Written by Juliette R.
Trans people exposure has seen a rise in recent years. With her appearance in Orange Is the New Black, Laverne Cox became an international star; Caitlyn Jenner, a member of the popular Kardashian-Jenner family, transitioned; and Netflix launched Pose, a series about the lives of people involved in ballroom culture in New York in the 1980s (Burns, 2019). With the increased visibility of transgender people in mainstream culture, an anti-movement that is fundamentally opposed to transgender people has grown in popularity. Transgenderism is opposed by this community of women, who call themselves “gender-critical” feminists but are more often referred to as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (also known as terfs). In their eyes, transgenderism constitutes female erasure (Burns, 2019). They argue that trans women are men aiming to expand their domination of women while trans men are lesbians that have fallen prey to the patriarchy and have been convinced they need to be men to love women (Burns, 2019).
(Laverne Cox in Orange Is the New Black)
The Importance of Intersectional and Decolonial Theory
An argument often presented by terfs against transgenderism is the erasure of protections for a protected group, female people (Rustin, 2020). To substantiate these claims, terfs make use of Karen White’s case (Burns, 2019). Karen White is a transwoman and sex offender who, while remaining legally male, got placed in a female prison. Here, she sexually assaulted her inmates. Karen White symbolizes the danger to women according to terfs. Trans women, they argue, are actually men who now have access to spaces designed to protect women from such things from happening (Burns, 2019).
When using the case of Karen White to substantiate claims of heightened risk for women in women-only spaces, violence against transgender people is constantly negated. Transgender people defy hegemonic gender norms by going against their birth-assigned sex.
Butler (2011) argues that when gender is performed incorrectly, for instance when gender is performed that is not in accordance with birth sex, hostile opposition occurs. Transgender people are constantly confronted with structural violence. Their (gender) identity is often not acknowledged or accepted in a society which leads transgender people to be unemployed, poor, homeless at a higher rate than cis people (HRC, 2020). As a result, transgender people, especially transwomen, are forced into sex work, and transgender people are at a higher risk of being killed or violently attacked as a result of these circumstances (HRC, 2020).
Here, intersectionality enters as a crucial aspect that needs to be taken into account since the violence committed against transgender people often falls onto multiple axes of subordination. Transgender people often face a mixture of racism, misogyny, transphobia, sexism, homophobia or biphobia (HRC, 2020).
Transgender people are particularly vulnerable to violence, especially (black) transwomen. Because of their minority status and society’s institutionalized sexism and racism, black transwomen face both misogyny and racism. This puts black transwomen in a more vulnerable role than other trans people (Klemmer et al., 2018). On top of this, transphobia affects the mental health of transgender people. Where the regular population has a depression rate of 17%, the depression rate amongst transgender people is around 60% (Klemmer et al., 2018). Transgender people are also more likely to commit suicide as a result of (sexual) violence, increased stress, anxiety levels and hard living circumstances (Klemmer et al., 2018).
The use of colonial thinking to explain transphobia has a long history. During colonial times, a binary gender conception was imposed by the colonizers and ingrained into the minds of the colonized population (Lugones, 2010). This conception of gender consists of two genders: men and women, and oppresses any other gender presentation. This binary definition of gender serves capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist power structures by creating a hierarchy within these binary pairs (Lugones, 2019). However, within this gender binary purported through colonialism, only white men were considered men and only white women were women. People who did not fall into this gender binary of the white man and white women were considered non-human: ‘others’ (Lugones, 2019). This rooted framework justifies the transphobic treatment and violence towards transgender people, and especially non-white transgender people, as they are seen as ‘non-humans’ or less ‘worthy’ than white people (Lugones, 2010).
The argument presented by terfs, making use of the case of Karen White to label transgender people as a danger to women, uses similar framing as fear-based argumentation against the ‘other’ in colonial times. In colonial times, the gender binary was weaponised against the ‘other’. Within imperial Britain, policies enforced the binary concept of gender (Lewis, 2019). Then, the argument was made that black men constitute an immediate danger to women (read, to white women) because they were framed as violent, dangerous and predatory. Similarly, terfs frame transgender people to be violent, dangerous and predatory.
Relation Between Sex and Gender
In an article from the guardian, Rustin (2020) summarizes how gender-critical feminists ascribe to ‘the Second Sex’ by Simone de Beauvoir and how the author’s views are juxtaposed against “Butlerian and queer feminism”. She argues that gender-critical feminists stress the importance of the physical body because they are the foundation upon which sex-based oppressions are placed. Without looking at the sexual differences between male and female bodies, it is impossible to grasp the oppression of women according to terfs. The gender-critical interpretation is that de Beauvoir makes use of the hierarchy between the feminine and masculine to explain the inferior position of women and that this hierarchy is imposed upon the biological differences between male and female bodies. Consequently, some traits and behaviours are considered masculine and another feminine, derived from these differences. These masculine and feminine traits are then placed within a system of social hierarchy in which masculine traits are favoured over feminine ones, leading to women’s oppression (Rustin, 2020). Sex plays a critical role in this conception of gender and what constitutes women’s oppression.
