Voices: Being a radical feminist means being a trans ally at the same time

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Voices: Being a radical feminist means being a trans ally at the same time
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I hate the term TERF: trans-exclusionary radical feminism. Radical feminism has been co-opted by a few powerful transphobes who do not represent radical feminist ideology. As a result, many of the students I taught at Cambridge were anti-radical feminists. They believed radical feminism was inherently transphobic. But it isn’t. I align myself with radical feminism and am trans-inclusionary (let’s use RFTI, shall we?).

If ever you needed proof that radical feminism upholds the rights of trans people, then look no further than the OGs of radical feminism: legal scholar Professor Catharine MacKinnon and the late author, Andrea Dworkin. Both trans allies. We need to remember this, and reclaim radical feminism for all women and oppressed groups.

But what is radical feminism? The movement gained traction in the 1960s, when it recognised that men dominate and oppress women under the patriarchy. Women’s experiences of exploitation are affected by other inequalities, such as race, class, gender identity and sexual orientation. Radical feminists call for a revolution, to overthrow the patriarchy and capitalism, and to thereby liberate women and oppressed people from the repressive social and gendered structures they live under. Feminist and race author bell hooks described radical feminism as “the struggle to end sexist oppression”.

I have learned a lot from my clients – women from all walks of life. Poor, rich, ethnic minorities, migrant women, trans, lesbian, queer. They all have one thing in common: they are not free under the current system of oppression. They suffer multiple layers of inequality and vulnerability, which leaves them living under conditions of state and individual violence. The core tenet of radical feminism is that women and other individuals and groups are harmed under the patriarchy, and should be liberated. How can we liberate cis women and leave behind one of the most marginalised groups in our society?

Dworkin included a quote from her trans friend by way of an introduction to her widely-acclaimed book, Woman Hating: “How can I really care if we win ‘the Revolution’? Either way, any way, there will be no place for me.” Because of her attachments to trans people and her solidarity with them, Dworkin understood that a revolution that does not include trans liberation would be no revolution at all.

But some feminist authors and activists who I have greatly respected and admired for their unashamedly radical challenge to male dominance, and for their fight for women’s liberation over the decades, have turned their backs on the trans community and focused their attention on sex essentialism. This is not a new fight. “Sex essentialist activists”, as they were called in the 1970s, sought to exclude trans and intersex people from the women’s liberation movement in the US through oppression and outright violence (including death threats and attempted murder). It’s a real fight that continues to this day.

The division is an unnecessary and unproductive one. Until I sat down and spoke with MacKinnon, I was unsure at first how the two struggles joined together. It is understandable that it is not always obvious at first how to combine radical feminism and trans-inclusivity; it can take time to learn. It can also be painful to speak out when feminists who stand with trans people are told they are “not real feminists”. I don’t think I have ever received more hate from feminists than when I tweet about trans rights.

Trans-exclusionary feminists argue that sex is a real immutable characteristic and gender is sex-based. If, for example, you are assigned the female sex then you cannot become and live as a man. I believe this is a superficially attractive but simplistic argument. At its root, their argument echoes the biological determinist (or reductionist) arguments made by anti-feminists: that a woman’s biology – her capacity for menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth – determines her gender and social status.

Radical feminism does and must include transfeminism. Author and journalist Shon Faye writes in her book, The Transgender Issue, that “transfeminism is a term used to describe a collection of perspectives on feminism that centre on the experiences of trans people. This perspective recognises trans people as a group who, like cis women, suffer greatly at the hands of patriarchy, which punishes us for transgressing the roles laid out for us from birth”.

Both cis women and trans women are harmed under the patriarchy and their unique experiences must be included in our feminism. There are very many trans women who live their feminist politics loud and proud every day. In contrast, I find myself regularly debating cis women who actively deny the subordinate position of women and the need for liberation.

Living your life as a trans man, woman or non-binary individual in a deeply transphobic society is likely to result in violence, prejudice and discrimination. A YouGov survey commissioned by Stonewall in 2018 found that two in five trans people have been subjected to a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity, more than a quarter of trans people in a relationship in the last year have faced domestic abuse from a partner, and one in four trans people have experienced homelessness. Trans people are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

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As early as 1983, Dworkin and MacKinnon both recognised the objectification and violation of trans people in pornography. As such, their anti-pornography civil rights ordinance, which allowed women harmed by pornography to claim damages through the civil courts, also included trans people. MacKinnon has taught discrimination against trans people as a form of sex-based discrimination since 1977 and famously represented a trans woman – one of her first clients – who was imprisoned in a male prison in an “absolutely horrific” situation.

Standing with a marginalised group of people who are violated under conditions of racism, sexism and discrimination takes nothing away from the feminist movement, but it does have the power to transform our movement into a force to be reckoned with. The issues that the feminist movement needs to focus on has the same concerns the trans movement has: bodily autonomy, healthcare, protection from domestic, street and state violence, right to unconventional gender expression, a basic standard of living and freedom from all forms of discrimination.

Trans activists have built the skills and networks to help people access healthcare even when the oppressive, male state denies them a fundamental human right to access medical care. After the reversal of the right to abortion under Roe v Wade in the US, and the criminalisation of women who access abortion in Britain, all feminists need to build accessible structures for marginalised women and individuals to access abortion and contraception. Together, we can support each other.

By pitting trans people against cis women, the patriarchy’s work is being done for those who uphold it. They’re making us fight amongst ourselves over scraps, when we should come together in solidarity and demand real rights – or revolution.

I’ll conclude with a profound quote from MacKinnon: “Male-dominant society has defined women as a discrete biological group forever. If this was going to produce liberation, we’d be free.”

Dr Charlotte Proudman is a barrister specialising in violence against women and girls and a junior research fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge

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