Recently, ContraPoints released a video responding to Gender Critical Feminists (i.e. TERFs).
I’d like to offer my own responses to the same TERF concerns, not really because I think TERF concerns deserve to be addressed at length, but because I believe in participatory learning. I also like to think that I’m adding a few useful points.
1. Gender metaphysics
Asking trans people “What even is gender?” is kind of like asking theft victims, “What even is property?” That is to say, it’s a really tough question that deserves a serious answer, and therefore should be asked in a different context where it’s not a transparent troll. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when you get reductive slogans like “man trapped in a woman’s body”.
IMHO, a lot of gender, as it is commonly understood, seems to come down to snap judgments that we make about other people. Those snap judgments are based on appearance and voice, cross-referenced to the gendered customs of your culture. But snap judgments can also be “wrong”, suggesting that gender does not refer to appearance itself, but refers to an essence indicated by appearance. But the nature of the essence itself is unclear.
I have a very Wittgensteinian perspective. Ultimately, gender is defined by pointing. Throughout our lives, we can point to examples of (cis) men and (cis) women, and we each make our own inferences about the underlying essence. And when we apply our various theories to trans and intersex people, we disagree on the conclusions. I would say that there is no essence, language is just inherently ambiguous, and the choice of how to resolve those ambiguities is our own.
As it happens, a lot of people (both cis and trans) have strong feelings about what gendered judgments should or shouldn’t be made about them, and I don’t know why that is but maybe it’s a human psychology thing? I believe in resolving the language ambiguity in a way that reduces harm. That means not second-guessing people’s expressed genders, and reconsidering my snap judgments when they mismatch a person’s expressed gender. Under this model, I suppose you could say that the “essence” of gender is whatever that human psychology thing is, but there are exceptions to that rule, and really it’s just better to understand that there isn’t any essence at all.
2. Gender stereotypes
TERFs contend that trans women are reinforcing oppressive gender stereotypes by using symbols of femininity like makeup or dresses. I think trans women adopt feminine expressions because society is enforcing gender stereotypes upon them, and society refuses to treat them like women until they adopt sufficiently feminine expressions. And beyond that, some trans people may gravitate towards feminine gender expressions for the same reason cis women do.
Anyway, it’s literally impossible to not reinforce stereotypes at least some of the time. There are just too many stereotypes. For example, trans women who are too masculine are a stereotype. Trans women who are too feminine are a stereotype. According to TERFs, trans women often confirm both stereotypes simultaneously, providing literally no space where trans women aren’t confirming stereotypes. TERFs are particularly concerned with a certain set of stereotypes of women, that’s fair. But actively stereotyping trans women, while insisting they live their lives specifically to avoid the stereotypes you care about, is bullshit.
3. Abolish gender
My understanding is that many TERF gender abolitionists prefer to describe themselves as “female” instead of “woman”, under the theory that “female” refers to sex and “woman” refers to gender. And under the same theory, many or all trans women are “male”. But as a matter of descriptive language, “male” and “female” are gendered terms. So, this seems like a rather self-serving choice of language, that doesn’t actually abolish gender at all, and just affirms their own gender identity while denying the same affirmation to trans women.
My theory is that if you actually abolished gender (instead of half-assing it like TERFs), it would not be much of a utopia. I suspect that whatever the human psychology thing is that makes people want to be seen as a man or a woman, would likely persist into a genderless future.
There is surely room for disagreement on this matter, and I’ve certainly seen trans people take both sides of the issue. I give credit to trans people on either side, since it would seem they have a lot of personal experience relevant to the question. I will give less credit to TERFs until such a time that they acknowledge the full range of human experience, instead of just the cis parts.
4. & 5. Male privilege and male socialization
Trans women were seen as boys/men earlier in their lives, and were thus conferred some of the privileges associated with that. (From what I’ve heard, male socialization can sometimes feel quite different for people destined to be trans, but I would still agree that they have at least some privileges from male socialization.) Later, when they socially transition, they lose most of that privilege, and then a lot more. And while trans women may not have been socialized as women earlier in their lives, many of them are being socialized as women in the present.
