I've been intentionally ambiguous about my views on the trans debate for the better part of a year. Aligning with radical feminism, I find myself in the strange position of existing in a space where not being transphobic is frowned upon. And I won't claim to have always handled that pressure well, which is why I hesitate to make the sort of statement that could be interpreted as positioning myself as a trans ally when much of the trans community would be uncomfortable with what I am at least tangentially involved in by virtue of having a radfem account. At the same time, letting myself be too paralyzed by that to actually offer a critique of gender critical ideology, as a former GC myself, seems counterproductive, to say the least. For those who are disinclined to trust me, please do not take this as a veiled plea for acceptance, but as a good faith offer of information from a somewhat unusual perspective.
A quick note to the GCs and radfems reading this: I've been as fair as I can to you for the past year, and likely fairer than I should have been. The nature of this debate makes it almost impossible for me to say what I really think without falling into the "not like the other girls" trope, but at the end of the day, I don't see this as a mere difference of opinion. A space where transphobia is a taboo subject is a space that exists to justify and perpetuate transphobia — either you are willing to tackle that and examine what it might mean, or you actually are by definition involved in a hate movement. I am aware of increased unease with the situation amongst moderates, however, and while I don't expect anyone to arrive overnight at conclusions it has taken me more than a year to reach, I believe that the problems go deeper than you realize and hope that at least some of you will take what I'm about to say into consideration.
I won't focus that much on my own history, since I'd rather this be something other than a personal story, but for a brief summary, I began to follow the gender debate in the wake of the J.K. Rowling incident in 2020. I was already in the middle of a larger political realignment towards radical feminism, so the misogynistic subtext in the reaction to Rowling's essay immediately caught my attention, as did the term "TERF." I'd never come across it before, but when I discovered high levels of social reprobation being directed again at something associated with radical feminism, decided to dig deeper. Unsurprisingly, a lot of what I found played right to ideas I had already been toying with in other contexts, and the more I read, the more my past grievances with the left in regard to women's rights were revived. I should also specify that I have OCD and was already barely in control of it due to stress from the pandemic, so what happened next was something of a perfect storm — I had one of the worst attacks I've ever had and finally, when it didn't subside, decided to join GC Twitter to better keep track of what was going on.
Despite my mental health induced mania, I was always a moderate GC. This doesn't mean that I don't think I was transphobic in some ways, but I engaged pretty closely with GC-aligned trans people on what they saw as transphobic behavior within GC spaces, and it was not immediately obvious to me that a lot of the people around me were not as moderate as they appeared to be. I began to discover otherwise several months in when I first challenged transphobia directed at a GC trans woman — I was told I was tossing women under the bus for "men's feelings." A couple incidents later, I started to speak more with people from Trans Twitter who were willing to associate with moderate GCs, which pushed me away from tribalism and gave me insight into how things looked from the other side. This eventually led to me doing something that's simply not done on GC Twitter: calling out transphobia not in defense of a GC trans person, but on behalf of an actual trans activist. It was a spontaneous tweet I didn't expect anyone to see, but it ended up landing me on Glinner's blog, something that led to intense internal discourse. In the aftermath, I realized that the problems on GC Twitter were much more extensive than I had previously imagined, since the people who actually saw this incident as a genuine ethical problem were outnumbered about 10 to 1 by those who didn't.
At this point, I walked away — or at least I tried to. This has always been seriously complicated by my interest in radical feminism, as I've developed a strange (and at times abusive) relationship with anti-trans radfems over the past year. I won't share specific details, but it's in part been this continued association that has pushed me further in the opposite direction, even if I've generally avoided open conflict as best I can. The time of clinging to a false sense of neutrality seems to be definitively over now, though. What is going on here is genuinely an anti-trans radicalization chamber, and that is something that needs to be discussed. Those who are unwilling to engage with this issue from within a radical feminist framework are, in my view, too afraid of what they might find to take the tradition seriously at all.
