The following text first appeared in Polish at Codziennik Feministyczny website. While some parts of it concern Poland specifically, Freedom is pleased to translate and publish it (with mild edits for clarity for English speaker) as an example of an excellent takedown of TERF politics.
CW: some discriminatory language used for the purpose of providing examples of TERF and otherwise bigoted people’s speech.
In recent weeks, one of the most discussed cis women in the right-wing corners of the Polish internet is Women’s Strike organiser Marta Lempart. The main subject of this discourse is that, while Lempart is a cis woman, she is also too ‘vulgar’, too ‘ugly’ and too ‘aggressive’, without a husband or children, and with a wife instead. The more popular joke is a deliberation on whether she still qualifies as a woman, or whether, since she does not fit into the norms of femininity, she is already some mysterious third sex. The same people who a few months ago claimed that chromosomes determine gender identity and that social gender is postmodern cultural Marxism concept, suddenly changed their position by 180 degrees. A similar sentiment was expressed a few months ago by the Polish state-run TVP Info station’s journalist Adrian Klarenbach during an interview with the left MP Agnieszka Dziemianowicz Bąk. During that interview, Klarenbach stated that “a woman who offends others ceases to be a woman”, after Dziemianowicz Bąk cricitised her opponent.
In our society, gender does not imply any particular biological characteristic. The status of a man or a woman can be lost easily, and without the need for surgical intervention. One can simply lose their gender status by wearing a dress or saying a profanity. Since the beginning of feminism, one of its fundamental goals was to fight the rigours of “what a woman is supposed to be”. It may be behavioural requirements, it may be body requirements such as beauty standards, slim waist, the lack of wrinkles, stretch marks and body hair; hourglass figure, wearing makeup, plastic surgery, fertility and childbearing. Feminism’s great achievement is the assertion that meeting, or not, these requirements should not determine someone’s value and social status. Women with broad shoulders, facial hair, a bit (or a lot) more bodyweight than others, women without children, unable or unwilling to have a child, after the experience of mastectomy or hysterectomy; do not become “less” womanly. This undermines one of the main tenets of sexism – the idea that our biological sexual characteristics determine the role we are to play in our lives, and how we are to look and behave.
Each of us women would be able to find in our lives the unpleasant consequences of applying this principle by society, but there are also manifestations of it that are lesser-known and less discussed. There is a group of people whose very existence undermines the thesis about destiny contained in our sexual characteristics – transgender people. At birth, the doctor, based on the appearance of our genitals, writes the letter F or M into the birth certificate. This pushes us into one of the two paths of functioning in society.
We, transgender people, reject this imposed on us classification. Contrary to what the patriarchal society tells us about our bodies, we want to be recognised as our perceived gender: as a man, a woman, or a non-binary person.
When we say that a man can give birth, or that a woman can make someone pregnant, we are not against biology. We are not denying any anatomical fact about our bodies. To the contrary, we are confirming them. We are against the idea that our bodies define our social destiny. In order to live according to our true gender, we expose ourselves to the misunderstanding, mockery and anger of society. We take out loans or beg for money online to afford medical transitions, we go through the humiliation of the medical and legal system and the violence inflicted on us by transphobes. In the Campaign Against Homophobia [Polish NGO] report concerning the social situation of LGBTQ+ people in Poland, transgender persons were the group most exposed to the risk of sexual, verbal and physical violence. Detailed data on the socio-economic situation of trans people in Poland has not yet been collected, but the data from the US shows that trans people are disproportionately more often unemployed or living under the poverty line, are more often victims of domestic violence, and as many as 30% have experienced homelessness in their lifetime. In a pan-European survey, 1 in 4 trans people reported that in the past 5 years they had experienced discrimination due to their transgender nature in the workplace, 1 in 5 in a medical facility, and the same in a place providing social services. Trans people (especially trans women) are more likely to be sex workers, because in other jobs they may simply be rejected or fired.
This discrimination stems from misogyny and the ruthless bullying of anyone who dares to go against their gender role, especially in such drastic ways as gender transition. In the eyes of the patriarchy, trans men are tomboys who pretend to be men, and trans women are men who have humiliated themselves in the worst possible way that a man can humiliate himself: by giving up his status and assuming the inferior status of a woman.
Much of the discussion around transgender issues focuses on the source and mechanism behind transgenderism and gender dysphoria. Many studies point to likely biological determinants of gender identity, whether it is seen in the structures of the brain, in studies on monozygotic twins, or in the high-profile case of David Reimer. But the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. The extent to which transgender is conditioned by genes, hormonal disruptions in utero, or other factors should not affect transgender acceptance any more than the existence of a homosexual gene should influence the acceptance of same-sex relationships. The important thing is that we have been fighting for decades to recognise our sexuality, that we have not “changed our mind” about our gender, that we do not give up on it against the pressure of society, that various detailed studies have shown that living according to gender as felt enables us to live free from psychological suffering (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10).
