The Responsibility of Rhetoric: Feminism and Transphobia

Recently, in Great Britain, the world was offered yet another embarrassing example of the far-reaching, enduring human and sociopolitical damage done by the tired rhetoric of the Radical and Separatist Feminists. Primarily, the damage I am speaking of is that which arises out of hate-speak justified as liberation from oppression—the kind of damage that occurs when, out of unresolved anger and misplaced blame, the oppressed becomes the oppressor. [If you missed it, you can view the article by Julie Burchill:] The continued debasing, bashing, and general hate-based defilement of all transsexuals—but particularly, and most significantly, of transwomen—by the radicals has gone on long enough. Further, the loud and repugnant silence on the part of Feminism as a whole has condoned and perpetuated the oppression of others, by way of being made repeatedly less-than, has reached a point of gross intolerability. I, for one, have had a belly-full, as have many of my trans and compassionate cis-gendered sisters. [And, yes, as a transman, I consider these women my sisters. At the very least, they are my sisters in a shared experience of and daily lived triumph over irrational hate, misunderstanding, and injustice.]

The foundation for the Radical and Separatist rhetoric was laid some time ago. Many of us have been around long enough to remember when, for example, Mary Daly referred to MTF transsexuals as [male] rapists who were, still, finding ways to appropriate women’s bodies. But, the real foundation of hate goes back even further. The continued debate regarding the Michigan Women’s Music Festival is a perfect example of the real cornerstone of the hate-rhetoric. Only women who were born women are allowed to attend; transwomen are still not allowed entrance. This is because, from the outset, the Radical and Separatist Feminists have posited that distrust, hatred, and condemnation of anything related to maleness, and thus of all males, is justified because of the subjugation, oppression, and dehumanization women have suffered throughout history under the power and reign of patriarchal oligarchies. It is an easy mistake to make. Particularly, if one is not well-versed in logic and is so infused with unexamined and unresolved anger as many of the early Feminists were who laid this foundational supposition. All males, and all things deemed masculine, were demonized and viewed as the enemy. While Thrid-Wave Feminists represent a more evolved and productive discourse, the old rabble still speaks to and through many. It fascinates me, philosophically and intellectually, that this essentialist nonsequitur persists. And, it grieves me. It ought to grieve any rational person interested in real human justice.

Further, one sad truth of their oppressive doctrine is that it has hurt all of us, women and men alike. Even though we may not feel very warm and fuzzy about acknowledging it, the truth is that oppressive ideologies hurt both the oppressed and the oppressor. There have been, throughout history, oppressed persons enlightened and emotionally and spiritually healthy enough to know this. Shining examples are Martin Luther King Jr., Howard Thurman, and a whole host of Womanist thinkers (such as Alice Walker and, theologically, Emilie Townes) too numerous to mention. This is one of the issues I wish, actually, to address. There is a finely etched and poorly illuminated line before a sociopolitical response to oppression imitates and becomes the very thing it seeks to renounce and dismantle. By responding to oppression with hate and unresolved anger, by reversing the dehumanizing rhetoric and “othering” those who are different in embodiment and person, Radical and Separatist Feminists have become the thing they claim to renounce. On a purely logical level, I can’t help but be amazed that none of these women ‘thinkers’ can see that their rhetoric is actually counter to their cause. Even the most unsophisticated opportunist can see that one gains nothing by saying we deserve respect as people while responding in kind with the same hateful disregard of other humans. It simply is ineffective.

Despite this, and the other problematic outcomes, the Radicals and their ilk have persisted with the hate-speak and dehumanizing of their appointed “other.” To use a Socratic form, they are, in fact, like a group of degreed women who go to their employer and say: “it is inhumane and unjust to pay us less than the men who have college degrees; you must pay us equally;” and then, say, “those women, and men, without degrees, you can pay whatever you want.” Such behavior is exactly what it appears to be—elitist, self-serving, and an extreme form of what I refer to as a pathology of sameness. Because you are not exactly like me, because you do not think as I do, and you do not love what I love, you are not like me in the human order of things and I cannot be concerned with your existence or work for your freedom. Such a position is not justice work. Such a position is not liberative. It merely turns the table of oppression toward the other in the aim of freeing the self. Thankfully, we still have among us persons whose thinking is more evolved and whose ethics are more developed.