Before I continue, I'd like to make a brief comment about several areas of the debate I am not going to speak about but think I should acknowledge: the internal conflict within the lesbian community and tensions over detransition. Being neither a lesbian nor dysphoric, it's not my place to address these issues, but it is my sincere belief that there are genuine problems involved that are linked not specifically to trans identity, but to the ascendancy of liberal frameworks and the widespread inability to take the concept of social pressure seriously in the feminist context. This is, of course, a conversation for those involved in these communities. I will be focusing instead on two things: criticism of GC ideology, specifically with regards to the question of trans identity and the policy debate, and some of my own thoughts about the larger situation and why this form of radicalization is happening.
The Identity Question
To begin with, I am a materialist radical feminist and my position is that transition is a material reality. Living as a woman entails sharing women's political interests, and I conceptualize "womanhood" as a political category. This does not negate the reality of complexity or the role that sex plays in gender oppression, but too much focus is given in GC and radfem spaces to fairly essentialistic approaches to psychology and socialization that are often used to negate shared interests. I understand some of the ambivalence over this issue, as I used to share it, but I have only ever seen obsession with categorization harm feminist analysis. In the words of Catharine MacKinnon, "Male dominant society has defined women as a discrete biological group forever. If this was going to produce liberation, we'd be free."
During my GC period, I was somewhat fixated on the ontological question of what biological sex actually is. To a certain extent, a background in philosophy both got me into this movement and got me out of it, as I was always very aware of the pitfalls of natural law as a tradition and the ease with which seemingly neutral "observations" about nature get infused with moral directives. Given its failure to grasp with this question, the gender critical position on trans identity is often an extremist position disguised as a moderate one. The claim that trans women are not women, for example, is much more than a metaphysical belief about the reality or relevance of reproductive sex — it may start like that, but it quickly blossoms into a full-blown commitment to denying any similarities between cis women and trans women. This is visible in a number of different ways that can range from wariness around information that doesn't fit GC views to intense bigotry. It can therefore be very difficult to discuss the various complications caused by social or medical transition with GCs if you don't go out of your way to assure them that nothing you are saying necessarily entails that trans women are women. I believe this phenomenon is often a response to misogyny, a tendency to ground your identity in what marks you as socially inferior that's very common in feminist theory (and not absent in other liberation movements), but in GC circles, it has a way of spiraling out of control and becoming virulently transphobic.
For example, GCs will regularly ask trans women who focus on the social reality of transition ( i.e., the fact that if society sees you as a woman, you will be treated like one) what it means to "live as women," as if this were some mystical idea and not just a description of how society works. GCs jettison the very concept of gender when they play this game, erasing how sex manifests on the social level altogether. This reveals not just a belief about the relevance of reproductive sex in people's lives (something I agree with), but a deep-set inability to grasp with experiences outside of how the gender system conditions us to think about reality — people are unable to reconcile the possibility that social treatment does not flow necessarily from reproductive capacity. This leads to tropes like "we can always tell," as well as minimization, if not outright denial, of the misogyny that trans women actually face. From a radical feminist perspective, I find the refusal to engage with the ways in which trans women are oppressed through the gender system inconceivable, since so much of it is exactly what we would predict: intense fetishization fed by marginalization in the sex trade, legal relics like the trans panic defense that were fashioned from the perspective of cis men and erase the degree to which sexual power dynamics play in men's favor. Even the responses when these issues are brought up can also be disturbing in the way that they play into deeply misogynistic ideas, as it's common for people to insist that trans women enjoy and welcome misogyny, especially when tied to male sexual interest, and thus cannot be harmed by it. It goes without saying that this sort of idea is the very basis of rape culture.
The longer you stay in GC spaces, the clearer it becomes that much of the opposition to the idea that trans women are women is more about framing trans identity as "fake" than anything else. They'd have you believe that their only target is gender identity, i.e., the notion that self-understanding overrides material reality, but often even medical transition is viewed as the sort of thing a person could identify out of with a change of hairstyle. The fact that they usually simultaneously stress the irreversibility of medical transition should serve as a clue that something is amiss here ideologically — they recognize that a significant change has taken place, but at the same time, they refuse to acknowledge that it has any effect on a person's social experience. This is a phenomenon I find difficult to understand, but the more I see it, the more I suspect it ties into a deep-set discomfort with gender categories being transgressed that can only be assuaged by insisting that deception must be involved. In other words, classic transphobia. This sort of tendency reveals that the GC claim that sex is immutable is often meant not just descriptively, but also prescriptively — people are not supposed to do anything that might threaten the sanctity of sex categories, hence the strange, often moralistic language surrounding medical transition (e.g., "healthy body parts," preoccupation with what is "natural," etc.).
