“How is it a lie? No one asks me if I’m a man/male. The point of being a transsexual woman is to transition, blend in with other women and move on with life.”
TX TS Lady, Twitter messages with author, (January 4, 2020).
Upon examining the social activist statements made by TERFs, the previous work examined how discursive language is used to control the social institution of womanhood from a trans exclusionary position. This companion work has no easy task in assuming a position of the TERF phenom that could be “queered” to showcase a possible queer future of this practice. One of the ways I have already witnessed this happening is in the amount of trans women I encounter on social media and in activist circles online who seem to agree with TERFs on many of their issues. The following seemed a clear frame for this queering: If you can’t queer them, join them… as it were. With the existence of trans women who already queer the sanctity of TERF womanhood this theoretical musing will play with TERF ideals from a transgender perspective that will illustrate a queering of what it means to “be a TERF.” A queer subversion of who counts as a TERF could also queer who belongs in biological women’s only spaces.
Another queer lens one could view this theoretical phenom through is a post-structuralist perspective. This work will argue that authors such as Judith Butler assert feminist theories that not only include trans people but also critique the cis mass collective with just as much scrutiny, placing us all in a critical lens that evaluates human gender as a performance of socially accepted stereotypes for any individual involved. This work will conclude with some personal thoughts defining the type of queer future I fight for in relation to the identity movement and what has been loosely defined herein as TERF ideology.
The basis of TERF ideology is that membership to womanhood is defined by a series of assumed biological criteria, therefore one could queer the very characteristics of who counts as a gender critical feminist within this discourse by introducing alien bodies within the sphere of whom upholds said discourse. Time and culture can shift the meaning of a social artifact in ways that create different queer possibilities at different times (Barker, p. 102). As trans culture has gained more traction in the broad gaze of mainstream culture there have been a multitude of voices that arise concerning the shared beliefs of all trans people. As the quote at the top of this article indicates, trans women (for the sake of narrowing this topic to known social practices) hold many different views and can take on diverse, sometimes conflicting identities depending on the individual. TX TS Lady, the near anonymous internet handle of one trans woman who follows publicly known anti-transgender activist Maya Forstater, had a candid message back and forth with me that inspired this project. She told me that she is member of a huge “circle of transsexuals” who not only agree with Maya Forstater, they follow her on Twitter. One main point that TX TS Lady argued to me in our messages was that transsexual women were biologically male and did not belong in women’s spaces such as bathrooms or sports e.g. (TX TS Lady, Twitter 2020). Her beliefs place her in this theoretical queer framework “as” a TERF, which complicates the situation of inclusion by subverting the “role” of member (Raymond, p. xvii).
Janice Raymond, known TERF and professor of women’s studies, wrote in her canonical work The Transsexual Empire, that gender is a social construction and that humans perform the stereotypes of those gender expectations when they transition (Raymond, p. 3). One could also deconstruct these words by “playing with language” (Barker, 101), queering their meaning in a self-situated context by accepting the post-structuralist tenet that there is no universal, intended meanings behind a text, and that the reader is free to generate their own (Barker, p 102). The words of Janice Raymond, intended to build the base argument for the exclusion of trans women in the social institution of womanhood, offers the most revealing words that can be “queered.” Post-structuralists also believe that gender is a social construct, that we have no fixed identity, and that identities at all are culturally generated (Barker, p. 57). Post-structuralist thinkers such as Judith Butler would argue in tandem that gender is performative and that trans folks engage in impersonation absolutely in that gender is an acquired social state (Butler, p. 151). The “queering” occurs with the acceptance that everyone performs gender, and that all humans in a social environment are simply impersonating an impersonation of an impersonation of a socially situated gender expression (Barker, p. 79). This stance places every gendered individual on the same continuum, TERFs themselves guilty of learning, internalizing, perpetuating, and performing the same stereotypes as trans folks or any other gendered group.
One could read into The Transsexual Empire a treatise that supports the existence of trans people as “valid” women, in that gender, sex, class, and race among other social positions are all socially generated and only make sense in context to their active social centers. In relation to Foucault’s notion of position (Shiner, pp. 388-389), if some trans women believe in the same biological reality as TERFs, and also argue the same social construction and positionality as TERFs, they “position” themselves within an exclusive, biological women’s space not through their rejection of certain women’s autonomy but rather by assimilation into the main discourse. TERF’s like Raymond might have argued in the past that trans women do not belong in biological women’s spaces, but by deconstructing the concepts through a queer theory framework the nature of “belonging” becomes complicated, and the question of inclusion in women’s spaces becomes blurred in a trademark queer fashion.
