Complicity Vs. Cause In Trans-Misogyny And Violence

There’s some things I’ve been trying to be better at lately. One of them is not saying “rad-fem” as a pejorative. One is not saying things that imply or suggest that “radical feminism” is interchangeable or necessarily consistent with trans-exclusionist radical feminism, or suggest that transphobia, cissexism and shitty opinions about sex work are somehow an inherent and necessary quality of radical feminism (to be honest with myself, my own feminism is pretty damn radical, even if I reject a significant number of the assumptions usually taken by those who self-describe as radical feminists). And another is trying not to worry too much about the transphobic fringes of feminism, and not participating in the self-perpetuating cycle of anxieties in our community surrounding “the rad-fems!”. They’re just not the big, terribly powerful, dangerous bogeymen we frequently imagine them to be.

TERFs certainly can be dangerous, in certain situations. But it’s extremely important to look at what the tools and weapons they use in order to cause harm actually are. On their own, they don’t wield nearly the influence the constant freak-outs on the part of trans activists would suggest about them, and they simply don’t deserve the degree of fear and anxiety we lend them. Consider the heavily controversial “Rad-Fem 2012” conference in London (conceived partly as promotion for Sheila Jeffries’ latest work from Rutledge University Press, “The Industrial Vagina”; the title of which, btw, is a denigration of sex workers’ bodies as “industrial” and not their own, not the bodies of trans women). Months of anxiety and debate led up to the event, which ultimately turned out to be no more than a dozen or less women gathering near a tube station and going to grab coffee for a pointless little chin-wag about the evil trans women and evil sex workers “reinforcing the [blank]”. Although partly it was the efforts of trans activists that kept the conference from becoming anything more substantial, it’s nonetheless the case that the worry that the trans community expressed in the months leading up to the “conference” vastly eclipsed the actual subject of that anxiety in scale, influence, reach and the energy expended upon it.

As another example, I am constantly given reminders from various well-meaning trans readers and friends about the latest idiotic stunt of Cathy Brennan, everyone always seemingly terrified about the effect she might be having on the perceptions cis people have towards us, or outraged by her latest (completely non-surprising) demonstration of pettiness and hatred. But she only has some 250 followers on twitter (several dozen, at least, being “hate follows”). She doesn’t have any real cultural influence. Our disproportionate fear of her far outweighs any legitimacy anyone actually sees in her. And undoubtedly, she’s FAR more well-known in the trans community than in the rest of the world, where she’s effectively not really anybody at all. The threat she poses is only by her connections in Maryland law and politic, and her willingness to resort to using cissexism and patriarchy as a means to hurt trans people, when the mood strikes her. That distinction is extremely relevant, and I’ll return to it in a moment.

In our somewhat obsessive collective preoccupation with transphobic feminism, we frequently make the mistake of positioning such feminists, either explicitly or implicitly, as a direct threat to our safety. Indeed, I’ve come across trans activists outright accusing TERFs of being responsible for trans-misogynistic violence, for getting trans women (or, worse, “trans people”) killed. As loathsome as transphobic feminists can be, this is an unfair and dangerous accusation, and changes an issue preoccupation and disproportionate anxiety into a self-destructive misdirection of our attentions. It leads us away from looking at the actual realities of such violence, and the realities (and real causes) of the harm being done to our communities. TERFs have never murdered any of us, much less so for the cause of their version of feminism. 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. None of our murderers have likely ever heard of Sheila Jeffries or Janice Raymond. TERFs are an indirect threat to our safety, and only by proxy of patriarchy.

Patriarchy is the threat. And, uncomfortable as it may often be, a common threat to any cis woman, transphobic or not.

At least once, probably more, I’ve employed the metaphor of suggesting that transphobic or cissexist cis women (organizations or movements or festivals) have “blood on their hands”. I wouldn’t retract that, but I’d certainly be a lot more hesitant in saying stuff like that in the future, given the danger of the aforementioned misdirection of our energies away from more immediate threats (like pointing in the direction of an incoming thunder storm and saying “look out! storm coming!” when there’s a mountain lion more quietly preparing to pounce your friend from the other direction). “Blood on hands” is generally a metaphor that refers to complicity. But complicity is a very, very different thing from cause. While TERFs, organizations like Vancouver Rape Relief, cis women who, “trans-panicked”, support bathroom exclusion policies, cis women who bar trans women from access to women’s domestic violence shelters and women’s health resources, and comparable instances of cissexism employing feminism or “women’s safety” as an excuse, are certainly complicit in harm, suffering and violence towards trans women, they are not the cause. Although a women’s rape crisis line, or domestic violence shelter, refusing a trans woman access to their services are indeed severely exacerbating the harm done to trans women, they weren’t the ones who necessitated the existence of rape crisis lines and domestic violence shelters in the first place.

Collectively, we’ve lately been making some meaningful progress in looking at how violence towards trans women, and other harm, is unevenly distributed (with trans women of colour, sex workers, youth, addicts, PwD and trans women living in poverty being at exceptional risk). We still have a long way to go, of course, with privileged trans men and whte trans folk still talking about the frequency at which “trans people” are murdered, and the continuing general overemphasis on the comparably minor issues of transphobia that are concerns for the more privileged amongst us (like, say, misgendering, visibility, cultural inclusion and the question of transphobic feminism itself) instead of more severe concerns that disproportionately affect the less privileged (violence, rape, homelessness, addiction, medical access, shelter access, “black market” medical intervention, etc.).. but we’ve at least broached the subject of who the victims of trans-related violence have generally been (trans women of colour). Missing, however, has been meaningful discussion of who the perpetrators of such violence have generally been.

The perpetrators have been men.

