Thinking Out Loud on TERFs

(31 comments)

Promoting a Kickstarter is far from an exact science, but this seemed to work well for the Lizard People essay, so here goes for TERFs. As before, if all of this sounds interesting and you want it to happen, the trick is to back Neoreaction a Basilisk on Kickstarter. I suspect that if we can make $12k and the TERFs essay by the end of the weekend, the end-of-campaign momentum over the last two days will take us over the $14k line.

Anyway, TERFs, or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. Basically, a set of feminists for whom a major (or at times the major) component of their feminism is the belief that trans women are not real women and ought be excluded from female spaces. More virulent strains consider the entire notion of being trans an excuse for men to invade women's spaces and treats all trans women as rapists. They are, as you can imagine, absolutely fucking terrible. And they're terrible in ways that aren't dissimilar to how various bits of the alt-right are terrible. (In fact, one of the notable things about them is their willingness to work with right-wing groups on things like bathroom bills.) So they seemed an interesting counterpoint to put in the book.

Anyway, thinking about it further, one obvious angle to take is the larger theoretical question of the Sister Souljah moment - the question of why it seems important to take a shot at your own side. And this gets into larger questions of the leftist circular firing squad that feel meaty and worth exploring. Why do we do this? Should we stop? The answer to that last question "not entirely," of course, and that in turn circles to the question "OK, so why are TERFs on the wrong side of that line, and what does that tell us about the line?"

But there are also a lot of questions about paranoia and conspiracy theories that feed in with the rest of the book. One of the central metaphors will, as I've said, be Janice Raymond's book The Transsexual Empire, which has always stood out to me as an utterly bonkers metaphor, ascribing the staggering amount of power implied by "empire" to one of the most brutally downtrodden populations imaginable. And in a manner consistent with the sort of barmy thought of, say, the Austrian School or David Icke, this sort of frenzied tautology that erases all other concerns no matter how reasonable. 

I'm also interested in what TERFs reveal about the history of feminism and social justice - the extent to which it's a phenomenon of the second wave (which I deal with a bit in A Golden Thread, actually), and reveals the way in which leftist "progress" actually works in a way that's rather more intelligent than Moldbug's dumb-ass "Cthulhu always swims left" nonsense. This'll also involve looking at the hijacking of Stonewall and the way in which a sequential narrative whereby gay rights preceded trans rights was constructed in the first place, and end up looking at the way in which a largely silenced trans history existed and has finally started to reassert itself, including how the fight for survival against TERFs prefigured the wider civil rights fight. 

There's also the matter of standing, which isn't something that will go into the essay as such, but that is important. I'm mindful of my lane as a straight white cis male, and of how that intersects with my intellectual and aesthetic commitment to diversity. In the main Neoreaction a Basilisk book the solution to this is basically lampshading the fact that the book is a pallid sausage party  - there's a running joke throughout it of noting how long it's taken to actually introduce any women or people or color. But being mindful of your white maleness isn't sufficient. Put simply, then, TERFs seem like a topic where the relative distance of being neither a cis nor trans woman is, if not an advantage, at least not a disadvantage. It's a way to write about trans topics without being appropriative, and I don't exactly have a lot to fear from aggroing TERFs. 

So yes. I think an interesting essay, at least. Hopefully enough of the world does to keep giving me money, mua ha ha.

Give me money here at Kickstarter.

Comments

Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

Now this would interest me enormously. I'm aware of transphobic feminism from the academic writing I struggle with (currently Judith Halberstam's Female Masculinity) and from every time Germaine Greer opens her mouth. But online (ie on Tumblr) I only seem to encounter TERF in two forms: nth-hand accounts of terrible TERFs, and obvious trolling. The fact is, I have not gone forth to find out for myself what power and influence TERFs have right now. I don't mean to diminish the specific danger of a supposedly feminist voice attacking trans people - let alone the hurtfulness; rather, I'd like to get a clear picture of how much damage they're actually doing. I'm particularly interested in the idea of TERFs allying with the far right; anti-pornography feminists were accused of this in the seventies, but as far as I could see, there were no handshakes, no joint meetings, no speaking together at rallies. If TERFs aren't just making noise and are actually politically organising with transphobic politicians etc, eg over the bathroom laws, we've got a big problem.

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David Gerard 1 year, 6 months ago

They've organised for years. They punch well above their weight because quite a lot of respected academic feminists are TERFs, so organisations looking for respectable (can you spot the can of worms there?) feminist input are quite likely to get a TERF.

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Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

I am almost afraid to ask about their input into the bonkers bathroom laws.

