The Invisible Woman: Gender Identity in the Age of Neoliberalism
Several years ago, while a professor in my final year at New York University, a friend asked me to do underground restaurant reviews in New York City for several of his restaurants in the Village, Chelsea and the Financial District. For this job I would show up at each of these restaurants once a week, bringing a guest if I wished, and I could order anything I wanted free of charge. In exchange I would critique everything from the food, to the service, to the cleanliness of toilets and silverware. This opportunity came at a convenient time in my life, since having a meal prepared for me four times a week afforded me the luxury of not only eating incredibly great food gratis, but I could use the time saved from shopping and cooking to write, prepare lectures, and even have dinner with a friend.
I would show up to each of these restaurants for four different meals a week and was surprised to see the effect of my presence, as I would wait at the front of the restaurant for the host. I would wait well over a few minutes and sometimes the staff would see me and smile only to continue their tasks and if while waiting, a single man, several men, or a man and woman would enter, invariably, the host would rush to the front of the restaurant and seat them first. This did not happen once, but occurred most of the time in the months of my conducting these reviews. I was immediately struck by how I was rendered invisible, though I exist, standing at the front desk, waiting to be seated. Those people who looked up at me didn’t see a whole person — they smiled out of politesse and continued working without bothering to see if I wanted to be seated simply because they assumed that I had a male figure to complete me who was about to join me at any moment. And from these my experiences of reviewing these restaurants over many months, it hit me how our society views male bodies. Not only are these bodies noticed immediately with radar-like precision and that people — both male and female — scamper to serve them, but male bodies are quickly attended to with the velocity of an urgent seismic crisis, even to the detriment of the female who stares at this spectacle passing before her eyes in disbelief. Disbelief simply because she had arrived five minutes earlier and was waiting patiently to be seated.
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.
It is not that my experiences being overlooked while doing underground reviews were the first types of these experiences I had faced in my life — they were not. It is not that they were traumatizing. Clearly these are mere moments of erasure where any woman would be happy to be, finally, ignored instead of being stalked, beaten, or murdered. It was more that the repetition of these experiences sparked something inside me which allowed me to reckon with the memories of oppression I had been groomed to compartmentalize, never to discuss, because ours is the mission of moving forward, of building bridges, and of accommodating others through our silence. You know, team player and what not. I was fortunate to have the personal characteristics of intellect and humour to draw upon throughout my life such that even when reviewing these restaurants, in the more egregiously offensive moments of being completely ignored, my wit allowed me to manoeuvre the awkward moments. Once, when I brought a female friend for dinner, the sexism was so painfully obvious as two men who rushed through the restaurant’s front door, pushing us to the side, were immediately seated before us, that my dinner guest and I finally made a bet as to how long it would take for us to be sighted, much less seated. And yes, we had a laugh. But this particular experience forced me to rethink my past allowing me to reflect upon the many ways in my own life where I was rendered less than a subject. Where my existence was incidental to the males around me for whom I was merely a backdrop.
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.
Skip to 2016 and Caitlyn Jenner 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.
Then there was last year’s bathroom issue in North Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere which has not only been framed as a liberal versus conservative issue, it has been recast into a Civil Rights era circa 1960 issue with some rather troubling parallels drawn between this current debate regarding which toilets transgender persons are to use and the separation of black and white water fountains. If you read the more conservative papers, the assumption is that transgender persons are — each and every one — predators who will rape women and children. If you read the liberal papers, anyone who even questions the plausibility of male violence are regarded as pearl-clutching “feminazis,” the underlying assumption being that men are only violent if they form part of ISIS. The dark-skinned male “over there” argument is largely how western societies avoid dealing with their own internalized racism and sexism. It is an unhappy coincidence for females in the west that the neo-colonial other is that of her Muslim sister in hijab. It is only then, that the western subject can easily accord oppression and violence towards men.
Skimming over liberal media these past months, the assumption is that anyone who might have an issue with a transgender person in their toilet is necessarily a Bible-thumping bigot from the south. This perception is not only the result of vast oversimplifications, but is a conscious misrepresentation of the facts before us. As much as HB2 is a hateful, bigoted law which is serving as a smoke screen to erase other economic capabilities, the Department of Justice’s position is just as wrong. If we didn’t know that women were third-class citizens before, we should definitely know it now.
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.”
This narrative, wherein gender is medicalized in order to silence one half of the population and wherein biological differences (and the way those differences factor into the system of patriarchy) are now considered to be fictions, is an MRA’s dream. The result of efforts to “broaden the definition of woman” is that, now, anyone can be a woman, but actual women can no longer speak of their oppression or their bodies. Identitarians (those who hinge their subjectivity to identity politics) have attempted to remedy their feeling “excluded” by subverting women’s political movements and the language through which women describe their realities. One of the recent attempts to re-define woman was the U.S. women’s strike platform, which prioritises transgender women over women of colour in its statement of violence against women and promotes the reproductive rights “for all women, cis and trans.” Of course, transwomen are male so clearly have no concerns about reproductive rights. Prioritizing males over females in the name of women’s rights is anything but subversive. Rather, it’s age old misogyny.
