Transgender: the challenge to feminist politics

There are so many battles yet to be won by feminists that we must not be distracted by internal schisms. If we can identify a shared political goal with trans women, says Rahila Gupta, we should be able to end this polarisation.

Rahila Gupta
16 April 2013

After decades of debating what it means to be a feminist,  who would have thought that even the category ‘woman’ would be up for discussion, and would need to be qualified with the prefix ‘born’ (i.e. born- woman)?  Surely as a ‘sex’ it was a biological construct - unlike the social construct ‘gender’- and fairly inviolable, until new technology came along to allow those who suffer from gender dysphoria to choose the body in which they feel most comfortable. Is it surprising that the debate that followed from such a fundamental shift in the way in which we think about our gender identities is so heated, on both sides of the divide?

There are many personal stories out in the public arena which portray the suffering and oppression of trans people because non-conformity of any kind is, by definition, a challenge to the mores of the established order.  The suicide of Lucy Meadows, a teacher in the process of transitioning, in response to her persecution by the press exemplifies the wide-spread prejudice against trans people.  Against this history, it becomes very difficult to have a reasoned debate about what transgender means for sex binaries, gender politics and feminism without touching a raw nerve in members of the trans community.

This was manifested on at least two separate occasions recently. The Easter special episode of Jonathan Creek, a BBC murder mystery, featured a transgender character, Jacqueline, which provoked a furious response from some viewers  who felt the representation was transphobic.  However, the joke was very much against Creek’s bumbling, prejudiced groping for the right pronouns and vocabulary and his humiliation in the face of Jacqueline’s calm and dignified response.  Similarly, the now infamous Suzanne Moore episode.  Her original ‘transgression’ was simply a complaint about the pressures on women to have an ‘ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual’. She was attacked unfairly, I believe, for her ‘transphobia’ which simply shuts down the debate. Moore was referring to Lea T, a real model, not some example plucked out of the air for humorous effect which makes the comment even less transphobic.

The genderqueer community includes a wide range of sexual identities and often conflicting political positions and goals, perhaps united only by the experience of transphobia. I propose to look specifically at the political challenge to feminism posed by male to female (MTF) transsexuals. The fact that those who claim that theirs is a liberatory new movement are adopting body shapes that have historically oppressed women is worth debating and no different to the debates we may have with the fashion industry or even amongst women.  As I have argued before on OpenDemocracy, any newly politicised group, fighting for its rights, tends to be strident in its demands until a more universal recognition of its rights allows it to acknowledge the contradictions and paradoxes of its political position.  Julie Burchill unhelpfully jumped to Moore’s rescue in a typically intemperate piece, ‘Cut it Out, you Transsexuals’ first published by the Observer, then expunged from its record with apologies to the trans community and now defiantly re-published by Toby Young on The Daily Telegraph online.

Central to feminist thinking is that gender is a social construct rather than a biological construct and that spurious arguments about the biological inferiority of women have been used to justify the existence of patriarchy. The imperative felt by transsexuals to undergo surgery and hormone therapy in order to identify as the sex to which they aspire thus undercuts a major plank of feminist politics.  Men who transition to women often adopt a hyper feminine style of dress and appearance, thus yoking femininity and women very much as patriarchy does, a link that feminists have been trying hard to break.  This behaviour reinforces the very norms and boundaries of gender and does not support Ray Filar's argument in her article Questioning the imperative to be gendered published on openDemocracy 5050 last month, that genderqueer politics are liberating because, ‘It's about seeing how constricting gender roles limit everybody's lives on a grand scale’. 

Additionally, genderqueer politics holds that the rigid imposition of gender identities is the main problem and that the binary system affects men and women equally whereas feminists like myself would see the oppression of one sex (women) by another (men) as the central issue, a point reinforced in an interesting analysis of gender by Debbie Cameron and Joan Scanlon in Trouble and Strife.  Scanlon also points to the contradiction that trans people, ‘want individuals to have the right to be identified as a man or as a woman (regardless of their biological sex) – not the right not to be identified by gender at all.’ 

It is also interesting that the most noise in public debates is made by men transitioning to women, another example of male privilege. I checked to see whether the numbers were greater than women to men (FTM ) transitions, and they are. According to a study carried out in 2009, of a community of 10,000 people in the UK, 6000 have transitioned, 80 per cent of whom are now trans women (MTF). But even if the numbers were small, we have seen how male entitlement operates in our society, for instance, the public visibility achieved by groups like Families 4 Justice even though it was only a tiny percentage of men who had been refused custody of their children, and usually because of their history of violence.  Whilst it may be understandable that women might wish to live as men in order to escape their ‘inferior’ sex, it is harder to understand why such large numbers of men should opt to transition to women and thereby, give up their male privilege, plus face the additional discrimination of adopting transgender identities. Nevertheless, the fact that more men than women have transitioned is itself an indication that patriarchy gives men a disproportionate power and freedom to choose how they live.  Jenny Roberts, a transsexual, explains why their response to rejection by born-women is so noisy:  the transsexual ‘often responds in the only way she knows - with male aggression and anger… the inescapable fact is that we've grown up with gender privilege. We've been taught to compete, take power and demand what should be ours.’

It is this history of lived experience as a different sex and gender that makes many women, particularly radical feminists and lesbians, wary of transsexuals. That is no justification for their exclusion from feminist events like the conference Julia Long, a militant radical feminist, was organising in 2012,  which was open only to ‘women born women’.  In the storm that followed, the venue refused to host the conference. Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters was invited to speak and when she discovered this closed door policy she withdrew, writing to Long that, ‘At a time when the need to create democratic and inclusive spaces for discussion is greater than ever, I am saddened to see that yet again, we seem to be locked into the past, when so called progressive political spaces even amongst feminist circles often become regressive and exclusive.’

However, there is a real issue when we come to service provision in sensitive areas where women are escaping an abusive past and need the security and comfort of a woman-only environment.  How do we balance our equalities duties with the need for a women-only space especially when employing transsexuals who have not finished the transition?  The Sex Discrimination Act takes this into account partly when it stipulates that discrimination may be lawful when a particular job requires a worker of a particular sex and the transgender applicant is still in the process of transitioning. However, once the transgender person has received a gender recognition certificate (GRC), they must be treated equally with those in their acquired gender. But  surgery or hormone therapy are not conditional to getting a GRC so long as the applicant can meet eligibility criteria like having gender dysphoria, having lived for two years in their acquired gender and intending to live permanently in their acquired gender. This is the rub.

A majority of trans people (an estimated 6,500 of the 10,000 quoted above) have not undergone surgery for a number of reasons to do with availability, affordability and opting not to, sometimes for reasons that should find favour with feminists because we believe that gender is not a biological construct. But the paradox is that the possession of male genitalia would make their presence in women only environments much more problematic. But why should it be problematic if we don’t believe that gender is biologically determined?  This brings us back to the knotty issue of biology versus gender – if conditioning is what makes men violent, then surely unhappiness with ‘maleness’ indicates that that the conditioning is unravelling and therefore makes a trans woman no more or less likely than born- women to be prone to violence.

When many of the younger feminists are actively bringing supportive men into the movement and into the conference halls and debating the roles they should adopt, it does not make sense to exclude trans people. At the end of the day, it is about a shared politics, rather than identities per se, of working with trans people who share and support feminist goals. The respect shown by a trans woman like Jenny Roberts who says, ‘We should accept that there are groups where our presence is not appropriate and groups where it is. And we should stop acting like we still have the privileges that we grew up with’ would go a long way to end this polarisation.






Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData