05 April 2012

RADSCUM: Radical Feminism, Transphobia, & Questions of Fact

(trigger warning: transphobia is discussed)

I've considered myself a radical for a long time.  Fuck the system, break shit, destroy the kyriarchy! Ya know, the usual anti-establishment and anti-oppression stuff.  My friend Kyle used to jokingly (?) call me a "warrior against normalcy."  & probably for good reason, since anything that even hints at normalizing discourse gives me a wicked case of the creeps. I've also always considered myself a feminist.  & when I say "always," I mean, I cannot recall any point in my life in which I didn't claim that label explicitly (I had a way cool mom, y'all). So radical feminism makes perfect sense for me, yeah?  That's what I thought, too.

Now, to be clear, I call out bigotry & hate when I see it (lost four Facebook friends in a day last week over arguments concerning Trayvon Martin), but I do NOT go seeking bigotry out.  I'm too busy survivin' in the misogynist, queer-phobic, biracial-erasin', ableist kyriarchy we got goin' on.  But sometimes, y'all, all too often, in fact, bigotry finds you.

It all started when I joined a Facebook group called "We Blamed the Patriarchy" - an offshoot of Twisty's notorious blog "I Blame the Patriarchy."  I can totally get down with blaming the patriarchy; that system hasn't done good for anyone in, like, ever.  It's been particularly bad for people who aren't white, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgendered, rich, stereotypically-masculine men.  Which is actually a really fucking small group of people, if you think about it.  For me, feminism is about smashing patriarchy, but in the meantime, the blaming is real important (& also cathartic).

Anyway, someone on the page posted about the glitterbombing of Germaine Greer, which RadFemWorldNews characterized as a "violent attack" by "gender extremists."  (BTW, I sort of like, that. "Gender extremists," that is.  I wanna be one of those when I grow up).  Now, if you didn't know, Greer has done some great shit for feminism; she also, unfortunately, referred to transwomen as "ghastly parodies" & participated in a pretty awful witch hunt in which she outed several postop transsexual women.  So I sorta get why trans-activists would be pissed off, & want to call attention to that.  Now, I'm not going to get into a debate here about whether or not glitterbombing is violent (it both is & isn't; it's complicated & context-specific).  The thing I want to note is that the thread turned into trans-bash 2012. Quickly.  Despite what Twisty had to say on the matter back in 2011.

Frankly, I was downright shocked.  & ya know, more than a little dismayed. But I soon discovered something even more upsetting to me: this is a thing.  there are whole blogs out there dedicated to talking about how horrible transpeople are - & they claim to be written from a feminist perspective.  dirtyboi67 even goes so far as to post pictures & links to youtube channels of young (often minors) transmen, with accompanied commentary about how they are mutilating their bodies from internalized misogyny.  Often, transpeople and allies, including anyone who uses postmodern &/or queer theory, is painted as delusional or insane (both of which are ableist when used in the context of dismissal or insult). some of these women even go so far as to say that referring to someone as cisgendered is anti-woman hate speech. They refer to transactivists as "jacktivists" & "genderschmears."

Now, okay, here's the deal: this shit is complicated.  & it should be talked out.  Yes, the "cotton ceiling" thing is a way problematic use of language.  Yes, there have been some transfolk who have done some oppressive shit.  Just like there are feminists (especially white feminists) who have done some oppressive shit.  & ya know, anyone who is human who has lived in the kyriarchy.  

But what so saddens me is that the argument, really, is at a stand still.  While the material realities of our oppressions continue to make just living in the world a struggle, we're deadlocked. It's not even productive, at this point; it's stagnant.

