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Radical feminists and transgendered people should consider each other allies, not opposition

February 12, 2016

Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) are a group of feminists who feel that transgendered people – or rather, transwomen – should not be considered on the same terms as biological women. They are somewhat distinct from regular people who harbour a dislike of transgenderism because the movement is dressed up as a frontier of women’s rightst. But there is a fundamental flaw in TERF reasoning in relation to inbuilt gender versus constructed gender.

Feminism and its different wings encompass many different ideas, but one of the most popular is that gender is not fixed, it is constructed by society. I once discussed this with radical feminist Julie Bindel, and she said that transsexualism doesn’t work for her because it suggests that gender identity is this innate, fixed thing that can’t be altered. I responded that I didn’t think it was about “gender identity”, but rather sex identity. One perceives oneself not “man” or “woman” which are lose concepts at best, but rather “male” or “female” and degrees in between. These are fixed because they are determined in uteri. Even the non-binary is determined in uteri, hence intersexuality.

One’s sex is necessarily bound with one’s sexuality; not your sexual orientation, specifically, but rather your sense of body, and your sense of other people’s bodies in relation to your own, in a sexual context – in other words, how you want to act sexually, how you need to be perceived and what role you will be taking. It is impossible to foresee oneself in sexual situations if one’s sense of body is off-whack; if your sexual fantasies are constantly bound to penis ownership, and you don’t have one, your gender dysphoria is related to a form of sexual dysphoria.

It’s my view that “gender identity” is misnomer and “sex identity” is better. I imagine the body to be like computer hardware, the mind as software, and neurological connections to be “drivers” – software which tells hardware how to function. When the brain tells the body to function in a way that it can’t, that is a “driver” fault. In the case of trans people, the driver and the hardware are mismatched. Sex identity is the part of your brain that instructs the body what its sexual function is. Without this driver, we would have reproductive organs, but no clue how to use them. As it is, we and all sexual animals have an instinctive sense of how to get busy. This instinct obviously comes from the brain, not the organs themselves; and as with all distinct characteristics, it must come from a specific part of the brain. The specific part of the brain it comes from I will call the “reproductive driver”.

In transgendered people, the driver urges the hardware to do things it can’t physically achieve. I think that homosexuality can be explained similarly; the reproductive driver instructs gay people to seek sexual practises that serve no reproductive purpose. The mutually dependent interlinking of sexuality and gender is further suggested by the fact that trans peoples’ sexual orientation sometimes changes after hormone therapy; once technically lesbian, transmen can end up as gay men – almost as if that individual brain is determined that homosexuality is correct, and heterosexuality is incorrect. Its sex identity is hardwired, both in the sense of determining sexual orientation, and in the sense of determining what sexual role that individual is supposed to take – i.e., the male or the female role.

TERFs are frequently lesbian. Their negative response to penises whatever the gender of the person involved is due to their own sexuality. For their reproductive driver, the penis is a repugnant thing that has no place in their sexual encounters, just as it is for heterosexual men. In other words, I don’t think it’s transphobic to be put off by penises. If our sexual preferences tend to be inbuilt, with marginal possibility for change, we can’t reasonably expect every penis-disliker to suddenly like them because t-people have the “right” to be accepted however they are.

The real problem comes when we start reading sociological interpretations into guttural sexual response. In our modern world, we translate this desire to be male or female into a desire to be “a man” or “a woman”, then confuse the matter by attaching arbitrary social gender to inbuilt biological sex identity. JB and I agree that gender is more fluid than people think; dresses don’t make women, cars don’t make men. However, transgenderism has nothing to do with any of that. You can have female gender expression and still think of yourself as being, or needing to be, male; I know a transman, for example, who harbours a strong desire to be a drag queen. Him wanting to be male is not exclusive of his wanting to wear a dress.

When people like Germaine Greer talk about trans issues, they unknowingly contradict these agreed ideas about gender fluidity. If gender is not fixed, if it’s all a construct, then why can one not change one’s sex? Why can’t one appropriate womanhood, if womanhood is all an elaborate lie in the first place? Yes, female-born people have faced a different experience of the world than male people. I thought the feminist point was that this is fundamentally shallow and incorrect, and needs to be changed. That isn’t likely to happen if radical feminists claim entitlement over female-specific suffering as if it is a badge of honour, rather than a burden.

At any rate, acknowledging that transwomen are different to ciswomen is not the same as claiming that transwoman experience is invalid, or that transgenderism itself is somehow pure fiction. Yet TERFs frequently thread these two unrelated points together – as if it is obvious that trangenderism simply doesn’t exist, because only biological teenage girls experience being catcalled by passing drunkards.

Trans people are a ready-made challenge to the the idea that gender is a fixed concept to be lazily observed; here is a group of people who generally match one set of perceptions, while holding seemingly opposing sex chromosomes. We are proof that gender is about perception. I can say that looking male changes how people people treat you; I know that because I am trans, and I have seen it and felt it happen. I am the perfect, willing guinea pig to radical feminist theory.

Surely, it only stands as evidence of the concept that all the gender socialising in the world can’t make binary gender – if it could, social pressure could make trans people cisgendered. Our presence suggests that gender expression is all but meaningless and that our sense of ourselves is more complex, unique to each of us. In my opinion, radical feminists should consider us allies – not conformers to gender labelling, but the ultimate inverters of it. Transsexual people aren’t conforming; we break every rule in the book, including the rule that currently says sexual orientation must be fixed.

Feminism at its base is about freedom, about breaking bonds set before us by historical inaccuracies, forming assumptions which we don’t think to question. A transsexual breaks bonds that most people will never question, just as a radical feminist does. When radical feminism embraces bonds and restrictions on people’s choice to do something unusual with gender, it is being more conservative than radical.


From → Gender Politics, LGBT

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