This Essay Hurts: The Verisimilitude of Gender Critical Ideology Outside of Academia
*The following paper was prompted by a critical reading of Jeffreys’ Gender Hurts and the introduction to Transgender Studies Quarterly’s (TSQ) “Transfeminism” edition—and the horrendous year trans people had to endure in the international media during 2018.
I am not interested in writing about Jeffreys text, Gender Hurts, I have read it before, and Raymond’s, and others. I have, even managed, to write previously about the kinds of early transsexual narratives Raymond and her academic ilk were responding to, the Christine Jorgenson and Lili Elbe “autobiographies,” which were heavily edited by men and written through layers of oppositional understandings of male and female that were necessary for these trans women to receive access to medical care. Therefore, in a sense, I have even tried to understand where initial trans-exclusionary radical feminist ideas about transsexuals — that they acquire women’s bodies — may have come from. But Jeffreys writes in a post Sandy Stone academic sphere where “posttranssexual heteroglossia” have already flourished (qtd. Stryker and Whittle 229). Now we — I am trans — more than ever, control our own narratives and have emerged not only as the subjects of theory, but also its creators. Therefore, Jeffreys text is not an affective labour I am willing to take up in any great detail; it hurts.
However, as much as these so called trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs)arguments are starting to reemerge in academic feminism — the catalyst for the “Trans/Feminisms” edition of Transgender Studies Quarterly — I am here concerned with showing how these arguments, which more broadly go under the label of “gender critical,”are proliferating in the mainstream media, political, and medical spheres. As the recent New York Times article, “‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration” suggests, the material and legal effects of gender critical arguments/ideologies are taking place in a more public forum. This is not an Anglo-American issue, look no further than the recent trouble with the Central European University’s gender programme. Gender, and often the gender bending represented by trans people, has become a lightning rod for conservative culture wars. I want to explore this migration of gender critical ideas from the academy into the mainstream and what kinds of effects this migration might have for transgender people.
I want to begin with Jack Halberstam and feminism, In Trans*,he notes that feminists and trans activists have a deep multigenerational falling out. And he cites excerpts of both Jeffreys’ and Raymond’s more vitriolic statements in order to suggest why: “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies” (qtd. Halberstam 109). However, he is quick to note that the trans community’s focus on these “extremists” is a kind of red herring, that we have “drowned out trans*-positive discourses in feminist venues” (110). And here there is the shadow of an admonishment against the trans community, noting that “the same kinds of accusations [of transphobia] of a historically transphobic set of practices have not been articulated in relation to gay male communities” (110). The last chapter of Trans*is in effect a kind of washing away of this notion that feminists are inherently transphobic and his writing acts as a kind of rallying call for collective action. Which is fair and desirable. He even praises Stryker and Bettcher’s work in the “Trans/Feminisms” TSQ edition, noting that they avoid continuing “counterproductive arguments with feminists like Jeffreys” (124).
However, as much as I agree that with Halberstam that Stryker and Bettcher take the correct action in responding to Jeffreys — to largely ignore her and highlight other trans feminisms — there is still that slight hint of admonishment in his text towards trans people for focusing so much on this debate. I am stuck on this because last year, there was a similar sentiment in the “Doing Gender” lecture Halberstam gave at Utrecht University on the eve of the publication of his book. I think that Halberstam is ultimately trying to move forward and highlight the intersectional nature of trans/feminist activism and theories and note that they are aligned, not oppositional. But, I think dismissing these arguments as ghosts from the past, or as anomalous extremist feminists like Jeffreys, is to ignore the power these arguments wield in non-academic spheres. And for the remainder of this essay I want to turn to this migration, of gender critical ideas into the mainstream.
I am going to begin with a quote from Julia Serano, but in order to provide context, I want to note, that Serano in the text, very much agrees with Halberstam, that feminism, in its contemporary form, is generally very trans positive. However, she notes, “[w]hile gender-critical/TERF remains a fringe ideology within feminism, over the last few years, social conservatives and other groups who are opposed to transgender rights and gender-affirming healthcare have increasingly taken to amplifying TERF voices and appropriating certain TERF talking points — particularly the argument that transgender people somehow constitute a threat to women” (Serano “Putting”). And here, Serano outlines the migration which I want to focus on. I want to first examine health care, as to say this is an important area to many trans people would be a vast understatement — and it is already an area that is fraught with challenges and delays. Despite diagnostic criteria making passing mention of non-binary and fluid gender identities, there is still a deep conservative streak to trans health care which makes access to life affirming — and saving — procedures very long and costly.