Let's step back a little.  When I teach my Speech Communication 101 students about persuasion, the first thing we do is talk bout the three different kinds of persuasive claims one can make:
  • fact - having to do with existence, scope, or inherent qualities/definition of a thing
  • value - having to do with right or wrong, bad or good, ethical or inethical
  • policy - what we should do about it
Importantly, you can't move forward in an argument about policy if you don't establish an agreement about values, & you can't move forward in an argument about values unless you first agree on some facts.  Now when I say "facts" here, I don't mean objective Truth.  I mean truth(s).  But until you agree on some of that stuff, arguing value or policy aren't going to do you much good, because you're not even having the same conversation.  This is, for instance, why the abortion debate is so hard; until there is consensus about whether or not a fetus is a person (it's not), we won't be able to agree about whether abortion is moral or immoral (hint: morally neutral), & therefore how the law should reflect that (affordable & accessible is how).

That said, there are some "facts" some radfems espouse that make it impossible to engage in actual, productive debate.

1. Biology is fact/Gender is bad &/or made up.
Biology is a social construct.  Now, before you rush down to the comments section to freak out on me about how it's not made up, hear me out.  First of all, just to start with, while there may or may not be an objective reality "out there," we can only get to it through our means of understanding.  Biology, as a science, is just one such means of understanding.  It has been well-documented that not only are scientific models masculinist, but all the fields of science tend to be men-dominated.  That is, the entire field of biology has historically been a patriarchal model.  The categorization and disciplining of bodies based on their genitalia (although categorization seems to be a human need), is historical fact, and one that biology has only sought to reinforce.  It is what has allowed the regulation of family planning, and justified the dehumanization of people with vaginas.  It was biology that said that women are weaker, more emotional, and inherently nurturing-gathering types; it was biology that allowed for the stereotyping of gender roles. Not to mention, you can't know every person's biological reality just by looking; it's not possible unless you wanna get real invasive with every person you meet.

Categorizing and regulating people based on their genitalia or secondary-sex characteristics is the work of the patriarchy.

Gender, on the other hand, is how we as a culture & individuals make sense of our experiences of living in /as bodies.  On its own, it isn't inherently bad.  Forced, coerced, or normalizing gender roles are bad. Gender binaries are bad.  Gender stereotypes are bad.  Assumptions that one's gender must inherently match that assigned at birth is bad.  But gender as a concept allows us to describe and understand our own & other's experiences & expression in the world.  It's a tool, one that can be used for good or ill, like any other.

This does NOT mean that there aren't material realities, or that these material realities don't differently effect bodies, because they do.  & uterus-bearing people should be able to freely discuss these realities, because discussing them undermines the patriarchy's devaluing of people with vaginas.  But it DOES mean that we need to be attentive to differences in material experience, & careful to mind the gap between the patriarchy's categorizations of bodies & our power to categorize our own.

The patriarchy benefits when you take away people's ability to describe their own experiences.

2. All transpeople have one monolithic theory of trans-being that they all agree on.
Much of the radfem stuff I've read on the issue seems to think that all transwomen are lesbo-phobe rapists & all transmen are self-hating, privilege-grabbing misogynists.  & of course, there doesn't seem to be much talk of two spirit, bigender, nongender, agender, genderqueer, or third gender people at all.

This is, quite plainly, not the big picture.  Some transfolk, unfortunately, do believe in the gender binary.  Many do not.  Some transfolk see transitioning as an act with an end goal; many do not.  Some transfolk value passing; many do not.  Some transfolk really enjoy stereotypically masculine or feminine attire; many do not.  Some transfolk desire to be in & would benefit from women-only spaces; many do not.  Some transfolk elect to have surgery to change their genital configuration; many do not.  Some transfolk elect to take hormones; many do not.

& oh, hey, some transfolk are racist; some are sexist; some are ableist; some are just total assholes.  But ya know what?  So are some feminists. & bigotry of any kind should be called out. Period. Doesn't matter who you are.

"Transgender" is actually a pretty big term that gets used to describe a variety of different kinds of people; it is by no means a monolithic category.