Other people focus on what is the determinant of being a “real” woman or man – where the essence of sexuality is stored, whether it is in the testes and ovaries, or perhaps in the brain. But why should I care about all the pointless debates that begin and end with metaphysics? I do not believe in the existence of any such essence that a woman is supposed to have, and I see no point in looking for it. The aim of feminism is not to seek the perfect definition of the”real” woman and the “real” man. Its goal is to transform society. The subject of feminism is not some ideal, Platonic form, but the social and political category of women. The question of whether transgender people should function as full members of their gender categories is political, not a metaphysical one. Likewise, the political question is whether I, as a trans woman, should be an equal part of the movement to combat misogyny and gender oppression. Trans people, as people who often experience extreme forms of gender oppression, must be included in the feminist struggle, because only this protects them and their rights and at the same time is consistent with the political goal of this struggle.
Involvement in pointless disputes over the “essence” of a woman is the exact opposite of feminism’s goals and brings it closer to the right-wing trolls measuring the femininity of the women activists in the Polish Women’s Strike.
But there is a current of feminism that does not agree with this conclusion, and instead is seeking various theoretical and practical problems resulting from acceptance of transgender people. This trend describes itself as “Gender-Critical”, is most active in the UK, and draws on the theoretical achievements of radical feminists such as Janice Raymond, Germaine Greer, and Sheila Jeffreys. In recent months, texts from this trend have also appeared in Poland, so it is worth taking apart the arguments presented by them.
The “universal oppression” fallacy
The arguments of feminists excluding transgender people focus primarily on trans women. They can be summarised as follows: “Men are responsible for the oppression of women. Trans women share many biological characteristics with cis men and, during their upbringing, they undergo the same socialisation, which makes them the same threat to women as cis men. Women’s oppression stems from biology and differences in reproductive systems. Trans women, since they do not have a female reproductive system, cannot be part of the oppressed class of women. Trans women often start to assume stereotypically feminine looks or behaviours, which shows that they define being a woman solely through stereotypes, which strengthens the gender role and harms feminism.”
Let’s look at these arguments sentence by sentence: “Trans women share many biological characteristics with cis men, and during their upbringing, they go through the same socialisation, which makes them the same threat to women as cis men.”
The belief that the source of male oppression lies in any biological trait, such as the penis or high testosterone levels, is a belief that is destructive to any feminist endeavour because it leads to the conclusion that violence against women is natural and impossible to change. Many trans women correct sexual characteristics such as genitals and hormones in the course of medical transitions, but doing so should not make a difference.
On the other hand, socialisation to perform a specific gender role is indeed one of the factors responsible for the phenomenon of male violence against women. Teaching boys to take a particular place in the hierarchy and dominate others, be it boys or girls, is well documented by sociological and psychological research. By analogy, one part of the oppression against women is socialising them to the role of pretty, non-offensive, always supportive and always doing laundry.
However, to use this phenomenon as an argument against the inclusion of trans women, one must first assume that the socialisation of trans women is no different from that of cis men and that their gender identity, often recognised from a very young age, does not translate into the process itself. Gender socialisation is supposed to stem solely from whether society perceives us as boys or as girls. A purely psychological phenomenon such as gender identity is not supposed to have an impact on it.
However, this assumption is untrue. There are forms of socialisation that do depend solely on social perception, e.g. someone perceived as a boy will not be discouraged from playing computer games or chess. But many other forms of socialisation involve imprinting in us certain behaviours and patterns that are supposed to make us “good boys” and “good girls” (e.g. “if I want to be a good girl, I have to take care of my appearance”), and, in this case, our psychological experiences can very much influence the whole process.
For example, psycho-sexual orientation, although it is limited to a psychological feeling, can affect whether we assimilate gender norms, which often revolve around the idea of heterosexual marriage – hence there are definitely more non-abiding women among lesbians than among straight women. For trans people, the jolt between what we feel and what is communicated to us occurs on an even more fundamental level. A transgender girl will react to the message “behave this way because that’s how boys behave” differently from a boy. Moreover, the boy will often use the norms expected of girls to mock those who do not meet them, while the transgender girl may take them personally. Eating disorders, a problem related to high standards of beauty, are many times more common among trans women than among cis men, and even cis women.
Of course, this experience of socialisation will be different from that of cis women as well, but that is also not a problem because… there is no such thing as “cis women’s experience.”
