Feminist views on transgender topics

Feminist views on transgender topics vary widely. Second-wave feminist views on transgender people were often hostile,[1] but third-wave feminists tend to view the struggle for trans rights as an integral part of feminism.[2] Fourth-wave feminists also tend to be trans-inclusive;[2] the National Organization for Women (the largest feminist group in the United States)[3] and the Feminist Majority Foundation both support trans rights.[4][5]

Some feminists, such as Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys, believe that transgender and transsexual people uphold and reinforce sexist gender roles and the gender binary. Feminists who espouse views that other feminists consider transphobic,[6][7][8][9][10][11] who oppose transgender rights or the inclusion of trans women in women's spaces and organizations,[12] or who say trans women are not women,[13] have been called "trans-exclusionary radical feminists" or its abbreviation, "TERFs".

While these parties lack influence in mainstream feminism in the US[14] and Canada,[15] they are more influential in the United Kingdom.[6][9][16] Additionally, some transgender and transsexual people, such as Julia Serano and Jacob Anderson-Minshall, have formed a movement within feminism called transfeminism, which views the rights of trans people and trans women in particular as an integral part of the feminist struggle for all women's rights.[17]


Early history (before 1989)Edit

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, corresponding roughly to the second wave of feminism, feminists (especially early radical feminists) were often in conflict with trans women.

In 1978 a trans woman asked to join the Lesbian Organization of Toronto (LOOT). It refused to admit her and voted to exclude trans lesbians.[18] LOOT wrote: "A woman's voice was almost never heard as a woman's voice—it was always filtered through men's voices. So here a guy comes along saying, 'I'm going to be a girl now and speak for girls.' And we thought, 'No you're not.' A person cannot just join the oppressed by fiat."[18] Another dispute began in 1973, when the West Coast Lesbian Conference split over a scheduled performance by the lesbian transgender folk-singer Beth Elliott.[19] Elliott had served as vice-president of the San Francisco chapter of the lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis, and edited the chapter's newsletter, Sisters, but was expelled from the group in 1973 on the grounds that she did not qualify as a woman.[20][21]

Janice Raymond published The Transsexual Empire in 1979.[22] In it she criticised contemporary medical and psychiatric approaches to transsexuality and accused trans women of reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes. Several writers characterized these views as extremely transphobic and/or hate speech.[23][24][25][26] Empire also included a chapter criticising "the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist". Raymond devoted a section to Sandy Stone, a trans woman who worked as a sound engineer for Olivia Records, a feminist record collective that employed only women.[22] The collective publicly defended Stone, but after continued pressure, Stone resigned. She later wrote The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto,[27] a response to Raymond's Empire that became a foundational work in the field of transgender studies.[1]

However, not every early radical feminist opposed trans acceptance. Radical feminist Andrea Dworkin viewed surgery as a right for transgender people.[28]

The third wave (1990–2008)Edit

The third wave of feminism saw much greater acceptance of transgender rights, largely due to the influence of philosophers such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Judith Butler.[2][29] These philosophers argued for greater inclusion of other fields (such as critical race theory and queer theory) within feminism. Butler in particular argued that women's liberation required a questioning of gender itself, and that accepting gay and trans people would promote that sort of questioning.[29]

In the early 1990s the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MichFest) ejected a transgender woman, Nancy Burkholder.[30] From that point on, the festival maintained it was intended for "womyn-born womyn".[31] The group Camp Trans formed to protest this policy and to advocate for greater acceptance of trans women in the feminist community. A number of prominent trans activists and feminists were involved in Camp Trans, including Riki Wilchins, Jessica Xavier, and Leslie Feinberg.[citation needed] MichFest considered allowing post-operative trans women to attend, but this was criticized as classist, as many trans women cannot afford sex reassignment surgery.[32] Lisa Vogel, MichFest's organizer, said protesters from Camp Trans engaged in vandalism.[33] The festival ended in 2015.[34]

Modern historyEdit

Many fourth-wave feminists are trans-inclusive.[2] Organizations such as the National Organization for Women,[3] the Feminist Majority Foundation,[4] and Planned Parenthood,[35] now support trans rights, as do most Canadian feminist organizations.[36] The influence of trans-exclusionary radical feminists and trans-exclusionary feminists in general has waned significantly,[14] though they are still somewhat influential in the United Kingdom.[6][9][16] In a 2015 interview Catharine MacKinnon cited and agreed with Simone de Beauvoir's quotation about "becom[ing] a woman", and said that "[a]nybody who identifies as a woman, wants to be a woman, is going around being a woman, as far as I'm concerned, is a woman."[37]

The UK government's 2018 consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004 became a locus of conflict between radical feminists and advocates for trans acceptance.[9] The GRA requires that one be medically diagnosed with gender dysphoria and live for two years in one's felt identity before legally changing gender.[38] Proposed reforms would allow one to self-declare one's legal gender without a diagnosis or waiting period.[39] While the UK's Equality Act 2010 permitted providers of single-sex or sex-segregated services such as women's shelters to deny access to transgender people on a case-by-case basis, a 2016 report of the House of Commons's Women and Equalities Committee[40] recommended that providers no longer be permitted to exclude persons who had obtained legal recognition of their "acquired gender" under the GRA.[41]

British trans-exclusive feminist groups objected to the proposed GRA self-ID reform as eroding protections for women-only safe spaces and liable to abuse by cisgender men[42][43]—issues disputed by advocates of reform and unsupported by current evidence.[44][45] Pro-trans feminist academics such as Akwugo Emejulu and Alison Phipps view self-declaration as a right for transgender people.[46]

In October 2018 the UK edition of The Guardian published an editorial on GRA reform supporting a lessening of the barriers to legal gender change but also stating that "Women's oppression by men has a physical basis, and to deny the relevance of biology when considering sexual inequality is a mistake," and that, "Women's concerns about sharing dormitories or changing rooms with 'male-bodied' people must be taken seriously."[9][47] Journalists from The Guardian's US edition wrote an editorial repudiating their UK counterpart's stance, stating that it "promoted transphobic viewpoints" and that its "unsubstantiated argument only serves to dehumanize and stigmatize trans people".[9][48] In March 2019 more than 160 women, including Emma Thompson and members of the UK parliament, cosigned an open letter expressing solidarity with trans women and support for GRA reform, organised by LGBT charity Time for Inclusive Education.[49][50]

Transgender rights and the feminist movementEdit

Queer feminist philosopher Judith Butler has argued for feminist solidarity with trans and gender-nonconforming people, and has been critical of philosophers, such as Sheila Jeffreys, who she argues engage in oppressive attempts to dispute trans people's sense of identity.[51] In a 2014 interview Butler argued for civil rights for trans people: "[N]othing is more important for transgender people than to have access to excellent health care in trans-affirmative environments, to have the legal and institutional freedom to pursue their own lives as they wish, and to have their freedom and desire affirmed by the rest of the world." She also responded to some of Jeffreys's and Raymond's criticisms of trans people, calling them "prescriptivism" and "tyranny". According to Butler, trans people are not created by medical discourse but rather develop new discourses through self-determination.[52]

American academic Susan Stryker wrote in 2007 that first-wave feminism had commonalities with the transgender rights movement "[t]o the extent that breaking out of the conventional constrictions of womanhood is both a feminist and transgender practice".[53] She added that transgender issues had prompted feminist scholars to question notions of biological sex, and that transgender theorising was associated with the rise of postmodern epistemology in third-wave feminist thought.[53]

In 2012 Jeffreys wrote in The Guardian that she and other critics of "transgenderism" had been subject to intimidation campaigns on the internet, the extent of which suggested that trans rights advocates fear the "practice of transgenderism" becoming the subject of criticism.[54] British radical feminist Linda Bellos was uninvited from a University of Cambridge speaking engagement in 2017 after saying that "trans politics" sought to assert male power.[55]

Lesbian feminist of color Sara Ahmed has said that an anti-trans stance is an anti-feminist one, and that trans feminism "recalls" earlier militant lesbian feminism.[56][57] Kimberlé Crenshaw, developer of the theory of intersectionality, wrote, "People of color within LGBTQ movements; girls of color in the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline; women within immigration movements; trans women within feminist movements; and people with disabilities fighting police abuse—all face vulnerabilities that reflect the intersections of racism, sexism, class oppression, transphobia, able-ism and more. Intersectionality has given many advocates a way to frame their circumstances and to fight for their visibility and inclusion."[58]

Sally Hines, University of Leeds professor of sociology and gender identities, wrote in The Economist in 2018 that feminism and trans rights have been falsely portrayed as being in conflict by a minority of anti-transgender feminists, who often "reinforce the extremely offensive trope of the trans woman as a man in drag who is a danger to women". Hines criticized these feminists for fueling "rhetoric of paranoia and hyperbole" against trans people, saying that while spreading anti-trans narratives, anti-trans feminists abandon principles of feminism, such as bodily autonomy and self-determination of gender, and employ "reductive models of biology and restrictive understandings of the distinction between sex and gender" in defense of such narratives. Hines concluded with a call for explicit recognition of anti-transgender feminism as a violation of equality and dignity, and "a doctrine that runs counter to the ability to fulfill a liveable life or, often, a life at all."[59]

Feminist theorist, writer and Yale professor Roxane Gay has said that issues facing non-white and marginalized women such as sexual harassment and misconduct extend to trans women as well, and that TERFs have "woefully failed" to consider trans women's experience. Gay finds transphobia appalling, with the maltreatment and agony trans people suffer, such as the high suicide rates and murder rates of black trans women, not their fault. She has also said, "I think a lot of feminists are very comfortable being anti-trans. And that’s painful to see because we should know better, having been marginalized as women throughout history and today. How dare we marginalize others now?"[60]


Transfeminism, or trans feminism, synthesizes feminist and transgender discourse. Transfeminists argue that there are multiple forms of oppression and sexism, and that trans and cisgender women have shared interests in combating sexism.[1] Influential transfeminists include Julia Serano and Diana Courvant.[citation needed]

Trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs)Edit

"TERF" is an acronym for "trans-exclusionary radical feminist".[61][62] It is used to describe feminists who express ideas that other feminists consider transphobic,[6][7][8][9][11][63] such as the claim that trans women are not women,[13] opposition to transgender rights and exclusion of trans women from women's spaces and organizations.[12][64]

While these parties lack influence in academic feminist philosophy,[14] they are relatively powerful in the United Kingdom, in particular the British press.[6][9][16] They have allied with conservative groups and politicians to oppose transgender rights legislation in the US,[65][66][67][68] the UK,[69] and Australia.[70]

Feminist Viv Smythe, who is credited with coining the term,[61] has stated its intention as a "technically neutral description ... to distinguish TERFs from other RadFems ... who were trans*-positive/neutral."[71] Those who exclude trans women call themselves "gender critical",[13][72][73] and consider the word "TERF"[74] inaccurate[13] or a slur.[33][73][75]

Support from conservativesEdit

Researcher Cole Parke at Political Research Associates (PRA), an American liberal think tank, wrote in 2016 that conservative groups opposed to the transgender rights movement were basing their arguments on the work of feminist authors such as Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys, whom Parke described as "TERFs".[76] The Southern Poverty Law Center, an American civil rights nonprofit, reported in 2017 that American Christian right groups were trying to "separate the T from LGB", including via casting transgender rights as antagonistic to feminism or to lesbian or gay people. The report said this trend was "part of a larger strategy, meant to weaken transgender rights advocates by attempting to separate them from their allies, feminists and LGBT rights advocates".

