Feminist views on transgender topics

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Feminist views on transgender topics vary widely. Early feminist views on transgender people were often hostile,[1] but more modern feminists view the struggle for trans rights as an important part of feminism.[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 exclude trans women from women's spaces or do not consider trans women to be women have been referred to as "TERFs" (short for "trans-exclusionary radical feminists"), though they generally reject the term. These feminists are a minority within feminism[6][7] and are often considered transphobic.[6][8] While they lack influence in mainstream feminism,[9] they are relatively powerful in Britain.[10][11][12] Additionally, some transgender and transsexual people, such as Emi Koyama, 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.[13]


Early history (before 1989)[edit]

In the late 70s and early 80s, corresponding roughly to the second wave of feminism, feminists (especially early radical feminists) were often in conflict with trans women within feminism. In 1978, a trans woman asked to join the Lesbian Organization of Toronto (LOOT). LOOT refused to admit her and later voted to exclude trans lesbians.[14] LOOT publicly 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."[14]

Janice Raymond published The Transsexual Empire in 1979.[15] In Empire, Raymond 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 constituting hate speech.[16][17][18][19] 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.[15] The collective publicly defended Stone, but after continued pressure, Stone resigned. She later wrote The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto,[20] a response to Raymond's Empire that became a foundational work in the field of transgender studies.[1]

Not every early feminist was opposed to trans acceptance. Radical feminist Andrea Dworkin viewed surgery as a right for transgender people.[21] In a 2015 interview, Catharine Mackinnon cited and agreed with 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."[22]

The third wave (1990-2008)[edit]

The third wave of feminism saw much greater acceptance of transgender rights within feminism, largely due to the influence of philosophers like Judith Butler and Kimberle Crenshaw.[2][23] These philosophers argued for a greater inclusion of other fields (such as critical race theory and queer theory) within feminism. Butler in particular argued that the liberation of women required a questioning of gender itself, and that acceptance of gay and trans people would promote that sort of questioning.[24]

In the early 1990s, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MichFest) ejected a transgender woman, Nancy Burkholder.[25] From that point on, the festival maintained it was intended for "womyn-born womyn".[26] The group Camp Trans formed to protest this policy and to advocate for greater acceptance of trans women within 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; however, this was criticized as classist, as many trans women cannot afford sex reassignment surgery.[27] Lisa Vogel, MichFest's organizer, said protesters from Camp Trans engaged in vandalism.[7] The festival ended in 2015.[28]

Modern history[edit]

Modern feminists are generally accepting of trans women and of trans people in general.[2] A majority of modern feminists,[6][7] including The National Organization for Women,[3] the Feminist Majority Foundation,[4] Planned Parenthood,[29] and several other feminist organizations all now support trans rights. The influence of trans-exclusionary radical feminists and trans-exclusionary feminists in general has waned significantly,[9] although they are still somewhat influential in the United Kingdom.[10][11][12]

The UK government's 2018 consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004 became a locus of conflict between feminists and advocates for trans acceptance.[12] 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.[30] Proposed reforms would allow one to self-declare one's legal gender without a diagnosis or waiting period.[31] 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[32] had recommended that providers no longer be permitted to exclude persons who had obtained legal recognition of their "acquired gender" under the GRA.[33] British feminist groups objected to the proposed GRA self-id reform as eroding protections for women-only safe spaces and as liable to abuse by cisgender men[34][35]—issues disputed by advocates for reform.[36] Pro-trans feminist academics such as Akwugo Emejulu and Alison Phipps view self-declaration as a right for transgender people.[37]

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".[38][12] 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".[39][12] In March 2019, more than 70 women including Emma Thompson and members of the UK parliament cosigned an open letter expressing solidarity with trans women and support for GRA reform.[40][41]

Trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs)[edit]

The term "TERF" is an acronym for "trans-exclusionary radical feminist".[42][43] It is used to describe feminists who oppose the inclusion of trans women in women's spaces and organizations,[44][45] or who dispute that trans women are women.[46] These feminists are a minority within feminism[6][7] and are often considered transphobic.[6][8] While they lack influence in mainstream feminism,[9] they are relatively powerful in Britain,[10][11][12] and they have collaborated with conservative groups and politicians to oppose laws advancing transgender rights.[47][48][49][50]

