Compiled by PQ Monthly Staff
Over Memorial Day weekend, Portland played host to two related conferences—Radfems Respond and New Narratives—that have sparked notoriety for the unsettling views their participants put forth about transgender women and the place of trans people in our culture.
Radfems Respond was organized by a branch of feminists informally known as TERFs (an acronym for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists). Broadly speaking, TERFs view gender as a social construct, and consider women the victims of patriarchal conditioning, going so far as to consider femininity an outcome of sympathizing with one’s oppressors, akin to Stockholm Syndrome.
They’re known to reject the participation of trans women in feminism, arguing that because trans women have been assigned a male gender at birth and socialized male, they bring “male energy” into spaces with them, as well as residual male privilege.
While those of a small, marginalized portion of the feminist community today, TERF ideas once held great sway. TERF author and professor Janice Raymond, for instance, advised the Health and Human Services Department during the Reagan administration, using her transphobic views to help see trans-related health care be deemed medically unnecessary in the early 1980s, a decision that is only now being reversed, and which was detrimental to countless trans women and men in the interim.
Gloria Steinem once espoused TERF views, though she has since recanted. Germaine Greer published TERF influenced writings as recently as 1999.
According to TransAdvocate editor Cristan Williams, the official schism between TERFs and mainstream Radical Feminists came recently. “In 2008, the feminist community noticed that there was a real difference between the ‘radical feminism’ of people like Janice Raymond and Andrea Dworkin” Williams says. “They noticed that there are many Radical Feminists who are supportive of trans people, like Dworkin, and those who are viciously anti-trans, like Raymond. These non-trans feminists began referring to the supporters of Raymond as ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists’ or TERFs for short.”
The main difference between the groups, Williams says, is the somewhat mystical, outmoded idea of “sex essentialism.” “While TERFs call themselves Radical Feminists, they are really more of an offshoot of Radical Feminism, because, instead of rejecting sex essentialism, the TERF movement uses sex essentialism as its ideological foundation. TERFs are generally sex-essentialists who believe that sex is a natural binary because there exists some undefined male or female essence that is found in all men and women. Sometimes this sexed essence is viewed as habits acquired during early socialization and at other times it is some specific sex attribute. The specific essence that TERFs appealed to changes from time to time, depending on the argument they make.”
The New Narratives Conference, which took place at Q Center, was related to the TERFs’ Radfems Respond gathering, but very different. It was organized by trans women who, by and large, agree with TERF ideology. Many of the New Narratives participants attended Radfems Respond on the one day the latter opened its space to non “women-born-women.” “Inspired” by Radfems Respond, New Narratives organizer Gender Minefield wrote, “we wanted to put on an event that would be just as innovative, except geared toward trans women.” (It is assumed that “Gender Minefield” and “Snowflake Especial” are pseudonyms used by the New Narratives organizers to preserve their anonymity.)
In their write ups of the event, Minefield and fellow organizer Snowflake Especial seem to lament the current state of trans activism, with Especial stating, “It took twenty years of queer theory pomo nonsense, anti-feminist backlash, porn culture, and men’s rights activism to get trans politics into the sorry state it’s in today, where every day on Tumblr I read young queer activists write gibberish like ‘A trans woman with a full beard and a giant dick is just as much of a woman as my mom, if she says so,’ with a straight face. Like, really???”
This sort of reactionary rant is an Especial specialty judging by her Tumblr, where she stakes out contrarian “Gender Critical” positions that run in opposition to the current goals of trans activists, such as insisting trans women are biologically male, or that trans women who have raped women be housed in men’s prisons.
Fellow New Narratives organizer Minefield espouses a similar outlook. In a Tumblr post-dated May 3, 2014, she articulates the crux of her view of trans identity. “The blanket statement ‘all trans women are women’ is not useful because it does not accurately describe the experiences of trans women as a group,” they state. “Trans women who are read as their birth sex are treated like gender nonconforming males; not women. I’m not saying it isn’t painful, I’m saying that’s reality.”
Minefield also asserts that no means of medical intervention can fundamentally alter the biological state of maleness or femaleness within an individual; furthermore, the condition of being brought up socialized into the mores of a given sex precludes a trans person from being able to claim that they had “always been” their true gender. “When I was little, I acted in ways that I learned were considered feminine,” Minefield gives as a personal example in the May 3 Tumblr post. “I also learned that since I was a male and hence a boy, this was unacceptable. When I got older, I still acted in ways that were considered odd, but mainly because I was perceived (correctly) to be male. So there was no way I could have known ‘how it feels to be a woman’ because I’d never been treated like one. Similarly, there was no way I could know how it feels to be female, since I never had (and never truly will have) a female body. My body has been feminized through transition, but it’s not the same thing.”
