Dear Sarah Ditum: Scapegoating trans women is never the answer, either

I’m gettin’ real tired of tedious “gender critical” horseshit.

The latest flapping firehose to hit my feed on this topic is Sarah Ditum in a grating piece titled “Scapegoating feminists is never the answer.” Although Ditum links to a specific piece she is responding to–which is more than I can say of PBog–she also interjects a number of assertions important to her argument without citations, leaving me to guess at whatever the fuck she’s referring to.

Because if there’s anything a convincing argument should do, folks, it’s leave you guessing.

Content Notice for the usual trans-antagonistic garbage plus t-word reclamation.

The piece Ditum responds to isn’t a particularly strong argument either, “Trans respect, not transphobia.” And if I’m cheesed off at Ditum for the stunning lack of citations, I have to at least level the same criticism at this author, Emily Brothers. It is, in short, a post appealing to UK’s Labour Party to take up the mantle of Gender & Sexual minority rights as a portion of its labour empowerment mission. But today’s post isn’t really about the inadequacies of Brothers’ appeal to Labour*, it’s about Ditum’s hamfisted response to it.

Ditum begins:

Emily Brothers, former Labour parliamentary candidate for Sutton and Cheam, writes that Labour needs ‘trans respect not transphobia’. It is a shame that she makes this call using language that is, at best, dismissive of the feminist movement and at worst taps into profound misogyny. The move towards greater public acceptance and institutional recognition for trans people has been one of the fastest-moving developments in equalities, but it is not a development without conflicts.

Now, I’m squinting real hard at Brothers’ piece and I genuinely cannot find a single frackin statement that is “dismissive of the feminist movement and at worst taps into profound misogyny.” If we look back at Brothers’ piece, there is a passing reference of Germaine “trans women are ghastly parodies of ‘real women'” Greer, but Brothers also specifies that Greer is part of Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism (TERF), a distinction which implies that some radical feminists are not on-board with creepy pseudofreudian anti-trans bollocks. Dismissive? Sure. But dismissive of a very specific strain within the subgroup of feminism, which does not to me sound like commentary on feminism as a whole. Were that the case, Brothers simply would have said “feminists attack trans people.”

I don’t think it can be argued there’s any “scapegoating” in blaming actual anti-trans feminists for doing actual anti-trans things if they’ve actually done anti-trans things. On the planet where I live, that’s called “cause and effect.”

More Ditum:

The Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into trans equality, which Brothers applauds, includes two key recommendations that, taken together, pose serious a problem for the women’s sector.

*readies bingo card*

The first is that legal gender should be based on self-declaration: rather than the ‘medicalised, quasi-judicial application process’ currently involved, the WEC suggests ‘an administrative process […] centred on the wishes of the individual applicant’. If adopted, that would mean that an individual could be recognised in a new gender for all legal purposes without taking any hormonal, surgical or even aesthetic steps towards presenting as a woman or presenting as a man.

Ditum’s already engaging in a bit of obfuscation, because there is an implicit argument that an administrative process wouldn’t have any consequences for deliberately falsifying one’s ID.

Firstly, an administrative process can still involve a legal oath–an affidavit–which would introduce criminal penalties for fraudulently self-declaring a change in gender ID. This is the system Alberta has been using since it was ruled in 2013 that it was unconstitutional to require a trans person to be sterilized in order to receive accurate identification documents, which is the predicament created by requiring “medical intervention”–typically bottom surgery–for any updates related to gender marker. Once signed, I can get the gender marker on my ID flipped for a nominal fee and have my birth certificate amended for quite a bit more, which is necessary as the birth certificate is often the proof document needed for other documents like passports and healthcare cards.

Regardless of the fact that I meet many of the “true transsexual” narratives that I adamantly despise, my government does not require me to do anything other than declare a legal oath that I’m not yanking their chain. Which reduces the amount of discrimination I have to deal with, since I’m not spending ~4 years trying to build up the money for bottom surgery while trying to find work with misleading ID. Because my documents are updated, I am less likely to experience employment discrimination or harassment at any facility that regularly checks ID. And, I was able to do this within a month of starting my so-called “Real Life Experience,” a 12-month long hoop I had to jump through “living as my identified gender,” which I had been doing anyways.