Nobody knows this more steadfastly than BBC Radio 4 presenter, Jenni Murray, whose piece this past weekend in The Sunday Times, “Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman,’” sparked an uproar, resulting in Murray being disciplined by the BBC. Her “crime”? According to the BBC, Murray was not “impartial” on a “controversial subject.” Critiquing various misinterpretations within transgender discourse, Murray debunked the pseudoscience of “male” and “female” brains, touched upon the tumultuous political climate which prevents medical practitioners from speaking frankly on this subject, and described the gradual institutional erasure of the word “woman” from medical praxis.
Additionally, Murray addresses the phenomenally abusive misinterpretation of Simone de Beauvoir’s infamous quote from The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” In writing this, de Beauvoir did not mean that makeup and dresses could make a male into a woman, but rather that the imprinting of social, political, and economic expectations onto the female body and psyche throughout a lifetime are such that women are pressured into a pre-formed mould. In short, Murray’s “sin” was to show that transgender women are not female, but are males with a lifetime of privilege.
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.
Certainly anyone with a modicum of humanity would be compassionate towards the plight of transgender persons and their struggles with gender dysphoria. I cannot claim to understand what these individuals go through — I do not pretend to. Yet, the bathroom issue has brought up a pivotal issue about the vulnerability of two groups of people: transgender persons and females. Problematically, the discourse surrounding this matter today discards entirely the rights of females (despite paying constant lip service to women’s rights). From the right, explanations of the sacredness of the family persist, while from the left we are told that any woman who objects to males in women’s washrooms is some sort of paranoid prude (oddly, while producing videos that show how easy it is for men to urinate in a toilet with other males). Within all this, the media refuses to honestly address the issue, wholly ignoring what feminists are saying,
As Andrea Dworkin explains in her 1978 book, Right Wing Women, men on the right think women are private property, whereas men on the left assume women are public property. But this still leaves women in the awkward position of being owned and disenfranchised of their own thoughts and voice simply because taking a position on this thorny subject means the public castigation of those who dare state the obvious. This punishment can range from ad hominem attacks to complete misrepresentations and hyperbole, to no-platforming, firing, and smearing, as we see time and time again.
In an article published at Counterpunch last year, Elizabeth West presents women’s fear of sexual assault as not only irrational, but completely baseless, and mistakenly claims that there is no evidence to support women’s concerns about male violence in their bathrooms and locker rooms.
In defense of this, West cites an outdated and badly executed report from Media Matters that claims to have “debunked the right wing myth that sexual predators will exploit transgender non-discrimination laws to sneak into women’s restrooms.” This report is flawed for a number of reasons. First, it assumes sexual assault is the most prevalent form of sexual violence committed against females. In truth, the more prevalent sexual crimes enacted towards women are voyeurism, masturbation, and exhibitionism — acts that happen with well-documented frequency everywhere from public toilets to public transport. Second, the states that have gender identity laws still maintain the same protections for sex-segregation specifically written into these statutes as other states without gender identity laws. It was only the 2016 DOJ interpretation of the law which conflated sex with gender. Sex-based protections would have been subordinated to gender identity under Obama’s proposed changes to Title IX, but this was not yet the case. So the fact that these states report no sexual assaults in bathrooms since the gender identity laws passed is not testament to the efficacy of these laws, as argued in the Media Matters report, but rather of the sex-segregation statutes.
Asking for these spaces to be safeguarded does not mean that there is an assumption that all those who identify as transwomen are predatorial. We also don’t assume all men are predators. The fact remains that the violent crime rate of transwomen is not only many times higher than that of females, but is at the same rate as other males. Indeed, the documented reality of violence perpetrated against women in and out of bathrooms by men who identify as trans demonstrates this. Consider the cases of Kayleigh Woods, who brutally murdered Bethany Hill; serial rapist Lisa Hauxwell; and Davina Ayrton, who sexually assaulted a 15 year old girl. And there are many more such cases.
Although West talks the reader through some statistics about violence towards women, she she completely downplays the issue, writing: “[P]eople with otherwise good minds are letting go the tethers of their intelligence and plunging headlong into the arms of those who are intentionally whipping up this particular twister of fear.” In other words, we need not get caught up in paranoid and irrational fears based on, er, reality?
The sad reality of women throughout the world today is that we are vulnerable to violences of all sorts, overwhelmingly at the hands of males, exclusively because of our sex.
West further demonstrates her lack of credibility, as she is either genuinely ill-informed or simply chooses to misrepresent feminist analysis, by attempting to pass off gender criticism as inherent, not to feminist ideology, but to transgender ideology. She writes, “Transgender people, by their very existence, must strike terror into the hearts of those whose identities are built on an external framework.” But the external framework which informs gender is exactly what feminists decry. It really doesn’t matter how we identify or how many times we click our ruby slippers together and utter magic identitarian mantras, nothing about the violence enacted towards us changes. But instead of taking violence towards women seriously, West urges us not to worry our little heads with these matters because ecological disaster looms.
