I frequently get asked how, as someone whose theoretical interests originally emerged from physics, I came to write about race and gender. The answer is that, for me, race and gender are also material issues that not only manifest in material practices (e.g. gender performance, racism), but permeate all levels of matter from the molecular (e.g. what illnesses are being treated, how they get made sense of and come to matter as pathology, what chemicals different genders put out into the environment) to the global (geopolitical divisions, contribution to/ exposure to climate change). As variants of environmental determinism continue to appear in discussions around race and gender, it is more than ever important to look critically at the material claims that are being made. In this blog post, I am looking at this issue with Australian trans political geographer Anja Kanngieser.
This particular post is prompted by recent trans-phobic events at the London Anarchist Bookfair, which we did not personally attend, but which have been widely exposed and debated on social media. It is written while in Australia, LGBTQ people are having their right to marriage and the legal access it affords decided through national vote. It is also prompted by recent and very public verbal and physical attacks on transgender friends, whether this was by unknown people in the street or by their former partners. Such attacks are particularly infuriating when they come from people who claim to act against gendered oppression: radical feminists. So what problems could a feminist possibly have with transwomen and men, and with other non-heteronormative gender constructions? Here is an example of leaflets that were distributed and apparently put up in the toilets at the London Anarchist Bookfair:
What we have here is a perceived threat to both social/legal status and biology (which despite conservative arguments to the contrary, is itself a mutable and historical category). This is about the ‘protection’ of biological sex and homonormative sexuality. Such claims base themselves on the uniqueness of biological female experience and related literature (e.g. Luce Irigaray) and the exclusive role of women at the receiving end of male violence. As, according to this logic, biology determines and fixes oppression, there is no way out of oppression other than segregation. Men are essential perpetrators, women are essential victims, and the advocates of this position find ample support in gendered crime statistics. Following this argument, transwomen will by default import their oppressive tendencies, and transmen are simply traitors who have ‘gone over to the other side’ instead of fighting the patriarchy from the position of the oppressed. Thus it was suggested that the prevention of the distribution of these leaflets would in fact benefit men.
What is especially dangerous about the events that took place at the London Anarchist Bookfair is precisely the way in which such essentialist segregations stop the recognition of the violence faced by transwomen through hetero and homonormative practices. Transwomen, especially transwomen of colour (an intersection utterly ignored by the pamphlets and the later defence thereof), are especially vulnerable to gender based violence. The arguments used to ignite fear of transwomen miss the fact that transwomen are in no way exempt from the violence that ciswomen face (‘cis’ means when gender identity matches that assigned at birth), often compounded by the fact that they experience it in both mixed gender and womens spaces. Arguments made by trans exclusionary feminists that ‘pre-op’ transwomen have the biological capacity to rape or enact physical violence neglect that rape is not conditional on fleshy appendages. Transwomen do not inhabit the world as men, they are not afforded the safety of men any more than ciswomen are.
The arguments being made by trans exclusionary feminists are, as stated, ones of biological determinism. They are founded on claims that if we include transwomen into the category of woman then there is nothing left to distinguish women as a ‘class’ from men. Cis women, as the claim goes, due to their unique reproductive capacities, their unique physical matter (made up of hormones, sex organs and biological processes) have been interpellated by capital in specific ways, to perform very specific social, emotional, and physical functions, which enable a collective subjectivity (a subjectivity that is both critiqued and upheld). While some of these functions may have changed over time, this is still the fundamental work of woman. Where this leaves women who choose not to procreate, who choose to deviate from the domestic path, intersex peoples, transwomen, and women whose reproductive capacities have been curtailed or removed due to biology and illness, is unclear. It is also unclear how such positions take into account traditions and existences of sex and gender beyond the narrow, white, western lens, which recognises only male and female subjects in binary. The argument for woman as a child bearing biological subject forgets that the male/ female distinction is an imposed scientific one, one that is not in any way fixed or innate (outside of scientific rationalism) but rather lies on a spectrum.
Trans-activist Jake Graf speaking at “Invisible Outlaws: Lesbian, Bi and Trans Voices” at The Bedford, Balham. Left to right: Jake Graf, Stella Duffy, Sophia Blackwell, Joelle Taylor, Olumide Popoola. Image source: Laura Macdougall
This biological basis for subjectivity was picked up at a recent event called “Invisible Outlaws: Lesbian, Bi and Trans Voices”, organised by poet Sophia Blackwell to highlight the absence of LBT+ in discussions of LGBT+ issues (one could also have added intersex and other non-hetero/homo-normative identities). Trans-activist Jake Graf spoke about the difficulties that trans people face not just in heterosexual environments, but also in homosexual ones. Having started off in the lesbian scene, his transition to male prompted hostility and eventual exclusion. Although he also gave some positive examples of gays and lesbians ‘adopting’ trans people into their community, there was a strong sense that this was not a given. This comes as a particular shock, as one expects fellow non-heteronomative people to bond over mutual exclusion and not to further perpetuate it.
