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We don’t talk about Gender…
Feminists and trans activists should be natural allies. Here’s why.
Oliver Burkeman issued a challenge today:
I’m on a long train journey, so I thought I’d have a go at this.
The state should not have the power to subjugate people on the basis of observed sex. Nor should the way a person is treated, relates to the world, or chooses to identify be constrained on that basis.
Right now, there is a concerted effort, all over the world, to return women to a state of sexual subservience and economic dependence on men. As systems of social support are cauterised or captured by an economic system that is eating itself from within, as poverty rises, birth rates fall and the buffer of the heterosexual family unit collapses under its own contradictions, there’s a drive to coerce women back into their traditional roles-into doing the vital life-making work of care and reproduction, whether they want to or not.
That tendency is often justified with arguments to ‘nature’, or claims that feminists, gay people and trans people are undermining ‘traditional values’, or the status of ‘the family’. Conservatives want ‘womanhood’ and ‘manhood’ to be rigid, impermeable categories. They want us all back in our boxes, where we belong.
So it’s no surprise that there’s a growing chorus of right-wing voices cracking down on the use of words that suggest that bimodal sex might not be the major determining factor in how a person relates to the worlds of work, love and sexuality.
The very existence of trans people undermines that essentialist, sexist dogma. It always has. That’s why trans people are under particular attack by right wing states and nations across the globe. Reactionaries can’t bear the idea that assigned sex roles might be something you can just…. say no to.
I don’t do this for my health, you know.
The heart of this agenda has, obviously, nothing to do with feminism. It is about controlling women. About keeping everyone in their place. Some of these right-wing groups have co-opted the language of ‘protecting women’- just as racist and xenophobic groups have done for centuries.
Sadly, many right-wingers have also co-opted the language of a minority of reactionary feminist thinkers who believe that trans women are a threat to feminism. This ‘trans exclusionary’ feminism reframes the debate, portraying trans women as a threat to women and children. >
This movement has been growing in prominence over the past decade, particularly in the U.K., where mainstream discomfort with the social presence of trans people, and individual fear of fast-changing social norms, has reframed itself as defence of ‘women’s sex based rights’.
A lot of the people who have been drawn into this movement are far from right wing. Many of them are women who are new to feminism, and who want to fight for a better, fairer world for women and girls. And a good many are uneasy with the fact that the so much of their energy seems to be taken up with fighting the trans right movement- which they falsely believe to be about access to traditionally sex-segregated spaces like prisons, changing rooms and women’s sports.
They have also convinced themselves that trans people sincerely want to ban the use of words like ‘woman’ and ‘mother’, as part of a vague, insidious plan to destroy women’s rights altogether. This is, of course, nonsense- but from the inside, it’s convincing nonsense.
It’s nonsense that recasts an entire minority group as potential predators or censorious enemies of free speech, and mainstream critics of trans rights as brave defenders of truth and liberty. This is convenient, because nobody wants to think of themselves as a bully. This incoherent argument has swept in all sorts of ‘anti-woke’ commentators who never previously showed any interest in women’s rights but who have now staked their entire reputation on the idea that calling a trans woman ‘sir’ is somehow radical, rather than just predictable and cruel.
In reality, trans people are no threat to women’s rights. In fact, feminism and trans politics share a common, essential idea: that biological, bimodal sex is not destiny, and nobody’s life should be determined by which social category they are shoved into at birth.
15. Those rigid, externally defined categories - of man and woman, binary and biddable- are about social roles and the division of labour. Some activists want to redefine those categories. Some want to explode them altogether. Either way, it’s a major threat to the status quo. Patriarchy can’t afford a world where women are just allowed to walk away of their divinely-ordained duty to be submissive drudges and passive vessels for childbearing and homemaking. Patriarchy doesn’t want anyone to be able to opt out.
That’s why it’s so, so useful to the forces of reaction to set up feminists and trans rights activists as natural enemies, rather than what we are: natural allies in the fight against patriarchy and male supremacy. We are far less of a threat when we fight each other.
But actually, we have all been harmed by the same violent lie that herds human beings into two categories- the violent lie that tells us all not just whether we are men or women, but what manhood or womanhood expects of us - and punishes anyone for defying those norms.
Feminists and trans activists have the same goals. We want to destroy or escape that violent structure of binary sex roles. We want to destroy the exploitative system of sex class. The disparate forces of global reaction are very worried that we’re going to do it.
And you know what? They’re right to be afraid. We are going to win. But we’ll get there a lot faster if some of us had the grace to admit when we were wrong, or had behaved badly.
Endless, ugly infighting does nothing to advance the cause of feminism. We need each other.
And we don’t have to like each other to work together. We don’t even have to forgive each other. We just have to remember who the actual enemy is.
Thanks for reading. If you’ve found this little rant useful, I wrote a book about all of this, and lots more. You can pick up a copy here: https://smarturl.it/uyy44r - although I’m afraid I use the dreaded g-word* more than once.
*it’s ‘gusset’. What did you expect?