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Liberate Society, Abolish Transmisogyny: Lola Olufemi's Feminism, Interrupted
The Quietus , July 25th, 2020 09:05

Writer and organiser Lola Olufemi argues the importance of trans rights to feminist politics in this exclusive interview + extract from her latest book, Feminism, Interrupted

In the introduction to Feminism, Interrupted, you write “Everybody has a story about how they arrived and keep arriving at radical politics.” What were the particular circumstances of your discovery of the word ‘feminism’, its histories, resonances, and implications?

For me, I learnt about feminism it’s genealogies and histories (albeit superficially) in secondary school. Even then, the different tensions between different schools of thought was made clear to me which I am grateful for. I learnt earlier on that feminism wasn’t simple or homogenous. What struck me was how this political framework gave voice to feelings of gendered alienation connected to everything from class to race to educational experiences to my proximity to premature death. In many ways it saved my life, it freed from complying with this world or as Anne Boyer says, becoming a propagandist for it.

I think of feminism as a political methodology that is invested in collective freedom and I’m forever indebted to the way I found it through an engagement with capital T theory but I think that has been supplemented as I’ve grown older by organising, art, film and other multidisciplinary approaches which of course are theory too.

You start your book with a history of feminism that takes quite a different tack from most standard feminist histories. What motivated your particular rewriting of feminist history?

I think its necessary to complicate and do away with the neat linear arrangement of feminist advancement into “waves.” I think this obscures the necessary tensions between mainstream and radical feminist movements and makes us lose sight of the fact that there are those who call themselves ‘feminists’ who are not committed to a liberatory political project. This is incredibly important to note because it helps us understand how feminist principles and demands under a regime of neoliberalism have morphed. For me, its less of a rewriting and more of an understanding that for those grassroots groups that I mention in the book who were at every level engaged in battles against the state, against policing and against other violent structures constitute feminist history. These are the legacies we need to draw on, especially as we are being told that feminism is about climbing to the top of preordained hierarchal institutions instead of abolishing them.

How can artists – whether they identify as female or male – contribute to a feminist politics?

Your gender is less important than your political commitment in this regard. I think, to quote Toni Cade Bambara, that the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible. Artists have to recognise that they cannot abstract themselves from the political organisation of this world. It marks everything: the conditions under which you produce work, what you chose to make, how you present it and so on. This doesn’t mean that everything you make has to be have an expressly “political” message, which I think is quite reductive. I think it means that in the way you orient yourself and your work, at some point you have to ask yourself whether that orientation clarifies machineries of exploitation or whether it is the engine that keeps them running.

Why are trans rights important for feminism? And why is it particularly important to acknowledge this at this particular point in time?

I often find the framing of these kinds of questions odd because they assume that trans people have existed outside the history of feminist movements which is not only ahistorical but does this dangerous thing of positioning trans life as somehow an invention of the contemporary moment. One of the central pillars of the radical feminism that dominated the 70s and 80s was a critique of the sex distinction itself and the call for its abolition. And that is exactly what transfeminist contributions have always done, refocused our attention on the violence of the gender binary and on this idea that biology can or should ever be a determiner of life. What we’re seeing is a big resurgence of essentialist thinking fuelled by neoliberalism’s focus on the individual, the manufactured trans panic! is about signalling how trans people are a societal failure and an attempt to render their lives impossible by attempting to remove them from aspects of public life. As feminists who are invested in a world that includes all of us, we have to resist that.

The following is an extract from Feminism, Interrupted…

It begins with a cry. In the delivery room, newborns are assigned a sex according to their genitals. Everything from science, to culture, to common wisdom affirms to us that there are only two options to choose from: male and female. These categories refer to our ‘biological makeup’. To deviate from either option is unnatural and to ‘journey’ from one to another is sacrilege. Because our society sees sex as ‘natural’, and therefore self-evident, it has become unquestionable. It is hard to recognise that this process of assignment and categorisation is something human beings have created to make the world intelligible. If there are only two categories, it is easier for us to organise the world and attach feelings, emotions and ways of being to each one. Those feelings, emotions and ways of being are commonly referred to as ‘gender’. There is no way to adequately describe what gender is. Every definition does a disservice to the shifting, multiple and complex set of power relations that come to shape a person’s gender. But loosely, feminists have understood gender as our sense of self in the world, how we present our bodies, speak, move – anything that refers to our presentation and relationship to our own bodies. This presentation is shaped by the male/female categorisation. The idea is that if sex refers to biology, gender refers to the social roles that are ascribed on the basis of sex.

