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.