Now for something completely different. It’s showtime!
In this corner, wearing cargo pants and sensible shoes—at five-foot three and weighing in at 142 pounds—it’s Militant Radical Feminist!
And in that corner, with the silky Pantene hair and red fishnet stockings—at six-foot four and weighing in at 213 pounds—it’s Militant Transgender Activist!
At first glance, there’s a sideshow feeling to the public battle between transgender activists and radical feminists who insist transgender women are not women, but men—as they were born. It’s been so vicious and unexpected that even Rush Limbaugh discussed it on his show, referring to the August 4 New Yorker article “What Is a Woman?” by Michelle Goldberg.
Radical feminists are doggedly challenging male-to-female transgenders at a time when the latter are getting big positive ink in places like Time Magazine and Elle. Transgender activists and others on the Left seem destabilized by the clash. Many on the Right don’t quite get what’s going on, though it looks like a droll curiosity: strange disunity on the Left.
Why would those we might intuitively expect to be marching in a transgender rainbow parade be raining on it instead?
Transgenderism as Patriarchy Reinforcement
Radical feminists—or “radfems” —were hotly protesting against “male chauvinist pigs” back in the second wave of feminism of the 60s. And they’re still in a pitched battle, because male privilege is not something they believe goes away: men carry the privilege with them throughout their lives simply by being born male. So even if a man decides to transition to female, he is still male, as far as these radfems are concerned.
Although these radical feminists pretty much reject the transgender idea, they are especially preoccupied with the male-to-female variety. When a woman identifies and presents as male, radfems generally see her as trying to adjust in a world of male domination. On the other hand, men who identify and present as women are invading the space of women when they insist on using women’s public facilities and crash events intended for women only. And since they insist on doing it as a matter of their right, and hyper-aggressively, well that’s just like a testosterone-fueled man, in the eyes of radfems.
Worse, actually. It’s as though patriarchy has mutated into an even more virulent and imperialistic strain, and intends to colonize all women’s spaces.
The biggest insult to radfems may be that the majority of self-identified feminists today—including most who once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them as women and as lesbians—seem now to have sold the radfems down the river and signed onto the “gender identity myth.” Just about every feminist organization today—NOW, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and the rest—reject and marginalize the radfems. They are even heeding the transgender demand to stop calling pregnancy a “women’s” issue since females who identify as males can get pregnant. Gloria Steinem, in this surrealist scheme of things, seems like a Queen Bee of Stepford Wives, in compliance with the patriarchy.
There’s more than enough cognitive dissonance to go around here. But we ought to try to sift through some of it, because there’s a lot more at stake in this battle than you may think. Gender identity non-discrimination laws—already passed in many states—are based on the premise that everybody’s sex is “assigned at birth.” That’s a huge premise with vast implications for society. It applies universally and codifies into law for everybody the transgender understanding of gender distinctions, which overlaps into everybody’s biological sex distinctions.
This kind of law has vast implications for privacy and personal relationships. But few appear to be paying close attention. Radical feminists seem to be the truly audacious ones standing athwart this piece of history and yelling “Stop.” Or at least, “Not so fast.”
Transgender Activists’ Grievances Against Radical Feminists
First off, transgender activists refer to these radical feminists with the acronym “TERF,” which stands for “Transgender Exclusionary Radical Feminist.” Radfems say “TERF” is nothing but a slur. Trans activists retort that TERF is simply a term that differentiates them from the majority of feminists who are on board with the trans agenda. Yet trans activists do accuse “TERFs” of discrimination, bigotry, and transphobia when they do things like:
- deny of the existence of gender identity
- insist on always using pronouns that correspond to actual sex at birth
- work against allowing male-to-female transgenders from using women’s public facilities
- hold events intended for “women-born-women only”
- describe gender reassignment surgery as mutilation
- work against transitioning children who identify with the opposite sex. (Radfem author Sheila Jeffreys has called transitioning of children as transgender “a human rights violation on a massive, massive scale.”)
- assert that male to female transgenders are motivated by sexual fetish, or arousal at the idea of being female (Jeffreys).