A 2014 study done in Ontario Canada points to delays in trans health care services as being one of the most important factors contributing to high trans suicide rates (Bauer). Bauer et al. indicated that in the year their study was conducted, nearly 40% of trans people — in Ontario — reported being suicidal, with 10% of trans people attempting suicide. Trans youth were at increased risk of suicide while waiting for treatment and care. Therefore, I would identify that gender critical ideologies in this particular area, are potentially one of the most dangerous places for these ideas to proliferate, and indeed, in the past six months this has become the case with the inception of “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD). ROGD is a spurious medical diagnosis meant to delegitimize tans kids and stop their access to health care. ROGD has entered main stream discourse through major news publications like The Atlantic, hiding under the auspices of science. Shortly after the publication of Jesse Signal’s article in The Atlantic, titled “When Children Say They are Trans: Hormones, Surgery, the Choices are Fraught — and there are No Easy Answers,” popular sex columnist and trans positive LGBTQ+ activist Dan Savage publicly admonished trans people for their hysterical reaction to the article on a joint politics podcast for The Stranger,a Seattle based newspaper. What Savage perhaps missed about the article, because of its careful couching in scientific language, was that it aped ROGD discussion points almost perfectly, without ever having named it.
But, what is ROGD and how does it fit into this argument? Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, is a false diagnosis of a new type of gender dysphoria. The “alleged phenomenon of trans men who abruptly begin to experience gender dysphoria in adolescence, having supposedly been influenced by learning about transgender topics on social media. It is invariably described as a ‘social contagion’” (Jones “Rapid Onset”). Though its origins seem to date to 2016 (Jones Feb 2018), the concept recently became legitimized through a non-peer-reviewed poster abstract in the Journal of Adolescent Health(Ashley). The journal was picked up by mainstream media outlets like The Stranger: “[i]ncreased visibility and societal acceptance are also logical explanations for the perceived growth in the trans population: More people are aware it’s an option now. But, as a study published this year in the Journal of Adolescent Health notes, parents have begun reporting “a rapid onset of gender dysphoria” in adolescents and teens who are “part of a peer group where one, multiple, or even all friends have developed gender dysphoria and come out as transgender during the same time frame” (Herzog).
This is not a new phenomenon, and in fact, the DSM-V accounts for it: “some [trans] individuals report having had a desire to be of the other gender in childhood that was not expressed verbally to others” (Benson and Young 455). Thus, the idea that this is a new phenomenon or due to social contagion is false. I am sure my mother thought my trans identification was sudden too, despite me having lived with it my entire life without telling her. This past summer, and coinciding with The Atlantic article, Lisa Littman published a full version of the ROGD article in PLOS One — the publication of Signal’s article at the same time as Littman’s journal article may be a coincidence, but her work had already been published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Nevertheless, the concept has become mainstream. Brown University even published a review of the Littman article — before removing the news story from its website. The reason why I am focusing on this topic is because ROGD is not a legitimate scientific medical diagnosis. It is a hoax, and several prominent trans feminist activists have exposed its dubious genealogy.
Much of the work that has been done in uncovering this medical shame was undertaken by Zinnia Jones (who Serano cites in her own response to the Littman’s PLOS One article). Jones notes, “the concept of ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’ was proposed in July of 2016 by a trio of blogs with a history of overtly transphobic perspectives that are at odds with the current evidence on transness: 4thwavenow.com, transgendertrend.com, and youthtranscriticalprofessionals.org” (Jones “Rapid Onset”). These are not academic websites, as one can tell by the web addresses, and here we can see gender critical perspectives creep into this discussion. Interestingly, Littman’s study utilized surveys taken from these websites to write her article. Julia Serano notes, “this was not a study of the children themselves, but rather their parents, who were instructed to fill out a “90-question survey. . . about their adolescent and young adult children.” What’s even more troubling is how this sample set of parents was selected: ‘Recruitment information with a link to the survey was placed on three websites where parents and professionals had been observed to describe rapid onset of gender dysphoria (4thwavenow, transgender trend, and youthtranscriticalprofessionals). In other words, this supposed study of ROGD is entirely based on the opinions of parents who frequent the very same three blogs that invented and vociferously promote the concept of ROGD” (Serano “Everything”). Returning to the aforementioned Brown University news story on Littman’s publication, the university’s dean later wrote that the school had retracted the story because, “in light of questions raised about research design and data collection related to Lisa Littman’s study on ‘rapid-onset gender dysphoria,’ Brown determined that removing the article from news distribution is the most responsible course of action” (Marcus).
