The Transgender Tumbling Point: Trans Visibility and the Edge of the Cliff

My trans story goes way back. I just turned 36, which makes me feel very old. Not in the sense that 36 is actually old (it is!!!), but in the way, that time appears more relative as you get older, and that relativity translates into it seemingly moving faster. I am old enough to remember what it was like to be “transgender” before the word was codified in its current form; before the debate about and subsequent invention of the trans child (as Jake Halberstam might say); and before transitioning was a viable option for more and more people. Someone like myself, who medically transitioned around the middle of the last decade, will surely feel connected to the so-called Transgender Tipping Point (TTP). First, Janet Mock came out in Marie Claire in 2011, credit where credit is due. But Cox’s 2014 TIME magazine cover seemed to tip trans people, mostly women, into the limelight. National Geographic followed TIME with their edition on trans children, and of course, we got that infamous issue of Vanity Fair in 2015. And then we were on Netflix and Amazon. This new coverage was different than before. While I never watched Transparent (thankfully), I did grow up on Transamerica and Hedwig, but they were early millennial exceptions, I also remember 90s daytime talk shows sensationalizing trans women and then there was The Silence of the Lambs and its classically transphobic filmic ilk: Dressed to Kill, Psycho, Ace Ventura, Friends, etc, etc, etc. In other words, change was welcome in 2014, but stepping outside into the new spotlight still felt fraught — for good reason.

At the same time, scholar, agential trans-Frankenstein’s monster, and queer goddess Susan Stryker inaugurated Transgender Studies Quarterly (TSQ). Issue 1 and 2 were a special introductory collection of short glossic essays articulating topics and themes of this new field formation. The institutionalization of trans studies was a significant, if not more invisible, event that happened in tandem with the more exoteric TTP. I have a feeling that Duke University Press was spurred to support this new journal because of the TTP. Despite this, trans studies still has a relatively small institutional foothold. It mostly lurks in Gender Studies programmes as a one-off course, Trans 101. Only at Stryker’s University of Arizona is there a full programme. Here in Europe, the field is paid even less attention — this is something I am trying to remedy. Somewhat ironically, in TSQ’s inaugural two-part issue, Sandy Stone, who is referenced in its various glossary essays ad nauseam because she is the cyborg-grandmother of the fledgling disciple, wrote of this institutionalization: “thus begins the transition from revolutionary action to commodification.” Indeed, perhaps we spent the last seven years making up disciplinary jargon, as Stone warns against, to make ourselves feel special. Because during this time, something else grew out of the TTP, and trans studies was too cool to give it more than a passing glance. I speak of trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). They started to bubble back to the surface, from their swampy sub-layer of the internet where they had occasionally crawled out to dox a trans woman in the decade prior to the TTP. Before 2014, trans theory felt it had already won that old argument. So, when TERFs began to inhabit the light again, trans scholars took only passing heed. But it turns out most people were not reading trans theory (or current feminist/queer theory for that matter), and this miasmatic ghost from the 70s rose up like a revenant, out for blood.

As such, this past autumn saw an update to the field issue in TSQ. Here, Stryker looks back on these past seven years from inside the academy (she is stepping down from the editorial board of the journal she created, from the discipline she helped to form). In it, she notes with some regret how 2014 also seeded us this other transgender trend, a pushing point in the guise of Sheila Jeffreys’ Gender Hurts. Jeffreys is an old guard TERF. As such, TSQ chose to respond to her book, which saw modest success in the academy, by having an issue loosely based around responding to Gender Hurts, instead of lowering itself to directly dealing with its thin arguments. Stryker seems to indicate that TSQ, and trans theory as a whole, somewhat naively thought that this line of marginalized feminism was dead and gone and that an issue showcasing transfeminisms would be a good way to show feminist circles what good little transes we are — all doing our trans* theories. But only one of these works had any mainstream appeal — hint, not TSQ’s issue on transfeminisms. The one with no scholarly merit, no research, or methodology was heard. As so often is the case, the science went unnoticed, while the histrionic and fear-mongering rise to the spotlight. It’s not like Gender Hurts was an NYT bestseller, but someone was paying attention, and like many conservative aligned movements, the gender-critical movement (the new self-styled name for TERFs), knew how to spin the false and debunked into a frenzied culture war. Anyone reading this might be familiar with this mobilization through J.K. Rowling’s recent shitstorms. It turns out that most people are not interested in new trans* theoretical articulations, ontologies, epistemologies, decolonial movements, or frameworks to broach the post-human. They care about bathrooms or at least the symbolic order to which the bathroom debate belongs. They are alienated by 21st-century life, and looking for, as Stryker notes, an “ethno-national movement” to scapegoat their woes. Re-enter transgender whipping girls just when it seemed okay to escape the closet.

Beyond bread tube (white, left, YouTube, see Lindsay Ellis’ new video on transphobia), so few trans perspectives make it into the mainstream (this is also true of feminist theory). So, when TERFs, under their new banner of gender critical feminists, position their arguments as mainstream feminism, few people notice outside academic circles. In a 2020 interview in the New Statesman, Alona Ferber takes this new positioning as factual in her discussion with Judith Butler. Butler, a long-time academic superstar, and one of queer/feminist theory’s few household names (RuPaul likes to quote her incorrectly), is forced to immediately counter this assertion as false. Butler’s opening response to Ferber states, “I want to first question whether trans-exclusionary feminists are really the same as mainstream feminists. If you are right to identify the one with the other, then a feminist position opposing transphobia is a marginal position.” Similarly, When the DailyNous asked philosopher Talia Mae Bettcher if she wanted to respond to philosopher/TERF Kathleen Stock’s transphobic writing, Bettcher wrote an online essay post for them titled “‘When Tables Speak’: On the Existence of Trans Philosophy” in a most exasperated tone. She then lists all of the easily accessible works by trans feminists which handily deal with Stock’s points, which Stock ignored and didn’t read.