The Policy Debate
As a quick disclaimer, I do believe that certain areas of the policy debate, such as prisons and professional sports, are difficult, and prisons in particular may require a more radical solution than currently available. I also think that these areas of the debate are further complicated both by 1) tendencies within the GC Movement to shift back and forth between more socially acceptable moderate positions and truly extremist ones depending on audience, and 2) the fact that these are the very issues being used to radicalize people. I'm no longer interested in participating in debates over policy, but I think that those who wish to do so in good faith ought to pay close attention to these complications.
I would define the GC position on policy as one of full trans exclusion. Individual perspectives exist along a spectrum — some GCs only favor full exclusion in situations like sports and prisons (I was in this category); many obviously apply it to all women's facilities. In all cases, GCs emphasize reproductive sex as an organizing principle, overlooking the complexities introduced by the existence of trans people. There are two major problems with this, one legal and one theoretical, that I'd like to discuss. To begin with, blanket exclusion is such a shocking departure from the way rights conflicts are actually handled, it merits closer examination. In the language of U.S. constitutional law, for example, where questions of equal protection are concerned, measures need to be narrowly tailored to achieve a legitimate end. This means that while the alleged end in question (protecting women's rights) is legitimate, any law aimed at achieving it cannot be overbroad. It should be noted at this point that most GC arguments are not geared towards explaining why the expansive policies they support are actually necessary to protect women's rights, but instead towards attacking the idea that trans women are a marginalized group with needs that must be considered as well. Often this involves sensationalistic attempts to present trans women, regardless of state of transition, as the equivalent of cis men, something that is very clearly about denying them any sort of protected social status.
Beyond the legal complications with GC policy positions, there are a number of ideological ones as well, the first of which is the intentional conflation of private venue with public facilities — whether certain groups of GCs or radical feminists should be able to run events in peace is a very different type of question than whether they are entitled to treat public accommodations like private property. It's also worth noting that the concept of a "women's space" is often extended beyond even facilities until it encompasses any space an anti-trans woman happens to be, physical or intellectually. For two pertinent examples, 1) I've seen GCs insist that it is a woman's "right" to know the sex of anyone who shares any space with her, and 2) I've been criticized by other radfems myself for associating with trans women online, as this somehow pollutes the "purity" of the internet space they wish to build. These are by no means universal attitudes, but they are mainstream enough that I think there's real reason for concern that this sort of hardline mania over women's spaces is often covering up a much deeper discontent with the fact that trans people, especially trans women, exist at all.
I will be very blunt at this point: I've come to believe that the GC position is usually more about maintaining the gender polarity hinted at in the previous section than about protecting cis women. Very workable solutions, such as increased privacy for everyone in bathrooms and locker rooms, are often rejected out of hand because the point of GCism is not to find a way forward on sometimes complicated questions, but to preserve the status quo in order to try to justify demands for blanket exclusion. The protectionism at play sometimes begins to even look like a traditionalist division between public and private spaces — for example, it's not rare for GCs to shut down conversation by insisting that it "isn't women's concern" how any of these issues are resolved and that "males" ought to sort out their own problems. With rhetoric like this, they have effectively abandoned the public sphere to those they consider men, locked themselves away metaphorically within female-only spaces, and declared that they do not wish to be bothered by "male" concerns, never mind that all of society is still coded masculine. This is a fascinating phenomenon, given the correlation historically between sex-based segregation and the marginalization of women — the two are linked, and I think tendencies towards self-isolation like described here call into question the extent to which this strong an emphasis on maintaining segregation can ever be a genuine feminist strategy.
