In her recent CounterPunch column “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Julian Vigo is very concerned about the silencing of radical feminists by transgender people. Choosing to focus on a very small subset of radical feminists who pride themselves on being “trans-critical,” she goes through a laundry list of people all claiming the same thing: that transgender identities and specifically the existence of trans women is bad for women and a tool of the patriarchy. Despite the truncated timeline she provides, this is not a new topic. This sect of feminism has been making this claim since the 70’s. The arguments that Vigo reiterates here are not new, or radical, but regressive and patriarchal.
What these “radical” feminists want is not a dialogue, but the ability to critique a marginalized community from the outside, without having to engage at all with how that community defines or speaks about itself. An external critique of a marginalized community is not a value neutral action, and it certainly is not a dialogue. You can’t have a dialogue with people that you exclude from the conversation. All you can do is talk about them without having to be accountable to their experiences of their lives and the impact your words have on how they are treated. Could you have a conversation with someone who insists that you give up your identity before even speaking with them?
She begins by accepting, uncritically, that there is no such thing as being privileged for not being transgender. She mentions that transgender activists make this critique of radical feminists, and just lets it fizzle out, with no further mention. This is the last time that anything vaguely resembling the words of any transgender activist is seen. For a piece on dialogue, its rather startling that there are no voices from the trans community at all. She makes general statements about what trans activists are reported to have said or believe but no attributions, no names, no sources. Even when discussing threats made against the radical feminists she profiles, nothing is given to allow the reader to see these threats for themselves. Considering that there are entire websites, run by some of the people profiled in her column, devoted to profiling the dangerous threats of trans women existing, it shouldn’t be that hard. Instead, trans people are treated as a faceless monolith, and any actual words are not referenced.
Vigo doesn’t show any proof that the people she’s discussing are trying to talk to the trans community, only that they want to talk about it without having to listen to what the community says about itself. She conveniently forgets to mention the ways in which some of her featured folk have refused a dialogue all together.
How, exactly, are we supposed to have a dialogue with someone who does that? All attempts at dialogue have been not only rejected, but met with outright abuse. There is no opening for dialogue here, and there never was. To put the responsibility for dialogue on those being subjected to this treatment is expecting those who are imprisoned for surviving violence to ask nicely that the violence stop.
Likening accusations of transphobia to censorship, she states:
“As a result of this assault on dialogue, the true violence of transphobia (ie. assault, rape, murder and many other forms of discrimination) is cheapened and diluted in the larger space of discursive disagreements with feminists.”
Since when does someone who is not experiencing a particular form of oppression dictating how that community deals with its oppression a particularly radical thing to do? What gives her the perspective to say what the true violence against a community that she is not part of is? What gives her the unique perspective to know what “true violence” is? Surely a similar statement from a man telling feminists what to focus on would be seen as ridiculous, so what gives Vigo the ability to do the same to trans activists?
Vigo goes on to identify the problem that she sees at the base of the “discursive conflict” between transgender activists and radical feminists:
“This article attempts to examine the ways in which some feminists view discourses of transgenderism specific to trans women as problematic and harmful to women because transgenderism conflates sex and gender as a means to creating a superficial construction of woman by relying on gender stereotypes while erasing the very real violence and oppression that is part of the social reality of women.”
This is not a new argument. Nor is it a particularly good one. The one big issue that articles like this always fail to acknowledge is that the conflation of gender with sex that they perceive as being reified via the trans community is a structure that is imposed on the community from the outside. Trans people did not create the WPATH standards of care, and have been some of the only voices challenging the essentialism inherent in them without insulting those subject to them.
By assigning the responsibility for that assignation on the trans community itself, radical feminists like the ones quoted in Vigo’s article, and indeed Vigo herself, are in fact missing the forest by focusing on one of the trees. Certainly, there are elements within the trans community that accept these structures and even embrace them as a positive thing, as there are in any marginalized group. There are cis women that uphold patriarchal ideas and cling to them as positives, does that make cis women incapable of defining their own liberation? Does the existence of Phyllis Schlafly or Michelle Bachman negate feminism?
There are many references to the fear that gender non-conforming children are being forced to transition, despite the fact that there is little to no evidence that this is happening, and in fact a great deal more evidence that trans youth are often the sole driving force of their accessing transition when they can manage to clear the massive institutional hurdles. Hurdles which, incidentally, were until recently were the very things forcing trans people seeking treatment to present in a very heteronormative way in order to get any help at all. Vigo is even more willing to take the word of someone who participates in this gatekeeping, Dr. Az Hakeem, than to even mention any perspectives from the community that faces these regulations.
It doesn’t take very long to find trans people who are highly critical of these requirements, who are living in fear of being denied treatment if they don’t meet a specific doctor’s notion of what being a woman or a man looks like. Some of them have even written books! This appeal to someone who represents the organization which forces trans people to perform certain gendered behaviors in order to be allowed medical treatment as proof that trans people try to reify gender as natural goes beyond disingenuous.
