Content note: this essay uses neutral they/them pronouns to refer to trans women, and the term “male trans people” for trans women, transfeminine people, & other varying dmab trans people. It also contains graphic discussion of male violence.
I woke up this morning to an anonymous message from someone expressing they sincerely hope that someday my opinions on trans women change. The reason given was so simple — my opinions are hurting a lot of people, presumably trans women. This really struck a chord with me. It’s so much more honest than the usual accusation that my opinions are killing trans women, which is so far outside of reality that arguing against it is futile, especially since the opinion-holder usually can’t hear me correctly through all the cognitive dissonance. But hurting trans women? This, I can speak about.
Let’s talk about pain. There is a reflexive, very human (societal) response to dehumanize people who we see as in opposition to us in some way. Whether political/ideological enemies, someone who has caused grievous emotional/sexual/physical harm to us, or a group of people we hold bias against, there is a flattening of them as a complex human being. We do not think of them as a whole person who suffers, delights, and experiences the full spectrum of emotion. We think of them as a monster. Or a piece of shit. Subhuman. Thinking of them this way does not change that they have thoughts and feelings too.
I’ll start with incels. On on incels.net, a popular forum for self-identified incels, scrolling through the search results for “sadness” is a never-ending parade of men expressing deep unhappiness, body image issues, loneliness in the extreme, & fear of a pointless existence. These men are hurting. The documentary Shy Boys is an even more undeniable display of obvious misery. Even as they spout misogynistic drivel, just seeing these men from 20 feet away would betray how uncomfortable they are in their skin and the world at large. The first incel murderer Elliot Rodger’s manifesto, My Twisted World, starts with this:
“Humanity… All of my suffering on this world has been at the hands of humanity, particularly women. It has made me realize just how brutal and twisted humanity is as a species. All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life amongst humanity, but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in me.”
So everyone hurts. Everyone suffers. Do rapists not cry in court? I regularly refer to rapists as monsters. I do not think of them as human in the same way I am. My brain’s natural inclination is to exercise the flattening of their reality to make my own easier to bear. But when approaching the issue of emotional pain intellectually, I am able to recognize that experiencing emotional pain is almost ubiquitous among humans, except in extreme, poorly understood cases. So if everyone hurts, we come to an intense question to ask ourselves: Whose pain takes precedent? How do we measure?
I will not deny I cause trans women emotional pain. Let me give you an example: a few years ago, when it was uncovered that a celebrity trans woman who is very active in youth organizing is a serial rapist, there was a large push from a few women for their victim’s testimony to gain traction. This “trans icon” is at large in a city that is very trans & queer friendly. Due to their celebrity status, they have a large amount of victims to pick from. They prefer transmasculine & trans men victims, that is to say, female trans people. A leftist trans woman with a large audience who lived in the same area as the serial rapist was approached about spreading the word about this active predator. They did momentarily, but then deleted the information as they decided the information had been posted by a TERF. I began to rail against them. I made several posts about how rape apologism in the queer & trans community is out of control, how male people stick up for their own, & how disgusting it was that they would choose TERF war politics over a very real opportunity to warn potential trans rape victims about a powerful predator. I cried myself out and went to sleep.
The next day, my messages were full of angry people demanding I stop harassing trans women. I checked the leftist’s trans woman’s blog and they had written at length about how intensely dysphoric and suicidal interactions like this made them, and how in particular discussions about male violence from trans women made them feel like a disgusting monster who would never be a real woman or fit in. My anger hurt this trans woman deeply. They were suffering. Of course, this incident was picked for the purposes of my essay. The point remains that you can hurt someone by saying something that’s true. I do not regret my actions, nor do I feel sympathetic towards this person’s pain. I can understand they were emotionally wounded without accepting myself as the emotional tormenter they proclaimed me as.
You can cause pain by setting boundaries that protect yourself. To the one who wanted in, the boundary is experienced as a wall of rejection. To be unwelcome somewhere you desperately wanted to belong hurts. It causes emotional pain to male trans people to be aware that myself and other female people actively organize without them. That we have spaces both online and in real life where we can go to talk to each other freely without male presence about anything we desire. That we can politically strategize around our female experiences, that we can consciousness raise around our female suffering, that we even have some spaces where we talk about the harms male trans people in particular have done to us.
So why not stop? Why is the sadness of trans women not enough to sway us? Why is the loneliness, sexual frustration, and romantic dejection of trans male people who want to date & fuck lesbians not enough to shut us down? Why?
Now I will say something forbidden by patriarchy: What about my pain? Or: what about our (female) pain?
What about my pain? Here is a situation in which I had to measure my pain against a trans woman’s pain.
Sometime in 2013, I was driving with my trans girlfriend of 3 years. They were angry with me. We parked in a parking lot. They became more angry with me because I talked back. I do not remember what the fight was about. From the passenger seat, they lunged at me and slammed my head three times against my driver’s side window. I became dazed. My vision blurred. My cheek was bleeding from their nails. My hearing was foggy. As I turned to look at them, I saw their face fall and the tears gathering in their eyes. Numbly, I reached for them. I held them as they cried. They were sorry (as domestic abusers often are). They were experiencing intense self-hatred, self-disgust, and sadness. I pet their hair and told them everything was going to be okay until I had to open my door and throw up.