The ghost of queer future’s past: What has been done, and what can we do now?
Trans-feminist activists such as I stand at a rare place in history. Our faces are more visible today than at any other moment since the dawn of the Gay Liberation Movement. There has been an existing queer world being perpetually built and re-built for us, upon which we stand at a precipice armed with our flags and our vision; fueled by new knowledge and a fire for rebellion. Through intersectionality (Favors, p. 19) it can be theoretically possible to explore how specifically trans women of color stand at position (Shiner, vis a vis Foucault) of disparate vulnerability within a feminist context. Aside from a biologically essential argument, trans women of color inarguably suffer extreme violence, economic hardship or homelessness, housing discrimination, and make up disproportionate percentages of those forced into sex work or drug work/abuse. This work will refuse to argue the exacerbating subsequent suicide rate. Since the TERF argument is centered on trans women in that they identify as women, and the violence and discrimination often occur as results of the social inscription of gendered responses to the bodies of others (Butler, p. 177), the disparity could be examined as an attack at feminized individuals and consequently of profound concern to the feminist agenda. As a trans activist, my arguments with TERFs tend to be pointed at exposing how identity-based, biologically essential exclusion does not keep women and girls safe, but rather places the safety of others in jeopardy. I focus on turning TERFs into TIRFs (trans inclusive rational feminists), a far more positive and radically queer approach than the identity-based politics of the observable past. I see them as people with other interests at stake, not as enemies.
We stand at the edge of “two days” dawning (a queer and hopefully academic laugh out loud); one in which we endlessly fight as two separate groups as if we aspire to two dichotomous endgames, or one in which we end the identity wars and focus our collective energy in transformative social change beginning with the most vulnerable, and in ripples affecting us all for the better from the center-out as expressed by intersectional feminists such as bell hooks (DeFilippis, Pilot p. 6).
The future of transgender culture is a vastly unpredictable cultural landscape. This work concedes that not only TERFs but also trans people are a diverse, often disconnected non-group only unified by sometimes arbitrary conditions of material reality. As individuals in different social locations, trans people can often adopt variant identities based on their cultural situations, even placing them in the best place to form a pervasive queer rebellion that challenges the existing belief structure of an exclusive, biologically manipulative force of power-knowledge (Shiner, p. 384). If trans women cannot be accepted as women by any given arbitrary woman, perhaps she can still queer the space in ways that place her in support for that woman’s autonomy, therein cementing a chance to shift the main discourse that dictates who can comfortably sit within the circle of womanhood.
This work has used queer theory to examine the affective nature of TERF discourse from a transgender perspective. By resisting the existing power relation between radical feminists who exclude trans women from womanhood and gender non-conforming others, trans folks are exponentially painting a world once ruled by dominant discourse with rainbow colored question marks and rebellion. TERF ideology can be seen from a transgender feminist’s standpoint as a failure of feminism’s true transformative power. In a highly queer fashion, this work has attempted to subvert the meaning of exclusivity and its inextricable link to social inequality. Whether by joining it, by putting our “queer goggles” on to read it, or by turning existing feminisms against it, TERF ideology like any other oppressive force must be evaluated for problematic value and weighed against its own battle cries for social justice. One possible way this battle could be fought is with a broader view of who we are fighting for. By taking the care to explore ways in which we can queer this social change effort, this work has been adequate at presenting a queer future in which we face those poised against us as subjects to be reached with reason, not as enemies to be conquered and feared.
How queer is that?
Barker, M., Scheele, J. (2016). Queer: A graphic history. Icon Books, LTD. London.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble. [2007 edition]. Routledge, UK.
DeFilippis, J. (2018). A new queer liberation movement: The targets of influence, mobilization, and benefits of a new social movement. Queer Activism After Marriage Equality Chapter 4, Routledge, Oxfordshire. Retrieved from https://pilot.wright.edu/d2l/le/content/540787/viewContent/2999530/View
Favors, A. (2016). Coming out as a transgender advocate: Laverne Cox, intersectional rhetoric, and intersectionality. Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric, 6(1/2): pp. 15-22. Retrieved from https://eds-a-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.libraries.wright.edu/eds /pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=7&sid=da033a23-672a-4983-978e-b1d4e733597d%40sessionmgr4007
Raymond, J. (1994). The transsexual empire: The making of the she-male. Teachers College Press, New York. [Webpage].Retrieved from https://janiceraymond.com/the-transsexual-empire/
Shiner, L. (1982). Reading Foucault: Anti-method and the genealogy of power-knowledge. History and Theory, 21(3): pp. 382-399. DOI 10.2307/2505097