Against the mainstreaming of transphobia in UK journalism

I just cancelled my membership to the Guardian in response to their transphobic editorial on the UK Gender Recognition Act. I found myself writing much more than would fit in the space they allow for explaining the reasons for one’s cancellation, so am posting the full version here. (The citations included are largely from US-based scholarship because that’s the context in which I live and teach and what I have access to offhand; these are basic concepts I go over in my introductory classes.)

I have been very happy to support the Guardian for years; as a leftist British immigrant to the US, it’s a breath of fresh air to read the Guardian‘s journalism and know that it is a source where I will not have to suffer through the false equivalencies that dominate American journalism. However, I cannot stand by and implicitly support the sentiments of the recent “Guardian view on the Gender Recognition Act,” which reinforces just such a false equivalency. I am an academic in gender and women’s studies (faculty at the University of Maryland) and I was shocked to see the paper that published Juliet Jacques “Transgender Journey” series reproducing the bad scholarship and worse politics that have been circulating under the guise of feminism. This is not a debate with two sides in which compromise and civility must be highlighted. In the well-established academic field of feminist studies, the ideas that the opponents of transgender inclusion are promoting have not been taken seriously for decades.

Trans women are not maliciously attempting to infiltrate women’s spaces; most likely, they are seeking support and solidarity in a world where they are proportionately more likely than nontrans women to be subject to gendered violence. For the Guardian to lend support to the idea that recognizing trans people’s gender harms women, and to equate opposition to anti-trans organizing with the violence that trans people endure, gives public credence to the idea that trans people are not worthy of consideration as full members of society, or even fully human, and is likely to worsen the violence and exclusion they experience.

Two claims in the editorial struck me as particularly egregious.

First, the notion that there is a “biological basis” for the oppression of women has about as much traction in the feminist scholarly community as the denial that climate change is caused by humans does among ecologists. Men’s oppression of women has a cultural history that is long and deep and intimately tied to colonialism and white supremacy, but gender has operated differently in many other societies (see Sarah Deer, The Beginning and End of Rape; Qwo-Li Driskill, Asegi Stories). And “sex” is far from an immutable or easily defined characteristic, nor is it separable from the cultural ideas about gender that define it, as Anne Fausto-Sterling, Cordelia Fine, and the often unfairly maligned Judith Butler have shown. None of this is to deny that patriarchal power and gender-based oppression exist, or to erase the extent to which they hurt cisgender women. But the violence of gender regulation harms trans men, trans women, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people just as much and often more.*

Second, the idea that men would pretend to be trans in order to infiltrate women’s prisons is bizarre given the violence that trans people experience while incarcerated (see Nat Smith and Eric Stanley, Captive Genders). But if a violent or controlling individual in a prison is able to dominate others around them, then perhaps this is a reason to rethink incarceration rather than focus on the gender of perpetrators. Would the Guardian consider violent and controlling behaviour from someone assigned female at birth, or against those who are incarcerated in men’s prisons, to be acceptable?

Overall, the framing of this editorial that places “women” as a homogeneous group whose interests are in opposition to the interests of trans people (also falsely framed as a homogeneous group) is pernicious. Breaking down some of the high barriers to gender self-determination, as the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act  seek to do, does no harm to cisgender women’s identities or interests, though it may challenge some to rethink long-held ideas about what sex and gender are. Should it need to be said, I write this as a cisgender woman who categorically opposes the idea that “the interests of women” and “advancing trans equality” are somehow in opposition.


[Edit: See Julia Serano’s excellent “Putting the ‘transgender activists vs feminists’ debate to rest” for more background on why the attitude represented by the Guardian‘s editorial is such a problem.)

*The excellent work-in-progress of UMD WMST graduate student Damien Hagen on gender regulatory violence influences my formulation here.