Origins of Feminist Transphobia

I thought that for Trans Day of Visibility I should talk a bit about why some older feminists hate trans people with such passion. Many of my younger feminist friends are very confused by this. Of course I am not a TERF, so I can’t actually know how they think, but I was around in the 1970s so I have some idea of the political climate of the time.

The main thing that you need to bear in mind about radical feminists in the 1970s is that many of them believed very much in sexual difference, they just felt that it shouldn’t matter. That is, they believed (and appear to still believe) that humans come in two types: men (who are evil) and women (who are good). When they talked about gender, all that they meant is gendered behavior. That is, they believed that how women dressed, how they behaved, what jobs they were allowed to so, and so on, were all the result of a con trick pulled by men.

An unfortunate aspect of this is that they tended to fetishize masculinity. That is, they assumed that socially coded feminine behavior was fake, and socially coded masculine behavior was real. Consequently they preferred male gendered appearance. The idea that women might enjoy wearing their hair long, having pretty clothes, using make-up and so on was anathema to them. There’s a passage in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man where the heroines express surprise that trans women learn how to beautify themselves, despite being raised by men. I guess Russ was thinking about the issues, even then.

These days we know a lot more about the biology of gender. We know that the default state of humanity is female, and that becoming male is a complex process than happens in the womb through many different biochemical pathways, any or all of which may not perform 100% as expected. Intersex people are real, and transsexuals, despite huge amounts of social pressure to conform, have proved just as resistant to “reparative therapy” as homosexuals. Indeed, one possible definition of a transsexual might be an intersex person whose lack of conformance to socially-defined gender norms is not yet fully understood by biological science.

Of course transsexuals are by no means all of the trans community. Indeed, we are probably a minority, because these days trans has expanded to cover all sorts of aspects of gender non-conformance. We haven’t yet got to the point where men can wear dresses and make-up to work without being laughed at, but women (at least in Western countries) can dress much more as they please. One of the interesting consequences of this is that young women who reject traditional femininity no longer say, “I am a woman, but I won’t behave like that”, they say, “I’m genderqueer, not female” instead. To people who have grown up in a political philosophy that is very much about opposition between males and females, that must seem a terrible betrayal.

A far more serious threat, however, is posed by trans women. Back in the 1970s, being a radical feminist often meant being a lesbian separatist. Creating a safe space for women meant keeping out men, all men, even the male children of your less-radical friends. Anyone who wants to get an idea of some of the debates that have gone on in feminism around the idea of lesbian separatism should read Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast Chronicles, which go into them in depth.

For a radical lesbian separatist, being assigned male at birth is form of Original Sin for which no absolution is possible. The idea that someone can be assigned male and then apparently “become” female is entirely foreign to them. The idea that someone who may even still have a penis can call themselves female and enter “women only” spaces is often described by them in highly charged terms as “sexual assault” or “rape”. That’s what happens when you are wedded to a binary distinction between male and female, and you have built a political philosophy around the idea that “penetration” is evil.

These days we understand that the social pressures to behave in traditionally feminine ways begin the minute that one is assigned female, or self-identifies as female. Obviously the amount of social conditioning that you receive, and the amount of male privilege from which you benefit, can vary a lot depending on when you begin to self-identify as trans, and when you begin to transition, but there is no either/or to it. Speaking personally, I know I studied fashion mags and practiced make-up whenever I could, while I was still at school. My interest in fashion isn’t something I suddenly adopted when I transitioned.

So when a TERF talks about ending the gender binary, she doesn’t mean ending the distinction between men and women, because you can’t be a lesbian separatist if you don’t believe in a fundamental difference between men and women. All she means is putting an end to feminine gendered behavior.

Something else I have noticed TERFs do is accuse trans-supportive people of being homophobic. This will probably sound completely bizarre, especially if you are aware that many trans people are also homosexual. However, it too is rooted in attitudes from the 1970s when the gay and lesbian communities were very much anti-trans. That’s because, back then, encouraged by psychiatrists, people tended to believe that the primary reason for gender transition was sexual. It was assumed that all trans people were in fact homosexuals who were so desperate to be straight that they would mutilate their bodies to allow them to mimic the opposite sex. Amongst gays and lesbians, trans people were assumed to suffer from an extreme form of internalized homophobia.

These days, of course, we know better, or at least some of us do. Scan the comments section of any article about a gay or lesbian trans person and you’ll find at least one person asking “what’s the point”, as if getting to have straight sex was the only possible reason for transition. Of course for lesbian separatists the idea of a lesbian trans woman can be even more horrifying, because it leads to thoughts of people who are “really men” stealing their girlfriends.

All in all, therefore, we have a right mess. I can quite see that if I were a cisgendered radical lesbian separatist I might be very worried about trans people. Nevertheless, I also know very many lovely lesbians who have entirely come around to the idea that being female is not wholly defined by what a doctor says when you are born. I also know lots of fabulous people who understand that the “enemy”, such as there is one, is not men, but Patriarchy.

This is the point where I should bring in CN Lester who, by virtue of identifying neither as male nor as female, has a more interesting perspective on such matters. Read this, it is good.

My hope is that in a generation or so’s time TERFs will die out, because the ideas that gave rise to their attitudes have also died out. Then again, while we continue to live in a Patriarchy, the conditions necessary to create those attitudes will always exist. All I can say is that few people are better equipped to understand the reality of male privilege than those who have given it up. How anyone can be a trans woman and not a fierce feminist is a mystery to me.

Anyway, as I said, there are plenty of lesbian feminists, particularly the younger ones, who are fully supportive of trans people. For today, the good folks at Autostraddle have published a list of ways in which you can be supportive too. Here they are.

6 thoughts on “Origins of Feminist Transphobia

    1. Generally it stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. It is also occasionally expanded as Trans Exterminatory Radical Feminist, which is less polite but often more accurate.

      You may also encounter the acronym SWERF, which is the same thing except directed at sex workers.

  1. Somewhat OT: Cheryl, can you recommend any books (preferably nonfiction, but fiction too) for 10-12 year olds which deal with this and related matters? My grandson is starting to ask questions, and my experience as an older and possibly old-style feminist is too limited. Thanks for any suggestions – also from your readers.

    1. Try Questors by Joan Lennon. It is a Middle Grade book featuring three kids: one boy, one girl, and one who doesn’t know what gender they are. It is not a trans book at all, just a book that gets kids thinking about gender.

      On Amazon.

      For specific help with trans issues, TYFA are probably the best people to go to, or Mermaids in the UK. Both are specifically about supporting trans kids, and will therefore have stuff about how to explain trans to siblings, school friends, etc..

      1. Thanks! The sex education in middle schooling here still focuses on a binary understanding of gender, and I think it’s important to start kids thinking more openly.

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