Trans feminist herstories

Intersec+ions (you know there’s going to be idiocy when symbols are inserted into words) is an intersectional politics network based at Cardiff University and holds public lectures on the same.

The subject of the talk was Engaging with Trans/Feminist Herstories with two gormless PhD students. One works for Agenda (note the play on the word ‘agender’, another way of denying biological sex and even gender) a ‘resource designed to prepare teachers for the new Relationships and Sexuality Education in Wales’ which they said was funded by the UK Government’s Equalities Office.

The moderator acted as if he’d just eaten three bowls of Frosties and was literally screaming into our faces, yet somehow managed to tone it down for the obligatory don’t you dare ask questions or you’ll be removed finger-wagging warning.

The Two Thickies had been ‘researching’ how it could possibly be that women at the moment were questioning trans bodies and thought they had found the root of the problem in 1970s feminism and took turns to do their presentation, as if they were in junior school. One was doing their PhD on ‘contemporary feminism’s reactions to trans identities’.

The presentation

One thing I wasn’t expecting from them was a good point made well and it was said that the photo below summed up the culture clash between the two sides. It’s quite likely they’re in the background somewhere.

They were annoyed that ‘gender critical feminism’ was now de facto the face of feminism and they wanted to educate the small incestuous audience on the ‘archives of trans feminism’ and that this archive was being buried by the plethora of women’s rights groups which have suddenly popped up over the last few years. Basically, they wanted to right a wrong. (Archives is something of a buzz word amongst gender identity activists, and I’ve heard all sorts of claims about people spending hours in the British Library poring over texts.)

One of the things The Thickies felt ‘transwomen’ and women had in common was that they both required agency over their own bodies (i.e. men to have access to cosmetic surgery and hormones so that they can emulate femininity and for women to have access to birth control) and that they had to fight oppression, violence and the patriarchy (natch).

This infographic below, from the YouGov British Attitudes to Transgender Rights survey, which Maya Forstater debunked on Twitter, was supposedly proof of women’s support for self-declaration. Can you spot the mistake? Can you? They couldn’t.

YouGov British attitudes to transgender rights, July 2020

That’s right all the lines under ‘Process’ describe the means by which self-declaration might be facilitated all indicate that the majority of people disagree with simplification of process. Even the young ‘uns! Doh! Great start to your research gels.

As the Thickie went over the slide you could hear her brain slowly crank into gear and she tried to claw it back to ‘on the everyday stuff there’s a lot of support’. If she’d spent just five minutes thinking about why, she might even have realised this would relate to men who have had their genitals fully removed and gone through the safeguarding process, but she preferred sounding confused and tongue-tied instead.

So why exactly is gender critical feminism so mainstream now, asked The Thickies? Well once upon a time there was a wicked old witch in the 70s called Janice Raymond who wrote a bitchy book called the Transsexual Empire (you can read it for free peeps) and women have been re-reading the book and getting the wrong idea about things since. Some of the women in the UK involved in ‘anti-trans rhetoric’ in the 1980s were still involved in it now, they warned. (I doubt that many women active in the current movement have read Raymond’s book, most just don’t want men in the ladies – it’s hardly an academic subject.)

Apparently gender critical feminists have had little to say about ‘trans men’ or ‘non-binary people’. Er, well, welcome to my blog for starters.

The Thickies moved onto the 90s with its proliferation of different schools – black feminism, intersectional feminism, queer feminism, post-structural feminism, post-colonial feminism and trans feminism. New definitions of womanhood were unpacked and horrible trans exclusionary feminists faded to the periphery. Hurrah!

They told us legal recognition for trans people was first highlighted in 1970 by the case of April Ashley who was married to Captain Arthur Corbett and who bought a court case as he wished to receive maintenance payments after the relationship had broken down. (Which just sounds like plain greed to me and not a legitimate fight for human rights.)

The Thickies embraced a story from the Daily Mirror as it did an article in 1938 that a doctor had changed the ‘sex’ of 24 patients, some of whom had married (though I think they preferred the more optimistic view that 24 patients had married and ignored the obvious colon).

Fast forward all the way to 2004 and the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) was passed which allowed people to change their sex marker on a reissued birth certificate. The 2010 Equality Act made ‘it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity’ proving the Thickies hadn’t properly read the legislation at all, as it is only ‘gender reassignment’ which is protected. Again, great research gels!

