While I am still not sure if Medium has a TERF problem, there are certainly TERFs lurking about (also self-titled as “gender critical feminists” [GCF]). Their posts get a lot of claps, but not to the extent that twenty people clapping 50 times each can’t generate (so not an indicator of their numbers). Still, I think it’s important to clapback, especially against some of the GCFs who lacquer their transphobia in academic terminology. This is sadly not an issue contained to online space. Right now there is a circuit of these GCFs giving talks at universities to discuss lesbian erasure by trans people (usually trans women). This of course actually prevents many lesbians from identifying as such. In my grad programme, most young scholars prefer queer because of this border war. While at the same time some pro-trans/trans scholars are choosing to ignore the proliferation of this movement outside of academia (something I wrote about here). Regardless, if you are trans or an ally, it is important not to get bogged down in their rhetoric and ideologies. If you are merely amongst the uninitiated and take no sides in this debate, it is also important to come to the conversation armed, as both sides can steep themselves in some pretty heady academic language—which I am also prone to.
The first thing to consider when dealing with TERF arguments is that they are pretty thin and rely on some long discarded feminist refrains. There are plenty of good articles on this topic—see Jack Halberstam, Talia Bettcher, Julia Serano, Zinnia Jones, ContraPoints, and there are even plenty of good posts on Medium! I don’t need to rehash these because they are well articulated in these other places. I do want to point out that feminists and even radical feminists are not the enemy. Most 60s-70s feminists were not against trans women/transsexuals (the latter being a more common term at the time). However, there are some bad apples who have cast a rather unfortunately long shadow over trans issues—though often not modern feminist/queer/trans theory. In general, you will not find these “theorists” in the academy, at least in the gender department, but there are exceptions like Germaine Greer and often they are housed in other departments, like Kathleen Stock (who Bettcher responds to above). This is in part because many current profs have come of age during the poststructuralist and queer theoretical turns (during third-wave instead of second-wave feminism). Not that these frameworks are all happily pro-trans, but they reject much of the biological essentialism that comes out of some radical feminist and sexual difference feminism.
Usually, TERFs veil their disdain for us trans folks through concerns about women and maintaining women’s spaces. They often do so by retreating back to an immutable theory of the sexed body: chromosomes and the brain. Thus gender is usually seen as the villain here. The corporeal matter of the body is where woman is to be found. And yet, they also often point to other social constructed categories—as if sex isn’t one—to invalidate trans women: they are socialized as men, male privilege, etc. Most problematic in these types of arguments is the trans woman as monolith (a single homogeneous group). They like to point to Jenner as an easy target. She is a late-transitioning, privileged (male and economically), white person. How can she know what it’s like to be a woman? Though there are many issues with this line of thinking, perhaps most glaring is the idea that all trans women somehow have the same experience, sense of embodiment, goals, privileges, etc. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie thinks this way, at least she has made public comments like this.
While I do not want to downplay male privilege as a possible site of critiquing difference, to treat all trans women as if they experience this privilege the same—or at all—is exceptionally unfeminist. It is no wonder that GCFs rely on second-wave feminism for much of their theoretical inspiration as this was one of the most criticized aspects of the movement: the universal woman. It is especially interesting to see Adichie—who is not a TERF FYI—to employ this argument, as people of colour (POC) feminists rejected this line of reasoning as it replicated harmful structural inequalities, and thus we get the third-wave (feminism that posits no universal form of woman, one that acknowledges difference).
But enough of this little review. I want to use this article to explore an interesting theory about TERFs/GCFs which is not accessible to many people unless you have access to academic resources. It’s fun, it applies a psychoanalytic approach to analyzing TERFs and their collective anxiety over the trans female body. A quick disclaimer, I am going to try and strip this summary as much as possible of its Lacanian language. Because, if you are like me, then heavy psychoanalytic language might not be your thing.
