Julian Vigo: The Left Hand of Darkness

June 9, 2013

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CounterPunch WEEKEND EDITION JUNE 7-9, 2013
Transcending the Norms of Gender
The Left Hand of Darkness
by JULIAN VIGO

Since January of this year, the word ‘transphobia’ has been bantered about in mass media and social networking circles to such intensity that its definition has been expanded and in some instances grossly misrepresented.  ‘Transphobia’ has been used in recent months to indicate everything from the range of negative attitudes and actions towards transsexualism and transgender people to the overt censorship of any expression that takes issue with the theoretical and political expressions of the transgenderism or certain trans activists. Even to undertake a strictly political analysis of the trans community one risks being labeled ‘transphobic’ especially if one is a radical feminist.  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.  Conterminously, the mislabeling of dialogue under the guise of ‘transphobia’ masks another type of violence perpetuated towards radical feminists who speak about these discursive differences with trans activists.

Relative to this debate is that each group views the other as having ‘privilege’—the trans activists accuse the feminist of having ‘cis-privilege’. The term ‘cis,’ a prefix that trans activists often use to designate one who is born in the body of the gender the subject ‘identifies with’ (as if all people identify equally or in the same manner with their bodies). As a result the word ‘cis’ is often circulated to underscore the ‘natural state’ of privilege that many trans activists project onto women born women, for instance.  And the feminists accuse the trans women of having ‘male privilege’ since they claim that one cannot simply take hormones or undergo surgery and claim oppression.  While it is remarkable to note how impetuously this term ‘transphobia’ is thrown about in the attempt to silence one’s interlocutor, it is likewise deplorable that in recent months there has been an escalation in threats and attacks on these feminists with the sole desire to silence their voices.  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. Conterminous to the erasure of real world women’s experiences, these feminists feel that transgenderism forces the subject into a prescribed way of perceiving trans women that works against logic (ie. what if the viewer simply does not see a woman?) and acts against the ultimate goal of these feminists which is the expunction of gender.

Samantha Berg, anti-prostitution activist and feminist, experienced harassment while putting together the Radfem Reboot Conference in Portland, Oregon in 2012.  There were threats of disruption and violence and a local group made bomb threats in the name of transactivism which materialised in a molotov cocktail being thrown into a local bank.  Lierre Keith of Deep Green Resistance has also been outspoken about her views as a feminist in radical opposition to the transgender movement criticising the collapse of sex (male/female) with gender: ‘They think that gender is somehow natural or biological and for feminists we are critiquing this, that gender is biological. When you look at what is ‘woman’, trauma is used to turn girls into women.  This is a corrupt and brutal political arrangement and we are now not allowed to say that. We cannot make a political movement if we cannot name the class conditions of what is happening to women because they are so attached to the idea that gender is innate.’  Keith, like other radical feminists, fervently opposes the trans community’s creation and reification of gender:  ‘To think that you can be a woman because you want to shave your legs and wear lipstick are daily insults to our physical integrity.  It hurts the entire class of women if you take the social construction out of the practices of torture that create women.’  Discussing the language of the trans movement which attempts to erase biological difference Keith tells me of a discussion she had recently which poignantly demonstrates the problem at hand:  ‘There is one guy who insists that not only does he have a vagina, but he has a cervix.  How could he have a cervix?  Yet he believes it and yet we are supposed to believe that he is not mentally ill?  If I was being asked to have compassion for someone who is mentally ill, I have no problem.  But I find it frightening that we cannot object to this.’ Because of her views and work in radical feminism, Keith has been threatened, labelled a transphobe, and has lost several speaking gigs over the past months.  Keith claims that those who do not speak out are ‘compliant victims’:  ‘We are not allowed to say it out loud and this is the new McCarthyism.  People need to be really frightened by this.’

Last year’s Radfem conference in London was organised by Julia Long who views the attacks on the conference as part of a larger dynamic of patriarchy:  ‘The patriarchal structure works on a very individual level in terms of domestic violence—it could be physical and economic violence, or control of her movements.  A big part of this is his demand to have access to her as he see her in some way as his property and even as an extension of himself.  The attack on the conference, is very much in line with this demand of access:  ‘We demand that you recognise us as female and if you don’t you will be attacked.’  So even if someone uses an unacceptable pronoun, you are attacked.  I just think the whole thing is misogynist in its intent and its effect.  What they are doing is trying to stop us from forming a movement.  And if there were ever a moment for women’s movements, it is today.  What these trans activists are demanding is that we acknowledge that we have this ‘cis’ privilege.’  She negates this notion of privilege as she maintains that women are simply not privileged in today’s world noting how the oppression of women today is naturalised and ‘seen as inevitable’:  ‘it is only when you shift it to a different frame such as race or disability—where men are also discriminated—that it renders it intelligible to people, otherwise they don’t see it at all.  I think so much of it about access because women are not allowed to set boundaries and men set boundaries all the time and they violate our boundaries.’

