Are activists launching accusations of transphobia to their movement’s detriment–and is it costing them their allies?
In the latest bout between a portion of trans-activists and feminists regarding what exactly constitutes a woman, a mysterious activist created pink stickers in the form of a penis emblazoned with the caption ‘Women Don’t Have Penises’ and stuck them in gender-neutral toilets and other spaces where boundaries are being challenged to accommodate trans people. Predictably, this resulted in a storm of outrage from some members of the trans movement and their allies–strong, disgusted denunciations and anger poured out from various quarters condemning the stickers as transphobia–‘hate-filled’ and ‘anti-trans’. The incessant accusations of transphobia caught the attention of the Meyerside Police, who promised an investigation. To no one’s surprise, this provoked a backlash from factions known for their contrarian or otherwise right-leaning viewpoints. Brendan O’Neill bemoaned the Orwellian nightmare of the statement being considered as ‘hate speech’ and James Kirkup in the Spectator roundly criticised the reaction. This is where the battle stands, as of now, while the woman ostensibly making the stickers has continued to do so.
The crux of the argument–as to whether women indeed do have penises–goes straight to the heart of the other hotly contested maxim of the trans movement, namely, that ‘trans women are women’ and concomitantly, that ‘trans men are men’. What these activists mean by these phrases varies; they occasionally imply that trans women/trans men are women/men in the sense of social perception and, sometimes, in the legal sense as well. Nevertheless, this is a long-standing debate that will need to be thrashed out at length later. What is more of urgency, however, is the fact that this phrase ‘women don’t have penises’ is deemed ‘transphobic’.
This is the position adopted by those who disagree with the equivalence discussed above and maintain that trans women are not women and are rather male-bodied individuals who present as feminine–hence the reminder than anyone possessing the male organ is not a woman. This obviously is a source of more than a little discord. Disagreement, even dislike, of those espousing this position is understandable. But is the statement deserving of this outrage-inspired response?
The dictionary defines transphobia as an “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against transgender or transsexual people”. Even going by a more generous formulation of the idea, Wikipedia, which uses a looser definition defines transphobia as encompassing “a range of negative attitudes, feelings or actions toward transgender or transsexual people, or toward transsexuality which can be expressed as emotional disgust, fear, violence, anger, or discomfort felt or expressed towards people who do not conform to society’s gender expectation.”
By no stretch of either of these definitions is the straightforward statement “women do not have penises” an example of transphobia. It neither invalidates nor questions the trans-identity, nor does it say anything about trans people as such. The statement, which has been alternately seen as either just an acknowledgement of fact or conversely, a disagreement with the maxim that ‘trans women are women’, does not inspire fear or disgust towards transgender or transsexual people; instead it pushes back against one, and only one, part of the dogma in this current wave of activism, which is that transsexual and transgender people can be wholly and without contradiction equated to the sex class other than what their bodies signify.
This cannot be controversial, although I am certain that I will be labelled as a bigot for even saying this. Refusal to accept the statement that ‘trans women/trans men are not the same as women/men’ does not, in any way suggest, imply or signal that prejudice, dislike or disgust towards trans people is justified. It simply refutes the equivalence. If trans activists wish to claim that refuting the notion of transgender or transsexual women being women is prejudicial, they’re essentially arguing that to not be considered in the female sex class is prejudicial and discriminatory in and of itself, which is of course not logically tenable. Not being a woman does not mean an individual is then treated with fear, disgust, prejudice or discrimination. To claim that the statement ‘women don’t have penises’ is transphobic, hate-filled and anti-trans is simply hyperbolic and designed to incite a hysterical blowback.
Now a trans activist of this faction may argue that this stance itself is bigoted and claim that it privileges women at the expense of trans people. After all, transgender and transsexual people are perhaps one of the most marginalised communities in society, unable to exist within the gender binary, which makes life and the world easier to navigate. They are exceptionally vulnerable since some treat them as freaks, unworthy of human dignity or respect and their own gender dysphoria or trans identity is in itself an uphill climb. Do they not, then, deserve extra protection and utmost sensitivity? Indeed, their very status as a marginalised group often discriminated against may merit the treatment of speech and messaging concerning them with extra caution and stringent standards so that they may not be consequentially brought to harm.
I understand this impulse to want to build layers of protection around a vulnerable group, to outlaw or disapprove of treatment that may not be as problematic if meted out to a larger group, to deem as objectionable a host of expressions, symbols and actions that may exacerbate vulnerability and marginalisation. But, and this cannot be emphasised enough, hyperbolic and unwarranted outrage are not the way to go about protecting a group. This section of trans activism, motivated by seemingly high sensitivity, rigid codes of behaviour and extraordinarily low thresholds for what is to be considered transphobic are in fact hurting actual trans people. They are intolerant and loud, and whether motivated by genuine concern for trans people or not, are extremely quick to label anything and everything as transphobic, bigoted, and anti-trans, and provoke a corresponding wave of condemnation from the mob. The result? A growing backlash against the very idea of trans activism itself, scorn for its goals, and a perception of trans activism as a shrill and powerful mob intent on silencing, with terrible consequences, anyone who doesn’t agree with them.