Such outspoken criticism coming from feminists must sound like polished fingernails on a chalkboard to transgender activists. They are especially appalled that the arguments of radical feminists—self-described leftists—can lend credibility to conservatives who are in line with those positions.
Trans activists are well-organized and generally take no prisoners when it comes to shutting down any real debate or criticism of their agenda. Radical feminists who have stubbornly refused to get with the trans program are an especially sharp thorn in their side. So whenever radfems try to have a forum, trans activists tend to gag them hard. (But they seem to know how to adapt and play the angles, too. Limbaugh’s caller on the New Yorker piece identified as a transgender, yet kept it light and friendly, even calling out enthusiastic “mega dittoes” in reaching out to Limbaugh’s millions of conservative listeners.)
For starters, transgender activists are far better positioned than radical feminists could ever hope to be. As a big part of the LGBT lobby, they have huge amounts of influence and money behind their agenda. Hollywood has their back, as well as academia and the media. They have the full support of the Obama administration, which actively promotes the trans agenda.
Transgender activists have successfully petitioned to have radfems disinvited from scheduled speaking events, gotten venues taken away from scheduled conferences, and have pressured radfem associates to withdraw from events and distance themselves. In most cases, it works. In addition to disrupting radfem conferences in 2012, 2013, and 2014, trans activists have also protested allowing “womyn-born-womyn-only” in the Michagan Womyn’s Music Festival. They’ve organized boycotts of performers who play there and set up “Camp Trans” basically next door.
Trans activists also tend to show a remarkable amount of stamina in Internet trolling, rapidly responding to any and all criticism. They can generate massive amounts of comments on articles and get Amazon book reviews down to two stars, including Jeffreys’ new book: Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism and Janice Raymond’s 1979 The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male.
The tendency to swarm and intimidate like that is a key component of any agitation and propaganda campaign for a social policy that needs to push hard to tease out a rapid sea change in public opinion.
Sex Without Gender versus Gender Without Sex
What gives this dispute the flavor of a death match is that there is no real middle ground between the radfem and transgender perceptions of sex versus gender. Transgenders seem to accentuate gender—which is viewed as a panoply of socially perceived roles, mannerisms, and appearances —while dismissing the importance of and even rejecting the reality of biological sex. Radfems, on the other hand, recognize the biological reality of sex distinctions, while rejecting the entire idea of “gender identity” as a formal and socially imposed repression.
Jeffreys gave an interview three years ago that criticized what she called the “McCarthyism of Transgender” and the sterilization of transgender children.” Gender distinctions are so much a part of the male-dominated system, Jeffreys says, that it doesn’t make any sense to want to identify with a gender at all: “it means that in order to support transgenderism, gender has to be supported. So the subordination of women has to be supported in order for transgenderism to be supported.” She goes on:
Gender is of course the sort of last bastion because it is the foundation of the subordination of women. And it’s being defended to the death in this extraordinarily grim way. Which means that any radical feminist critics must not be allowed to speak . . . I don’t have a gender. I’ve no intention of having a gender. I don’t do masculinity which is the behavior of male dominance, and I don’t do femininity which is the behavior of female subordination.
Jeffreys finds it illogical that when someone who doesn’t conform to the social roles (“gender”) of the sex they were born into is expected to cross over into the other sex instead of criticizing the gendered system as it exists. Rather, she says, they
make some kind of ‘journey’ by mutilating their bodies and taking dangerous drugs for the rest of their lives in order to supposedly represent the other sex. . . Transgender as a phenomenon is the clearest possible indication of the strength of the structures of the male domination going on right now.
Transgenders in turn try to excoriate radfem views with equal directness. The underlying premise of transgender rights is that everybody’s sex is “assigned at birth” and gender identity is not necessarily related to that “assignment.” From the transgender perspective, radfems are simply denying a trans person’s reality, and their human right to identify in that reality. Biology, after all, should not be destiny, they’d likely retort. But this sounds a bit fuzzy since biology is the primary concern of the transgender who looks to be reassigned or take on characteristics that are at root biologically driven.
In fact, trans activists focus on the body and its biology a lot while at the same time telling others they are too focused on the body. They say they feel a lot of prejudice in a world that does not (yet) understand or accept a transgender’s personal experience of having been born into the wrong body. That experience ranges from “females-born-male;” “males born female,” (who are the primary concern of radfems;) and the “gender fluid,” i.e., both or neither or many, and so on.
