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Trans Rights
11 min

Can trans women and radical feminists find sisterhood?

The debate over whose lives and rights are more important distracts from revolutionary work that could benefit us all

“My humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself.” —Desmond Tutu

When I was in the first years of my undergraduate degree, still in my late teens and beginning to figure out that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t happy living in my assigned gender role as a boy, I knew a young woman who identified as a radical lesbian feminist. We were around the same age and at similar stages in life, and had met each other through the university’s queer student group.

We spoke several times: We followed each other on social media, and I liked both her in-person and online presence. She was sharp and funny, and she knew a lot about feminism and social justice activism. Though we weren’t friends, I thought we might be someday if given enough time and under the right circumstances. You see, we were queer youth in a queer youth scene in the late 2000s and early 2010s—which is to say that we shared the magic and power of existing in a time when anything was possible yet everything was dangerous. Deep bonds are forged in times like that. It’s the stuff that chosen families and revolutionary sisterhoods are made of.

Alas, we weren’t given the time or the circumstances. Life after undergrad took us in separate directions, to different friend groups and cities, as adult life so often does. But beyond that, through the frosted lens of my social media feed, I could see that we were also drifting apart ideologically.

I was coming out as a woman, writing about my experience with transitioning and transmisogyny and becoming publicly known as a “trans activist.” (I don’t see myself that way, but I suppose the shoe fits.) She was, according to her social media posts, becoming what some might call a “gender critical feminist,” or a “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” (TERF). She endorsed a type of feminism that opposes the notion that trans women should have access to the same legal protections, social services, public spaces and resources that cis women are entitled to.

That is to say, she was becoming the kind of person that some might insist is my enemy.

Over the past few years, as trans visibility and movements for trans rights have grown—whether discrimination protections in the workplace, bathroom equality bills or the recent protests against the Toronto Public Library for renting space to anti-trans activist Meghan Murphy—the increased attention to the debates over trans rights might make trans-exclusionary feminism seem new. It is, however, over half a century old. Radical feminism and trans rights activism share a long, entangled and deeply embittered history.

While many third-wave feminists today consider trans liberation to be an important part of their politics, a significant number of prominent feminists of the second wave (an era of feminist thought and activism that had its heyday roughly between 1960 and 1980) took staunchly anti-trans stances. Many believed that trans women were predatory men who had set out to invade women’s spaces and appropriate women’s bodies.

American radical feminist professor Janice Raymond laid the foundations of this perspective in 1979 when she published a book titled The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, a polemic text that vociferously critiques what Raymond perceives to be an inherent misogyny in the way that trans women identify and behave. She writes, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves,” in order to “colonize feminist identification, culture, politics and sexuality.”

The Transsexual Empire received high praise from prominent reviewers, such as influential psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, when it was first published. Though it has received enormous pushback from queer and trans activists and scholars in the intervening decades, the basis of Raymond’s arguments remain foundational to most radical/gender-critical feminists who seek to oppose trans activism and deny trans realities today.

Such feminists, including British writer Julie Bindel, Australian academic Sheila Jeffreys and Canadian journalist Meghan Murphy, argue that trans women pose a danger to cisgender women (though they might object to the term “cisgender” and refuse to acknowledge that trans women are women at all).This argument is founded upon the belief that trans women are irrevocably, biologically male, social with male privilege and so liable to perpetrate sexual violence against cisgender women.

They further argue that our presence in women’s shelters, bathrooms and prisons pose a risk to cis women’s safety; that our participation in women’s sports erases cis women’s athletic achievements and that our identification with femininity is based on misogynistic stereotypes. Meanwhile, according to trans-exclusionary feminism, trans masculine individuals are simply misguided and confused girls and women trying to escape the patriarchy by becoming men.

Trans liberation activists and our allies have historically responded to trans-exclusionary feminism with what I believe to be rightful anger and resistance—after all, trans exclusionary feminist positions have often been instrumental in denying us access to basic rights. Trans women are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in men’s prisons, and one in three homeless trans youth are denied access to shelters. Trans women in particular are often subjected to exclusive (and arbitrary) levels of “passability” or stereotypical femininity when trying to access shelters. So my community, my trans siblings, are angry with trans exclusionary feminists. I am angry as well—more than that, I’m enraged. Wouldn’t you be angry with someone who advocated against your right to access safety and shelter, while also calling you a rapist simply for living in your own body?