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Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

https://psmag.com/who-birthed-the-anti-trans-bathroom-panic-32427d574708

I see that at the very least they are, inevitably, being used as "props" by the bonkers bathroom banners, much in the way that feminist language is being generally co-opted. Given that the toilet-obsessed campaign is surely part of a larger project to Make Gender Great Again, merely being a prop is quite dangerous enough, with or without direct collaboration.

(I was sorry to read the reference to Katha Pollitt there; I'm an admirer.)

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Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

Y'all are helplessly asleep while I fill up this comments page instead of working. Anyway, I tracked down Pollitt's column, which to my relief is about the ever-vexed problem of inclusive language.

http://www.thenation.com/article/who-has-abortions/

http://www.thenation.com/article/letters-505/

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David Gerard 1 year, 6 months ago

The RationalWiki article is sorta crappy and not even up to our bronze "this is ehh okay" rating, but it also seems to be the go-to article for a lotta people on the subject of "wtf is a TERF". So any work people can do on that would be welcomed. Cites are awesome. About half of theterfs.com needs to be digested into it. Talk page controversial stuff first.

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 6 months ago

I'll compost a fair amount of it into this essay, so you can probably compost it from there. :)

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Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

I'm checking out both the RationalistWiki page and theterfs.com, but in both places I keep hitting links which don't lead to the information they say they do. Some tightening of the bolts would definitely be a plus.

I got too cross to finish properly reading this sorry Australian example:

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/10/28/4340688.htm

at this bit:

"Rather than being a designator of subordinated social class membership, 'woman' is a feeling that can swell in any man's breast."

It swells in my breast, too, you idiot, and yours! Germaine Greer was on the ABC recently questioning whether trans women really "know" they're women or only "think" they are. Nobody asked Germaine whether or how she knows she's a woman. I'm perfectly aware that "woman" is a cultural category, one that I don't quite fit into, and that at the same time that I have an unshakeable knowledge that I am one - which must be the same unshakeable knowledge that a trans woman has of her own self.

I'm preaching to the choir. What really blew my mind was the writer's total ignorance of both the medical facts and the political history of the issue. Paging Doctors Dunning and Kruger...

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Matt 1 year, 6 months ago

That Caroline Norma article is odd.

"Marxists, peaceniks, greenies, queers, animal libbers and some anti-racism groups over three decades have been remarkably united in their commitment to purging feminists from the Left."

This implies that these groups are in some kind of anti-feminist conspiracy. Rather than simply that different groups broadly conceived as being on "The Left" often fight with each other.

I'd like to see the empirical evidence to back this up - rather than a series of historical anecdotes strung together.

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Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

I'd like to know where she thinks, for example, eco-feminists and lesbian feminists fit into a conspiracy which pits "greenies" and "queers" against feminists.

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Matt 1 year, 6 months ago

Absolutely.

Her research background is on sex industry in the Asia-Pacific region - which I imagine means that she's come across some really messed up stuff and is probably why the article spends a lot of space discussing pornography and prostitution. However she's not done any research on trans stuff - which is not necessarily surprising.

https://www.rmit.edu.au/contact/staff-contacts/academic-staff/n/norma-dr-caroline/

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Matt 1 year, 6 months ago

Reflecting on this, you can see a broader issue with some of these radical feminist criticisms of transpeople. There's a whole set of baggage (in this case pornography and prostitution) being brought to the debate which doesn't necessarily belong there. The wrong argument is being had.

Which - thinking about it - is a risk with big, structural critiques of stuff. "Patriarchy" is not a building that you can point at with a definite start and end points ("Hey, who wants to go for a tour of Patriarchy Towers this weekend? Why yes, they do look like erect penises!"). It's more like a weather system.

It seems to me that these big, structural critiques were most popular in the 60s and 70s - at precisely the time of second wave feminism.

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T 1 year, 6 months ago

(Not on my usual ID for this because the internet anti-TERF machine is fucking vicious and targets anyone, including trans women)

I'm not a fan of the term. I've been called a TERF by people who know nothing about my feminism (which supports trans rights and disagrees with some major radical feminist positions) because I personally don't want to have sexual intercourse with a trans woman. The acceptability and widespread use of the term shows, in my opinion, that even in progressive movements in 2016, women are still expected to prove their politics on their backs.

And Phil, you're not the person to be writing about this, and I think you know that.

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 6 months ago

I'm inclined to look at "I don't want to have sex with trans women" about the same way I look at "I don't want to have sex with black people," which is roughly "OK, you do you, but I'm rolling my eyes hard."

