Cis women occupy a unique position within the discourse between sex essentialist/trans-exclusionary radical feminists and trans feminists. As we’re about to see below, TERFs sometimes employ a subtle technique of rhetorical manipulation that disarms any trans critics long before we’ve even spoken. Since cis women in these sex essentialist constructs lack the various boogeymen and spectres that TERFs raise as evidence of trans women’s “male essence,” they’re able to more directly interface with the material without having to first waste time on specious accusations of “aggression” or “violence.” This is why I made a post eons ago briefly thanking M. A. Melby for her work–she not only acknowledges this unique position but actively uses it to expose the intellectual fraud of sex essentialist feminists.
Here I document a specific strain of rhetoric which has the intention to demonize the transgender critic regardless of their actual behaviour. My hope is that cis women step up to the plate when they see it deployed, because they undermine its fundamental strategy simply by voicing a criticism while being neither transgender or a man. We’re looking at a recent piece by Julian Vigo, but the rhetoric used here is likely to make an appearance again.
All emphasis seen in the quotations are added by me unless marked otherwise. Typos are from the original material. Lastly, I use “trans feminist” to refer to a specific tradition of trans-inclusive feminism, not as “a feminist who is also transgender,” though they often overlap.
Content Notice for trans-antagonism and sexual assault.
1. Frame your critics as oppressors.
It’s not exactly difficult for those who experience misogyny to paint that experience as rather harrowing. There are countless disparities between men and women in virtually every metric you can think of from violent victimization to wage earnings to health outcomes. If one is invested in evidence as their basis for beliefs, it is virtually inescapable to conclude anything except that women as a demographic are treated unfairly in a myriad of ways (not that people don’t try). Despite the ceaseless statistical evidence, Vigo opts to use a personal narrative instead:
Being female today replicates my experiences in the restaurant to varying degrees, only these acts of being erased and being overlooked persist from our first breath through our last. That is if female infants, in many parts of the world, are lucky enough to even be born. These acts of erasure are constant, quotidian, and they stretch into all aspects of one’s life to include the professional such that there is no space in which to live unfettered from these reductions, utilizations, violences, and definitions of one’s being. The expunction of selfhood consists of the persistent reminders and cues from the outside world that not only are you negligible, but that with each utterance you claim your presence, there will always be a structure which is firmly maintained to tell you that you are invisible, that you do not matter. We are shut down even before speaking such that many women have already given up the very effort of speaking for themselves simply because so many women are aware of the consequences. Other women join in the chorus because the lean in culture is exhausting. And the consequences are punitive to any women who has the temerity to no suffer shame for their thoughts. “Pick your battles,” I have heard much of my life, a sentiment uttered even by those very women who have given up. The struggle of women for selfhood and autonomy in any society today is very much a battle. And while some of us take up this task with great aplomb, others wither from the weight of oppressive voices coming from all directions — voices which tell us why we are doing it wrong and why we do not matter.
The purpose of a personal victimization narrative here is not to demonstrate that misogyny still exists or that it manifests in ways that aren’t always intuitive, it’s to frame any objection to the material that comes after it as fitting in with a broader pattern of oppression. We see here that Vigo is setting up a personalized narrative of exhaustion, of being erased, negligible, invisible. However, Vigo sneaks in her first pre-emptive potshot at her critics by pairing “voices which tell us why we are doing it wrong” with “why we do not matter.” Rather than understanding that objections to her arguments are not automatically objections to her personhood, she characterizes her critics as engaging in “erasure” long before they’ve even said a thing.
Remember that. Vigo has framed objections to her arguments as an inherent and unavoidable continuation of misogynistic oppression. Had she simply wanted to make the case that women are generally treated unfairly, she had ample non-narrative evidence to do so.
2. Demonstrate that you are a victim of criticism, and thus oppression
And when I started to think about how females are devalued, made invisible, I recalled the acts of erasure inflected upon my person, from being served less food as a child through having to fight to play basketball with the boys at recess. I witnessed the same of my fellow female classmates who had to struggle with different issues in their families, such as their being restricted to washing up dishes while their brothers ran freely outside playing sports, their being told that their looks would be their only saving grace as their families ploughed money into the education of the males. A I reflected more deeply, however, I began to recollect ways in which this erasure served as a vehicle to render my existence as a female either invisible or vulnerable, depending on the circumstances. When I was fourteen on the way to school, three boys in my neighbourhood attempted to rape me (after which I would take a far longer route to the bus stop); my brother’s friend tried to sexually assault me when I was thirteen and luckily I was able to escape; the nineteen-year-old neighbour where I grew up who coerced me when I was eight-years-old to masturbate him and then in order to confirm my silence convinced me I was the wrong party in this matter and that I should not tell a soul; the man in Montreal who pushed me violently as I cued up to the phone booth (I was eight months pregnant); the Montreal police officer who refused to take a report of a hit and run and whose colleague came to my house to harass me after I filed a grievance against him; and the list goes on and on. And my particular list of violent acts to which I have had a front-row seat is probably no longer than other females. Females share this collective experience with its nuanced differences in geographic sites, the specificity of violent acts, and narratives which put these actions into a larger story for us to later put in a box. But what is shared amongst all women is this violence primarily enacted by men. We are violated, muted, told how to exist, underpaid, discriminated against for our reproductive capacities, and as a service charge for our having been able to leave the kitchen, we are, in recent years, instructed in how to conceive of our lives and bodies.