Feminist Viv Smythe, who is credited with coining the term,[42] has stated its intention as a "technically neutral description ... to distinguish TERFs from other RadFems ... who were trans*-positive/neutral."[51] Those who exclude trans women refer to themselves as "gender critical",[52][53][54] and they object to the word "TERF",[55] perceiving it as inaccurate[53] and a slur.[56][54][57]

Particular topics[edit]

Differences in socialization and experience[edit]

Some feminists argue that trans women cannot fully be women because they were assigned male at birth and experienced some degree of male privilege.[58] Radical feminists generally see gender as a social class system in which women are oppressed due to their biology, rather than a supposed innate femininity. As a result, some radical feminists are critical of the notion that "trans women are women".[52]

In 2017, discussing whether trans women are women, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said that "trans women are trans women." She acknowledged transgender women face discrimination on the basis of being transgender and said she sees this as a serious issue, but also said that "we should not conflate the gender experiences of trans women with that of women born female."[59]

Patricia Elliot argues that this perspective assumes that women's experiences are homogeneous, and discounts the possibility that trans and non-trans women may share the experience of being disparaged for femininity.[60] Similarly, Transfeminist Manifesto author Emi Koyama counters that, while trans women may have experienced a degree of male privilege prior to transitioning, trans women's experiences are also marked by disadvantages resulting from being trans.[13]

Sex reassignment surgery[edit]

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.[21][61]

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.[62]: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."[62] Steinem's statements led to her being characterized as transphobic for some years.[63] 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".[64]

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.[15] 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".[65] Several writers characterized these views as extremely transphobic and constituting hate speech.[16][17][18][19]

In her 1987 book Gyn/Ecology, Mary Daly expressed negative views of sex change operations, writing that sex reassignment surgery cannot reproduce female chromosomes or a female life history, and that it can therefore "not produce women". [66] Similarly, in a 2017 televised interview on BBC Newsnight, Germaine Greer said that feminizing SRS does not make trans women women.[67]

Transgender rights and the feminist movement[edit]

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.[68] 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." Moreover, she responded to some of Sheila Jeffreys and Janice Raymond's criticisms of trans people, calling their criticisms "prescriptivism" and "tyranny". According to Butler, trans people are not created by medical discourse but rather develop new discourses through self-determination.[69]

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 womenhood is both a feminist and transgender practice".[70] She added that transgender issues had prompted feminist scholars to question notions of biological sex, and said that transgender theorising was associated with the rise of postmodern epistemology in third-wave feminist thought.[70]

English-Australian feminist scholar Sheila Jeffreys wrote in The Guardian in 2012 that she and other critics of "transgenderism" have been subject to intimidation campaigns on the internet, the degree of which suggested that trans rights advocates fear the "practice of transgenderism" becoming the subject of criticism.[71] 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.[72]

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 opposition 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, stating that while spreading anti-trans narrative, anti-trans feminists abandon principles of feminism, such as bodily autonomy and self-determination of gender, and they employ "reductive models of biology and restrictive understandings of the distinction between sex and gender" in defense of such narrative. Hines concluded with a call for explicit recognization of anti-transgender feminism as being in violation of equality and dignity, and that it must be "held up as a doctrine that runs counter to the ability to fulfill a liveable life or, often, a life at all."[73]


Transfeminism, also written trans feminism, is a category of feminism that synthesizes feminist and transgender discourse. Transfeminists argue that there are multiple forms of oppression and sexism, and that trans women and cisgender women have shared interests in combating sexism.[1] Influential transfeminists include Julia Serano, Diana Courvant, and Emi Koyama.

Collaboration against trans rights with conservative groups[edit]

Researcher Cole Parke at Political Research Associates (PRA), an American liberal think tank, wrote in 2016 that fringe TERF scholarship has built a cultural and intellectual foundation upon which the right wing could, by ways of "selectively highlighting and leveraging", construct anti-trans narratives that appeal to both conservatives and a certain sect of leftists. Parke concluded that, while the right wing sought to lay siege against transgender people - "some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community" - it was the TERFs who were responsible for designing the Right's talking points, fueling the dangerous "anti-trans frenzy".[74]

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an American advocacy organisation, issued a report in 2017 documenting American Christian right groups' attempts to "separate the T from LGB", noting an emerging trend in depicting transgender rights as being anti-feminist and hostile to minorities and lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals. The report further stated that this trend is part of a larger strategy to weaken trans rights advocates by separating them from their allies, feminists, and other LGBT rights advocates. The SPLC detailed the anti-LGBT hate group Family Research Council's annual Values Voter Summit, during which attendees are encouraged to rebrand their transphobic 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"[49][75][76]

