All three groups hate transgender people for the same reason – and that has important implications for trans activists .
Note: This article uses gender-appropriate language, so a transgender person who’s born male and identifies as a woman is referred to with “her” and “she.” A cis person is anybody who identifies with their sex at birth (the vast majority of people).
Take the Quiz: Can you tell the difference between a Radical Feminist, a Conservative Christian and a Men’s Rights Advocate?
I was both pleased and disappointed to read a recent article in State’s Outward section describing fundamentalist Christian opposition to transgender rights. Pleased because unpacking the motives of transphobes is necessary, if distasteful, work. Disappointed because the article overlooked some key players in the anti-trans backlash and, as a result, didn’t get to the root cause of transphobia.
Conservative Christians have become the go-to bogeyman for LGBTQ activists, and for good reason. There’s no doubt that in churches and “conversion clinics” across the country religious doctrine is used to justify transphobia. But let’s be clear: religion never made anyone do anything. From the Crusades to 9/11, zealots have done whatever they wanted – looted, killed, lashed out in fear – and used religion as an excuse, not an inspiration. God doesn’t tell Christians to hate transgender people any more than Allah told bin Laden to destroy the Twin Towers. There are transphobic atheists and trans-inclusive Christians.
What really drives conservative Christian opposition to transgender rights? The answer becomes clear once you realize what Christian fundamentalists, radical feminists and sexist men have in common.
By rejecting the gender that society assigns to them at birth, transgender people are also rejecting the social norms that oppress women.
So-called Men’s Rights Activists, abetted by the Internet and driven by the ever-burning engine of male insecurity, have become known for their hatred of feminism; but they also tend to be antipathical to transgender people. When Facebook started allowing users to identify themselves as transgender, genderqueer and other non-binary genders, MRAs pitched a fit, surmising that the “retards” at Facebook had caved to feminist and transgender pressure.
Writer Stephen Marche has done a fantastic job of showing that MRA antipathy towards women and feminists is rooted in fear and insecurity. Now with Facebook’s change they fretted about which of the new gender categories “are safe to approach” (note to MRAs: none of them bite). They lashed out with the frustration of boys who didn’t know the answers to a test they thought they were prepared for. “Have we been invaded by aliens trying to confused the fuck out of us?” [sic] one wondered.
In their confusion and anger MRAs, ironically, joined a longstanding and odd subgroup of radical feminists, known by their critics as TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). TERFs have opposed trans rights ever since transgender women started trying to join the feminist movement, cloaking their hatred in the language of gender theory but essentially saying, “Ew gross, get away from me.” Soon after transgender women began trying to join events for “womyn-born-womyn only,” such as Michfest, founded in 1976, radical feminist Janice Raymond wrote 1979’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Today notable TERFs include Cathy Brennan, founder of a group called Gender Identity Watch, who has outed transgender people online, including at least one adolescent.
TERFs assert that transgender women are “men in dresses” who suffer from “autogynephelia,” a discredited, made-up disorder in which men derive sexual pleasure from viewing themselves as women. They believe these “men in dresses” are attempting to insert themselves into everything feminine – including the feminist movement and feminists themselves – and to make women’s issues “all about men.” When TERFs see a transgender woman complaining about abuse they see an entitled man playing the victim card, pretending he’s endured something that only happens to cis women.
As with MRAs, a strong subcurrent of fear runs through TERF writings – TERFs believe cis men support the trans agenda because, by blurring the line between women and men, the existence of transgender people hides the facts that cis men oppress and abuse cis women. They don’t explain why the cis men who oppose transgender rights tend to be the same guys who deny sexism exists and seek to roll back women’s rights, whereas cis men who support trans rights are more likely to condemn sexism.
