“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
-Simone de Beauvoir, 1949
“We ask that RadFem 2012 be respected as a space where women born women living as women are able to meet and share information in a peaceful and safe environment.”
The decision of RadFem 2012 to host a well-known transphobe and its refusal to admit transsexuals, instead only allowing “women born women living as women” through its doors, is reactionary and counterproductive. Transphobia is not unusual within the radical feminist movement. Sheila Jeffreys, who has been confirmed as a speaker at the two-day conference, describes “transgenderism” as mutilation and a betrayal of “correctly gendered practices that have been placed upon the biological sex”. The attempts of writers like Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer to normalise transphobia as part of radical feminist criticism has validated it in the eyes of the movement. This is nothing compared to the frightening levels of hatred directed at trans women every day, much of it from self-proclaimed fighters for women’s liberation – oh, the irony. This is not the first case of a dominant feminist majority (or perceived majority) in a position of privilege oppressing a feminist minority. It is strikingly reminiscent of the feminist movement’s discrimination against black women throughout history.
The argument that “women are born women” is based upon the assumption that our essence and identity are determined by the sexual organs which we are assigned at birth. It confuses gender with biological sex. Surely this is just a rehash of the conservative, black and white vision of preassigned gender roles which the feminist movement has been fighting against for decades? Thousands of disabled women have missed out on many of the experiences which transphobes argue are crucial to “women born women” – for example, reproductivity and being pressured into motherhood – but are they any less “woman” because of it? The answer is a categorical no.
And the assertion of one trans woman that she did have a girlhood but was treated like a boy has been echoed by thousands of other women who shared her experiences. Many have spoken of knowing what it feels like to be a teenage trans girl faking it as a boy; others discovered/opened up about their sexual identity later in life, which often proved more challenging. There are numerous disturbing online accounts of the experiences of trans women: being forced to use an open men’s shower area at a homeless shelter, despite being on hormones and having B cup breasts and despite the existence of a nearby private shower area; being mockingly told by a family member “Now you know what it feels like to be a woman” after reporting sexual molestation by a medical professional…Just like “women born women”, transsexuals suffer from abuse, violence and discrimination, probably more so than I as a cis woman will ever experience. They are not just abused because they are women, but also because their identities are not tolerated.
Transsexuals are criticised for reinforcing the gender divide of “man” and “woman”, but RadFem 2012 seems to have a far more rigid gender binary. They wish to eradicate the idea of gender, but how does transphobia and hostility towards anything that is not the societal norm contribute to the achievement of this aim? And why should trans women be attacked for upholding gender roles when every one of us upholds gender roles all the time? As a cissexual woman, every time I call myself a woman or use toilets designated for women I am acknowledging myself as a woman. RadFem is no exception. This argument could not be more eloquently expressed than in My message to those who would attend RadFem 2012, the now world-famous blog post written by a trans activist:
“I would tell you that yes, I agree that gender is a social construct that ascribes hegemonic power to the masculine. I would tell you that I, like you, am forced to negotiate a society where we cannot simply reject gender because we are gendered constantly by others. The body I inhabit, the things I enjoy, the manner in which I communicate, the clothes I prefer to wear fit better into the artificial category of “woman” than the artificial category of “man”.”
I refuse to use my privilege as a white middle class cis woman to oppress a minority who feel trapped in the wrong bodies. The NUS Women’s Campaign, OUSU Women’s Campaign, Brighton Feminist Collective and RHUL Fem SOC are just a few of the organisations which have condemned RadFem for its transphobic policy. While gender still exists, an individual’s gender should be determined by self identity rather than by the prescription of a sex at birth, which is exactly the kind of rigidity which contradicts the principles upon which radical feminism was founded. There is no universal experience of womanhood. And, as such, it should not be policed.
“I oppose you not because I hate you, and certainly not because I oppose feminism. I oppose you because you would cause me harm.”
-Writings of a Trans Activist