Transphobia in Feminism

Transphobia and Feminism: A Co-opted Incongruence

There is a certain subset of feminists who are self labeled “gender critical feminists” and otherwise called “TERFs” – that is, Transgender Exclusionary Radical Feminists, a term they oftentimes find distasteful much in the way a “race realist” finds the term “racist” distasteful. This group of people, who I will here call transphobic feminists for simplicity, are known for a particular disdain of transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming persons, as well as a mistrust of men that often swells into a type of sex-based hatred. This is cloaked in the language of feminism and thus is obscured and arguments against it made difficult as the core matter – the bigotry – becomes obfuscated. Thus it can be said that a transphobic feminist, a “gender critical feminist”, a “TERF”, however one might call them, can be defined, in one manner, as such: “A person co-opting the language of feminism to conceal sex- and gender-based bigotry.” Thus I opine that they are not inherently feminist, regardless of the feminist language and any feminist arguments or goals they appropriate, and we must stop viewing them as feminists.

In order to strengthen this point, however, I believe some core definitions must be obtained so as to illuminate what is being worked with here. I would like to define feminism, as difficult and potentially lacking as my meager contribution to the term may be, as well as womanhood – which will inevitably struggle in the same context – and finally, transphobia. After explaining my definitions of these subjects, I would like to discuss the concept of homogeneity, what biological essentialism is and how transphobic feminists use it, the concept of the interests of women, and how transphobia fits into feminism. Then I would like to discuss transphobic feminists in general, their misinformation, how they operate, their potential for propaganda, and potential for abuse. 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines feminism in two ways. The first is thus: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” I am fond of the wording as it appears to be inclusive of intersex individuals, something I will demonstrate that causes issues for the biological essentialist viewpoint of transphobic feminists. The second definition is as follows: “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” This definition paints feminism as a movement – something I also find useful – but further discusses the “rights and interests” of “women”. bell hooks gives a definition of feminism that at first seems simple yet is expounded on and I believe it fits well with the interests of women as I understand the term. She says, in Feminism: A movement to End Sexist Oppression, “Feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression. Therefore, it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels as well as a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.” I believe that feminism, then, is as bell hooks has described: a movement, a struggle and ideology constructed on the pursuit of the freedom to engage self development and determinism over oppressive systems and structures, and further, over the boundaries of class, race, and gender, on an individual level in a reorganized society that protects such freedoms from oppression in the context of of the patriarchal capitalist race-divided society of the world, and the need to overcome these hurdles to reach that destination.

If, then, these are some goals of feminism, and women, it is pertinent to ask what makes a woman, a woman. Monique Wittig, in her essay, One is Not Born a Woman, an essay that I will return to later in this discourse, quotes Simone De Beauvoir as saying: “One is not born, but becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society: it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.” She goes on to explain, “A materialist feminist approach shows that what we take for the cause or origin of oppression is in fact only the mark imposed by the oppressor: the “myth of woman,” plus its material effects and manifestations in the appropriated consciousness and bodies of women.” To put it another way, “woman” – as a concept – is a series of constructed roles built by the oppressive patriarchal and institutionally repressive systems that are imposed on women. Gender is, Wittig posits, a social construct, created and imposed upon a set of people.

This differs from what is known as “biological essentialism”, or, the idea that human nature, intelligence, behavior, and so on, are all tied to one’s biology. This is a type of essentialism, which is the broader concept that all groups are tied together by innate characteristics that members must have to be part of the group, that unify and make the members in some way the same. Noel Sturgeon, in her essay titled Ecofeminist Appropriations and Transnational Environmentalisms, states that essentialism “…is the practice of making generalized claims about a group based on notions of an essential, inherent similarity.” It is making, for instance, broad generalizations about women as a group based on the inherent similarity of being female without taking into account the variations between women, is essentialism. She then goes on to explain, “Such generalized claims assum common characteristics within a group, making it impossible to identify and evaluate important differences among the group’s members. An essentialist approach creates exclusionary barriers between groups that display particular characteristics and those who don’t.” Here Noel Sturgeon is talking about the tendency by Western Ecofeminists to boil down all indigenous women into a homogenous indigenous group in order to uphold them as the ultimate ecofeminists without taking into account their situations, needs, desires, choices, and so on. This definition of essentialism is harmful, she argues, because it makes it impossible to see the individual needs and values of individuals within the group collectively and constructs in and out groups.

