(TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of misogynistic, transphobic and transmisogynistic violence, and transphobia more generally. DISCLAIMER: I’m a cis woman attempting to be vaguely useful; trans people, if I’ve got anything wrong, please do let me know.)
Feminists. I’m not angry, just disappointed. No wait, I’m also angry. As women, we have first-hand experience of oppression under patriarchy. As feminists, we understand how sexist men react when we point out that, well, society as it stands really isn’t all that fair. They mock, derail, try out all the usual tropes to avoid taking any responsibility for the problem, and/or losing any of their current male privilege. We’ve seen and heard it all before. We’ve questioned ourselves. We’ve learned how to not defer to them every time, we’ve learned to spot and dismantle those tropes as they appear. Basically, I’d like to think we know our stuff when it comes to how privilege and oppression works. So why is it that I keep seeing feminists go on to use those very same tactics to avoid taking responsibility for cis privilege and transphobia?
I’m going to use both the terms “transphobe” and “TERF”, so it may be helpful first to properly differentiate between the two. Transphobes are cis people who hate, and/or perpetuate the oppression of, trans people. TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists – basically, TERFs are transphobic feminists who use feminism to deflect criticism for their transphobia. Not all transphobes are TERFs, not all feminists (or radfems) are TERFs, but all TERFs are transphobic and all TERFs purport to be feminists. And no, “TERF” is not a slur. Slurs are words used against the oppressed group to remind them of their place, their historical oppression, the power that the slur-user has over them; in many ways, slurs are a threat. The word “TERF” does not remind TERFs of their historical oppression by trans people, because that oppression obviously does not exist. The word “TERF” simply reminds TERFs that they’re transphobic, and a lot of people seriously don’t agree with them. You know how misogynists don’t like being called misogynists? That’s the same reaction that’s happening here.
[Image description: A Venn diagram labelled “transphobes” on the left, “feminists” on the right, and “TERFs” in the middle]
In feminist circles (pun not intended…) the fight against transphobia tends to be focused on TERFs, so they respond with things like “but it’s not just us!” and “what about THOSE transphobes?”. I’ll look at that response in more detail later, but for now, suffice to say that many TERFs have media platforms, which means they have a great influence over others (particularly other feminists), and in many cases they are presented as the face of mainstream feminism, so other feminists have to work hard to ensure that trans women feel safe and are included in the feminist movement, and this of course requires standing up to the TERFs. Weirdly, despite being feminists, TERFs tend to use many of the same arguments as sexist men…
Misogynists: “I got told this was “misogynistic”! The “patriarchy” isn’t real!”
Transphobes: “part of a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed “transphobic” or “whorephobic”.”
The latter is, of course, a direct quote from That Free Speech Letter (which also attacked sex workers, because attacking trans people apparently wasn’t enough). Putting words in quote marks doesn’t make the concepts behind them any less real. Calling words “made-up” is futile too, because that’s true of all words.
Misogynists: “Not all men are like that”
Transphobes: “Not all cis people are like that”
TERFs: “Not all radfems are like that”
Who cares? Stop talking about how you’re Definitely Not Like That and start speaking out against those who are Like That. Calling out transphobia is not an attack on all cis people or an attack on all feminists (or radfems), it’s an attack on transphobia and our response as cis people and/or feminists should be to listen and change to avoid transphobia in future.
Misogynists: “But I don’t hate women! What happened was awful, but…”
Transphobes: “But I don’t hate trans people! What happened was awful, but…”
Our society has pushed awful oppressive ideas on us all our lives; even those of us who recognise this fact mess up so many times, because it’s just so normalised. You don’t have to actively hate an oppressed group to perpetuate hate against them; most people perpetuate this hate without realising. Don’t get defensive – look at where you’ve messed up and learn from it.
Misogynists: “And here is a token woman who agrees with me!”
Transphobes: “And here is a token trans person who agrees with me!”
Your one token does not negate the views of the many others disagreeing with them. Trans people are not a hive mind, just as women are not a hive mind.
Misogynists: “How come you’re focusing on women when gender stereotypes hurt everyone?”
Transphobes: “How come you’re identifying as non-binary when the gender binary hurts everyone?”
First I should point out the glaring discrepancy in this comparison: the former is a choice, whereas the latter is not. Having said that, both arguments are based on the same false idea that everyone being affected means that everyone is affected equally. Not true. The gender binary coerces cis people to conform to roles in which very few people (if anyone) actually fit. The gender binary forces trans people to conform to an entire gender which goes directly against who they really are. Trans people are being murdered and abused for not conforming. Men do not experience misogyny. Cis people do not experience transphobia. It’s that simple.
Misogynists: “Hahaha, Tumblr throws a tantrum over every little thing”
Transphobes: “Hahaha, Twitter throws a tantrum over every little thing”
The specific websites aren’t really relevant, they’re just the versions I hear most often from these people; however, what is relevant is that these people are often saying these things on the very websites they’re apparently criticising. Often on Tumblr, “Tumblr” is used as a euphemism for “the various oppressed groups who are making the most of this one space they have to talk about their own experiences”; basically, laughing at “Tumblr” sounds less obviously awful than laughing at women, or trans people, or anyone else who has the sheer audacity to exist whilst not being a cis straight white abled man. Substitute “Tumblr” for “Twitter” and you’ve got every tweet from a TERF over the past week laughing at how “Twitter” gets angry so easily. And for the record, “little things” aren’t quite so little when you’re actually experiencing them.