Bodies

Feminists have rightly been concerned with the process of sex assignment: they recognise that throughout history, to be ‘female’ has often meant death, mutilation and oppression. Sex categorisation has been the starting point for well-known feminist theories. But the idea of sex as immutable became a focal point of radical, lesbian feminism in the West, and more specifically, America during the 70s and 80s. This was not the case across the board, especially among black feminists, but there are many notable instances of feminist organising that were hostile towards trans women during this time. The publication of Janice Raymond’s Transsexual Empire in 1979 marked a turning point for the development of arguments against trans life in America. Raymond’s argument relied, at least in part, on the importance of biology in forming women’s bodily integrity. ‘Transsexualism’ as she called it, not only reaffirmed gender stereotypes, but was a violation of ‘harmony – wholeness, being.’ Though disguised, the credence given to biology in these arguments affirmed the idea that women are born, and not made or named; that there is something inherent in biology that is crucial to womanhood.

This idea is inextricably linked with gender essentialism – the notion that there is a fixed and universal essence present in men and women and that we possess different innate qualities. This logic helped support arguments that rooted women’s oppression and men’s dominance in the body. Bodily approaches from many radical lesbian thinkers saw heterosexual sex as a battleground – ‘use and abuse’ as referred to by Andrea Dworkin – and the area where male dominance was exerted using genitalia. During the 1970s and 80s, women’s oppression was analysed exclusively by some feminists, through the lens of sex and sexuality. They argued that sex work and pornography put women in subordinate positions, and were akin to violation. This way of viewing women, their bodies and their relations with men was central to a number of high-profile Western feminist disputes. The most notable example is the pornography wars of the 1990s between anti-porn feminists who argued that pornography subjugated women and exploited their bodies, and pro-sex feminists who argued that pornography provided some possibility for agency in women’s expression of sexuality.

Is sex real?

There are a number of scientific studies that point to the fact that human beings’ sexual biology is far more varied than we give it credit for. The existence of people who are born defying sex determination systems proves this. Many intersex infants, individuals born with variations in ‘male’ and ‘female’ sex characteristics, are assigned a sex at birth and often have surgery to ‘correct’ their genitalia without their consent. This demonstrates the power of sex as a classification system that makes us intelligible; we do not live in a society that knows what to do with bodies that do not conform to rigid binaries. In some instances, doctors can choose the sex of an infant, revealing the absurdity of the idea that sex is first and foremost, biological. The fight for intersex people’s rights to bodily autonomy and recognition is not the same fight as transgender people’s (though the two overlap often as many intersex people are trans). But they are both fights against a rigid and violent system of sexual essentialism that renders many bodies and lives incomprehensible, forcing conformity and/or expulsion of those deemed unruly.

Judith Butler broke new ground in 1990 with her seminal text, Gender Trouble. In it she suggested that there is nothing natural about ‘biological sex’. She argued that sex is a construction just like gender and that sex becomes gender because of how we talk about it and how it is practiced through a series of performative repetitions. Sex is gender and the way we think about both is entirely social. If one group of people consistently behave, speak, move, present themselves in one way and another in the ‘opposite’ way, we reaffirm the idea that there is actually an inherent difference between those two groups when no such difference exists. While male and female bodies may have different physical capabilities in particular contexts, these differences in regards to testosterone and oestrogen are not only exaggerated, there is also a whole range of variations across members of the opposite sex. Many women are physically stronger than men; many men are physically weaker than women. These are not exceptions that defy a rule; there simply is no rule. ‘Biological’ differences are often exaggerated to explain phenomena that are entirely unconnected: personality, social and political interests, cognitive ability. To argue that there is a clear difference between sex and gender serves to solidify the idea that biological sex, prior to human beings inventing it and naming its tenants, exists.

To say that gender and sex are social constructions is not to say that they are unimportant or that gender is as simple as putting on a different hat each day. Butler is often misquoted as claiming gender is a ‘performance’ when instead she argues it might be better to view it as a ritual that is made up of certain kinds of repetitive behaviours that sediment over time. When we repeat this behaviour, we create ourselves. Because of the way it organises our lives, gender has life or death consequences. Consider the way that anyone who does not conform to ideas of their assigned sex is heavily policed. Butch women. Feminine men. Transgender men and women, non-binary people and anyone who is gender non-conforming. Daily, people die because they challenge, subvert and threaten the visual script dictated by the gender binary. In the Americas, 80 per cent of the trans women killed as a result of gendered violence are 35 years of age or younger. Gender harms us all when it is used as a vehicle for violence and exploitation. But when feminists adopt a binary understanding of gender and an essentialist idea that biology is destiny, they put trans women at risk.

