Goldberg’s One-Sided New Yorker Article “Undermines Transgender Identity,” And That’s Still A Euphemism
I subscribe to the New York Times digitally (mainly because it can be useful as a North American cultural studies student) and recently subscribed to their “what we’re reading” newsletter, a selection of articles from other publications NYT editors like every week. When I opened Tuesday’s newsletter, I was briefly exited. A recommended article from the New Yorker, called “What is a woman?” I’m really interested in gender identity, gender construction, etc. My high hopes waned a bit when I saw the article is by Michelle Goldberg, who hasn’t really represented nuance, intersectional feminism, or just openness to positions that aren’t her own in recent time. Reading the article, I felt uncomfortable and at odds with her portrayal of the radical feminist v. trans women debate. I couldn’t really put it into words at the time, so I didn’t write about it.
Yesterday, Bitch Magazine posted online a comment on the Goldberg piece that puts into words a lot of my thoughts, and then some more. Here’s one of several important passages:
Reading this passage, one might think TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] and trans people have a philosophical or semantic debate. Trans people’s identities, for which they and their allies are waging a worldwide human rights campaign to define as legally legitimate—backed by decades of medical and psychological data—and TERFs’ hateful academic theories carry equal weight and import. If those two sides were balanced in the piece, readers might walk away with a shoulder shrug, “Who knows whether trans identity is legitimate or not?” The title of the piece certainly encourages this confusion, making it a question as to whether transgender women should be seen as women.
But the piece isn’t even balanced. In a response to Goldberg’s piece published on Autostraddle, Mari Brighe noted that Goldberg cited 14 radical feminists, quoting nine and including two quotes from books. In contrast, she quoted only four trans women, including no quotes from books; two of her trans sources actually support radical feminist viewpoints. Likewise, Goldberg quotes TERFs misgendering trans women repeatedly, never mentioning that trans women find such language dehumanizing and hurtful. “Sadly, what she presents is a disturbingly one-sided view of the situation that relies on heavily anecdotal evidence, uncited claims and debunked theories, and ignores the extended campaign of harassment and attack that the trans community has endured at the hands of radical feminists,” writes Brighe.
In Goldberg’s narrative, it’s TERFs who come off as oppressed. Their ideas lack the “power and cachet” of the trans movement, and they’ve found themselves now “shunned as reactionaries on the wrong side of a sexual-rights issue.” To understand how unjust this characterization of things is, one has to understand all the issues relating to trans people and TERFs that Goldberg doesn’t mention.
TERF framing of trans rights activists as bullies is bad. Bullying, rape and death threats against feminist women are really, really wrong, something I see as so problematic that I’m writing my master’s thesis on it. However, Goldberg, TERF, and to a degree also Caroline Criado-Perez describe both camps in too homogenous, undifferentiated terms. Extreme bullies in both camps exist, sadly. People in both camps are affected by structural and individual sexism and/or transphobia and/or racsim and/or homophobia. But one thing Goldberg and TERFs claim is, in my opinion, simply wrong: Transgender people, as a group and mostly as individuals, do not have hegemonic power over ciswomen. It could be argued argued that ciswomen who consistently get their one-sided opinions published in magazines/papers/cultural institutions like The New Yorker or The Atlantic have (comparatively!) more power than most trans people…
One last thing: I strongly believe that both cis and trans women are women. Women can have a multitude of experiences and individual “forms” and bodily issues. Within this group different forms of relative degrees of privilege exist, not just on a cis-trans scale but also on a class scale, race scale, educational scale, etc.
I want to be careful with this post. I’m a cis-man and have quite a bit of privilege, so I’m an outsider in this discussion. I don’t want to mansplain, but I thought I’d weigh in with my 2 cents. Please call me out if this is bullshit. This is not supposed to be authoritative in any way.
I get most of her points, and have no issue with most of them. She has every right not to identify with/not use the term “cis.” However, I think it’s a shame (and slightly ironic, but not surprising) that “cis” is understood by so many people as a derogatory term. I use it, and I think it is most useful this way, as a descriptor, relatively neutral, like trans - a way to describe non-trans people in an efficient, elegant way and without resorting to definitely problematic words like “normal.” I don’t think, however, that “cis” is one essential gender definition. “Cis” is also a term with a broad spectrum of different gender representations, etc.
