Putting the “Transgender Activists Versus Feminists” Debate to Rest

photo from the San Francisco Women’s March, January 2017, where the author was one of several trans women who were invited to speak

Since the early aughts, I have been writing about the intersection of feminism and transgender activism. Because of this, I frequently receive requests to be interviewed about “recent conflicts” between transgender activists and feminists. While I have addressed this subject in the past (e.g., in my three books and elsewhere), my current position is to refuse to participate in any interview that frames these matters as some kind of legitimate debate within feminism. And I have written the following “open letter” to explain why:

While there have been significant conflicts between these movements in the past (specifically, during the 1970s and ’80s, when numerous prominent second-wave feminists espoused highly negative views about trans people), today these movements largely recognize our overlapping interests and support one another’s goals. I am regularly invited to contribute to feminist anthologies and journals, and to speak at feminist conferences and events. Virtually every single person that I know who is actively involved in feminist causes and organizations, Women’s and Gender Studies departments, and so on, are supportive of trans people and issues. And all of the trans people that I personally know are supportive of feminism and women’s issues.

Admittedly, there are some feminists — particularly those who were a part of the second-wave — who adhere to those outdated perspectives, and still view trans people and activism with suspicion. There is also a small minority of feminists who call themselves “gender critical” or “radical feminists” (and who others sometimes call “trans-exclusionary radical feminists/TERFs”) who are vehemently anti-trans. However, this latter group has also historically expressed antagonism towards sex-positive feminists, sex workers, people who practice BDSM, femmes/feminine people, and non-lesbian queer folks (e.g., bisexuals and gay men), under the premise that all of these groups “reinforce the patriarchy” in some way or another. While such radical feminists do exist, they represent a very small minority of self-identified feminists. And most contemporary feminists reject gender-critical/TERF ideology, not only because it is anti-trans, but because it is explicitly anti-intersectional.

While gender-critical/TERF remains a fringe ideology within feminism, over the last few years, social conservatives and other groups who are opposed to transgender rights and gender-affirming healthcare have increasingly taken to amplifying TERF voices and appropriating certain TERF talking points — particularly the argument that transgender people somehow constitute a threat to women. Their reason for doing this is quite simple: It is far more socially palatable to frame their anti-trans policies and positions as being “pro-woman” rather than “anti-transgender.” Here are a few articles chronicling these recent developments:

As a result of this growing backlash, it has become nearly impossible to be a vocal/visible trans person on social media these days without being subjected to Gamer-Gate-style pile-ons from people who sport “XX” or a red X in their handles, and who make wild accusations about trans people being a threat to girls and women — even though study after study has shown that there is absolutely no evidence of this. And if you actually examine these social media accounts (as I have, since I’ve had to block many of them due to the online harassment I have faced), you will find that they rarely espouse any other canonical radical feminist beliefs (such as being opposed to femininity, sex-positive feminism, patriarchy, etc.), nor do they typically express mainstream feminist concerns (such as women’s reproductive rights, sexual harassment, equal pay, etc.). Frankly, many of them *only* post anti-trans rhetoric, which suggests that they are either bots/sockpuppets or singularly obsessed bigots. In other words, the lion’s share of this backlash is not coming from actual feminists, but rather from people who are merely appropriating feminism in order to justify their irrational hatred of transgender people.

I understand how people in the largely trans-unaware general public — particularly in the UK, where this backlash has become especially intense — might presume that there is some kind of “great debate” going on between feminists and transgender activists. But there isn’t. Transgender activism and feminism are not in any way incompatible, nor do trans people pose any kind of “threat” to women — and the overwhelming majority of people who are actively involved in feminist projects and causes can readily confirm this. Rather, the only debate that is taking place right now is between transgender people, who simply want to be able to access our needs and participate in society, versus those who wish to further marginalize us, and who will resort to using any argument or ideology (whether it be religious, feminist, and/or pseudoscientific in origin) in order to achieve that goal.

If you wish to interview me about transgender activism and challenging anti-trans bigotry, I would be open to that. Or if you’d like to talk with me about the long history of trans feminism, I’d be open to that as well. But I refuse to take part in any article or exchange that frames trans activism as somehow being in opposition to feminism. Because it is simply not true. And my participation would merely lend credence to the myth that there are valid feminist rationales for demonizing and slandering trans people.

This essay was made possible by my Patreon supporters — if you liked it and want to see more like it, please consider supporting me there. You can learn more about my writings and activism at juliaserano.com.