There’s some things I’ve been trying to be better at lately. One of them is not saying “rad-fem” as a pejorative. One is not saying things that imply or suggest that “radical feminism” is interchangeable or necessarily consistent with trans-exclusionist radical feminism, or suggest that transphobia, cissexism and shitty opinions about sex work are somehow an inherent and necessary quality of radical feminism (to be honest with myself, my own feminism is pretty damn radical, even if I reject a significant number of the assumptions usually taken by those who self-describe as radical feminists). And another is trying not to worry too much about the transphobic fringes of feminism, and not participating in the self-perpetuating cycle of anxieties in our community surrounding “the rad-fems!”. They’re just not the big, terribly powerful, dangerous bogeymen we frequently imagine them to be.
TERFs certainly can be dangerous, in certain situations. But it’s extremely important to look at what the tools and weapons they use in order to cause harm actually are. On their own, they don’t wield nearly the influence the constant freak-outs on the part of trans activists would suggest about them, and they simply don’t deserve the degree of fear and anxiety we lend them. Consider the heavily controversial “Rad-Fem 2012” conference in London (conceived partly as promotion for Sheila Jeffries’ latest work from Rutledge University Press, “The Industrial Vagina”; the title of which, btw, is a denigration of sex workers’ bodies as “industrial” and not their own, not the bodies of trans women). Months of anxiety and debate led up to the event, which ultimately turned out to be no more than a dozen or less women gathering near a tube station and going to grab coffee for a pointless little chin-wag about the evil trans women and evil sex workers “reinforcing the [blank]”. Although partly it was the efforts of trans activists that kept the conference from becoming anything more substantial, it’s nonetheless the case that the worry that the trans community expressed in the months leading up to the “conference” vastly eclipsed the actual subject of that anxiety in scale, influence, reach and the energy expended upon it.
As another example, I am constantly given reminders from various well-meaning trans readers and friends about the latest idiotic stunt of Cathy Brennan, everyone always seemingly terrified about the effect she might be having on the perceptions cis people have towards us, or outraged by her latest (completely non-surprising) demonstration of pettiness and hatred. But she only has some 250 followers on twitter (several dozen, at least, being “hate follows”). She doesn’t have any real cultural influence. Our disproportionate fear of her far outweighs any legitimacy anyone actually sees in her. And undoubtedly, she’s FAR more well-known in the trans community than in the rest of the world, where she’s effectively not really anybody at all. The threat she poses is only by her connections in Maryland law and politic, and her willingness to resort to using cissexism and patriarchy as a means to hurt trans people, when the mood strikes her. That distinction is extremely relevant, and I’ll return to it in a moment.
In our somewhat obsessive collective preoccupation with transphobic feminism, we frequently make the mistake of positioning such feminists, either explicitly or implicitly, as a direct threat to our safety. Indeed, I’ve come across trans activists outright accusing TERFs of being responsible for trans-misogynistic violence, for getting trans women (or, worse, “trans people”) killed. As loathsome as transphobic feminists can be, this is an unfair and dangerous accusation, and changes an issue preoccupation and disproportionate anxiety into a self-destructive misdirection of our attentions. It leads us away from looking at the actual realities of such violence, and the realities (and real causes) of the harm being done to our communities. TERFs have never murdered any of us, much less so for the cause of their version of feminism. And the culture from which this violence overwhelmingly originates is just as hostile to cisgender women as it is to us: in fact, the exaggerated hostility and disproportionate violence directed towards trans women is an immediate reflection of “conventional” misogyny, and intimately related to it. None of our murderers have likely ever heard of Sheila Jeffries or Janice Raymond. TERFs are an indirect threat to our safety, and only by proxy of patriarchy.
Patriarchy is the threat. And, uncomfortable as it may often be, a common threat to any cis woman, transphobic or not.
At least once, probably more, I’ve employed the metaphor of suggesting that transphobic or cissexist cis women (organizations or movements or festivals) have “blood on their hands”. I wouldn’t retract that, but I’d certainly be a lot more hesitant in saying stuff like that in the future, given the danger of the aforementioned misdirection of our energies away from more immediate threats (like pointing in the direction of an incoming thunder storm and saying “look out! storm coming!” when there’s a mountain lion more quietly preparing to pounce your friend from the other direction). “Blood on hands” is generally a metaphor that refers to complicity. But complicity is a very, very different thing from cause. While TERFs, organizations like Vancouver Rape Relief, cis women who, “trans-panicked”, support bathroom exclusion policies, cis women who bar trans women from access to women’s domestic violence shelters and women’s health resources, and comparable instances of cissexism employing feminism or “women’s safety” as an excuse, are certainly complicit in harm, suffering and violence towards trans women, they are not the cause. Although a women’s rape crisis line, or domestic violence shelter, refusing a trans woman access to their services are indeed severely exacerbating the harm done to trans women, they weren’t the ones who necessitated the existence of rape crisis lines and domestic violence shelters in the first place.
