Your Anti-Trans Bigotry Is Not Feminism: On TERFs, From a Trans Woman

This year, among the student body, there has been a small but vocal group of people—colloquially called TERFs, “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists”—who have given voice to a certain kind of anti-trans bigotry, masquerading as feminism. I, someone who has recently come out as a trans woman, would like to respond to these voices. 

I’m hesitant to write this, because I know that most people who do not already agree with me will simply stop reading. But, I implore you, if you are unsure about your thoughts on trans people, if you feel uncomfortable about trans women ‘claiming’ womanhood, if you believe feminism is incompatible with trans people: please continue reading; I will not distort your points; I will attempt to treat them (your points) fairly; and I am writing, first and foremost, to you. Of course I will be sassy and at times mean, because you make me feel like shit, like I shouldn’t exist. But what matters, according to you at least, is the science of it all, the logic, the facts of reality: so focus on those, and ignore my attitude; I’ll focus on the science and the logic and the facts too. I do not need to appeal to pathos or ethos to display your unscientific and bigoted prejudices.

(Before I start, I should say that these are my thoughts, and my thoughts only. If you want to read a much better and smarter argument, I recommend Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), which thoroughly investigates the same things I do here.)

Hello: I am a trans woman. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean much more than the statement “I am a woman.” 

“But you have a penis, right?” I know I have a cock; why do you think you have to tell me this? I can see myself and my body. But to all women, I say: haven’t you also looked in the mirror and felt like your body, too, isn’t good enough? Haven’t you also seen how you’re different from ‘the woman,’ inside and out, and felt shame and despair? I am not so different from you. We are all different from the masculine or feminine ideal. You are different from every other woman just as much as you are different from me.

“But,” you say, “you’re different from me in a fundamental way.” Indeed, you say there is something about my cock, or my hormones, or my chromosomes, which is fundamentally incompatible with womanhood. Biology. “Biological and material reality.” That is what gender is, you say; well, let us investigate biology. 

The claim is that a woman is a “biological and material reality.” First, we should clarify what is meant by ‘biology.’ Bigots speak much of ‘biology.’ Yet, they fundamentally misunderstand what biology is. 

Biology is a science. Just like chemistry or linguistics, it has theories, axioms, a defined subject matter, etc. But biology is not ‘real’; it is not a ‘reality’; the things it studies are real, but it itself, as a science, is just theories. It is explanatory and practicable. 

In fact, biology, chemistry, and linguistics all study the same thing: ‘material’ reality; they merely study different parts of it. They all have their own theories, and their own ‘realities’; they are all useful for different things. Neither is more ‘real’ than any other. Indeed, you can look at any thing, and describe it biologically, chemically, and linguistically, and all of these are the same amount of ‘real’: they are real insofar as they are useful. They are real insofar as they explain and predict phenomena in the real world. We say these theories are ‘real’ when we see them played out in real, experiential life, when they are confirmed by experience; so the theory is not the condition of reality for experience, but rather, experience is the condition of reality for the theory. 

Here’s how science works (since you love science). You have a theory. It is useful because it explains many things. Then you discover a new thing which doesn’t accord with the theory. Should you (a) deny existence of the thing, or (b) form a new theory? The scientific method says (b).

Yet the TERF insists upon (a): they cling to a biological ‘reality’ which is really just not properly explanatory. They simply deny the being of trans people. What they are doing, is denying the ‘real’, while enforcing a purely theoretical ‘reality’.

The common link between TERFs and all other bigots is this ontological deprivation. When they discover trans people they deny their being, and instead of retheorizing to account for them, they stop all thought processes at the initial emotional reaction of “Ah! What the hell!”—rather than simply taking a breath and retheorizing to explain the newfound multiplicity.

When Trump lost the election, his supporters instinctively went “Ah! That can’t be true!” and denied the election results outright. They simply couldn’t fathom why and how Trump could have lost; so they did not attempt to overcome the cognitive hurdle of figuring that out, they just gave up and said “I knew it was fake!” And you transphobes are just the same.

Ultimately, this comes down to a debate over what is real. What is real: what happens in this world, what we see and experience every day, or theoretical apparatuses? I say, what is right in front of us is real; and the point of theory is simply to explain this, to make sense of this reality. It is disingenuous to say that science is ‘real’ in a strict sense. It is explanatory. To use philosophical language, it has no bearing on ontology. 

Preaching a ‘biological reality’ is like telling someone to speak ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ English. You are prescribing rather than describing. I don’t believe in a ‘correct’ English: the only correct English is the one which is actually spoken.

The same applies for gender. The correct gender is the one which simply is; the one people experience, express, and communicate. I see many trans people, including myself, and all of us have a different, but equally real, experience of gender. Whether or not a certain theory or science accommodates us, or in other words, adequately explains us, we will continue to be, continue to experience, continue to exist.

