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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.

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

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 She relies on outdated research, claiming the evidence that would support her position has been silenced by the “transsexual empire”.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.