A sign at the 2013 Rally for Transgender Equity in Washington, DC. Photo by Ted Eytan, via Creative Commons.
Reading Michelle Goldberg's recent New Yorker article "What is a Woman? The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism” made me feel sick.
The article is meant to paint a clear picture of a longstanding debate within feminist groups about whether transgender women should be accepted as women, profiling several feminists and exploring the history of current discussions about the push to exclude transgender women from “women only” spaces. But in the process, it paints trans identity as suspect, does nothing to counter the hurtful misconception that trans women are either "men" exercising entitled "male privilege" in deeming themselves female or sexual fetishists acting out "erotic compulsions," and holds up authors who've written book-length academic works delineating these ideas as noble, aggrieved scholars.
While this may sound like speculative fiction set in a world where trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) theories have conquered queer and gender studies communities, it's not. Instead, it's something more disheartening: a one-sided profile that’s sympathetic to writers and activists who've spent their careers working to marginalize and persecute the already-oppressed transgender community.
Trans-exclusionary radical feminists posit that transgender women can never be considered women. At their worst, they argue that transgender women are malicious in their deceit, aiming to infiltrate female-only spaces with the goal of harassing or raping other women. These are the feminists who campaign against gender-neutral bathrooms and support the exclusion of transgender women from other women-only spaces.
In the article, it feels like Goldberg personally has a low opinion of social justice activists—that’s the view presented in her other recent article "Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars." One of the biggest problems in the New Yorker piece is that Goldberg presents trans people's self-definitions as opinions: "Trans women say that they are women because they feel female—that, as some put it, they have women’s brains in men’s bodies.” TERF’s views are presented the same way, following the previous statement with this one, "Radical feminists reject the notion of a 'female brain.' They believe that if women think and act differently from men it’s because society forces them to, requiring them to be sexually attractive, nurturing, and deferential."
Reading this passage, one might think TERFs and trans people have a philosophical or semantic debate. Trans people's identities, for which they and their allies are waging a worldwide human rights campaign to define as legally legitimate—backed by decades of medical and psychological data—and TERFs' hateful academic theories carry equal weight and import. If those two sides were balanced in the piece, readers might walk away with a shoulder shrug, “Who knows whether trans identity is legitimate or not?” The title of the piece certainly encourages this confusion, making it a question as to whether transgender women should be seen as women.
But the piece isn't even balanced. In a response to Goldberg’s piece published on Autostraddle, Mari Brighe noted that Goldberg cited 14 radical feminists, quoting nine and including two quotes from books. In contrast, she quoted only four trans women, including no quotes from books; two of her trans sources actually support radical feminist viewpoints. Likewise, Goldberg quotes TERFs misgendering trans women repeatedly, never mentioning that trans women find such language dehumanizing and hurtful. “Sadly, what she presents is a disturbingly one-sided view of the situation that relies on heavily anecdotal evidence, uncited claims and debunked theories, and ignores the extended campaign of harassment and attack that the trans community has endured at the hands of radical feminists,” writes Brighe.
In Goldberg's narrative, it's TERFs who come off as oppressed. Their ideas lack the "power and cachet" of the trans movement, and they've found themselves now "shunned as reactionaries on the wrong side of a sexual-rights issue." To understand how unjust this characterization of things is, one has to understand all the issues relating to trans people and TERFs that Goldberg doesn't mention.
Statistics from the National Transgender Discrimination survey. Illustration by Michelle Leigh.
The article, for instance, discusses second-wave feminist author Janice Raymond's 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, sharing the notorious statement, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” Golderg notes that Raymond now gets booted off of academic panels, failing to note at all that students attending those panels might be trans or queer people who find such writings dehumanizing and bigoted. Goldberg also chooses to leave unmentioned Raymond's work advising the government regarding trans health care, with her paper "Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery," which she prepared for the National Center on Health Care in 1980. Prior to adopting Raymond's transphobic views, the Department of Health and Human Services supported trans health care as medically necessary. Raymond's writings helped change that, though, delegitimizing the needs of trans people in the government's eyes. What Goldberg paints as an evenhanded volley of ideas has a long history of real-world consequences like these, which she conveniently leaves unmentioned. As the piece paints Raymond as a victim of political correctness run amok, her negative attitudes toward trans identity seem to be presented as legitimate.
In the depiction of current relations between the two groups, trans activists in the article come off as mean-spirited, marauding bullies, ceaselessly attempting to prevent TERFs from gathering in conferences and hounding them on social media and at the Michigan Womyn's Music Fest. Wholly ignored in this picture are the acts of individual persecution visited on trans women by TERFs, which create the vigilance that fuels trans people's responses.
Writing for Bitch in February, for instance, Tina Vasquez documented how TERF activists like Cathy Brennan have turned online debates into real world backlash, emailing the doctor of a transgender woman, contacting a trans woman’s employer, posting the OK Cupid dating profiles of trans women, and contacting the mother of an outspoken supporter of transgender issues.
"This kind of conduct is incredibly dangerous to trans women," says Emily Horsman, a woman targeted by Brennan, in that article. "Outing us in a workplace or school environment could easily damage our future and put us at risk for physical violence.”
It's known that Goldberg was aware of such TERF activities, because the day her piece appeared, the trans author Julia Serano wrote a blog post about having been interviewed by Goldberg for the article, in which she details discussing such topics at length with the writer. The omissions, Serano lamented, "Will likely lead uninformed readers to presume that trans people are simply mean and out of control, rather than reacting to the transphobia, trans-misogyny, and sexualizing comments we constantly face from TERFs."
All in all, though, Goldberg's article depicts a bizarre version of reality in which trans people are powerful aggressors—as if the appearance of one trans woman on the cover of Time, and the ability to convince a Quaker meetinghouse not to host a TERF conference equals absolute power.
"Injustice at Every Turn," the National Center for Transgender Equality's 2011 survey, paints a far different picture, however, one in which 90 percent of trans people report having experienced workplace harassment, 78 percent are harassed at school, one in five experience homelessness—with more than half of those encountering harassment when attempting to access homeless shelters—and the overall population is four times as likely to live in poverty as Americans in general.
The largest failing of the article is that it completely omits this struggle against discrimination, of which the back and forth with TERFs is just a single—though heated—part. The gains in acceptance and visibility trans people have achieved of late, which Goldberg paints as some unfair advantage in their relations with TERFs, have come through hard, often heartbreaking, activism. For Goldberg and the New Yorker to characterize the plight of trans people in this way, making no mention of the near-constant threat of violent assault and death facing trans women of color in America, is misleading. Sadly, this article becomes one more obstacle that the trans community will have to overcome, in its fight for security, recognition, and equality.
Leela Ginelle is a trans woman playwright and journalist whose work appears in PQ Monthly, Bitch and the Advocate.