To capture how important this is, look at the “Identity Documents and Harassment” statistics from the 2016 United States Transgender Survey. Quote:

Overall, nearly one-third (32%) of individuals who have shown IDs with a name or gender that did not match their presentation reported negative experiences, such as being harassed, denied services, and/or attacked. One-quarter (25%) of these respondents reported being verbally harassed. Middle Eastern (44%) and American Indian (39%) respondents reported experiencing this more often than other racial or ethnic groups (Figure 6.6).

Nine percent (9%) of people who showed an incongruent ID were asked to leave. Transgender women were more likely to have been asked to leave after presenting incongruent IDs (13%), compared to transgender men (9%) and non-binary people (6%). Two percent (2%) of people who showed IDs with a name and gender that did not match the gender they present in were assaulted or attacked. These experiences differed by race and ethnicity. Middle Eastern respondents were almost five times as likely (9%) to report experiencing this, American Indians were three times as likely (6%), and Black respondents were twice as likely (4%) (Figure 6.7). Undocumented residents were also substantially more likely to report being assaulted or attacked (15%), in contrast to documented residents (3%) and citizens (2%).

Gee, it’s almost like the status-quo of “medicalized quasi-judicial application process” is really fucking us over and that maybe we should do something about it.

Tragically, there is no data I am aware of on Alberta’s rates of discrimination. But with a relatively painless administrative process, the only barrier is the application fee. I would hazard a guess that since harassment correlates with incongruent ID, and more trans Albertans have accurate ID by virtue of our administrative process, that Albertan trans folk are less likely than American trans folk to experience harassment. That is an educated guess derived from the correlation of incongruent ID and harassment, and I freely admit this has not been confirmed as no study I am aware of has investigated it. But if you think it to be off the mark, I look forward to hearing how and why, given what we do know about similar situations.

Secondly, since these arguments tend to lean on the idea of a predator claiming transgender status to access gender segregated spaces. Thing is, predators by definition don’t give a shit about the law. Defining biological sex in law with narrow heuristics doesn’t punish cisgender predatory criminals because assault and rape are already crimes. All introducing penalties for violating sex segregation does is punish trans people. It won’t protect you from Mr. Rapey because Mr. Rapey, being a fucking rapist, does not give one toot about the god damn law. A sign won’t stop him, civil penalties won’t stop him, and god damn threats of jail won’t stop him either. That’s what makes him a predator.

I assure you that predators who engage in power behaviours are not going to voluntarily claim the status of one of the most badly reviled demographics in the world to “get away” with their behaviour, in part because there aren’t any crimes you’re “allowed” to commit by being a protected class anyway. Even if they tried, it would excuse them from exactly zero charges. In fact, there is an extensive inventory of well documented tricks that cis men use to escape the consequences of perpetrating sexual assault and at no point is “falsely claiming a trans identity” one of them. It is neither accurate to premise opposition to trans rights on the basis that it would excuse criminal behaviour nor logical to assume a predator–especially the repeat offenders–would deviate from the script that has served them so well for so long.

But no, Ditum is perfectly fine maintaining the status-quo that shits on nearly 32% of trans Americans because of her next point, that sexism is bad.

Yeah, if you’re lost, don’t worry. So am I.

Ditum again: (emphasis added)

The second is the call for single-sex services to treat anyone with a gender recognition certificate in accordance with their acquired sex. Currently, the Equality Act allows the discretion to discriminate where there is a ‘genuine occupational requirement’: this means that organisations working with female prisoners, for example, can decide not to include transwomen in their services if they believe their clients (vulnerable women traumatised by male violence) would be detrimentally affected by the presence of someone they perceive to be male. (It is also worth noting that in some cases transwomen’s [sic] needs might be better served by targeted specialised services – but it is recognised that these are in even shorter supply.)

Herein lies the weakness of framing the rights and accommodation of trans women and cis women as mutually exclusive: It is predicated on perception. Even a bit of shallow knowledge on the psychology of perception should equip you to understand why this is an unfathomably awful standard to apply in sex-segregation to begin with, and that’s that perception itself is very much a subjective moving target.