I have many more problems with gender critical ideology — far too many to truly get into here, but several I would like to mention are:
- "Sex Not Gender." Gender is routinely reduced to gender stereotypes in GC discourse, and more radical examinations of gender and how it affects our ideas of what is and isn't innate are all but taboo. The result is an ideology that encourages people to naturalize any number of things that are at least partially the result of women's oppression.
- Conditional womanhood. Gender critical identity politics are much more intense than I believe most GCs realize. Remaining in these spaces despite abandoning the ideology has left me feeling like I'm always one infraction from being kicked out of the category of womanhood myself, which has enormous repercussions for whether the GC Movement is about liberation from gender, as it claims, or constantly proving one's womanhood.
- Emphasis on fertility. I am in favor of emphasizing the role that reproduction plays in women's oppression, but disturbed by tendencies to reclaim and highlight female fertility as something that is of overwhelming social value and women's greatest contribution. That way lies compulsory maternity.
- Epistemological problems. GCs approach trans issues from a perspective of authority despite (usually) having no personal experience and having all their information filtered through what is effectively a propaganda machine. The result is disastrous.
I'd like to finish this off with some thoughts on what may be the trickiest issue of all: the question of why. What is it about this debate that can draw someone in so quickly and completely? A lot of people will say that if someone ends up gender critical, that means they were always transphobic, and while this is true on one level, it's also meaningless — virtually everyone is going to start out with unexamined transphobia. Another problem is that the way transphobia manifests in men is often centered in these types of conversations, with anti-trans women usually being explained away by misogynistic tropes. My perspective is, of course, radical feminist: my starting point is that the left is almost as irredeemably anti-feminist as the right, and I think that women who are at least vaguely aware of this can end up seeing trans issues as a symbolic representation of misogyny on the left and start to radicalize. This was a factor in what happened to me.
What is interesting is that this isn't a new phenomenon at all. I was recently reading Gloria Steinem's Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, and while not outright hostile, the 1977 chapter on transsexuality leans noticeably in the TERF direction (including a sympathetic reading of Janice Raymond). The part that eerily resembled my own experience was her description of how she first became suspicious about media attention paid to trans women, specifically in the context of the tennis player Renee Richards and anti-feminist backlash to Second Wave activism. She says:
Most of all, Richards was greeted with publicity, and an amazing amount of acceptance. Though I'm sure that she herself suffered from ridicule and public attention, the champions of this transsexual woman were surprising in number and identity. Tennis professionals and sports journalists who had fought tooth and nail against equality for women in tennis, and especially against equal prize money, now agitated for Richards's right to play in women's tournaments. They challenged women players who objected as being anti-civil libertarian, poor sports, or cowards who feared they would lose. The New York Times, where women who specifically request the use of "Ms." are still denied it, cheerfully changed not only the name of Renee Richards (and other transsexuals) but also the gender of every single pronoun in news stories. Television and other parts of the media produced a commercial boomlet of articles on transsexualism, even though the first young men who challenged the traditional masculine role by refusing to fight in Vietnam had waited months, sometimes years, for equally sympathetic or explanatory coverage. Finally, every active woman on any talk show seemed to be challenged with questions about Renee Richards.
I'll start by saying that I don't think this is an accurate perception — it strikes me as unlikely that media representation for trans women in the 1970s would have been as positive as described here. That said, there is a false type of trans allyship that is grounded in a desire to indulge in misogyny, and this is specifically what anyone who's already jaded about the left's commitment to feminism is going to pick up on. Another factor is that trans issues are often high visibility, whereas women's issues are usually low visibility. I've come to believe that this is actually a product of transphobia and part of the circus show that society has always put on around trans issues, not genuine support, but at first glance, it can lead to the impression that the public only cares about women who are trans. Confirmation bias begins to set in, and the GC narrative can become quite compelling. It presents a simplistic explanation for the phenomenon being observed — male privilege and solidarity — and resentment starts to build. Identity claims suddenly become a personal affront. I believe this is a very common underlying factor in the sections of the GC Movement that are more than just nominally feminist, and one that much of the debate just reinforces further.
