Updated: Jul 27, 2020
By Kathryn Grassu
Everyone should be a feminist. I probably don't like you that much if you're not. But as a particularly feminist feminist (i.e. I try to never let the patriarchy fly with me, or anyone else), I feel a need to wade in on issues within the feminist sphere of influence that give people cause for confusion. Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) are one such problem, and yes if you are a TERF then you are part of the problem. I find even the term of referral to be a misnomer - no true feminist in my book is a person who believes that either A: we can be reduced to a mere vagina or no vagina, or B: that they have to right to pass judgement on who is or isn't a 'true' woman. But those are just my standards.
So let's have a look at history here; to when trans women of colour were on the frontline of the stonewall riots and the LGBT+ rights movement in general and stood right alongside lesbian radical feminists, gay male feminists and everyone in between. Since then trans men and women still seem stuck at the bottom of society's pile, still living on the fringes out of necessity in many cases. Why? Because we drove them there. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced by discriminatory portrayals of the lives of trans women and their motivations. If trans women really were a threat to cis women, if they were really after power and our 'feminine mystique' (whatever that is) surely they would have it by now? If they were coming after our hard-fought gains (a ridiculous suggestion but bear with me) then where are all the super-rich powerful trans women who beat and/or sexually assault white cis women in female changing rooms and get away with it? Seriously, where? These fears are totally unfounded. And to even be worried about trans women for these reasons is unacceptable - as they are often rooted in a fear of maleness.
Patriarchal men are often inaccessible targets for feminist mirth because of their propensity to work in the shadows, and so they create a narrative, backed up by characterisations in TV and film, to neatly push the blame onto a pillar of the feminist heartland: trans women, in an attempt to weaken unity and bargaining power. Unfortunately, some women claiming to be feminists are allowing this strategy to work.
Now it is not unreasonable for some women to have deep-rooted, well-nursed fears of bad men - it is evolutionarily logical, in fact. Everyone knows not all men are violent. But violence as behaviour in society is overwhelmingly a male trait, men are vastly more likely to be violent to both other men and towards women.* Masculinity in crisis right there. Two women a week are killed by their current or former partner in the UK, even more since lockdown. A quarter of all women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime and we all know of abuses experienced by women around us. It is unfair to target the anger that rightfully arises from these injustices at any random man. It is even worse to take it out on trans women because what you are admitting is that you're still seeing a man trying to be a woman; a man dressed as a woman with scary man parts coming into the changing rooms to do you harm; because that is what SOME men do and it's hard to stop being afraid of things that you FEEL you are genuinely likely to experience. But this is not one of those things. Who you are seeing is a woman. A woman just like you. It doesn't matter how feminine she looks, whether she 'passes' to you or not, whether she's even trans as opposed to being non-binary or intersex, none of these things are your business. None of these visible factors are there for you to make a value judgement or a risk assessment of your own safety. She is just a woman with a life as valid and complex as your own.
But it's not just about equality here, oh no, we like to do one better than that. So I'm going to suggest you should look out for your trans sisters even MORE than your cis sisters. Because they are getting more hate right now. Yes, there are unsavoury characters in every community, and constructive criticism is something to be welcomed, but trans rights really do warrant extra attention in the feminist arsenal of concerns. Especially now. They are being targeted for violence at a proportion even higher than you are (which if you're a cis woman or a man of colour is really saying something). And if you know what a constant biological vulnerability to the possible evil machinations of others is like; enough for you to press your house key out of your fist of an evening, imagine how scared you'd be if you knew you were extra vulnerable just because some people don't believe in your existence.
The sad truth is that people who have dedicated their lives to preventing women from being reduced to their body parts can end up using the exact same tool of discrimination to deny the pain of trans women. I used to have a recurring nightmare of trying to tell people about something that I knew in my heart of hearts was absolutely true. And not one person believed me no matter how much I calmly explained or screamed or begged for the knowledge to be taken away. It was truly the stuff of nightmares for me. And so it is a big deal to me that this can be some people's reality even today. The idea that your truth, that nobody can take away from you, can be effectively negated by the force of someone else's misdirected fear and denial is repugnant.
