Meow! Controversial “debates” abound this week with the argument (mainly from radical feminists) that trans women can’t be “real” women because they experienced male privilege while growing up. First off, this is a complete non-argument; it’s like saying I can’t identify as disabled because I was healthy up until my teens, or because I had a brain tumour that others couldn’t see, that I experienced “able privilege”.
So you’re probably able to summarise my thoughts on the matter quite succinctly. I am: it’s utter bollocks. But let’s delve a little deeper to highlight some of the errors, contradictions and downright fantasies that make up this viewpoint.
|The male privilege argument
This is the most controversial of all the points, for me, because there is a grain of truth behind it. We don’t choose to have privilege in any given situation. It is as much about people’s perceptions of an individual as it is about the actual characteristic that is said to be responsible for the advantage. So while a trans woman may have experienced terrible suffering and marginalisation as a child due to their gender identity, it doesn’t mean that they weren’t perceived as male, and therefore treated like a boy (and this will have added to their problems).
|Privilege doesn’t cancel itself out
There isn’t a scorecard of oppression that we use to decide who gets the most points in any given situation. Intersectionality is a wonderful frame to consider complex relationships between different axes of privilege. And it’s for that reason that it’s not a totting-up exercise. A trans woman who was once considered male doesn’t lose the trauma and dysphoria of her earlier years due to the concept of male privilege. It’s not Top Trumps, people!
|There is no universal standard of womanliness
You’ve often heard it said that there’s more variation within a population than between populations. And it’s true in this case! There’s so much variability in people’s experiences of childhood, that I couldn’t tell you what a typical childhood even is, let alone a typical “socialised female” childhood. If we’re going to say that trans women never had the experience of growing up as a girl, we’re going to have to exclude a lot of “real” girls from that as well.
|Trans women are women
There are so many different facets of what it means to be a woman. we can pick and choose the criteria in whatever way we like, but they will never give a complete picture, and every single definition we choose is going to unjustly exclude somebody. Perhaps the problem is that we are looking for too rigid a characterisation, like a Girls Only club with secret passwords and a ladies-only treehouse. I feel that this is one of the failures of trans-exclusionary arguments: that because historically women have been oppressed as a class, we must protect the definition of “woman”. But what then? We have our perfect definition that can never be challenged, and this is going to help us to fight the patriarchy… how? Isn’t it better to expand the definition of “woman” to reflect the entire female experience and to increase the number of allies?
|Privilege works both ways
Transgender people are disadvantaged on just about every scale you can think of. More likely to be unemployed, more likely to be the victim of crime, more likely to attempt suicide, more likely to live in poverty, more likely to experience direct and indirect discrimination, etc, etc. I could sit here listing these all night. It makes the male privilege argument rather redundant when you consider the unending torrent of disadvantage many trans people have to wade through every single day of their lives. And let’s not forget that those making the trans-exclusionary argument are almost always white, middle-class and wealthy. Have they checked their privilege recently?
|Men aren’t the problem, either
This “debate” inevitably ends up with someone claiming that trans women are men. Well, that ain’t so, and even if it was, it’s a fallacious route to head down. While it is true that the majority of gendered violence is perpetuated by men, it is by a minority of men. We hear so much about them because they create a toxic culture that often goes unchallenged and causes numerous disadvantages for women. There are feminists who believe that all men are a threat, and they are wrong. There are plenty of things that we are all guilty of, like bias, stereotyping and sexist language, but they aren’t the same as rape and murder. This is a bit like comparing all the arguments against Islam to terrorism – it’s just nonsense. [“You don’t want a bacon sandwich? You are worse than Bin Laden”] Oh yeah, one more thing. I’ll say it again: trans women are not men.
|What about the (trans) men?
Oh, look, a huge f*cking elephant in the room. Well, I suppose we’d better address it. Trans-exclusionary arguments always, without fail, ignore not only the issues that trans men face, but that they exist at all*. There’s no moral panic over where trans men go to do their business; it’s almost like it’s not really about bathrooms. Shouldn’t we be going after these chaps with our pitchforks for betraying the sisterhood? No? Why not? Is it like Queen Victoria refusing to believe that lesbianism existed because she couldn’t imagine it? How simple-minded the anti-trans brigade must be.
|It’s not a zero-sum-game
I’m sure that if you’ve read this far, you don’t need this explaining to you, but here it is anyway: there’s not a finite amount of rights to go round. In protecting the rights of one group, we don’t need to take rights away from someone else in case we run out of human decency. There’s enough to go round for everyone. And if we then come back to the idea that women are suffering because our society chooses to treat transgender people with dignity and respect, I’d really like to see some evidence to support that claim. It’s ok, take as long as you need – the last 40 years or so haven’t yielded anything, so I’m in no rush.
|So what am I allowed to debate then?
Well, you’ll have you consult your self-awareness guide for that one. I’m not going to tell you what to think. But I am going to tell you that you should think. We can criticise gender roles, gender-based violence and discrimination, while still supporting equal rights for transgender people. Indeed, many transgender people will have views on these topics, and they are worth listening to. It’s not an either/or problem. Yes, men in general start off from a more advantageous position than women in almost every area of life. But that’s not a Get Out Of Jail Free card that we can whip out every time a new feminist topic comes up. We didn’t just do feminism up until the 1970s and then it was job done. The world is changing and it’s not going to wait for us. Feminism isn’t simple, and nor should it be.
*NOTE: while trans men get conveniently hushed out of the room, some trans-exclusionary folk do have a problem with non-binary identities. I’m not completely sure what their “academic” argument is, but it quite often descends into insults like “trans-trender”, and it’s really ugly. I can only assume that they feel threatened by AMAB (assigned male at birth) people adopting identities that are more feminine, but at the end of the day it comes across as a dogmatic belief rather than anything backed up by evidence or a solid argument.