Understanding that there is nothing ‘natural’ or ‘stable’ about human biology helps us dismantle the idea that women’s oppression is rooted in a singular place. We can believe that sex and gender are made up categories, embellished by social attitudes and recognise that the violence that occurs as a result of them is very real. It is the violence that defines our experience of the world, not our biological make up that we often know little about it. (How often do you think about your chromosomes?) Often being perceived as a woman or failing to do womanhood correctly is enough to put somebody at risk of harm. It is also important to remember that Western conceptions of gender are not and have never been, universal. Gender has no single story. There are countless examples of gender non-conforming and variant expressions across the world that challenge the idea of ‘man’ and woman’ and evidence that they have existed for centuries. The colonial project played a large part in marking certain sexual and gender practice taboos, in line with religious and imperialist ideas of nature. A number of colonial projects used penal law to outlaw expressions of gender variance and ‘homosexual’ acts between men in places such as India, Kenya, Australia and Uganda. This is not to imply that non-Western examples of gender variance were always free from policing and scrutiny in pre-colonial contexts, but to reaffirm that though gender may appear self-evident, its history is dependent on context. Just because specific ideas and practices of gender are central in the West, does not make them a global phenomenon.

Generational divides: TERFS

Our media is full of scaremongering about Generation Z and their obsession with sexual and gender fluidity. A number of celebrities like Sam Smith, Amandla Stenberg and Indya Moore have expressed a rejection of or ambivalence about the sex they were assigned at birth and being fixed in a gender binary, opting to use they/them pronouns. Gender fluidity presents a threat to the stable ideas of gender and sexuality. This seems so threatening because compliance to a system of categorisation within stable sexual categories also means compliance to the unjust system of governance that dictates it. Refusing binaries means challenging the harmful systems that keep them in place and make our lives miserable by dictating what we can and cannot do. Refusing the world as it is also means refusing racism, capitalism and a whole host of associated violences. This is threatening to liberal feminism, but there is a silver lining to the chaos created by these generational divides in approaches to gender. Feminists can speak back and more importantly, organise against oppressive structures like sexism on a local and global scale, by unsettling the idea that binaries define us. Chaos allows us to look at the way that violence is a central organising principle for our societies and more importantly, helps us identify the bodies that are nearest to it.

The pressure to ‘do’ gender correctly is so embedded in our social lives that it is hard to conceive of a world without it. Coming to the realisation that everything you have been told about the fixed nature of your own body is a lie can shake you to your core. There is a kind of feminism that thrives off the anxiety caused by this realisation. Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) or those who call themselves ‘gender-critical’ use a specific feminist logic to locate the source of women’s oppression in biology. For them, sex is a fixed category that cannot be changed. While many young feminists espouse TERF ideology, the public face of TERF organising is often older liberal white and middle class women who vocalise ‘concerns’ about the inclusion of trans women in feminist spaces and women’s rights discourse, lamenting the ‘generational divides’ in feminist thinking. They view the changing nature of language to describe gender and sexuality as a threat to feminist advancement, tending to be dismissive of newer kinds of feminist practice that take a radically materialist and intersectional approach as their starting point. They use these concerns to foster a ‘trans panic!’: a manufactured fear that newer feminist movements erase cis women’s sex-based oppression, undermining the structural nature of misogyny and pushing more people to medically transition.

Popular TERF arguments in the public eye centre on the safety of children. Perhaps one of the most insidious is the idea that young children, who are grappling with gender, are being pushed into early transition. The logic holds that young women (especially butch lesbians and those who are gender non-conforming) are being given an easy way to ‘opt out’ of womanhood or lesbianism because of societal pressure to become trans men. Straight women attached to TERF Ideology have attempted to disguise themselves as ‘allies’ to the queer community, arguing that lesbians are disappearing. Their logic holds that any young woman who feels trapped by gender expectations or thinks critically about gender would opt to transition. But this argument assumes that to be trans means to move from one binary gender to another. This is not only incorrect; it simplifies the complex and deeply personal relationship to gender and presentation that many trans people have. Some opt for medical transition, some don’t, some grapple with their bodies as they appear, and others do not. It becomes easier to argue against transness when a simple narrative about what it means to be trans is presented and dissected. In the UK, children do not have access to medical transition, yet the scaremongering tactics that TERFS employ rely heavily on ideas of young children’s proximity to underground sex confirmation surgery.

