Up for debate

Reflections from the TERF wars about dismantling bigotry on the left

In the postmortems on the 2016 U.S. election from across the liberal-left spectrum, it became relatively common to see oblique references to the TERF wars. Writers from Mark Lilla to Angela Nagle implied that precious liberals and oversensitive pronoun policing alienated the working class and supercharged the alt-right. The Clinton campaign’s cynical weaponization of wokeness hadn’t helped, oozing cultural snobbery as it switched between surface-level identitarian pandering and positions backing corporate welfare and militarism. One of the most dispiriting legacies of that disastrous election is the number of newly radicalized U.S. leftists who seem suspicious of any particularist claims on the grounds that they pose a threat to unifying calls for economic justice.

The buzzwords that dominated the TERF wars—free speech, call-out culture, no-platforming, identity politics—continue to circulate in round after round of think pieces and hashtags. Unfortunately the lion’s share of the conversation/meme war continues to be—to borrow Christian Parenti and James Davis’s frame—moralistic rather than strategic. Instead of assessing any given arrangement of forces and options for adequate responses, too often these interventions retreat to abstract and dogmatic proclamations. As Carwil Bjork-James noted about the slinging match over violence vs. nonviolence, we often forget to ask a central question: “What works?” The answer is always situationally contingent. But learning from specific situations remains crucial, if we are to avoid further farce and/or tragedy. It’s worth reexamining recent attempts to counter anti-trans toxicity with this in mind.

Nagle uses a common argument from leftist opponents of no-platforming: that engaging our opponents in civil debate is not only right but also effective. She claims that the left has become anemic by cowering in the shadows, trying to ban its enemies instead of debate them. Her focus on how we win is essential—we agree on the need to assess leftist interventions on the grounds of efficacy. But the conclusions she and her comrades draw are wrong. Far from being silenced, anti-trans feminists continue to roam free in spaces of sanctioned public discourse, often by invoking liberal norms of free speech. Their false claim to a position that is both anti-trans and leftist, and the concomitant “debates” they insist upon, have together drained our time, energy, and resources. The debates haven’t made us stronger but have instead weakened our ability to dismantle anti-trans bigotry where it’s most important—in our workplaces, families, and community spaces. Free-speech rhetoric has been used to legitimate dehumanizing calls for life-threatening violence—institutional and interpersonal—against trans women, men, and nonbinary people. None of this has brought any part of the left closer to winning—instead it has opened significant political space for a slew of toxic right-wing attacks at micro- and macropolitical levels.

1. This history can be found elsewhere, including “On the 'dispute' between radical feminism and trans people” by Juliet Jacques and “Transsexual Women and Feminist Thought: Toward New Understanding and New Politics” by Raewyn Connell.
A complete account of antagonism toward trans women within feminism is unnecessary here.1 Suffice to say that it wasn’t doctrine during the 1980s, when I was born to card-carrying second wavers, but a certain XX essentialism was common enough. By the 1990s, feminism had changed: My nuclear family played out a quotidian version of widespread intergenerational clashes, as I traded the easy-care haircuts and folk songs of my parents’ generation for bondage-lite aesthetics. Black and anti-colonial struggles, queer theory, and sex positivity had all mounted major challenges to the white feminist consensus, while dominant strains of liberal feminism seemed to be content stacking company boards and government bureaucracies with women and calling it empowerment. Meanwhile, organizing for trans liberation grew stronger, with some support from the feminist sisterhood.  

Such language can be jarring—to some, “sisterhood” feels like an exaggerated rhetorical device, suited to megaphone harangues and comment sections, or a hangover from an outdated political lexicon. For many it is a sharp reminder of who and what has been centered in the deeply flawed history of feminist organizing: an in-group forged from exclusions, as critics as far back as Sojourner Truth have underscored. For our family, the concept of the sisterhood remained a touchstone, despite its serious defects and failings. When my birth mother fought through four years of ultimately terminal cancer, alongside the boundless support of our biological family, it was the care work from friends she’d made over 20 years of anti-patriarchal struggle that kept her afloat and alive. Her network painted murals in our backyard, traveled from other continents to take her to the beach, stocked our fridge, changed her sheets when they were drenched in painkiller sweat, talked her through dying with techniques derived from feminist co-counseling, and held me when I stumbled through the planning of her funeral. These wonderful women, these extra aunts and mothers who surround me still, took the enjoinder to make the personal political seriously, and left me with an understanding of the sisterhood that is very concrete indeed. And it was to the sisterhood I turned in the mid-2000s, when my surviving mother underwent the three years of bureaucratic and medical processes that took her from Robert to Raewyn.