When I ask Long about why the conference is not open to trans women, she replies that there are symposiums that offer trans women’s inclusion, adding ‘Radfem is simply not one of them.’  Long expresses her dismay over the aggressive attempts to shut down this conference:  ‘Nobody is trying to stop them from having their movement in their own spaces which exclude others.  The whole premise of transgender politics and transgender movement is a view of gender is antithetical to radical feminists’ view of gender. As far as I am concerned,  gender is harmful to everybody because gender is the cultural wing of patriarchy.  It maintains all the codes of male supremacy and female subordination, so that’s what masculinity is and what femininity is. I think we have to get rid of it and the way to that is through radical feminist projects of ending patriarchy.  In fact, in that scenario transgender people would be equally protected.  I just feel it is so offensive to say to us, ‘We get beaten up and raped as well—worse than you.’’  Present in the online discussions are the comparative battles of oppression—who is more oppressed than the other.  This line of discussion is tiring for certain but it does point to some of the underlying issues of contention between these two groups that seems never to be resolved.  Long, like other feminists, does not deny that trans women suffer, she just distinguishes that the suffering of women is radically distinct from that of trans women and there should be allowed the choice for women to organise and meet separately to discuss the issues of oppression specific to them.

This year’s Radfem Conference is to take place this weekend in the Camden Centre after the Irish Centre was forced to cancel after three men’s men’s rights activists yelled at the staff, threatened them, and then published the Irish Centre staff’s personal information on their blog. They didn’t have the resources to deal with the intimidation but were helpful in getting Radfem 2013 established in its new location.  However, not everyone was welcoming the Radfem 2013 Conference at the Camden Centre. Nigel Harris, director, for the Camden LGBT Forum, is quite critical of the radical feminists who are due to hold conference in the Camden Centre this weekend:  ‘The Radfems have stated that they don’t want trans women to attend their conference and Jeffreys has come out saying discriminating things against trans people.  She wants the NHS to ban any spending on gender dysphoria so that it becomes impossible for trans people to transition.’  When I ask Harris why he does not wish for the conference to be held at the Camden Centre he replies,  ‘The Camden Centre in the Town Hall has a sticker that says that this centre is safe for trans people.’  Harris claims he has no personal issue with the radical feminists but claims that his mandate is to protect equal access for trans people claiming that one of this year’s Radfem conference organisers has put up inflammatory comments online.  I have been unable to find any such comments made by the organisers of this year’s conference.  When I ask Harris if all events of the LGBT Forum are open to all people and that there are no workshops that would exclude certain groups, he tells me that there are meetings for trans women which would exclude any women born women.

———————–

Read the rest of this article here:

http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/06/07/the-left-hand-of-darkness/print

[Image added by me- GM]

23 Responses to “Julian Vigo: The Left Hand of Darkness”

  1. mieprowan Says:

    Thanks for that. The guy who thinks he has a cervix is interesting. Will we have guys who think they have uteruses? Phantom pregnancies? Will their phantom hysterectomies and abortions be covered by their health insurance programs, along with their faux genitalia? I mean, why not? They’re really women, right?

  2. Guls Says:

    Reblogged this on musicbugsandgender and commented:
    Interesting article by Julian Vigo gives a concise, balanced overview of the long-running divide between radfems and liberals around gender; explains why the former perspective is much-needed and why, even if you’re neither you maybe ought to be listening…

  3. lisaprime Says:

    This is a well-informed article that I hope will be widely read. I would even call it a major article. It’s a surprise, really – many of us have gotten used to the idea that nothing we say or write can overcome the avalanche of transactivist propaganda labelling us “transphobic”. None of us is transphobic in the classical sense of someone with an irrational fear of trans people. None of us is transphobic if that definition is taken from “homophobia”, which is a deep-seated male psychosexual pathology.