Again, throughout history, we have had the great human privilege of being presented lived examples of the ability to learn from and be personally and spiritually deepened by our various oppressions. One example that speaks to the heart of this matter is Frederick Douglas. When he addressed the International Council of Women, Douglass said: “When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people; but when I stood up for the rights of women, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.” Indeed. This is the voice of an African American man who fought with his life against slavery, then fought for the rights of women who were also, in differing ways, oppressed by the same systems that created slavery. And, he fought for White women. Had he held to the same kind of doctrine as the Radical and Separatist Feminists, he could never have engaged in this work he calls “noble.” Whether we like it or not, certain truths exist that apply to the issues of this topic.

There is never any nobility in responding to dehumanizing forces with the dehumanization of others. When we oppose oppression with the oppression of others, we perpetuate the human disease we claim to wish to eradicate. When we become the oppressor, we do harm to those we deem less-than and to ourselves. And, we forget that at the core of all work for justice and liberation are [at least] to important forces—one, the underlying human and political ethic that drives us; and, two, the fundamental humanity which informs our activity and to which we, ultimately, aspire. Philosophers from Socrates onward have reminded us that, like it or not, every politic, every movement or action toward justice or social reform, is at the core, an ethical issue.

In regard to the ethics of both the human condition, and the condition of women in the context of oppression, Radical Feminism falls short of any accepted ethic. Feminism, in general, still has much to learn from the Womanist trail-blazers. Some will say that not all Feminists are the problem. To those persons I would say: then why is it that we have not heard loudly from them? Silence regarding the damaging rhetoric of the Radicals condones what they espouse. We are all accountable for what we do. Particularly, we are accountable for what we say and what we write. It has lasting ramifications. Any politic or movement for justice that does harm to others begins with an invalid premise, acts irresponsibly, and ultimately endangers the ability of all justice work to achieve its end. These ethical errors come from the places I have mentioned: unexamined and unresolved anger, misplaced blame and hatred, and an unchecked emotionalism that leads to a glorification of suffering that is used to justify the “othering” of anyone not ‘self.’ The debacle in Great Britain clearly proves my point.

When Suzanne Moore, in her article, “Seeing Red: The Power of Female Anger,” made the initial statement that set off the hate-speak storm, she was irresponsible and speaking from a place of discrimination. She stated that women were angry [note the partial self-diagnosis here] at “not having the ideal body shape—that of a Brazilian transsexual.” The statement, intended to be funny, is what prejudiced people do: they poke fun at others for their own amusement. This is the kind of thing that Radical feminists [lowercase on purpose] do when they are angry. Then, some folks called her out on her bad behavior on Twitter. And, she did what people do when they are suffering from the disease of hate; she got defensive and made her deeper hate perspective known without doubt. She stated that transwomen, who she views at self-maimed-men, could “cut their dicks off” and become more feminist than her. She went on to show all of her sexist and racist intolerance by saying that she could not accept “transphobia” any more than she accepts “Islamaphobia.” Well, if that doesn’t tell us about the severity of her hate-disease, I don’t know what does. As we have seen, however, it gets worse.

In a classically stereotypical display of masculine chivalry, truly transphobic Julie Burchill rode in on her [lily] white horse to save the day. In her article, “Transsexuals Should Cut It Out,” published by the Observer, Burchill spouted some of the worst, poorly-crafted hate-speak attempting to pass as literary commentary I have ever seen. In the article, she actually stooped to name-calling. Burchill referred to transwomen in the following ways: “dicks in chicks’ clothing;” “screaming mimis;” “trannies” [yes; she did]; and, the ever-sophisticated, “bed-wetters in bad wigs.” This supposed editorial literature is, to me, a not-so-shiny example of what I am talking about as the legacy of human damage persistent in the Radical Feminist rhetoric. Further, it exemplifies the multitude of ways in which the Radicals-Separatists have gotten so lost in their own rhetoric that they have missed the real point: the problem, in the basist of terms—for women, for men, for all those in between, and those who transition—is not individual men, or groups of men, or women who used to be men, or men who used to be women. The problem is the persistence of multiple forms of oppression employed by the patriarchal, androcentric, White, elitist, oligarchical machine that subjugates and uses all of us who are ‘not-them’ for the benefit of their own closed ruling class. The further problem is that, in emulating their systems and processes in response to systemic oppression, the systemic oppressive and divisive efforts are reinforced and maintained. Subsequently, no justice is served; no liberation is achieved.

