Why MRAs, radical feminists and Christian fundamentalists agree with each other about transgender rights

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.

image

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.

Update: I’ve given up on finding a common language

Update: April 2, 2016

I no longer stand by the below entry. Soft, euphemistic terms like “trans critical feminism” whitewash the hatred I’ve seen Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) use. Also, I’ve asked several people who fit that title what term they prefer without getting a response – it seems they would rather complain about being “slurred” as TERFs than collaborate on finding a more helpful, mutually-understood language. Most importantly, from what I’ve seen, they’re not critical – they’re hateful. I can’t parlay with people preaching hate.

I’ll revisit this position if I encounter a radical feminist who a). is open to a conversation about language and b). can articulate a reason for being “critical” of transgender people that still recognizes their rights, humanity and decency.

Original Post

In previous posts I’ve used the term TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) despite being fully aware the people this term describes consider it a slur. I did this because I didn’t know what the alternative is. (A “TERF” might say she’s a “radical feminist,” however, there are radical feminists who embrace transgender people.) Still, I’ve been feeling badly about this, especially since I complain about these feminists misgendering transgender people.

I know some transgender people and trans allies wouldn’t see this as a problem. They might even accuse me of letting these feminists off the hook, not calling a spade. I understand that, but I also want this type of feminist to read my posts and engage with them without being turned off by the first paragraph. Truthfully, I question why this type of feminist objects to being called a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist – it seems perfectly descriptive of their views. I think nasty things they’ve done – arguing against health coverage for transgender people, etc – might be a factor here. On the other hand, any term can become “tainted” (it was once perfectly acceptable to call a black person “negro,” but that word become more offensive the more racists used it); if a person feels others keep screening “TERF!” at them derisively it’s understandable they’d grow to hate it.

Unfortunately, this means that, for my purposes, I need to invent a new term for these feminists. I’m not so egotistical that I expect it to catch on (certainly not with the people it describes), but I do need it for my own usage.

So the term: I actually considered “Feminist Against Transgender Inclusion” – but calling people FATIs is probably not conducive to productive debate.

For now let me go with Transgender Critical Feminist (TCF). If you object to this or know a better term (that isn’t “radical feminist,” see above) please let me know. I know TCFs might object to being labeled by a man; again, though, this is the best I can do and I don’t expect you to take the term on for yourself.

I might occasionally use “TERF” in headlines, tweets about posts, etc -situations where I want to reach people who wouldn’t know what TCF means. This is partially so that TCFs themselves know the piece involves them. I ask TCFs to indulge me.

I’ll continue to use terms like “cis” and gender transgender people appropriately (e.g. calling a MTF “her”) because that’s a matter of social justice for me; using different terms would feel like ceding and throwing the trans community under the bus.

Oppression and unity: a thought experiment

I’ve been writing a lot about Trans Critical Feminists (called TERFs elsewhere), but they’re only one example of a group that rejects or oppresses another group (transgender people in this case).

It always makes me sad when members of one oppressed group turn around and oppress another group. You see it when some black people don’t support LGBTQ rights, when some low-income people rail against immigrants – it almost feels like a law of society that the oppressed will become oppressors.

This kind of quarreling seems especially unhelpful because the people with power – white straight Christian cis men without disabilities – make up such a tiny fraction of society. Imagine how much could change if the remaining 95% all got on the same page!

It feels like a law of society that the oppressed will become oppressors

I’ve developed a thought experiment to help unpack this issue. First, this is where I say I’m a bi, white cis man with a disability – I’ve had more advantages than most but less than others.

Still with me? Then imagine for a moment that you’re unaware of anything like race, class, sex, gender or disability status. All you know is that you’re about to enter the world and that in this world a tiny percentage of people oppress the vast majority of people. You ask why this majority doesn’t rise up against their oppressors and you’re told it’s because the oppressed are broken up into hundreds of small groups; no single group is strong enough to defeat the oppressors, which are few in number but united by their interest in maintaining power.

Before beginning life as a human you must complete a task: you must develop a set of rules for all groups to follow. The catch: you don’t know which group you’ll be in.

What would you do? You’d probably decide that, just by the numbers, you’re likely to end up in one of the oppressed groups that make up the majority. Your task then is to create rules that, if followed by all groups, would benefit the majority.

What would you decide about how oppressed groups behave? What “rules” would allow the oppressed groups to overcome?

Here are some rules I’d create:

All people should be taken at their word as being who they say they are; if someone says they’re a massxbump then they’re a massixbump.

All groups should support each other unconditionally, as long as the group isn’t harming another group.