To elabourate: Take, for instance, the numerous cis people that have been ejected from businesses and bathrooms since the trans panic gained traction in 2014. A cis woman, assigned female, was “mistaken for male” and thrown out of a restaurant in May this year. Another assigned female, cis woman was harassed at a WalMart–again, because a customer “thought she was male.” Or another assigned female, cis woman, who was followed into the ladies’ room by a cis man because he thought “she was male.” (More examples here)

In other words, the fact of being perceived as male is separate from the fact of being male, regardless of how we define “male.” If we really want to advocate for the segregation of spaces based on perception, then all masculine-presenting women would have to be excluded from women’s spaces. And then you have to tackle the problem of who, exactly, is going to decide who is too “masculine looking” for your women’s group. There’s just no way to execute this idea without also excluding some cis women, unless you resort to genital checks. In which case, good luck in court.

Never mind the irony of a self-styled feminist arguing we should evaluate women based on our appearances. Here I thought that was a defining feature of patriarchy that feminists were trying to liberate us from, but I’m just an uppity third-wave tranny, what the fuck do I know?

This isn’t a solution. It’s a veritable clusterfuck that Ditum somehow thinks is an entirely reasonable suggestion.

Gender Analysis did a more detailed post on the perception of gender here, if you want to do more follow-up reading on why perception is a notoriously poor way to organize people concerning gender. Long story short, gender is a property that is perceived just as much as it is transmitted, and there’s too much white noise that interferes with any suggestion that gender expression is a reliable way to segregate folks.

The last remark–“It is also worth noting that in some cases transwomen’s needs might be better served by targeted specialised services – but it is recognised that these are in even shorter supply”–is a half-truth.

Drawn from my own experiences having been sexually assaulted twice (once by a cis woman, mind), most social services available to me were very obviously designed with cisgender, heterosexual women in mind. I did eventually find my way to some Queer-friendly resources, but if they didn’t exist I would have nothing. So it’s true in the sense that most implementations of domestic violence theory are still hyperfocused on male-perpetrator female-victim, and that I would welcome the expansion of existing services to serve minority populations affected by intimate partner violence in other gender permutations. The Duluth model hasn’t been doing minority victims any favours.

But–and this is a very important “but”–Ditum has perpetuated yet another false dichotomy. There is no reason to suggest that “trans woman” and “rape victim” are incompatible states of being. In fact, if we revisit the US Transgender Survey, we find:

Nearly half (47%) of respondents have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. This included any experiences with “unwanted sexual contact, such as oral, genital, or anal contact, penetration, forced fondling, or rape.”15,16

In other words, trans women are nearly twice** as likely to be victims of sexual assault as cis women, yet Ditum has no problems turning us away from existing resources because we “might” be “perceived as male” and that this could be triggering.

It’s quite remarkable. I’ve seen strange women on the street who bore superficial similarities to my abusive ex–a similar gait, posture, hair colour, hair style, frown–and yes, those experiences were triggering. The difference is that I haven’t embarked on a national campaign to ban a certain kind of frown from the support groups I attend because I recognize how fucking ridiculous it would be to hold someone accountable for my trigger simply because they frown a certain way. Really, the point at which I consider my “healing” to have started was the moment I figured out how to maintain control in the middle of a PTSD episode. But the sort of bubble Ditum wants to construct is so widespread that trans women can’t even be allowed to exist in the proximity of rape victims despite the fact that we, too, are frickin rape victims!

Back to Ditum:

Removing that discretion would compel such organisations to include all those who identify as women, regardless of organisations’ judgement about the effects on other clients or the specific needs of trans individuals, and regardless of whether transition has involved a total shift of social role, or simply the declaration of identity. Effectively, this would privilege identity over physical sex for legal purposes. And while it would avoid the unpleasant current situation where trans people who ‘pass’ in their acquired gender are treated more favourably than trans people who don’t, it is worth remembering that gender is very much a matter of being treated according to the sex you are seen as: to pass as a woman, whether one is a natal female or a transwoman, is to be subject to sexism, harassment and workplace discrimination.

Trans                           woman. There’s a space there. Trans is an adjective. We don’t write bluecar or hotfood in English. I won’t even bother trying to convince you why “natal female” is an enormously problematic term.