In 2014 Laverne Cox appeared on the Time magazine cover and everyone was talking about the ‘Trans Tipping Point’ (one seriously wonders if they did their research using Wikipedia searches alone). A small wicked band of trans-exclusionary feminist journalists (Bindel, Burchill, Turner and Freeman) persisted in airing their views – though the Thickies conveniently forgot the mention the huge number of columnists who have endorsed gender identity ideology over the last five years.

When Theresa May promised to reform the Gender Recognition Act in 2017, women in the UK began to question the proposal. Critical feminist responses were described by The Thickies as ‘misinformation and misunderstanding fuelled by social media’ and influenced by the swing to the right bought on by Brexit and Trump. Seventy percent of the responses to the GRA consultation had been pro-self declaration, yet the Government decided not to take the reforms forward (guess our arguments are better, huh?). One positive was Scotland had not yet decided to abandon self-declaration completely. Abandonment of the reform had left trans people ‘vulnerable to abuse’.

The Thickies have been influenced by a number of men, described as ‘trans feminists’, who have recently published papers on feminism in the 1970s, including Emma Heaney, Nat Raha, and Talia Mae Bettcher. In particular, they were interested in the story of Beth Elliott as presented by Heaney, who had become Vice President of the San Francisco Chapter of a lesbian political organisation. In 1972 Elliott was ‘forced out for being trans’ said the Thickies – although at that time no one would have recognised or used this term and Elliott would have been perceived as transsexual. Elliott was subject to ‘vicious misogynistic attacks’ by lesbians. I personally prefer the account about Beth Elliott written by Dr Em here. Another amazing ‘trans feminist’ at the time were Sandy Stone, who wrote the Empire Strikes Back in answer to Raymond’s book. The Thickies presented these two men as if they were movers and shakers.

Donna Haraway, who authored a celebrated essay A Cyborg Manifesto (see I can use Wikipedia too) and appears to be antithetical to feminism was praised, as was DM Withers who also has an interest in gender identity ideology.

In 2016 a ‘conversations project’ hoped to prove that there was no tension between feminists and trans-identified men, by putting together an assortment of deluded quotes, including Andrea Dworkin and Harvard Law Professor Catherine MacKinnon – no sources were given for either quote but I found the original interview with MacKinnon and I’m surprised about her support for gender identity ideology given her anti-prostitution campaigning. I could not find the source of the Dworkin quote, though I can believe it well enough.

I always thought I don’t care how some becomes a woman or a man: it does not matter to me. It is just part of their specificity, their uniqueness, like everyone else’s. Anybody who identifies as a woman, wants to be a woman, is going around being a woman, as far as I’m concerned, is a woman.

Catharine MacKinnon from “Harm is Harm, Hello” article

Work with transsexuals and studies of formation of gender identity in children provide basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity.

Quote attributed to Andrea Dworkin in 1974 on slide, no source given

The Two Thickies are subscribers to the ‘peer reviewed’ Transgender Studies Quarterly (TSQ) which is edited by Susan Stryker of Yale University and Grace Lavery of Berkeley, among others.

Gracie being adorable

They claimed that there was an overlap between blackness and transness as investigated by C. Riley Snorton of the University of Chicago and Marquis Bey of Weinberg College. Bey has apparently pointed out that black women share with trans people (i.e. men) experiences such as ‘surveillance and invasion of their bodies going through airport security, expulsion from bathrooms, housing discrimination and historical invalidation of their womanhood’. What to say about that?

Cue the usual about ‘white feminism’. Another towering intellect who got a mention was Glamrou, who is one of the chorus singers alleging that ‘transphobia has its roots in colonial supremacy’. One the Thickies said that ‘Gail Lewis has looked at how black women’s work in Britain was denied credibility as white feminists entered the academy’. What academy? Where? Did I miss something?

The other Thickie suggested Gail Lewis was supportive of trans activism. I couldn’t find anything which explicitly linked her to this view, but I did find this Guardian article from 2014 which appears to be referring obliquely to the gender identity activism. Lewis worked as a psychotherapist at the Tavistock and is now at the LSE Gender Studies department, who hosted ‘The Future of Legal Gender’ project team in October 2019, so I suppose it’s entirely possible.

Both The Thickies were white by the way. Oh and they’re also lesbians, but I suspect their girlfriends are blue-haired.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we are undoubtedly living through a moment where trans [mens] lives are subjected to unwarranted scrutiny and conjecture, where the historical imagining of the trans [male] threat has re-emerged and rejuvenated. That this image is often promoted by a small [growing] section of women from within the feminist movement remains disappointing. However … the uplifting herstory of trans feminist [male interference] alliances which have been integral to the women’s liberation movement and which continue to inform and enrich our understanding … at its best feminism is a movement that understands its role as a collective liberator of the marginalised [powerful] and resists being reduced to parochial border guards preoccupied with reserving womanhood for a privileged few [WTF}.