Under our current systems, those experiencing gender dysphoria cannot easily access medical transition. There are a number of exhaustive and pathologising processes that one must undertake before medical transition even becomes an option, such as being required to recount childhood trauma and being assessed by a panel of medical gatekeepers who determine your viability for transition. What TERFs miss in their attempt to manufacture a moral panic about transgender people is that feminist thinking enables cis women to despise the social consequences of the sex we are assigned at birth and still comfortably occupy a gender that ‘corresponds’ with it. To assume individuals’ transition flippantly suggests that medical transition is an easily available unnecessary luxury, when in reality, it can often be one of the only routes to safety for trans people whose bodies have been deemed ‘unruly’ by society. Medical transition saves lives in a world where gender scripts mean the difference between life and death. But perhaps most urgently, we must askourselves, what is wrong with increased access to medical transition? TERFS characterise being transgender as a societal failure. No amount of refutation, ‘rational’ argumentation, scientific case studies or statistics can undo a way of thinking that seeks to render trans life impossible. Instead of arguing on the terms of TERFs who are increasingly setting the tone on public debates, as young feminists we must draw attention to the devastating, real world consequences of discursive attacks on trans people, trans women especially. The ‘gender-critical’ movement is strategic and organised – at the core; TERFS are not concerned with the welfare of children or adults, but simply finding sympathetic vehicles through which to promote their antagonism towards trans life.

TERFS have been mobilising across the country, using the internet to organise. Popular online forums like Mumsnet and Reddit are home to pages and pages dedicated to co-ordinating hate campaigns targeting trans people. Hannah Woodhead argues that ‘Mumsnet has become a breeding ground for transphobic voices; a space where they can laugh about sabotaging an NHS survey aimed at LGBTQ+ users and scorn trans participation in sport, or ponder that trans rights are a millennial issue.’ Claims that young children are being pushed into transition without a choice are reminiscent of homophobic campaigners and legislators who mobilised the idea of protecting innocent children from ‘homosexuals’, leading to legislation like Section 28 in the UK, enacted in 1988. The aim is to legislate queerness, transness, anything that upsets the binary out of existence. Race and class play a key part in the authority of the anti-trans lobby. It is no coincidence that the most vocal and prominent TERFs in the UK tend to be middle class white women. Their reliance on biological essentialism reveals much about their conceptualisations of race. They rely on the power of essentialism because they see how successfully it functions as an organising principle for society.

There are ideological links between biological essentialism and scientific racism: both see the body in absolute terms. Many prominent TERFS and their allies have aligned themselves with members of the alt-right. Well-known British feminists have appeared in YouTube videos hosted by men spreading alt-right fascistic ideology in the art world. In the US, the ‘Women’s Liberation Front’ colluded with conservative and religious groups to defend the rights of employers to fire transgender staff. Those who rely on this kind of thinking are also the least likely to adopt an intersectional approach to feminist practice. These ‘feminists’ are not concerned with changing the material conditions of women’s lives so that subjugation and exploitation are no longer necessary parts of it. Instead, they direct their anxieties about the kinds of violence that all women experience in a patriarchal society towards trans women so that cis women become ‘oppressed’ by the existence of trans women or by expansive ideas of gender. Essentialist understandings offer a simple truth about ourselves that is easy to swallow. Pathologising trans people makes it easier to blame them for societal ills and to pit cis and trans women’s issues against one another. This merely distracts us from the most pressing issues at hand.

If gender is not a fixed, immovable truth, then everything we know about ourselves as women is at risk of collapsing. Recent debates around the reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, a piece of legislation that created a process that enables individuals to change their legal gender, demonstrates the manifestation of this anxiety. Large groups of ‘gender-critical’ feminists encouraged others to sabotage the government’s attempt to make the process of obtaining a Gender RecognitionCertificate easier by registering their objection to trans women entering women only spaces. Despite the fact that The Equality Act 2014 already enshrines this right in law, the mobilisation around this particular point betrays the TERF obsession with genitalia and the penis as a symbol of violence. TERF ideology also hurts men: if violence is inherent to certain kinds of genitalia, then as feminists, we leave little space for fostering the transformative gender relations necessary for a liberated future. Men are not inherently bad and women are not inherently good but the idea that one cannot escape their own biology traps us all in the oppressor/oppressed binary with no hope of abolishing it.

Under the guise of ‘protecting women’, TERF movements seek to re-establish strict gender codes. Whether through policing public bathrooms or making access to medical transition harder than it should be, they align themselves with the church and the state (who are not natural allies to feminists) in order to legitimise their agenda. By reoccupying the role of victim, cisgender women are able to frame themselves as the recipients of a kind of onslaught from a group of people that make up less than 1 per cent of the population. Concerns of ‘female erasure’ are central to TERF arguments, but what is most frightening, is the way they have successfully merged transphobia with right-wing rhetoric about threats to freedom of speech and the ‘sensitivity’ of younger generations: turning the younger generations’ practice of a feminism that refuses to betray trans women into the result of ‘political correctness’. But these kinds of alliances are nothing new. In the past, anti-porn feminists Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin worked with right-wing thinktanks bolstered by evangelical Christians to ‘abolish’ sex work. In the UK, TERF academics and public figures have opted for right-wing outlets to platform their views, and in the US, prominent feminist thinkers are now aligning themselves with the alt-right faces of free speech. TERFs teamed up with the Family Policy Alliance, a ‘pro-family Christian group’ to oppose Barack Obama’s introduction of guidance on good policies and protections introduced at the federal level to help protect transgender students.