Paradoxically, some of the same people who support the notion of “gender identity” are seeking to enforce sex-segregated spaces by refusing a third, gender-neutral space. (This is in spite of the fact that there have not been any incidences of transgender women being attacked in male toilets to date.) The only solution offered is the one wherein females are expected to be the sex that accommodates male violence. This is a political game of “hot potato,” wherein women have been thrown the potato, and are expected (as per usual) to nurture these transgender persons in search of a homeland.
The separation of space for intimate somatic practices is a long-standing tradition that is as rooted in the sensual as it is safety. Any woman who has lived in the Arab world has likely witnessed the scene where the mother of a young boy she has been bringing to the hammam is informed that this boy is now too old to enter in this woman’s space because of how he looks at women. There is a respect of women’s spaces in many cultures that is bizarrely being challenged in some Western societies despite the absence of critique towards the myriad all-male spaces.
Most troubling of all, I have seen zero discussion in mainstream media that addresses the actual problem: male violence. Why has no government committee or the DOJ mandated an investigatory panel to answer the simple question: why can’t men stop being violent towards gender non-conforming males and women?
West implores those who have rational disagreements about trans politics to “let go of being right;” the assumption being that this issue is decided a priori and that “debate” is only about stubborn individuals who just can’t “move on.” I suppose she believes we should all simply “move on” from the reality that women are attacked at far higher rates than the roughly 300,000 documented cases each year, since only 68 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police. In her response, West repeats what many media reports tell us: that women shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about males in their washrooms and changing spaces because 80 per cent of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victims. Such posturing is deeply troubling since the purpose of having separate washrooms and changing rooms for women is so that females can use these facilities without fear of the 20 per cent… When you are raped, you really don’t give a shit about odds. And when you live in rape culture, these facts matter as much to any women as telling a black man in Ferguson, Missouri that Darren Wilson was only one police officer of many.
The reality of sexism, like racism, is that these structures are perpetrated and bolstered through seemingly “random” acts of violence which are in fact not random at all, but instead are completely woven into the fabric of who is seen and heard, and who isn’t. There is power in the hegemonic structures which inform oppressed individuals that it is all in their heads.
Like so many others, West relies on the playbook of made-up facts which abound on transgender advocacy websites, consisting of largely fake statistics about everything from the 41 per cent attempted suicide rates which have been largely debunked, to the fiction that transgender women do not aggress females, to the very troubling statistics of the murder of transgender women which West neglects to clarify. For instance, the significant fact of these murders is not that these individuals were transgender, but that almost every single transwoman killed in 2015 in the USA was of colour and at least five were prostituted. Both of these demographic components (prostitutes and males of colour) suffer discrimination and violence at extraordinarily high rates, a fact that does not make the murder of these persons any less horrific or real. But it does put into perspective the arguments for transgender inclusion in women’s spaces given the media obfuscation of crimes against people of colour and prostitutes.
Given the skewed media representations of violence towards transgender women, one could easily surmise that transgender women are murdered at a higher rate than men. But this could not be further from the truth. In the US, FBI statistics and TDOR show that in 2014 the murder rate for the general population was one in 26,658; for transgender persons one in 95,657, for women one in 60,418, and for men one in 16,967. (See table for the range of adjusted figures.) This means that the rate of violence towards transgender persons is significantly lower than for all other groups — the general population, women, and men. These numbers are based on the more conservative figure from the Williams Institute (2011), which says trans people make up 0.3 per cent of the general population. If we were to use the 0.5 per cent figure embraced by many transgender organisations, (via a 2012 statewide health survey conducted in Massachusetts), the murder rate of transgender persons would be one in 159,429, a figure emphatically lower than that of the general population as well as than the demographics of women and men. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that the percentage of those who declare themselves transgender and non-binary is higher than either 0.3 per cent or 0.5 per cent, as a recent estimate conducted by Lloyds Bank discovered that 1.0375 per cent of its UK staff “identify” as such. Similarly, the most recent Williams Institute report (2016) estimates that 0.6 per cent of American adults identify as transgender with geographical prevalence, such as the District of Columbia (2.8 per cent), and the age group of 18–24 year olds far more likely than older age groups to identify as transgender.
There are similar misrepresentations being made by some transgender advocates who prioritize the vulnerability of transgender persons over the rest of the population. Contrary to what so many claim, rates of transgender suicide do not significantly vary from other sectors of the general population and rates of transgender bullying are even lower than other more vulnerable populations. While there are some transgender advocates who are more honest about the lack of evidence for the alleged suicide attempt rate of 40 per cent which has been bandied about, to write that transgender persons who have been bullied face a higher risk of suicide than others is patently untrue when the rates of attempted suicide are extremely high among bullied teenagers, in general.