There is no one single way to raise girls. Depending on the country, class and ethnicity, it can differ dramatically. bell hooks noted in her book The Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center that some white feminists even conclude that black women do not need feminism and are not oppressed by patriarchy because they are seen as louder, less afraid to express their own opinion and had a political experience from the civil rights movement – it is the same mistake of imagining a single female experience shared by each oppressed woman. The question we should be asking here is not “are trans women socialised the same as cis women?”; but “does their socialisation lead them to be perpetrators or victims of sexual oppression?” All the previously cited statistics point to the latter.
“The oppression of women stems from biology and differences in reproductive systems. Trans women, since they do not have a female reproductive system, cannot be part of the oppressed class of women.”
Most patriarchal theories do seek to justify the discrimination against women present in most cultures of the world with the biological differences – citing things such as male strength and the long period of weakness associated with pregnancy. However, the biological origin of the gender norm system does not mean that current social gender categories can only be reduced to this dimension. Should that be the case, trans women would not be the targets of sexual violence, mobbing and domestic violence as often as they are.
One of the more common variations of this argument is bringing up the phenomena such as fin some countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, and the femicide of new-born girls in China or India. These are some of the most glaring examples of misogyny, and it is true that they concern biological sexual characteristics, rather than someone else’s identification or expression. This argument is intended to prove the pointlessness of placing trans women in the same category with cis women, because the oppression they experience is supposed to have completely different forms.
One does not need to be very wise to note that the vast majority of cis women in Poland have neither undergone FGM nor were they at risk of infanticide. Yet, no one questions their belonging to the category of women. Moreover, if we pay attention to how trans women are treated in the above-mentioned regions, it turns out that these are some of the more transphobic places in the world (1, 2, 3). Poland is one of the last European countries in which abortion is prohibited and at the same time has one of the worst legal solutions in the field of gender reassignment on record, and in the social acceptance of transgender people, it drags on the European tail. Transphobia and misogyny always go in tandem because they are not separate phenomena. You don’t have to have a specific reproductive system to fall victim to sexism and oppressive gender roles. Every trans woman knows this, but also every cis woman who for one reason or another does not have a womb.
Again, the error of this argument lays in imaginary single oppression cis women face, when in fact it is a multifaceted phenomenon that affects different groups of women to a different degree and of a different nature. There are forms of misogyny that trans women will never experience, but there are many others that affect them quite regularly, and others that trans women have to confront more often than cis women – attempts to undermining our gender identity is our daily experience.
“Trans women often begin to assume stereotypically feminine looks or behaviours when transitioning, which shows that they define being a woman solely through stereotypes, which strengthens the gender roles and harms feminism.”
I have never met a trans woman in my life who would consider herself a woman because she wears dresses or likes playing with dolls. The opposite is much more common. During the transition, trans women start wearing stereotypical female clothes or applying makeup to signal their gender to the environment, not to “change sex”.
Looking transgender can be unpleasant and simply dangerous for trans people – appearing to others to be a “fa**ot” is a simple route to discrimination. This is no greater endorsement for patriarchy than a cis woman applying makeup before a job interview. Our survival is more important than contesting gender norms.
There is a large group of trans women who, despite these adversities, do not conform with the gender stereotypes regarding appearance and behaviour – after all, they are oppressive, uncomfortable, consume a lot of time, resources and efforts, and for many trans women they are impossible to meet without enormous expenditure. But in their case, it will often happen that the same people who previously attacked feminine trans women for fitting into stereotypes … will attack non-feminine trans women, mock their appearance and undermine their transgender identity, because, how come one can consider herself a woman and not even recognise the hardships of facing the standards of beauty and behaviour?
Many of the arguments of the “Gender-Critical” movement discussed above stem from the perception of feminism not as a broad movement against gender oppression, but as a movement of single female identity (determined by biology, not self-identification) and a single cause. Hence the attempts to universalise women’s oppression, a single “biology-driven oppression”, a single “female socialisation” as opposed to a single “male socialisation”. Such simplifications are suitable for fliers and speeches, but not for an actual feminist analysis of gender relations, which should be based on historical data and statistical research. Gender Critical feminism, however, deviates from this method and operates in the territory of assumptions that are unjustified. Since trans women share certain similarities with cis men, they must also be perpetrators of similar violence and are not the subject of feminism – reasoning sounding simple and logical, but unfounded.
However, the “Gender-Critical” movement, in addition to theoretical arguments, also presents practical arguments that are to prove the existence of a conflict between the rights of transgender people and cis women’s rights.
The trouble with inclusiveness
The Gender Critical movement is very prolific in creating the potential problems posed by accepting trans people, so I will limit myself to the problems around which there has been more social controversy in the UK.
1) Spaces reserved for women
For several years now, the British Parliament has been debating the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) reform. The proposed GRA is a legal bill that allows change of legal gender identification on the basis of one’s own declaration, without the participation of a sexologist or the need for medical tests. Such a solution is preferred and fought for by a number of trans rights organisations worldwide. Going through costly and lengthy diagnostic processes is not available to everyone, and to make matters worse, many countries impose further absurd and unpleasant requirements, such as the British requirement of 2 years of functioning in a given social role necessary to change gender in the face of the law. For 2 years, trans people are forced to deal with the possibility of being outed, and often also face the disbelief of officials and further problems when presenting their documents.