Upon closer inspection, Rustin’s (2020) interpretation of de Beauvoir is flawed. Gender-critical feminists misconstrue the claims made by de Beauvoir. In the gender-critical understanding of Beauvoir, the fact that de Beauvoir exclusively mentions ‘sex’ in her work while negating ‘gender’ entirely is indicative of de Beauvoir’s ideas on transgenderism (Hart, 2019). However, de Beauvoir’s work is from 1949, a time in which the term “gender” was not commonly used, especially in France (Hart, 2019). De Beauvoir is an existentialist philosopher, meaning she believes that we, as humans, exist before our essence (Hart, 2019). In other words, women make sense of their bodies but are not determined by them. This is in direct contrast with the terfs’ essentialist claim that women’s oppression is founded on bodily differences.
(Judith Butler, the American philospher, for an interview with landbote.ch.)
Butler, while being opposed to “Beauvoirian feminism”, as Susan Rustin (2020) claims, uses Beauvoirian theory to support her arguments on gender (Butler, 2011). She uses the popular sentence “one is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes one” (de Beauvoir, 1949) to explain that how the world shapes one’s identity as a woman (Butler, 2011). Butler (2011) defends a non-essentialist conception of gender and challenges the current hegemonic gender norms. She points out that de Beauvoir never mentions the obligation of having female sex to become a woman. Therefore, there is no relationship between biological sex and gender. Instead, Butler (2011) argues that the body is a social construct that has been given significance. Gender is performative, meaning it is a socially constructed collection of behaviours and patterns that are constantly reproduced, according to her. Her theory of gender performativity is based on Foucault’s perspective on language and power (Butler 2011). Hence, she argues that language and domination mechanisms are used to establish gender (Butler, 2011). In congruence with this, trans individuals are performing the gender that does not match their biological sex. However, because gender is socially constructed entirely, biological sex is irrelevant to the performance of said gender.
With the increase in prominence of transgender figures in popular culture, anti-trans sentiment is on the rise. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists do not respect the transgender identity as a valid one, arguing the importance of biological sex and the dangers to biological women. Scare-tactics used during colonialism are used by self-proclaimed feminists to cultivate an unfair image of transgender people as violent (Lewis, 2019), all the while negating the increased violence transgender people face (HRC, 2020). In doing so, terfs misconstrue feminist thinkers and quote their work as academic substantiation to their claims (Hart, 2019).
As the Terf movement continues to have a platform and listeners, transphobia continues to be treated as normal. Transgender people already deal with an excessive amount of mental health issues in comparison to cis people due to stress and anxiety which originates from the structural (sexual) violence and discrimination of our society (HRC, 2020). Therefore, it is imperative terfs’ arguments are critically assessed through an intersectional decolonial scope.
Beauvoir, D. S., Borde, C., & Malovany-Chevallier, S. (2011b). The Second Sex (1st ed.). Vintage.
Burns, K. (2019, Sept. 5). The rise of anti-trans “radical” feminists, explained. https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/9/5/20840101/terfs-radical-feminists-gender- critical Consulted on 22-01-2021.
Butler, J. (2011). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge.
Hart, A. A. (2019). “The beauvoir bluff: what gender idealists keep getting wrong about “The second sex””. https://areomagazine.com/2019/04/11/the-beauvoir-bluff-what-gender- idealists-keep-getting-wrong-about-the-second-sex/. Consulted on 19-01-2021
HRC (2020) Fatal Violence Against the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Community in 2020, https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-trans-and- gender-non-conforming-community-in-2020. Consulted on 21-01-2021
Klemmer, C. L., Arayasirikul, S., Raymnd, H .F. (2018) Transphobia-based violence, depression and anxiety in Transgender Women: The Role of Body Satisfaction, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, doi:10.1177/0886260518760015
Lewis, S. (2019) How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/07/opinion/terf-trans-women-britain.html. Consulted on 22-01-2021
Lugones, M. (2010). “Toward a Decolonial Feminism”, Hypathia, 25(4): 742-759
Rustin, S. (2020) “Feminist like me aren’t anti-trans – we just can’t discard the idea of “sex”” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/30/feminists-anti-trans-idea- sex-gender-oppression. Consulted on January 18th of 2021.