Aside from the shockingly biased data used to support this publication, what is crucial to my intended argument here is the wide media circulation ROGD received. Brown after all is an Ivy League school, The Stranger is a left leaning paper, and The Atlantic is a well-regarded centre-left publication as well (I am omitting mentioning this topic’s circulation in the much more anti-trans UK media, for lack of time). The proliferation of ROGD became such a pandemic in the past six months that the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) felt the need to make an official statement “WPATH also urges restraint from the use of any term…to instill fear about the possibility that an adolescent may or may not be transgender with the a priori goal of limiting consideration of all appropriate treatment options in accordance with the aforementioned standards of care and clinical guidelines” (“WPATH Position”). ROGD reveals the long reach and appeal of gender critical ideologies. Analysis of the mission statement of one of these organisations makes their affiliation with gender critical ideology clear. In the “about section” of Transgender Trend, already a loaded name, they state their purpose as “we are a group of parents based in the UK, who are concerned about the current trend to diagnose ‘gender non-conforming’ children as transgender…We are also concerned about legislation which places transgender rights above the right to safety for girls and young women in public bathrooms and changing rooms [and that] there is no scientific basis for the diagnosis of transgender” (Transgender Trend). I want to quickly cast aside the last part of this quote, there is scientific basis for the diagnosis of gender dysphoria in the DSM-V. Now, I am critical of the pathologization of gender dysphoria, but nevertheless, the diagnostic standard for psychiatric assessment disagrees with Transgender Trend’s assertion.
What is most pernicious here, and most directly brings this entire ROGD concept back to gender critical ideology is the emphasis on how transgender legislation “hurts” women. I am going to begin with Serano’s most recent definition of TERFs/gender critical feminists, which is an amalgamation of her many definitions from her work in Whipping Girl and Excluded. “TERFs typically justify their views via the following reasoning: 1) gender is merely a man-made class system designed to oppress women, and which therefore must be eliminated, 2) transgender people “buy into” and thus “reinforce” this class system, thereby undermining women and feminism, and 3) trans women constitute a specific threat because (in their eyes) we are oppressive “men” who are infiltrating women’s spaces and/or appropriating women’s identities and circumstances” (Serano “Thoughts”). In all three points, trans people, specifically trans women — though Jeffreys does make a passing gesture to include trans men in Gender Hurts — are oppressing or hurting women, feminism, and women’s spaces. These sentiments are reflected in Transgender Trends mission statement, “we are concerned about the safety of girls and young women.” Here they cite the tired bathroom debate, but the key themes here is safety from harm. Harm is also a key theme in Jeffreys’ Gender Hurts, and here we see this theme over and over: “the idea and practices of gender have the potential to hurt many…[it hurts] lesbian partners whose lesbianism is thrown into doubt when their girlfriends become ‘men’; and the mothers who grieve for their lost daughters or sons. All these categories of persons who are hurt by transgenderismare women[my emphasis]…Transgenderism hurts lesbian communities…[and] feminist movement…as transgender activists and theorists savagely criticise feminism and seek to destroy women-only spaces” (Jeffreys 3). These arguments are old, and as Stryker and Bettcher show with their genealogical outline of trans feminism in their “Trans/Feminism” essay for TSQ, they have been dealt with for decades. I do not need to rebut them here. What is important, is how these old ideas have leaked into mainstream transgender discourses. Most people will never read The Transsexual Empire, or for that matter, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto.” But they do use the internet, and as Jeffreys points out, “there is evidence of an increasing criticism of the practice [of critiquing ‘trangenderism’] both from within a developing new wave of online feminism and from within the medical profession” (3). I suspect that Jeffreys refers to online forums like Transgender Trend. Zinnia Jones notes that Ray Blanchard, not a gender critical feminist, but an infamously hostile sexologist who invented autogynephilia, “would normally publish their research on sexology topics in peer-reviewed journals, have instead posted a summary of the alleged phenomenon of rapid onset gender dysphoria on 4thwavenow.com” (Jones). Thus, despite Jeffreys’ arguments seeming like a relic from a bygone era, as Halberstam might put it, these ideas and their like, seem to be collecting online in what Zinnia Jones calls the “darker side of opinion pieces on trans issues.” From here, as the case of ROGD indicates, these ideas proliferate into the mainstream media where they can interfere with trans people’s already beleaguered access to health care.
I want to return to Julia Serano’s comment on how gender critical ideology affects trans lives outside of academic feminism. In addition to health care, she also notes that there is an alliance with political and social conservatives (Serano “Putting”). This alliance of interests is also echoed in Gender Hurts. Jeffreys writes “there are attempts to censor all expressions of dissent towards malestream transgender ideology and to prohibit speaking platforms to those seen as heretics.” She calls it a “campaign against free speech” (Jeffreys 2). Free speech and arguments of de-platforming are a key issue of the newly emergent alt-right. And here again we see the reach of gender critical ideology in the mainstream. The Jordan Peterson debate around pronouns illustrates this point. Peterson, who has since become a New York Times bestselling author and makes thousands of dollars through Patreon supporters (14 000$ a month according to the Toronto Star), became a spokesperson for the alt-right after making videos about how he would not use preferred pronouns for students — he is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. The Toronto Star reported him as saying “he was spurred to make the videos by two events: Bill C-16, introduced last May to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender identity’ and ‘gender expression;’ and a new human resources initiative by U of T” (Winsa). Essentially, Peterson saw these new laws as infringing upon his right to free speech. Echoing Jeffreys’ comment in her introduction. Now, this is not a classical radical feminist debate, but it shows the synergy between the two groups and an unlikely alliance between political/social conservatives and gender critical feminists.