But 50 years of anger has not changed the state of affairs between trans exclusionary feminists and trans people like me. For every statistic and anecdote I cite, I am sure that a trans exclusionary feminist has one to rebut with (whether or not I believe the statistics they use is besides the point). With every debate, every protest, we grow more entrenched in our positions, and more angry, vengeful and unforgiving to one another.

Isn’t this exactly how the patriarchy wants us to be?

My radical lesbian feminist not-quite-friend and I are no longer connected via social media. There was no fiery confrontation or internet blowout. I’m not even sure who “unfollowed” and “unfriended” first. I still think about her from time to time, both because of what our friendship could have been, and the choices that led us apart.

I wonder: How am I supposed to think of her now that she’s out there somewhere, ruining the world for me with her hot takes and bad politics? And does she ever think of me (assuming she remembers me at all) as a villainous transsexual, joining the effort to tear apart (cis) women’s rights, brick by legislative brick, as I corrupt the hearts and minds of queer youth everywhere I go?

Does she think of me as a predator?

I find myself thinking of her more than usual these days, perhaps because trans exclusionary radical feminism (usually rebranded as gender critical feminism) seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity among cis queer women. Once considered a relic of the second wave, anti-trans feminist thought has once again become part of a major cultural debate within queer community—and outside of it as well.

In 2018, the Pride march in London, U.K., was interrupted by a group of lesbian-identified women who forcibly took the lead spot, carrying signs with slogans such as “transactivism erases lesbians” and “lesbian = female homosexual.” Just last month, a new U.K.-based advocacy group calling itself the LGB Alliance (note the absent “T”) announced its mandate of combating “gender extremism” (i.e. the pursuit of trans legal rights).

Back home in Canada, Meghan Murphy has embarked upon what appears to be a campaign of presenting trans-exclusionary views in public libraries in major urban centres, including Vancouver and Toronto. While Murphy’s appearances were met with protest and outrage from many, she was rather gleefully defended by more than one conservative publication as an example of free speech being suppressed by left-wing trans extremists.

As trans communities, culture and liberation have increasingly been in the spotlight around the world, so too has the spectre of our seemingly hopeless conflict with trans exclusionary feminism. We are deadlocked, it seems, while all around us the world is succumbing to late-stage capitalism, climate disaster and neo-fascist governments.

We are being sold the notion that there is not enough space or safety in the world for all of us—that only trans rights or cis women’s rights can triumph, and that one must inevitably lose. I do not believe this. I believe that we are creative, compassionate and resilient enough to pursue safety, freedom and justice for all.

And, truth be told, I don’t want to spend my time and energy fighting with feminists. I don’t want to have to fear people with whom I suspect I have rather more in common than it might seem. I want to know: What will it take to heal the divide between trans people and cis queers who might once have been our friends and chosen family? What will it take to become sisters, brothers and siblings-in-arms?

I will not spend too much space here trying to prove trans exclusionary feminist arguments wrong—debunking myths about trans people being secret bathroom predators (the statistics show that we aren’t), explaining why trans women don’t really have male privilege (I already wrote that article), pointing out that trans women are actually more likely than cis women to experience assault and intimate partner violence.

Suffice it to say that I have already put a lot of energy into this debate, and so have more knowledgeable trans writers, scholars and activists. I am starting to suspect that the more we put into the argument, the larger it grows—it’s exhausting and dehumanizing to have to constantly be defending my identity and my rights.

In my more compassionate moments, I imagine that trans exclusionary feminists feel the same.

This, to be honest, is what really interests me; it’s what keeps bringing me back to the radical lesbian feminist I used to know who is now, I suppose, my “enemy.” I want to know how we got here. The two of us were once just scared queer kids who went to the same parties—now whole communities of trans people and radical feminists have somehow found themselves at one another’s throats.

We are trapped in this cycle of struggling to claim the mantle of “most oppressed,”. And yes, I would argue if backed against a wall that they started it first; but then, so would they, and that hasn’t yet solved the problem as far as I can tell.