    Feminists have certain positions which conflict with the aggressive overreaching propaganda of the transactivists. I say “feminists”, not just radical feminists, because any woman struggling to free herself from male control, however it manifests itself, will agree that there are aspects of transactivist ideology that compel women back into such control. Once again we may all be afraid to need a bathroom in public, when “women’s” bathrooms are no longer perceived as safe. Once again we must fear sending our daughters to school, to live in dorm rooms which men can freely access simply by using the abracadabra words, “I feel like a woman today”. Same with girls in sports activities, and locker rooms. There will be a chilling effect on women engaging in being in public, doing sports, living in dorms.

    All feminists are concerned when pre-pubertal girls are sterilized and maimed rather than become known as lesbians. It’s so painful to have to even use these words, that I believe liberal feminists try to ignore the situation, that’s all. Radical feminists are more used to dealing with the ugly realities of the patriarchy, that’s all, not the popular bits like equalizing the laws.

    If any man can become part of the class of women, who are worldwide and throughout history the most universally subjugated of people, by men, then, as Vigo says, there is no longer a class of women to be liberated. There is no definition of a woman any more. It’s all so post-modern and meretricious, but I suspect to some extent it is merely that transactivists are pursuing their agenda with blind disregard for the 3 and a half billion females who endure forced marriages, no control over childbirth, sequestration, denial of any independence or public life, laws against abortion, and so many other issues crucial to feminism in which they have zero or conflicting interests. Transactivists could care less about the reproductive issues that are the heart of the women’s liberation movement. They seek to erase all mention of these.

    The point is, radical feminists are not transphobic. We do, properly and fairly, insist that the staggering oppression of women in time and geography is not co-optable. We insist on respect for our position, and that our status and definition as women not be vitiated. In the article, the doctor rightly states that trans men and women are accurate and solid when they define themselves as such. When they attempt to overreach into defining themselves as
    biologically-based alternate sexes, they are harming biological women’s struggle for liberation, and it is fair and not transphobic to hold them to account for that overreaching.

  4. Ashland Avenue Says:

    Echoing Lisa, I like this article and hope it gets widely read too. It takes a pretty nonjudgmental tone, I think, although I know there will be many who don’t see it that way. As we know, anything – anything – that doesn’t follow Trans Inc. to the letter gets slapped as transphobic. (I’ll add that even trans people have suffered from this dynamic as well.) By merely presenting the radfem “side”, this article will be viewed as hateful. I hope the writer is ready for that.

    From the article, this from Julia Long: “It is only when you shift it (oppression) to a different frame such as race or disability—where men are also discriminated—that it renders it intelligible to people, otherwise they don’t see it (the oppression of women) at all. I think so much of it is about access because women are not allowed to set boundaries and men set boundaries all the time and they violate our boundaries.” Yeeeessssssss.

    And this from Az Hakeem, the psychiatrist: “The problem I perceive people having is that you cannot tell me how I can experience you. It is like me telling you that this cold water is warm. You can’t legislate that, you can’t control that. But if in my mind I don’t experience you as a woman you can’t tell me to. I can go along with something but you can’t change my internal thinking on this matter.”

    This article hits on so many things that have happened between transjacktivists and radfems in the last few years. It’s well-researched, and I appreciate that.

  5. Cis_Girls (@Cis_Girls) Says:

    I’m not sure why my comment hasn’t gone through, but this was a very interesting article. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. GallusMag Says:

    Only comments related to this article and the topics addressed therein will be approved in this thread from here on out. Read it. Comment on it. Discuss. See how that works? Good system. Thank you for your cooperation.

    • Ashland Avenue Says:

      Sorry you’re having problems with trolls, Gallus. More than the usual, I mean. And once again – thanks for sparing us.

  7. FeistyAmazon Says:

    I found this to be a fairly written article, and it’s making it’s rounds everywhere thank goodness because it’s fairly level headed, staking out the claims of both sides. But this point is more telling to me than just about anything else, and something I’ve been saying for years: ” I think so much of it about access because women are not allowed to set boundaries and men set boundaries all the time and they violate our boundaries.”

