Radical Feminists vs. Transgender Activists

Category:  News
Thursday, March 24th, 2016 at 7:28 AM

As part of Women’s History Month, Dr. Steve Sullivan held a lecture titled “The Conflict Between Radical Feminists and Transgender Activists” in Hendricks Hall on Wednesday, March 16.

Sullivan, a self-described liberal feminist and professor in the Department of English and Philosophy at Edinboro, touched on several different topics in his lecture, such as defining what it means to be transgender and the different issues transgender people face today, some of the issues radical feminists —often called trans exclusive radical feminists (TERFs) — have with transgender women and the transgender and ally reaction to those issues.

“I’ve never paid much attention in class before to transgender issues, in part because of ignorance,” Sullivan said.

“I just didn’t know much about them partly because I think I wasn’t comfortable talking about them and that started to change.”

Transgender and associated terms

The National Center for Transgender Equality defines transgender as “a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.” The term cisgender is the opposite, or when you identify your gender with the sex you are assigned at birth.

Sullivan stated that one of the benefits of the transgender movement is it’s made people think a lot harder about sex and gender, but more specifically gender. He defined sex as a biological feature determined by anatomy, while gender is determined by the social role assigned to individuals from society based on their perceived sex.

Gender dysphoria involves discrepancy between the gender you are assigned at birth and the gender you actually identify yourself as, and was formerly considered to be a psychological disorder.

U.S. oppression of transgendered people

Sullivan cited a ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2012, stating gender identity discrimination is illegal under the 1964 civil rights act (it’s considered sex discrimination) and applies to and protects transgender people.

“It’s one thing for the EEOC to make that law, its another for courts to support the ruling,” he said.

“Some have and some haven’t. It’s yet another way for employers to go along with it, but given this ruling and that in the end the EEOC handles all lawsuits involving employee discrimination, anybody who has been a victim of gender identity discrimination in employment can sue and appeal to this ruling and have a chance to win.”

Psychological views of transgender gender dysphoria

From his research, Sullivan noted that many cisgender people dismiss transgender as a sickness, which has also been a common attitude towards gay people, especially lesbians. Transgender people have even been studied as examples of severe mental illness, according to Sullivan.

In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) Vol. 3 characterized gender dysphoria as a psychiatric disorder.

“It didn’t say that all trans people were mentally ill, but it said having that condition of gender dysphoria was being in a state of mental illness,” Sullivan said.

In 2013, Vol. 5 of the DSM dropped the characterization and no longer identified as a disorder due to evolution of understanding transgender or what it’s like to experience gender dysphoria.

Sullivan noted that “there’s growing biological evidence that being transgender has a biological basis. There’s no simple biological explanation. There isn’t any simple biological explanation for being gay, but we have some evidence that being gay is largely and heavily biologically determined genetically and hormonally in the womb.”

Does sex reassignment surgery ease gender dysphoria?

Going through transitions to solve gender dysphoria appears to Sullivan as an ongoing, unresolved issue. He said that it is the belief of many psychologists and doctors that undergoing sex reassignment surgery “will generally work in reducing depression and alienation and anxiety as long as counseling is given to the person undergoing sex reassignment surgery; without counseling is still problematic.”

TERFs’ issues with Transgender America

According to Sullivan, the view that some of the most radical feminists have of transgender woman is “all or some transgender individuals who identify as women are not women.” He explains that “hardcore” TERFs believe trans women shouldn’t be allowed in women’s restrooms, arguing that sex is biological and gender is socially constructed, meaning to be a woman you must be socially regarded and treated as a woman — “subordinate to men in our patriarchal society in virtue of having been born anatomically female.” He continued to say that those with this viewpoint believe that the only women who are women are those who have been treated as women or girls from birth; no transgender woman is a woman. Less extreme TERFs believe if they transition to a woman its fine to consider them women after living as a woman and being treated as a such for an extensive period of time.

The second point Sullivan makes on TERF’s issues with transgender women is there are “doubts about whether the notion of gender in gender identity is clearly subjective.” He asked this question, on their behalf: “Is identifying as woman enough to make you a woman?”

Sullivan explained TERFs say the role of gender in gender identity is not that subjective; you have to live and function as a woman for a period of time and recognize the struggle they live with for a majority of their lives. Sullivan also notes that some often compare this concept to that of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who identified as African American but was later exposed to be Caucasian.

“If it doesn’t work for Rachel,” stated Sullivan, “why does it work for Caitlyn Jenner?”

“Transgender women take advantage of male privilege, while male, and then claim the status of female without living through the struggle.”

Sullivan relates this issue back to Jenner and stated that it is argued that because Jenner enjoyed privileges as a “rich, white man” in society, she can not be considered a woman because she has not lived as a woman for a prolonged time.

“TERFs worry about access to traditionally gender segregated spaces,” said Sullivan.

This includes restrooms, locker rooms, concerts and any thing considered to be a special venue. TERFs argue places should be kept gender separate for women due to worries of safety (rape worries) and privacy (uncomfortable having trans women in these spaces).

Transgender and ally reactions

As for transgender people and their allies, Sullivan notes the belief is that gender identity is subjective and nobody has the right to tell you what gender you are. They argue that transitions don’t matter and if you sincerely identify as something then that is what you are.

As for the argument against taking advantage of male privilege, they believe that those who did so also lived in secret and were terrified of being discovered because of gender dysphoria, which they believe counteracts male privilege.

Sullivan went on to state they believe needing gender separate places for safety “is hysteria.”

He would continue, “There is no good evidence of enhanced danger to women and girls from trans women being allowed access to women’s restrooms” and that there is a greater danger for transgender women to use men’s restrooms.

Sullivan’s tentative, mixed verdict

“I do want to express partial support for radical feminist views in the following way: it seems to me that subjective identity — that is, how you identify in terms of your gender — is not enough to determine by itself what your gender is. I just don’t find that remotely plausible.”

Sullivan continued by showing support for the analogy comparing Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner, and he brought up the notion of those who identify as disabled — called “pretenders” — but do not have any form of disability.

“It can’t be as simple as that, it seems to me.” Sullivan also stated that he supports that, saying, “This is how I feel” in regards to social identity “is not enough.”

“I do want to also express partial support for transgender rights and transgender activist views when they criticize TERFs. First of all, I don’t have any doubt that the seriously anti-transgender radical feminists like Janice Raymond, who characterizes sex reassignment surgery as selfmutilation, seem to be clearly transphobic. They are bigots. Absolute bigots,” Sullivan said.

“Nowadays, we know a hell of a lot about what it’s like to be transgender and experience gender dysphoria, and none of what we know confirms this bizarre view that transgendered people are disordered or sick.”

Sullivan continued to call this kind of belief “serious transphobia and bigotry” among some radical feminists. Sullivan completely agrees with the transgender and ally response to the radical feminist issue with bathroom use, saying he supports all laws put in place for the protection of transgender people, including allowing them use of gender-specific restrooms.

There is excess on both sides — misandry is rampant in some TERF viewpoints. Hyperbole in rhetoric directed at TERFs was also discussed, as “they may have doubts about understanding transgender the way transgender people understand it but they’re not genocidal, that’s just hysteria.”

In his final comment, Sullivan noted, “There are problems on both sides.”

Sullivan will be giving another talk similar to this event at Edinboro’s Porreco campus in April called “Transgender Rights and Bathroom Bills.”

Kimberly Firestine is a Senior Staff Writer for The Spectator.

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