In the eyes of “gender critics”, such self-identification poses a threat to all same-sex spaces, such as bathrooms, changing rooms, swimming pools, shelters for victims of violence or prisons. Any man will be able to change his legal gender based merely on a declaration, and disturb women in spaces designed for their safety! Hence the stiff opposition of some feminists and organisations such as Woman’s Place UK.
However, these people overlooked a “minor” fact, which is that the GRA does not change much in most of these areas. The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination against transgender people, including barring them from entering places that are consistent with their gender, even if their official gender remains as assigned at birth, and they have not undergone any medical treatment themselves. A decade is a long enough period, so there are even studies to see whether this change has caused increased violence in bathrooms and changing rooms. It has caused none.
In the USA, where the “bathroom panic” also took place, in some states prohibitions were imposed on the use of bathrooms by trans people in accordance with their perceived gender. This did not reduce the scale of violence against cis people in any way, and only increased violence faced by trans people. Moreover, even the hypothetical mechanism by which the existence of trans-inclusive spaces would lead to an increase in violence against cis women is quite questionable. After all, you do not need any documents to use most of these spaces. A cis man who wants to sneak into the women’s bathroom does not need an ID for this. Even if he changes these documents, it will not help him in any way if he is found watching women in toliet cabins.
The hypothesis that cis men, known for their fragile masculinity, who are often afraid of behaving too “gay”, would suddenly change their gender identification in documents and put on dresses is also not very convincing.
The question of prisons is a bit different. They are one of the exceptions to the Equality Act. In this case, in fact, introducing self-identification would have an impact on the allocation to a prison. There are also examples of abuse of inclusiveness for transgender people. In 2018, Karen White, convicted of rape and allocated to men’s prison, decided to transition and asked to be transferred to a women’s prison. Subsequently, she raped one of the inmates, which led to the outbreak of a media scandal that lasted for months.
However, the case of Karen White was not an example of “trans-madness”, but a tragic bureaucratic oversight. A special commission decides to transfer prisoners from a women’s prison to a men’s prison, or the other way around. In this case, the commission did not meet, and White’s transfer was carried out unlawfully. The prison law provides for situations in which a given prisoner may pose a threat to inmates and allows the use of such measures as a separate cell, additional protection or transfer to a male prison (this applies to both extremely dangerous cis and trans women) . Existing studies of trans women in male prisons show that they are victims of an exceptional scale of violence – 60% of California’s trans inmates have experienced sexual abuse by a fellow prisoner (15 times more than in the state’s overall male prison population), and need adequate protection. Condemning all trans prisoners to violence by men for the actions of one of them is an unfair and unnecessary solution due to the already existing regulations that may flag up potentially dangerous individuals.
Along with the improved access to gender-affirming procedures, such as surgery and hormone therapy, the question is whether the percentage of people who changed their mind about their transgender status will also increase. Trans people are firm in their position of not questioning the identity of others, and so perhaps some trans men are actually women fleeing from misogyny and the demands of feminine gender role? Perhaps, there is also a phenomenon of a kind of “transgender fashion”: adolescents imagining that they are transgender under the influence of social pressure, and then making decisions about irreversible medical interventions?
Detransitions do happen and can be caused by a number of reasons, e.g. a trans person can not afford to continue the transition, or a family pressure. Detransitions caused by actual regret about the decision made and reflection on one’s transgender nature are very rare. In various studies, their proportion was 0.47%, 0.4%, 0.1%, and 1% of all persons undertaking medical transitions. If this scenario does occur, then such a person should be supported and provided with the best medical care in detransitioning, but this percentage of cases cannot be treated as representative of the whole.
The media, however, are very fond of detransition stories, and dedicate dozens of articles, documentaries and programs to them. This may give the impression that this is a real social problem. Often you can even come across a statement that this is an “inconvenient”, “silenced” or “politically incorrect” topic. This sounds quite ironic considering the number of scientific papers produced each year on the subject. The common feature of media coverage of this issue is that they do not cite studies supporting the thesis about the “plague of detransition” because such studies do not exist.
The issue of transition of children and teenagers is also controversial. At this age, however, no irreversible medical interventions are undertaken. Pre-pubescent children who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria by specialists go through a social transition only (e.g. change of name, pronouns). Teenagers in adolescence, if their gender dysphoria persists, may benefit from the so-called puberty blockers, a group of drugs that are also used in situations where puberty appears too early. These drugs are designed to delay the onset of irreversible changes related to puberty that trans people may later struggle with for their whole life.
