Graphic by Christopher Ikonomou (Xe/He)
*This article is a modern analysis of the themes and content of “The Feminist Mystake“ (Fall 2013), the seventh installment of our From The Archive series.*
“To speak of trans and feminist theories and activism as being distinct can be a kind of discursive violence as it cleaves in twain a single complex, interdependent organism, tearing root tendrils from trunk and plucking fruit haphazardly from various branches.”
This quote comes from Gender Studies scholar Krista Scott-Dixon from her article “Public Health, Private Parts: A Feminist Public-Health Approach to Trans Issues.” Though Scott-Dixon moves on to distinguish certain lines of thought as associated with feminist and trans scholarship, her point is clear: trans and feminist issues cannot be spliced in two.
In the 2013 article “The Feminist Mystake,” Kayla Vernon-Clark similarly identifies the shared spaces between feminist and LGBTQ+ communities but points to an upsetting lack of unity within the groups. The article recognizes that the feminist community has not always been welcoming to trans individuals, as they have used genitalia to create “the central tenant for entrance into female spaces” and have “sought to forcibly erase trans women’s identities.” On the other hand, the author notes that the goals of LGBTQ+ spaces have promoted harmful patriarchal structures through their focus on marriage equality above all else.
Since “The Feminist Mystake” was published, a lot has changed for feminists and LGBTQ+ activists alike. Following the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States in 2015, LGBTQ+ groups have widened the scope of their advocacy, moving beyond their past centralization of the white, cisgender gay man. However, though progress has been made in LGBTQ+ activism, feminist spaces have become increasingly hostile towards trans women with the revitalized popularity of gender-critical feminists (more colloquially known as trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs). Their rise in influence in the United Kingdom, coupled with their allyship with American anti-women conservative groups, has led to a shockingly drastic increase in anti-trans legislation both in 2021 and the early months of 2022.
Gender-critical feminists are not a twenty-first century invention. The anti-trans ideology found in J.K. Rowling’s infamous tweets and blog post has been around since the second wave of feminism, when groups such as the Lesbian Feminist Liberation and the Daughters of Bilitis denied trans women entry into their meetings. Then, in 1979, Janice Raymond solidified many enduring gender critical arguments in her 1979 book “The Transsexual Empire,” in which she urged the government to mandate trans individuals out of existence. Many “radical” feminists purported that trans identities minimized the lived experiences of women under an oppressive patriarchy, while also erasing the concept of same-sex attraction. Even worse, trans individuals were depicted as predators that sought to violate women by gaining access to their private spaces. Now, with the increasing visibility of trans people in the media due to greater community acceptance, these same gender-critical arguments have emerged again with very few changes.
With one major exception. This time around, the rhetoric of gender-critical groups has the ability to substantially endanger people’s lives through anti-trans legislation. For example, gender-critical feminist Kathleen Stock’s writing was cited recently in amici briefs to the Supreme Court in the R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (an ongoing case pertaining to Aimee Stephens, a trans woman fired by her employer on the basis of her gender identity). This illustrates a frightening trend in which transphobic online rhetoric is directly impacting governmental policies. Even more worrying, several gender-critical feminist groups such as the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) and Hands Across the Aisle have started allying themselves with conservative organizations to gain greater legislative power. Though mainstream feminist groups have largely distanced themselves from gender-critical ideology, conservative groups are now utilizing feminist arguments about women’s safety and wellbeing to slingshot vitriolic, transphobic discourse into courtrooms, locker rooms, doctor’s offices, and private households.
Unfortunately, the United States has already come face to face with the consequences of this gender-critical revival. According to NBC News, around 240 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed in 2022, surpassing the 191 proposed anti-LGBTQ bills in 2021 in only three months. Their analysis of data from the ACLU and Freedom for All Americans has also shown that trans Americans are being increasingly targeted. In 2019, only 37% of bills were anti-trans. However, anti-trans bills made up 80% of those proposed in 2021. So what are the contents of these bills from conservative and gender-critical feminist groups? There is HB 570 in Louisiana, called the “Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act,” which bans gender-affirming medical procedures for transgender people under 18 and allows doctors who provide treatment to be sued or sanctioned. Then, SB 2777 in Tennessee, a bill that gives teachers legal protection to misgender trans students. Or HB 675 in Idaho, which would make providing hormones or puberty blockers to trans minors a felony. This is only a few out of a barrage of anti-trans bills centered around trans sports bans, limited access to medical care, and sex-segregated bathrooms. Rather than protecting children from predators, these bills are endangering them and attempting to legislate trans kids out of existence.
Reflecting on Vernon-Clark’s 2013 article, this issue of transphobia within feminist spaces still exists and has grown into a tumor that threatens the lives of trans youth. Initial hostility has festered into something greater, perpetuating hatred in the name of equality between the sexes. It is a frustrating sight to see when we think about how much feminist and LGBTQ+ rights groups have in common: a wish to be recognized and respected, to escape patriarchal domination, to break out of gender roles and possess bodily autonomy. This war between the groups is incomprehensible — a drastic misunderstanding, a wrong turn taken on the way towards progress. Quite simply, a mistake.