I personally lean toward something Julia Serano calls “subconscious sex”, which is the concept that there is a leaning within every human to this sex or that regardless of the gender identity they wear. So then, I would argue that a useful definition for “woman”, so that it may be discussed in essays and discourses, may be: “people across a broad range of social, class, ethnic, gender, and sexual contexts who generally display female reproductive capacities or secondary female characteristics. It may be wordy, but life is complicated. 

This is the definition of women that I will be using throughout this writing. When discussing the transphobic feminist homogenous idea of “women”, I will be using the term “essentialist womanhood.”  I want to note that for my definition of “woman” I am retaining my remarks on generally displaying such and such reproductive capacities or secondary female characteristics as, as I said, I believe it is useful to construct – and to remember it to be constructed – a concept of womanhood that can interconnect individual women.

Finally, I would like to attempt to define transphobia. To once more turn to Merriam-Webster, the dictionary definition of transphobia is: “[an] irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against transgender people”. I am interested in deconstructing this briefly and very much so on the surface level. Transphobia, to me, is a form of sexism that is rooted in biological essentialism. It is an idea that one’s assigned sex (note: even though some may disagree with using this terminology for non-intersex transgender people, a stance I disagree with, it is still pertinent for the many interesex children who are wrongfully “fixed” at birth) may not break the boundaries of their prescribed roles as said sex because there are inherent and immutable qualities that cannot and should not be changed in regards to their sex. This belief is seasoned with bigotry, negative assumptions about the sex in question, be it male-to-female people being “harmful” or “violent” for being perceived as “men”, or female-to-male people being “women in denial” or “harmed and trying to escape womanhood” for being “women”. The prejudice, based on sex and biological essentialism, defines transphobia, and so I argue that transphobia is a form of sexism.

Having attempted to define feminism, “woman”, and transphobia, I think it is important to examine why transphobia is detrimental to feminism by way of sexism and homogeneity – essentialism – that both harms and excludes not just trans people, but many intersex and cisgender women as well, in addition to the harmful implications transphobic feminists hold in regards to societal power structures in regards to gender and biology. When transphobic feminists use essentialist arguments for what a woman is or is not, they will inevitably be forced to reconcile the loss of some members of their essentialist womanhood in their attempt to shake off trans people. By this I mean, if stating women have uteri, then would women without uteri be non-women? If this is a falsity – if women without uteri are women – is it because they are born a certain way? What are the conditions for this? What of women with Swyer Syndrome? How may women are okay to be “shaved off” from womanhood in pursuit of excluding transgender woman and invalidating transgender men, both just as reasonable minorities as intersex women or non-traditionally presenting women. Additionally, this form of essentialism leads to the recementing of gender roles, the particular traits, roles, behaviors, and patterns of this gender or that, but solidify them in sex-roles instead. Women are this because this which makes us do that, and men are this because this which makes them do that (i.e. men are violent because they are males, women are victims because they are female, and so on). Transphobia in feminism upholds exclusion and the binary gender roles, simply in different formats.

Monique Wittig cautions against this form of thinking. She states, “By [stating that men are biologically inferior to women or that male violence is a biological inevitability] … we naturalize history, we assume that “men” and “women” have always existed and always will exist. Not only do we naturalize history, but also consequently we naturalize the social phenomena which express our oppression, making change impossible…” In other words, stating that men are naturally violent and women otherwise – using, in other words, biologically essentialist rhetoric – reinforces the concept that men and women are now and always have been, different innately. Feminism from this standpoint is less so about abolishing the differences between the sexes and more reinforcing a sort of matriarchal superiority that Wittig decries within the same essay. In this way transphobic feminism is less radical so much as it is a mirror, a paradigm shift rather than an abolishment of a system, an essentialist and impermeable rigidity rather than a flexible, changeable concept. If radical change is to be achieved, if the walls of man and woman are to be torn down, if gender is to be permitted flexibility and individuality and sex and gender to be disallowed as avenues of oppression, one must not allow themselves to fall into the trap of biologically essentialist thinking that is inevitably transphobic and realize that radical change comes in the form of inclusivity rather than walls and barriers pressupposed to be permanently impermeable on a biological basis. This form of dangerous thinking only serves to further the divide and solidify the roles of the sexes and binary genders.