Thanks to the use of puberty blockers, adolescents are granted time until they can make an informed decision, usually around the age of 16, before making a medical transition. They can then either come off the blockers and undergo natural puberty or switch to hormone therapy. Puberty blockers are given only in the case of specialist diagnosis, which makes them highly effective – the vast majority of adolescents still describe themselves as transgender after their use. Such a procedure is new, but relatively safe and endorsed by medical societies such as the Endocrine Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The only study that proves that transgender is “catchable” is that of Lisa Littman’s Rapid Onset of Gender Dysphoria. Such a disorder has not been recognised by any scientific institution, and Littman herself has met with wide criticism from the scientific community. Littman based the entire existence of this syndrome on … her conversations with parents. Her research was based on collecting interviews with parents from various websites, including those grouping parents who did not accept their transgender children. Their stories that their children began to describe themselves as transgender because that’s the fashion now, and they had picked it up from their friends, were treated as truthful without any consultation with the children themselves.
And at this point, we must stop and reflect. Why does the “Gender-Critical” trend present both of these issues as an attack on women’s freedom and safety? Why has it been campaigning against these laws and solutions for years, ignoring research and misleading British society about the applicable legal order? Systemic and empirical thinking is a sign of well-done feminism, but in this case, they are being abandoned in favour of tactics borrowed from the extreme right – drawing individual cases as arguments against rights for the entire minority and associating it with sexual offenders. How is this different from the activities of the Pro-Right to Life Foundation [an organisation advocating against abortion and LGBTQ+ rights in Poland], which informs us about a lesbian couple from Brazil who killed a child, or a gay couple from Great Britain who are part of a paedophile ring? One of the feminist aims is to redirect public attention to the fact that the most common perpetrator of sexual violence is not some isolated “degenerate”, deviant, stranger or a serial killer, but a husband, relative, acquaintance, colleague. How does this relate to a campaign over the years to incite fear of any masculine-looking person wearing a dress? A campaign that has increased the number of transphobic crimes in the UK by 400% in the last 5 years?
Feminist classics such as Angela Davis have criticised the prison institution as getting the worst out of people. As grim as it may sound, in female prisons you don’t need trans women for sexual violence to take place – cis women handle it very well on their own. Why do feminists with access to public media have been bringing up the case of Karen White for years, rather than engaging in criticism of the entire institution? Why, instead of focusing on the entire oppressive prison system, are they only concerned with keeping trans women away from women’s prisons? In their opinion, is rape worthy of media attention and legal reforms only when it is perpetrated by a trans woman?
The fatal source of feminist transphobia
The answer to all these questions is simple, albeit sad. “Gender-Critical” is not a branch of feminism that simply has a different opinion on theoretical issues, but with which we can communicate and discuss, in good faith, the issues separating and uniting us. “Gender-Critical” is a position built on prejudice and fear. The motivation behind it is not rational but instead comes down to feelings – fear, hatred, and a sense of danger. It sees a threat in the existence of trans women because, in the eyes of patriarchal logic, trans women are sexually deprived men. And if they are deprived in one field, they are about to indulge in sexual perversions in other areas as well. We know similar reasoning from our familiar homophobes who link gayness with paedophilia and sexual debauchery.
For many transphobic feminists, their prejudices additionally come from the feeling of losing a safe space. They perceive feminism not as a political movement, but as a kind of “safe place”, a safe haven where they can go about their business and enjoy the presence of only the people who are similar to them. Which, of course, does not include trans women.
This can often be due to trauma and experiences of male violence. The presence of trans women in spaces they have seen as their own may come as a shock to them, a symbol of losing the last scraps of women’s movement. Trans women begin to appear to them as an existential threat to feminism, comparable to the issues of domestic violence or access to abortion. Hence, it is often the case that when a gender critical feminist starts a discussion on the threat of trans women, she ends up devoting most of her time and activities to the cause and devising disastrous visions of the negative effects that “trans ideology” is expected to bring. Such fears, while they may inspire sympathy, nevertheless lead to something unacceptable: the aggression directed at a vulnerable minority. The feminist movement must not prioritise the hurt feelings of one section of women over the actual exclusion of another section.
So far, I have tried to present the problems and arguments of the “Gender-Critical” movement in their most moderate form. In reality, however, the movement often goes much further, earning it the nickname “TERF” (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist), which its members dislike. Let’s leave behind the cultural arguments and let’s see what “Gender-Critical” means in practice.