There is much to criticize here, especially when it turns into the sort of kneejerk anger about media coverage for trans people that is common in GC circles, as it's a type of identity politics committed to the idea that public attention to someone else's issues is a personal threat. Somewhat strangely, my own path away from this type of mentality has been one of deepened pessimism about the public's commitment to social justice in any form, so I would argue that what is missing here is actual engagement with transphobia as a concept. Radical feminists in particular recognize almost intuitively that any concern about misogyny by the mainstream left is largely just for show, but do not apply the same reasoning to its supposed commitment to combating transphobia in these spaces. We notice significant misogyny from many trans allies, but fail to pick up on transphobic tendencies from them — you can find many complaints of bad allyship if you're paying attention. There is also a tendency to blame the current state of feminism on trans people that seems completely backwards to me, as none of the underlying problems are new. Much of what goes on in GC circles, as a result, seems to be a simplistic analysis of much deeper problems within feminist discourse. Even the claim that trans women benefit from male privilege specifically as regards their relationship with cis men strikes me as flawed — for example, the scenario Steinem describes above (if accurate), where journalists are reveling in the opportunity to attack feminists over the Richards situation, is not genuinely a show of solidarity. It's an anti-feminist exploitation of an obvious point of tension between the two groups.
Nonetheless, it does need to be recognized that the present situation is much worse than in the 1970s, and mainstream trans discourse, through its symbiotic relationship with liberal feminism, has made it almost impossible to discuss radical feminist ideas outside of radfem circles without willful misinterpretation. An understanding of gender as flowing from power relations, a view without which feminist theory falls apart, is currently anathema, even though it can lead to strongly trans-inclusive views. I've been demonized myself over mild comments, in the context of the plastic surgery industry, about how the coercive effects of gender norms shouldn't be framed as positive — this was warped into a veiled attack on trans healthcare, even though I vocally oppose the weaponization of this type of analysis in the trans context. I see no inherent conflict between radical feminism and trans rights, but it must be said: we have reached a point at which both sides are largely framing these two things as in opposition, and anyone who believes that radical feminism is correct will much sooner start down a path of anti-trans radicalization than abandon it. This is a particularly dangerous situation for young women exploring forbidden radical feminist ideas for the first time, many of whom claim to have formerly been trans allies driven to "TERF" views by the misogyny in their previous circles. Many write this off as victim blaming, but the fact of the matter is that rampant anti-feminist is something that needs to be taken seriously.
One final underlying conflict I think worth highlighting here is the internal feminist debate between social constructionism and biological essentialism (i.e., the question of to what extent women's oppression is grounded in biology itself). The GC side tends towards an outright dogmatic insistence on the biological origins of women's oppression; the other side attempts to take the opposite position, but usually ends up instead at a vulgar form of social constructionism that erases aspects of women's oppression altogether. The result is an ugly sort of stalemate, where each side accuses the other of misogyny. I think that the GC tendency towards essentialism is deeply problematic, but it is also a sincere belief tied to how they relate to their own oppression, and any condescension, antagonism, or otherwise bad faith engagement with it only serves to embitter people further and convince them that there's no value in non-essentialistic approaches. The only thing that's usually accomplished is convincing GCs that they're expected to give up their own self-understanding for the benefit of another group.
My perspective here is likely too sympathetic — for many people in these circles, these types of motivations are entwined with a form of transphobia so virulent, I have trouble understanding it, and it's still not clear to me whether outright bigotry is more often a cause of gender critical radicalization or the result of it. There are vast segments of GC and radfem space that are very clearly motivated by intense disgust, and people have a tendency to spiral deeper and deeper into transphobia. I would say that absolutely everything is pushing people towards further radicalization once they end up in these spaces. GC views can be intense — especially for those who do see themselves as righteous, I believe that the level of certainty required to hold course in the face of this type of social reprobation is extraordinary, and with that comes blind spots of equal proportion. I was only able to hold on for a couple of months before being forced to step back and reevaluate. I hope that at least some on the GC side reading this consider doing likewise.