The war of words between (some) trans activists and (some) feminists follows a general pattern for seemingly intractable debates. That pattern is that protagonists present arguments that will go down well with their side, rather than constructively engaging with the other side. Of course, there are those few who do seek constructive engagement, as otherwise I would not be writing this article.
In a previous academic existence, I taught the history of Christianity under the Roman Empire and one of the topics was apologetics. This has nothing to do with saying that you are sorry, in fact it quite the opposite. It derives from the Greek word for defence and refers to a genre of theology that defended Christianity against criticisms by the dominant philosophical and religious culture. For centuries it was assumed that these were books used as a form of intellectual evangelism, but it is now thought that they were never made available to anyone outside Christian circles, and so were designed to encourage the faithful. In the ancient world it is not surprising that published words had such limited impact on those outside the community, and this largely continued until the invention of the printing press. In our age of social media it appears so different with instant, and often acerbic, responses on platforms such as Twitter. Yet is it really that different? Much of the arguments on social media are apologetics to encourage your team, but ostensibly addressed to those on the opposing side. The real audience, however, remains your own side as you hope for likes, favourites, re-tweets and hits to your blog site. Not that much different from those early Christian writers who wished to be seen to be defeating outside criticisms without bothering (so far as we know) to send a copy to those critics.
That social media tendency to indulge in apologetics rather than engagement is particularly evident in online arguments between trans women and feminists. When feminists express concerns that trans women’s involvement in their movement would impact on their reflecting and acting on women’s experience, the response is seldom to engage with those concerns. Instead, insults will quickly follow (e.g., TERF, cis, you are not a real feminist) from trans women who are alerted on some activist site that there is an article that needs to be deluged with assertive trans comments. This results in the expected (and sometimes intended) reaction from feminists alerted on some activist site that there is an article that needs to be deluged with assertive anti-trans comments. That reaction ups the ante from concerns about what trans women would bring to feminist discourse to assertions that trans women are really just men, and so have no place in feminism. In the constant re-enactment of this online war of words the real issue is lost, namely the legitimate concern that the experience brought to the discussion by trans women would alter the nature of the women’s experience upon which feminist thought and action is based.
This is illustrated by one recent online article that was so besieged by competing teams of activist commenters that the original article was removed from view and replaced with a disclaimer and a downloadable PDF file. Ironically the article is titled “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Criticism of Gender” and its publishers felt the need to take it down because of trans activists posting their negative reactions and feminist activists replying in kind. The PDF is of a letter signed by 37 feminists decrying the campaign against radical feminist conferences and complaining that Gender Studies has blunted the liberationist edge of feminist thought. One of the most prolific of the trans commenters was Gemma Seymour, an organiser of Camp Trans, the annual protest against the (now rescinded) exclusion of trans women at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival. Therefore, she is one of the trans campaigners that the letter writers were complaining about without naming names. She responded to a feminist commenter, “No I did not share your girlhood. I had my own girlhood. I did not share your girlhood any more than you shared mine.” She then goes on to complain that her status as a woman is being questioned by the feminist commenters and by the co-authors of the letter. In doing so, she is engaging in apologetics, voicing the concerns that will cheer many trans activists, but refusing to engage with the issue of different childhoods. Nor was the apologetics one-sided as much of the feminist commenters focused on claims that trans women were actually men (as did the letter at one point), and consequently there was little attention to defending the content of the letter.
That notion of difference in childhoods is of vital importance, but the crux of the matter is seldom addressed by either side, and it is an issue not to do with the essence of being female, but with the life experience of growing up trans. Even for someone born male who is raised as a girl from the age of five (an oft quoted item in trans apologetics) life experience is still different because such a girl has to worry about the matter of body differences from the non-trans girls at school. Those worries add a level of complexity to the life of a trans girl that other girls do not face, and so will provide a different experience on which to reflect. Therefore, it is not a simple matter of lumping together all women (trans and non-trans) when feminist thinkers reflect on women’s experience. The experience of trans women, even in the rare case of early childhood transitioners, is of a different order than non-trans women, even just at the level of adding another level of worry and discrimination. Yet this aspect of the trans experience is rarely discussed, as both trans and feminist apologetics focus on defining the nature of being female.
Until such a discussion takes place on the different experience of growing up trans, there is not going to be anything resembling constructive engagement between the two sides of the argument. This is because genuine concerns are being ignored in favour of apologetics to cheer their own side. Yet there is an even more fundamental question that trans women seeking entry into feminist groups, events, and discourses need to ask; is their presence helpful?
A trans woman’s presence in feminist settings will undoubtedly be helpful to her in dealing with the issues that beset all women in a world that remains dominated by men. Yet is her presence helpful to feminism? To be involved in feminism is first and foremost to be working towards the empowerment of all women by removing the in-built advantages that all societies continue to give to men. The success of that feminist endeavour will benefit trans women, but will that success be hindered by more prominent involvement of trans women in the feminist movement? There are no shortage of opponents of feminism, who would love to deride it for needing women who used to be male to come up with new ideas. So there would seem to be real merits from a strategic viewpoint in trans women staying outside feminism, yet being insiders in terms of reaping the benefits of its successes.
That is why I continue to describe myself as feminist, but I am reluctant to call myself a feminist. My outlook on life is informed by the reflections of feminists, and improved by the actions of feminists, so feminist is a good adjective for me. Yet I do not see myself as a feminist, and certainly not as a feminist activist. I would not want my involvement within feminism to present any opportunity for the opponents of feminism. That leaves me free to pursue reflection that leads to action based on the distinct experience of trans women, while cheering on feminist activists from the outside.
© Mercia McMahon 2013