The SPLC detailed the anti-LGBT Family Research Council's annual Values Voter Summit, during which attendees were encouraged to rebrand their rhetoric in the language of feminism, including framing gender identities as offensive to women. The report quoted Meg Kilganon, leader of an anti-transgender conservative group, as saying "Trans and gender identity are a tough sell, so focus on gender identity to divide and conquer".[10][67][77]

In January 2019 the Heritage Foundation, an American conservative think tank, hosted a panel of left-wing feminists opposed to the US Equality Act.[67] PRA researcher Heron Greenesmith has said that the latest iteration of collaboration between conservatives and anti-transgender feminists is in part a reaction to the trans community's "incredible gains" in civil rights and visibility, and that anti-trans feminists and conservatives capitalize on a "scarcity mindset rhetoric" whereby civil rights are portrayed as a limited commodity and must be prioritized to cisgender women over other groups. Greenesmith compared this rhetoric to the right-wing tactic of prioritizing the rights of citizens over non-citizens and white people over people of color.[67]

Particular topicsEdit

Socialization and experienceEdit

Some feminists argue that trans women cannot fully be women because they were assigned male at birth and experienced some degree of male privilege.[78] Radical feminists generally see gender as a binary social class system in which women are oppressed solely due to their biology rather than gender identity.[72]

Patricia Elliot argues that the view that one's socialization as a girl or woman defines "women's experience" assumes that women's experiences are homogeneous and discounts the possibility that trans and cis women may share the experience of being disparaged for femininity.[79] Similarly, Transfeminist Manifesto author Emi Koyama contends that, while trans women may have experienced some male privilege before transitioning, trans women's experiences are also marked by disadvantages resulting from being trans.[17]

In "Growing Up Trans: Socialization and the Gender Binary", Michelle Dietert and Dianne Dentice write that when youth embody non-standard gender roles or otherwise deviate from expectations of their assigned sex, the gender binary becomes a form of control by authorities, enforcing social norms upon them. In their view, this begins at early socialization, and transgender youth, especially gender non-conforming children, often experience different treatment, leading to a fear of reprisals as they attempt to please their family and peers and navigate their understanding of their gender and societal expectations.[80] They argue that socialization affects transgender youth differently, especially if they are gender non-conforming.[81]

In 2017, while discussing whether trans women are women, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, "trans women are trans women." She acknowledged that transgender women face discrimination for being transgender and said she sees this as a serious issue, but also said, "we should not conflate the gender experiences of trans women with that of women born female."[82] She later expanded on her comments, saying, "From the very beginning, I think it’s been quite clear that there’s no way I could possibly say that trans women are not women. It’s the sort of thing to me that’s obvious, so I start from that obvious premise. Of course they are women, but in talking about feminism and gender and all of that, it’s important for us to acknowledge the differences in experience of gender. That’s really what my point is. Had I said ‘a cis woman is a cis woman, and a trans woman is a trans woman’, I don't think I would get all the crap that I'm getting, but that's actually really what I was saying."[83]

Sex reassignment surgeryEdit

In her 1974 book Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality, radical feminist writer and activist Andrea Dworkin called for the support of transsexuals, whom she viewed as "in a state of primary emergency" due to "the culture of male–female discreteness". She writes: "every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions." She also stated that the phenomenon of transsexuality might disappear within communities built on androgynous identity, as there would no longer be any gender roles to conform to.[28][84]

In 1977, Gloria Steinem wrote that while she supported the right of individuals to identify as they choose, in many cases, transgender people "surgically mutilate their own bodies" in order to conform to a gender role that is inexorably tied to physical body parts. She concluded that "feminists are right to feel uncomfortable about the need for and uses of transsexualism." The article concluded with what became one of Steinem's most famous quotes: "If the shoe doesn't fit, must we change the foot?" Although meant in the context of transgender issues, the quote is frequently mistaken as a general statement about feminism.[85]:206–210 The same year, she also expressed disapproval that the heavily publicized transition of tennis player Renée Richards (a trans woman) had been characterized as "a frightening instance of what feminism could lead to" or as "living proof that feminism isn't necessary", and wrote, "At a minimum, it was a diversion from the widespread problems of sexual inequality."[85] Steinem's statements led to her being characterized as transphobic for some years.[86]

