Speaking Truth to Power in the Era of Trans Rights Activism

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Dazed magazine projected the message “REPEAT AFTER US: TRANS WOMEN ARE WOMEN” on London’s Ministry of Justice Building in response to protests by lesbians at London Pride in 2018. The protesters carried signs with messages including “Trans Activists Erases Lesbians” and “A Male Can Never Be A Lesbian.”

It’s been six months since I reached “peak trans,” a term used by the gender-critical feminist community to describe the moment a woman loses faith in trans ideology. It’s been about six months since I found myself unable to give trans activism the no-limits backing it demanded from me if I were to remain a member-in-good-standing of LGBTQ and progressive communities. It’s been six months since, almost overnight, I went from an ally to a bigot, from an advocate to a Nazi. I was a vocal feminist, an out-and-proud lesbian, but, because I couldn’t agree that biological sex was nothing more than a feeling, the rest of it didn’t matter. I was out.

I’m still a little stunned and confused, because, a few years ago, believing that biological sex was real and immutable wasn’t a controversial position. I supported transgender people’s rights to behave and dress as they chose without fear of violence or harassment. (I still do.) I believed that they should be protected from housing or employment discrimination. (I still do.) I supported the use of post-transition names and preferred pronouns. And I assumed that nobody was claiming that transitioning gender literally made a male person female, or a female person male. I was wrong. I was so, so wrong.

Over the course of just a few years, the prevailing position of trans ideology has evolved from being “born in the wrong body” to being “assigned” the wrong sex at birth. According to this theory, bodily characteristics have no bearing on biological sex. If a baby is born and called male, but grows up and decides he is female, then he was always female. He was just incorrectly “assigned” the male sex. But my education is in healthcare, and I understand biology. I love it, in fact. And I know that sex, except in rare intersex cases, isn’t assigned — it’s observed. The appearance of the genitals indicates the correct biological sex of a person nearly all of the time. And a person’s sex impacts countless aspects of their life, including their medical needs and social position. Sex is real, it’s obvious, and it matters. It used to be okay to say that.

I wanted to be a good ally. I did. I reminded myself, again and again, that I can’t know another person’s lived experiences. I asked myself if I “felt like” a woman, but I didn’t. I didn’t feel like a man, either. The thing is, there is no “woman feeling.” There is a collection of physical realities and social expectations and gendered experiences I could point to, but no “sense” of being a woman. I didn’t feel like a woman — I just was one. This is how my biological lot was cast. Still, I tried to err on the side of compassion. I decided then, when in doubt, the right thing to do is to support a group that I was told needed and deserved my support.

It was complicated from the start. The cognitive dissonance alone was overwhelming, but I tried not to think about it too much. I knew trans people, and I didn’t want to hurt them. I wanted them to be happy. My inability to make it all click mentally wasn’t as important as their rights. I read personal stories of trans people’s struggles, their descriptions of gender dysphoria — something a non-trans person can never understand, and therefore must not challenge. I heard about suicide rates, harassment, assault, murder. There was so much reporting about how imperiled transgender people were, and I wanted to do the right thing by them. I wanted to help.

When my state passed HB2, the infamous “bathroom bill,” I railed against it, challenging my more conservative friends and family to really think about how likely it would be for a boy to go through social transition, hormone therapy, and reassignment surgery just to use a restroom. I was quoted in a national news article, speaking about the dangers HB2 posed, not only to trans people, but to gender non-conforming people as well. I did my college senior project on gender-informed healthcare practices. I went to hospitals and taught nurses how to give better care to transgender people. I was all in.

And then the messaging began to change. My Facebook feed filled with new instructions for better trans-inclusivity, and these instructions were aimed almost entirely at women. Talking about women’s bodies was now off-limits. Referring to pregnancy and birth as women’s issues was not okay. Challenging misogynistic role performances by trans women was absolutely forbidden. In short, women were expected to hand over control to trans activists and let them tell us what is and isn’t okay to say (about women), what is and isn’t sexist, and what boundaries we were still allowed to claim. It felt like a major backward step, to say the least.

I read that the pink “pussy hats” (which, for the record, are made to look like cat ears, not vulvas) made popular at the Washington D.C. Women’s March were transphobic, because not all women have pussies, and not all pussies are pink. (The latter objection would become a recurrent theme, that is, lumping together trans issues with racial and ethnic issues.) I read about how the presence of female-to-male trans people were changing the culture of Wellesley College, a prestigious women’s college, leading it to ditch female terminology in favor unisex language and to integrate male-identified people into the culture of the institution and leadership of the student body. It seemed contradictory and unfair to me that allies were expected to treat transmen as men in all ways, while still giving them access to women’s spaces and resources. I read about the theater department of Mount Holyoke, a women’s college, canceling and permanently retiring Eve Ensler’s iconic feminist show “The Vagina Monologues” because, due to its focus on vaginas, it wasn’t trans-inclusive.