In fact, the greater point missed by the sight-limited Radical Feminists, is that through all of their responding to oppression with misplaced hate, blame and vilification, they have in fact reinforced and perpetuated the very thing they wish to dismantle—sexism and the oppression of women. They have done this, first, by inversely perpetuating the constructed ideas of womanhood. They have done it, secondly, by inversely reinforcing the gender binary. Paradoxically, it is the foundational aspects of the constructed binary which gave birth to the very sexism they wish to address and, ultimately, recreate. For example [to get out my crayons] by telling us, from the outset, to not be too butch because it amounts to male emulation and that anything male is the enemy, they further validated those socially constructed ideals of gender and doomed many of us to years of self-hatred when we could not find a way to be in our bodies. The same results occurred for women who enjoyed being feminine in ways not approved of by the man-haters: don’t wear make up and dress in provocative feminine clothing or you are buying into the male-defined ideals of womanhood and subjugating yourself. The gender binary that has confined and harmed so many of us has actually been perpetuated by the Radical Feminists who claim opposition to it, yet clearly have no real practical or intellectual understanding of what it is and how it functions socially.

The problem is not people—not men, women, the undecided, those in between, or those who transition. The problem lies in the social constructs of gender, sex, and “correct” expression of identity that confine and harm us all. The problem is any politic that dehumanizes other humans and “others” them for its own selfish ends. The problem is a pathology of sameness disguised as a means to a liberative end. The problem is a politic that makes the oppressed a malevolent and misguided oppressor. The problem is a Radical Feminist rhetoric gone unchecked and unaccounted for far too long. [There are more problems in this layered little rhetoric and diseased discourse, but I can only address the primary ones here. No doubt, there will be more on this topic.]

Feminists, across the discipline, have an opportunity to step up and right some wrongs and begin the real work of a movement aimed at justice. It is time to hold the Radicals accountable for their rhetoric and the damage they have caused. Feminists who disagree with the Radicals need to work with us for growth and a more productive and unifying movement. It is time for a compassionate, realistic, and rational rethinking of the issues of sexism, genderism, classism, racism, and all the other -isms that adversely affect us all. This is necessary because biological sex does not define us as humans. We are more than our biology—which Feminists have been telling us all along. It is time for an acceptance of the fact that all women—those born women and those who become women—are oppressed by sexism. And by racism, classism, heterosexism, agism, -ism infinitude. It is time for a pervasive recognition that Feminism can learn much about the ills of oppression, especially that which is based upon sex and gender, from transsexuals and transgender people alike. It is time to grow up and move out of the adolescent, anger-based, brooding about whose suffering is worse and seek a unified way to work together for the liberation of all the oppressed. As Frederick Douglas says, there is some measure of nobility in that.

[For more on the whole mess, see the timeline:]

About liammichael

I am a gender theorist, theological activist, writer, trans activist-advocate, and educator. I also work directly with trans and LGBTQ persons through workshops, support activities, and community-building. My work is informed and shaped by a deep concern for addressing the intersecting layers of disenfranchisement and oppression which stymie our efforts to create a just and meaningful common good. I work with, consult with, educate, train public sector groups, secular groups, and faith groups seeking to be affirming, accommodating, and celebratory of trans/non-binary and gender non-conforming persons. This space is a small part of the work.
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3 Responses to The Responsibility of Rhetoric: Feminism and Transphobia

  1. Christopher Wayne says:

    Wow, you hit the nail on the head with a sparsity of writing.

  2. Pingback: all kidding aside | nothing but gray matter

  3. Pingback: all kidding aside | The Trans Preacher's Wife

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