Still, I’m not sure where Ditum is going with this. “[T]o pass as a woman, whether one is a natal female or a transwoman [sic], is to be subject to sexism, harassment and workplace discrimination” is certainly a well supported conclusion. But it does not follow that this is a good reason to subject women, cis or trans, to gender policing in order to access services or avoid employment discrimination. But there’s another part of erasure occurring with Ditum’s assertion that being perceived as a woman is an invitation for harassment, because being perceived as a failed man is a state that draws a tremendous amount of harassment and workplace discrimination as well. Indeed it is entirely compatible for “gender critical” feminism to conceive of trans women as simply “failed men,” which is why we are subject to patterns of violence which typically manifest in (cis) women. But when asked what to actually do for these “failed men” (in their construct), they just kind of shrug.

That’s a challenge that needs to be addressed, not dismissed. But by referring to any critics as ‘TERFs’ and falsely accusing them of causing violence, Brothers has poisoned the well of discussion. In her piece, she writes:

‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists (known as TERF’s [sic] and led by the likes of Germaine Greer), along with intolerant newspaper columnists, peddle myths and whip up prejudice. The dismissive rhetoric stirs up crimes of hatred, creating fear among trans people that they will not be accepted and may be confronted with “deserved violence”.’

TERF is indeed an acronym for ‘trans exclusionary radical feminists’, but in language usage is always more important than origin, and in practice, TERF is a term of abuse targeted at women. Extensive documentation finds it in phrases like ‘kill all TERFs’ and ‘die TERF scum’; TERFs are called ‘disgusting’, compared to rubbish, and said to ‘stink’. This is not a word that is in any sense compatible with the values of Labour: as linguist Deborah Cameron explains, it is a slur, and it is deeply regrettable that Brothers or anyone else in the movement should use it.

Ah yes, the old “minorities hate the majority” trick. Again, Ditum won’t actually link to the “extensive documentation” which says “kill all TERFs,” leaving us to speculate over which particular phantom is making her quiver at the knees.*** For my part, my experience so far of the “gender critical” cluster of feminist arguments is that they are often ridiculous because of the amount of information they have to pretend doesn’t exist in order to remain cogent, and usually dangerous because of what would happen if their opinions were successfully implemented. That’s not “kill all gendercrits,” but it is “Jesus cracker Christ do we really have to beat this horse again.

The second part of the argument–that it is “incompatible” for Labour to use the term–seems to imply that it would be improper for Labour to take a stand against positions that would harm trans folk, trans women specially. I won’t try to argue that–it’s up for Labour to respond (though knowing politicians it would likely be a mealymouthed non-answer).

Then, Ditum won’t actually link to Deborah Cameron’s explanation, and my Google-fu only turned up other “gender critical” feminists who repeat the claim that Cameron explained this, but I seem to have failed at locating an actual source document to support this. To me, this is the rhetorical equivalent of dropping the rapier to start waving your arms while making ghost sounds. But I’ll be generous anyways–suppose I accept Cameron’s observations. How about I use “cisgender supremacist” instead? It won’t particularly matter what term I use to refer to Ditum’s justification for her opinion, only that I demonstrate the consequences of the positions she advocates as being harmful for trans folk. “Trans-exclusionary” sounds pretty damn descriptive to that end but if that’s still too objectionable, then we can just say “Ditum interprets a false dichotomy of mutually exclusive rights and then ranks those rights in a hierarchy in which cisgender people’s needs are taken for granted as necessary while trans people’s needs may be discarded.”

Or, you know, “TERF.”

It all very strikes me as a repeat of the “alt right” nonsense. I don’t think it particularly matters what I label you, as long as your position is some mixture of invalid, false, or harmful then I have enough information to reject it. Fly your own underwear as the flag for your movement if you must, I truly do not care.

The final point I’ll make on this segment: The term “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist” was proposed by a…

*drum roll*

cis woman. (but shh, don’t poke holes in Ditum’s persecution complex)

Back to Ditum:

Despite Brothers’ claim that TERFs are ‘led’ by Greer, there is no group that refers to itself as TERFs, and no evidence at all that the words of radical feminists cause violence against trans people. In fact, the idea that perpetrators of hate crimes are in any way influenced by their reading of The Whole Woman is almost baroque in its absurdity. In fact, it is the women who are called TERFs who get attacked: Greer
was ‘glitterbombed’ in 2012 as a protest against her alleged transphobia. She has not, to my knowledge, committed any assaults of her own against trans people.