    That is PRECISELY the problem. Men get to have all manner of their old boys’ clubs, trans individuals(both FTM’s, and MTF’s) get to have THEIR OWN conferences dealing with THEIR OWN issues, but should women try to organize, there’s always the dudes that will be wanting to know what the women are thinking, and cooking up, and saying about the menz, and always those women who want to ‘include’ those men. Whereas the menz have NO PROBLEM in most cases EXCLUDING women. No problem at all. If FTM’s get to have THEIR OWN conferences and spaces, why crash Dyke spaces? If MTF’s get to have their own groups and organizations, why crash the few festivals and spaces where WBW women get to discuss OUR issues, or do our rituals, or connect with one another sexually, spiritually, politically or any other way? Because of the above: ” I think so much of it about access because women are not allowed to set boundaries and men set boundaries all the time and they violate our boundaries.”

    We are the ‘touchable’ caste and we get NO PRIVACY from them, that is the patriarchy for you: whether it be past, present or future males! Because if women organize together, BY AND FOR ourselves, without our conferences, our rituals, our Marches, our events getting crashed by the menz, we might plot the Shevolution to overthrow their nonsense altogether? Such a deep down fear of our power! So therefore, everytime we end up getting coopted, or we get some woman willing to let ’em in as the so called ‘exception to the rule’!
    -In Sisterhood,
    -FeistyAmazon

    • mieprowan Says:

      It’s part of the violation imperative. Everyone truly female must be violated, to ensure the right to violate anyone truly female.

      We can also address this as rape, but it’s broader than even that.

      “Violation must be countenanced and submitted to” covers all sorts of abuse. Women get it the worst, because we are the easy victims, and also we speak male humans’ language. Thus we are the most dangerous enemies, because we have the capacity to call them out in their own language.

      • N00bert Says:

        “It’s part of the violation imperative. Everyone truly female must be violated, to ensure the right to violate anyone truly female.”

        One of the major eye-openers for me since discovering this blog is that MRAs and trans activists are the same people. I had not grasped how odious and harmful the trans agenda was to women. I’ve always considered myself a feminist, but if one needs to consider herself a radical feminist in order to convey my belief that women and women’s rights will not be subjugated by aggressors of patriarchy- whether in cargo shorts or a catholic school-girl skirt, then count me in! I’ve been effectively radicalized by the truth and I’m totally cool with it.

  8. liberalsareinsane Says:

    “and always those women who want to ‘include’ those men”.

    “we get some woman willing to let ‘em in”

    The handmaidens are worse than the menz. And they should be tossed too. Most of them are psychos anyway!


  9. […] so radfem13 went off without a hitch.  mostly.  the event took place and the organizers have issued a postgame statement focusing on the legal issues involved in organizing and meeting as women, in women-only space exclusive of men and trannies.  the title of the piece is “protecting female-only space in the UK.”  an “interim legal statement” was previously published here.  the organizers are quoted extensively in an article on “counterpunch” which you can read here (via gendertrender). […]

  10. unabashed Says:

    The man who thinks he has a cervix…

    In grad school, there was a list of people circulated to us that former students had said were good to live with. I was in contact with one woman, who seemed like a character, and I imagined her by her description of herself as a feisty blond Southern gal (she apparently imagined me as “spicy little Latina” because of my name, and was surprised, and, disappointed it seems, that I was so “Swedish-looking”). She picked me up at the airport. I was shocked, and must have looked it. She asked me, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “I didn’t know you would be so tall.” She stepped down from her high heeled shoes self-consciously.

    It wasn’t that though–I have met very tall women. It was something I couldn’t put my finger on.

    She lived in an old colonial-style house, with what appeared to be Civil War-era antique furniture. The room wasn’t really as she had described it (she said there was a “loft” above, but in fact it was just a crawl space she had put yoga pillows into). She had a couple of cats, and they pooped everywhere in the garage, where things were stored. Her fridge was packed to the gills with food, a fair amount of it rotting. There would have been nowhere to store my purchases.

    She talked merrily about what fun we’d have living and cooking together. She told me about her ex-husband, and how she was forced to pay alimony to him, and “fuck the patriarchy.” I couldn’t figure it out, but she really scared me.

    She would disappear naked down the hall sometimes, running into her room from the bathroom, and I would just catch a glimpse of her backside. Looking for a room with better Internet connection, I stumbled one day upon a special room she kept. It was filled with mannequin heads with wigs. This chilled me to the bone, for some reason. I could not imagine why she needed to have this special room with all these mannequin heads with wigs.

    Taking a shower in the downstairs bathroom one day, I noticed some words appear, imprinted, in the steam on the bathroom mirror. They said “Becky what are you running to where are you running from?” (Becky was her second name, and not the name she had told me).

