A Criticism of Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism
The recent rise in the visibility of transgender people has led feminist communities to challenge and re-conceptualise ideas about gender. The intersectional feminist movement has sought to be more inclusive by acknowledging the interactions between racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and gender. However, many feminist theorists who were critical to second-wave feminism feel the need to protect an essentialist view of gender, particularly what it means to be a woman. This resistance often occurs in the form of aggressively anti-trans rhetoric by theorists such as Janice Raymond and Germaine Greer. Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), such as Raymond and Greer have been crucial in their contribution to the feminist movement, but their transphobic discourse has been detrimental to the advancement of intersectional feminism.
It is important to note that in spite of their transphobia, the aforementioned theorists have been indispensable in their contribution to feminism. Janice Raymond’s work on sex trafficking and slavery has served to create protocol for the United Nations. Raymond was the Co-Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) from 1994-2007 (“Board of Directors and Staff”, 2016). In 2007, she received the ‘International Woman Award’ from the Zero Tolerance Trust for this work. She continues to fight for these causes (Herald Scotland, 2007).
Germaine Greer is arguably one of the most celebrated feminists of the ‘second wave’ (Lilburn, Maguey, and Sheridan, 2000). She demanded economic equality for women, and encouraged them to acknowledge and reject the patriarchal power structures in society. Her first book, The Female Eunuch, was a cornerstone of the feminist movement in the 1960’s and 70’s. She argued that sexual liberation was the key to female empowerment, and that solidarity between women was crucial for feminist progress (Greer, 1970).
The issue with these theorists arose with the coinciding ‘third wave’ and the emergence of post-feminism. The scope of Greer and Raymond’s works had been narrowly focused and didn’t acknowledge the nuances of race, class, or ability (Penny, 2012). These theorists were not willing to adopt a more intersectional approach. As Lemert (2013) states “if feminism has a purpose, then that purpose is to represent, support and provide shelter and community to those whom the patriarchy oppresses”. Part of an intersectional approach to feminism is a more inclusive definition of womanhood. TERFs take issue with all transgender people, but most of the literature they have produced has focused heavily on the “appropriation of femininity” by trans women. The third wave of feminism generally agrees that if transgender people desire medical intervention, they should be supported to do so, and view it as affirming rather than degrading (Silvers, 2007).
In 1979, Janice Raymond released her book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of a She-Male, based on her university dissertation at the University of Massachusetts. The title of her book refers to her theory that medical practitioners and society as a whole, whom she describes as the “Transsexual Empire” were trying to “coalesce to institutionalize transsexual treatment and surgery” in order to shape acceptable societal gendered behaviour (Raymond, 1979, p. 15). In summary, she argues that “transgenderism” is a psychological illness that should not be treated with medical intervention. She goes so far as to suggest trans women “rape” women’s bodies by appropriating femininity and conforming to gender stereotypes (Raymond, 1979, p. 15). She claims that gender dysphoria (which she instead refers to as gender “dissatisfaction”) prevents individuals from seeing gender in a feminist framework (Raymond, 1979, p. 16).
Janice Raymond’s work set the precedent for anti-trans radical feminism in the 1980’s, and her work continues to be cited by modern TERF groups. Like contemporary TERFs, her argument is based in her belief that trans women are not (and cannot) be ‘real’ women. While she encourages cisgender women to subvert gender roles, she simultaneously states that any trans woman who presents in a traditionally feminine manner is “putting on a parody” or a “caricature” (Raymond, 1979, p. 17). She argues that what makes a woman is “female” biology, “female history” (socialisation), menstruation, “capacity to become pregnant”, and a “history of female subordination in a male-dominant society” (Raymond, 1979, p. 19). She also takes on a very sex-negative approach, profiling trans women as sex workers:
Although prostitution is described as an economic necessity for most transgendered individuals, there is also the admission that it is part of the discovery process that a transgendered woman may go through. Some of it is acting out fantasies, obsessions, or compulsions. It’s a sort of coming-of-age, a part of the transition, an identifying and validation process. So we have here, an idealizing of sexual exploitation and prostitution in the name of transgender transformation, identity, and maturity. (Raymond, 1979, p. 25)
In 1999, Germaine Greer published The Whole Woman, as an informal sequel to her 1970 bestseller The Female Eunuch. In the 1970’s, her publication was seen as confrontational and revolutionary, but The Whole Woman was met with significant criticism due to a chapter entitled ‘Pantomime Dames’, which viciously attacked transgender people, particularly transgender women (Stryker, Currah, & Moore, 2008). In fact, it was received so negatively by the LGBTIQ community that she was “glitter bombed” at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in 2012 (Herald Online, 2012). The chapter has been described by some as an “eleven-page hate crime” for its blatant transphobia and its wider cultural impact (Sergent-Shadbolt, 2015).