This form of essentialism can be seen in many transphobic feminists’ arguments against transgender people’s validity, freedom of expression, and inclusion. Oftentimes the incorrectness of this concept can be found in their misleading arguments, should one dig through them and see past the initial bigoted, agenda based veil. For instance, an argument for why trans women are not women or that trans women should be barred from female spaces  that can be found in many transphobic feminist circles is that trans women have “male rates of violence”. This concept seems to, in large part, stem from a study in Plos One done by the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm in which a study on criminality – only one part of the larger study itself, titled: Long-Term Follow-Up of Transsexual Persons Undergoing Sex Reassignment Surgery: Cohort Study in Sweden – was done over the course of thirty years, in which it was stated that “…regarding any crime, male-to-females had a significantly increased risk for crime compared to female controls … but not compared to males. This indicates that they retained a male pattern regarding criminality.” However, so often left out is this distinct part: “Transsexual individuals were at increased risk of being convicted for any crime or violent crime after sex reassignment; this was, however, only significant in the group who underwent sex reassignment before 1989.” One of the researchers, Dr. Cecilia Dhejne, later clarified, in an interview with TransAdvocate, “If one divides the cohort into two groups, 1973 to 1988 and 1989 to 2003, one observes that for the latter group (1989 – 2003), differences in mortality, suicide attempts, and crime disappear. This means that for the 1989 to 2003 group, we did not find a male pattern of criminality.” This is distinctly left out in arguments about “male violence in transgender women”, and a pattern of missing facts, obscure context, and blatant misdirection is common in discussions around difficult topics like these with transphobic people.

Misunderstood and misleading facts in argument of sexist, transphobic biological and gender essentialism pepper transphobic feminist arguements. More often than not, these flawed arguments in pursuit of a flawed base ideology are cloaked in feminist language (i.e. “women’s liberation”, “reproductive rights”, “women’s safety”). By cloaking itself in the language of feminism, transphobic feminism appears to be advocating for radical feminism – they even call themselves radical feminists. They appear to be advocating for the deconstruction of a male-led oppressive system and state that they are “against gender” despite conflating it with sex constantly, and supporting gender through sex ceaselessly. There is very little that is radical in shifting the power structure from one group to another under exclusionary, essentialist confines that ignore specific instances and needs of individual people while demonizing one sex and making the confines of both sexes immutable whilst writing off any who fall outside of the binary as “abnormalities”. There is a reason this sounds vaguely like patriarchy.

When transphobic feminists speak of “acknowledging biological sex/reality”, the subtext is that biological sex carries certain aspects that define who a person is in regards to the way they experience their sex, which is gender essentialism. When transphobic feminists state that they wish to “protect women”, the subtext is that they wish to protect women against anyone perceived to be a man, as men, in the context of this ideology, are supposedly inherently dangerous and flawed. To “advance the rights of women” does not include all women – female sex workers, for instance, are often shamed or cast to the wayside and many aspects of female sexuality are denigrated, such as kink enjoyment, while intersex women are almost unspoken of unless being used as a token or being called an ‘abmormality’ – and carries the undertones of either separating women from men through forms of political lesbianism or denegrating those they perceive as men. In truth, while their language lies in the realms of feminism, their ideology is similar to something existent already, with the sexes reversed. This leads me to believe that a large part of transphobic feminism is propagandistic appropriation of feminism to mask blatant sexism and hegemony.

In How Propaganda Works by Jason Stanley, Stanley discusses in regards to propaganda in liberal democracies, that, “The most basic problem for democracy raided by propaganda is the possibility that the vocabulary of ilberal democracy is used to mask an undemocratic reality.” In other words, propaganda can use the vocabulary of one thing to mask that its opposite is reality. Obviously the author here is talking about liberal democracies, and yet I think the greater point stands that language meant for one thing can be used to conceal an opposite reality. Furthermore, the author’s definition of propaganda in the classical sense is, “manipulation of the rational will to close off debate.” I would argue that the usage of feminist language to conceal transphobic and sexist ideals is a form of propaganda, especially in this sense, as countlessly one could recall talking to a transphobic feminist only to have debate shut down with, “You hate women because you disagree with this, that, or the other strawman, fallacy, mirespresented argument.” The purpose of this, I believe, is to recruit more individuals into the transphobic feminist ideology, and to retain hegemony over a homogenous thought within the idealogy.