Misogynists: “Stop whining about sexist articles, what about women in other countries who can’t vote or work outside the home?” (usually accompanied by a load of racism too)
Transphobes: “Stop whining about transphobic articles, what about the mass murder of trans women?”
TERFs: “Stop whining about us, what about transphobic men/male violence?”
This week, several cis people have basically accused trans people of not caring about themselves enough. Really not okay. Usually, the person making this argument only ever raises the “bigger problem” when making this argument; they don’t care themselves, they just want the people calling them out to shut up. Aside from that, someone else’s bigotry doesn’t magically make yours okay, even if it is less violent. In fact, so-called “harmful views” are exactly that, harmful – transphobia perpetuates violence against trans people, just as misogynist men don’t have to be physically violent themselves to perpetuate violence against women. I’ve included the specific TERF argument I’ve seen everywhere because although it has the same basis as the first two statements, it’s wrong on a few extra levels; TERFs are being focused on because trans people and other feminists want to make the feminist movement safe for and inclusive of trans people, and because the TERFs are themselves focusing on hating trans people (trans women in particular) rather than combating male violence and/or using their cis privilege to confront transphobic men, plus many feminists and trans activists aren’t focusing on the “bigger problem” right now because the TERFs have caused harm which now needs to be undone.
Misogynists: “Focusing on violence against women is giving women special treatment, what about this other issue that affects us *all*?”
TERFs: “Focusing on transmisogynistic murders is giving trans women special treatment, what about this other form of sexism that affects *all* women?”
Nobody should have to wait their turn to be seen as full humans with full human rights. Nobody should have to wait their turn to not be murdered at an horrifying rate. Just because an issue doesn’t affect you personally doesn’t mean it isn’t important or urgent.
Misogynists: “Feminists are so angry and irrational, you can’t have an objective debate with them.”
Transphobes: “Trans people and their allies are so angry and irrational, you can’t have an objective debate with them.”
Nobody should have to debate their own rights, their own experiences, their own life, every single day. It’s much easier to stay calm, civil, patient and polite when you’re not the one whose existence is on trial. The experience of the dominant group isn’t objective; to say it is perpetuates the idea of the dominant group as the norm. Women are constantly dismissed for being irrational and emotional, putting us on the defensive whilst the initial misogyny goes without comment or criticism. Feminists must surely know how that feels. It really confuses and saddens me that some feminists, having experienced this themselves, go on to inflict it on others anyway.
Misogynists: “Men won’t listen to you if you’re this hostile all the time!”
Transphobes: “Cis people won’t listen to you if you’re this hostile all the time!”
Except they won’t listen if you’re nice, either, because to many of these people, “nice” means “quiet and compliant”. Sometimes this is twisted into “people just want to learn and you’re just driving them away”. Strangely, that argument only ever appears after somebody has either been malicious from the start or outright refused to listen after being called out. People who just want to learn, well, they listen, and learn, without major drama, and it goes unnoticed.
Misogynists: “You hurt my feelings! Apologise for pointing out that sexism just then!”
Transphobes: “You hurt my feelings! Apologise for pointing out that transphobia just then!”
The hurt feelings of the oppressed group – the ones attacked in the first place, and in the context of being attacked constantly – never come into the equation, because the harm done to them is normal, not noteworthy.
Misogynists: “I know I’ll get criticised for this, but *is sexist* LOOK AT HOW BRAVE I AM FOR SAYING THE THING FEMINISTS DON’T WANT ME TO SAY”
Transphobes: “I know I’ll get criticised for this, but *is transphobic* LOOK AT HOW BRAVE I AM FOR STANDING UP TO THE TRANS BULLIES”
See also the racist “we’re not allowed to talk about immigration” trope, when in fact that’s ALL the person is talking about. The idea of this is to frame the oppressed group as a powerful mob who somehow control us all; and yet, mysteriously, the “silenced” views are everywhere whilst the “dominant”, “bullying” views are rarely heard at all.
Misogynists: “Criticism and boycotts by feminists are taking away my freedom of speech!”
Transphobes: “Criticism and boycotts by trans people are taking away my freedom of speech!”
The Freeze Peach trope has been done to death already, and I discussed it only a couple of weeks ago. But take a look at this. Here is an interview with Dapper Laughs – yep, apparently he’s still a thing – in The Independent today (TW: rape). Look at what he says, and compare it with That Free Speech Letter. The gist of the arguments is terrifying similar. Actual literal Dapper Laughs, for crying out loud. Need I say anymore?
So there you have it – right now, certain feminists are starting to sound a lot like the misogynists they’re supposed to be countering, without a hint of irony or self-awareness. Identifying as a feminist does not absolve you of transphobia, no matter how you frame it. TERFs call it feminism, but this is not the kind of feminism that I want to be a part of.