It’s tricky, and perhaps a bit dangerous, to excessively generalize or speculate on the precise motives (conscious and cultural) of the men who perpetrate such violence, it’s nonetheless reasonable, from what we learn from trials, media coverage, and comparison to other comparable forms of transphobia and cissexism also enacted by men (often symbolically violent), to make assessments about the degree to which the violence is far more a product of patriarchal, misogynist and cisnormative cultural bias, and rape culture, than anything even remotely connected to feminism or the protection of women from “perverts” (indeed, the justifications of trans-exclusion forwarded by feminists and women’s organizations typically involve rendering us as men, and dangerous in being hypothetical agents of exactly the forms of violence that target us in the non-hypothetical realities: by rendering us as women. Under patriarchal, oppositional binaries, men are protectors and perpetrators, women are victims and survivors, and trans women are whichever one you need them to be to get what you want.)

Men are the ones conducting the violence, motivated by exactly the patriarchal values that feminism (in all its forms) seeks to oppose. In considering where the actual cultural causes for this violence lie, it’s also of value to look at the places in the world that experience the most violence against trans women. Latin America is a particularly brutal example… if I remember correclty, over the past few years, Brazil has had overhwlemingly more murders of trans women and “trans-feminine” people than any other country, and those murders independently outnumbered the combined murders of the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Brazil is by no means an overwhelmingly “feminist” or “radical feminist” country.

In all cases, the factors that seem primarily connected to trans-misogynistic violence are patriarchy, machismo and strict (and consequently fragile) standards of male identity, poverty, rape culture or other understandings of women as sexual objects that’s value is defined by male desire, a lack of legal protection, and a lack of the lives in question (women’s lives, trans lives, sex worker’s lives, lives lived in poverty, lives that are not white, etc.) being considered genuinely of value to the cultural climate in which the violence occurs. Feminism, radical or not, is not such a factor, and indeed is (when not a grotesque mockery of itself) antithetical to these cultural values.

These patterns are seen terms of trans-misogyny in general, even when the view is broadened, away from the specificity of violence. The fuel for trans-misogyny is misogyny, interacting with oppositional sexism and gender binarism. Feminism is never at root of trans-misogyny, it only participates in so far as feminists themselves fail to interrogate their own patriarchal and misogynistic baggage sufficiently, or over-zealously, uncritically, embrace flawed theory due to the temptation to validate their pre-existing cissexist biases.

Feminist comedians like Roseanne Barr and Margaret Cho can and do make transphobc jokes, but it pails in comparison to the ubiquitous use of such, generally hinged upon the prioritization of the cisgender, white male gaze in the culture industry (hence how many jokes are about men “accidentally” sleeping with a trans person, rather than about women doing so, or their “accidentally” making friends with us, or their boyfriends cheating on them with us, or whatever other awful thing might not be predicated on the cultural tendency towards privileging the vantage point and experiences of men). The types of shows that employ “shocking” and “edgy” trans-related content, like Sons of Anarchy, Nip/Tuck, Law & Order and Hit and Miss are very much aimed at male audiences. When we appear in television directed at female audiences, the cissexism is far more of the “brave, inspiring journey” variety, far less violent, and far less loaded with the dehumanization that enables violence, than how we appear in male-targeted media.

None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that feminism and cis women can’t be complicit in systems of trans-misogyny and trans-misogynistic violence, as already touched upon. And more importantly, this is not to say that cis women, or cis women calling themselves feminists, can’t be a threat, can’t compromise our safety, and can’t be dangerous. But the manner in which they’re a threat is through, as also already touched upon, their willingness to turn to, employ, and lend legitimacy to, the patriarchal powers they claim to oppose.

Cathy Brennan, for instance, has indeed posed a real danger to many trans people, by outing them to their schools. But consider what her actions there were, and how the threat was enacted. She didn’t overtly threaten anyone with the use of her own power, she leaned into the existing power systems and existing power inequalities (the school, and the reliably cissexist biases of the school administrators, and the trans kids’ peers, and their peers’ parents) to enact the oppression for her. At first, yes, that seems slimy and duplicitous, a means of keeping from getting her hands dirty. But there’s a more meaningful layer there, which is that Cathy Brennan, cis-and-white-and-professional-class-privileged as she may be, is nonetheless not, as a queer woman, sufficiently empowered by patriarchy to enact the oppression directly, or hurt us directly. She doesn’t have that level of power and entitlement. What she does is expose us to the already existing cissexism, transphobia and misogyny of the patriarchy at large. and allows those power systems to hurt us as they will. Exactly the same tactic employed by every other TERF organization that tries to threaten and silence us by outing and doxing us.

Likewise, as mentioned, when we’re barred access to women’s space, and resources like rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, women’s healthcare, and so forth, they’re not enacting the violence and oppression, they’re simply refusing to fight against it, and allowing us to be harmed by the systems and men and powers that, hypocritically, harm them (cis women) too and have necessitated such resources for cis women. They didn’t cause the harm, they just knowingly allow it to exist. They just selectively refuse their own mission of minimizing the consequences of patriarchy and patriarchal violence. They’re akin to the paramedics and doctors who decide trans lives aren’t worth saving, and allow us to bleed out in an emergency room (I had recurring nightmares about this happening to me even before I learned it actually happens).

They’re complicit in the violence and the harm… perhaps unforgivably so… but they are not its agents or culprits or cause.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to regard as significant the relationship between trans-misogyny and awareness (subconscious or direct) on the part of its agents that they’ll get away with it, that trans women aren’t considered as worth saving or protecting as cis women. That is, perhaps, one way in which the discourse of trans-exclusion, as engaged in and fueled by cis women, might causally contribute to the larger climates of violence and hostility towards us. But in turn one can’t ignore the fact that part of that belief that trans women aren’t worth protecting or saving emerges from resignation to the fact of the hostility and violence directed towards, and victim-blaming belief that we “brought it on ourselves” and “knew what we were getting into” . Nor can we ignore that the trans-exclusionist discourse isn’t an exceptional product of the specific needs, values, biases and beliefs of cis women, but is simply the inherent trans-misogyny (or…you know…misogyny) of patriarchy as manifested amongst cis women (and perhaps given extra weight in that manifestation by cis women’s ability to regard as Other, and a potentially “dangerous” Other as well… to say nothing of the way the gender in which we’re perceived to belong can be swapped out in accordance with context, and the emotional needs of whosoever is doing the gendering). Acceptance of being able to get away with the violence and acceptance of the inevitability of the violence is a chicken/egg scenario, a mutual, self-sustaining, redirection of accountability… two sides of a wider cultural resignation to trans-misogyny and its attendant consequences as just a fact of life, as unchangeable as the weather. In such circumstances, they’re reinforcing eachother… so again we can’t draw a causal relationship between those two mirror symptoms of an underlying pathology. Again, the root cause is clear: patriarchy.