In January 2019, the Heritage Foundation, an American conservative think tank, hosted a panel of left-wing feminists opposed to the US Equality Act.[49] PRA researcher Heron Greenesmith has stated that the latest iteration of collaboration between conservatives and anti-transgender feminists is, in part, a reaction to trans community's "incredible gains" in civil rights and visibility. Greenesmith further stated that anti-trans feminists and conservatives capitalize on a "scarcity mindset rhetoric" where 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 noncitizens and white people over people of color.[49]

Jessica Stern, executive director of LGBT human rights NGO OutRight Action International, wrote in April 2019 that the fundamentalist "anti-gender" movement had developed a segment within LGBT community in recent years. Stern wrote that the fundamentalists had aligned with religious extremists to restrict reproductive and LGBT rights and promote a biological determinism-based gender definition, and that its LGBT segment had violated fundamental tenets of feminism by manipulating "seemingly feminist" language to advocate against the rights of trans people. Stern denounced an earlier opinion piece as "pure, unabated hatred, cushioned in would-be human rights and pseudo-feminist language". The piece was authored by Angela Wild, leader of lesbian activist group Get the L Out.[77] Stern said Wild's language and gender definition are identical to that of Trump administration, and that it had "[exacerbated] the fear, marginalization and hate trans women already face".[78]

Transgender women in women's spaces and organizations[edit]

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.[79][80][81]

In 1996, Germaine Greer (appointed a special lecturer and fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge) unsuccessfully opposed the election to a fellowship of her transgender colleague Rachael Padman.[82][83][84] Greer argued that Padman had been assigned male at birth, and therefore should not be admitted to Newnham, a women's college. Greer resigned in 1997 after her position attracted negative publicity.[85][86][87][88]

A 2004 editorial by British radical feminist Julie Bindel titled "Gender Benders, beware" printed in The Guardian caused the paper to receive more than two hundred letters of complaint from transgender people, doctors, therapists, academics and others. The editorial expressed her anger against Kimberly Nixon, and also included Bindel's views about transsexuals and transsexualism, which drew significant criticism due to its offensive and demeaning language against trans people.[89][90] Transgender activist group Press for Change cite this article as an example of 'discriminatory writing' about transsexual people in the press.[91] Complaints focused on the title, "Gender benders, beware", the cartoon accompanying the piece,[92] 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."[89][93]

Margaret Atwood has stated that when she hears the label feminist, "it is always—'What do you mean by the word?' For instance, some feminists have historically been against lipstick and letting transgender women into women's washrooms. Those are not positions I have agreed with."[94] She said in another interview, "I'm not the kind [of feminist] that thinks that trans women are not women."[95]

Transgender women in the lesbian community[edit]

In Living a Feminist Life (2017), Sara Ahmed imagines lesbian feminism as a fundamental and necessary alliance with trans feminism. Ahmed considered that an anti-trans stance is an anti-feminist stance, and against the feminist project of creating worlds to support those for whom gender fatalism (i.e. boys will be boys, girls will be girls) is deleterious.[96]

In 2018, the Pride in London march was disrupted by a small group of lesbians calling themselves Get the L Out. The group carried banners with the phrases "Lesbian = Female Homosexual", "Lesbian Not Queer", and "Transactivism Erases Lesbians", while distributing leaflets stating that LGBTQ politics had failed lesbians and was contributing to lesbian erasure and compulsory heterosexuality.[97] A member of the group described their motivation as follows: "We protested the LGBT movement as a whole and Pride specifically because many lesbians feel erased and betrayed by a movement which claimed to represent us. The L in 'LGBT' is meaningless when the LGBT organisations claim that a man can identify as 'lesbian.'"[98] The group was condemned as transphobic or "anti-trans" by several news outlets, and the organizers of Pride in London published a public apology, condemning the group for "a level of bigotry, ignorance and hate that is unacceptable."[99] There had been a similar protest at Auckland Pride Festival a few months earlier, with a banner saying "Stop giving kids sex hormones—protect lesbian youth".[100]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Jeffreys, Sheila. Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism. London : Routledge, 2013. ISBN 0-415-53940-4
  • Califia, Patrick. Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism, San Francisco, Calif. : Cleis Press, 1997. ISBN 1-573-44072-8

External links[edit]