“The silent majority agrees with me”, gender critical edition

Open letters are a time honoured form of activism. They allow individuals to connect over a single and very specific issue and raise awareness for that cause. They are, of course, also problematic in a way, since they usually are initiated by people who already have some influence and publicity, because nobody publishes an open letter signed by 40 noobs with a blog and a 50 people Twitter account, so they’re usually a tool of academia, authors, or various kinds of celebrities. At least you need a couple of celebrities to boost your idea.

The latest round of “gender critical”, aka transphobic open letter seems to have suffered from a certain lack of celebrity endorsement, which is why they decided to simply sign the names of dead women to their cause. “Come on, Giliell”, I hear you say, “nobody would be that dishonest”. But go, look for yourselves: Here it is.

The letter itself is the usual transphobic whining about trans women taking things from cis women, like all those shiny Olympic medals trans women have so far failed to win. The novel “Detransition, Baby”, by Torres Peters, has been listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The usual suspects are all up in arms because a literary prize that was founded to celebrate women’s often  undervalued contributions to fiction has dared to list a novel by a trans woman, and this is of course another instance of a “trans identified male” taking things from “biological women”, just like in sports. Only that of course they always try to base their bigotry on biology, claiming that anybody amab has intrinsic and immutable advantages over anybody afab. Does this mean they’re indirectly claiming that women cannot write and therefore need some protected prizes where they don’t have to compete with men?*

But let’s not get sidetracked from the incredible dishonesty of “the dead agree with me via ouija board”. Among the “supporters” of the letter you’ll find Emily Dickinson, Daphne du Maurier and Mary Anne Evans, aka George Elliot. Why they couldn’t get the Transphobe in Chief, the woman writer who publishes under her initials, a male pseudonym of a guy who tortured gay people, and who singlehandedly invented women back in the 1990s to sign their letter, I don’t know. Now, we all like to claim great woman of the past as our forbearers, brand ourselves as their heirs, but a simple fact is that we have no idea what their opinion on many things was or would have been. Who knows what Rosa Luxemburg would have thought about gay marriage? For a couple of other issues we do know their positions and they are horrible, especially with regards to race. Is it possible that these people would have agreed with them? Sure. Does that mean anything? Not unless you declare them infallible. Now, given that many transphobes are also terribly racist and homophobe, they probably consider that a feature, not a bug, since they happily outsource critical thinking.

It is, of course, also possible that those women would have told them to stuff it. It happens time again with modern authors who they suppose agree with their bigotry, like Margret Atwood. And after all, it is pretty unimportant. Those women are long dead, and while celebrities sure can help or hinder a cause, their opinion does not magically make a position right or wrong. Human rights are not determined by Grammy nominations or book prizes. There’s a hell lot of horrible people with book prizes or Nobel prizes. In the end that’s just an argument from second hand authority and you learn back in grade 10 that those are not actually arguments at all. By the end of the day it’s just another episode of transphobes (if you read the list you will indeed find familiar names) being terrible, and none of them sees any issue with this.

*Just to make this clear: I’m very fond of things like Women’s Prize for Fiction. We don’t have a level playing field and authors don’t get published by sole merit of their writing. Until we have a level playing field we do need Women’s Prizes, Black Literature Prizes, Queer Literature Prizes etc.


  1. Ice Swimmer says

    Using dead people to sign an open letter. Dafuq? It’s the TERF Zombie Apocalypse!

  2. Silentbob says

    We can’t usually know what authors of the past would think of contemporary issues, but…

    One of my favourite bits of trivia I learned a while back is that “founding mother” of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote the feminist text A Vindication of The Rights of Woman in 1792, not only thought trans women were women, but described one as an exceptional woman to be admired. TERFs were not amused. :-)

    Mary Wollstonecraft says trans rights!

  3. says

    Transphobic “feminists” strike me as a bunch of perpetually not amused people anyway. I mean, apart from their tendency to ruin their personal relationships and marriages, that is. I saw the Wollstonecraft thing and it’s one instance where we have a clear clear indication of somebody’s position on trans women. I’m usually very careful when trying to apply our modern conceptions to people long dead or even social conventions, because we’re always starting from different points of view, using a different language. We nowadays accept that a person is the best source to understand their identity and we cannot ask those long dead. They rarely leave clear messages like Dr. James Barry, whom terfs love to describe as a woman hiding in men’s clothing. Because he clearly said that he was a man. There will have been hundreds and thousands people afab who lived as men and we cannot know for any individual whether they were women trying to escape the narrow role patriarchy offered them, or trans men living as themselves. We can only say that there will have been both of them.

  4. Allison says

    Re: Detransition, Baby

    I don’t follow twitter-tempests, so I might have missed the TERFs, and I might have this wrong as well, but I had the impression that there were trans people (or just trans women?) who were complaining about Detransition, Baby because they thought that talking about detransitioning was giving the transphobes more ammunition, or something like that.

    I actually (mostly) read the book, and wasn’t all that impressed. The detransitioned character just seemed like they had gotten lost trying to find themself, but that seemed to me to apply to pretty much everyone in the book. I used to live in Brooklyn and I know a fair number of trans people (t-women & enbies) in NYC, and none of them is anything like the characters in the book. (They’re mostly just trying to survive.) But maybe I just hang out in the wrong crowds….

  5. Bruce says

    I’m sure, I guess, that just because Willa Cather’s name was a nickname and so rare in 1873 when she was born, there are likely lots of parents in the late twentieth century who named their daughters Willa, and just happened to be in the Cather family. So that name is sure likely to be a real live person today.
    But then the list was careful to avoid any means of identification, even state of current residence. So the fact that they did nothing to make the names look real doesn’t mean they’re not all real. She’s probably a friend of Emily Dickinson, who is not at all a recluse poet who has been hiding in western Massachusetts for 200 years.

  6. says

    I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on it. It may well be a bad book, I don’t know. But of course it could be the most brilliant work of fiction ever written, and the same people would still complain.

    There’s also entire “organizations” that don’t have as much as a Twitter account let alone an address and members…

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