In a 2013 interview with The Advocate, she repudiated the interpretation of her text as an altogether condemnation of sex reassignment surgery, stating that her position was informed by accounts of gay men choosing to transition as a way of coping with societal homophobia. She added that she sees transgender people as living "authentic lives" that should be "celebrated".[87]

In 1979, Janice Raymond wrote a book on trans women called The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, which looked at the role of transsexuality—particularly psychological and surgical approaches to it—in reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes, the ways in which the "medical-psychiatric complex" is medicalizing gender identity, and the social and political context that has helped portray transsexual treatment and surgery as normal and therapeutic medicine.[22] Raymond maintains that transsexualism is based on the "patriarchal myths" of "male mothering", and "making of woman according to man's image". She argued that this is done in order "to colonize feminist identification, culture, politics and sexuality".[88] Several writers characterized these views as extremely transphobic and constituting hate speech.[23][24][25][26]

In her own 1987 book Gyn/Ecology Mary Daly, who had served as Raymond's thesis supervisor,[89] also criticized transsexuals, observing that sex reassignment surgery cannot reproduce female chromosomes or a female life history, and that it can therefore "not produce women".[90] Similarly, in a 2017 televised interview on BBC Newsnight, Germaine Greer said that feminizing SRS does not make trans women women.[91]

Transgender women in women's spaces and organizationsEdit

In 1995, Kimberly Nixon, a trans woman, volunteered for training as a rape crisis counselor at Vancouver Rape Relief & Women's Shelter. When the shelter determined Nixon was trans, it expelled her, with staff saying it made it impossible for her to understand the experiences of their clients. Nixon disagreed, disclosing her own history of partner abuse, and sued on the grounds of discrimination. Nixon's attorneys argued there was no basis for the dismissal, citing Diana Courvant's experiences as the first publicly trans woman to work in a women-only domestic violence shelter. In 2007 the Canadian Supreme Court refused to hear Nixon's appeal, ending the case.[92][93][94]

In 1996, Germaine Greer (at the time a fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge) unsuccessfully opposed the appointment to a fellowship of her transgender colleague Rachael Padman.[95][96][97] Greer argued that because Padman had been assigned male at birth, she should not be admitted to Newnham, a women's college. Greer later resigned from Newnham.[98][99][100][101]

A 2004 editorial by British radical feminist Julie Bindel titled "Gender Benders, beware" printed in The Guardian caused the paper to receive two hundred letters of complaint from transgender people, doctors, therapists, academics and others. The editorial expressed her anger at Kimberly Nixon, and also included Bindel's views about transsexuals and transsexualism.[102][103] Transgender activist group Press for Change cite this article as an example of 'discriminatory writing' about transsexual people in the press.[104] Complaints focused on the title, "Gender benders, beware", the cartoon accompanying the piece,[failed verification][105] and the disparaging tone, such as "Think about a world inhabited just by transsexuals. It would look like the set of Grease" and "I don't have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s [jeans] does not make you a man."[102][106]

In April 2019, Angela Wild, leader of lesbian activist group Get the L Out, wrote that lesbians were being pressured to accept transgender women as sexual partners.[107] Jessica Stern, executive director of LGBT human rights NGO OutRight Action International, responded that Get the L Out's activism was perpetuating gender inequality and anti-transgender sentiment and parallelled religious conservativism by focusing on biological sex.[108]

Margaret Atwood has said she disagrees with the views that trans women are not women[109] or should not use women's washrooms.[110]

See alsoEdit


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