All groups should remember that the problem is the small oppressive minority; groups shouldn’t get sidetracked by rivalries with other groups.

All groups should quickly forgive injustices or mistakes made by other groups; this will help groups stay united.

What would it mean if these rules were adopted?

Another way to do this thought experiment is to imagine you’ve been assured you’ll be in the oppressive minority – what rules or strategies would you come up with then?

Your most important rule would probably be that each group should focus on its differences with other groups – cis women should tell transgender women they’re not real women, poor people should tell immigrants they’re stealing their jobs, black people should tell LGBTQ people they’re sinful. You’d want them fighting each other so you could get away with whatever you want. Your own group’s rule – the oppressive minority’s – would be to stoke these disagreements whenever possible.

Pretty much like now, I’d say. Turn on FOX and see what they say about LGBTQ people and minorities – what if that isn’t intended for white cis male viewers but members of oppressed, splintered groups?

What if when these groups fail to support each other they’re showing how they’ve internalized the oppressive minority’s values?

Do you agree with these rules? Do you have additions? Is this thought experiment useful or just silly? Let me know what you think in the comments and if you like I’ll include them in an upcoming post!

In search of a common language

In previous posts I’ve used the term TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) despite being fully aware the people this term describes consider it a slur. I did this because I didn’t know what the alternative is. (A “TERF” might say she’s a “radical feminist,” however, there are radical feminists who embrace transgender people.) Still, I’ve been feeling badly about this, especially since I complain about these feminists misgendering transgender people.

I know some transgender people and trans allies wouldn’t see this as a problem. They might even accuse me of letting these feminists off the hook, not calling a spade. I understand that, but I also want this type of feminist to read my posts and engage with them without being turned off by the first paragraph. Truthfully, I question why this type of feminist objects to being called a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist – it seems perfectly descriptive of their views. I think nasty things they’ve done – arguing against health coverage for transgender people, etc – might be a factor here. On the other hand, any term can become “tainted” (it was once perfectly acceptable to call a black person “negro,” but that word become more offensive the more racists used it); if a person feels others keep screening “TERF!” at them derisively it’s understandable they’d grow to hate it.

Unfortunately, this means that, for my purposes, I need to invent a new term for these feminists. I’m not so egotistical that I expect it to catch on (certainly not with the people it describes), but I do need it for my own usage.

So the term: I actually considered “Feminist Against Transgender Inclusion” – but calling people FATIs is probably not conducive to productive debate.

For now let me go with Transgender Critical Feminist (TCF). If you object to this or know a better term (that isn’t “radical feminist,” see above) please let me know. I know TCFs might object to being labeled by a man; again, though, this is the best I can do and I don’t expect you to take the term on for yourself.

I might occasionally use “TERF” in headlines, tweets about posts, etc -situations where I want to reach people who wouldn’t know what TCF means. This is partially so that TCFs themselves know the piece involves them. I ask TCFs to indulge me.

I’ll continue to use terms like “cis” and gender transgender people appropriately (e.g. calling a MTF “her”) because that’s a matter of social justice for me; using different terms would feel like ceding and throwing the trans community under the bus.

Why transgender people and radical feminists are both wrong (*I think)

A big thanks to Amy Lane and misshellbedlam@gmail.com! Your feedback on my last article inspired this post.

For anyone interested, here’s my current (but rapidly evolving) view of sex vs gender.

Both sex and gender exist on a spectrum. Intersex people prove this; an intersex person is one born with a mix of both male and female organs and/or chromosomes.

Such a person might be born with male chromosomes but genitalia that looks like a vagina; this person might be declared female at birth and spend childhood engaged in traditionally female activities while suffering from sexism; then realize at adolescence that he’s a male and go on to engage in traditionally male activities while benefiting from and perpetuating sexism.

So whether you define a male or female by their chromosomes, genitalia, internal sense of self or experiences, there are people who aren’t 100% male or female. Therefore, the binaries supported by both feminists opposed to transgender inclusion (elsewhere called TERFs) and transgender people are false. (Link to information about intersex people at the bottom of this post.)

Radical Feminists don’t have standing to grant or revoke access to “womanhood”; that would be like nurse’s aides being in charge of who gets to be a doctor.

Sex is whether you’re born with male or female genitalia AND male or female chromosomes, with most people being 100% “sex-male” or “sex-female” but some people inhabiting the spectrum between those extremes.

Gender is the sum total of a person’s experiences of being male/female/both/neither. So gender would include sex, because (for example) having a penis is part of a “gender-male’s” understanding of being gender-male; he knows he can use his penis to rape, assert dominance, give pleasure, etc; he knows he can be kicked in the balls as well.