This tendency of this group–to label things as transphobic or hateful and to demand the resulting social opprobrium–is deeply alarming. Activism that actually improves the status of a marginalised group has to be strategic and balanced, directed towards educating, raising awareness and discussion–not forcing society to tiptoe around the group by raising alarms over the slightest disagreement. This wave of exaggerated accusations, attendant hand-wringing, near hysterical condemnation does not lead to a climate or a society that is accepting and friendly towards trans people, but one that will either avoid them and refuse to engage on their behalf, or keep silent out of fear of consequences while harbouring resentment and being dismissive in private–a situation that will lead to actual violence against trans people as they will be viewed as the oppressing group.
“Activism that actually improves the status of a marginalised group has to be strategic and balanced, directed towards educating, raising awareness and discussion–not forcing society to tiptoe around the group by raising alarms over the slightest disagreement.”
Fighting for rights and equal status for a historically marginalised group is not easy, nor is it a quick endeavour. For the achieved goals to be sustainable, for a minority group to be accepted and embraced as an equal and vital part of society, concerns, hesitations and contrary views have to be reasoned with, not unnecessarily labelled as hateful or against the group in an attempt to clamp down using social disapproval. Painting trans people, or those advocating on their behalf as dramatic victims traumatised and oppressed by mere words does them far more of a disservice and erodes at sympathy. By turning every disagreement with aspects of the movement into an alleged dehumanising act, this group is fuelling resentment and actively contributing to hatred against trans people, while cheapening and demeaning the idea of transphobia. The hyperbole helps no one, least of all the people it purports to.
“Painting trans people, or those advocating on their behalf as dramatic victims traumatised and oppressed by mere words does them far more of a disservice and erodes at sympathy.”
In reacting so extremely to any refutation of trans activism’s positions, namely that ‘transwomen are women’, the range of people within their sights is steadily increasing–people who are, in actuality, allies. The latest victim of this wave of allegations of transphobia is Angelos Sofocleous, President Elect of the Humanist Students Association in the UK, who came under fire for retweeting a screenshot of James Kirkup’s piece, discussing the stickers. Chris Ward, a former member, picked up on the tweet, and proceeded to fire off a series of tweets condemning Sofocleus for his alleged ‘transphobia’, reiterating the extreme vulnerability of trans people as a reason why there should be no tolerance of what he deemed non-trans friendly views.
Unsurprisingly, the tweets got picked up, Pink News came out with a suitably emotive condemnation, and Sofocleous, an active and committed member of the humanist movement, has since been smeared as transphobic merely for retweeting a disputed statement. He has decided to resign. There is a tragic irony in this, in that humanism as a movement places the value and dignity of the individual in their very existence as a human being, as opposed to the religious worldview where adherents are always exalted above non-believers. But in the current climate in the UK, anyone not subscribing to the admittedly dogmatic position that ‘trans women are women’ are denounced and cast out much like religious dogma demands.
Hate speech is a powerful and tricky concept. In the US, the idea of hate speech finds little support in legislative enactments or judicial pronouncements, whereas in the UK and Europe, with their legacies of world wars and the lessons learned therein, the concept is still viewed as a valid curb on freedom of speech. But even then, it is used sparingly, and for good reason. The British and European position on hate speech may be summarised as speech that directly incentivises or induces the undertaking of violence against a targeted group. When speech is found to satisfy these requirements however, it is treated as equivalent to the crime it is found to have incited itself, and hence assessed against a very high threshold. In this instance, we have a straightforward statement, controversial perhaps, but hardly capable of inciting fear or disgust, let alone violence, and the hysteria surrounding it has been sufficiently intense for the police to respond. The idea that the statement “women don’t have penises” is indicative of fear, disgust, prejudice, or discrimination against transgender and transsexual people cannot be reasonably proven from any perspective.
Words are powerful, and they carry significance because of that power. It is reckless and fickle to use strong language to express a disagreement simply because we believe it will provoke a stronger reaction from the public. In particular, words such as ‘oppression’ ‘phobia’, ‘hateful’, and ‘incitement’ are weighty terms used to denote egregious human rights violations and treatment not befitting the dignity of the individual. Using terms like ‘transphobia’ and ‘anti-trans’ so easily and carelessly shows scant regard for the history of discrimination, its reality, and the power of these words itself. It is akin to crying wolf. When everything is deemed transphobic, nothing is. There is nothing more dangerous than reaching a point where we have no means of discerning prejudicial, harmful and hateful behaviour from disagreement, even if that disagreement is controversial.
Lawyer, activist against sexual violence and exploitation. You can follow her on twitter @lblwcri.