She did not choose this path as a piece of political performance art, in order to dramatize the fluidity of gender or provoke debate online, though her transition has sometimes been treated that way. Indeed, the logics of choice and causation were inadequate: The descriptions and metaphors that cropped up instead were of waterfalls and avalanches, speaking to inevitability, heartache, and the great relief of coming home. My mother had academic tenure and owned our house—certainly a more generous cushion than the room of one's own and 500 a year stipulated by Virginia Woolf. As a result, she was not subject to all of the risks that people face in gender transition. Important support came from the feminist sisterhood, but there were also crushing silences, and hostility in places where I had hoped for something different — not only because I expected feminists to grapple adroitly with gender complexity but because I had learned to expect solidarity. I had thought of our nuclear family as only one node in a larger communion of people struggling to extinguish the patriarchal order. But that kind of affinity, I discovered, became more tenuous the further away we got from a carefully vetted core.

So I learned to vet more carefully, even as I continued to hope that more cis feminists would get their shit together. I had some reason to be hopeful. By the middle of this decade, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock had become media icons, popularizing a complex feminism foregrounding racial and economic inequality, and inextricable from their trans-rights work. Transparent—before Jeffrey Tambor’s fall from grace—overflowed with trans-affirmative feminisms. Gloria Steinem saw the light, and the blight of the trans-exclusionary Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival disappeared for good. And most importantly, thanks to the unceasing work of trans organizers, public-policy shifts also began to happen: Gender-neutral bathrooms appeared in more institutions, the U.S. Department of Education released guidelines for protecting trans students, and the Department of Justice issued a memo extending anti-discrimination measures to trans employees. These incremental gains were far from an endgame, but they provided breathing room, and tools to be wielded by a movement we hoped was getting more powerful by the day. If there was a culture war, I thought, surely we were winning—both within feminism and without.

But a backlash was building, and not only from the far right. Anti-trans bile spewed by self-appointed feminist spokeswomen appeared regularly in progressive media outlets: the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Observer. These were frequently represented as explorations of legitimate controversy: When Michelle Goldberg wrote the characteristic “What Is a Woman?” she used the cover of journalistic musing (“I’m just asking!”) to clear space for anti-trans bigotry in the pages of a flagship liberal magazine. This wave has yet to recede. Only a month ago, my mother was caught in a Crossfire-style encounter on Australian national radio, where she had to sit across from an anti-trans feminist hurling terms like “genital mutilation” while the hosts (cis men, naturally) made jovial interjections like “this is fascinating.” They sounded as though they had invited a discussion on the merits of different brands of mustard, rather than social arrangements with life-and-death consequences.

Trans womanhood continues to be treated as a topic of playful debate for the chattering classes in places like Sydney, New York, and London. The stakes are high—Mike Pence is now a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, “bathroom bills” are cropping up across the U.S., and Trump appointees are busy rolling back any gains won under the Obama administration. We cannot lay primary responsibility for this state of affairs at the feet of anti-trans feminists—their influence is not so great. But the damage they do is real: Not only do they open space for liberals and leftists to opt out of trans solidarity, but they also provide rhetorical cover and ammunition for right-wing attacks.

The liberal impulse to grant anti-trans positions airtime as part of a “debate”—exacerbated by profit-seeking publishers operating in an economy of rage clicks and engineered controversy—is corrosive. Every time a prominent anti-trans feminist is taken seriously as an interlocutor in liberal or left spaces, arguing with them saps us of precious time and energy. That in turn weakens our ability to fight right-wing encroachments, putting people in serious danger: at work, at home, in jail, on the street, at swimming pools, at the doctor, and in public restrooms. This is to say nothing of the anti-trans feminists who explicitly work with groups like Focus on the Family to push for a poisonous policy agenda, continuing a long and ugly tradition of symbiosis with the religious Right.