Intersex people prove that gender-male and gender-female are also extremes on a spectrum, as a person with both male and female sex characteristics at birth can have both gender-male and gender-female experiences (raping or being raped, buying flowers or receiving them, going to a football game or a taping of Ellen).

However, all gender-men will inevitably have some gender-female experiences and vice-versa; a man might like Ellen or hate football (guilty!) while a woman might hate Ellen or love football. So nobody is 100% gender-male or gender-female (possible exception: Tom Selleck?).

Most people are at one extreme or the other on the sex spectrum; nobody is at either extreme on the gender spectrum.

Therefore, a transgender woman (MTF) can easily be a gender-woman, which doesn’t have a concrete threshold, but it’s hard for her to become a  sex-woman. She can go through reassignment and get female genitalia, so she can become a sex-woman, but not as much of a sex-woman as a woman born with all female chromosomes AND genitalia. But how does she compare to an intersex person?- another spectrum!

So really there’s two kinds of sex (chromosome-sex and genitalia-sex) and one kind of gender. Gender can include a person’s sense of being male or female (as a transgender person might believe), but that’s not all of gender, it’s just internal sense of self (without, say, the physical sensation of pulling on leggings). Gender can include the effects of living in a sexist society, as a radical feminist might believe, but that’s just one specific type of experience; for example, it doesn’t include the taste of white wine (a traditionally female experience that has little to do with sexism). Gender is a catchall; it’s everything about male or female except the plumbing and the chromosomes. In other words:

Sex = genitalia + chromosomes
Most are at an extreme; intersex people and transgender people who have undergone sexual reassignment are on the spectrum

Gender = sex + (external experience except for sex) + (internal felt sense of gender except sex)
All of this on a spectrum that includes everybody, including transgender people

And:

External experience = effects of sexism + all other experience as it relates to gender (radical feminists might say all of these experiences are effects of sexism; however, I think a girl can play with a doll without perpetuating sexism- room for debate)

Internal felt sense = thoughts + emotions + sensations as they relate to gender

I’m 100% sex-male (as far as I know) but maybe 70% gender male, as I have many gender-female qualities, such as not being interested in sports. There’s a cost to this: I miss opportunities for small talk about sports and networking opportunities at games, a type of exclusion traditionally suffered by gender-women as well; in other words, I suffer from more sexism in correlation to how gender-female I am.

Implications: transgender people are not fully correct in demanding recognition as men or women because they can never be fully male nor female, because there’s no such thing as pure male or female. However, they may be correct if judged by use of the terms “man” or “woman” as they’re used in day-to-day conversation.

Anti-transgender feminists are wrong to exclude transgender women from being women; the feminists themselves aren’t 100% female- so who are they to judge? They don’t have standing to grant or revoke access to “womanhood”; that would be like nurse’s aides being in charge of who gets to be a doctor.

The only people who are truly correct are those identifying as either both male and female or neither male nor female ( e.g. many genderqueer people); saying either amounts to the same thing.

Gender-men can have some gender-female traits or experiences that are of concern to radical feminists; e.g. a gender-male like myself can be raped, can be subordinate to a given gender-woman, etc; similarly, gender-women can rape, talk over a gender-male and give him instructions, etc. By putting everything on a spectrum it might become easier to discuss some controversial issues. For example, women sometimes rape men- a radical feminist would have to deny, minimize or explain this; in my framework it’s inevitable that gender-women would occasionally do gender-male things (the rape) to gender men.

This does not change the fact that gender-males enjoy most of the advantages in America and in all sexist societies; nor should it hide the fact that they’re responsible for the majority of sexual violence. None of this should be taken as a get out of jail free card for gender-men.

Lastly, “sexism” is probably an incorrect term, as oppression of women (and transgender people) can be about more than penises and vaginas, even if the oppression ultimately relates to genitalia. If I choose not to hire a female accountant because I believe all women are bad at math I’m not thinking about her vagina itself when I make this decision; if confronted about my discrimination I might say that I don’t hire women because I think schools fail to teach them math effectively; thus shifting the blame (speciously and indefensibly) to society. Nonetheless, it would never fully escape my mind that the person I’m oppressing has a vagina. So a better term for this kind of oppression might gender-sexual discrimination.

We’re all genderqueer! Welcome and Ubuntu, all!

Did I just blow your mind? Am I a long-winded idiot? Let me know in the comments section and I’ll do my best to include your feedback in a future post! (Tell me how you’d like to be identified if you have a preference.)

Info on intersex people: http://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/intersex.aspx