Like MRAs, TERFs have come to view transgender people themselves as threats. With the ongoing debate about transgender people’s access to public bathrooms TERFs have circulated horror stories about “men in dresses” assaulting cis women in bathrooms. Google “cotton ceiling” and you’ll see TERFs believe transgender women are hell-bent on sleeping with lesbian women, using force or trickery when needed. One TERF describes her understanding of transgender people’s motives in this way:
Dammit you cis-sexist lesbians, if you are going to sleep with twanzmenz, then you had better sleep with cismenz too. Oh, and because you now have to sleep with cismenz, I have a cock too, so how about sleeping with twanzwomenz while you are at it?!… Dammit you stoopid lesbians, I will get you to like cock one way or another!” [Emphasis added]
I would have thought that men who want to get laid would have easier ways of doing it than permanently joining the most reviled and attacked gender minority on the planet.
The great irony is that TERFs and MRAs are not only obsessed with each other but blame each other for the trans rights movement. TERFs believe “all this cis-business” is “men’s rights rhetoric packaged up in a pretty pink bow.” MRAs feel that “this [transgender] shit is all very feministic.”
Transgender people – unlike other oppressed groups such as women and people of color – challenge the social structure simply by saying who they are.
This is where religion comes back in. Question: What do Christian fundamentalists, Men’s Rights Activists and radical feminists all have in common?
Answer: They all have a vested interest in existing gender roles – roles they fear transgender people are undermining.
MRAs like to view themselves as “macho” men skilled in picking up women. An MRA discussion is as likely to center around tips for getting a date as the supposed feminist conspiracy. Ever since The Crying Game they’ve been afraid of the female sexual conquest who’s secretly a “man.”
Conservative Christians also tend to believe that “men should be men” and “women should be women,” a tradition that goes back to church founder and noted misogynist St. Paul, who wrote, “I suffer not a woman to teach, or have authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12) – a passage often used to justify sexism.
And radical feminists base their entire worldview on gender, which they see as being more relevant to a person’s success in the world than their race, sexual preference or country of birth. They claim to be opposed to gender roles; but the truth is that if gender disappeared overnight they’d lose their entire map of the world, as well as the moral high ground and their go-to excuse for their personal failures and shortcomings. The world would simply stop making sense.
Some caveats to all this: I enjoy the luxury of analyzing this debate from a position of power – I agree with radical feminists on that. I’m a white man. I identify as bi but I prefer women. I suppose I could be genderqueer but the truth is I’m pretty comfortable with my male identity.
The other caveat is that in order to depict the views I’m discussing clearly I plumbed subreddits and barely-read Tumblr blogs for quotes – hardly traditional sources. But I believe these slimy pearls from the depths of the Internet represent ideas that have filtered into the collective unconscious. Just as Christians can be sexist without citing Paul, I believe men like researcher Ray Blanchard parroted MRA views when describing “autogynephelia” as much as feminist leaders like Germaine Greere voiced TERF views when she said a transgender man undergoing sex reassignment surgery is “horrid” being who “inflicts a horrific act of violence on himself.”
From my privileged, white man’s perch I have to say radical feminists like Greere seem more deluded than other parties in this debate. MRAs have an obvious incentive to defend gender roles – they’re men and they want power over women. The picture is less clear with Christians, since there are Christian women (and even feminists!), but the pattern of Christian men enjoying dominance over women is as clear as Joseph Smith’s fondness for polygamy.
But women don’t get any benefits from gender roles, except for the privileges granted to the oppressed – a common enemy and the moral high ground. It seems like a bad deal for them. And most women agree – despite TERF claims women are more likely than men to support transgender people’s right to use the bathroom of their choice, and NOW has stated that it advocates for “equality for all women,” including transgender women.
I hope radical feminists come to recognize transgender people as allies in the struggle against oppressive gender roles, instead of as threats. In fact, by rejecting the gender that society assigns to them at birth, transgender people are also rejecting the social norms that oppress women.
And that gets to the heart of why cis people hate transgender people. By rejecting their birth sex transgender people – unlike other oppressed groups such as women and people of color – challenge the social structure simply by saying who they are. In America minorities and women are tolerated as long as they “know their place.” Gay people become combatants in the culture wars when they have sex or get married. But transgender people become combatants simply by existing, by putting on pants or a skirt in the morning.
It took America decades to accept gay marriage, a relatively small change in the social fabric. For a person who’s genderqueer it will be even harder.
Ze’s going to need all the allies ze can find.