Janice Raymond, the author of manifesto of transphobic feminism The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (1979), argued that trans women through surgery on the genitals “rape female bodies”. Upon discovering that a trans woman named Sandy Stone was one of the members of the Olivia Records women’s music collective, she wrote a letter to its other members revealing Stone’s transgender nature and urging them to expel her. When faced with a negative response, Raymond described Sandy Stone in her book as a male invader appropriating a female collective. This started a media hunt for Stone, which was inundated with death threats and attacks on concerts where she played. Another feminist, Germaine Greer, in her 1989 article for the Independent, Why Sex Change is a Lie, describes an interaction with a trans woman who came to thank her for her book. Greer describes in detail how disgusted she was with her makeup with stubble underneath it. Sheila Jeffreys, acclaimed for her work on lesbianism, described trans women as “parasites occupying the bodies of the oppressed“. When the case of Aimee Stevens, a funeral director fired for her transgender status, was up at the US Supreme Court, the radical feminist collective Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) lobbied for the case dismissal, and for not extending gender discrimination protections to transgender people.
The most popular TERF website in Canada, Feminist Current, published texts opposing the ban on conversion therapies for trans people to force them to change their gender identity. Such therapies are considered unethical, pseudoscientific, and resulting in the deaths of many trans teenagers such as Leelah Alcorn.
In the UK, in 2018, Posie Parker launched a campaign to place the stickers “Trans women are men” in public places, and youtuber Magdalene Berns, popular among TERFs, in one of her tweets addressed a trans woman: “You are fucking blackface actors. You aren’t women. You’re men who get sexual kicks from being treated like women. Fuck you and your dirty fucking perversions. Our oppression isn’t a fetish you pathetic, sick, fuck.” Favourite TERF celebrity J.K. Rowling, on her social media, advertised a shop selling garments and pins with slogans such as “Trans men are our sisters”, “Fuck your pronouns” or “Transition = conversion therapy”; and the left-wing newspaper Morning Star published a caricature created by Stella Perret, which depicted a trans woman as a bloodthirsty crocodile sneaking into a pond with newts exclaiming “Don’t worry your pretty little heads! I’m transitioning as a newt!”. The most popular English-language TERF forum, r/GenderCritical on Reddit, was banned by the site due to the enormous amount of transphobic hate expressed by its members. Comments about the disgusting masculine looks of trans women, their huge hands, broad shoulders, horrible makeup skills, were so frequent there that they led to regular appeals from cis women who happened to have similar physical features, to stop this constant mockery- to no avail.
Many TERF writers in r/GenderCritical referred to Ray Blanchard’s pseudoscientific theory popular in the 1990s, according to which trans women are either fetishists enjoying being perceived as feminine, or gay men seeking to increase their dating opportunities through a transition. Other TERFs ventured into utter denial of reality and, despite all the statistics, claimed that trans women are rich white men who play the “oppression game” out of boredom.
Both of these tactics are well known to any feminist. The sexualisation of someone else’s motivations is an old proven way of discrediting a group’s demands (“feminists just need to get laid”), as are unsubstantiated hypotheses about class privilege and detachment from reality (“feminists are well-educated, wealthy ladies who have no respect for other women”). It is all the more strange to observe exactly the same tactics used by people who call themselves radical feminists.
This strange affliction of convergence between antifeminists and radical feminists does not end here. In the text by Magdalena Grzyb from Kultura Liberalna [Polish weekly magazine], “Margot, and the case of women”, she writes about the perceived masculinity of Margot: a non-binary person using she/her pronouns. The proof of this masculinity is to be her … vulgar and uncompromised fight for her cause, which is, after all, something typical for men, and not for women. These words have aged very badly, considering the current women’s protests in Poland, under the slogan “Get the fuck out”. Grzyb could thus give the high five to the right-wingers who criticise feminists for not fighting for their rights in a feminine way – both sides agree that there are female and male forms of protests.
The aforementioned WoLF collaborated with the anti-abortion Christian fundamentalist organisation, and appeared at conferences hosted by the Heritage Foundation, an ultra-conservative entity founded by the Koch brothers. In the UK, there has recently been a high-profile legal case of TERF-supported Keira Bell, a detransitioned woman who tries to prevent transgender teenagers from getting medical help, arguing that they are too young to make an informed decision about their treatment. She was represented by Paul Conrathe, a lawyer and anti-abortion activist, who provided his services pro bono, hoping to use the precedent to advance the ban on access to abortion for teenagers on exactly the same grounds. The expert witness in the case was Paul Hruz , a doctor with absolutely zero training in transgender issues, who has never dealt with transgender teenagers, but who is quite coincidentally associated with the Heritage Foundation and the Christian right.
The aforementioned Posie Parker supported Donald Trump during one of her live streams as a candidate better for women because he restricts the rights of transgender people. On one of the TERF forums a surprised user commented that all radical feminists she follows vote for Trump.
