I learned a new word the other night: terf. It stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. Apparently it’s been around for years but I had no idea because I don’t move circles of people who care about such things anymore. But last weekend my friend Peter Hyndal rang and said that he was going to be in Sydney to speak at a trans event and would I like to come? It was a public debate run by the Ethics Centre; the topic was “Society must recognise trans people’s gender identities”.
I would rather stick hot needles in my eyes, I thought. I know enough about trans politics to know that it would be just awful. Even the topic was offensive: how is it that trans identities are even in question? Can you imagine a question like “Society must recognise Aboriginal people” being considered a legitimate topic for a televised debate? Nonetheless, Peter was earnest about his reasons for doing it and he is my friend so I said I would go and I did.
And it was awful. The Ethics Centre had done its work, lining up a man and a woman to speak on each side. They imported a glamorous transwoman – Andrea James - from the US to speak with Peter on the Yes side. For the ‘no’ side they had an old white male philosopher, a chap named John Haldane. And to speak for radical feminists, they had a Sydney-based academic named Bronwyn Winter.
Each played their part exactly as expected. Peter and Andrea made eloquent, impassioned pleas for trans acceptance. The philosopher dude split hairs about the question and scored a few points about political correctness. And Bronwyn Winter ran the trans-exclusionary-radical-feminist line.
I won’t claim to represent everything that Winter said with 100% accuracy, but basically she thinks gender is terrible and wants a society where gender doesn’t matter. Nice, eh? But in the meantime, before we get to this post-gender utopia, she has a big problem with transwomen. She doesn’t want them in women’s “space”. Because they are different from other women. Because they look like/used to be/were raised as/still are/men.
This argument has been going around for nearly forty years, ever since the publication of Janice Raymond’s ‘The Transsexual Empire’ (1979). Raymond essentially argued that transsexuality is a patriarchal plot, for the male medico/psychiatric establishment to eliminate gender deviance and men, pretending to be women, to ‘colonise’ women’s bodies, space, culture, etc.
Apart from anything else, Raymond’s argument revealed a profound (and possibly deliberate) ignorance of what it’s like to be a trans woman in this society. I can’t claim to be an expert on that myself, but I have noticed that transwomen aren’t exactly lauded as heroes. Winter exhibited the same ignorance the other night. “This debate has got to the level of toilets!” she sniffed at one point. I’m thinking that she doesn’t know what it’s like to fear that you are going to have the shit kicked out of you or be publicly humiliated every time you go into a public toilet. If she did, she might be a little less dismissive of these women’s priorities.
Winter is just one of the women who picked up Raymond’s rather bizarre strain of transphobia. This transphobia has poisoned feminist debates about who is welcome in ‘women’s space’ since the 1970s. In the US this debate was played out around the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and in Australia over it was fought out over access to women’s services and the Lesbian Space Project that briefly exercised feminist lesbians in the early 90s.
Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think the preoccupation with women’s ‘space’ or indeed separate spaces for any marginalised group, was fundamentally misconceived. A waste of time and energy. I thought we wanted the world to be different? I thought we wanted men to be different? How is sitting at a music festival in the bush going to achieve that? And who is it for, this women-only space? It’s going to have limited appeal for heterosexual women, which rules out most of that 90%. And trans women – they are a big no-no. And any lesbians who like hanging with their straight or trans friends…so that doesn’t leave a lot. The history of women’s space is a history of cancellations due to lack of interest, which is how the Michigan festival finally met its inglorious end. Oh, and who is to rule these micro-empires? Obviously none of the rules or processes from mainstream society can apply, because they are all patriarchal and corrupt. So who does that leave? I’ll tell you who: the mob. The angry, bigoted, ignorant mob.
I had a vague impression that this strain of radical feminism had gone away. I don’t know why I thought that: perhaps because of the growth of trans visibility and the number of amazing young women that I meet. It hasn’t, as Germaine Greer’s “just because you lop off your dick and then put on a dress doesn’t make you a woman” comments last year proved. Greer may not have had an interesting insight since the 70s, but she still has the public profile to set the internet alight with her brand of dog-whistle feminist politics.
And Winter was there to run a more sophisticated version of the same line. She was afraid, she claimed. Terfs (a term she says is ‘extremely damaging’) have been bullied and threatened in this debate, she said. Quite possibly some of them have. But these women never hesitate to play the victim and they will happily use their victimhood to deny someone else their human rights. This logic took Winter’s argument back to the toilet.
“Women,” she said, “have certain bodily processes that are exclusive to us as women. Most women menstruate, for example. And we need to have safe spaces where we can do that by ourselves.” Spaces without transwomen, she meant.
This is where radical feminism has got to, I thought sadly. Forty years ago women were throwing away their bras and challenging stereotypes. Now they are whingeing because there might be a tranny in the next cubicle.
I have been reflecting on her comments, and on the history of radical feminism’s engagement with trans women, since. And it made me suspect that perhaps separatism is not such a bad thing after all. Then at least there would be somewhere that Greer and Winter and their friends can go and feel safe. With lots of lovely toilets, of course. And maybe, with a bit of luck, they just won’t come back.