More broadly, come the fuck off it. If you're going to talk about fucking viciousness in this debate you've got to know full well that we're talking about people like Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Janice Raymond, and especially people like Cathy Brennan, none of whom are attacked for their choice of sex partners, and all of whom are attacked for the material support they have lent to oppressive legislative policies and the verbal support they have lent to arguments that are routinely used to justify literal fucking murder.

Past that, why am I not the person to be writing about that? Because you're dead wrong that I know that. Quite the opposite, I've put a fair amount of thought into the question of "what aspect of trans issues is a sensible one for me as a cis man to wade into at any theoretical length," and concluded that this one, which doesn't involve speaking for/over trans voices and where I can use the privilege afforded to me to tackle a topic that it is materially dangerous for others to approach was ideal.

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Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

As the sort of mannish cis woman who's now a target for transphobic nutters in American toilets, I've been thinking over ways of responding should I encounter the gender police on my next US visit. (Nothing worse than being suddenly caught in one of these situations without a plan.) Because, unlike a trans or genderqueer / genderfluid person, it's pretty much safe for me to fight back, kick up a fuss, confront and embarrass the harasser, and hopefully dissuade them and others from repeating the behaviour. I quite like the idea of "using one's privilege" meaning shouting ARE YOU SOME KIND OF WEIRDO? LEAVE ME ALONE OR I'LL CALL SECURITY! at the top of one's voice.

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 6 months ago

*slow clap*

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Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

Oh dear - is that the good slow clap, or the bad slow clap?

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Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

Oh well, I'll ignore the advice of my various mental illnesses and assume it was the good kind. :)

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 6 months ago

Bah, did I never reply to this? Of course it was a good slow clap!

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Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

*whew* :D

The other trick up my sleeve - for many situations - is to whip out my phone. "Say that again for YouTube."

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Mark P. 1 year, 6 months ago

'the larger theoretical question of the Sister Souljah moment - the question of why it seems important to take a shot at your own side.'

Perhaps a weak example. The Sister Souljah case in particular is the textbook example in politics of 'hippie punching,' rather than of the 'Leftist circular firing squad.' (I agree that both phenomena can combine to operate as one, but they are two distinct pathologies.)

The Urban Dictionary:
Definition: the practice of ritualistically denigrating... progressives in order to win over imaginary swing voters and David Brooks.

Example: 'After a pleasant afternoon of tongue-kissing insurance lobbyists, David Axelrod decided to go down to the Washington Post for some hippie punching'.



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John Biles 1 year, 6 months ago

Speaking as a long participant in internet warfare, I can say that you stepping into this issue is likely to be taken by both sides as an unwanted intrusion. When outsiders step into internal battles, it usually will result in both sides reorienting to blow the intruder into bits before going back to chewing on each other.

In other words, the transpeople will likely see you as trans-splaining and the TERFS will see you as man-splaining.

But I could be wrong. Hopefully you're right.

You should probably prepare yourself mentally to be in a crossfire, however.

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 6 months ago

Well, I've not tested the reception among the TERF crowd (nor do I care about it), but I've certainly gotten nothing but positive feedback from the couple of trans people I know of who have remarked on the prospect of me writing the essay. Which isn't some sort of Official Endorsement of the Trans Community or anything, and I'm sure there exist trans people who would prefer I don't write it, but seems better than the alternative at least.

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John Biles 1 year, 6 months ago

Well, good luck, then!

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Matt 1 year, 6 months ago

1. There's an obvious disconnect between the MTF trans experience as described by some radical feminists and the stories related by actual MTF trans people. For the TERFs, it's a kind of imperialist gender tourism. For MTF trans people, it's fraught process that generally means a loss of status and power in exchange for some chance at an identity that brings happiness and fulfilment. My understanding is that Raymond only talked to 13 trans people for her book - so it's not exactly insightful.

http://www.newstatesman.com/juliet-jacques/2014/08/dispute-between-radical-feminism-and-trans-people

2. Putting aside for a moment whether MTF trans people are actually "women" according to whoever gets to decide these things. What is clear is that the rad fems and trans people face many of the same challenges - e.g. sexual harassment, discrimination at work. It would be dumb not to try to ally to fight challenges like this for everyone.

3. However there are issues that many feminists care about that are not directly relevant to MTF trans people - e.g. fertility rights. The life experience of trans people and non-trans people have differences. So there's going to be differences in perspective and focus. And pointing that out need not be considered evil.

4. Numbers matter. No one really knows what % of the population is trans. Some figures place it somewhere between 0.1% - 1%. Trans people are only going to be a small proportion of the feminist movement.

5. The term "TERF" seems to be used rather too loosely. I have no time for Raymond and find Greer's comments on the topic unhelpful (but then I suspect Greer's greatest fear is walking into a room with no one to disagree with). However working through specific, thorny issues (e.g. does a women-only rape crisis centre admit a MTF trans person as a volunteer counsellor?) probably requires that you take in multiple points of view and the results are going to be messy.

This stuff is going to be messy.

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Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

1. Anti-trans feminists seem to know even less about trans issues than I do. Which is striking, given that most of what I've read has been about alternative genders in ancient civilisations and non-Western cultures. Their commentary seems, more than anything, incoherent.

2. and 3. I think of trans women as just another category of women, with overlapping _and_ distinct interests and experiences - categories like white women, Indigenous women, mentally ill women, women in pink collar jobs, gender non-conforming women, immigrant women, women without children, mothers, etc etc etc.

5. Without wanting to brush aside your point about the tough work of hashing out specific solutions, my first thought was how useful a trans woman counsellor would be to a rape crisis centre, given how often they would be approached for help by trans women.

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Matt 1 year, 6 months ago

Apparently not: http://thetyee.ca/News/2007/02/03/Nixon/

N.B. Rape Relief agreed that Nixon was a women. However they didn't want her as a volunteer. You could say that Rape Relief should have accepted her. But to me, it's a case without an obvious villain. It's messy.

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Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

Thanks for the link to a very interesting article about a case in which everyone seems to have disagreed in good faith. The note about Kimberly Nixon's masculine appearance made me wonder if at any point anyone thought of having her counsel rape survivors by phone rather than in person. (It also makes me curious about whether the staff includes masculine-presenting cis women.) Another solution would have been to have her not as part of the regular staff, but "on call" for when trans women sought help. These would have turned her different experiences into an asset rather than a problem. (Whether my bright ideas would actually have been financially or logistically feasible I obviously have no clue.)

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Matt 1 year, 6 months ago

"The note about Kimberly Nixon's masculine appearance made me wonder if at any point anyone thought of having her counsel rape survivors by phone rather than in person. (It also makes me curious about whether the staff includes masculine-presenting cis women.) Another solution would have been to have her not as part of the regular staff, but "on call" for when trans women sought help."

The commentary indicates that Rape Relief wanted volunteers who were raised as women (yeah, I know that phrase is problematic) to counsel the people on their hotline - it wasn't simply Nixon's masculine appearance. There was* an ideological gap there. I suspect that having Nixon counsel other trans women would be acceptable to them but probably wasn't logistically feasible.

It should be noted that Nixon was already volunteering with a group that accepted trans women so that group either didn't have the same ideological difference or found a way of accommodating it.

I also wonder about the tactical wisdom of chasing a small voluntary organisation that supports rape victims through the courts. There are bigger enemies for trans people and is this really "the hill you want to die on"?

*And this did happen 20 years ago but the issues don't seem to have gone away.

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Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

Twenty years! Googling around, it's clear this case has been much discussed, and I'm not likely to add much that's worthwhile to that discussion. With these cases there's always this overlap between the specific and the broader issues, and here I think that broader issue was the exclusion of trans women from life-saving women's services, as clients, staff members, and decision makers. If the case forced everyone to confront and address those issues then, yes, it was worth it.

This case dates from about the same time as Judith Halberstam's book "Female Masculinity", in which I've just read an arresting chapter on what she calls the "border wars" between butch lesbians and trans men. Now if a victim of rape or domestic violence was confronted with a masculine-appearing woman and became alarmed, I wouldn't blame them for a second: that's not prejudice, it's just how the brain works in crisis. (I've read that in women's shelters methods are in place to ease these fears when a trans woman client is present.) But the fact that Nixon's ~inability to pass as a woman~ was the reason she was expelled has got a hook in me. Apparently, a former client testified she would have been afraid of Nixon, and also afraid of a butch lesbian present in the court. I can't help connecting this to the gender police (encouraged, now, by the bathroom laws) who patrol America's public toilets, victimising trans women, masculine-presenting lesbians, and any woman who doesn't instantly, clearly pass. (Again, I'd have nothing but sympathy for a victim of violence who had this automatic reaction. The gender police have no such excuse.) I also thought of Hothead Paisan's thought when she disguises herself as a man: "Women think I'm either the Devil or God!"

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Kate 1 year, 6 months ago

Oh! I suddenly figured out what I was thinking. This is a microcosm of the basic requirement of gender in our culture - its legibility, its external face, what's perceived not by you from the inside but by everyone else from the outside. Never mind who you think you are or how you live your life: ~can I tell at a glance which box you belong in~?

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