A Response to J.K. Rowling and Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists

J.K. Rowling, armed with 14 million twitter followers and unimaginable wealth has chosen to spend her time, energy, and influence to center the conversation around her perceived victimhood under the guise of being in support of transgender people, and as a consequence, emboldened others with similar harmful beliefs to “speak out” about the trans community’s cabal on political correctness. She has somehow managed to do all of this during both the Black Lives Matter movement and Pride month. To put it plainly, for the last 2 weeks, my feed has been flooded with sweltering dumpster logic from TERFs because of my critical response to her tweets. Not only has she not apologized for her behavior, she has doubled down in a personal statement, in which she claims to empathize deeply with the trans community, tauts extensive research of trans identities, and even talks about her discussions with Real Life Trans People(!), while simultaneously reiterating that there are two biologically distinct and unchangeable sexes. Really. For someone who imagined a staggeringly beautiful world of magic, this exclusionary ideology is not only small-minded, it’s dangerous. 

At a time when transgender people are literally fighting for their lives, centering the conversation around their genitalia is so offensive and pathetic. 40% of transgender people report attempting suicide, in addition to legitimate fears of being murdered. What is concerning to me about this argument is that most people who identify as gender critical (trans-exclusionary), are often supporters of feminism, same-sex marriage, and other progressive ideas. Articulate and armed with essentialist biology, many of them are and have achieved incredible feats of mental gymnastics. The bizarre venn diagram of trans exclusionary people include radical feminists and religious right-wing conservatives. Wouldn’t you ask yourself about the company you keep? That your ideology about transgender people is identical to Mike Pence, Donald Trump, and white nationalists? 

They argue about political correctness. Of the language, or of censorship. Political correctness is often conflated with infringement of free speech, when it’s honestly just about compassion and empathy for another person’s experience. Additionally, the amount of pushback and anger that Rowling is receiving from the queer community reinforces their argument that the “trans cult” is pushing these ideas so forcefully that they’re stifling free speech and the free exchange of ideas. But it’s 2020. Why wouldn’t we hold people accountable for their language? If a marginalized group of people say, “your exclusive language causes direct harm to our community,” why wouldn’t those with more privilege listen and adjust the language? 

Why am I so focused about TERFs and J.K. Rowling when I should be focusing on the Black Lives Matter movement? Wouldn’t it be helpful to bury Rowling’s tweets and not bring anymore attention to her? Well, actually, yes. So for the rest of this letter, I won’t address her; I will instead focus on who is most harmed by the effects of trans exclusionary beliefs and why the bigoted ideology she has promoted is dangerous to the queer community. 

Trans exclusionary feminists tend to argue that the most vulnerable demographic, worldwide, is cis women. I want to make this very clear: cis women are not without hardship; violence, sexual assault, and deep seated pains of patriarchal systems and trauma are real, valid, and continue to happen. People who espouse trans exclusionary beliefs are scared of the exact same thing that trans feminists are: toxic masculinity, misogyny, violence, and sexual assault. Having this argument is so infuriating because it continues the unproductive infighting of oppression olympics. I think TERFs would agree that toxic masculinity is not attached to any particular kind of body. It’s embedded in our legislation, our daily lives, and even, as women, in our own thoughts and behaviors. Toxic masculinity hurts everyone. If that is true, then femininity and womanhood, though it may be difficult to understand, are also not attached to any particular bodies or biological functions. In other words, my period isn’t what makes me a woman. And to say that my biological functions determine my womanhood is antiquated, reductive, and harmful. Are we really comfortable saying that the experience of being a woman is reduced to our reproductive organs? There are women who are infertile, who have had mastectomies, or no longer have periods. To me, as a cis woman, the biological essentialist argument feels like some Margaret Atwood Handmaid’s Tale shit, reducing women to their reproductive organs. If you adhere to those principles that strongly, then it’s hard to argue, for instance, that homosexuality is biologically natural. The argument against homosexuality for decades was that two people with the same biological organs wouldn’t be able to procreate, and therefore, their love was immoral and not biologically correct! 

Is my womanhood defined by my ability to menstruate? What about my lived experience? The way I’m treated in society? The way I see myself? The way I present myself? Trans women who pass, whether you deem them worthy of the exalted status of womanhood or not, are effectively seen as women by other people. Just as you believe the “trans cult” is destroying womanhood, you are also not the Czars of Gender. They are experiencing the world as you do. Conversely, if a trans woman doesn’t pass, it’s not like society treats them as men, they are instead treated like pariahs. A core part of your argument is that trans women who transition later in life have experienced male privilege and have not faced the absolute fuckery that is girl adolescence. Caitlyn Jenner, who is unfortunately the only example most people have for a transwoman, has had incredible privilege. I can’t argue against that. TERFs are right. Trans women who transition later in life don’t know what those things are like, and honestly, for many of the trans women I know, that’s actually a really painful subject. This argument doesn’t hold up for very long, as a lot of trans women dont share the same experience of male socialization the way cis men do. A lot of trans women are feminine before they transition and will likely experience the same internalized misogyny that affects cis women. Likewise, trans men often have to reckon with and critique their new experience as living with male privilege. And, honestly, every trans guy I know does acknowledge that. The other issue with that argument is that  socialization doesn’t end after adolescence; it continues throughout one’s life. 

