t there’ when the relevant ideologies took shape, and assume that we probably have not taken pains to learn our herstory.

A view of trans-positive feminists as herstory-ignorant is itself a major contributor to the persistence of anti-trans feminism, and gives rise to one of its paradoxes: feminists telling (trans)people that they are not the authorities on their own experience. With feminism being firmly rooted in the view that the best source of knowledge about our realities is our own experience, this is a counter-intuitive stance, but one which is nevertheless vital for anti-trans feminists. Trans-positive feminists, they suggest, are patriarchal dupes, taken in by appealing narratives and our emotional attachments to ultimately harmful practices and paradigms. Trans people themselves, meanwhile, are taken to be either wilful infiltrators on a mission to bring feminism down from within by inhabiting Trojan Horse female bodies (they have a lot less to say on the issue of trans men, except that they are women who have sought to embody the male privilege that they could not readily access otherwise) or dupes of a malevolent endocrinological industrial complex bent on exploiting their discomfort with restrictive gender roles to sell costly and dangerous hormones and surgeries. When transwomen identify as women and trans-positive cis (non-trans) feminists support them, anti-trans feminists claim to understand what we are thinking and feeling better than we do, either because we are maliciously backward-thinking or because we lack the critical analytic capacities to understand our own subjectivities.

This view of trans folks and their allies as self-unaware and herstory-ignorant is the first component to the change aversion of anti-trans feminists. Why would they yield to the persuasions of those who are either duped or willingly malevolent? It would make no more sense than feminists considering the possibility that perhaps women really are inferior to men, or socialists accepting that capitalism really can be righteous, if we all just ‘lean in’. Trans-positive feminists would, of course, argue that these are wildly false analogies, but anti-trans radical feminists don’t think so – any understanding of their lens has to recognise that from their perspective, these parallels are spot-on.

The next question, then, is why might these analogies strike an anti-trans feminist as fitting? Again, we have to turn to history. The fundamental fractures in the Women’s Movement from which (British) anti-trans feminism proceeded began with divisions over the ‘men question’: whether women’s liberationists ought to continue cooperating with men in the radical social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s (in spite of their unrelenting misogyny) or withdraw their energies and form their own groups which wouldn’t relegate women to the roles of secretaries, child minders, sex objects, and punchlines. Socialist feminists gave men a lot of leeway – men were so deeply invested in patriarchy, they said. They are overwhelmed, frightened, and distressed at accusations of misogyny, and need plenty of time and gentle encouragement to let go of their ill-gotten status as the dominant gender. Radical feminists were unmoved by these pleas, seeing men’s commitment to patriarchy as a wilful defence of male supremacy. They were not interested in doing the work of lovingly nurturing men into treating women like fully-fledged human beings, nor did they think that attempting it would yield any such result.

As the Women’s Movement wore on and an array of historical shifts took place from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s (notably the emergence and dominance of neoliberalism and political thinkers’ growing interest in culture and discourse), radical feminism became more marginal and other feminisms more influential. Fast forward a few decades, and have a look at where we are now. Sexual violence is still pandemic. Neither the judicial system nor society at large have reached a consensus that rapists are the ones to blame (and punish) for rape. Women remain under-represented in positions of authority and over-represented in low-paid and low-status work. Women still do the overwhelming majority of household and relationship labour, even if they engage in as many hours of paid work as their male partners. Cultural constructions of what sex is supposed to be like are still organised around the titillation and pleasure of men. Girls continue to be encouraged to see themselves as pretty objects rather than capable and valuable human beings.

The radical feminist ‘we told you so’ muscle, it would appear, has never been deprived of exercise, and the collective memory of an earlier point in women’s liberation when we could have left men’s negotiating table and gone to war with them instead, possibly leading to a quite different 2018, reverberates through the present. So when trans-positive feminists argue that transwomen pose no threat to cis women’s liberation, that the phantom menace of transwomen’s violence against cis women is a fabrication, that trans people exhibit every defining attribute of a seriously structurally oppressed group which merits immediate and full support, that patriarchal cultural paradigms fall even more violently on the heads of trans people than on cis women (a difficult reality to imagine), anti-trans feminists don’t hear a word of it. What they do hear is the same old stories proceeding from the same old ignorance.

The Intersectionality Problem
Trans-positive feminists will find that account grating on a number of levels, beginning with the most obvious one: transwomen aren not men! This raises yet another complex and difficult theoretical problem: many feminisms (still) have a massive intersectionality problem, which in some cases extends to seeing transwomen as men. Virtually all feminists will allow that there are lots of different ways of being a woman, but there remains an impulse to draw a line around the feminist subject – around who feminism is really about. A lot of us have come to see the experience of moving through the world as a transwoman, including being assigned male at birth and being gendered ‘boy’ and ‘man’ for much of one’s life, as one amongst many iterations of what being a woman in the world can be. But a lot of others have not. To anti-trans feminists, it feels too much like the boys locking us out of their club and then accusing us of being sexist if we keep them out of ours. It feels like hypocrisy disguised as democracy.

If we try to understand this purely by reference to concepts and categories, we will inevitably come up short. Thinking is inextricable from feeling, and anti-trans thought on the question of gender categories is rooted not only in theory, but in anxiety which emerged in the 1970s and has amplified exponentially to become the dangerous ideology we see today: anxiety that if we give an inch, misogynists will take a mile; anxiety that if we expand who it is feminism’s business to liberate, then (cis) women will remain on the back burner, being abused, silenced, beaten, raped, and murdered indefinitely; anxiety that this debate is yet another appeal to women’s compassion which will be weaponised against us. If we really want to understand what is at the heart of this issue, we cannot just immerse ourselves in sex and gender theory and deny that affinity, aversion, excitement, hope, love, anger, frustration, and even trauma – and their reverberations and amplifications across historical time – shape what and how we think. The way that we deliberate, reason, frame reality, and situate the present in the context of our narratives of the past emerges from our emotional relationships with ideologies and other people, and if we want an answer to the question ‘how can self-proclaimed feminists be anti-trans?’, then the entanglement of reasoning, emotion, (sub)cultural narratives, and time is the place we should be looking.

No problem can be solved unless it is first understood. The persistence of anti-transgender ideology and feeling in feminism is a serious problem, but one which we can do a better job of understanding. This is not a call for transpeople to attempt to empathise with, or even understand, the interior lives of people who advocate their continued oppression (and in some cases would settle for nothing less than their annihilation). What it does mean is that those of us who are not ourselves trans must bear the brunt of this work. It is men’s responsibility to dismantle patriarchy, it is up to White people to demolish racism, to colonisers to decolonise, and to cis people to take down transphobia.


Lisa Kalayji is a final-year PhD student in sociology at the University of Edinburgh. She researches the emotion culture of British radical feminism, and the sociologies of emotions and affect. @LisaKalayji

Image Credit: Mark Gregory