In certain contexts it is useful and helpful to remind cis women that they’re members of the privileged class, along the cis>trans axis. But in the broad context of where we direct our energies, its not only useful, but necessary, to remember that transphobia, misogyny, trans-misogyny, femphobia and homophobia are intimately, inextricably connected. Transphobia cannot exist except as a byproduct of sexism and patriarchy as a whole, and in the sense of what’s “really” going on, in the sense of that deep relationship between transphobia and misogyny, cis women are not members of the privileged, oppressive class. They are targets of exactly the same oppression as us, they simply afford themselves more shelter from it, and hoard their protections. This happens in relation to many forms of oppression: white women protected from patriarchy more than women of colour, wealthy and middle-class women protected from rape culture more than women living in poverty, women of “acceptable” sexual practice protected more than women who were “asking for it”, and so on, endlessly. On the axis of gender, there is no such thing as simple oppression of women at the hands of other women (though women can of course be both parties in other kinds of oppression). On the axis of gender there’s just the complex fact of selling each other out to patriarchal oppression (even where that oppression has been internalized). Just like trans-on-trans oppression is still a cis problem, woman-on-woman oppression is still a patriarchy problem (even when it’s cis women oppressing trans women).

Cis women are not our jailer. Even the worst amongst them, the most transphobic or most misogynistic, are just co-prisoners who volunteer information to the guards.

And it is patriarchy and rape culture that is the mountain lion stalking us. Transphobic feminism is just a distant storm. We should look in the right direction, and not point one another away from that which is actually threatening them. When we direct our attentions away from addressing the systems and causes of the actual violence and most severe harm, in favour of a preoccupation with that which is only vocally refusing to help, we ourselves become complicit in the consequences too.



  1. Tori says

    Maybe Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminism is the target of a large amount of trans focus and energy because it *is* a (relatively) small problem. The amount of patriarchal men in the world is much, much more than the amount of TERFs. It’s a problem we’re more likely to be able to solve. Patriarchy seems to be as practically unstoppable as the orbit of the Earth around the sun because it’s everywhere and permeates everything, so much so that to battle with it consistently would entail a debate every time you talk to someone who is ignorant, willfully or otherwise, of trans-inclusive feminism (which is also an absurdly large number of people). But TERF is manageable. I think it more probable to convince people who are already feminist of what is true than it is to convince someone entrenched in patriarchy.

    That’s just my speculation for why TERFs get so much more attention as opposed to patriarchal enforcers, not my justification for it. I concur in the wish that we as a community should focus more of our time and energy on getting the necessities that are being denied to those who are trans because they are trans, instead of theorizing about how we can “assimilate” into “mainstream culture” better (which is probably not even applicable to the majority of trans people who lack the intersecting privilege necessary to be “assimilated” under most circumstances.)

    I believe we have made progress in that respect. The amorphous nature of our community is being reconciled with the internet, which is the telecommunication tool capable of bringing together trans individuals as a whole community, and as such we could then form active voting blocs and local advocacy groups using web resources.

    • says

      Yeah… I agree with most of your points, but while TERF is manageable, it’s a fight in which winning wouldn’t actually buy us anything, or actually help any of us. It would just be, like, a point of pride, I guess? And that’s IF we could actually “win” it… which we can’t, cos the TERFs aren’t ever going to actually listen.

      But I’m not sure that actually is the reason we overemphasise on it. I think the reasons are far more emotional, and far less tactical and reasoned, than that. In fact, the questions of tactics, strategy, energy and long-term goals seem wholly absent from our obsession with TERF.

      • says

        It wins us access to broader feminist movements, queer-aligned movements. A single ‘TERF’ argument can set back trans activists hugely in a single area, because relatively few queer-aligned or informed voices are included in a broader discussion.

        If a TERF voice is a or the voice for queer-aligned topics, that totally negates work by every Trans-aligned voices that wish to join concurrently or later.

  2. says

    I agree that there is too much focus on TERF, but why can’t we fight both? Just because one is a bigger problem, doesn’t make the other not a problem. I get why divided focus can be bad, but if we put in a proportional amount of time to the danger of each one, I don’t see the problem with taking on both of them. I know that I’m missing something here. What am I not seeing?

  3. A. Person says

    I think that the preoccupation with Cathy Brennan is due to the fact that she’s more of a threat to American trans women who have navigated cis society’s approved path, due to her willingness to use her access to PACER and LexusNexus to dox people and her tendency to be vocal about it. Since the approved path is biased towards white and higher-income individuals, she’s a greater threat towards those white middle-class trans women who need to maintain nondisclosure of their trans status. If Brennan was convinced to stop, it would not change the situation at all, because the tools that she uses are still available to others.

    So the way I see it, the preoccupation with TERFs is just an artifact of the way the kyriarchy gives greater voice to those subject to less intersectional discrimination.

  4. Slightly says

    Ok, so firstly, if transphobia is based on misogyny, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc, isn’t that * precisely* why we should care about TERFs, or RFs more generally? Because combating transphobia is bound up in combating misogyny, patriarchy, etc. Which means that it’s really important to have a strong, intersectional, respectful feminism that seeks to validate people’s identities and continually re-assert the value of humanity above whatever categories of identity one happens to fall into? RF, in my experience, tends to be all about overly aggressive, binary categorisations of men and women. Surely, as an extension of this post, it’s important to call out RFs, transphobic or not, when they’re gender essentialist, sexist or hetero/cisnormative, simply because it’s important to have a good, working feminism?

