Media coverage of transgender issues has increased rapidly in the last few years as trans people have made larger and louder pushes for relatively basic rights and recognition. Unfortunately, as ground is gained in the fight for trans acceptance, the opposition to that progress only grows more louder and more aggressive. This is visible in Michelle Goldberg’s latest piece for The New Yorker, which investigates the conflict between trans-exclusionary radical feminists and the transgender population. Sadly, what she presents is a disturbingly one-sided view of the situation that relies on heavily anecdotal evidence, uncited claims and debunked theories, and ignores the extended campaign of harassment and attack that the the trans community has endured at the hands of radical feminists.
Let’s start with the numbers. In the piece, Goldberg mentions the names of 14 radical feminist activists (frequently providing physical descriptions), and provides quotes from nine of them — including two from books penned by radfems. In contrast, she mentions and quotes a total of four trans women (zero from books), and two of them are quoted to supporting the radical feminist position. The problem isn’t necessarily that Goldberg appears to side with the radical feminist viewpoint; that’s perfectly within her rights, and perfectly within The New Yorker’s right to print it. The real issue is that Ms Goldberg gives the impression that she’s covering the conflict between the trans rights movement and radical feminism — after all, the piece is subtitled “The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism” — but gives only passing lip service to the transgender community’s side of this situation. In failing to provide a semblance of balance to the voices in the piece, this account becomes hopelessly skewed, and becomes little more than a radical feminist propaganda piece.
Early on in her essay, Goldberg presents an extremely simplified and stereotyped view of trans women’s identities. She writes: “Trans women say that they are women because they feel female — that, as some put it, they have women’s brains in men’s bodies.” First, considering that the length of the article discusses trans people (and focuses heavily on trans women), to reduce the explanation of their complex experiences to three words — “they feel female” — is offensively reductionist. While such a passing nod to trans experiences might be not be out of place in a more LGBTQ-geared publication, in a more general consumption magazine, like The New Yorker, a few more lines could have been devoted to fleshing out this explanation for the benefit of readers not familiar with trans issues. In contrast, Ms Goldberg spends the rest of that paragraph and half of the next explaining the radical feminist view on being transgender. She explains “They believe that if women think and act differently from men it’s because society forces them to, requiring them to be sexually attractive, nurturing, and deferential. In the words of Lierre Keith, a speaker at Radfems Respond, femininity is ‘ritualized submission.’ In this view, gender is less an identity than a caste position.” She also borrows heavily from the radical feminist playbook and conflates the sociological concept of gender with the concept of gender identity, quoting and reinforcing the tired trope that identifying as a trans woman is about embracing stereotypical femininity. Of course, the radical feminist position that masculinity is natural and healthy, and femininity artificial and harmful, is also inherently sexist, a topic to which trans writer Julia Serano devotes an entire book. We’ll get back to Julia in a minute.
Ms. Goldberg spends the bulk of the piece describing how trans activists and trans allies have interfered with the ability of radical feminists to meet. The tone of Goldberg’s writing gives the impression that the trans activists are simply bullies, trying their best to interfere with people who want nothing more than to discuss their views. She cements this view by giving anecdotal examples of unnamed individuals on the internet making violent threats. She writes: “Abusive posts proliferated on Twitter and, especially, Tumblr. One read, ‘/kill/terfs 2K14.’ Another suggested, ‘how about ‘slowly and horrendously murder terfs in saw-like torture machines and contraptions’ 2K14.’ A young blogger holding a knife posted a selfie with the caption ‘Fetch me a terf.’ Such threats have become so common that radical-feminist Web sites have taken to cataloguing them.” While trying to explain this outpouring of aggression, she quotes radfem Lierre Keith: “It’s aggrieved entitlement,” Lierre Keith told me. “They are so angry that we will not see them as women.” What’s entirely missing from Ms Goldberg’s analysis is any mention of the great lengths that radical feminists have gone to in order to deny the rights of trans people and harass trans activists.
As Cristan Williams explains in this 2013 piece, the uproar from radical feminists was instrumental in the major setbacks for trans healthcare in the 1980s. Cristan explains:
“[Janice] Raymond asserted that trans medical care was a new and unethical phenomenon, and that legislation should block trans medical care and instead institute a national program of reparative therapy. It was only after the NCHCT pushed Raymond’s bigotry in 1980 that the government reversed course in 1981 and took up Raymond’s views and rhetoric. Raymond’s bigotry became the government’s stance. This official anti-trans policy soon spread to private insurers, and the American trans population soon found itself without access to medically necessary health care.”
More recently, radical feminists Cathy Brennan and Elizabeth Hungerford penned a letter to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in 2011, addressing what they held were new US laws that endangered women’s safety — laws protecting trans people from discrimination. The letter goes on at great length about how adopting policies protecting trans women “present the potential for a human rights violation against all females.” The submission was made at the last moment of the comment period, denying trans advocates any opportunity to respond.
Beyond their work to influence policy in a manner that harms the trans community, trans-exclusionary radical feminists have engaged (and still do) in numerous campaigns of personal harassment against trans women, particularly vocal trans activists. The previously mentioned Cathy Brennan is thought to be connected to some of the ugliest of the harassment. They also engage in systematic harassment of trans women and trans allies on twitter, most by repeating their same tired rhetoric: “trans women are men” and “penis is male”. They also engaged in an extended harassment campaign targeting Against Me! singer and trans woman Laura Jane Grace. Earlier this year, Tina Vasquez penned a lengthy piece on for Bitch Magazine running down dozens of examples of harassment perpetrated by radical feminists against both trans activists and trans allies, including herself.
In a moment reminiscent of conservatives parading around of “ex-gays,” Goldberg then presents a single “de-transitioned” person, Heath Atom Russell — a woman who had previously lived as a trans man, and had returned to living as woman. Ms Russell says that she was swayed by the writings of radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys to return to living as a woman: “At first, the book infuriated Russell, but she couldn’t let go of the questions that it raised about her own identity. She had been having heart palpitations, which made her uneasy about the hormones she was taking. Nor did she ever fully believe herself to be male.” This single individual, along with an example of transition “regret,” are supposed to undermine the entire concept of being trans. Goldberg quotes Jeffreys: “The phenomenon of regret undermines the idea that there exists a particular kind of person who is genuinely and essentially transgender and can be identified accurately by psychiatrists. It is radically destabilising to the transgender project.” What’s missing here is the actual medical literature that categorically rejects this assertions. Well-designed, peer-reviewed medical studies have demonstrated significant increases in wellbeing for trans people undergoing transition, and very low levels of regret. I discussed this some length in a recent response to transphobic psychiatrist Dr Paul McHugh. Trotting out anecdotal transitioners, particularly without as much as nod to the high number of transitioned trans people living happy, healthy lives, points to a very serious agenda in Goldberg’s writing.
Continuing the theme of bad science, Goldberg presents the misogynist “autogynephilia” theory of Drs Ray Blanchard and J. Michael Bailey as an explanation for why trans women choose to transition. The theory primarily holds that trans women (particularly queer trans women), desire to transition because they sexually fetishize the image of themselves as women. What Ms Goldberg fails to mention is that this theory has largely been debunked. In fact, a 2009 study demonstrated that, when cisgender women were examined for autogynephilia using similar questionnaires, the responses were remarkably similar to trans women. The autogynephilia theory unnecessarily and damagingly pathologizes the sex lives of queer trans woman by deeming them “fetishists” for simply having sexual interests after transition that do not conform to heterosexual preferences. The only recognition Goldberg appears to give to this fact is that she refers to the theory as “highly controversial.” However, a two-word nod against two paragraphs of description of theory skews the discussion in favor of this bunk science, and further damages the reputation of trans women.
Perhaps the most unsettling portion of the piece comes when Goldberg shares a portion of a discussion she had with Julia Serano. Goldberg seeks Serano’s comment on a quote from Lisa Vogel, organizer of trans-woman-excluding music festival Michfest, claiming that Michfest excludes trans women so festival-goers can feel “safe.” Though Julia is quoted accurately, and her impressive science, writing, and speaking credentials are listed, Ms Goldberg adds an upsetting and unnecessary parenthetical comment after: “Sheila Jeffreys attacks her in “Gender Hurts,” using autobiographical details from Serano’s first book, ‘Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity’ (2007), to paint her as an autogynephile who seeks to ‘reinvent ‘feminism’ to fit his erotic interests.” This additional comment adds absolutely nothing to the conversation regarding the Michfest situation; it’s absolutely irrelevant. It serves only to undermine Julia’s credibility by connecting her to discussion of trans-women-as-fetishists earlier in the piece. Serano responded briefly to the article earlier today via her blog, and shared emails she had sent to Goldberg while the piece was in the works. When it became apparent that the autogynephilia reference would be included, Serano wrote: “You initially asked to interview me about the ‘tensions between trans activists and some radical feminists’ (which I provided my thoughts on over the course of the interview process). I honestly don’t understand how sexual thoughts that I had over twenty years ago (as a young trans person trying to sort out my identity) has any bearing on these tensions, other than the fact that Jeffreys stoops to the transgender equivalent of slut-shaming in her book.” Considering how little of the essay Ms Goldberg devoted to the words of trans activists, undermining the credibility of one of the few she does quote with unnecessary references to her sexual history is disgusting and unprofessional.
Serano’s emails also reveal that Goldberg’s omissions of any discussion of the the harassment and abuse endured by the trans community at the hands of Cathy Brennan and her ilk was not an oversight or due to lack of awareness. Julia explains that she discussed those issues at length during her interview with Goldberg:
When Goldberg interviewed me for the piece, I talked extensively about TERF attacks on trans people: About the hatefull speech I (and other trans women) regularly receive from TERFs on my Twitter feed, blog comments, etc., and how much of it is of a sexualizing nature. I talked at great length about Cathy Brennan who is notorious for her personal attacks and outing of trans people, her various websites where she engages in smear campaigns against trans women (once again, usually of a sexualizing nature). I mentioned how, after my appearance at a SF Dyke March forum on AGE DIVERSITY AND GENDER FLUIDITY – which was designed to build bridges between trans-positive queer women and those (often of older generations) who are trans unaware, and which resulted in respectful and constructive dialogue on all sides – several TERFs crashed the Facebook page and spewed so much hateful speech that they had to shut the whole thread down. None of this made it into the story, which will likely lead uninformed readers to presume that trans people are simply mean and out of control, rather than reacting to the transphobia/trans-misogyny/sexualizing comments we constantly face from TERFs.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that trans activists are so fervent and vocal in their fight for their rights and recognition when we see mainstream publications like The New Yorker giving page space to arguing about whether we even exist. While our situation is improving slowly, every single bit of progress is fought bitterly for; with few protections in place for us, trans people are still engaged in a fight for survival. By virtue of the First Amendment, radical feminists are able to continue to spew their vile hate speech, to harass us when we’re bold enough to speak up, to dead-name us when we criticize them, and to petition Congress to ignore our rights and concerns. However, the fact that they struggle to find places to meet, and are met with resistance with every time they speak should not be taken as bullying, but rather a firm, clear rejection of their abusive tactics and backwards, oppressive agenda — not just by trans people, but by cis feminists, and increasingly, society at large.
As for Michelle Goldberg’s essay, if what she pitched to the staff of the The New Yorker was an investigation of both sides of the trans activists and radical feminist conflict, I think it’s fair to say that she failed miserably. In any case, the editorial staff of The New Yorker should be ashamed for allowing it print.