Similarly, we can see the connection between transphobia and the conservative political/cultural movement in the United States. In 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported on an annual Family Research Council — a group the SPLC considers a LGBTQ+ hate group — annual meeting. Donald Trump attended the meeting, as did Mike Pence in 2018 — both unprecedented occurrences, and a strong indication of the American Governments ties to the conservative Christian Right. A liberal rights monitoring organisation at the meeting (Right Wing Watch) reported “a trend emerged during the session, as various speakers wrapped their opposition to nondiscrimination measures in rhetoric passing as progressive: transgender rights were depicted as anti-feminist, hostile to minorities and even disrespectful to LGB individuals. This seems to be part of a larger strategy, meant to weaken transgender rights advocates by attempting to separate them from their allies, feminists and LGBT rights advocates” (SPLC “Christian Right”). Here again we see transgender rights being described as anti-feminist or anti-woman. But here they are also described as damaging to other minorities and free speech in general, echoing Jeffreys and tying gender critical ideology to the highest members of the American Government.
Finally, in an attempt to not appear American centric, I want to quickly turn to the UK. In March 2018, an event hosted at Parliament, and sponsored by Conservative MP David Davies, hosted a radical feminist organization which compared trans women to “parasites” that invaded women’s spaces (Glass). Here again we see Jeffreys’ claim that trans women invade women’s space and do harm, even here in the venue of the highest branch of the UK government. And, I could go on with myriad other examples. My point is that even if as Halberstam and Serano contend, academic feminism has shed its trans-exclusive radical feminist tendencies — and I do agree with this — nevertheless, their ideas are finding new and dangerous spaces outside of academia. There is an analogue to this phenomenon. Until recently, many media outlets exaggerated climate science denial, which represented only a small portion of the scientific opinion on the matter. Thus, climate denial was given the impression of being seriously representative of a large part of the debate around climate change, when it was not. It is not hard to imagine why this happened, interest groups, conservatives, and probably just the journalistic tendency to cover issues from multiple perspectives.
However, in this debate, the debate between gender critical ideology and transgender people, there are far fewer voices to rally behind trans activism. Trans feminist writing is largely not accessible to the general public and if media outlets like The Stranger and The Atlantic(or almost every other major English publication in the West) give space to transphobic ideas, especially ones like ROGD which have a veneer of scientific credibility, then what chance do we have? I do not want to sound pessimistic in this debate, after all, my own life is at stake here. But the first time I read The Atlantic article by Signal on trans masculine children, after hearing Dan Savage describe the vitriol around it, I was not immediately aware of the deeper connection to gender critical ideology — it was that convincingly written. I contend that the average reader is not going to go back to the original Journal of Adolescent Health and uncover the fact that it is not peer-reviewed. Or, review the research methodology in the PLOS ONE publication. These articles are dangerous because of their verisimilitude, and the inability of the average reader to look beyond the appearance of validity. As Nat Raha writes, “survival and breathing and possibility of transfeminine desire amid and beyond our social and material conditions — of austerity, racism, xenophobia, transphobia and transmisogyny, ableism, whorephobia.” These are the conditions of “negative affect” which undergird transfeminine life (Raha 632). And these conditions are influenced and replicated through systems which are informed by the synergy of gender critical perspectives and conservative values. And though safe guarding our position within feminism is important, it is often the material and affective conditions created outside of feminist theory and activism that pose the greatest danger to trans people.
“TERF:” I am going to try and stray away from this term. TERFs find it a slur, which is more than a little ironic, but I simply find it misused. Within the trans community its beginning to lose its meaning as trans people and allies use it to mean any form of transphobia, which divorces it from a particular kind of transphobia based on radical feminism. See Julia Serano “Thoughts About Transphobia, TERFs, and TUMFs”
Gender critical feminists is the label many TERFs use, especially ones who are not academic feminists
“Transgender:” in this essay I intend this term to be used in the Leslie Feinberg sense from “Transgender Liberation,” as a broad category of transgressive gender bending acts
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— -. “Putting the ‘Transgender Activists Versus Feminists’Debate to Rest.” Medium, www.medium.com/@juliaserano/putting-the-transgender-activists-versus-feminists-debate-to-rest-e18075df03af, Accessed 5 Nov. 2018.
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