Saturday, August 2, 2014

Radfems v. Transgender Rights

Weirdly fascinating article by Michelle Goldberg in the New Yorker about conflicts between radical feminists and the male-to-female transgendered. The radical feminist position was expressed by Robin Morgan back in 1973:
I will not call a male “she”; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman”; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.
Against this, transsexuals assert that in fact they are women, just trapped in men's bodies, and to insist on treating them as men denies their identity.

As Goldberg chronicles, radical feminists of this stripe have been boycotted, shouted down, and threatened with violence by trans activists and their allies, and universities and others with liberal pretensions have refused to host their events. In response to this harassment,
thirty-seven radical feminists, including major figures from the second wave, such as Ti-Grace Atkinson, Kathie Sarachild, and Michele Wallace, signed a statement titled “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Criticism of ‘Gender,’ ” which described their “alarm” at “threats and attacks, some of them physical, on individuals and organizations daring to challenge the currently fashionable concept of gender.” With all this in mind, the Radfems Respond organizers had arranged the library space as a backup, but then a post on Portland Indymedia announced:

We questioned the library administration about allowing a hate group who promotes discrimination and their response is that they cannot kick them out because of freedom of speech. So we also exercise our right to free speech in public space this Saturday to drive the TERFS and Radfems out of OUR library and OUR Portland!

(TERF stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” The term can be useful for making a distinction with radical feminists who do not share the same position, but those at whom it is directed consider it a slur.)
Religious conservatives who read this probably collapse with laughter, especially when they get to the part in which (hypothetical) students ask, “What about women who are male?” I confess that I am uncomfortable with the normalization of transgender behavior and especially surgical transformation, but I have never gotten around to writing about it because I honestly don't care enough to wade into such a minefield. Fewer than 1 in 10,000 Americans identify as transgender, so it strikes me that to restructure our whole debate about rights, even our language of gender, around their struggles is a bit frivolous. (How about if we worried less about encyclopedic inclusionism and more about inequality, war, environmental degradation, the kidnapping of west African schoolgirls, or the oppression by gang rape of lower caste Indian women?) Plenty of societies have had cross-gender people, from the two-souled "berdache" of North American Indians to those Albanian women who live as men, and they have managed. So I won't lose sleep over the struggles of self-proclaimed radicals in Portland.

But I note the left-wing love of being the most accepting, the most open-minded, the most determined to welcome everyone and speak up for their rights, and how easily this can turn into its opposite, and how easily it slides into incoherent absurdity.


pootrsox said...

I have known several transgender women and I am myself a cisgender woman.

We are equally female.

While I have suffered the traditional discriminations heaped upon women, transwomen have suffered both that sort of discrimination when living their femaleness *and* the sort of bullying of boys who do not fit the traditional "masculine" mold.

So the "we've suffered, how dare you *men* try to co-opt our womanhood!" argument is seriously flawed.

Unknown said...

I would agree that this is something of a tempest in a teapot. But I would quibble with your statement about this being an example "left-wing love of being the most accepting" and "how easily this can turn into its opposite." I see instead a vast gulf between American center-leftism and angry radical leftism. American center-leftism is, in a sense, all about eschewing anger and strong identity. American center-leftists turned gay liberation into gay marriage, but rejected the kind of radical gay identity (much more common in the eighties than now) that identified with bathhouses and other forms of rules-breaking. American center-leftists are (like Thomas Ricks) "troubled" by a lot of our intelligence-gathering, but have no love for Assange, Anonymous, and their ilk. American center-leftists are, many of them, fine if you happen to feel like a man in a woman's body or whatever, but not interested if you're trying to say that transgender is some sort of radical, hostile undermining of basic patterns of cognition, logic, pleasant coexistence, and so forth.

American center-leftists are, in other words, pretty happy with the basic American middle class way of life of 2014. We just want to help as many Americans as possible to live it. We don't think it should have to be restricted to those who "earn" it and then keep it to themselves in hardbitten resentment.

Well, that describes me, anyway.

This is the reason this Radfem-Trans debate is a tempest in a teapot. Radfems in particular are a sect and have no constituency.

John said...

Sure, the attitude you describe and I share is more common, but the insistence on accepting everybody and welcoming everybody is a real force in America, especially on university campuses. It's an old joke that leftists are accepting of everybody but conservatives, but it is a real issue. When campuses are so insistent that everybody tolerate transgender marriage that they deny recognition to Christian or Muslim groups, how tolerant are they?

Unknown said...

Yes, universal acceptance becoming intolerance is a real issue, but I don't think the Radfem-Trans conflict is an example. That's why I said it was a quibble. My point was that the Center-Left's universal acceptance drive really doesn't have much in common with (or much place for) movements like really radical feminism. I don't think most Radfems are actually much interested in universal acceptance, even in principle. They would be against the very idea of pleasant coexistence--which I think is at the heart of center-leftism.

Unknown said...

Incidentally, I think this is why liberals end up wringing their (our) hands a lot. We want to remember slavery as a great crime, but don't like it when the Black Panthers start waving guns around. We like the idea of tolerating religious minorities, but don't like it when they start making a big noise about the neglected holy law--that is, when they start acting like real, fervent religious people.