There's a political group with chapters sprinkled all around the country. One chapter endorsed a statement from some women's group about womens' "Sex Based Rights". An LGBTQIA action group within that same political group said that by doing so, that chapter had done something transphobic and transmisogynistic and that they needed to retract their endorsement and apologize to all the transgender women who might have been offended by their endorsement, or else get kicked out of the political group.
And what were these "sex based rights"?
Content warning: Potentially inflammatory material from here on out. And serious, guaranteed-inflammatory content as you go farther down. Trigger warning issued. Trigger warning with flames and radioactive emblems. Proceed at your own risk:
Well, some of the supporters of that local chapter said this was about remedies that had been designed to address women's exclusion from various forms of political and social participation. A sort of affirmative action for women to offset the effects of patriarchy, of women's oppression. They said that including transgender women ran the risk of diluting that original intention, and that it made more sense to use language that guaranteed representation of transgender women AND transgender men but did so separately from the original remedies, which had been designed with cisgender women in mind, i.e., women who had been regarded and labeled and treated as female people for their entire lives. They also said some women's political groups wished to operate as cisgender-women only because they had always been separatist, not allowing men to participate, and the lifetime experience of transgender women was a mixture of factors making their situation different from that of the women who'd been in those groups all along.
"I can see where that's going to be a problematic position for trans people", I said. "Still, there may be a way to bridge some gaps here. They do have a point about experience and identity. As a genderqueer person who identifies as a male girl, I respect transgender people who don't want to include people like me, because they believe being trans is biologically built in, that if I'm a woman I'm female, and that the only healthy thing to do about being transgender is to transition. My situation is different from theirs. As long as they're not denying the validity of my gender issues I don't mind if they want to run groups that I'm not welcome in".
I checked in with the LGBTQIA Action Group, the LAGs. "Oh, yes", they said, "we sent those demands to the chapter that endorsed that horrible statement. We want them to take our concerns seriously. We'd love it if they'd have a dialog with us, but they refuse to respond!"
Then I went back to the local chapter supporters, the pro-discussion folks calling themselves Dialog. I told them "I got the impression the LAG folks are open to listening if the people in Dialog and the specific chapter that endorsed that statement will listen to them in turn".
Then I went off to read a copy of the original "Sex Based Rights" statement, the endorsement of which had kicked off all this. Winced a lot. Yeah, the statement has a lot of language that, if not blatantly transphobic, felt like it was chock-full of dog whistle terms and phrases. I decided I didn't like the phrase "sex-based rights" itself. In general, I think people don't have rights based on their sex. You may have remedies that have been made available to your sex on affirmative action grounds but a right is an intrinsic entitlement. Men aren't entitled to something intrinsically as a consequence of being men, or male, or both. Whatever they're entitled to is either because they're human, or human adults, or else it's situationally male or about being men because of something that they and only they experience. Are women? I could formulate some rights that all pregnant or potentially pregnant people should have, perhaps, or that all menstruating or potentially menstruating people should have, but if I did, those rights came from those situations. Whatever. I sure wouldn't have endorsed the statement I was reading. But it didn't seem so horrible that I'd demand that anyone who did be kicked out of the organization.
"I'm ready to discuss the matter with Dialog", the LAG activist said, "but I have no interest in wasting my time with TERFs who say I'm not a woman. If they want to talk with us and apologize for what they've done, hey I'm right here, but in this organization it is already an accepted principle that trans women are women. That means in any situation where we're talking about women, if they try to excluse trans women, that's a hate crime and they don't belong in our organization!"
I said, "Look, some of them seem to be trying to incorporate and accommodate an understanding of trans people. Many of them don't like the term 'cisgender' for themselves but they aren't all insisting that trans women aren't women. One person suggested the phrase 'natal women'. Do you acknowledge a reason why they might legitimately want to meet politically by themselves as 'natal women'?"
"Trans women are natal women", the LAG activist replied.
"Wait, not even all transgender people claim that being transgender means you were born that way. I know it's a popular viewpoint but you wouldn't kick someone out of a transgender group for saying they weren't born trans, would you?"
"You're wasting your time with those TERFs. If they want to apologize and retract their message of hate, I'm right here. But they won't because they're bigoted fascists".
"Listen", I said, exasperated. "you've clearly got the stronger political position. Inclusiveness is always going to look more justified than a reason to exclude someone. So I'm sure you can pressure them into saying the kinds of things you want to hear, or get the organization to boot them out if they won't. But this is also a public education opportunity. Do you want them to see the light, or do you just want them to feel the heat?"
The LAG activist shrugged. "It's a settled issue. If they're going to be doing hate crimes I want them kicked out, simple as that".