The TERFs are getting close to the right because of the contradiction in their ideology. According to radical feminist theorists, gender categories such as “a woman” and “a man” are not embedded in our biology. Instead, they are social constructs designed to oppress women, and feminism is meant to abolish them. However, as long as they are a social fact, there is no obstacle for a person originally classified in one of these categories to pass to the other. Andrea Dworkin, one of the world’s most famous radical feminists, argued that trans women deserve support and reimbursement for gender-affirming treatments. However, transphobic feminism requires the opposite: to draw a rigid line between the social categories of men and women that no person can cross.
The existence of such border must be somehow justified, and the easiest way to do it is by emphasising a difference that no gender oppression or identity can erase. And hence the straight path to conservative essentialism, the belief that the essence of “woman” and “man” is given to us once and for all at the day of our birth. Essentialism directly contradicts anti-essentialism, an approach shared by many feminists, both radical and non-radical. Therefore, the issue of trans-inclusiveness is not only an issue of concern to trans people and our loved ones, it is a fundamental issue for all feminism. Choosing a different path leads to contradictions that will have to be finally resolved either by embracing the right side of the political spectrum or by accepting transgender people.
So far, I focused mainly on trans women, because it is them that the TERFs have primarily targeted. However, trans men also are a subject of hate, which shows once again that it is not about ideological commitment to the solidarity of people connected by biological oppression. If it were so, the voices of trans men would be heard and appreciated by TERFs. Nothing like this is happening. Trans men are at best stray sisters escaping from misogyny, and at worst women-hating sexists supporting these horrible trans women. This kind of approach negates all of trans men’s gender experiences, their gender identity and their gender dysphoria, but who cares? The only way a trans man will be heard and taken seriously by TERFs is… to decide to detransition. It is not about any “solidarity of the ovaries”, it is not about having or not having certain parts of the body, or going through certain socialisation, it is about hostility to transgender people as such.
What to do with transphobia in the feminist movement?
Many of the views presented above will sound disgusting even to people completely unfamiliar with the subject of transgenderism. Expressing such views would likely be rather criticised – we all live in a time of a campaign against LGBTQ+ people, one of the symbols of which is the suicide of Milo, a transfeminine non-binary person. The TERFs are aware of this and therefore adopt a two-faced tactic. The most transphobic opinions are expressed primarily in their own circle, in closed groups, anonymous forums and in niche publications. To the wider public, the TERFs assume the position of a “concerned feminist” who only asks questions and expresses doubts. “Aren’t trans women taking advantage of their male privilege?” “What about men pretending to be trans women? Don’t we have the right to be afraid of them?” “But what if our children only think they are transgender?” There are honest answers to each one of these questions that respect both the rights of cis women and the rights of trans women. But TERFs are not asking these questions in good faith.
Each of the questions “Are trans women not disturbing feminism?” is asked with the pre-assumed answer that of course they are. Each study will be rejected, any answer will be suppressed by a clinging to one detail or another.
The purpose of these questions is not to provoke a discussion, but to evoke a specific emotional reaction. Direct transphobia is easy to recognise, but the subconscious fears and associations created by culture or art are a completely different topic. For many, the first association with the figure of a “man in a dress” will be someone like Buffalo Bill from “Silence of the Lambs” or Norman Bates from “Psycho”. Often these associations will appeal to the imagination more than any actual study. It is much easier to rationalise your anxiety than to try to confront it. This is what the “doubts” raised by TERFs serve – they provide a medium and superficial justification for transphobia. This tactic is well known and used by any group trying to push a prejudice against a minority into the mainstream media.
Homophobes will ask “Why are gays responsible for such a high percentage of child molestation?” already knowing the answer in advance, and their answer will be that it’s because gays are deviants. Racists will ask, “Why is the US Black community responsible for a disproportionately high percentage of violent crime?” not because they want to participate in a nuanced discussion of the causes of crime, ghettoisation and the police and prison complex, but to suggest to that Black people are biologically more aggressive.
A simple impication is fully sufficient here because, for each of us, the transphobic, homophobic and racist popular culture is imprinted into the subconscious – it is enough to raise doubts and reject all suggestions for an explanation. This tactic allows, on the one hand, to incite a sense of danger among cis women. On the other hand, it protects against accusations of transphobia. A trans person who understands this game and calls out “transphobe!” will be considered an oversensitive snowflake that tries to stifle the free discussion, because everyone has the right to have doubts and strangling the conversation with accusations of transphobia is totalitarianism and suppression of freedom of speech, and by the way, “I only ask uncomfortable questions”. It is good to be aware of this pattern and be able to recognise it – a good test is to pay attention to how a person reacts after receiving an answer to their question. Are they engaging in good faith, or are they trying to derail the conversation and come back to the idea of ”trans-threat” in various ways?
