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

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 She relies on outdated research, claiming the evidence that would support her position has been silenced by the “transsexual empire”.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

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change