Here the rhetorical strategy is to paint her critics as unfavourable by bringing up the more severe examples of her misogynistic oppression. Not only is this heavily milking the false dichotomy of victim or abuser (they’re not mutually exclusive categories), but it continues in the vein that any objections are all part of the broader pattern. However, there is also an obvious flaw in Vigo’s personal disclosure tactic: Trans women, the very subjects of Vigo’s animus, are the most raped demographic of humanity. Her critics have to live with an even greater threat of sexualized violence than she does, statistically speaking–if she means to argue that criticizing her is inherently patriarchal oppression because she has been oppressed as a woman, we could just as easily turn that rhetoric around to argue that criticizing me is inherently patriarchal and cissexist because I have been oppressed as a woman and a trans person. Though it is certainly possible to engage in patriarchy (and cissexism) during the course of a critique, characterizing criticism itself as an act of oppression completely undermines any possibility of dialogue.
To Vigo’s credit, she wasn’t silly enough to appeal for dialogue in this piece. In an older piece for counterpunch, however, she once described accusations of transphobia as “an assault on dialogue,” which is rather ironic given the rhetorical framing she has performed here. Now, suddenly, we’re concerned with the possibility for dialogue?
3. We’re all Caitlyn fucking Jenner now
Skip to 2016 and Caitlyn Jenner…
…is not an appointed representative of the trans community. Would it be reasonable for me to hold Julian Vigo accountable for the actions of Linda Shanko? Vigo doesn’t seem to think so, and yet here I am, being compared to a former Olympian, a millionaire, a Republican, and a self-admitted anti-feminist, simply because we’re both trans:
…not only makes rape jokes about using the women’s toilet at Trump Tower amidst the current heated cultural and political debate about toilet access, but between her human rights efforts, she also kvetches about the trials of womanhood stating, “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear,” and more recently she was featured in a tweet by People Magazine : “Caitlyn Jenner celebrates ‘joys of being a woman; with face mask ahead of #GLAADAwards win.” (We are treated to an image of Jenner in green face mask.) And Jenner is only the tip of the iceberg! About 90% of social media comments on this issue of transpersons in public toilets and the concomitant derision of women are being made by males who “hand slap” anyone who dares remember history and refer to “Bruce Jenner,” the Olympian in 1976. History is not only being made here, folks, it is being rewritten! Major media has explicitly avoided talking to people — women and girls especially — on this matter with only one exception thus far.
Note here the equivocation–the criticism is being “made by males,” this comment issued after a heartrending story about misogynistic oppression perpetrated by men, thus making the criticism the moral equivalent of the prior described assaults. There’s simply no winning here: Either I can let this defamation of trans women as a demographic stand or I’m a patriarchal rape-joke-cracking oppressor.
4. Stuff a strawman
Until the end of his presidency, there was not a word from the Obama administration about the rolling back of abortion rights, state after state. Not a peep from Bruce Springsteen or PayPal about women’s rights. This is isn’t shocking… Not for women, at least. We are accustomed to our voices being virtually unheard, even on issues that affect us directly. It is more of the same brocialism as usual. That male violence is a reality and does not magically disappear through the kind of identity politics that ask us to suspend our disbelief and embrace that “gender identity” trumps sex is par for the course. The problem with Obama’s Department of Justice narrative is that it suggests “gender identity” is sex, and that, while gender is whatever a person feels it to be, the acknowledgement of biological sex is “transphobic.”
I don’t know who actually argues any of the above, other than Vigo saying someone argues the above. So I’ll just go down point by point:
- “here was not a word from the Obama administration about the rolling back of abortion rights, state after state”
- “Not a peep from Bruce Springsteen or PayPal about women’s rights.”
- Now trans women are Bruce Springsteen and PayPal! Make up your mind, Vigo.
- “We are accustomed to our voices being virtually unheard,”
- “That male violence is a reality and does not magically disappear through the kind of identity politics”
- Here’s what trans feminists actually write:
- Cristan Williams: “Rape culture isn’t about a some sexed essence having an inherent dominant or submissive innateness; it is about perpetuating harmful strategies for contextualizing power.”
- Natalie Reed: “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.”