Those of us defending trans women don’t believe that performing femininity or femininity itself makes someone a woman, but femininity can be a kind of language, using different signals to communicate womanhood. However, I can understand and empathize how a hyper-feminized presentation of womanhood could be frustrating for cis women, lesbians or anyone who’s assigned female at birth. We have spent our whole lives fighting the male gaze, and an ultra-feminine presentation can feel threatening to the fight against deconstructing patriarchal and heteronormative values. I don’t think anyone is arguing against dismantling patriarchal standards. That’s feminism, baby! All types of gender expression should be encouraged! So why are we at odds with each other?  There are celebrities, powerful cis woman who have real influence over gender expression, but TERFs don’t clog up their feeds about reinforcing gender stereotypes. It’s almost always rooted in hurting the most marginalized. And why? Because TERFs don’t see transwomen as women. They call them men, or criticize them for not passing or being too feminine or not being feminine enough. So if trans women are ridiculed for their expression of gender regardless of presentation or passing, then is there really any way that trans women could exist that would be acceptable by this ideology? 

Frequently used (and debunked) in transphobic arguments, is the belief that allowing people access to the bathroom that feels most comfortable and aligned to their identity, will invite all types of perverts into the women’s bathroom. Allow me to clutch my pearls while I think of the bathrooms! Many states in the U.S. have passed anti-discrimination policies protecting gender identity, and there have been zero bathroom assaults since the policies have taken effect. Trans people aren’t going to assault you, they just want to pee. Conversely, In one of the largest surveys of transgender and gender non-conforming Americans ever conducted, 70% reported being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms. 

My support of the trans community has resulted in a barrage of comments from Rowling’s camp claiming that I’m anti-lesbian. An argument that frequently makes its rounds in trans exclusionary spaces is the belief that if cis lesbians accept trans lesbians into the umbrella of womanhood, then they will be forced to have sex with somone who has a penis. Many cis women, as is the case for myself, have experienced trauma from cis men that have violated us, and it can help assuage the trauma to hold firm in a belief that men and women are a completely different species, where men are inherently violent and women need to be protected. And to accept trans women as women invokes discomfort and fear. Aside from the fact that many trans women biologically do transition, including their sexual organs, what’s going on down there is really none of your business. 

Here’s the deal: trans acceptance has nothing to do with policing your sexual preferences. If you don’t want to have sex with a trans woman, she probably doesn’t want to have sex with you either. No one is forcing you to have sex with anyone– this is such a wild argument and stems from the ideology that lies behind the murders of trans women; straight cis men feeling as though a trans woman has “trapped” them and deceived them. Again, examine the company you’re keeping here: toxic masculinity and fear. It’s histrionic to “approve” someone’s entry into womanhood by determining whether or not you would have sex with them. Sexual attraction to someone is not the ultimate form of expressing support for them! Stop conflating sexual preference with gender identity. I’m not attracted to certain people because of my political ideology, I’m attracted to them because I was born that way. I know plenty of cis lesbians who are in relationships with trans women. And guess what? It’s still gay as the day is long. I don’t know what will open your mind to a different sexual imagination but I know that denying trans people their identities has nothing to do with your personal sexual preference. 

What is appalling to me is that all of this falls under the guise of supporting the trans community; That their beliefs are not transphobic and they are merely defending womanhood. When inclusive language is used, for instance saying “people who menstruate”, TERFs argue that the word woman is being erased. Medical language that assumes that everyone with a uterus is a woman erases trans men or non-binary people who do, in fact, whether you want them to or not, menstruate and get pregnant. So using the term pregnant women in this context is medically inaccurate, but pregnant people includes them AND cis-women. Medical language is designed to be inclusive and impersonal; not even to be politically correct. No one is saying you can’t refer to yourself as a woman or discuss cramps and pregnancy with other cis women. No trans women are arguing against that. Natalie Wynn, in her video titled, Gender Critical has this to say: “…TERFs use male privilege as a proxy for calling trans women men. There’s an element here of stolen valor, the sense of injustice that people are claiming their identity without experiencing their oppression. Some people believe that the only real trans people are those who experience really severe gender dysphoria, that the thing that confirms your identity is pain. What it is to be trans is to hate your body, what it is to be a woman is to be brutalized by men.

This argument feels like a haunting echo from conservative republicans who argued that gay couples who wanted to get married were infringing upon the sanctity of marriage. All we wanted was to be included. These “concerns” raised by TERFs about the erasure of womanhood, about bathroom stalls, and “think of the children” rhetoric is just an affront for covert transphobia. This is no different than a homophobic cis man who is grossed out by two guys kissing? It is, unfortunately and simply, a disgust response. And if you’re queer, you might be familiar with that feeling, because a lot of us felt that same disgust for ourselves while we were in the closet. I can’t convince you out of transphobia, but during a global reckoning for white supremacy and hegemonic masculine values and for the sake of black trans women, I urge you to examine what exactly you are fighting for and who it actually hurts.