In an interview with the New Yorker, trans philosopher Sandy Stone (who wrote a response to The Transsexual Empire titled “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” which is now often credited with birthing trans studies in academia) states that she believes that the trans exclusionary feminists’ position stems from “serious trauma at the hands of some man, or multiple men.” Stone goes on to state that, “If it were a perfect world, we would find ways to reach out and find ways of mutual healing.”

We do not, of course, live in a perfect world. Regardless, I wonder if that mutual healing might be necessary for us to achieve the goal of making a better one.

All of us exist in a traumatizing society—queers, trans women, cis women. I am a woman, a woman of colour, a trans woman of colour, and I have been put down, invisibilized, fetishized, beaten, raped. I have been made to fear the streets I live in, the people I love, my own body. There is not a day I don’t feel afraid of assault, public ridicule, eviction from my home or the sudden loss of a friend or loved one to violence.

I know that this fear lives in the hearts of so many other women—white women and women of colour, cis and trans women, straight and queer women. It is no coincidence. We are made to be afraid: Of the patriarchy and of each other. Our bodies are locked in a perpetual fight-flight-freeze, and the lens of suspicion and the language of scarcity become second nature to us. We are made to believe that there is never enough safety, enough space, enough resources for us all to exist at once. This is a lie.

Colonization, capitalism and patriarchy are insidious forces. They turn us against each other so that we will be too weak to resist them—it’s no wonder that conservative pundits are so delighted at the latest row between trans communities and radical feminists, or why they stoke the fires of this conflict with such fervour. Indeed, it seems that after years of pushing back on women’s rights, conservatives are suddenly taking on the freedom of speech of trans exclusionary feminists as a cause célèbre—and decrying trans people who push back as dangerous, regressive radicals. (Free speech only applies to some, it seems.)

The divide between trans exclusionary/gender critical feminists and trans rights’ activists is useful to the patriarchy. We are so much easier to dominate and exploit when we are at one another’s throats. The so-called “threat” of trans rights to women’s safety is, I believe, a massive distraction from the revolutionary, world-building work that is integral to both radical feminism and trans liberation. The patriarchy offers only awful choices: According to them, we can either have cis women safe in shelters and trans women on the streets, or we can have trans women assaulting cis women. Not only is this a false demonization (cis men are vastly more likely to assault both trans and cis women), it also pulls our attention away from the real question, which is why we live in a world where people need shelters at all.

We spend so much time fighting over whether trans women should be kept in women’s prisons, when we could be fighting for a world without prisons in it.

We are caught in an endless debate over whether trans people’s bodies are offensive to cis women when we could be focusing on the increasing access to the right to bodily autonomy—control over our reproductive systems, physical presentation and sexuality—for all people, regardless of gender or sex.

How do we find the compassion—and the courage—within ourselves to start healing and having the conversations we need so that we can address the struggles that might actually save us?

I wonder what would happen if I ran into my former not-quite-friend who is now a trans exclusionary feminist again. Perhaps we would see each other at a party, or maybe at an activist conference or protest. It’s not likely, given that we probably no longer share any mutual contacts and we live in different cities. Still, it’s possible.

Would we talk to each other? And if we did, what would we talk about? Or would we simply avoid one another, pretend we’d forgotten the conversations we had when we were younger and less jaded? Worse, would we confront one another and get into some kind of public fight?

The part of me that is still that scared, hopeful queer teen looking for a friend in everyone likes to imagine that we would talk. It would be awkward at first, no doubt. We might struggle to find common ground, get heated as we trigger one another’s deep traumas. You’re a man appropriating women’s struggles, she might say. You’re trying to erase the rights of biological females, she might say.

And I might reply, What about trans women’s rights? Or do we just deserve to experience violence and homelessness? 

It might go on like that for a while. But then, I imagine, we’d find a way out of it. We’d agree to disagree, at least for now. We’d start talking about the other things we believe in. The things we’re afraid of. The naive, idealistic things we hoped for when we were younger that have not come to pass.

An actual, global response to the climate crisis. 

A mass unionization of gig economy workers. 

A people’s revolution that totally ends capitalism and creates a new world where everyone is free and has everything they need to live good lives. 

This is what I hope for us: That she might be willing to see my humanity. That while we might not be friends, we need not be enemies. That I might see past my own anger and pain to acknowledge her humanity as well—a capacity that I never want to lose, including seeing the humanity in myself..

That finding a sister—despite the struggle—might become a possibility again.