“Despite Brothers’ claim that TERFs are ‘led’ by Greer, there is no group that refers to itself as TERFs, and no evidence at all that the words of radical feminists cause violence against trans people.”

This is a doozy. The first part of the sentence is certainly true–they tend to refer to themselves as “gender critical,” and they aren’t organized and hierarchical enough to say they are “led” by anyone. The second part of the sentence is, to be frank, fucking outrageously false. To wit, all individuals below have at times self-identified as radical feminists:

And that’s without going into the same corners of the internet Ditum refers to with the “kill all TERF” flibbertigibbet. But the phrase ” [there is] no evidence at all that the words of radical feminists cause violence against trans people” is a strong claim to make, a claim that positively trashed by the actions of the above radical feminists. Orchestrating an involuntary commitment isn’t violence? Omission and removal from human rights protections isn’t violence? Erasing and denying our womanhood, the premise involved in our many murders, is not contributing to that violence? Pushing falsehoods on an unknowing mainstream that would further exacerbate our healthcare discrimination isn’t violence?

Ditum goes on to argue that TERFs aren’t the ones doing the literal assaults. This is another half-truth. But what “gender critical” feminists do instead is give credence to the tropes that excuse violence against us: That we aren’t “real women,” that attraction to us is bad or “unnatural,” that our experiences with gender dysphoria are either “lies” or that it can be “cured,” that gender affirmative care harms us despite evidence to the contrary. In other words, gendercrits aren’t typically pulling the trigger, but they do sure spend an inordinate amount of time loading the gun and giving it to the institutions and individual cis men who will.

Also: *stamp.* BINGO!

Ditum again:

The violence that trans people are subjected to is male violence, just like the violence that women are subjected to. It needs to be named for what it is if we are ever to confront it. Scapegoating feminists, as Brothers does, not only lets the actual culprits off the hook, it also jeopardises many of the gains for women’s rights that Labour should be proud of.

What a convenient smokescreen for abusive cis women Ditum just kicked up. TERFs fulfill the same function in weaponizing structural bias against trans folk as Republicans do in weaponizing poverty against the poor. Neither party will claim to “hate” their victim–but they don’t seem to shed many tears when their ideas result in their deaths, and they certainly are heavily invested in denying their involvement in creating those circumstances.

Tackling the wage gap, expanding maternity leave and childcare, establishing specialist domestic violence courts, increasing the conviction rate for rape – all these things are founded in an understanding of the ways women suffer discrimination because we are female, and not because of the way we identify. Defending this vital framework as we develop rights for trans people requires careful consideration and attention to the claims of all parties. When Brothers dismisses any woman with a critical viewpoint as a ‘TERF’, she also dismisses the possibility of having the good-faith debate we so badly need.

I don’t know who the fuck claims the problems described by Ditum are consequences of identification. Certainly not Brothers. But again, no citation! So who knows! Store your straw trans feminists carefully for they may be a fire hazard!

Good thing these are the habits of a good faith debate, amirite readers?

Here’s your reword for sticking with me for that many words:




*As a Queer Marxist, I do agree with the thesis of Brothers’ article, even if it wasn’t really argued well, in the sense that no labour empowerment or liberation movement could be considered complete as long as it maintains other axes of oppression such as racism, sexism, and cisheteronormativity. I’ll elaborate on this point another time, but in essence prescriptive gender norms have very much been vital cogs in the machinery of Capitalism, and that truly discrediting Capitalism requires at least a brief comment on the nature of said norms.

**Relative to the most generous statistical models attempting to measure the rate of sexualized violence in the US. The actual rate can vary a great deal depending on which study you consult–but even if we take the studies based off a wide-range and extremely expansive definition of “sexualized violence,” trans women still consistently experience at higher rates than cis women, somewhere between five and ten times as much. Really, at this severity, I’m not sure the difference matters.