However, the popularity of this tactic carries a negative consequence. Sometimes people ask questions … because they want to know something. When faced with a hostile reaction and accusation of transphobia, they can quite rightly feel treated unfairly. In addition to TERFs and other transphobes, there is a fairly wide range of people who may not feel prejudice towards trans people, but at the same time don’t understand the concept of transgender with its nuances and commit numerous fallacies which are unpleasant to trans people. A common answer to this problem in progressive circles is that if you don’t know something, you have to learn and listen to trans people. This answer sounds legit, but it’s not very realistic after all. While simple rules such as “respect someone else’s pronouns” or “don’t ask about genitals” are quite common sense and clear, the nuances of transgender politics can often make a someone new to them confused.
By participating in the feminist movement, we are not able to cover every topic. We do not expect each other to know the problems of transport exclusion or the details of the re-privatisation scandal in Warsaw, but when the conversation turns to gender and sexuality, you can often meet the expectation that the subject must be fully understood, even though they are often far removed from the problems of the rest of society. This may even take the form of pathological exclusion of all people with low cultural capital – in Poland, we have one of the smallest percentages of people declaring that they know a trans person in Europe, only 15% of the society.
For the remaining 85%, the subject of transgender will be something abstract, and only people with sufficient free time, strength and cultural capital will explore it. There is a real risk that holding someone accountable for linguistic blunder may become an instrument for the social exclusion of people we dislike and for creating a barrier between the complicated language of niche progressive environments and the rest of society.
Calling someone a TERF because they are struggling to grasp this topic, or because they have problems with inclusive language is not only unfair but also dilutes the whole term of a TERF. TERF is not someone who forgot to mention trans men and non-binary people in a few posts about abortion, but someone who has adopted an ideology based on exclusion and prejudice against trans people.
However, the solution to this problem is not the suggestion of some that in such a case trans people should just shut up and not criticise the manifestations of transphobia and instead wait for their turn, when all the other, presumably more important, issues are resolved. Transgender may be a niche topic for the rest of society, but for us, it is one of the most important. We will not wait for the solution to the transphobia issue to be dealt with “after” other issues, because that “after” may not be here anymore. The logic along the lines of “today is not the time for it, society is not ready for it, you will only discourage people” is the same logic that in Poland forever delayed dealing with the issues of same-sex relationships or the right to abortion. The offer to “keep quiet now and do not fight for your rights and then we may give them to you” is not an offer that a reasonable person could accept.
Likewise, the expectation that we will ignore manifestations of transphobia among other feminists or leftist activists is not from this world. As I am demonstrating in this article, transphobia is not only the participation of those who do not understand and have no knowledge but also those who do not want to understand and instead prefer to lie and insult. We have the right to pay attention to their actions and demand justice. Cis people must understand that we are fighting to be able to live normally, that criticism is not yet a “hate campaign”, and paying attention to transphobia or not including us in feminist slogans and postulates is not “hate” or “creating unnecessary divisions”. It is not us who create unnecessary divisions, but the people who exclude and ignore us.
The solution to this dilemma is neither to treat transgender as a fad nor to account and exclude someone for every mistake they made. What can help here is the inclusion of trans people in the broad fronts of the feminist fight, for the improvement of social conditions, for reproductive rights, for the rights of LGBTQ+ people.
Transgender people suffer from the fact that our fates and experiences are seen as abstract and the subject of tabloid press stories, and not as serious problems of human flesh and blood. As trans people, we should remember that mistakes and misunderstandings do not have to result from bad faith, and cis people should know that sometimes even the most understanding person can get fed up with these errors and misunderstandings. By acting together, we can educate each other about our problems in a spirit of solidarity and cordiality, without feeling morally condemned for mistakes, but with humility in the face of our own ignorance. This is by no means a revolutionary solution – already at this point, many transgender and cisgender allies are seeking trans-inclusive feminism in this way. However, it is always worth remembering that, in the current tense social situation and the enormous fights, clashes, criticism and drama, it is easy to forget about them.
However, when it comes to TERFs, the vision of peaceful coexistence within one feminist movement is not possible. Transphobic feminism is not a partner for conversation, it is not simply a “different view” with which we may disagree, but which falls under a broad umbrella of different varieties of feminism. Debate, cooperation and conversation only make sense if it is conducted in good faith. In Transsexual Empire Janice Raymond wrote:
“The issue of transsexuality has profound moral implications; transsexualism is indeed a moral issue and not a medical-technical problem. I believe that the problem of transsexuality would be best solved by morally erasing it from reality.”
Transphobic feminists pose a threat to trans people, and although there are not too many of them in Poland yet, in other countries they have already led to the twisting of trans-inclusive laws, or an increase in transphobic crimes. In feminist organisations, no organisation and no collective can include TERFs. A choice must be made between the perpetrators of violence and those who experience it.
Nina Kuta is the creator of the TransGrysy channel. You can follow her on Twitter: @Ningrysica
Photo by Guy Smallman