I am going to summarize some of the main arguments in “Transphobia as Symptom Fear of the ‘Unwoman’” by Patricia Elliot and Lawrence Lyons (from Transgender Studies Quarterly [TSQ] Volume 4, Numbers 3–4: November 2017). The article, and indeed the whole special issue on transfeminisms, is a response to Sheila Jeffreys’s Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism. Jeffreys replicates many of the issues above, but in a very Raymond-esque way. This species of theory, as I had indicated, went underground for a while, only to bubble up in a text published by a major academic publisher in 2014 (Routledge). Lyon and Elliot start by similarly pointing out the futility of rehashing the obvious rebuttals to Jeffreys’s arguments:
“[o]f course, one way to engage Jeffreys’s text would be to critique her assumptions based on the multiple and complex counter-narratives produced by trans writers and theorists. But such an approach runs the risk of rehashing well-known critiques while failing to explain why we are called upon to revisit this debate over the value of trans lives” (Elliot and Lyons 2017, 359).
Instead, they want to do something different, they want to turn the analysis back on the TERFs, here exemplified by Jeffreys (they use radical lesbian feminists [RLFs], not TERF or GCF, ostensibly because the entire issue avoids invective in its responses). The psychoanalytic approach taken in this analysis is something like uncovering the subconscious of Jeffreys’ text and by extension RLFs; what motivates their anxiety. The authors ask the following questions:
“[b]ased on this psychoanalytic approach to transphobia, we pose the following questions: What personal or cultural fantasies underlie the accusations of harm that permeate this text? Insofar as transwomen become the phobic object here, what is it that needs to be avoided, and what is it that requires protection? What representations of unconscious drives appear in the text, and what inherent contradictions do these indicate in the discourse or in the symbolic identity of the RLF perspective? (Elliot and Lyons 2017, 360).
In a sense, Elliot and Lyon are inverting the pathologization of trans subjectivities here and diagnosing the RLF movement and its phobic fixation on trans women. Even more amusing and apt, Elliot and Lyon use an analogy to anti-Semitism to explore this anxiety: “[f]ollowing Slavoj Žižek’s (1996) Lacanian analysis of anti-Semitism as a symptom of an unattainable fantasy of social purity that produces ‘the Jew’ as its uncanny other, we read transphobia as a symptom of a similarly unattainable fantasy, one that produces the unwoman as its uncanny other” (360). Without getting too psychoanalytic, but also trying not to simplify the text, Elliot and Lyons are suggesting the utopian ideal of a pure lesbian society is fixed upon the untenable idea that sex is a fixed category. The trans person unhinges the category of sex from it seeming fixity, thus creating anxiety. This is reinforced by Jeffreys’ and RLF’s obsession with the disappearance of the lesbian subject.
As I noted in the first section, RLF/GCF/TERFs reject difference among trans women and by extension cis women. The central issue here is the concept of harmony which revolves around rejecting third-wave POC feminist contributions to difference theory—that there are complex and intersectional oppressive forces which oppress women (gender, race, class, etc.). “The RLF disregard for differences among women, differences that introduce disturbances, disagreements, and other forms of inequality, therefore suggests that what is at stake is an imagined harmonious and egalitarian community of women” (Elliot and Lyons 2017, 362). Thus, “[t]he exclusion of transwomen from the community of women on the grounds that they are really men seeking to invade women’s spaces is one way to protect this fantasy” (362). Trans women become an easy scapegoat to enforce the fantasy of harmony, the parallels to nationalist and racist movements is evident and pointed to in the TSQ article by referencing Žižek’s analysis of anti-Semitism. This connection also indicates why these types of RLF arguments are resurgent in this time of hyper-nationalism, calls for white ethnostates, and of course, uncomplicated concepts of gender/sex: “[t]hose who are not submitted to the symbolic categories of the social order are the source of fear, disgust, and rejection as they put the categories into question” (362).
The article is quite long, and I fear I’ve only provided a taste here, but alas, I find if these Medium things get too long then they tend to go unread. If there is interest in a more formal summary of the text’s arguments I can provide such. I recommend TSQ to those who have an interest in trans theory, though it is expensive. If you have access to a university library, they will likely have it. At the very least, I think this provides the beginning of an alternative argument against TERFs which ties them into the network of reactionary politics that are endemic to the 21st-century. Anxiety is here the driving phobic force behind TERFs, just as it is for many of us in other spheres of society: economic, social, cultural, religious. Scapegoating is an all too easy recourse to dealing with these issues. Perhaps then, societal transphobia is a matter tied into the matrix of multiplying social anxieties which grip our collective global guts. If this is the case, then the issue is much more difficult to deal with than it would first appear. On the bright side, this approach flips a long-held tradition of pathologizing transgender people and instead looks at the other side of the issue.