***Someone attempting to smear trans feminism usually points to Tumblr as the culprit. The rhetorical mistake is in trying to smear a cluster of beliefs rather than a specific argument. Even without checking on Google, I suspect Tumblr is the source of her statement. Nonetheless, that would be a point of argument to make against those particular Tumblr users, not Emily Brothers, and I declined to respond to the implication that it is equivalent for trans women to hate anti-trans lobbyists altogether because that would be a long post all by itself.

****Trans women aren’t opting for uterine transplants because it’s not a widely successful or available procedure. The fact that at least some of us would, if the technology were viable, is not considered by Greer. The fact that we don’t yet have the option is nonetheless evidence for Greer that we ain’t woman enough.



  1. cubist says

    “Never the answer”? Would that that were true. But just as there are people who sincerely believe there are questions for which it’s perfectly reasonable to answer… say… ‘kill all the Jews’ or ‘build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the US’, so, too, are there people who believe there are questions for which ‘scapegoat those trans women’ is a perfectly reasonable answer. In the short term, the question is, how do we keep those assholes well away from the levers of political power? In the longer term, the question is, how can we reduce the number of people who think like that?

  2. Greta Samsa says

    Siobhan, you missed the slur-reclamation CN (though the trans-antagonism CN probably covers others using the slur, so I suppose it may not be wholly necessary).

    On the actual topic, though, I’m constantly appalled that humans have such capacity for both veiled hatred and hypocrisy. One would expect that all feminists, realizing the damaging influence of socialized ideas of inferiority, wouldn’t try to inflict the same harm on others. At least most are consistent.

  3. Silentbob says

    Then, Ditum won’t actually link to Deborah Cameron’s explanation, and my Google-fu only turned up other “gender critical” feminists who repeat the claim that Cameron explained this, but I seem to have failed at locating an actual source document to support this.

    It’s on Cameron’s blog. She doesn’t actually say TERF is a slur, but argues the case that it could be:

    In summary: TERF does not meet all the criteria that have been proposed for defining a word as a slur, but it does meet most of them at least partially. My personal judgment on the slur question has been particularly influenced by the evidence that TERF is now being used in a kind of discourse which has clear similarities with hate-speech directed at other groups (it makes threats of violence, it includes other slur-terms, it uses metaphors of pollution). Granted, this isn’t the only kind of discourse TERF is used in, and it may not be the main kind. But if a term features in that kind of discourse at all, it seems to me impossible to maintain that it is ‘just a neutral description’.

    I don’t find the argument compelling because it is trivially easy to think of other words (“muslim”, “liberal”) that probably also meet her criteria, but are not slurs.

    Anyway, I don’t know what other term one’s supposed to use for radical feminists who are trans-exclusionary. “Gender critical” is laughable; they’re staunch gender essentialists.

  4. Siobhan says


    Good eyes.

    Maybe I should start penning diatribes about how “SJW” is a term of abuse? Maybe if I did I’d just be missing the point that literally all words can be turned into terms of abuse, so maybe the solution is for everyone to stop speaking!

  5. says

    In other words, the fact of being perceived as male is separate from the fact of being male, regardless of how we define “male.” If we really want to advocate for the segregation of spaces based on perception, then all masculine-presenting women would have to be excluded from women’s spaces.

    You mean like Ditum, Bindel and especially Cathy F. Brennan? It always strikes me as the ultimate irony that these of all women want to make performance of conventional femininity the bar trans women must pass. Just to turn around and accuse trans women of being agents of the patriarchy by perpetuating these stereotypes.*

    and regardless of whether transition has involved a total shift of social role, or simply the declaration of identity.

    Again, care to define that “social role”? Please in a way that doesn’t uphold patriarchal gender roles and stereotypes. I’m patiently waiting…

    *Their femme hate is another topic. Yeah, you abolish gender and misogyny by declaring that everything currently labelled “feminine” or “girly” is inherently inferior.


    As a Queer Marxist, I do agree with the thesis of Brothers’ article, even if it wasn’t really argued well, in the sense that no labour empowerment or liberation movement could be considered complete as long as it maintains other axes of oppression such as racism, sexism, and cisheteronormativity.

    Hmmm, it’s what I consider the weakness of many “classical” Marxist movements: Everything is boiled down the opposition between work and capital and everything else is put on the backburner. The relevance of these other conflicts and complicity of the working class in maintaining them is often ignored. Lie back and think of the revolution, baby!