Not insignificant is the general distress among youth, which reveals an incredibly high rate of self-harm and eating disorders. In Britain, 47 per cent of young people want to radically change their appearance through various types of surgery. The current hyper-focus on transgender youth in the media teeters perilously at shifting the concern of self-harm and suicide to a certain small, highly politicized demographic when, in fact, there are many groups that experience very high levels of self-harm and suicide, such as 25 per cent of autistic children. In 2015, Girlguiding UK found that self-harming was one of the biggest health concerns for girls aged 11–21, followed by mental illness, cyber-bullying, and depression.This study also shows that 46 per cent of girls aged 17–21 have struggled with mental health issues. Considering that almost two-thirds of young lesbian, gay, and bisexual children have experienced homophobic bullying at school, one must wonder why media focuses almost exclusively on transgender youth. Statistics in Britain show that 45 per cent of young people (aged 13–25) experience bullying by the age of 18, with females being bullied at almost the same levels as transgender youth; gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth being bullied at a higher rate than transgender youth; and those living in poverty and the disabled bullied at higher rates compared to transgender youth. Additionally, UK’s Anti-Bullying Alliance shows that over 90 per cent of parents to children with Asperger Syndrome “reported that their child had been bullied in the previous 12 months” and “83 per cent of young people with learning difficulties have suffered bullying.”
I don’t cite these statistics to silence the important discussions about the bullying of transgender persons, but it is vital to show how the disproportionate amount of media attention to trans issues is drawn from the larger very real problem of the bullying of all teens in countries like the UK and the US. Cherry-picking mental health statistics in order to dismiss the voices of women who express legitimate concern for their safety, in an age when being transgender no longer involves medical transition, but simply a “feeling,” seems to be yet another way to ignore the reality of violence against women.
The current media and social hysteria surrounding transgender persons is functioning to create unnecessary bogeymen of transgender lives which are posited as more cherished than the lives and the rights of women and girls. One only need look in the comment sections of articles in the liberal press to see the monolithic levelling of female voices and the concerted ridicule of anyone who dares to say that identity politics erasing the physical body poses a problem for the material reality of females.
The deeper question to ask here — and I sincerely wonder why West and other liberal writers, to include many on the far left, do not conjure this possibility — is this: why is the debate about transwomen’s access to bathrooms never about making men’s bathrooms safe for gender non-conforming men? Rather than foist males into female spaces, why not demand male spaces be made safe for other males? Now I know what you are going to say: “These transgender women are not men!” But isn’t the core argument about identity politics that identity is interior, not exterior? Yet, here we are again mired by conflicting arguments where this “inner sense” of gender identity must now be matched by an external, even sartorial, representation of the “real woman.” It is as if females are magically supposed to know if a male coming into their space is sincerely transgender or just a predatory male. And I do not mean that dress makes the woman (this is largely what transgender advocates are performing despite a discourse which attempts to say the inverse). But if the signs of being a woman are accorded only through coiffure and vestiture, women have no hope to understand their own vulnerability aside from the physical markers that an anatomically male face and body presents to the female subject.
To read West’s article, one would surmise that transgender women are somehow less a threat to women than any other male. Of course, nobody assumes that transgender women are largely sexual predators. Nobody assumes that men are. But women reasonably protect themselves with the knowledge that there is a percentage of males who do attack women and it is entirely women’s business how they protect themselves and conceive of their protection, to include worrying about spaces they assume to be safe for states of undress. (I know, I know, there we go rationalizing independently of males who would rather tell us what to think.) To read West’s condescending words to women, we are advised to turn our attention to rapes that occur in other spaces, yet she gives no recognition to the fact that overwhelmingly the rape of women is committed by males. Or that we owe no male the good faith that this specific individual — trans or not — will not rape. And why should we, when the umbrage of transgender women reads very much like that of men, such as former Cambridge politician Sarah Brown who told a blogger last year, “Suck my formaldehyde pickled balls.” One thing about instinct that serves women well is that we can sense male entitlement no matter under which identificatory name it calls itself.
Asking that people stop excluding and start embracing, West uncovers sentiments which trumpet the feel-good narrative of a Coca-Cola commercial without the least consideration for her fellow women who are not at all raving paranoid lunatics, heartlessly bent on killing transgender folks (if you read Twitter or Reddit this might be a foregone predetermination). Exclusion is a term that is frequently tossed around and aimed specifically at women these days, especially utilised to denigrate women who say, “No.” Just look at the derogatory term TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) which is intended to shut down any woman who dare open her mouth on this subject. TERF is the 21st century replacement for “witch” and “cunt,” terms borrowing the historical ethos of putting females in “their place.” The act of calling women who have rational thoughts in their head “exclusive” is nothing short of ironic since the only people being excluded from discussions about these spaces and the very terms for discussing their safety are women, not transgender persons.