Collectively, we’ve lately been making some meaningful progress in looking at how violence towards trans women, and other harm, is unevenly distributed (with trans women of colour, sex workers, youth, addicts, PwD and trans women living in poverty being at exceptional risk). We still have a long way to go, of course, with privileged trans men and whte trans folk still talking about the frequency at which “trans people” are murdered, and the continuing general overemphasis on the comparably minor issues of transphobia that are concerns for the more privileged amongst us (like, say, misgendering, visibility, cultural inclusion and the question of transphobic feminism itself) instead of more severe concerns that disproportionately affect the less privileged (violence, rape, homelessness, addiction, medical access, shelter access, “black market” medical intervention, etc.).. but we’ve at least broached the subject of who the victims of trans-related violence have generally been (trans women of colour). Missing, however, has been meaningful discussion of who the perpetrators of such violence have generally been.
The perpetrators have been men.
It’s tricky, and perhaps a bit dangerous, to excessively generalize or speculate on the precise motives (conscious and cultural) of the men who perpetrate such violence, it’s nonetheless reasonable, from what we learn from trials, media coverage, and comparison to other comparable forms of transphobia and cissexism also enacted by men (often symbolically violent), to make assessments about the degree to which the violence is far more a product of patriarchal, misogynist and cisnormative cultural bias, and rape culture, than anything even remotely connected to feminism or the protection of women from “perverts” (indeed, the justifications of trans-exclusion forwarded by feminists and women’s organizations typically involve rendering us as men, and dangerous in being hypothetical agents of exactly the forms of violence that target us in the non-hypothetical realities: by rendering us as women. Under patriarchal, oppositional binaries, men are protectors and perpetrators, women are victims and survivors, and trans women are whichever one you need them to be to get what you want.)
Men are the ones conducting the violence, motivated by exactly the patriarchal values that feminism (in all its forms) seeks to oppose. In considering where the actual cultural causes for this violence lie, it’s also of value to look at the places in the world that experience the most violence against trans women. Latin America is a particularly brutal example… if I remember correclty, over the past few years, Brazil has had overhwlemingly more murders of trans women and “trans-feminine” people than any other country, and those murders independently outnumbered the combined murders of the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Brazil is by no means an overwhelmingly “feminist” or “radical feminist” country.
In all cases, the factors that seem primarily connected to trans-misogynistic violence are patriarchy, machismo and strict (and consequently fragile) standards of male identity, poverty, rape culture or other understandings of women as sexual objects that’s value is defined by male desire, a lack of legal protection, and a lack of the lives in question (women’s lives, trans lives, sex worker’s lives, lives lived in poverty, lives that are not white, etc.) being considered genuinely of value to the cultural climate in which the violence occurs. Feminism, radical or not, is not such a factor, and indeed is (when not a grotesque mockery of itself) antithetical to these cultural values.
These patterns are seen terms of trans-misogyny in general, even when the view is broadened, away from the specificity of violence. The fuel for trans-misogyny is misogyny, interacting with oppositional sexism and gender binarism. Feminism is never at root of trans-misogyny, it only participates in so far as feminists themselves fail to interrogate their own patriarchal and misogynistic baggage sufficiently, or over-zealously, uncritically, embrace flawed theory due to the temptation to validate their pre-existing cissexist biases.
Feminist comedians like Roseanne Barr and Margaret Cho can and do make transphobc jokes, but it pails in comparison to the ubiquitous use of such, generally hinged upon the prioritization of the cisgender, white male gaze in the culture industry (hence how many jokes are about men “accidentally” sleeping with a trans person, rather than about women doing so, or their “accidentally” making friends with us, or their boyfriends cheating on them with us, or whatever other awful thing might not be predicated on the cultural tendency towards privileging the vantage point and experiences of men). The types of shows that employ “shocking” and “edgy” trans-related content, like Sons of Anarchy, Nip/Tuck, Law & Order and Hit and Miss are very much aimed at male audiences. When we appear in television directed at female audiences, the cissexism is far more of the “brave, inspiring journey” variety, far less violent, and far less loaded with the dehumanization that enables violence, than how we appear in male-targeted media.
None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that feminism and cis women can’t be complicit in systems of trans-misogyny and trans-misogynistic violence, as already touched upon. And more importantly, this is not to say that cis women, or cis women calling themselves feminists, can’t be a threat, can’t compromise our safety, and can’t be dangerous. But the manner in which they’re a threat is through, as also already touched upon, their willingness to turn to, employ, and lend legitimacy to, the patriarchal powers they claim to oppose.