Trans activists have no doubt been instrumental in getting the diagnosis of gender identity disorder changed to another term—gender dysphoria—in the new, fifth edition, of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-V. And in trying to change public opinion, they often cite opinions of medical experts who lend their credentials and confirm the benefits of gender reassignment. Trans activists also appeal to a sense of justice by frequently citing statistics on rates of attempted suicide by transgender individuals who feel rejected by society, and they catalogue and publicize incidents of violence against transgenders.
What Is a Human?
There’s something seismic going on beneath the surface in this debate. While you may not have much in common with either side, radical feminists represent one of the last bastions of resistance to the transgender movement. They give us pause because they are purists in their beliefs and identify as leftists. So they are probably the most able in our society today who can force the question that is beneath the tip of the iceberg in their battle with the transgender alliance.
And that question is: What is a human?
They may not force that question wittingly, but there it is. Radical feminists accept the biological reality of human sex distinctions in a way the trans activists do not. But the trans agenda actually seems intent in legally erasing biological sex distinctions across the board, leaving a vacuum in our understanding of what it means to be human. How can the family or society function without any acknowledged distinction of biological male and female?
I fear both sides of this debate leave human beings more isolated from each other. Radical feminists pretty much separate themselves from men because they see men as the primary source of domination. But, in a significant way, transgenderism is even more self-isolating. To reject and disregard your birth sex means you’d have to reject all of the relationships that normally come with it. Furthermore, everyone around you has to make the adjustment. Instead of sister, brother. Instead of daughter, son. Husband, not wife. Mother, not father.
One can try to take on all of the mannerisms, appearances, and personae of the other sex. But, aside from hormones or surgery to affect appearance, all must be done through the experience of observation, imagination, and, quite frankly, imitation. It looks a whole lot like being back to square one: gender roles. Only the gender roles of the transgender individual can’t be rooted in biological sex.
Transgenderism Ends up Being about Everybody Else’s Identity
Living it all out is not a simple matter of telling the world that you are a different sex or gender than the one “assigned” at birth. It’s a matter of getting everyone in the world to agree with you. And this requires that everyone else in the world must agree to be nudged to play along with the possibility that their own sex is not authentic. That’s a huge concession that radical feminists are not willing to make even in the face of a largely compliant society.
As for everyone else, it means getting on board with pronoun protocols, and smearing anyone who isn’t on board. A subtle smearing of the whole non-transgender population has begun with the special term “cisgender,” applied to the 99 percent who pretty much identify with the sex with which they were born. Even a writer in the Huffington Post rejected the term “cisgender” as “weaponized” language.
Basically, transgenderism requires that all of society adopt a mind-body disconnect that is unsustainable in any functioning human society. In essence, it messes with everybody’s identity, and proposes to do so from birth. Slate recently published an article calling for an end to “infant gender assignment,” by which it meant that doctors and parents should stop identifying newborns as either boys or girls.
This sort of imposed “diversity” claims to do away with limits on our identity. But it actually creates a vacuum of ambiguity, particularly for young children who crave and need structure and specificity even when they’re clueless about sex and gender. Such ambiguity and vague language doesn’t open up possibilities for children as much as close them down through mixed messages.
The “infant gender assignment” canard is most telling about the sweeping scope of the transgender project. It requires that we all buy in. And—like all utopian schemes—it’s bound to tolerate no resistance. In the end, it destabilizes society and isolates us more from one another, whether we are child, woman, or man.
This sense of disarray brought by the trans agenda corresponds with something dissident feminist Camille Paglia recently said: “transgender phenomena multiply and spread in ‘late’ phases of culture, as religious, political, and family traditions weaken and civilizations begin to decline.” I doubt we can mud wrestle our way out of such decline if gender identity is codified into law. All self-regulation would seem to collapse in a system in which all humans must begin with the designation “other.” And if self-regulation collapses, what takes its place in this vacuum?
I don’t doubt that a referee will enter the fray to regulate ourselves for us. But neither radfems nor transgenders may be happy in the end with the term “Big Brother.”