Why do TERFs care so much about the male socialization of trans women? They seem to believe womanhood must be defined by oppression, and then they try to find all the ways that trans women aren’t oppressed in exactly the same way, and therefore can’t be women. They’re right that trans women aren’t oppressed in exactly the same ways. But neither are all cis women oppressed in exactly the same ways. The advantages and disadvantages we have in life are related to many other factors, such as race, class, occupation, sexual orientation, and just plain random chance. Why do TERFs draw the line at trans women?
More broadly, I’m just opposed to the idea of defining womanhood by oppression. I don’t know about womanhood, but I have a lot of experience with queer rhetoric, and there are certainly people who try to define queerness by oppression. The problem with that is, queer oppression varies greatly over time and geographic location, and also depends a great deal on the particular variety of queerness. As a matter of practicality, policing queer spaces according to how much oppression people experience is just bad for everyone. People with experiences of oppression don’t particularly want to reopen all those wounds in front of self-appointed gatekeepers just to be accepted. It also results in people endlessly comparing oppressions, and pointlessly drawing hard lines between some varieties of oppression and other varieties.
And the funny thing is, even though the outlines of “queer” as a category don’t exactly match up to the outlines of oppression, we’re still able to talk about queer oppression? Same with categories of race, class, nationality, and ability. It’s plain weird to think that womanhood of all categories needs to be defined by oppression, and I don’t see the slightest bit of benefit to offset the harm that TERFs cause to trans people.
6. Reproductive oppression
This is just another example of oppression commonly experienced by cis women, and not by trans women. My response is the same as above.
7. Erasing female vocabulary
The issue at hand is trans-inclusive language, like “chestfeeding” in place of “breastfeeding”, or “front hole” in place of “vagina”. There was recently an article in Aeon on this very subject.
From what I’ve seen, this issue looms much larger in the minds of TERFs than among trans activists. TERFs endlessly circulate examples like “front hole” even though there was just one example of that, and I’m not convinced that any notable trans activists were actually enthusiastic about it. This long response to Natalie’s video describes “one notorious case that has been circulating on Twitter and Facebook”, which just screams “TERF meme based on something that was never actually important, and was taken out of context.”
Although I’m not enthusiastic about many of the individual attempts to make trans-inclusive language, I am on board with the general project. I don’t think gendered language needs to be replaced in every context, but surely there are some contexts where the precision is important. It’s especially important when it comes to laws and medical guidelines.
8. TERF is a slur
I’d like to introduce the concept of the “activist language merry-go-round”. Basically, if a group is stigmatized, then that stigma tends to rub off on the group’s label. Eventually the label becomes too problematic, and activists invent a new term to avoid the stigma. But eventually the new term becomes stigmatized too, and the cycle repeats itself until the underlying source of stigma is removed. One example is Black people in the US, who have cycled through many labels in US history (e.g. colored, negro). But the idea originally came from Julia Serano, who was describing trends in trans language.
I understand TERFs consider “TERF” to be derogatory, and their preferred label is “gender critical feminists”. But I think the underlying problem is that TERFs, as a group, are stigmatized (for good reasons I would say). So if TERFs got what they wished for, and critics switched to calling them GCFs, then I think “GCF” would quickly become derogatory too. Then TERFs would need to come up with yet another term for themselves. Lots of anti-TERFs refuse to use “GCF” because they feel that’s just capitulating to TERF interests. But in the long run, I don’t think it even serves TERF interests. It serves the interest of wasting everybody’s time.
Some people have adopted an unambiguously derogatory term: FART, for feminism-appropriating reactionary transphobe. I don’t care for it, but mostly I just don’t think it matters.
So, I’d like to say something about the ContraPoints video. Natalie Wynn is an entertainer. Natalie frames it like she’s giving more nuanced answers than usual, but IMHO she is not saying anything new, and in fact she has to rush through a lot of points to fit it all in, along with a bunch of jokes. The reason I am able to give my own detailed responses, without merely echoing Natalie, is that I’ve listened to trans activists for a long time, and thought about it myself for a long time.
If the arguments made by ContraPoints are new to you, dear reader, then you likely have nothing to be ashamed about. But to the extent that TERFs find these arguments to be new, I’d say they’re not paying enough attention to the opposition. The thing is, TERF arguments often seem disingenuous, and trans people are understandably disinclined to give thoughtful responses to them. TERFs also have a habit of circulating the least effectual pieces of trans rhetoric within their own communities, and pretending they are representative. They demand more nuance from trans activists, but actively engage in practices that prevent themselves from finding it.