    Secondly: “There is no such thing as simple oppression of women at the hands of other women, just the complex fact of selling each other out to oppression at the hands of men… there are instances of violence, abuse or harm that occur from one woman to another, in which men are not accountable, but this is not oppression.”

    Eugh. I love your work, but I just cannot get behind this sentiment. Gender norms and oppression are built by everybody, inflicted by everybody and inflicted on everybody (but inflicted in different ways, based on gender/perceived gender). Women pass transphobic laws, write transphobic jokes and exclude transpeople, and to imply that it’s innocent duping, or a result of being oppressed in an oppressive system, when a woman does something for exactly the same reasons as a man would, but to then call the man’s actions ‘oppression’ is a ridiculous abstraction. And a harmful one, because it’s just continuing and giving explicit permission to, in your own words in this very post, ‘patriarchal, oppositional binaries, men are protectors and perpetrators, women are victims and survivors, and trans women are whichever one you need them to be to get what you want’.

    That particular patriarchal binary crops up all the time in RF, which is why it’s important to disagree with RF, because it often unwittingly enforces and lends credence to patriarchal norms, and you’ve said yourself how those norms are used to hurt transwomen.

    • says

      I think you’re misunderstanding my point, in pulling that quote out of the numerous qualifications surrounding it? We all are capable of participating in oppressive systems, yes, and are all capable of inflicting them on eachother. But we don’t all BUILD them. Yes, women pass transphobic laws and tell transphobic jokes, and no, it’s not “innocent duping”, but cis women are not the class that these systems of oppression are built to benefit, and they aren’t free from the oppression that they participate in and perpetuate when engaging in transphobia.

      I think maybe there’s a problem here in reading “oppression” as a conscious and immediate thing, whereas I meant it as a systemic thing.

    • says

      Btw, the quote you pulled there, the “no such thing” one… that one I did feel the need to edit. I overstated it. Might edit it a bit more later. What I’m saying there really only applies at all to gender-related oppression, NOT other forms of oppression, like race-based or class-based.

  5. lisamillbank says

    I basically agree with you, on all the major points you’ve written, and think this is really important. Thank you for writing it. 🙂

    I think cissexual women do have some complicity in narratives of “fakeness”, “dirt” and “disgust” applied to transsexual people. Cissexual men definitely lead the way in constructing those narratives (in proportion to their control of media, medicine etc.) but cissexual women also contribute plenty, in more than just a passive sense of “refusing to make it better”. And they also benefit from that, in terms of building up their own self-image against the dirty/fake/disgusting Other.

    I think you touched on that when you talked about narratives of transsexual women not being “worth saving”, but I think it goes further than that just to “not worthy”. And I think that interrupts transsexual people’s connection to sources of Self-worth which are important in and of themselves. Not just as ways to withstand male violence but as conditions for living a happy life.

    And then, if we’re looking at body counts, that’s just one more multiplier which hits alongside other forms of violence/hate, so I don’t think it’s just something that hurts relatively privileged transsexual people, though it may be higher on our list.

    Or put more simply, if men stopped their violence today that would be a beautiful miracle and would improve the situation for all women so much. But I think in a week’s time or so we’d still need to go to cissexual men and women together and ask them to change their attitudes about fakeness/dirt/disgust in order to actually end structural oppression of transsexual people.

  6. says

    Excellent article Natalie. I know I’ve definitely been more focused on TERFs than I ought to have been at times.

    I think ultimately my issue with TERFs was a personal one. When I first started questioning I wanted any reason to think that transitioning was a mistake, even if it was really what I wanted. I turned to TERFs. And for a while I really, really believed what they had to say.

    From that point on, “fighting” TERFs, (though I hardly ever engaged them directly) became a preoccupation. It was a way to establish the legitimacy of my own identity, and I felt like if I wasn’t able to answer their arguments on an academic level, then I really shouldn’t have transitioned. Every time I read something by a TERF I would reconstruct my arguments from first principles, taking their comments down step-by-step in my head. And I read things by them quite a bit. I actively sought them out when I was feeling low. I flipped to the index in gender studies books to find out if the book mentioned transsexuals, and in what context.

    The behaviour was ultimately pretty fetishistic, and I wonder if that isn’t a factor in some other people’s focus on TERFs as well. As a cleansing ritual that provides emotional security against a world that acts to undermine you constantly.

  7. says

    For my own part, I found feminism very important in understanding my own identity, and radical feminism, even cultural feminism, very important in addressing my gender issues, and my trauma-survivor issues, and for figuring out what it is to be female, and often to be lesbian, in an andronormative heteronormative society.

    Hate from outsiders is just hate from outsiders. Hate from within feminism feels like hate from within the community, and hate from within one of the few spaces where we might be able to create healing spaces, if it weren’t for the hate.

  8. Mona says

    I’m not sure I understand what it is you want to change in practice. I take your point, but at the same time, it seems that while, say, the underlying problem may be that the abuse is happening at all, it’s still really useful to the trans woman in that situation if she has access to a shelter and adequate counselling.

    Distant storm, sure, but “we should look in the right direction, and not point one another away from that which is actually threatening them” seems to be suggesting ignoring transphobia in feminism entirely.

    • says

      I don’t suggest ignoring it. I’m suggesting…

      1) Don’t obsess over relatively minor things, like don’t freak out just because Brennan registers another silly tumblr. Our anxieties about such things is frequently, and in a very real way, lending them FAR more power and legitimacy than they really have or deserve. We’re frequently fueling our own enemies.

      2) Adjust our priorities. Remember that patriarchy and misogynistic men are FAR more of an immediate threat to us than cis women are, and carefully consider how we’re expending our activist energies, relative to the issues that effect whom. For instance, rape, violence, homelessness, addiction and sex work are SERIOUS issues for trans youth, trans women in positions of vulnerability (like poor or already dealing with addictions, or survivors of abuse and trauma) and trans women of colour, and we NEED to invest resources in things like harm reduction and advocacy for such problems. Instead, we’re over-focusing on things that are only principle concerns for those trans people already insulated from the most severe consequences, and wasting our (very limited) resources, time, energy and advocacy on such questions while letting other trans women get hurt.