"Frankly", declared the Dialog member, "I don't care what their viewpoint is. Not while they're calling us 'TERFs'. That's a slur. It's used to discredit us. They call us that while they're beating us, there was a women's march in London, did you hear about that? These men, calling themselves transgender women, barged in and chased women down side streets, attacking them. And the police did nothing!"
"So you don't like being called 'TERF'. You don't like the word that they use for you", I said. "You see the irony in that, don't you?"
"Transgenders are trying to invade our women's spaces and take away our rights as women. They want to erase women's identities. They aren't women. They're men. They're male. The correct word for adult male people is 'men'. Not 'women'. They want to invade women's prisons with their penises and rape women. They want to hide in women's bathroom stalls and molest little girls. And we're not gonna put up with it!"
"Okay, Dialog folks", I said, addressing the group. "Even if you don't think the LAG people are genuinely open to listening to anything they don't already agree with, you need to care about public opinion. You need to care about how the rest of the organization is going to view you. And although the LAG folks sound inflexible, you are managing to sound even more so and it's not a good look".
I picked up my old battered copy of The Women's Room, the book cover that has "LADIES" crossed out and "WOMEN'S" inked in over it. "I understand why you value the word 'women'. I think it was either Robin Morgan or Gloria Steinem, relating the story of having a sit-down with the newspaper editor, and explaining why they didn't like the newspaper referring to adult female people as 'girls' since adult males were always designated as 'men'.
"And the editor said, 'So what would you prefer...ladies?'. And the feminist women practically held their noses and winced. That term, 'ladies', was polluted with notions of screening out those who aren't ladylike, all that 'act like a lady' crap, you know? They wanted the newspaper to use the term 'women', they told him.
"The word 'woman' was nearly entirely associated with the physical body. In our society, girls become women not by 'proving' you are one, the way boys 'become' men, but by going through biological puberty. Even the creepier social associations, like 'Has he made a woman out of you yet' — like being heterosexually active 'makes you a woman' — even those had mostly biological meanings, more than social attributes. So by choosing the word 'woman', it wouldn't look like feminists wanted to be the new arbiters of which adult females get to qualify.
"I get that. Why you liked the word. And I get that it's been in political use by feminists since then.
"But you aren't going to convince anybody, anywhere, that you're being anything other than bigoted and biased by saying transgender women are factually wrong about being women. I'd think feminist women more than anyone would understand that word use is politically loaded. Think back to how 'man' was supposed to mean 'any human being' but it excluded women, and how 'he' and 'him' were used to mean any person. The dictionary said that was correct. But feminists said word use changes when society changes. And the feminists made our language change. You also sound pretty silly saying biology is destiny, by the way."
LAG people: "But trans women were not born with male organs. If she is a woman those are her organs so they're female organs. And those Dialog...persons... they are TERFs. It means Trans Exclusive Radical Feminists. That's what they are. I don't see why they don't like being called what they actually are".
Dialog people: "No one is denying their right to exist. They have a right to dress and behave however they want. They can see themselves however they like and have any understanding of themselves they feel comfortable with, but they have no right to impose their ideas on others or claim rights that were originally based on addressing the historical denial of women's rights as a sex".
LAG people: "See, we told you. Hateful transphobes. Kick them out. I don't have time for this shit"
Dialog people: "Words have meanings. Male people are men. Men are male people. A person with a penis is male. These men calling themselves transgender women are mentally ill. Men are not women. Males are not women. A person with a penis is not a woman. See, we told you, hateful patriarchal misogynists. You can't make us agree with their bullshit".
LAG people: "See, they're bad. Bad people are bad. Which is bad. Which makes them bad. The things they are saying are defined as bad. Sure, we're open to a dialog. A dialog about how they are bad".
Dialog people: "Four legs good. Two legs bad. Four legs good. Two legs bad..."
I want my two months back. I'm particularly disgusted with some of the Dialog folks, who seemed determined to live up to the worst things said about them by the LAG contingent seeking to have them kicked out. But both sides had some participants who originally seemed to be trying to find language that the other side would accept, at least long enough to have a conversation. People who were making the attempt in good faith. And there were other people trying to speak to activists on both sides, I wasn't the only one doing this diplomacy act. But our louder and more insistent colleagues shouted us down on both sides.
They should all be glad I'm not God. Because you know what I'd do if I were? You know those cruise ships that are languishing out in the ocean because of coronavirus? I'd like to put everyone from both groups onto those ships, and I'd confine one Dialog member and one LAG member to each cabin and quarantine them there together. They deserve each other.
You're secluded in quarantine yourself, come to think of it, and all the performances and events have been cancelled, so it's a good time to read a book!
My book has been published by Sunstone Press. It is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in paperback and ebook, and as ebook from Apple, Kobo, and directly from Sunstone Press themselves.
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