I believe it to be similar to how “incels” and “men’s rights activists (MRA’s)” operate, though it is not quite fair to paint the two as equivalent. Transphobic feminists have a basis in sexism that is dependent on an idea of a “dangerous sex” that is going to harm them and is coming for them and as such use the language of “rights, liberation, justice” to cloak a harmful agenda, and MRA’s and incels are based in sexism that is dependent on an idea that an “arrogent sex” is denying them what they are entitled while also using similar language of rights and justice – in a way, they are two sides of an extreme coin, forever opposites on the same spectrum. In some spaces they even “ascend” the same; that is, one might go from “red pill” to “black pill” as an incel, and one might go from “gender critical” to “pink pill” as a transphobic feminist.

New “gender critical feminists” often find themselves highly praised upon walking into a transphobic feminist group. Online groups like the gender critical subreddit and mumsnet are often congratulatory to those just joining them – though this rarely lasts. Transphobic feminism is based off of thinly concealed sexism and hate, and as such, this hateful grouping encourages anger and pain through their membership. Fellow transphobic feminists are encouraged to conform to the anger, to take part in the hate, at risk of being derided or shamed – with the reward being further descent into bigotry and anger. Oftentimes one can find online groupings of content specifically tailored by these feminists to anger each other and reset their defensive stances. Sometimes, many “gender critical feminists” find that they are lonelier the longer they identify as such. This isolation is intentional, encouraged by other transphobic feminists as they urge the individual to disregard any who disagree with the ideology, and eventually, in some cases, the transphobic feminist group becomes the person’s only source of community. This is particularly dangerous as it creates a trap in which the person needs community, but the community only emotionally and psychologically injures the individual in an angry cycle.

Transphobic feminists who break this mold are often subject to derision. Called “handmaidens” they are painted to be working for the “enemy” – men – in what is further proof that transphobic “feminism” fits neither definition of feminism due to exclusionary, essentialist, sexist rhetoric and behavior. The essentialist womanhood of transphobic feminism has no room for dissent from women who find their needs to not align with the course of such a movement, and the derision they receive for this is ever present. Dehumanizing language is not just aimed toward transgender people or men, but it is aimed at women as well – “handmaiden” and “pickme” are just a few examples – and especially at nonconforming “gender critical” women. 

The more one is involved in this cycle of praise, anger and sexism, isolation, and derision, the more likely they are to begin perpetuating it. It reminds me distinctly of a cycle of abuse. A good case study for this would be Amy Dyess, a lesbian who at one point considered herself “gender critical”, who spoke to Pink News in an article published May 17, 2020. In her journey through being a transphobic feminist and her escape from the ideology, she describes the lengths transphobic feminists went to manipulate their sexist and transphobic language to be more palatable to the layperson, instability pushed upon her, and the “lovebombing” she received trying to leave. The article in question is certainly worth a read, and it highlights and illuminates many of the things I have personally observed in the goings-on in transphobic feminist spaces.

Transphobia in feminism co-opts feminist language for explicitly non-feminist goals and takes advantage of those who fall into its ideological trappings. Neither are sexism based in gender and biological essentialism nor exclusionary and harmful actions in pursuit of the cementation of that goal, feminist doings. Transphobic feminists are not particularly feminist – rather they are a certain type of matriarchal ideology. Seen as hold-outs from second wave feminism by some, these transphobic feminists seek not to challenge current power structures but rather to separate from them, and/or shift who is in power. There is nothing radical about “transgender exclusionary radical feminists”. 

The use of hegemony over the homogeneity of women ignores the plight of many women throughout the world and “others” them. The pursuit of biological essentialism to describe men as “bad” and women as “innocent” reifies gender roles as sex roles. The abusive nature of transphobic feminists, both externally and internally focused – and in this writing I did not even mention the external abuse of transphobic feminists – is both harmful and manipulative. 

I believe that calling so-called “gender critical feminists”, feminists, is doing the term a disservice, whereas I believe a term such as “matriarchs” may be more fitting, though I believe this term would be at great risk of being co-opted by malicious actors on the right wing, in the men’s rights movements such as MGTOW, and in incel spaces. One thing is certain, though. These are not feminists, and their intentions are not in line with progressive feminist thought and action. As such, I believe they should not be called “feminists”. I would argue they are more reactionary than progressive, and should be seen, and called, as such, with ample and sufficient distance between them and what we know to be feminism.


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