Women on the left, like myself, have had a shocking wakeup call to find that most of our comrades have zero concern in looking out for our interests. While article after article appears in conservative media outlining hyperbolic stories about men who talk about protecting “their women and daughters” from male “predators” in toilets, evoking images of the wild west and the damsel in distress, media on the left is no better. The left has taken to eliminating completely the voices of women from this discussion while mocking any woman who might have a reasonable concern about self-identifying transgender women in their spaces, when today more and more transgender women are presenting entirely as men without any form of exterior means for women to understand if their safety is being encroached or not. Is this to say that Danielle Muscato should not be free to call herself a transgender women? Of course not! But if women have to prepare for males who look like Muscato coming into their changing room and toilets, then our only means to self-protections — our instincts about what transgresses healthy boundaries — are erased. While nobody holds a membership card to the woman club, the only modicum of power women have today is that to defend themselves, to say, “No,” in clear and loud tones in situations where they can feel potentially endangered. Contrary to West’s assertion, feeling endangered is far from irrational as the entirety of human history demonstrates that women have had no say in their own somatic autonomy. At no point in history is this clearer today when, on the one hand Boko Haram is making sexual slaves of females who I am sure would love to identify their way out of the gang rapes they live through on a daily basis, and on the other, women in online forums are being told to STFU, that their concerns for their own corporeal safety is nothing short of transphobic and illusory. [Fun fact: females are put through the bootcamp of sexism from birth and they are quite equipped to use their rational capacities to judge for themselves when a situation might endanger them.] What a litmus test of women’s rights today that our abilities to voice concern are either entirely dismissed or worse, not even considered. The images evoked by media of men who want to protect “their wives and daughters” and the more interesting critiques of gender stereotypes coming from the right, even if entirely problematic for other reasons, at least acknowledges our existence.
West speaks of fear as if she has never had anything to fear, which I strongly suspect is a rhetorical device for her essay. She writes: “And many of us, we are frightened: building walls, banning people from the US based on their faith–to name just two of these whirlwinds–denote a madness, a profound disconnection from the innate capacity of human intelligence to analyze and solve the problems we face.” This is a bad faith argument whereby West conflates the reasonable fear of violence — which women actually do face regularly from verbal abuse to the more egregious and fatal — with the right-wing fears of Mexicans, viruses, Islamophobia which are based on projections and inaccuracies. The problem with rhetorical devices which attempt to conflate reasonable fear from fictive constructions thereof is that their skeletons are readily visible. The right makes similar arguments taking West’s invocation of ecological disaster as a fear mongering. The fact of male violence against females is largely absent from West’s discussion and, as per the usual cultural tropes of such violence, women’s bodies are once again naturalized as the site of collateral damage of social normalcy. To transpose this scenario onto Ferguson once again, were rape and violence against women taken with any amount of gravity in our society, there be a 24/7 protest of all social and political structures stretching far beyond law enforcement — such protests would be literally everywhere, to include the domestic sphere.
Fear is born from a repeated exposure to others who systemically abuse power. For instance, it was commonplace for people during Argentina’s Dirty War never to walk directly in front of a police station as there were incidents of individuals being killed for this infraction. The fear of seeing police officers or police stations was not “irrational.” Fear is resultant from systems and people which dehumanize and violate the other simply because they can. We all know people — to include perhaps ourselves — who fear the police, for instance, because of the possible harm they might inflict simply because of how we look. Paradoxically, current cultural politics of the left would not dare to instruct those who suffer racism and have a rational distrust and fear of the police to “chill.” Yet throughout the media, article after article abounds abrogating the rights of females to discuss their discomfort about males in their intimate spaces.
Females are rendered unimportant as subjects in a society where we contribute most of the labour and where we not only receive far less remuneration or recognition for our efforts, but our legal and political rights to evoke violence made towards us means that 98% of rapists never see the inside of a prison and now, apparently, that the fact of sexual violence towards women is a joke, our unfounded collective delusion. Just ask Bill Cosby. Women are discriminated against on the basis of the material reality of our bodies and nowhere more evident is this than social media. The pervasive condemnation of any female who dares reference female biology is called “cissexist” and “transphobic,” women are given pedantic media lessons about how to “be inclusive when discussing abortion,” and the Block Bot which is basically a blocking protocol for Twitter which began as a means of creating a “safe space,” but which has turned into a tool to target and bully women into silence. Then in a rather surreal turn of events a production of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues” was cancelled January 2015 at Mount Holyoke College because it was “not ‘inclusive’ enough to those who identify as women but do not have vaginas.” Transgender advocate, Jos Truitt, wrote one of the more odious and homophobic pieces out there which states that lesbians have no need to worry about pregnancy. (This assumption is the quintessence of male privilege in an illusory world where women are not raped!) Even the right of females to be mentioned in clinics designated to deal specifically with female bodies such as the New York Abortion Access Fund which voted to remove the word “women” in relation to pregnancy (so as not to exclude anyone), are steadily coming under attack by many feminists, to include Wendy Brown. When American actor, Martha Plimpton, attempted to raise funds for a Texas abortion clinic in 2014, she was called “transphobic” for including the word “vagina” in her Tweets.
It is now considered transphobic to use the colloquial “lady parts.” And in April 2015, a transgender contributor for the New York Times was accused by wife, Jennifer Marie Russo, of rape and physical and emotional violence. Then November 2015, after a BBC journalist talked about how she didn’t want to have children, she not only had to shut down her Twitter account, the BBC had to send a security guard to protect her! And there are those within the transgender community have abused their power with the media to create and publish sexist and homophobic memes about women, replete with the minutiae of misogyny that women can and do recognize as emanating from those with a vested interest in reinforcing patriarchal preeminence. And over the past year alone several articles set out to create a fiction that males can menstruate while specifically instructing women to shut up about their bodies: “4 Ways to Make Your Period-Positivity More Inclusive,” “Why We Must Stop Calling Menstruation A ‘Women’s Issue,’”and “You complain about your period, but trans women would give anything for your pain” with the subtitle, “I’ve never had a period, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a real woman.” Even the language of the vagina has been co-opted with Human Rights Campaign publishing a guidance on the language of gender setting aside the term, “vagina” to mean the neo-vagina surgically constructed for some transwomen, white the vagina of females is referred to as a “front hole.” And La Leche League in the US and Canada have taken to shaming women into not using the word “breast” for fear of alienating transmen writing that they “Welcome all who are looking for help with human milk feeding.” Yup, you can’t even make this shit up!
A British receptionist was sent home in December 2015 by her employer for failing to wear high heels. A new law was passed recently in India which requires women to mourn their foetus. French female current and former ministers, among whom is Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund and France’s former finance minister, have just signed a document decrying the sexual harassment they have experienced. Go figure if some of the most powerful women in the world experience sexual harassment and are barely taken seriously, how are less powerful women able to have their grievances heard? Women are being skooled, derided, trolled and harassed all because of how they discuss their lives, live their realities, exercise their bodies. It should come as no surprise that the mandate by the Department of Justice, mirroring unconsciously or not, the aggression of male entitlement, insisting that, once again, females accommodate male needs is felt deeply by women who have been conditioned since birth to work more, to be brutalized for the coincidence of their birth sex, and ultimately told to shut up about the violent repercussions of their anatomy. But it does come as a surprise to so many males who gleefully live their lives in complete control of their environments — personal and professional, political and intimate, structural and biological. That women evoke their pain is already pre-ordained as unacceptable. We were created in order to suffer, or so goes the misogyny underlying much of the current gender doxa.
And if things are not crazy enough, science is up for grabs. Those who have read Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex (1989), Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991), and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) are committing vast misreadings of these texts, none of which disprove human sexual dimorphism, claiming, essentially, that, “Butler told me do it”. One post-doctoral fellow in Systems Biology from NYU wrote me on Facebook that “Science is…not a science”. With anti-rationalist thinking such as this, it is no wonder that Alan Sokal was able to publish his infamous essay in 1996, duping a good number of humanities scholars. But in the process of debunking what is largely credited to flimsy research and postmodern theory, women’s rights and existence have been forgotten in the process.
Even the psychoanalytic critic, Jacqueline Rose, has offered her views on transgender identity in her article, “Who do you think you are?” analyzing the sentiment of transgender “being,” through an evaluation of the language of embodiment for the transsexual subject, asking, “The question of embodiment therefore brings another with it. Does the transsexual woman or man, in her or his new identity, count as real?” Taking pot-shots at the arch-nemesis of transgender theorists, Janice Raymond (whom she actually calls a TERF), Rose argues that the experience of a transgender person ought to count as “real” as she conveniently avoids at all cost throughout her essay, any engagement with the material. Identity is illusory, buttressed by the narrative of “woman,” as Rose leans upon the language of desire — from Chelsea Manning’s admission to becoming “the woman [she has] always been,” to Jennifer Finney Boylan’s “It is not about who you want to go to bed with, it’s who you want to go to bed as,” and Kate Bornstein’s, “Never fuck anyone you wouldn’t wanna be.” Glossing over these quotes’ stunning cooptation of “woman” and the exercise of patriarchal modalities whereby woman is something one imagines, goes to bed with, and fucks, Rose then goes on to ask: “Does the transsexual woman or man, in her or his new identity, count as real?” Well obviously, especially if what one is what one fucks, right?
Rose departs altogether from a psychoanalytic approach to this subject, positing that anyone critical of gender is necessarily questioning the “clarity” that the transgender person ostensibly achieves through cultivating a gender identity and undergoing physical transition. On the one hand Rose posits the “real” which has no material basis, steeped in the language of identity, and on the other, she positions the body born of technological chiselings. Rose analyses Susan Stryker’s position that the transgender body a is a technological construction of parts sewn together defying the myth of “nature in a pure state.” However, Rose ends up confirming, quite uncritically, the the very terms of the ideas she critiques:
For those who, on the other hand, see transgenderism as a challenge to such clarity, the last thing it should do is claim to be the answer to its own question, or pretend that the world has been, could ever be, put to rights. This is simply a normative delusion, exacerbated by a neoliberal world order that offers itself as the only true dispensation and which now more or less covers the earth — rather like Scientology, of which Bornstein was a paid-up member in what we might call her formative years.
In slamming what she views as a neoliberal environment, Rose ends up invoking and even praising such a milieu. What could be more neoliberal, more fundamentally capitalist than to nurture a climate where females are not only cheap, but where they are driven by social and political forces to change their noses, breasts, labia, menstruation, and now, as we have learned just recently, to transition to become boys at greater numbers than ever before! Rose claims that the “new identity” not only counts as real, but is buttressed by the physical transformation that Stryker extols. Indeed, Rose has done patriarchy’s toil here in informing women that anyone can become even more woman than they and then be put under scrutiny as being functional components of a techno-patriarchal system. The interpretation of woman as “cis” is integral to woman being rendered as a hodgepodge of pieces to mix and match, her body equally functioning as part of a neoliberal world order where she is turned into the mirror of the other, where her story only matters inasmuch as she suffers less than those transgender subjects who truly suffer (or who just excel at suffering). It is breathtaking to see Rose not only mow down women in her complete denial of their inner lives, but women are entirely incidental to Rose’s consideration.