Indeed, TERF arguments are old and easily handled, if you have a passing knowledge of these issues. They primarily rely on assertions that gender is an oppressive mode and that trans women replicate this oppression through their use of gender identity to justify their transitions and positions as women. This ignores the reality, backed by empirical studies, that trans women are more susceptible to gender and sex-based oppression than cis women. Thus, we should be keen allies, and indeed, many feminists are. And while cis and trans women have different reproductive needs, we have a strategic alliance here too. States that don’t accept abortion rights, don’t do so well with trans rights and vice versa. In other words, trans people do not wield the power of gender but are rather under its boot. TERF points also ignore nongender-based forms of trans identification. As such, their ideas about “biological sex” don’t fare much better. As they rely on a cartesian dualism, yuck, and an elementary understanding of sex and biology — “elementary” as in elementary school level.

Nevertheless, TERFs abound in the current mediascape. They helped to prevent reforms to the Gender Recognition Act in the UK and their work can be seen in anti-trans legislation like the bill in Minnesota currently attempting to criminalize trans youth from accessing the bathroom or sports facilities at school. (In between writing this and editing it, there are now 12 bills in US state legislatures seeking to criminalize providing healthcare to trans children). In fact, gender-critical organizations have formed several seemingly legitimate organizations to propagate their hatred through affecting legislation and policy in the West (A Woman’s Place UK, Fair Play for Women,Transgender Trend, Our Duty, etc.). They are replicating the strategies, and often supported by, conservative Christian and anti-immigration groups who form think tanks and organisations to lobby their agenda (white supremacy) — think the Heritage Foundation (which is an anti-trans organistion among other things). Even popular news and political magazines like The Atlantic have used anti-trans organizations as the basis for supposedly objective journalism about trans children. And The Economist in the UK has given voice to the aforementioned Kathleen Stock. Of course, there is little to no equivalent coverage given to trans specialists. This is not unusual, ironically, this is a major feminist grievance, to be talked at and not allowed to represent and advocate for yourself. Having a TERF like Stock write about trans people in The Economist, who is not a feminist or gender theorist, and then to have no equivalent response by an actual expert is like inviting Exxon circa 2000 to give a talk about climate change and not invite a climate scientist.

So, as the Transgender Day of Visibility roles back around (yesterday), and people talk about the benefits of shows like Pose, and wider media exposure, I want to ask the question, who is being made visible? Certainly not trans perspectives in a meaningful way (and certainly not BIPOC trans perspectives), if that were the case, then there wouldn’t be this paternalistic attitude in the press and in legislatures toward letting trans people speak. And while TIME just did a cover with fellow Canadian Elliot Page, which is awesome, and is rightly being hailed as the next TTP for trans masculine people, I wonder how much good the first TTP did. The current article, while being very respectful, replicates old tropes about trans people, granted using Elliot’s words: “I always knew” and “now I’m fully who I am.” And while being true to yourself is important — after all, γνῶθι σ(ε)αυτόν — transness, if anyone really cared to look, suggests that looking for stable essences is not a good idea, or possible. Perhaps “now I’m fully becoming as who I am” would be more trans.

Each year since the TTP I feel like aspects of our new visibility further exposes us to hate and growing anti-trans political movement. Because of this, I, along with a close friend/colleague of mine, started a Trans* and Psychoanalytic reading group at our university. We need to demand and hold more institutional space. And in this space, we are not only demanding to be seen but also heard — even within the limited confines of academia. In our second meeting, we looked at the intersection between trans and psychoanalytic perspectives on TERFs. As Elliot and Lyons (2017) show in “Transphobia as Symptom,” TERF arguments are undefendable. They can be countered, as they have, time and time above (as I alluded to earlier), but they still endure and proliferate. Elliot and Lyons instead employ a symptomatic reading of TERF arguments (in the for of Jeffreys’ text), what does the unconscious of the text indicate? For them, TERFs unconsciously point to a lack of stability and fixity they fantasize about with regards to the stability of sex and gender. Trans persons, but especially trans women, undermine this desire for stable categories. If we are to survive being the fantasied about unwoman in resurgent TERF/right-wing/religious psychoses we need to find platforms to make our words and stories heard in more meaningful ways. Those who seek to destroy us do so with false arguments that are easily disregarded, but they are masters of spin. And they are tapping into an anxiety which is felt ccorss classes and nations in different forms.

In this climate we have to be vigilant, we have to be visible, but also vocal. We cannot congratulate ourselves over Hollywood representation which is often little more than diversity performativity which circulates as its own form of capital in liberal society. Sure, representation is important, and it inspires young people, but so does Harry Potter and look how that turned out. Be visible, but also, be radical, there is great potential in being trans. We deconstruct categories and emancipate people from narrowly focused and restrictive gender roles. There is also great joy in being trans and we need to show this.