      3) We should absolutely, immediately stop saying stupid, obnoxious, appropriative, uninformed shit like “radical-feminism is getting trans women killed!”

      • Mona says

        1) and 3), yes, absolutely makes sense. 2)…

        This is sort of what I was trying to get at, with my first point. How does anyone best tackle harm reduction & advocacy in relation to those problems? Because if a significant part of the issue is when you get to the point of trying to solve an already extant problem and help individuals, then at least in my experience (which is admittedly limited, and region specific), the people involved in support work often have some exposure to at least some feminist ideas. In which case, feminist conceptions and treatment of trans people is rather important.

        Does that make sense?

      • RebeccaZ says

        I completely agree with you in terms of 1), but I think your attitude towards 2) and 3) is a little bit ridiculous.

        You absolutely cannot effectively make an activist response to rape, violence, homelessness, and sex work, without responding to the ways in which cis women’s transphobia figures so prominently in all of these: in their fighting to turn victims of the first three away from what is, in many places, all of the extant support services, and in actively oppressing sex workers through activism and lobbying that directly puts sex workers at increased risk of violence. I find it completely bizarre that you advocate for not “over-focusing on things that are only principle concern for those trans people already insulated from the most severe consequences”, while pursuing an apologism for transphobic cis women that can’t be justified unless you are, in fact, insulated from the most severe consequences. It doesn’t fly.

        “Radical feminism is getting trans women killed” is, if one is referring to TERFs, a perfectly valid statement. Far, far too many trans women die as a direct consequence of their prejudice and their political activism. I have no time for the argument that if you do something out of hate that directly results in a woman’s death, but didn’t pick up the knife or gun yourself, you’re somehow excused from culpability.

        • RebeccaZ says

          I mean, in case I wasn’t clear – as an example, the vast majority of the homeless shelters in my city are trans-exclusive, either because they’re run by TERFs or because of the historical/philosophical influence of TERFs. I find the assertion that you can respond to homelessness without having to (strongly) confront TERF transphobia to be completely preposterous. I can’t say I dedicate a majority (or anything close to it) of my feminist activism to fighting TERFs, but “complicity vs cause” is a pretty useless distinction in fighting most of the social problems you listed.

          • says

            By far, the majority of issues motivating freak outs over TERF has fuck-all to do with shelters, homelessness and resource access, and you know it. Those AREN’T the issues we’re generally advocating for, and where we ARE generally expending our energy is shit like another silly little hatey tumblr popping up.

            I also don’t believe transphobic radical feminists like Brennan or GallusMag or Jeffries have NEARLY as much influence over the problems of things like shelter access than you’re making them out to. That is motivated at least as much by general patriarchal thought, if not considerably more.

            Yes, while advocating for issues like trans homelessness and shelter access, BY ALL MEANS, address and call-out women supporting exclusion policies. Go after anyone you need to make things better, even on the level of harm reduction. If you thought my point was “never complain to cis women”, you SERIOUSLY weren’t reading very carefully.

            And yeah… sorry, but a homeless shelter denying someone access is CLEARLY an issue of complicity and unjust distribution of resources, not an issue of cause. Shelters don’t make people homeless. How much were you actually reading the clarifications I made in my points, and how much did you just want to see this as making excuses for cis women? Because I’m NOT making excuses. “Complicity” can, as I pretty explicitly pointed out, be horrible, unjust, cruel, and even unforgiveably so.

            But as said, things like homeless shelter access aren’t the issues we’re collectively advocating for, nor the advocacy I’m taking issue with. I’d LOVE to see more such advocacy. Generally, we’re instead obsessing endlessly over the latest “biologically male” comment by some fucking “feminist icon” Z-list celebrity, or the latest completely irrelevant “gender-trender” tumblr site. And if you don’t notice that, don’t notice the distinction, and don’t notice how little bearing such things have for a trans youth sleeping under an overpass tonight… well…

  9. Kathrine says


    I agree with everything you’ve written here, but… I think my main issue with TERFs is that by claiming the title of “feminist” (and my own feminist leanings are somewhere in the intersectionality of liberal feminism and WoC/womanism despite the fact that I am white), they purport to be allied with us in our views on why society creates inequality and how we may go about reforming the system, at least in a very wide sort of way.

    And they’re not.

    And that hurts.

    When it comes to patriarchy, we know patriarchy is the “enemy.” We know that it’s going to be a long slog to reform the system. We know that middle-to-upper class Christian white heterosexual cisgender men are significantly less likely to even pretend to try to understand why the system is flawed. We know that’s a battle. We settle in for the long haul. But when it comes to TERFs, because of that F, we want to believe they’re going to be able to be convinced if only we appeal to the core of feminism. That they’re already so close to us, all they need is that one, final, rational push.

    This, of course, is dangerous. Not physically dangerous. However, dangerous from the point of view you have established here: an inefficient distribution of resources. Why? Because TERFs sum it up, and this is a direct quote from one of the TERFs you have mentioned above, as:

    “Feminism does not mean ‘equality.'”

    And by that, of course they mean, that feminism is instead about essentialism and determinism, and bluntly put, cisgender female supremacy. This is, at its core, so opposed to mainstream liberal feminism, opposed to socialist feminism, opposed to WoC/womanism, opposed to [insert other recognisable branch of feminism here], that in my mind, it shouldn’t be considered feminism at all. Or if it ever was feminism, it has become so different that it needs to be spun off as an entirely different concept in the overall discourse.