Again and again, I read about women moving aside to make way for transwomen. And it didn’t seem to be about making space for diversity. Rather, women were expected to feign ignorance of that diversity (unless a trans person wanted to bring it up, which they often did in order to tell their own stories and advocate for their own issues). This new version of inclusivity required erasure of any speech or policy that could serve as a reminder that biological women existed distinctly from transwomen. Women, as a population, were no longer defined biologically, stripping us of our power to address the needs and oppressions experienced by women because of their biology. Without a meaningful definition of sex, there would be no way to address sexism. The psychological caretaking of transwomen had become more important than the oppression experienced by women worldwide, oppression brought on not by their inner sense of womanhood, but by their reproductive biology, as observed at birth.

And, still, I held on. I figured that, if this was the misogynistic atrocity it seemed to be, others would be calling it out soon. After all, this was the era of #metoo, a time when no one in liberal communities was questioning whether women have a right to personal boundaries, or to advocate for their biological interests. It was 2018. We didn’t minimize the needs of women or the significance of their bodies anymore. Subtle acts of harassment and abuse were called out and condemned. Women’s voices were lifted up; it was a time for women to speak for women, and for men to become allies of our fight for liberation. And so I waited for some public pushback, something to restore balance between the needs of transwomen and the needs of biological women. But it didn’t come.

It was that lack of outcry that ultimately pushed me over the edge. I watched as perfectly reasonable women were harshly shouted down when they voiced concerns. I watched as threats of violence, of rape, were hurled at women who didn’t agree with the central premise of trans ideology — that biological sex was a feeling, not a feature. I read the justifications, the manipulations, and I found them suddenly familiar. They were speaking the language of the male abuser. They were using his tactics. And they had the same disrespect for the dignity, well-being, boundaries, and autonomy of women.

In one awful moment, I realized that this wasn’t about the liberation of a sexual minority or about the peace and safety of societal misfits — it was men finding another way to subjugate and abuse women, by erasing them.

Now women’s activism had to include men’s issues, or be considered transphobic. Women’s spaces could no longer be closed to men. Even something as basic as a woman’s sexual orientation was no longer respected, as transwomen (men identifying as women) called out lesbians for not wanting sex or relationships with them. The term “cotton ceiling” was coined. The cotton was lesbian’s underwear, and it was a ceiling because transwomen had yet to “break through” it. There is nothing feminist about that idea. It opposes everything mainstream feminism has preached about consent for the last decade plus, but the idea stands. It’s supported by liberal and LGBT communities. And it’s not okay.

Maybe, if I’d lived a different life, I’d have been able to hang in with the trans allies. But my history made that impossible. See, a few years ago, I left an abusive marriage. It was really bad, but I stayed for a long time. I spent six years living in that confusion, fear, and despair, struggling to find any answer that could keep my family intact. There was no answer, and eventually I realized that and got free. Before I could do that, though, I had to wake up to what was happening to me. I had to wake up to the reality that someone’s stated feelings and intentions might not be the truth. I had to accept that someone can say they’re on your side even as they casually, knowingly, destroy you. I had to learn to look at the actions and the results, not just the words. And then I had to let the truth matter more than keeping the peace.

I also had to come to the understanding that it mostly wasn’t personal, just a way that some men routinely treat women. God, that was so hard. I had to realize that, if misogyny was the motivator, there was no fix. You can’t work out interpersonal differences with someone who sees you as less of a person than they are, and you can’t appease a narcissist.

The trans rights movement is misogynistic. It’s narcissistic. It doesn’t consider the impact on biological women when it sets policy objectives. It doesn’t reflect on how its portrayal of women is regressive and insulting. It disallows women boundaries, including the right to gather in spaces free of men. It expresses entitlement to women’s spoken allegiance and sexual validation. It degrades women in its speech and actions, and uses violence and intimidation to silence women. This is not a feminist movement, and women are under no obligation to cheer it on or accept it without protest.

I do not accept it.

So, in that vein, I’m going to say a true thing, something I’m not allowed to say. I’m going to say it because no one on earth has the right to stop my speech, or to force me to pretend to believe in a lie. I’m going to say it because my words, like my body, belong to me; no one has the right to constrain them. So, on the record:

Transwomen are men. Men cannot become women. They can choose to change their appearances to look more like women, and they can affect stereotypically feminine dress and mannerisms, but they were born male and will remain male for their whole lives.

Because transwomen are men, their actions and demands must be examined and considered in the same light as any other man’s. If a transwoman insists that a woman talking about her own body is unacceptable, then we must respond to that insistence the way we would if any other man had done so. If a transwoman demands the right to women’s platforms, the right to speak for women, we must respond the way we would if any other man made such a demand. If a transwoman claims the right to occupy women’s spaces and consume their limited resources, that claim must not be considered different from one made by a man who didn’t first claim to be female.

Men are trampling the rights of women and getting away with it by claiming to be women. This is absurd and unacceptable. Speaking out right now is worth the loss of my community and my friends, because I can’t quietly watch millions of women and girls be abused by men as the progressive and LGBT communities cheer them on. I struggled for years to get free of my male abuser. I won’t accept this abuse again for myself or my sex.

It’s my right not to accept it, and it’s yours, too.

Written by

Writer, mother, lesbian, and healthcare professional advocating for mental healthcare reform, victims of domestic violence, and the rights of women and girls.

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