When we were breaking up a year later, this incident became a fixture in our fights. I couldn’t stop bringing it up. “I held you,” I would scream, “after you gave me a concussion! I held you and I told you it would be all right!” This hurt my trans girlfriend. This incident had caused them a lot of pain. It hurt them to be reminded they had done this to me. It hurt them that I insisted on still being upset about it a year later. It hurt them that I would bring it up after being told that bringing it up caused them a lot of pain. It hurt.
I’ll ask you again: what about my pain? What about the pain of the celebrity trans woman’s victims, who watch as someone whose particular favored mode of rape is unexpected, non-consensual fisting — the act of shoving one’s hand into a vaginal canal, resulting in incredible pain, tearing, & bleeding continues having status as a “queer icon” with little repercussions? What about the pain of other female people I know who have been sexually assaulted by trans women and remain largely silent, watching what happens to those who speak out about being preyed on by male trans people, the unavoidable meltdown in the surrounding friend group, the possible professional repercussions on top of the social ones? I could endlessly go on linking news stories and sharing painful testimonies, but I know by now the sheer volume & undeniable pattern of these events will not sway those who will not be swayed.
So let’s change the subject, because certainly not all trans women are rapists. I have never and will never say this, no matter how many times I’m accused of it. So let’s pretend there’s not an epidemic of male violence by trans women against female people within the trans & queer community, an epidemic for the basis of which is written as clearly into trans ideology as rape culture is into patriarchal values. Let’s pretend that the issue is solely one of exclusion, as in, trans exclusionary radical feminism.
A lesbian (a female person who desires other female people) wants to gather with other lesbians. She has a small group of ten lesbians. A female-attracted, lesbian-identified male trans person wants to come. The lesbian says no. The trans woman is hurt they were rejected. The lesbian is hurt because her boundaries as a lesbian were disrespected. Other lesbians in the group are hurt, some for the same reason as the leader, and some because they are hurt on the trans woman’s behalf. The lesbians begin to be hurt by each other because they are in disagreement over male inclusion in a lesbian space. The trans woman tells all their friends what happened and they are hurt on the trans woman’s behalf and on their own behalf as trans people. They begin to communicate with the group of lesbians, condemning their hurtful behavior with varying degrees of shame, rage, disappointment, pleading & threats. Some of the lesbians are hurt by the content of this communication, hurt at their lesbian sexuality and boundaries being disrespected and maligned.
How do we measure all this pain? Whose pain matters?
In most circles of trans activism, this question is forbidden. The lesbian’s pain is not acknowledged as pain. It is dismissed outright, without hesitation, as bigotry of the worst kind. It is dismissed more easily and with more completeness than the media response to murders by angry, lonely white men. The humanity of a female person who wants to gather with other female people is gone in the blink of an eye. The humanity of a lesbian who explictly says she is not interested in male trans people romantically or sexually is erased. Now, she’s just a TERF, who deserves what all TERF deserve.
TERFs are incapable of pain. TERFs are removed from the section of humanity that have complex reasons for the actions they take, the words they speak, and the viewpoints they hold. TERFs do not have rich emotional landscapes or varied interests. TERFs are not people (certainly not lesbian or women, either.)
So of course, the trans woman’s pain is the pain that matters, because TERF (read: female, read: lesbian) pain is not truly even a factor.
I don’t see it that way any more. And there is nothing I am more grateful for. Part of the deprogramming of trans & queer ideology was re-learning to recognize, accept, & value my own and other’s female pain. This was a shock to me as someone who identified privately as a feminist even as a child in a Baptist fundamentalist household, who spit the word chauvinist out regularly before the age of 10, having learned it and kept it in my heart as the most hateful of curses against a boy or man, a man-hating baby dyke who raged against the unfairness of it all. But trans ideology was the perfect trap.
Trans ideology said: these male people are not men. They are just like you. If you think of or treat these people as men (or male), you are actively contributing to the oppression, suicide, and murder of the most vulnerable women alive, trans women. By the way, this includes thinking of any of their (male-patterned) behavior as male, being uncomfortable in any way, or not immediately and enthusiastically including them in your lesbian sexuality. I took it to heart, and that’s how I ended up in that hot car, stroking my trans girlfriend’s long hair, knowing that this couldn’t be a truly abusive situation, because the power dynamics between a dfab trans person and a trans woman wouldn’t allow it.
I hurt trans women. I hurt trans women when I name them as male people. I hurt trans women when I talk about the trans women who abused me. I hurt trans women when I talk about how the ideology of trans activism is fundamentally woman-hating. I hurt trans women when I talk about how male people identifying as lesbians is inherently lesbian-hating. I hurt trans women when I talk about the trans women who rape and murder. I hurt trans women when I won’t change my mind. I hurt trans women when I won’t shut my mouth about how trans women hurt me. I hurt trans women. I do.
But what about my pain? What about female pain? Can you answer? Did you hear me? Hello?