The remaining panel proceeded to take on the question of essentialism, both in gender and sexual identity. What was fantastic about the discussion was the sense of gender and sexuality as a continuous unlearning process of engrained heteronormativity. Lesbian ‘cultural terrorist’ Joelle Taylor, in particular, spoke of her school outreach work as a mutual learning process: the young people she encountered had a different language, different identities that she didn’t experience as alienating, but hopeful. Stella Duffy spoke about discovering other gender possibilities through Pacific Islander culture in a rural, but multi-cultural New Zealand community. Nigerian-German writer Olumide Popoola contributed further thoughts on the intersection of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia with another form of essentialism: racism.
At the moment, this policing of essential materiality painfully intersects in current right wing movements, which in the past and present haven’t been the exclusive preserve of white heterosexuals but have been co-driven by xenophobic male and female homosexuals (and even people of colour), despite the hatred they face from fellow members. The overall message seems to be: ‘we want boundaries to stay in place’, and those boundaries, whether geographical or biological, and their social consequences, are again taken as given.
What needs to be emphasised here as well is that these kinds of arguments against the inclusion of trans peoples into political spaces – regardless of direction – are not new. Trans peoples have always struggled for their legitimacy in both straight and queer spaces. While supporters of the anti-trans pamphlet and its circulation argue that anarchism must support a diversity of positions, and that it is almost impossible to ensure that an event with the magnitude of the London Anarchist Bookfair remains inclusive, at the heart of this situation is the recognition of transwomen and men as valid, of their right to be safe as valid.
The 2017 UK Gender Recognition Act, trans exclusionary feminists argue, will let dangerous men pretend to be women, to enter women’s spaces and access hard won and precarious women’s services. This is a throwback to a feminist position that is as regressive as it is damaging. The decision and the necessity to transition, medically or not, is not an easy one. It is not simply deciding to be something else for a day; it is not a man donning a dress for fun, or a woman donning a tie to work. Trans people, especially BIPOC (Black, Indigenous & People of Colour) trans women and men, are not applauded or uplifted. Rather to the contrary, as this situation evidences, transness is conflated with strangeness and threat, which is why so many trans people are too afraid to come out, and end up living their lives away from the mainstream, or as happens with sickening frequency, take their own lives or are killed by others.
By framing transness as a biological anomaly, a fake or fiction, trans exclusionary feminism commits itself to reductive paradigms that not only repeat ideologies and fears that are categorically conservative and ultimately life threatening to trans people, but also perpetuate divisions between possible political allies. Given the determinist framing of the ‘feminist’ arguments against trans rights, such positions become virtually indistinguishable from fascist and hetero-patriarchal ones. The ‘feminist’ insistence on the superiority of female biology, combined with the essential social inferiority based on this fixed biology, places women exactly where they have been imagined to be (depending on where you live) for way too long.
Further, as illustrated in the previous post on the #metoo campaign, such attitudes prevent crucial alliances that could challenge heteronormative practices. For ciswomen to align with transwomen or men (and also gay men) is not going to further diminish their power, but increase attention to the seduction and social toxicity of normativity. We are all at the receiving end of gender-policing violence, including physical attacks, cuts to services and denial of self-determination. Regarding the events at the London Anarchist Bookfair, rather than merely giving lip service to trans inclusiveness while backhandedly supporting the isolation and exclusion of trans peoples from anarchist spaces in always evolving ways, this is something that intersectional anarchists need to address once and for all.
In other spaces, particularly those espousing well-intentioned affirmations of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’, this kind of work is also overdue. Too often, discussions of essentialism are sidestepped due to the topic’s ideological and political baggage, and, in many cases, essentialisms and related transphobia are simply wished away through denial. A first step might be to admit that it is hard for everyone to unlearn heteronormativity and essentialist thinking – after all, everything is set up to accommodate their performance, down to the philosophies of our languages. However, once we have arrived at this recognition, we need to commit to working towards undoing this ever-present form of violence. And this includes identifying old deceptions within our supposedly progressive politics.