    The reason why we have such a visceral reaction to TERFs is because, as was said by another commenter, we feel that the attacks come “from the inside.” That we are being attacked by those who should, naturally, be our allies. And we don’t understand it. It’s not just a case of TERFs “slipping information the guards” it’s more like TERFs holding us down physically while the guards administer the beatings. In the case of TERFs’ decisions to out individuals, that’s not just complicity, it is active collaboration. While the system wasn’t built to be beneficial to cis women, when cis women knowingly choose to use its machinations in order to harm trans women, knowingly, and willingly, I don’t see how that is akin to the analogy of passing information about what kind of contraband I have stored under my prison bunk. It is much more akin to being physically involved. And so we, of course, show great concern, and greater amounts of completely rational anger, when it comes to TERFs because we expect better of them and because they’re easier to engage, even if they are more of a distant storm and less of quietly stalking lion.

    I rambled a bit, but I hope that made sense.

  10. RebeccaZ says

    I’ve applauded nearly everything you’ve ever written, but my response to this could basically be summarised as “…nope”.

    I agree with your first three paragraphs, and I agree particularly strongly about Radfem 2012 and Cathy Brennan. But this idea that cis women whose policies and whose activism directly results in violence against trans women are somehow less culpable than those who actually physically carry out said violence is apologist bullshit. A cis woman who turns away a trans woman fleeing domestic violence or homelessness from a shelter *is* doing violence against her. She should be directly answerable (and held directly culpable) if that women is, very foreseeably, physically harmed as a result of her actions. A fuzzy philosophical distinction doesn’t make women killed by cis women’s transphobia any less dead.

    It’s also unnecessarily apologist towards transphobic cis women, and unnecessarily dismissive of trans women’s opposition. You don’t need to make a semblance of an excuse for transphobic cis women to be feminist, and making these excuses just allows it to continue under a flawed mantle of sisterhood. It’s far more effective, in terms of establishing a genuinely intersectional feminism, to call it out for what it is.

  11. Juli Richmond says

    You nailed it ! …
    The oppression comes from the patriarch. Until that changes .. we are all in the same boat …

  12. RebeccaZ says

    I don’t seem to be able to reply to your comment above (not sure how this system works as I usually lurk rather than comment):

    I am absolutely aware that much of the energy the trans community throws into dealing with TERFs has fuck all to do with, well, anything useful – and, to that extent, I completely agree with where you were going with that here. People need to dedicate their energies where it’s actually needed instead of freaking out about Brennan or some stupid Tumblr. But much of what you wrote here made excuses for TERFs that applied far more broadly, and honestly, I think you’re either a) pretty naive, or b) haven’t actually done much activism in this area if you haven’t seen the very, very strong linkages between radical feminist dogma and trans women being unable to access refuges and the like. That isn’t Brennan, or some random magazine, or even Sheila Jeffries doing this, but the entire movement going back to Janice Raymond.

    No one’s saying that shelters make people homeless, but framing policies around refuge and shelter access as “unjust distribution of resources” belies the fact that people die as a direct result of those decisions. That’s where I’m calling you on making excuses. You can call it “unjust distribution” or you can call it murder, but the person’s still dead because of their actions.

    And again, when it comes to shitty Tumblr sites or raging at some no-name blogger or celebrity, we’re absolutely on the same page. I read the first couple paragraphs thinking “about time someone articulated this”. But that doesn’t make this “TERFs don’t kill people, men kill people” attitude running through the rest of the article any less dismissive and apologist.

    • says

      People can and do die from unjust distribution of resources. Like…you know… poverty, lack of medical care, famine, etc.

      I really don’t understand why you see describing something as an issue of complicity or distribution or access is somehow making excuses for it? Why does something have to be regarded as the causal factor in order for it to be bad, in order for it to be worth doing something about?

      Also, sorry, but yeah: TERFs DON’T directly kill people. They let people die, but they don’t kill them. Show me one instance, anywhere, ever, of a TERF engaging in violence against trans women. You already know that I can show you hundreds of men who murdered trans women.

      That matters to how we talk about these things.

      I think you probably agree with me more than you think you do? It sounds like mostly you’re reacting emotionally to the language of “complicity” and “letting people die” being contrasted to direct violence and oppression, feeling that I mean the former terms to be “less bad”, and therefore an issue of making excuses. But that’s NOT the point here. The point is looking at things for what they are, and thinking about where our energies need to go. “More” or “less” bad doesn’t even enter into my thinking here.

  13. rozkaveney says

    I agree with you that TERFs are not directly responsible for bloodshed but their role in denying trans women access to rape crisis centres etc is a contributory factor in male violence – they are knowing accessories. Raymond had a role in getting free trans health care defunded in the US – nowhere as big a role as Catholic doctors like McHugh, but still. In the UK, the exclusion of rape crisis centres from the trans bits of the Equalities Act was the result of last minute lobbying – radical feminism of a TERFish kind had until reeently some influence on public policy.

    The real reason for opposing them is all the OTHER areas in which they are dangerous and wrong. TERFs like Bindel and Jeffreys advocate public policy on eg sex workers that are fundamentally dangerous to women’s lives, and have been successful in lobbying on it. One of the reasons for going after them on trans exclusion is that a lot of cis progressives are open to seeing their line on trans as self-evidently absurd and that helps discredit them on other things where they are wrong and dangerous. Fighting TERFs on our ground is partly being a good ally to sex workers and bi women as well as defending our own interests.

    In the UK and other countries where there is public funding for trans health care we have to fight to keep it and the major battle is usually with the right, but we had to put pressure on the progressive press to end their infatuation with TERFs so as to be able to do that effectively. They are never the major struggle, but they are usually something we have to keep an eye on.

    These days, it is pretty much standard for trans women to be included in a lot of feminist discourse, but that is something that we had to fight for. As a matter of my personal history, my role as a journalist and quasi-scholar is something where I had to fight for space in places where TERFs threatened hostility to feminists who wanted to include me. In order to work in feminism we have to be able to protect ourselves; I would agree that it does no good to overstate the threat TERFs pose to us, but it’s important not to underestimate it either.

    Currently, there’s their adoption of the toilet issue and the prison issue – these are areas where, by themselves, they have not a hope in hell of negatively impacting trans lives. However, they are cynical enough to exploit a situation where the Right will steal their ideas. Preventing easy access to public space by making it harder for trans people to be safe in bathrooms and changing rooms is a fairly major attack on our ability to exercise most human rights.