I have bad news! The material reality is that I experience a certain cocked-up womanhood every day, and it is so real. Every day I look at myself and I say: I wish I had tits—And I will get them. In reality!

It is clear to see that anti-trans bigotry which argues for a ‘biological’ conception of womanhood is misguided. But it is also anti-feminist and misogynistic. Defining women as merely ‘biological’ things, or even just ‘material’, is exactly what the feminist movement has been fighting against.

A common TERF idea is that trans women are really just men ‘invading’ women’s spaces, and in some way ‘encroaching’ upon the purity of womanhood. Yet I hardly need to say how misogynistic, and incredibly old-fashioned, it is to conceive of womanhood as being inherently ‘pure’ or to portray being a woman as being any sort of helpless creature being ‘invaded’. It paints womanhood as a virginal thing, a type of virginity; which is just how womanhood has been defined under all patriarchies. Most of all, it defines womanhood fundamentally in terms of men. If womanhood is any sort of purity which dangerous men try to invade, then being a woman is necessarily defined negatively in relation to the man. 

The fundamental problem with this argument is that womanhood is defined as something a woman ‘has’, instead of something a woman ‘is’. At the end of the day, what it means to ‘be a woman’ cannot be reduced to any one thing, one characteristic, one criterion: it is a type of being. Identity is experiential, hermeneutic and self-justifying.

I believe that womanhood is not any quality, any purity, any virginity; it is a type of being. It is not something that I myself or any one person can define. It is not something which can be taken away from someone, made impure, or encroached upon; it is not a ‘thing’; saying something like this is no better than saying that womanhood is defined by whether someone’s hymen is intact or not. 

I believe that womanhood is not a thing someone ‘has’. A woman is something—or rather, someone—that someone is. 

Saying that womanhood is a thing someone ‘has’ is reducing womanhood to a thing, essentially to genitalia; and that is to reduce the experience of being a woman to being a thing with genitalia. Perhaps this is a good way of expressing the way that ‘the man’ sees women: just a thing with genitalia, just a thing to be fucked, to be fucked or to be used for reproduction. But this is not how womanhood is experienced by women, it is how womanhood is experienced by men. And why should we define womanhood in terms of how it is experienced by men? Shouldn’t we rather define it according to how it is experienced by women?

Womanhood, as a multiplicitous, complex, totally variegated thing—isn’t this the feminist conception of womanhood? Isn’t this how womanhood is experienced by women? It is nothing else but plainly misogynistic to say that womanhood is a purely sexual or purely objectified experience, always a contingent one and always one relative to the man. To be a woman is not contingent on whether a woman is ‘useful’ for the man.

The simple truth is that my tits will be just as real as anyone’s hormones or chromosomes or any other biological or material characteristic. More than debating what is ‘real’, here is what is important: my tits, or more properly, my experience of tits, has a bearing on ontology, while biological characteristics, or any type of ‘having’, does not. Being has a bearing on ontology, having does not. 

Of course you can deny all this. But it comes at a price: if you say that being a woman is simply having certain genitalia or bodily characteristics, or a certain reproductive system, what of people that get cancer, and have such body parts removed or modified? Do they lose their womanhood, do they stop being a woman? What of people with PCOS who, for completely ‘biological’ reasons, have a hormone imbalance? Are these not women? Must women have blonde hair and blue eyes as well? Those are biological!

And, for a long time, to be a woman, you did have to have blonde hair and blue eyes; Black women, in fact, all women except white women, were not considered women, not considered people, in this country; they were animals, savages, less-than-human. So it is not at all fictional or dystopian when I propose that a biological conception of womanhood could very easily lead to such racism and other bigotry; because it has come from it. That is the reality of history. Race science, eugenics, these are biological pseudosciences, which take so-called biological characteristics to be the foundation of identities and ethical theories—to align yourself with these things is to side with bigotry.

She is not merely biological, and she is also not merely useful, she does not merely do a certain thing or serve a certain purpose. If a woman is simply someone who has a vagina, then she is a woman because she exists to be fucked; if a woman is someone who has a uterus, then she is a woman because she exists to be bred; if a woman is someone who has any certain thing, then she is a woman only if and because that certain thing performs its function in relation to the man

There can be a truly feminist womanhood which is not conditioned by ‘the man,’ which exists by, for and because of women; but this womanhood must be trans inclusive. It cannot define womanhood as having anything to do with biology or any other science, because in that conception, womanhood is not an ontological condition but rather a derivative theoretical one, which is still dependent upon the man’s primary being. No, ‘woman’ cannot simply be an adjective, it must be something—someone—that someone is, on account of herself and only herself; independent, self-determining, free to do as she pleases, free to choose what to do with her body. There is truly no ‘The Woman,’ only that woman or this woman, and they are all self-determining, independent, non-contingent women. 

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