- Zinnia Jones: “But this campaign, by its leaders’ own admissions, goes beyond free speech: they are open about their intent to persecute a marginalized minority by encouraging the harassment of innocent transgender people in restrooms. This will directly lead to more violence against us.”
- Myself: “Yes, there are gendered patterns in domestic violence, and the appropriate analysis often involves discussions of toxic masculinity and its formations of entitlement which lead to abuse. This is a useful tool for most DV survivors.”
- So who is Julian Vigo actually reading? Who knows! But the implicit accusation that trans feminists don’t discuss “male violence” is patently absurd when our survival literally depends on tiptoeing around cis male violence.
- Here’s what trans feminists actually write:
- “ask us to suspend our disbelief and embrace that ‘gender identity’ trumps sex”
- What trans feminists actually write:
- Cristan Williams: People can struggle with this distinction. It’s important to recognize that there is a distinction between a physical phenomena and our mental contextualization of that physical phenomena. In other words, “sex” attributes are aspects of human development as it relates to the ability to produce size-differentiated gametes. These can include (but are not limited to), genitals, genetics, epigenetics, neurology, endocrinology, etc. However, all our thoughts about what our “sex” attributes mean is “gender.”Socially, gender is the mental contextualization of a human body as a sex attribute which, consequently, must fit into a binary mold. Socially, we don’t simply note that each body has X number of male and/or female sexed attributes; instead, we contextualize the entire body itself as a sex attribute. We might say that he was born a man because he was born with an acceptably long phallus. In our culture, an acceptably long phallus equates to male and thus, we culturally regard the entire body as itself “male.”
- What trans feminists actually write:
- “the acknowledgement of biological sex is “transphobic.””
It would literally take me all day to do this with every ridiculous point she makes, but that’s also part of her strategy–rather than picking one or two points and carefully analyzing them, she’s chosen to rapid-fire thirty arguments in the space of two paragraphs. Why, anybody not acquainted with the actual works of trans feminists might think that trans people are just wholly unreasonable!
5. Hold trans people accountable to the actions of cis people
If invoking Caitlyn Jenner wasn’t bad enough, Vigo has to raise the actions of cis people against us too!
For the BBC to demand Murray not to opine on a subject that directly affects her as a woman who suffered breast cancer, a mother who breastfed, and a journalist whose work is on a radio show called “Woman’s Hour,” considering that the broadcaster famously protected a rapist, would seem a disingenuous request. Clearly, a woman who hosts a show on this very subject would necessarily be bringing her subjective knowledge to the matter. What this recent “discipline” of Murray demonstrates is the demagoguery surrounding the subject of transgender identity for which women are expected to do as programmed: shut up and nurture.
Note the revival of victimhood once again. Jenni Murray isn’t simply a clueless pundit, she’s a survivor of breast cancer. Because, apparently, cancer survivors never say objectionable things? Now we’re not responding to Murray’s statements, we’re bullying a breast cancer survivor! The humanity. Vigo compares “issuing an impartiality warning” with “protecting a rapist” once again creating a moral equivalency between criticism and rape apology. More importantly, what the hell do the actions of a corporate broadcaster have to do with trans feminists, who have maybe one representative in the whole of the UK media?
Bringing up a personal history of trauma to supposedly position yourself as an expert on trauma is completely pointless when the people you’re “criticizing” are even more likely to suffer it than you are. Framing objections to your arguments as acts of literal violence severely undermines any claim you might make to dialogue. Citing Caitlyn Jenner as an example of what is wrong with “trans politics” when almost none of us compares to her. Literally inventing arguments trans feminists have not made and pretending this is representative of the material.
And then, accusing trans women of doing the exact things she has done herself:
And this is the irony and tautology of sexism. Even when women speak, we are nevertheless TERFs. No matter how clearly agreeable and respectful the language we employ, we are still accused of attempting to “kill” transgender persons, some even saying that disagreement with their narrative “triggers” suicidal thoughts in them. Like the materiality of our bodies, facts are inconvenient and the discourse of hatred is bizarrely posited as emanating from women, the very individuals who want to find a comfortable and fair solution for everyone.
Does Vigo mean to argue that verbal criticism is harmless in an article that equated an impartiality warning with protecting a rapist? Or does she mean to argue that you can, in fact, connect violent rhetoric to violent actions, and therefore commits the very error she accuses trans feminists of engaging in by constantly comparing our actions to rape? The contradictions are endemic in this piece– equivocating criticism to rape is “clearly agreeable”? Constantly slandering your critics is “respectful”? Vigo had dozens of falsehoods in the first part of her essay, but she has the audacity to accuse her critics of believing facts to be inconvenient?
And yet Vigo finds it utterly “bizarre” that she would be accused of being hateful after spitting out a 10,000 word fact-free well-poisoning polemic.