In this case, the appeal to science as proof that trans people can’t possibly have the identities that they claim to have is appalling. I find it particularly appalling for the perspective that Vigo is writing from, considering that disproving transgender seems to be one of the few places where suddenly psychiatry is a trustworthy authority figure. After a long section of detailing the ways in which undesirable women were deemed unfit to reproduce were forcibly sterilized, along with a mention of mental illness as one of the justifications for that barbaric practice, what sense does it make to uncritically appeal back to someone entrenched in the same practice that once recommended those atrocities? Now that cis women are no longer the target psychiatry can be completely trusted! And let’s be real here, it’s only white, middle class cis women in this country who are relatively safe from being considered undesirable. The sterilization of disabled , transgender, intersex and poor people still happens, at considerably higher rates when those people are black or latin@ and perceived as women. So radical!
If gender is a construct (which I think it is, and shockingly so does a good portion of trans activists) why is it that our birth designations reign supreme in this radfem framing? “Gender is a social construct, therefore the status quo is true” does not really provide any radical analysis. The idea that men and women are biologically true categories that then dictate a specific socialization is as much a social construct, not to mention one that ignores the existence of intersex conditions at the absolute least. To say that is not to deny that misogyny exists, or that is creates structural violence against those perceived as women, and it also does not deny that when someone who is perceived as male attempts to express any identity associated with women they are punished for that association.
There is also such a thing as a non-binary trans person. There is evidence for identities such as these going back to antiquity across a multitude of human cultures . Many of these definitions used the same characteristics that we use today to enforce two categories, but interpreted them in a multitude of different ways. Many of them were forcibly destroyed by colonialization . The construct of sexual dimorphism in humans relies on the destruction of those potential categories. Again, radical!
In the end, the radical feminists that Vigo is defending have only one argument with regards to trans people’s identities: not just that the radical feminist’s experience of a trans person’s identity is more important than the ability of the trans person to self-determine, but that the identity of the radical feminist springs from some sort of essential truth. So if we can reject gender identity based on gender being a social construct, why is our experience of other people’s gender suddenly true just because we are calling it sex instead of gender? .
To be fair, Vigo does include some critiques that are worth considering, such as the point that the trans community has a problem acknowledging people who don’t fit a particular narrative of transition or trans experience, or that some discussions within trans organizing were handled poorly (ie: the Cotton Ceiling debacle.) I would like to point out though, that in the case of the first critique, the radical feminist community faces much of the same problem, and indeed a great deal of marginalized communities participate in this kind of internal conflict. Just look at the feminist movement.
In the case of the Cotton Ceiling issue that she raises, it was and is obvious within the community that the structure of that particular event was not well conceived and that there were distinct problems with the framing. It has not been repeated and is largely considered to have been a bad idea. The only people that keep talking about it are the radical feminists listed in Vigo’s piece. Again, if one were to google the phrase, almost all of the first page of hits would be attributed to someone that Vigo spoke to in order to write this piece.
The same is true of the claim that a Molotov cocktail thrown through the window of a bank in Oregon was in response to the Radfem 2012 conference. It was actually thrown by an anarchist protesting the imprisonment of black trans woman CeCe McDonald in Minnesota, and nowhere in this anarchists letter taking credit for this act was the conference even mentioned. This makes me wonder if anything Vigo writes about this subject is to be trusted at all, since she has shown herself to be perfectly capable of repeating outright lies in order to present the radical feminists in her piece as some embattled minority, when they are more like a shrinking relic.
One of the complaints she quotes from Leirre Keith is the outrageous claim that being accused of transphobia is the new McCarthy-ism, as though trans women have the institutional power to haul radical feminists into a court of law and accuse them of thought crimes. Considering Janice Raymond’s collaboration with Jesse Helms to block Medicare coverage for transition care, that seems like a bit of projection on Keith’s part. Especially when you consider that there are next to no protections for trans people in employment, housing, or even general non-discrimination.
Trans women have been left to die because EMT’s that came to treat them didn’t want to touch “it,” or have frozen to death after being refused entrance to men’s or women’s shelters. This is not some hypothetical boogeyman, like the children being forced to transition. When you also stop to consider the history of critiques regarding the theories that these “radicals” rely on from Women of Color, LGBT activists, and anti-colonial feminists, you have to wonder if the charges of transphobia are even their biggest problem. Maybe it’s just that they are relying on views of the world that are so limited that they don’t actually help anyone but themselves? And maybe other radical and progressive movements have no interest in hanging that albatross around their own necks?
There will be a “discursive conflict” between any two groups where one requires that the other abandon its right to self-determine in order to even begin the dialogue. Disingenuous articles which exclude the voices of half of the conversation certainly don’t help things move along.
Dorian Adams is a queer theorist, activist and grad school applicant, who has been published previously in Loyola University’s Broad Magazine. Her preliminary work on Non-Binary Identities and Trans Political Narratives will be presented at this year’s Philadelphia Trans* Health Conference. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org