Response to Hadley Freeman’s piece on Trans visibility

Putting aside the demonstrative poor taste of publishing an anti-trans piece on Trans Day of Visibility one week after Naomi Hersi was killed in London — and published opposite Shon Faye’s piece in the Guardian in some weird parody of ‘balance’ — Hadley Freeman might come across as making reasonable points in her article. The language, like the language of much of the writing towards the TERF and anti-trans end of the political spectrum, has the ring of lots of other ‘reasonable feminist writing’. She’s just tired, she says, of having men try to explain to her what womanhood is. It’s not trans women she has a problem with, she sort-of-implies-but-never-really-says-directly, it’s their overbearing male allies.

This only holds up to the briefest of glances. Her argument seems to be that most of the conversation around trans people is about the acceptance of trans women in women’s spaces and that the interlocutors in this conversation are not cis women and trans women, but cis women and cis men. In this story, feminists (particularly older feminists) are constantly faced with cis male trans allies labelling them TERFs or trying to tell them how they’re allowed to speak about trans women. This, she suggests, boils down to men telling women how to experience being women and policing how they talk about their own identities. Which, obviously, would be unacceptable.

The thing is, all of that is nonsense. For one thing, the conversation is much larger than the one she’s describing. Trans men and non-binary people also exist and are also part of these and parallel conversations in a way that she just sort of skates over or ignores. The exclusive focus on women’s spaces and trans women is something that ‘feminists’ like Freeman push, that is produced by prominent TERFs and the media environment that gives them a spotlight.

A more direct falsehood that she’s peddling is that this conversation somehow isn’t with trans women themselves, but only with male allies. This is obviously not true — the nexus of this public conversation revolves around cis women trying to eject trans women from women’s spaces, painting them as sick, dangerous, and not women, and trans women defending themselves and trying to claim the safe spaces that they need. The involvement of trans allies — cis men and others — is secondary. If Freeman’s experience, as she claims, truly is that the arguments are usually with cis men, perhaps she should consider the possibility that this is due to how taxing and, at times, dangerous it is for trans women to self-advocate — that perhaps she doesn’t seem like a safe interlocutor.

But the objection to cis male allies getting involved also doesn’t make sense in itself. Freeman’s argument seems to be that anyone who doesn’t share the identity of ‘woman’ is just not allowed in the conversation because cis women’s attacks on trans women are built on an attack on their shared identities as women.

There are a number of problems with this. Taken specifically, it seems like this precludes the possibility of allyship in some of the worst cases of oppression — cases where a group’s existence is denied altogether. Taken more generally, it seems like it would negate the possibility of most kinds of allyship. Should I, as a white nb trans woman, not call out a gay male friend for stating racist dating preferences, just because I’m not a gay man or a person of colour? No, that’s obviously ridiculous — I should do my best to be an ally if I see a group being attacked, even if the people doing the oppressing are themselves an oppressed group, and even if I share no identities with either group. And best the way to be an ally? To listen to the people under attack, and take their lead. Just as cis male allies of trans women do when they defend them from TERFs.

So Freeman’s central premise really doesn’t make sense — it reduces the struggle for liberation and equality to something petty, community-internal, and incomprehensible to outsiders (i.e. essential), rather than something uplifting, that includes all of us.

But once we start to get into the language of the article in detail, we can see that perhaps we should never have taken its arguments at face value. Freeman never says “trans women are not women” or “trans women are rapists”, presumably because writing these things directly seems impolite or crude. But she does keep setting up little oppositions: “this is something women and trans women will have to work out between themselves”, “what it’s like to be a woman or self-identified trans woman”, and so on. Of the inspiring 19-year-old trans woman elected last year as a Labour councillor, Freeman sarcastically writes “‘lived experience as a woman’ was not a pre-requisite to be a woman’s officer’ — ignoring the fact that this woman’s whole life until that point has been experienced as a woman. Her obvious message is that trans women’s womanhood is entirely conditional on the acceptance that cis women like her could generously offer. Apparently, she’s not feeling generous. We should look past the high-minded tone — and the Guardian’s embarrassing decision to publish this — and see it for what it is: reactionary nastiness, and nothing more.