I even think that I am not “cis” in the same way Caroline Criado-Perez is (under my definition as not-trans) Gender categories are that different for cismen and ciswomen that “cis” could be said to have different meanings for women. Being cis for a ciswoman comes with (or rather includes) so many rigid, subjecting, misogynist baggage that it can have a different effect. It is way, way easier to be cis as a dude, obviously. I would still say that “cis” is a useful category, word. As a “non-trans” category, as plain and descriptive as word can be in this context.
For me, a feminism (or other anti-discriminatory activism) that is too essentialist in its categorizations and approaches is really problematic, basically bullshit. This could be reason for (cis)women and trans/non-binary people to work together, not against each other. This is not a naive call for “unity” that dismisses very real and valid disagreements, not at all. But in principle, working together could work fine.
Cis-privilege, the concept Criado-Perez rails against the most (and I would too if I understood it like she does) is relative privilege. It doesn’t make any of the problems, bodily and not, that come with being a (cis)woman in our sexist societies magically disappear or turn into sunshine and sparkles. It “just” means ciswomen don’t have a set of problems that trans*, non-binary people have. I’m a white cisman from a upper-middle-class background, that makes me quite privileged. That doesn’t make the issues that I have, like my mental illness problems, disappear - but I don’t have problems that other people have, from cis feminists in England to trans women of color on the other side of the world.
Criado-Perez also writes a lot about being scared. Receiving insults and threats is scary. These threats and insults are a tactic that is really problematic and wrong - and extremely similar to tactics and rhetorics employed as silencing attempts by people in positions of greater hegemonic power: Misogynist men. I think a lot of the backlash Criado-Perez gets comes from trans*/non-binary people who are also scared (and/or angry) for good reason. Also scared to death (too often literally!) in societies that reject them. Trans*/non-binary people can be vocal, for better and sometimes worse, on social media and in certain circles. But they also do not have hegemonic power. Trans women who lived “male” before usually also didn’t live as hegemonic men either.
There is a lot of anger and bitterness between feminists like Criado-Perez and trans/non-binary people/activists. And that’s a pity, because these two groups could punch upwards together a lot better than at each other. (As far as I know, Criado-Perez isn’t actually rejecting the existence of transgender people. If she is actually a trans-erasing radical “feminist” things are a bit different..)
As far as I can tell from my outside perspective, a central problem in this discourse is that people still use binary concepts, essential dichotomies, too much. I do think a lot of these problems could be reduced by getting rid of too essential binaries - especially a rigid man - woman binary - without negating the existence and lived experiences of both transgender people and (cis)women like Criado-Perez. Nor should the blurring of binaries mean that hegemonic, sexist, transphobic men (positions, institutions, …) get away free. That still exists and still is a massive problem we should work against. The field is just more complex.
Conversation is not an equal opportunity activity.
I found this quote in Deborah Cameron’s Feminism and Linguistic Theory, as part of a discussion of men’s (vs. women’s) dominant linguistic strategies.
This passage of Toril Moi’s great essay on using Pierre Bourdieu’s work for feminist theory touches on why men are affected by sexist structures - without there being such a thing as reverse sexism:
Our habitus is at once produced and expressed through
our movements, gestures, facial expressions, manners, ways of walking, and ways of looking at the world. The socially produced body is thus necessarily also a political body, or rather an embodied politics. Thus even such basic activities as teaching children how to move, dress, and eat are thoroughly political, in that they impose
on them an unspoken understanding of legitimate ways to (re)present their body to themselves and others. The body-and its apparel such as clothing, gestures, make-up and so on-becomes a kind of constant reminder ( of sociosexual power relations.It follows from Bourdieu’s understanding of the social effects of gender divisions that the dominant group -in this case men- do not escape the burdens of their own domination.