Debate is not a useful mode of engagement with the people whose sense of self and/or clickbait-derived paycheck is dependent on their bigoted position. To reiterate: This is not a moral argument but a tactical one. We don’t need a detailed grasp of Gramsci, Foucault, or Overton to understand that profound political struggles play out on the terrain of what can or cannot be considered a reasonable topic of debate. Professional anti-trans feminists know this: For them, getting past the gatekeepers into sanctioned public discourse remains a goal. The new(ish) online vectors may have changed the game, but not to the point where Julie Bindel will turn down a Guardian column in favor of a Reddit AMA.

Blocking professional bigots when they try to use institutionally endorsed platforms is not equivalent to censorship, and need not involve calling on the state or administrative enforcers to do such work for us. Rejecting their presence in the few organizing spaces, publications, and other institutions where we have influence remains useful, in order to deprive them of the oxygen they might use to grow, the resources we might divert to their bank accounts, and the energy that we would spend on engaging with them. No fucking quarter.

But on its own, this is obviously far from enough. For feminists, ridding ourselves and the Cisterhood of trans-antagonistic baggage requires the kind of triage that liberation movements and their accomplices have always done: making calculations about who is simply an enemy and who we need to shift. On one hand, deep and legitimate rage about trans marginalization has sparked ferocious militancy, which finds more common ground with the Compton’s Cafeteria riot than with the Human Rights Campaign. On the other, a realpolitik has governed other modes of engagement—with the relatives at the holiday meal who support the gays but think all this trans stuff is going a bit far, with the girlfriend who’s never had occasion to think through the full implications of the U.S. healthcare rollback, with the union committee representatives who keep using the wrong pronouns. These interventions are not always designed to recruit cis people to the front lines, but attempt at least to neutralize cis bigotry.

The process of moving human obstacles often entails slow, frustrating, and exhausting work that happens largely offline, in recurring and cumulative conversations. It means grinding engagement with institutional reform, even when that work is deeply unsexy (long-term campaigning support for legislative reform, for instance). Sometimes it involves contradicting anti-trans bigots in public debates, when someone has been naive or incendiary enough to give them airtime (with the goal not of shifting the professional trolls but of inoculating their audience). I hope allocation of the more wearying parts of liberationist labor will change; as it stands, behind almost every cis person with a halfway decent position on trans politics is at least one very generous, very patient, and very tired trans or nonbinary educator. Taking on more of this work is not particularly fun—I don’t enjoy speaking with hostile or prurient people face to face, trying to painstakingly shift them away from implicit or explicit bigotry, searching for language that doesn’t rely on shorthand or shared assumptions. But my guess is that when I’ve done it, it was probably a more effective use of my time and energy than when I participated in outrage pile-ons on Twitter.

In the wake of 2016, calls for “left unity” have returned with a vengeance. Certainly it’s worth retiring the exhausting and exhausted opposition between caricatures: “identity politics” on one hand and a “class first, class only” left on the other. But are we doomed to repeat mistakes of lefts past, where specific liberation struggles were positioned as disposable in the search for mechanistic proletarian unity? Surely by now—after years of tireless work by Marxist feminists, among others—we are capable of class politics that is strengthened, not weakened, by confronting the various distinct modes of material marginalization in contemporary capitalism. Work for trans liberation, as Nat Raha recently pointed out, can and should go well beyond liberal ideas about social inclusion. Trans and nonbinary struggles for health justice are assets, not liabilities, to the broader fight for universal and equitable health care. The fight for safety for trans women, trans men, and nonbinary folks at work can build a militant labor movement, rather than weaken it. The campaign to free CeCe McDonald—a trans woman imprisoned after defending herself from a violent attack—showed us how work framed in terms of trans liberation can work with, rather than detract from, the broader movement for prison abolition.

As any organizer will remind us, building concrete coalitional politics across differentiated experience is messy. Budgets are limited, time is finite, and sometimes real, zero-sum trade-offs arise that cannot be resolved through elegantly worded manifestos. The basic principle, however, is straightforward: Our trans comrades deserve not only to survive but to live. The world is still full of professional anti-trans agitators who loudly proclaim otherwise. Without question, shrinking their audience requires work far beyond limiting their platforms. But we do not owe them our column inches, our speaking halls, or our patience. To cede these spaces, in the name of good-faith liberal debate, is to compound a massive strategic error, which no contemporary left can afford.