Instead of hearing women’s thoughts and concerns about their safety in bathrooms and changing areas possibly lending them the benefit of a doubt that they might not be axe-wielding, Birkenstock-wearing, lesbian separatists intent on having the entire world listen to only Melissa Etheridge, we are given shoddily written pieces which compare this discussion with “segregation” replete with images of lunch counters and segregated toilets in the Deep South. I cannot think of a more vulgar and inaccurate comparison. During segregation, there was a deeply violent and factious oppression of blacks in the United States which split people along the lines of colour, not on the lines of the colour they identified as. The end to segregation sought to bring about a society where everyone could access public services regardless of their skin colour. The end to segregation was not pivoted upon the demand to access separated for legitimate safety reasons (ie. nobody was asking to enter arsenals), nor was the end to segregation based on the demand that we see black people as white. Moreover, blacks did not have an extremely long history of victimizing whites. White fear was irrational. Males have a long history of victimizing women; so the fear of females towards males is simply not irrational. To quote a friend who commented recently about these comparisons of the current bathroom wars to segregation of the Deep South, “This really has more in common with whites who babble about ‘reverse racism’.”
What is compelling, are the facts that the media is not representing. Here is a brief list. Most of those companies which have critiqued North Carolina in response to HB2 still collaborate with other countries where homosexuality is not only illegal, but in countries where it is punishable by death (ie. Paypal, Bank of America). Add to this the citations of made up facts by Media Matters (above) regarding a fictional non-existence of sexual predators in the toilets, the previously invented statistics of suicide and murder rates, and the silence about transgender women who have a history of sexual assault against women, that women are being forced to accept these fictions above the ability to voice their thoughts regarding their safety is scandalous. Also troubling is that nobody is asking why transgender issues have been catapulted on a daily basis into the media spotlight in excess of anything that women’s rights or gay rights has ever accomplished. When you trace the money, however, it becomes clear that what is called transgender identity looks more like a transgender political lobby with millions of dollars coming from some major foundations with vested political interests. And there is a convenient silence about how male spaces are never presented this challenge to inclusion. In “What is gender, anyway?” Sarah Ditum notes how in the current climate which is pushing for every person to be treated as they “identify” pressures uniquely women — not men — to concede their safe spaces, noting, “Campaigns for trans men to be transferred to male prisons are rare to the point of non-existence.”
I saw a meme recently on social media reading: “Why are transwomen’s fears of male violence in bathrooms justified, but women’s fears of male violence in bathrooms are mocked and derided as mean, phobic, and bigoted?” It goes without saying that transgender persons should have all the protections as any other human. That I even have to state this is, quite frankly, pathetic, as such truisms evidence the hyperbole surrounding female bodies and voices. Yet, this is where we are today where females cannot critique gender constructs or gendered feelings without the exaggerations of the world being cast her way such that the defence of female bodily safety is tantamount to murder and transphobia. There are gender critical transgender women who likewise receive the same taunts, being called TERF, told to die for stating that gender is a harmful social construction. Some of the more vociferous critiques to the silencing of women and the control of language are emerging from within the transgender community itself. Transgender icon and Warhol superstar, Jayne County, after having been banned from Facebook for using the words “shemale” and “tranny” receiving death threats for her defence of language, penned a brilliant response. Likewise drag star, Rupaul, was called out for using the word “tranny” in 2014 and has similarly fought back on what he terms as a lobby being advanced by “stupid people.”
What is palpable today is the constant chipping away of female bodily autonomy in the United States where one form of somatic erasure (abortion) is an anodyne subject for the likes of Obama and Springsteen, while the idea that something as subjective and arbitrarily identifiable as “gender identity” is currently being foisted upon females in the name of human equality. Victoria Smith, in “The right way for women to disappear,” analyses the paradox surrounding how females are positioned in terms of identity: “According to the official narrative, anorexia is at best mental illness, at worst vanity; transness, on the other hand, is politically radical, unquestionably authentic and quite incomprehensible to “the cis”.” Drawing a comparison between how anorexia and gender dysphoria are framed discursively, Smith notes the ever increasing numbers of young females in the UK who are being diagnosed with gender dysphoria, analyzing the views of clinical psychologist, Dr. Bernadette Wren, who posits that technological advancements that allow for young people to erase their bodies should be embraced. To this Smith addresses the hypocrisy between how transgender and female bodies are addressed:
A woman who starves puberty into remission is sick, so sick you can section her, decree her officially incapable of knowing what her own body needs. One who drugs puberty into remission is not sick; she is, on the contrary, a mystic emissary from Planet Gender. Her — his, their — word is law. A woman who, like me, tries to kill herself because no amount of starvation will make her breasts fully disappear is considered mad. One who merely threatens to kill herself should no surgeon be willing to slice off her breasts for her — well, that person is merely a victim of medical gatekeeping.
