A march for transgender equality at Madrid Pride in 2010. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

It’s time to end divisive rhetoric on sex and gender and create a trans-inclusive feminism

Sheila Jeffreys’s new book, Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, is a divisive and poorly-researched work. But it provides an opportunity to leave the divisive rhetoric behind, and create a truly trans-inclusive feminism.

Sheila Jeffreys, a long-time feminist activist and professor of social and political science, is part of a group of radical feminists that oppose allowing transgender women into feminist and other women’s communities. She has published a new book titled Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism. The book, written in part with Lorene Gottschalk and drawing heavily on the work of Janice Raymond, spells out exactly why she and other radical feminists are opposed to “transgenderism” and seek to prevent trans women from entering “women-only” spaces.

Jeffreys makes three main points. First, women are oppressed because of their sex, and the concepts of gender and gender identity are used to lock women into positions of subordination to men. Second, “transgenderism” is a condition created by a medical system that seeks to reinforce traditional gender roles and generate profit through required therapy, hormone replacement, and surgeries. Third, “transgenderism” allows “male-bodied transgenders” (ie trans women) to infiltrate, divide, and destroy feminist and feminist separatist spaces, and “female bodied transgenders” (ie trans men) to escape misogyny by masquerading as men. Jeffreys says we must fight the rise of “transgenderism” because it hurts transgender people, their families, and feminists.

The careful reader will see that this text does not satisfy even low standards for academic rigor, research, or argumentation. Throughout the book Jeffreys misrepresents other scholars’ research and opinions, engages in ad hominem attacks to discredit the work of those she disagrees with, and simply asserts controversial hypotheses without providing arguments, data, or other support to back them up. She relies on outdated research, claiming the evidence that would support her position has been silenced by the “transsexual empire”. This allows her to avoid confronting the wealth of research that discredits her arguments, all while casting herself as the victim of politically correct censorship.

I do not want to comment on Jeffreys personal convictions or motivations. Certainly one does not need to be a member of a group to question or critique that groups actions. After all, I’m a cisgender gay man writing about a debate between feminists and transgender people (the term cisgender is used to describe people who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth). But, if you are going to critique from the outside, I strongly believe that critique must come from a place of established respect. Her refusal to use transgender peoples’ preferred names and pronouns, in addition to her use of the term transgender as both a noun (“a transgender”) and process (“transgendering”), are hurtful and inflammatory. Calling someone “a transgender” objectifies them and ignores their individual humanity, and the term “transgendering” implies that each transgender person participates in the same process or ideology. The entire text is a striking example of how not to criticise a group of which you are not a member.

The book is poorly researched and argued, and is not a meaningful contribution to feminist theory. That being said, it does put into sharp relief what I think is at the heart of the disagreement between radical feminists and trans people; namely, two different and competing foundations that explain and support their political views.

Feminists like Jeffreys ground their politics in sex. Jeffreys is clear that only men and women exist and are defined by biological sex. Gender and gender identity, on the other hand, are expectations and stereotypes that oppress women. Trans women may identify as women, but they are not women because they do not have the lived history of having been born and raised as women. Identity cannot replace or change your history of living as one of two biological sexes. Feminists have good reason to be attached to this foundation. Women are violently persecuted because of their sex, and the methods of that persecution, methods like rape and forced reproduction, often involve female anatomy. Uniting in this shared history is an important foundation for feminist consciousness raising and solidarity.

Many trans people ground their politics in gender identity, describing how this identity is a persistent aspect of their experience. Cisgender people must realise that a trans woman did not become a woman after transitioning, she has always been a woman, and because she is a woman she deserves access to women-only spaces. Certainly not all trans people identify as having always been one gender, but focusing on gender identity over biological or assigned sex is an important way to ensure that trans identities are not discredited, ignored, or marginalised.

Both groups have good reasons to defend what they see as the foundational truths at the hearts of their politics, but what gets lost in this all-or-nothing fight is the fact that every person has a unique relationship to their body, and these experiences are all valid and worthy of understanding. Jeffreys’s focus on sex can suggest that all women have the same experience of what it’s like to be a woman, a view that fails to account for the impact of race, ethnicity, class, and ability on how we relate to our bodies. The trans insistence on gender identity may prevent us from recognising that cisgender people and transgender people do have different experiences of their bodies. We must recognise that a trans man and cisgender man are both men, but men who have different personal histories that inform their relationship to their bodies and the bodies of others. Describing this difference certainly can be a form of cissexism but it need not be.

We need a trans-inclusive feminism that recognises trans people as who they are, while also recognising that the experience of growing up cisgender can be discussed without disrespecting trans identities, and that it could at times be beneficial to have these discussions restricted to people that share this experience. When we abandon our attachment to either sex or gender identity we can more clearly see the experiences we share and let those experiences form the basis of a coalition.

Gender Hurts is an ugly and divisive book. Because it lacks compelling arguments and evidence, I feel comfortable ignoring it and denying Jeffreys the attention she desires. Let’s treat the publication of this text not as a time to double-down in our familiar positions, but rather an opportunity to put tired and divisive rhetoric to rest.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496