Friday 15 August 2014

A Note on the TERF Wars

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the fire of radical politics burns fiercest when fuelled by the polemic of other radicals. Nowhere is this truer than the ruinous, ceaseless battle between transwomen and activists who've come to be known (pejoratively) as trans-exclusionary radical feminists. I'm not going to get too much into that fight. There's little point my mansplaining matters to readers, especially as there's plenty of stuff out there already. 

I agree with Caroline Criado-Perez, 'cis' is not a neutral term merely meaning "not-trans". Bound up in trans discourse with something called 'cis-privilege', Caroline is right to ask what this "privilege" means in practice for non-trans women. The privilege of being accepted as a woman means taking all the crap women deal with. She notes that some kind of rarefied gender identity is not core to her personal identity as a feeling, thinking human being, but we live in a society where her body emits signs that constitute her as a woman in the eyes of other women and men, and all that that entails. Likewise, me being 'a man' is not central to my sense of self either. Other things are. Yet the difference between Caroline and I is the fact my wiry, gawky frame has been coded male since birth and I am accepted as a man in all of my daily interactions. The fact gender identity doesn't impinge on my personal identity is a consequence of gender privilege, of being a member of the dominant gender. Caroline's contributions on the debate are especially useful because she places the materiality of the lived, social body at the centre of her approach to the relationship between feminism and transpolitics. It's a reminder that gender is not a free-roaming PoMo signifier that slips and slides all over the place.

Yet it's not transwomen who need reminding about the materiality of gender. As Juliet Jacques notes, transitioning and living as a woman is difficult precisely because of the weight hanging on gender. Harassment, violence, discrimination, the struggle to access medical services, these are the risks undertaken when changing gender. It is a fraught, stressful experience. Committing to the change takes guts.

Ultimately, it's this materiality that is the root of the so-called TERF wars. For radical feminists who have a problem with transwomen, allowing them to access women-only feminist spaces risks the dilution of bringing out cis women's experience of gendered oppression. It might make some women who've suffered at the hands of male violence feel uncomfortable. There is also the notion that transwomen are acting as agents of patriarchal social relations. For example, the hegemonic femininity radical feminism kicks against is an object the ideology of passing works towards. Radical feminism contests it. Transitioning valorises it. Far from contesting gender, transwomen confirm it and thereby strengthen the patriarchy. For transwomen, for a section of feminism to join in with all the avalanche of crap, to have ostensibly progressive people question their right to exist - and worse - is intolerable. Hence the violence of online exchanges, of the prevalence of 'TERF scum' as an insult, and its escalation into encompassing mainstream feminists, like Caroline, and Sarah Ditum, who do ask serious questions about gender.

The TERF wars are not about bloody-mindedness. It is a product of material experience, of how two sets of women live, theorise and politicise gender. The issues, however, are not insurmountable.


James said...

You say you agree with CCP questioning what 'cis-privilege' is but later in the blog you give some examples of what this might be; cis-women don't have people endlessly debating whether they should have access to women-only spaces (which in practice can mean toilets, changing rooms, rape crisis centres etc.), cis people don't face the no-win scenario that if they don't 'pass' they'll be continually misgendered and if they do pass they'll be accused of strengthening the patriarchy. Like many privileges 'cis-privilege' is mainly invisible to those who possess it.

Paul McMc said...

"Like many privileges 'cis-privilege' is mainly invisible to those who possess it."

Yes. This is precisely it.

TERFs believe that, once there is no patriarchy, we'll have no need of gender and so there will be no need for anyone to transition their gender. That reminds me of the so-called Communists who claimed homosexuality was 'bourgeois decadence' and would disappear once Communism was established. Discriminating against people because 'once my magic happytime comes, you'll have no need of [X]' is the kind of thing religious fundamentalists do.

I don't think any of the transpeople I've met would take much notice of self-important, privileged, middle-class bores like Criado-Perez or Ditum.

Anonymous said...

Out of passing curiosity, do the TERFs have a view on trans-men?

Phil said...

Actually James, a lot of cis women have to negotiate misgendering too. Think of the times when someone may have whispered to you that so-and-so looks like a man, think about cis women who have to deal with PCOS and how that impacts on their gendering.

That said, as I've argued previously, talking about who has privilege over who is fruitless and debilitating. If we can recognise that the animosity that exists has material roots then feminists, transwomen, and allies can start overcoming it.

Anonymous said...

In response to the above question - it might not be universal but where I have seen transmen discussed by TERFs I think it is seen as a form of self harm created by the patriarchy e.g. like anorexia - so a transman would technically be if not welcome then permitted in a "female safe space". Less extreme than the hardcore view of transwomen being a symbolic rape of the female body.

Robert said...

Apparently in Iran they have a relatively enlightened attitude to transsexuals. The Ayatollah Khomeini considered gender id disorder to be a valid medical condition that could be corrected with the various available therapies and this view has continued under Imam Khamenei.

Treatment does include sex change operations/hormone therapy etc.

Jim Jepps said...

Good post. I do struggle a bit with the term 'privilege' when it comes to mean simply someone having it better than someone else.

The implication of privilege is, I think, that someone is gaining a benefit at the expense of someone else (ie it is a social and interactive relationship) but I've frequently seen it used to mean "you get something I don't" which, if privilege is technically right it's a pretty banal and unhelpful meaning of the term.

One example used against CCP was women being privileged as they are able to buy shoes in their size (an example that may well not have worked if it had been applied to jeans or dresses). Well, if a trans-woman has difficulty in this it's certainly a bad thing, but the implication that it has come at the expense of trans-women is wrong, and there is certainly no advantage incurred to women in limiting the range of shoe sizes in the shop.

I'm not saying this is the only way privilege is used in this context but there certainly seems to be a blurring of lines between what could a fairly helpful analysis of how prejudice manifests itself in everyday living and blaming women for being able to buy shoes.

Jim Jepps said...

Anyway, I was interested in this statement "I am accepted as a man in all of my daily interactions" because I don't think it's that simple.

Gender is performative. You're accepted as a man because you behave and act like a man. The clothes you wear, the things you say, the way you say them.

You have to keep it up - so to speak - in order for that simple acceptance to occur.

de Beauvoir said one "is not born a woman, one becomes one." I think this is equally true of men and it is an ongoing process that we're engaged in.