The chapter title ‘Pantomime Dames’ alludes to the traditional roles in British pantomime theatre where men portrayed women with exaggerated costume and stereotypical feminine mannerisms (Williams, 2014). Similar to Raymond, Greer takes the essentialist view that our biology dictates our gender identity and refers to surgical intervention as “mutilation” (Greer, 1999, p. 65). She again maintains that only those who can menstruate or bear children are “true” women, and that only those who are assigned female at birth are susceptible to patriarchal oppression. She equates “transsexualism” with sex work and compares trans women to rapists (Greer, 1999, p. 74). She argues that trans women are “impersonating” their mothers and compares them to Norman Bates of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (Greer, 1999, p. 74). Like many of her predecessors, she focuses very narrowly on the genitals, medical intervention and sexual activity of transgender people in an attempt to dehumanize them. TERF theorists follow an essentialist model of gender, which attributes femininity to female-assigned bodies and masculinity to male-assigned bodies. Judith Butler argues that assigning roles based on biology is one of strongest mechanisms by which patriarchy is reinforced (Butler, 2004). This view also assumes that Western ideologies of gender are the only framework which exists, when in fact ideas and performances of gender vary drastically based upon “geopolitical boundaries and cultural constraints” (Butler, 2004, p. 13).
At the forefront of transfeminism is Julia Serano; a trans woman, gender theorist and biologist. In 2007, she wrote her book The Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity as a series of personal essays. She addresses TERFs directly in her introduction:
The few non-trans feminists who have written about us in the past have usually made their theses upon the assumption that we are really ‘men’ (not women), and that our physical transitions to female and our expressions of femininity represent an appropriation of female culture, symbolism, and bodies. (Serano, 2007, p. 9)
She furthers this by indicating that trans-exclusion is slowing the progress of feminism:
It is no longer enough for feminism to fight for the rights of those who were born female. That strategy furthered the prospects of many women over the years, but now it bumps up against a glass ceiling that is partly of its own making. (Serano, 2007, p. 19)
Greer and Raymond argue that only those who can menstruate or bear children are “real” women, but this narrow mindset also excludes many cisgender women who have reproductive disorders, as well as intersex and post-menopausal women. Serano rebuts their suggestion that trans women are not “real” women, arguing that it is “downright sexist” to reduce any woman to her body parts, especially her genitalia (Serano, 2007, p. 14). She disagrees with Raymond’s ‘Transsexual Empire’ concept, stating instead that the trans population has been “systematically pathologized” by medical professionals and ridiculed by mainstream media (Serano, 2007, p. 14).
It was Serrano who coined the phrase ‘transmisogyny’ to explain why TERFs and mainstream media ridicule trans women and transfemininity so much more harshly than the rest of the trans community. She argues that many second-wave feminists buy into “traditionally sexist notions” that expressions of femininity are an act to appease the “desires of men” and that femininity is inferior to masculinity:
The fact that we identify and live as women, despite being born male and having inherited male privilege, challenges those in our society who wish to glorify maleness and masculinity. (Serano, 2007, p. 9)
She rejects the strict binary theories of essentialism and constructionism, and instead proposes that “certain aspects of femininity (as well as masculinity) are natural and can both precede socialization and supersede biological sex” (Serano, 2007, p. 10). She suggests that transphobia comes from personal insecurity about the gendered pressures, expectations, and restraints based on sex assigned at birth (Serano, 2007, p.14).
While many TERFs insinuate that all trans women are sex workers, Serano argues that these ideas are rooted in the media’s hypersexualized representation trans women, portraying them as “sexual deceivers” (Serano, 2007, p. 17). This implies that expressions of femininity only exist to please men, and that women (cis or trans) “have no worth beyond their ability to be sexualized” (Serano, 2007, p. 17).
Unfortunately, TERFs like Raymond and Greer have a wider cultural impact on the lives of transgender people. In 1974, trans woman Sandy Stone was employed by the all-female music collective Oliva Records. In 1977, Janice Raymond outed Stone to the media, and led a vicious attack that ranged from outraged letters to Olivia Records to death threats. In June of 1977, Olivia Records put out a statement in Sister Magazine: “because Sandy decided to give up completely and permanently her male identity and live as a woman and a lesbian, she is now faced with the same kinds of oppression that other women and lesbians face” (“TERF hate and Sandy Stone”, 2014). Raymond dedicates much of The Transsexual Empire to specifically naming and attacking Sandy Stone (Raymond, 1979). Shortly after the publication of The Transsexual Empire, Johns Hopkins dismantled its Gender Identity Committee. Raymond claims her book in (at least in part) responsible for this (Raymond, 1994, p. 1).
While lecturing at Cambridge’s all-female Newnham College in 1996, Germaine Greer outed trans woman Rachel Padma and attempted to block her receiving a fellowship to the college. This led to widespread media attention on Padma, who had wanted her trans status to remain private. Fortunately, Padma received her fellowship, which led Greer to resign in 1997 (Garner, 1997). In 2015, the students of Cardiff University petitioned to prevent Greer lecturing on their campus due to her transphobic attitudes (Freytas-Tamura, 2015). The university still allowed her to speak (Morris, 2015). She maintains her belief that trans women are not ‘real’ women, stating in a 2015 interview that they don’t ‘look like, sound like, or behave like women’ (BBC News, 2016).
It is clear that while TERFs like Raymond and Greer were crucial to second-wave feminism, their work about transgender women has not only negatively impacted the transgender community, but has also hindered the advancement of contemporary intersectional feminism. Transgender women experience their lives as women and therefore experience female oppression. The question of what it means to be a ‘real’ woman should be of less concern to feminists, and the question of privilege should be at the forefront. In time, trans-exclusionary radical feminists will be left behind unless they adopt a more intersectional and trans-inclusive approach.