Challenge trans-exclusion through debate

Submitted by Matthew on 1 June, 2016 - 11:07 Author: Elizabeth Butterworth

The Morning Star has come under fire for publishing two articles written by “trans-critical” / trans-exclusionary feminists.

The first, by Rebecca Riley-Cooper, addresses the issue of women as a class, and the consequences of self-identification in defining gender. She argues that, “…The logical conclusion of shifting our definitions of gender from objective characteristics to inherently subjective and personal ones is that the categories of “man” and “woman” effectively become meaningless. This is not a satisfactory outcome, especially for those who strongly feel that they identify as one particular gender”.

Traditionally, the radical feminist argument goes that, women are oppressed by men, partly (and originally) due to our biology and sex characteristics, but also (latterly, and largely) by the social construct of gender. Riley-Cooper seems to be arguing against the social construct of gender, which is a basic tenet of feminist theory. Radical feminists such as Martha Nussbaum argue that trans-inclusion in mainstream feminism may undermine the struggles of those who are considered biologically female. That is a misguided but somewhat logical line of argument. But Riley-Cooper’s half-baked “questioning” of the consequences of trans-inclusion is poor. As nearly all feminists acknowledge, it’s not just biology that oppresses us: it’s socialisation; the way people perceived as women (regardless of biology) are treated; it’s the expectations placed upon us and the discrimination against us — which trans women experience just as much as cisgender women.

The second article, by Jennifer Duncan, pursues a more rational, though wrong, line of argument. She straightforwardly makes the case for gender roles being separate from biological sex: something trans-inclusive feminists would very largely agree with. After this, though she flips back around to a biological essentialism, arguing that, “The fact that [women] are generally smaller, have less upper-body strength, and can become pregnant makes us physically vulnerable, and we are also vulnerable socially due to widespread sexual abuse of women by men that is based on our female anatomy.”

This line of argument is dangerous in the extreme. Men do not rape women simply because they can or because of our anatomy! Men rape women because they think it’s acceptable to do so. Rape and sexual assault, the normal feminist argument goes (including the normal radical feminist argument), are about power and control, not sexuality. Sexual violence is an abuse of power. This is why the most common victims and survivors are those with less power in society: children, women, LGB people, and trans people, who actually suffer more sexual violence than any other group. Trans women, and trans people generally, are not just our allies and comrades because of the way they identify or because we want to be nice to them, but because they are oppressed by the same forces.

It’s the same people who abuse “sluts” and “trannies” for not conforming.The cognitive dissonance in Duncan’s argument is mind-boggling. It also dangerously ignores the violence experienced by trans people. After the publication of these two articles, a letter was subsequently published with hundreds of signatories, in defence of the Morning Star publishing these articles and praising the newspaper for “giving a platform for a sex-class based analysis of women’s position”. On the other side, there have been accusations of transphobia at the paper and to stop donating to them and buying the paper.

The Morning Star does have the right to publish these articles. The articles were not hate-filled bile, though they are poorly argued and illogical. They also may make trans people feel excluded from our movement. I hope the Morning Star publishes responses from the trans-inclusive feminist movement. The fact that hundreds of people have signed the letter shows that these arguments need to be tackled head-on. If any “trans-critical”/trans-exclusionary feminists reading this would like to engage with me in a public debate, I would be more than willing to do so. We still have a long way to go in understanding gender, sex and class, and how we can overcome the oppression of women. The ideas need to be hashed out and trans-exclusionary thinking should be robustly challenged through debate.