    Our major struggle is always going to be with patriarchy, the church, bits of the medical profession, make violence – TERFs sometimes act as Kapos in those struggles, not just informers.

    • says

      (Natalie, if this is the wrong space to ask this question, I apologize. I don’t want to hijack your post. Please let me know if this is inappropriate.)

      rozkaveney, I have a sincere question: What is it about Jeffrey’s position re: sex workers do you find dangerous? (I’m not familiar with Bindel.) I’ve read a couple of her books, and while I think her transphobia is disgusting, I’ve always thought that her position on sex work was reasonable and motivated by a sincere desire to help women in prostitution and pornography.

      I struggle with what to think about sex work…it’s not as simple as just listening to the women involved (which I fully advocate and try to do, especially because I have no personal experience with the sex industry) because there are an awful lot of former sex workers who agree with Jeffreys and are against legalization. Even in Greta Christina’s post asking for stories from former or current sex workers, which obviously put sex work in a positive light, there were responses from women who were against prostitution. I know this is a place where people have strong opinions and disagreements, and I’m not really asking for the pro-sex work argument (I think I have a good handle on that); I’m just curious why you think Jeffrey’s position is dangerous rather than just wrong? Like I said, I’m sincerly trying to figure out my own position on the issue and I don’t want to support or advocate something that actually hurts women when I’m trying to help. Good intentions, road to hell, etc.

      Thank you.

  14. says

    I’ve tended to go through the world not caring all that much about the hateful energy that pours forth from the TERFs or Brennan because I made the determination that I have nothing to fear from them. They cannot out me, for I am out and have put myself far enough out that any old Google search of my name will inevitably discover that I am trans. Good. I want it that way.

    I choose not to interact with their spaces because yelling at walls is a pointless activity. I do not see them as having any power to harm, but I do see anyone who practices in misinformation and hate necessarily bad for the overall well being of the world. But their impact is negligible in the face of much of what you have written about elsewhere and to spend as so many words about their activities begins to legitimize their position to our “acceptance”.

    And so I agree with what you say here, that we need to fight the appropriate battles with the appropriate enemy. But it’s hard when some asshole is shouting names at you to ignore her. It’s not as hard when the asshole in front of you is about to punch you in the face. He’s the one who’s going to leave you well and truly bloody.

  15. Harrow says

    Like most of the other commenters, I agree the TERFs are often (not always) a distraction, a slowly declining wingnut fringe. But I also strongly disagree with much of the rest – the cause of transphobic violence is cissexism and oppositional sexism, and women are as much the cause of that as men. The vast majority of deaths of trans people are suicide, not murder, and bigoted cis women are every bit as responsible for that as men. It is the constant drumbeat of hostility, bullying, exclusion and threats that drives trans people to despair. It treats transphobic cis women as little girls to say that they are merely complicit; rather, it’s the HBSers and trans gatekeepers who are complicit in trans violence.

      • Harrow says

        Given that 41% of trans people attempt (or succeed at) suicide, I think the ratio for the trans* demographic is a lot higher than 3:1. And oppressive cisnormativity is largely to blame for that appalling suicide rate.

  16. says

    You seem to misunderstand the nature of the opposition to the radfem 2012 conference.
    The main point was that as originally constituted it was likely to be illegal under recent legislation. In opposing the conference the trans community was asking people to be aware of the implications, to take a stand against people with a history of hate speech, also illegal in the UK, but very much to see the antidiscrimination laws actually work regardless of who was breaking them. As a result the venue found that they’d been lied to, surmised that the conference was illegal, not to mention extremely unpleasant, and cancelled the booking. The efforts of the trans community also generated a lot of publicity which heightened awareness of trans protective laws as well as letting terfs shoot themselves very visibly in the foot, eg Jeffries near universally denigrated apologia in the guardian.
    Fail to see that as anything but a decisive win, and not simply definable as a conflict with terfs.

  17. says

    Another thought-provoking article!

    The only thing I think I disagree with is the statement that TERFs don’t directly “have blood on their hands”. While I agree that for the most part that may be true, I think that there have almost certainly been instances where TERF actions have led to suicide or life-threatening behavior. Just like I would say that both the school bullies and the school administration that allowed students to torment other kids have blood on their hands when a queer kid (or a fat kid, or the girl that gets labeled a slut, etc.) commits suicide, I think that TERF who either directly torment trans women or contribute to an enviornment that does are also responsible. Emotional violence is still violence, and in my experience (speakig as a fat, queer girl that was tormented and assaulted in school) the physical violence was easier to deal with. When I attempted suicide for the first time, it wasn’t because I wanted the physical pain of being assaulted to stop but because I wanted to end the pain of being hated and ostracized. When I started using drugs, it was to silence the voices in my head, the words I heard over and over like a CD on repeat telling me what a disgusting, useless, waste of air I was.

    On another topic (sorry, I suck at transitions)…

    Personally, I struggle with my feminist identity. When I was younger, raised in a very conservative Evangelical environment, radical feminist writings were what introduced me to feminism (the only feminist books my rural library carried were written in the 70s and early 80s and were almost exclusively radical) and they kept me sane. Before encountering feminism on the internet, I definitely identified as a radfem, proudly. Now, while I still (mostly) have the same outlook on feminism and the patriarchy, and while I still have major disagreements with liberal feminism, I am much more hesitant to identify as a radical feminist because almost all the radfem blogs/tumblers/facebook pages etc. are transphobic. I don’t want to ever signal that I condone the TERF position. But I don’t really have a good solution, beyond just not supporting or linking to TERF writings/organizations and speaking out against transphobia when I can.