Our experience of womanhood does not have to be the same to be equally respectable, it's not a hardship competition. Trans women don't have to 'earn' the pain of gender-based discrimination. If we know that it is wrong to value a woman based on whether or not she plans to or has carried children within her body, why should it matter if she can or not, if you are a person who would adamantly argue that an infertile woman or a woman like myself who simply doesn't ever want children are just as valuable to society as procreators, then you cannot afford to NOT extend the same love and appreciation to trans women, you just can't; because that would make you an idiot.
Essentially the argument is this, two wrongs don't make a right; just because you may have experienced oppression does not ever give you the right to oppress someone else on the same or any other basis. And by the same token, someone giving an honest and painful account of their experiences has no bearing on your experience. I've seen insecure feminists bristle when a trans woman speaks up about an experience particular to her or when a woman of colour discusses how much harder it still is to be treated with as much respect as a white, well-off feminist. These are not attacks on our beautiful movement that need to be stopped, nor are they realities that need contradicting with your own. These critiques are what keep us moving in the right direction. This is how we know we haven't become the bad guys.
If you need a clearer example, look at what happened with the UK PPE shortage. Hundreds of medical professionals from dozens of sites posted about not having enough. And then one doctor (who happens to be a conservative MP) posts a picture saying that effectively everyone else must be exaggerating because I've got plenty of PPE at my hospital. And thus the foolishness of 'all-lives-mattering' something is revealed. Just because that is not your experience of the system doesn't mean people should not report their bad experiences and have them believed. You can be the 99% reporting on something or the 1%, but the existence of the majority does not invalidate the experience of the minority (or vice versa as with PPE).
Just like not being aware of a harmful racial stereotype is not an effective defence against using it, when self-professed protectors of women perpetuate ideas of trans women as a threat to cis women or buy into portrayals of them as mannish and scary they are letting pretty much everyone down. You are letting women down by refusing to see them and their experiences as equal to your own. You are letting the patriarchy serve you a lie designed to turn you against your natural allies. Just like when pundits try and pit a feminist academic against a ring girl or a trackside model, you can see the interviewer just crying out for someone to hurry up and disrespect the other’s experience so we can all watch and yell catfight. This is a trap, and not a very smart one. We're on the same team. It's everyone who is not a patriarch VS the patriarchy. You cannot blame the existence of a system that treats women as lesser, purely-decorative beings, on the people who have found a way to carve a living off of it. Blame the shadowy paymasters buying women’s bodies and the sad men disillusioned enough to pay for things that you can get for free by being an interesting, charming person. Hate the system, not its victims.
I’d like to conclude with this extract from a wonderful Guardian article by Kim Humphrey, an associate professor of sociology and social theory at RMIT University:
"As trans and gender diversity has become a regular topic of public debate and a favoured target of rightwing attacks, feminist critics have joined the fray. That has put trans and feminist activists on a seemingly unrelenting path of mutual antagonism. Trans rights have been pitted against sex-based rights for 'real' women, with conflict forever spiralling into charge and countercharge of hate speech and silencing, and into bitter social media wars. ...Antagonism has now sadly rebounded - this time, via the tweets and blogs of JK Rowling and the ripples of commentary that have followed. One of the most distressing aspects of this relentless feminism versus trans narrative is that it tells a completely lopsided story. ...Trans writers have energetically drawn on and contributed to feminist theory, while trans politics have been positively embraced by many feminists. The story here is not one of political conflict, it's of mutual recognition."
My current favourite feminist writer is Laurie Penny, so my recommended reading for this article is going to be pretty much their collected works.
My recommended viewing is the Disclosure documentary on Netflix. Hopefully, if you regularly do your trans right homework you will have already seen it, but if you're looking for some easy research into listening to trans voices then it's a decent place to start.
*Please note all data on domestic abuse and stats are taken from Rachel Louise Snyder's No Visible Bruises which is an amazingly eye-opening book about the preventability of domestic murder, that feminists of all genders should read.
Titles by Laurie Penny:
Consent: A Revolution of Desire
Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution
Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults
Everything Belongs To The Future
Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism
Penny Red: Notes from the New Age of Dissent
Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.