Short skirts, high heels

Another popular TERF argument is that, instead of challenging the gender binary, transitioning merely reaffirms it. To argue that trans women simply reaffirm a stereotypically ‘feminine’ model is to see all trans women as a homogenous group: feminine, heterosexual and wanting to transition. It ignores the fact that cis and trans women adopt stereotypical femininity for the same reason, blaming them for the gender scripts necessary for survival. In many cases, trans women may be actively encouraged by doctors and Gender Identity Clinics to adopt conventional femininity as a means of ‘proving’ that they are who they say they are. This proof would not be necessary in a different world. These kinds of requirements have far less to do with individuals and more to do with the way rigid ideas about gender are currently embedded in our social lives. The aim, at the very least, is to destroy that rigidity.

There are a diverse number of ways that trans women present. Many opt not to medically transition at all; many cannot even afford to consider it. Trans women are only asked to reject femininity in order to be granted ‘citizenship’ to womanhood because in the mind of cis gatekeepers, they are not really women. While it is crucial that we remain critical of how the sexist logics of capitalism are implicated in our self-image, we must also remember that rejecting femininity does not equal liberation. Women are not oppressed because of the existence of makeup or high heels or hair removal strips; these are merely by-products of a sexist society. This kind of thinking stems from a type of feminism that argues that women can escape sexist oppression by ‘degendering’ or refusing traditional femininity. While this approach opens our eyes to the fact that femininity is a construct that serves male dominance, opting for gender neutrality often means adopting a universalised masculinity. Baggy shirts and suits do not equal liberation either. Liberation cannot be ushered in by what we wear or how we speak or how we present ourselves. When we focus on the individual, we are asking the wrong question.

There is a dangerous liberal feminism that fetishises personal choice: Can you be a feminist and wear high heels? Can you be a feminist and shave your legs? But policing the way women present themselves distracts us from the more pressing issues at hand. Why are women the lowest paid workers? Why do women have the least access to the material resources necessary for survival? Are women free from violence? If not, then why not? The latter questions asks us to open our eyes and examine the way our society functions while the former are concerned with ‘choice’ as if choice exists in a vacuum. Our obsession with locating the singular universal cause of women’s oppression stops us from engaging with the mechanisms of that oppression that manifest in daily life: the economic, the political, the social. This narrow scope for thinking about our own oppression has undoubtedly led many feminists to fall prey to the myth that trans women pose a threat to feminist advancements.

Transfeminist politics

Throughout history and in the present day, Transgender feminist theorists and activists have forged new ground. In her post-transexual manifesto, Sandy Stone questioned a society that requires trans people to medically transition in order to be accepted. ‘Under the binary phallocratic founding myth by which Western bodies and subjects are authorised, only one body per gendered subject is “right”. All other bodies are wrong.’ She urged instead, an embrace of unintelligibility and the possibility of chaos as a way to transform society. It is also trans theorists that have best articulated the specific kinds of violence faced by trans women. ‘Transmisogyny’ refers to the unique intersection of transphobia and misogyny. Coined in 2007 by Julia Serano in her book, Whipping Girl, it describes the intensification of misogyny that trans women experience because their femininity is viewed as fraudulent, inherently passive and existing solely in service of men and masculinity. Trans women are often punished for expressions of femininity. This ranges from fetishisation from men to physical violence to an outright denial of their womanhood. TERFS create an antagonistic relationship between cis and trans women, presenting the latter as encroaching on the former. But this manufactured hostility elides feminist concerns. Feminists have long pointed out that women have an increased proximity to harm and that our lives are defined by it. Almost half of trans pupils in the UK have attempted suicide and Stonewall found that 41 per cent of trans respondents had been victims of a hate crime in the last 12 months. If a feminist world is one without violence, establishing a hostile relationship between trans and cis women only serves as a distraction from identifying the root causes of the machinery of social organisation that put our lives at risk. Who wins in this scenario? How is violence eradicated? Whose lives are at stake while we separate ‘real’ women from ‘fake’ ones?

Feminism, Interrupted by Lola Olufemi is published by Pluto Press

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