    • lisamillbank says

      I’m a transsexual woman and radical feminist, and plenty of my dear friends are also radical feminists. I think radical feminism is essential for women’s liberation, and that includes transsexual women’s liberation. So there’s no conflict as far as I’m concerned! Perhaps the one caveat is that, when to many trans* people, “radical feminist” means “transphobe”, I think it’s kind not to present yourself as someone they can reasonably expect to cause them pain. So it’s kind to be sensitive about what situations to use that phrase in.

  18. rozkaveney says

    EEB Probably not the place but, very quickly, because abolitionist approaches to sex work put sex workers at risk from both punters and police. A significant proportion of trans people do sex work at some point in transition and so they are put especially at risk, My principal objection to both Bindel and Jeffreys on both sex work and trans issues is just this – they only listen to the people they want to listen to and are sure they know more than the people actually involved. I certainly don’t think I have an answer on questions around sex work btw – not that arrogant.

    • says

      Thank you.

      they only listen to the people they want to listen to and are sure they know more than the people actually involved

      That’s one of my biggest concerns. I don’t want to only listen to the voices that support what I already believe…but I also don’t want to ignore other voices that don’t fit the established narrative. Maybe I should just try to be more comfortable with not knowing the answers.

  19. Cara says

    Let me start with where I agree:

    1) Cathy Brennan and her ilk are the smallest of small-time bigots. Brennan is an asshole because she doxes people, but that doesn’t make her any more of a threat than any of the million other bigots on the Internet capable of doing that. No one outside a couple of tiny communities even knows who she is. I bet even most trans people don’t—I didn’t until maybe two years ago, and wish I still didn’t. If at all possible, I want to ignore them.

    2) Radical feminism is a splinter faction of a minority movement. (I wish feminism was mainstream, but look at those poll questions about how many women identify as feminists, and then consider that they’re not even sampling half the population.) I want to ignore TERFs, too.

    3) It’s much better to focus energy on the various defenders of the patriarchy with actual power, many of whom are motivated by religion.

    As for why trans women care so much about TERFs:

    1) I think some of it’s like the Illuminati card, “A heretic is someone who shares ALMOST all your beliefs. Kill him.” No trans woman expects a fundamentalist Christian man to be an ally, but a feminist queer women? The sense of betrayal is more acute.

    2) Outside the queer community, there are many cis people who don’t know much or care about trans people. They often believe cissexist and transmisogynstic things, but in a casual, uncommitted way. The queer community, especially the queer women’s community, is less like this: many more people know something about and have strong opinions, positive or negative, about trans people, especially trans women. This awareness also makes it harder for trans people to be read as cis, which is how many trans people avoid having to deal with transphobes in the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, this combines in an unfortunate way with the small size of the queer women’s community. I don’t care about Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, but I can understand why people do: there are what, half a dozen queer women’s music festivals in the US? Ostracism at the only lesbian bar or bookstore in town or the nominally-LGBT group on campus matters more simply because there aren’t other options, and the dating scene often works the same way. Transphobia in the queer women’s community is a specific problem for queer trans women.

    3) Some TERFs care more about attacking trans women than working against the patriarchy in general. Why does Cathy Brennan spend so much time outing trans people? Why did Janice Raymond bother to write a whole book attacking trans women? I think that TERFs would be better served expending their energy working against the defenders of the patriarchy with real power, but not all of them agree. I don’t think it’s good, but again I understand why trans women under attack from TERFs fight back, even if it’s not optimal.

    And where I disagree:

    1) Talking to trans women about not fighting with TERFs only tackles half the problem. I suspect this particular conflict will never end unless most TERFs also decide to prioritize fighting the patriarchy over hurting trans women, but I don’t know if the TERFs who work against trans women would ever listen to a trans woman saying, “Hey, we both have bigger fish to fry, let’s focus on our common enemies.” I don’t understand why people like Cathy Brennan care so much about trans women. We’re a pretty small percentage of the population, and certainly have no political power to speak of even in the queer community, so every argument I gave about how marginal rad fems in general and TERFs in particular are applies to us too. Thus, I don’t know how to convince them to stop.

    2) I’m a queer trans woman, and I have to spend a lot of mental energy on other queer women who are transphobic, when I’m dating, socializing, writing, or reading. They aren’t my biggest problem, I can ignore them more easily than I can some of the discriminatory laws in the US, but they’re definitely a problem. Is this an aspect of my privilege? Yes. I have lots of privilege, but then the fact that I’m posting this reply on an atheist website in English with a reasonable expectation nothing will happen to me for it means I’m more privileged than most living humans. It also doesn’t make the problem go away.

    3) Anyone who wants to do anything academic, e.g., gender studies, has to deal with the fact that TERFs and their allies actually do have power in that domain, and they sit on grad school admission committees and reappointment and tenure committees, and edit journals. As far as I can tell, the kind of bullshit cis theorizing about trans people TERFs engage in is a big factor in trans people not being able to speak for themselves in academia. I don’t know how much their influence carries over to the kinds of academics with more ability to do damage in the real world, e.g. the editors of the DSM-V.

  20. says

    I dunno, it just seems like you’ve managed to not get kicked out of a safe space or found yourself denigrated because the only trans-subject material was touted by some misguided person espousing as feminism. Or attacked with your gender expression labeled ‘sexual harassment’.

    I dunno. I always want to give these sorts a chance, but even allies can open their mouths and say insulting stuff.

  21. Freddy2013 says

    Speaking of blood on one’s hands, how is your roommate, whom you allowed to nearly bleed to death over a period of multiple days?

  22. says

    This is the first that I’ve seen your blog and I really like what I’ve read thus far. I’ve also found the majority of the comments to be very enlightening. When I was a young person first dealing with bisexuality, early encounters with radical lesbian feminists had a permanently negative effect on my self-image so I really do understand the people who are saying that trans-exclusionist radical feminists are more than a slight problem. On the other hand, I entirely get what you’re saying about the need for a proportional response.

      • says

        Yes, I did get that. I’ve gone backward and read some of your other posts and I’ve been finding them very interesting and personally useful. Really, I have to thank you for writing all this. Trans-issues are something I don’t know much about and I’m not exactly proud of that fact.


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