It is poignant that today the medical community is as noticeably silent on the contradicting treatments of gender (as if gender were a uniquely medical problem) as are the psychological and social worker communities. It is not an exaggeration to state that were any of us to allow our children to fly an airplane or smoke pot at the tender age of four, we would be promptly set before a court. The naturalization of gender as a quasi-religious — if not personal — instinct is the ideological basis which inextricably entwines the push to medicalize and impose a gender onto children with the current drive to make the bathroom issue into yet another domesticated site where “girls can be girls” even when they are not.
Full disclosure: before I wrote my 2013 article on the transgender/feminist “war,” I sincerely thought that the feminists with whom I had spoken were paranoid, crazy, and/or exaggerating. I wasn’t sure which, but I was quite certain, since my transgender friends were not engaged in some of these seriously misogynist tactics I had been told about, that these women were at the very least engaging in hyperbole. What a shock to me when I discovered that although these sentiments do not, obviously, represent all transgender persons and their advocates, that they do correspond to a significant number of them. Talking with another journalist about my feelings on this subject, she confessed to me that she had the exact same reaction when she had first heard of these incidents, stating :
I thought it was all nuts, too. I thought that nothing could have happened, because if it had, how would it not have been a sensational story that everyone talked about?… And no matter what you tell people, either they say that, oh, it’s just one incident, or that you’re trying to smear people by bringing too much proof into the picture. So if you say something pithy, you’re cherry-picking, and if you write a detailed, annotated essay with every point backed up, then you are hateful. You cannot win.
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. One thing is certain: there is a clear hegemonic drive from the left to enforce and codify femininity such that the women’s toilet becomes that de facto space for enacting — if only symbolically — those cultural exercises which are anathema to men’s toilets.
Part of me wanted to end this article with these words: “If you disagree with me, I will kill myself and you will be blamed for my murder.” But the sad reality today is that I am not male (identified) enough for these words to cause the slightest concern.
Murder rate statistics, USA 2014 (FBI Expanded Homicide Data, Table 2)
Total population of US: 318,857,056 (United States Census, 2014)
Total female population of US: 161,979,384 (United States Census, 2014)
Total male population of US: 156,877,672 (United States Census, 2014)
Transgender population of US: 956,571 [estimated based on Williams Institute (2011) estimate of .3% of the general population]
Transgender population of US: 1,594,285 [estimated based on statewide health survey in Massachusetts (2012) which makes the estimate of .5% of the general population]
Total homicides in US: 11,961 (FBI Expanded Homicide Data, Table 12)
Adjusted total homicides: 14,249 (FBI Expanded Homicide Data, Table 1)
Total transgender homicides in US: 10 (International Transgender Day of Remembrance)
Total homicides: 11,961 / 14,249*
3.75 / 4.469 per 100,000
1/26658 / 1/22378
Transgender homicide using .3%/.5% estimates of general population:
Total transgender homicides in US: 10
1.045x10^-5 / 6.272x10^-5
1.044 / 0.627 per 100,000
1/95657 / 1/159429
Total female murders: 2,681 / 3,206
1.656x10^-5 / 1.98x10^-5
1.65 / 1.979 per 100,000
1/60418 / 1/50524
Total male murders: 9,246 / 11,043
5.89x10^-5 / 7.04x10^-5
5.89 / 7.04 per 100,000
1/16970 / 1/14206
Due to “unknown” data for the sex categories of 34 murder victims, the murder rates for all calculations were not adjusted since this number is statistically insignificant for the total homicide rate. The transgender murder rates have been the only murder rates astutely noted by various organisations whose data concurs the transgender murders for 2014 at 10. The rates affected by the missing data affects the general, male and female populations and again, these numbers are statistically insignificant.
*The statistics reported for murder within the general population have only precise sex data for the lower figure of 11,961 which contains the sex breakdown of male/female. However, this murder figure was incomplete and was later corrected by the FBI to 14,249. So the numbers will appear above as a range a/b: a, signifying the lower figure based on sex categories given by the FBI with males composing of 77.5% of all murder victims and females composing of 22.5% and b, the higher figure based on the percentile of sex differentiation in the former data supplied by the FBI. As reported to me from the FBI (19 May, 2016): “The 14,249 is from the Estimated Table 1. The FBI UCR Program estimates for all missing data and includes those counts with the actual counts for the estimated murder totals.”
FBI statistics included this note: The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program defines murder and non-negligent manslaughter as the willful (non-negligent) killing of one human being by another. The classification of this offense is based solely on police investigation as opposed to the determination of a court, medical examiner, coroner, jury, or other judicial body. In 2014, the estimated number of murders in the nation was 14,249 but without the division of sex (male, female). If this analysis were to have included non-negligent manslaughter, then the figures for general population, female and homicide would have been significantly higher.
[The above is the full-length article of the same published in Feminist Current.]