In the view of Minefield, this sensibility is one that is healthy for trans and cis people alike to embrace. “Accepting all of these facts has allowed me to make peace with a lot of things about being trans that used to trouble me, and I’ve achieved much greater consistency in my thinking,” they state. “I honestly believe that a more realistic approach to conceiving transness will lead to healthier outcomes for us, physically and mentally; as well as allowing us to co-exist ethically and respectfully with women born female.”
It’s views like these Williams speaks of when saying, “There is no ideological difference between the TERF and Gender Critical Feminist movement; they are one in the same. Gender Critical Feminism teaches that because sex is a binary, intersex people are actually deformed men and women and trans people are always the sex they were assigned at birth.”
In this way, Williams views TERFs and Gender Critical Feminists as having more in common with conservative Christians than with either the feminist or LGBTQ communities. “If one were to substitute ‘nature’ for ‘god,’ the sex essentialism found in the TERF, Gender Critical Feminist crew is somewhat similar to the sex essentialism found in right-wing ideology,” she says. “It is therefore not uncommon to find anti-gay propaganda mills and Tea Party politicians quoting TERF and Gender Critical Feminists and TERF and Gender Critical Feminists quoting anti-gay Tea Party propagandists. Just as right-wingers have token gay people, the TERF and Gender Critical Feminist crew has token trans people. Likewise, the Gender Critical Feminist/TERF movement, much like other sex essentialist ideologies, encourages trans people to detransition.”
TransActive Gender Center Communications Coordinator Kit Crosland similarly finds Minefield’s Sex Essentialist views problematic and potentially harmful to the public’s understanding of trans issues. “I find (Minefield’s) statement to be pretty absurd: ‘The blanket statement “all trans women are women” is not useful because it does not accurately describe the experiences of trans women as a group,’” Crosland says.
“Most of the time when we’re talking about women, though, we’re talking about things that are relevant to all women. Issues surrounding misogyny and rape culture hurt all women, whether they are transgender or not. And this is where the blanket statement ‘all trans women are women’ is incredibly useful to help people understand. The statement ‘all trans women are women’ illustrates a very important concept—that while there are certainly trans people who identify outside of the binary as neither men nor women, trans people who do identify within the binary do not belong to some third gender. There are not women and trans women, but rather cis women and trans women, who are all, at the end of the day, women.”
The question of how New Narratives was booked into Q Center is troubling. In her write up following the event, Especial admitted being less than forthcoming with the space’s officials when arranging New Narratives, saying, “We had booked the Q Center in Portland for the event, but we kept things pretty vague with them in advance of the meeting, in case their vision of trans politics conflicted with ours.”
Our interview with Q Center Public Relations Manager Logan Lynn, however, revealed the organizers needn’t have worried. When presented with information about the Gender Critical views espoused by the conference’s organizers, and their close affiliation to the TERFs who’d organized Radfems Respond, Lynn expressed neither concern about the center’s choice, nor sensitivity toward the trans women and their allies who might be upset about the center’s space being rented to a group so counter to trans women’s interests.
“Q Center rents public space to all kinds of LGBTQ individuals and groups,” Lynn said, “and the agency is not in the business of policing what all of those thousands of people do in their spare time outside of the Center.”
What’s at issue here, of course, is not what the New Narratives attendees were doing in their “spare time outside the Center,” but what they’d come to do while there, which was advance an ideology counter to the goals of trans women affirmation and equality. Like Radfems Respond, New Narratives, of course, had the right to assemble. That Q Center, however, would not even consider whether renting to them might not be in the best interest of the community at large, as the Quaker Friends House had regarding Radfems Respond, seems problematic indeed.
This is especially true given the way TERFs use Gender Critical trans women to support their views. “Both Janice Raymond and TERF author Sheila Jeffreys cite this small meeting as proof positive of some imagined groundswell of trans people who now endorse their anti-trans views,” Williams says. “Of course, these TERF opinion leaders never mention that the ‘conference’ consisted of just eight people. For TERFs, the value of the New Narratives group is purely rhetorical.”
Crosland says he applauds Q Center’s policy of allowing LGBTQ groups with differing viewpoints to meet in their space “to a point,” but stresses that this case has little in common with the Log Cabin Republicans.
“The New Narratives group has ideologies that don’t just differ from ‘mainstream’ LGBTQ ideologies, but that are actively disrespectful to the lives and identities of many folks who fall under the transgender umbrella and counter to much of our recent political progress,” Crosland says. “Providing space for people to discuss and promote these ideologies may appear to support diversity within our community, but it is also in staunch contradiction to the stated vision of the Q Center of ‘[a] broadened positive perception of LGBTQ people.’”
“I would personally compare letting the New Narratives group meet at the Q Center to allowing a group of ‘ex-gays,’ such as Exodus International meet there. They are both LGBTQ-centered groups, but they both have staunchly anti-LGBTQ messages. No group that actively dismissed or undermines the identities of such a large number of LGBTQ individuals can be said to support the Q Center’s vision of broadening positive perception of our community.”