Why it’s not okay to give a forum to transcritical debate

An abridged, share-friendly version of this post can be found here

I’ve had a traumatising, train wreck of a week. It all started when I got into a debate with a “transcritical” feminist who was known to me on a local feminist facebook page. In order to try and contain the dialogue I set up a space to explore the issues. Many of my transgender friends were upset that I was giving a platform to a group that campaigns against the recognition of transgender people. The “dialogue” got out of hand very quickly, and many trans people got hurt. It resulted in me closing the debate down, but not before the “transcritical” feminists had set up another debate, one I am informed has felt even less safe for trans people to participate in.

It was wrong of me to create more space for this discussion. I have caused significant emotional damage to myself and others in doing this, and reinforced the sense of entitlement that cis feminists feel to have this discussion. What I should have done was challenge the original space about allowing this debate to happen – any feminist space that wishes to consider itself non-oppressive should not support transcriticism. There are ways of debating the nature of gender and gender oppression without marginalising or de-legitimising transgender people, and in future any feminist space I will participate in must be committed to this. I will not give any more oxygen or legitimacy to those who would seek to impose their world order onto my life.

I will, when I feel up to it, make a more in-depth analysis of what was said in the dialogue, but for now I want to make a statement about my position, following some time to reflect on these events.

How do we categorise human beings?

I identify as transgender. This does not mean I am ignorant of biological facts about my body, it means that for me, my reproductive organs are not the most significant influence on my existence, and I do not wish to be legally or socially categorised according to my reproductive organs or chromosomes. Categorising humans in this way, using pronouns and labels, is a human choice and not a biological fact. If this rigid categorisation does not work for transgender people, we have a choice to be flexible in how we apply it.

This socially constructed categorisation we call “sex” perpetuates the oppression of women as well as transgender and intersex people. I hold to the feminist principle that “biology is not destiny”.

I see myself as a person, not a woman, but this does not mean I reject people’s rights to organise and express the oppression they experience as a group:

  • I stand shoulder to shoulder with people who identify as women on issues of oppression, including rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence, reproductive control and the demeaning,  objectification and sexualisation of what are perceived as “feminine” qualities and presentation.
  • Some of these oppressions are shared by transgender women, and some are not, but overall I recognise that transgender women’s experiences intersect significantly with cisgender women’s issues and that therefore transgender women should fall under the protection of feminism, and should not be excluded from the socially constructed category “woman”.
  • Some of these oppressions are shared by transgender men, and therefore transgender men should fall under the protection of feminism, even if they do not claim the category “woman”.
  • I stand by the right of cis women and trans men to self-organise around issues of oppression regarding reproduction, but not to extend this organising to exclude trans women from all feminist organising, and in particular organising around rape, domestic violence and sexual abuse which disproportionately affect transgender women.

Why Feminism should not give “transcriticism” a platform

I have been asked to engage in further debate on whether transgender identities should be considered legitimate. I will not engage in further debate on this. I do not want to have anything to do with people who call themselves “transcritical”, knowing the devastating hurt they cause. I felt this fully this week, what transgender women in particular have experienced for too long – the belief of cis people that they have the right to create a social order that does not fit the experiences or needs of transgender or intersex people. More “primitive” societies have been able to acknowledge what we call transgender people in their cultures, even giving them an important social and spiritual role, whilst binary, black and white, heirarchical western thinking marginalises transgender people and puts them at severe risk both physically and psychologically as a result.

No feminist group or organisation should give a platform to people who call themselves “transcritical” for the following reasons:

  • To frame this as a fair, reasonable debate ignores the fact that one side of the debate is fighting for recognition and social inclusion and the other is fighting against this; this is inherently traumatising and oppressive for trans people. Therefore, “transcritical” feminists can claim to have won when transgender participants withdraw to preserve their emotional wellbeing, or become too upset or angry to debate in the coldly theoretical terms being promoted.
  • “Transcritical” theories erode transgender rights and marginalise transgender people, particularly women, particularly trans people of colour, and are therefore oppressive.
  • “Transcritical” theories are based on the supposition that it is valid for the more powerful majority to define terms in a way that suits their political ends. This is a hierarchical position that is out of step with feminist ethics.
  • “Transcritical” theories ignore intersex conditions and the overlap between the sexes, insisting the sexes are two non-overlapping categories. They also ignore the many transgender people who are also intersex – i.e. those who medically transition later in life because they cannot live according to the “sex” they were medically assigned at birth.
  • “Transcritical” theories create spurious/ strawman arguments:
    •  There is no such thing as “trans theory” nor should transgender people be required to account for themselves theoretically in order to be accepted.
    • Most transgender people acknowledge that social construction of gender, gender hierarchy and gender oppression are as real as gender identity – these are not mutually exclusive ideas.
    • Simplistic either/or arguments are employed to eradicate the complexity and variance of trans people’s lived experiences.
    • Stereotypes are employed to create a no-win; if trans women behave like a stereotypical woman, they are artificial, if they behave like a stereotypical man, they are clearly men.
    • Nurture vs nature arguments are also used when it is now understood that such arguments are ludicrous – we cannot possibly untangle nature from nurture and both have a profound influence on us.
    • The completely demeaning and trivialising acts of “blackface” or “cultural appropriation” are likened to identifying as the opposite sex to that assigned.
  • Many “Transcritical” feminists dedicate a significant proportion of their “feminist” activism to campaigning against transgender inclusion and transgender rights. The debate takes up feminist time that could be better used fighting patriarchy, and it alienates trans people from feminism, meaning they don’t get the opportunity to be influenced by more positive feminist discussions.
  • “Transcritical” theories believe biology is destiny.
  • “Transcritical” theories speak of the abolition of gender without any clear framework as to how this will be achieved without further human oppression and potential racism.
  • By focussing negatively on transgender people, “transcritical” theorists hold transgender people as responsible for the problems inherent in the way gender has been socially constructed, rather than as casualties in the way we construct both gender and sex.
  • Feminism and trans people do not exist in opposition to one another: a radical feminist understanding of transgender existence is not only possible but desirable, because it does not ignore the needs of one oppressed group to support the other. Judith Butler, Andrea Dworkin, and Gloria Steinem have all at different times put forward radical feminist frameworks that are trans inclusive.
  • It is true that not all transgender people conceptualise their circumstances in a way that is compatible with feminism, which is all the more reason why feminists and transgender people should be working more closely together – as feminism has become more trans inclusive, the ideas of trans people have evolved to take feminist ideas more into account. Relationships need to be built before understanding can be reached.
  • Feminism needs to evolve from a position of being “transcritical” to a position of “transaware” – how can we develop our theories and definitions to include both cis and trans experiences, and take all oppressions into account?

