Julian Vigo: The Left Hand of Darkness
June 9, 2013
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.
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[Image added by me- GM]