Cathy Brennan, for instance, has indeed posed a real danger to many trans people, by outing them to their schools. But consider what her actions there were, and how the threat was enacted. She didn’t overtly threaten anyone with the use of her own power, she leaned into the existing power systems and existing power inequalities (the school, and the reliably cissexist biases of the school administrators, and the trans kids’ peers, and their peers’ parents) to enact the oppression for her. At first, yes, that seems slimy and duplicitous, a means of keeping from getting her hands dirty. But there’s a more meaningful layer there, which is that Cathy Brennan, cis-and-white-and-professional-class-privileged as she may be, is nonetheless not, as a queer woman, sufficiently empowered by patriarchy to enact the oppression directly, or hurt us directly. She doesn’t have that level of power and entitlement. What she does is expose us to the already existing cissexism, transphobia and misogyny of the patriarchy at large. and allows those power systems to hurt us as they will. Exactly the same tactic employed by every other TERF organization that tries to threaten and silence us by outing and doxing us.
Likewise, as mentioned, when we’re barred access to women’s space, and resources like rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, women’s healthcare, and so forth, they’re not enacting the violence and oppression, they’re simply refusing to fight against it, and allowing us to be harmed by the systems and men and powers that, hypocritically, harm them (cis women) too and have necessitated such resources for cis women. They didn’t cause the harm, they just knowingly allow it to exist. They just selectively refuse their own mission of minimizing the consequences of patriarchy and patriarchal violence. They’re akin to the paramedics and doctors who decide trans lives aren’t worth saving, and allow us to bleed out in an emergency room (I had recurring nightmares about this happening to me even before I learned it actually happens).
They’re complicit in the violence and the harm… perhaps unforgivably so… but they are not its agents or culprits or cause.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to regard as significant the relationship between trans-misogyny and awareness (subconscious or direct) on the part of its agents that they’ll get away with it, that trans women aren’t considered as worth saving or protecting as cis women. That is, perhaps, one way in which the discourse of trans-exclusion, as engaged in and fueled by cis women, might causally contribute to the larger climates of violence and hostility towards us. But in turn one can’t ignore the fact that part of that belief that trans women aren’t worth protecting or saving emerges from resignation to the fact of the hostility and violence directed towards, and victim-blaming belief that we “brought it on ourselves” and “knew what we were getting into” . Nor can we ignore that the trans-exclusionist discourse isn’t an exceptional product of the specific needs, values, biases and beliefs of cis women, but is simply the inherent trans-misogyny (or…you know…misogyny) of patriarchy as manifested amongst cis women (and perhaps given extra weight in that manifestation by cis women’s ability to regard as Other, and a potentially “dangerous” Other as well… to say nothing of the way the gender in which we’re perceived to belong can be swapped out in accordance with context, and the emotional needs of whosoever is doing the gendering). Acceptance of being able to get away with the violence and acceptance of the inevitability of the violence is a chicken/egg scenario, a mutual, self-sustaining, redirection of accountability… two sides of a wider cultural resignation to trans-misogyny and its attendant consequences as just a fact of life, as unchangeable as the weather. In such circumstances, they’re reinforcing eachother… so again we can’t draw a causal relationship between those two mirror symptoms of an underlying pathology. Again, the root cause is clear: patriarchy.
In certain contexts it is useful and helpful to remind cis women that they’re members of the privileged class, along the cis>trans axis. But in the broad context of where we direct our energies, its not only useful, but necessary, to remember that transphobia, misogyny, trans-misogyny, femphobia and homophobia are intimately, inextricably connected. Transphobia cannot exist except as a byproduct of sexism and patriarchy as a whole, and in the sense of what’s “really” going on, in the sense of that deep relationship between transphobia and misogyny, cis women are not members of the privileged, oppressive class. They are targets of exactly the same oppression as us, they simply afford themselves more shelter from it, and hoard their protections. This happens in relation to many forms of oppression: white women protected from patriarchy more than women of colour, wealthy and middle-class women protected from rape culture more than women living in poverty, women of “acceptable” sexual practice protected more than women who were “asking for it”, and so on, endlessly. On the axis of gender, there is no such thing as simple oppression of women at the hands of other women (though women can of course be both parties in other kinds of oppression). On the axis of gender there’s just the complex fact of selling each other out to patriarchal oppression (even where that oppression has been internalized). Just like trans-on-trans oppression is still a cis problem, woman-on-woman oppression is still a patriarchy problem (even when it’s cis women oppressing trans women).
Cis women are not our jailer. Even the worst amongst them, the most transphobic or most misogynistic, are just co-prisoners who volunteer information to the guards.
And it is patriarchy and rape culture that is the mountain lion stalking us. Transphobic feminism is just a distant storm. We should look in the right direction, and not point one another away from that which is actually threatening them. When we direct our attentions away from addressing the systems and causes of the actual violence and most severe harm, in favour of a preoccupation with that which is only vocally refusing to help, we ourselves become complicit in the consequences too.