Don’t be a bystander

Finally, the worst part of this whole process has been the fact that too many cis feminists stand by and watch it happening, and either fail to see the devastating impact on the trans community or do not register it as their problem. Feminists, please say no to “transcriticism” whenever you hear that word, say no to people casting doubt on whether transgender women are “real” women, say no to people discussing any kind of trans exclusion from LGB or feminist spaces. Don’t stand by and be afraid to say “I don’t agree with this”.

I would like to teach Feminists a new motto. It goes like this:

“I oppose any debate or campaign that seeks to exclude or marginalise transgender people. Transcritism is such a debate. This debate should not be given a feminist platform.”

6 thoughts on “Why it’s not okay to give a forum to transcritical debate

  1. Veronica

    I didn’t catch any of the debates you refer to, but I have seen these so many times I know exactly how they go. You are right in that there is no point in engaging so-called transcritical “feminists”. Debating equality and respect with bigots is usually utterly pointless.

    I’d also like to add to the always returning biological reductionist argument they use. The distinct man/woman binary view is a relatively recent culturally Western idea supported by religions, and is not a view very well founded in science. Biological sex is at least separable into karyotypic, genotypic and phenotypic sex. There is no rule that states that these three have to be consistent with each other. Phenotypic sex is the one that society categorises us by because it is the one that determines what sex we look like, if any, and it is determined by hormones. On top of that comes all the things hormones do to your brain during development, This lays down the foundation for both sexual orientation and gender identity. The biology of all this is incredibly complex, and on top of all this comes socialisation. Gender identity is every bit as real as sexual orientation, something that seems to be completely lost on the TERFs.

    Yes, reproductive rights concerning pregnancy is something those with that capability should have the final word on, I.e. most cis women and some trans men, and other identities with that capability. But feminism is a lot more than this. As a trans woman I face mostly the same challenges that most other women do in the my country. I don’t face the same reproductive rights challenges, though I face other challenges in that area, but I still support my sisters in their battles on this issue. Creating a divide on this isn’t helping anyone.

    TERF ideology is the view of some western (white) cis women. Considering all the different cultures and backgrounds of women all over the world, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we all face different challenges. No two women are exactly alike. Transphobia is harder on trans women of colour than white ones, and transphobia doesn’t only affect trans women. I have spoken to cis women who experience transphobia too for not looking “female” enough. If gender is to be abolished as a concept of categorising people, then the first step would be to stop policing gender identity,

    1. Claire

      Thank you for this post. As a trans woman I want to know what I can do to help reduce all women avoid violence and ciswomen in particular. I want to be a good feminist and ally to ciswomen. I just want the right to exist and I know as someone that has experienced both oppression and male privilege (before I came out) I need to do my own work to discard privilege and understand feminist issues.

  2. Pingback: Opposing “transcriticism” | A Feminist Challenging Transphobia

  3. Chris

    You talk about people being “hurt” as if they got beaten up, but if I understand you correctly it was only words. Therefore if they got hurt it was because they were feeble and unable to cope with robust debate. You were right the first time, when you had the argument, as there’s nothing that can’t be debated.

    1. Sandy Hope Post author

      Wow, Chris, so what you’re saying is only physical trauma counts, psychological trauma is nothing? We should simply give a platform to all racism, hate speech, homophobia, misogyny, etc, because only “feeble people” get hurt by these things. I assume your definition of feeble, therefore, is those without privilege. The point is that this debate does unilateral damage to the people on one side of it. It erodes their rights, it shores up privileged people’s entitlement to be dismissive of their needs, it supports those who are derisive, verbally abusive and belittling.

      Try telling the young LGBT people I work with the old “sticks and stones” lie. Try telling a young trans person who commits suicide that they are “feeble” for not coping with the hate that spews from other people’s mouths.

      The reality is, I am still psychologically hurting from this. I don’t consider myself feeble. It is an oppressive “debate” and feminism by its nature should be non-oppressive.


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