Trans Issues, Radical Feminism and Critical Theory
Why critical theory inspired radical feminism is bad for trans people
Today, I am going to take a look at why radical feminism has had so much difficulty with the acceptance of trans people. As we’ve examined before, radical feminists are currently deeply divided on their attitude towards trans people and trans issues, but neither side of the radical feminism coin has really come to terms with trans people as we actually exist in this world. Therefore, my view is that radical feminism as a whole is actually not quite accepting of trans people.
Let’s start by defining ‘radical feminism’. Different people define the term differently, but here, I will use a broad definition. That is, ‘radical feminism’ here will include all major branches of feminism that are not liberal or reformism orientated, including the second wave, third wave and postmodern influenced varieties alike. Since the middle of the 20th century, feminism has been generally divided into liberal feminism and radical feminism. In general, liberal feminists essentially extend the the liberal commitment to equal opportunity, equal treatment and universalist civil rights into the field of sex and gender. Thus, liberal feminism believes in ending all barriers and unequal access to opportunities and choices in life based on sex and gender. On the other hand, radical feminism doesn’t believe in the liberal feminist vision. Instead, their view of gender relations is strongly colored by the common critical theory worldview of power dynamics between oppressor vs oppressed groups. Radical feminism essentially sees the world as fundamentally defined by unequal power dynamics between men, as a class, vs women, as a class. Furthermore, just like other critical theory type worldviews, radical feminism believes that the current system is unreformable, revolutionary change must occur if there is to be justice, and such change can only come with strengthening awareness of the power dynamics, which makes it essentially opposed to liberal feminism to a great extent.
As you can see, the difference between liberal feminism and radical feminism has strong parallels with the difference between liberal colorblind anti-racism and critical race theory. It is essentially a parallel that can be observed across a variety of progressive movements, with one side being rooted in liberalism, and the other side essentially rooted in critical theory thinking. It is what this series is all about. But let’s return to radical feminism.
I believe the difficulty radical feminists have had with trans people is fundamentally rooted in their binary two-class worldview, seeing men and women primarily as two antagonistic classes rather than as individuals. The liberal model has had a much easier time accommodating trans people because it sees people as individuals rather than members of a group. Thus, it doesn’t have as much difficulty in dealing with people who don’t neatly fit into a group all the time. After all, the liberal demand for treating people equally regardless of sex or gender, which is basically sex-blindness and gender-blindness, is equally applicable even where the sex and gender of the person is mismatched, or otherwise unconventional. On the other hand, radical feminism requires first classifying people as 100% belonging to one class or another, and it is easy to see why it would have difficulty with trans people. The core divide within radical feminism is basically one of agreeing vs refusing to classify trans people with the gender they identify as. The bitterness of the divide, as it currently stands, demonstrates why the liberal model is better, in my opinion.
I think another reason why radical feminism has had difficulty with trans people is its a-priori ideological commitment of seeing gender as a social construct. As I’ve said before, gender critical feminists can’t accept trans people because they believe that gender is a social construct, which essentially means that all non-physical differences between men and women are socially constructed. In this worldview, trans people can’t logically exist naturally. On the other hand, while postmodernism-inspired radical feminists (sometimes called intersectionalists) might support trans rights superficially, they too can’t truly accept most biological explanations of trans identity, because they too believe that gender is a social construct. This means that postmodernized feminism essentially sees trans identity as no more than a ‘performance’, or an aspect of personality at most. This actually amounts to a refusal to understand gender dysphoria properly, and is ultimately bad for trans acceptance because it perpetuates misunderstanding in the wider world. This is why I say that neither side of the radical feminist divide actually fully accepts trans people.
Radical feminism is committed to the idea that gender is a social construct, not because of clear empirical evidence proving so, but because of the strong influence of the critical theory worldview, which includes the view that the dominant cultural ideas of society are the ideas that uphold the dominance of the oppressor groups. In the radical feminist worldview, gender, i.e. any differences between men and women that are not physical, must be a product of the patriarchal system that benefits men and oppresses women, and hence must be abolished or at least revolutionized in some way. There is not much room for compromise here, because any compromise would essentially mean accepting oppression and giving up on revolutionary consciousness. This is why, if the theory of gender being a social construct comes up against the reality of trans people, radical feminism would essentially demand that reality yield to their theory. However, since trans people are real people, and trans lives are real lives, this is simply not morally acceptable!
So this, I think, explains why radical feminism has had so much difficulty with trans people and trans issues. It is also an example that demonstrates why, compared to the critical theory model, the liberal model of social progress is much more adaptive, flexible and hence more useful for resolving many social justice issues.