At the end of the day, we're all just making the decisions that help us best survive in the patriarchy.  Sadly, for many transpeople, this means that they feel a very real need to pass, whether they want to or not - because, remember, the patriarchy disciplines people for not conforming to biological categories. (& by discipline, I of course mean bullying, harassing, beating, raping, & murdering).

3. Accusations of transphobia are silencing techniques &/or emotional-manipulation.
Okay, so this one makes me sigh really hard. 

Naming bigotry when it happens is important; it's how we start to undermine & rupture the subtle ways that oppression gets enacted in both micro- & macro-aggression.  Naming sexism & misogyny has been a really important tool for feminists, just like naming racism has been important for anti-racist activists.  Asking transpeople not to name transphobia when they see it is analogous to when men ask women not to call them sexists because it makes them uncomfortable, or when white people tell black people, "Talking about race makes me uncomfortable!"  You're uncomfortable?  Good.  You have been comfortable in your privilege & assumptions for too long.  

As for the emotional manipulation bit, I can't even believe I have to speak to this. One way that white-hetero-dudebros end discussions about how their actions are oppressive is by accusing women or people of color of being over emotional.  Because, in Western patriarchy, logic is diametrically opposed to emotion, & thus, someone being upset or hurt or scared or angry immediately means they aren't logical.  & if they aren't logical, then they don't matter.  Because, duh, (white hetero) men are logical. (That was sarcasm, btw).

See the game getting played here?  No one wins it.

So here's my general rule for this: when someone in an oppressed group of which I am not a part tells me that my actions or words are oppressive, they probably fucking are.  The correct response is to apologize. Sincerely.  & quit being an asshole.

I guess what it boils down to for me is just an overwhelming sadness.  There are way too many things we should be fighting right now - both for & against - to be stuck at an impasse.  But until we sort out our vocabulary, our uses of language, & the facts we are willing to mutually endorse, I don't see us moving on.  & that is really sad.

note: kyle has informed me that when he calls me a warrior against normalcy, that it is not, in fact a joke, but it does make him smile.
edit: i have recently discovered that "heebie jeebies" may be an anti-semitic slur.  i didn't know this, but i sincerely apologize to anyone i may have hurt in my usage.  i have since changed it to simply "the creeps."


  1. Excellent post, thanks - I'm wondering about this phrase "when someone in an oppressed group of which I am not a part tells me that my actions or words are oppressive, they probably fucking are." -- this question is completely tangential to the argument of your piece, but I'm wondering -- what do we do with oppression placed upon us by those who are in our "oppressed group"? (At least, those based upon the "big 4" - gender/sexual identity/race/class) How do we deal with oppression expressed in those groups, especially since we've all been indoctrinated with these various 'isms? Just something I've been trying to work through.

    1. i think that's a really good question, k, & i'm not sure i know the exact answer. i think it's going to take work. a lot of hard, really uncomfortable work. but i bet it'll be totally worth it in so many ways.

      the important thing is to develop the grace within ourselves, i think, to tolerate & respect being called out if we do or say something fucked up. if more people move through the world wanting to, ya know, NOT be oppressive, it would make a world of difference.

  2. This is great, Nichole. I actually left We Blame The Patriarchy because I'm not interested in being part of a transphobic community. I often feel alone as a radfem who's not transphobic, and I'm grateful that you're writing about this!

    1. You left because of their views on transgender people...so their views on men didn't disgust you? Well, they should've.

      Bravo, you don't hate transgender people. Sorry, but you don't win any medals for compassion by not agreeing with people who hold indefensible & abhorent views.

  3. I just read this and I am not sure how much harder I can cheer for something so insightful, blunt and spot-on. People like you are the few spots of light in a dark dark world.

  4. Cannot stop laughing at this: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-DKq6tx59YgI/T3zl01qifyI/AAAAAAAABio/UVGnVURnRYE/s200/tumblr_m1w8sgS2wZ1rrbf8no5_400.jpg

  5. Wow, awesome post. I often find myself a quivering awkward mess trying to properly navigate the kyriarchy. It usually ends up in some serious hermit time. I can actually feel the effect of patriarchy in my presence.