    I began to get really scared. I hadn’t slept the entire three days I had been there. Her job was as a drug courier, delivering prescriptions, and one day I was looking for some toothpaste and opened the medicine cabinet and saw a bunch of Xanax. Delirious with exhaustion, I decided taking one might help me relax and sleep; unfortunately, it had such a strong effect I apparently, in my blacked-out state, did a number of things. One thing I did was pour out all the pills and line them up neatly on the counter. Another was text somebody an SOS in the middle of the night.

    So, the next day this man showed up to help me, and we devised a plan to move me out of there when she was not home. I told him the next day would be fine. I came home, and she was on the sofa, naked, under a blanket.

    She asked me in this voice of deep concern what was going on with me. She had found the pills, apparently, and said she had had hip revision surgery in Thailand, which is what she was taking them for. She said I didn’t seem like a pill head, so she just didn’t understand what was going on.

    I burst into tears. I told her I had been feeling extremely anxious, and just wanted to sleep. I told her I was far away from home and my boyfriend and I had just had to separate because of the distance between our schools, and I was nervous about how far her house was from the school when I didn’t have a car, and nervous about orientation the next day, and I had just wanted to sleep and it must have been really strong and I didn’t remember doing that and I was sorry. She said, “Oh, honey!” And held out her arms, and I ran into them and she clasped me to her ample bosom, which was still under the blanket.

    I stopped crying, and told her I’d have to leave. She said she understood. I told her I couldn’t get Internet, and needed to find out about the locations and times for my orientation the next day, and she let me borrow her phone. I told her I was “so embarrassed” and this was one of the most embarrassing things that had happened to me.

    She said, “Oh, honey, this is nothing. Just wait until you have kids. I remember giving birth to my daughter, I was dilated ten centimeters with my legs up in stirrups, and the janitor kept passing down the hall and sticking his head in, asking, ‘any progress?’ And the nurse called back, ‘nope, still ten centimeters!’ Now that’s embarrassing!”

    She went to bed, and I used her phone to look up my school’s website. Afterward, in nosy curiosity, I typed in every letter of the alphabet into the Google search bar, to see what would pop up. All sorts of things popped up: her sex-toy-buying and sex-soliciting habits, her love of enormous dildos and desire to be dominated in chains and handcuffs. Wow, I thought.

    I downloaded a file with the times I needed for orientation, a file that opened automatically in Acrobat. Looking in Acrobat, I saw other downloaded files. One was an interesting file. “Rules for sex change on birth certificate and other documentation.” I opened it, and it outlined how to go about getting one’s birth sex changed on formal identifying documents.

    I found out later that another classmate had briefly lived with her before me. She had had books about transition out on the table, at the time, but had apparently put them away for the next renter. He had left because she ran around naked, too, and he caught her peeping at him in the shower through the keyhole.

    Suddenly, her broad shoulders, her big feet, her height and deep voice made sense. I had described her to my dad, and he had said, “maybe she’s a man.” I’d laughed it off though. She had enormous breasts, and also she hadn’t told me.

    In retrospect, the worst thing is that she didn’t tell me. I couldn’t really tell she was a man, but I knew something about her was totally off, and it scared me. It scared me so much I couldn’t sleep. I don’t think she was a bad person, but telling me would have made sense of the wigs, and also would have made sense of my misgivings. I probably would not have stayed living there, though.

    In any case, that was a moment of massive cognitive dissonance, hearing her detailed story about giving birth and then discovering her documentation about changing her birth sex. I assume she (he) had to pay alimony to his wife, and he was describing his experience of being in the room when his wife gave birth to their daughter.

    The two renters I lived with afterward–a rich, debonair, leftist Southern couple who wanted to make me into their daughter, in which the husband was a creep–and the elderly Republican couple in which the dear old woman who used to bring me baked goods confessed she poisoned neighborhood cats and hated black people, who she referred to using the n-word while practically spitting–were equally strange in their own ways. I finally found a great landlord and lived happily ever after in his attic.

    So, yes. It can be about mental illness and totally appropriating women in delusional ways. It doesn’t make them all dangerous, or bad (the guy in the link who believes he has a cervix sounds a bit mad, but not bad). I do feel sorry for these kinds of trans-identified guys like the man I briefly lived with, but I also think what they are doing is driven by envy and resentment of women in a lot of ways, as well as porn fantasies, and it’s wrong.

    (Years later I had another trans-identified male roommate, and we became very close until he picked a fight with me about the trans issue, but that’s another story).


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