One of The Thickies [my clarifications]

Parochial border guards? Who exactly are the privileged few? Just a small case of half of all the people living right now. Nothing will ever be enough, will it? The Thickies have a blog what they’ve written, in case you want more (you don’t).

Q&A

Q: Would looking at trans-inclusive history resolve transphobia in mainstream feminism?

Happily the Thickies didn’t think it would solve it. Haha. They know their game is up and that they are not the mainstream anymore. One Thickie said it you just get your information from a mainstream outlet you would think that was complete opposition (yes all those critical BBC reports).

The Other Thickie said looking into the archives was inspiring and that these debates had been ‘happening for a while’. Don’t engage with the mainstream debate because it creates space for negativity. Nat Raha had recommended building your own structures and not relying on mainstream legal rights and recognition. Literally go to the archives!

Q: Have you identified spaces in herstory where trans women were safely and openly able to bring their experiences to feminist campaigns without it being used to delegitimise trans identities and their right to move in feminist spaces?

One of Thickies said because wasn’t trans she found it difficult to comment but knew it was difficult to ‘own your transness’, especially in spaces which might be hostile to that. If you had spent most of your life being perceived as a man that was a valuable life experience. The Other Thickie reminisced about the terrible time Sandy Stone had had with lesbian feminists in the 70s – such aggression! It was sad solidarity couldn’t be mobilised. There may be more stories like this. In the archives. Or hidden away even in people’s attics.

Someone then made the preposterous comments below. Also, what Academy are they talking about? Is this some mythical place in the Archives? Hannah Gadsby great phfft.

Q: I have come across many brown/black TERFs that definitely understand intersectionality in the way that Crenshaw constructed it, but what does this mean for the claim that TERF equals White Feminism?

Of course there are black and brown trans-exclusionary feminists, said the Thickie back, but I think it’s a political whiteness really. Trans-exclusionary view points benefits the status quo and binary classifications which are inherently hierarchical, sexed and racialized. Thickie was keen to point out many TERFs were white middle class women (like herself) but stressed it was more about ‘political whiteness’.

Q: Do trans feminist futures rely on well known figures outside of academia to get involved and is this kind of engagement problematic? JK Rowling being the opposite example.

JK Rowling had got too much attention and the Thickie felt that the stars of Harry Potter, who had publicly disagreed with Rowling, had not been given enough coverage. She felt that the woman who had played Hermione (‘I forget her name now’) was the most famous person from the Harry Potter series and was also well known for ‘popularising feminism’. She also couldn’t remember Margaret Atwood’s name (‘the woman who wrote the Handmaid’s Tale) but felt she had ‘signposted the complexity of the science and the politics’.

Margaret nails it

The Other Thickie stated that her research exposed her to social media which forced her to keep up with it all. The discussion over the future of women’s rights was ‘taking up the bandwidth’ of the more important struggle of men’s rights and she wished that ‘more cis women and particularly lesbians’ would take up the cause of men. The whole thing had overtones of the homophobia of 30 years ago. There weren’t enough famous women who had spoken out in favour of gender identity ideology (said on the same day that the open letter condemning violence against trans women had been signed by numerous celebrities). She was particularly disappointed by ‘transphobic comments’ from lesbian women but as is par for the course, no one defined what such comments might be (presumably not wanting to fuck men).

Q: Who were their favourite trans feminists?

They didn’t have a favourite but Shaun Fey, Munroe Bergdorf and Travis Alabanza were mentioned. Both were enamoured with the story of Sandy Stone. One Thickie actually knew Travis ‘when they were a young person’ and had followed ‘them’ closely. It was difficult to ‘see the abuse and the attacks that they have been subject to’ but chicken burgers notwithstanding she was really happy ‘to see them grow’.

They’re certainly creative.

THE END!!!

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One comment

  1. Hi Sara
    It is funny (not really) that ‘not being trans’, she does not want to comment on one question but has no such qualm, as a white woman, speaking on behalf of black/brown women AND when she does so, she makes out they are unable to reach their own conclusions.

    ‘One of Thickies said because wasn’t trans she found it difficult to comment’
    ‘Of course there are black and brown trans-exclusionary feminists, said the Thickie back, but I think it’s a political whiteness really.’

    Liked by 1 person

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