    I've been told that I am a "natural leader" and I end up in charge of stuff a lot. Too often, people won't declare their needs to me because they are afraid of "getting in trouble". In some cases people have ended up withholding critical information based on the fear of a perceived power imbalance.

    The sad thing is that my leadership philosophy centres around facilitation. I consider meeting the needs of the people working with me to be my job. How else could I expect them to do their parts well?

    Even when I develop great working relationships with people such instances creep in. I am slowly picking up skills (like non-violent communication and facilitation training) to reduce this effect but the reality of it is haunting.

    Even worse is that every reaction is probably rooted in patriarchal abuse - and not just the ambient, ever-present cultural kind. Some of the stories that I have heard of direct abuse can take me down a rabbit hole of loathing my gender (am I using the term correctly there? Still learning...). I know that the self-hate isn't productive so I cling to words of Angela Davis about "living with the contradiction". I accept the reality of my world but I don't let that keep me from trying to change it.

  6. I was willing to follow your link to find out why you thought that the cotton ceiling was "way problematic" but it turns out that instead of what I was expecting - someone uninformed of what the term was actually getting at, disagreeing with radfems, but informed by them - I found a great article debunking the "problematic" nature of the term quite effectively. You seriously loose credibility for this mostly positive article by dismissing the cotton ceiling.

    1. the link provided was meant to be definitional, not an explanation of why the term is problematic. this post is not about why the cotton ceiling is problematic. other people have made way more intelligent critiques than i.

  7. It's always radfem's revolting views on transgender people that is the straw that breaks the camels back...as if their appalling views on men were any more acceptable. Within minutes of visiting any radfem site you will be subjected to views that would actually be illegal to utter in other circumstances. It's sad that "moderate" feminists ( ie. those who don't tolerate infanticide...google "radfem hub underbelly of a hate movement" to read comments made by radfems including a child care worker wishing male children dead ) only take issue with virulent, irrational hatred if it fits in with their blinkered dogma.

    Yes, believing that people who have issues serious enough with the gender they are born into that they are compelled to undergo gruelling treatment, let alone the psychological toll such feelings take, are "monstrosities" is reprensible...so what makes you think that radfem's views on ANYTHING are worthwhile, given their view on transgender people alone?

    Radfems are sick individuals...I don't care what they think they stand for, many of the views they express are monstrous, inhuman & indefensible. Your feminism is blinding you to the fact that radfeminism is a grotesque distortion of a dogma ( feminism ) that is grossly distorted in many ways to begin with.

    Arbitrarily adopting views that are "outside the norm" simply because you see them as "hip" is immature, self centred & irrational...it's also very dangerous for those in the real World to have to deal with the fallout.

    1. oh yes, my adoption of views that are "outside the norm" is because i'm trying to be "hip." not, ya know, because the norm is damaging & oppressive to a lot of people. /sarcasm

      on a more serious note, however, if you are seriously incapable of understanding the anger & pain of oppressed people - which may often be expressed in ways that seem violent but which the person has no systemic means or power to achieve - then you don't get it.

      & if you are here to make a "what about teh menz" argument, you don't get it at all. you missed the point by about a hundred miles when you came here to lecture me about how feminism is a "grossly distorted" "dogma" (because fyi, "feminism" is really just an umbrella term for an equality movement which has a huge variety of beliefs & commitments).

  8. "[The patriarchy's] been particularly bad for people who aren't white, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgendered, rich, stereotypically-masculine men."

    I love how you left "male" to the very end and qualified the shit out of it.

    1. my feminism will be intersectional, or it will be shit.

      if you really want to know why i qualified it, look at the trayvon martin case.

  9. "My abstract theory is superior to your lived experience" - how strange you would post that one, given that, well, that's what trans advocates do to women all the time...