But unlike a lot of what passes for TV feminism, the show’s not just about women being confident or comfortable in their own skin. It’s about reaffirming that their skin, their body, and their decisions are theirs to control. This is the battle all women in America are living with right now, whether they realize it or not. I’m not saying I’m worried about someone owning my DNA, but I am exhausted by people exerting their own values and opinions onto my body.TV’s Most Important Political Debate Is Happening Right Now on Orphan Black (TV Guide)
Being a woman is kind of like being a cyclist in a city where all the cars represent men. You’re supposed to be able to share the road equally with cars, but that’s not how it works. The roads are built for cars and you spend a great deal of physical and mental energy being defensive and trying not to get hurt. Some of the cars WANT you to get hurt. They think you don’t have any place on the road at all. And if you do get hurt by a car, everyone makes excuses that it’s your fault.
A friend of a friend (via onesmallflowerofeternity)
And even further. Let’s expand the metaphor of the cyclist to not only to women but generally human beings who are less privileged. Because let’s face it not all bikes are the same. Some have more gears to help them conquer mountains while other have less air in their tires which makes travel that much harder.
Some cities don’t care much for their cyclist population but others try to make the life of cyclists better and safer by installing bike lanes making it easier for cyclists to come from a to b.Cars will still be faster but the cyclists will get along faster and safer.
This is a great analogy not just to explain privilege but also to explain how programs help human beings who are less privileged and why they should be in place.
- #NotAllMen: How Not to Derail Discussions of Women’s Issues (via http://www.slate.com/)
Why is it not helpful to say “not all men are like that”? For lots of reasons. For one, women know this. They already know not every man is a rapist, or a murderer, or violent. They don’t need you to tell them.
Second, it’s defensive. When people are defensive, they aren’t listening to the other person; they’re busy thinking of ways to defend themselves. I watched this happen on Twitter, over and again.
Third, the people saying it aren’t furthering the conversation, they’re sidetracking it. The discussion isn’t about the men who aren’t a problem. (Though, I’ll note, it can be. I’ll get back to that.) Instead of being defensive and distracting from the topic at hand, try staying quiet for a while and actually listening to what the thousands upon thousands of women discussing this are saying.
Fourth—and this is important, so listen carefully—when a woman is walking down the street, or on a blind date, or, yes, in an elevator alone, she doesn’t know which group you’re in. You might be the potential best guy ever in the history of history, but there’s no way for her to know that. A fraction of men out there are most definitely not in that group. Which are you? Inside your head you know, but outside your head it’s impossible to.
This is the reality women deal with all the time.
This little compilation of links to Monday morning must reads after the terrible Isla Vista shooting Saturday goes out to all my readers, but especially to my fellow cismen.
Laurie Penny in New Statesman makes a lot of great points in an essay titled “Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what they were: misogynist extremism.” Here’s an excerpt:
We have been told for a long time that the best way to deal with this sort of harrassment and violence is to laugh it off. Women and girls and queer people have been told that online misogynists pose no real threat, even when they’re sharing intimate guides to how to destroy a woman’s self-esteem and force her into sexual submission. Well, now we have seen what the new ideology of misogyny looks like at its most extreme. We have seen incontrovertible evidence of real people being shot and killed in the name of that ideology, by a young man barely out of childhood himself who had been seduced into a disturbing cult of woman-hatred. Elliot Rodger was a victim - but not for the reasons he believed.
Misogyny is nothing new, but there is a specific and frightening trend taking place, and if we’re not going to accept it, we have to call it by its name. The title of the PUA bible belies the truth: this is not a game. Misogynist extremism does not exist in a mystical digital fairyland where there are no consequences. It is real. It does damage. It kills. And this is no longer a topic where abstraction is anything approaching appropriate.
Read the whole damn thing.
Also a must-read (if you can read German) is this text by Charlott at Mädchenmannschaft that adds a bit of context. The articles she links to in the piece are essential reading, too. Check out the #YesAllWomen hashtag on twitter, it highlights how not all men practice violent misogyny, but all women experience it and have to fear it.
I found these words about “gentleman supremacy” as a response after the shooting. But read the women* first.