The Battle Over What It Means to Be Female
Patriarchy, across the globe, plagues humankind. In some regions female fetuses often are aborted because they are considered less valuable than male fetuses. Girls are sometimes smothered in infancy. Many women and girls are sold to men as rape and breeding slaves. Many endure genital mutilation. Many are trafficked and forced into prostitution. Many are denied abortions and access to birth control. Many, to survive economically, sell their eggs to donors or hire their wombs out to couples who cannot produce babies. In some countries, including Saudi Arabia and parts of India, women are considered the property of male guardians. There are villages in India where women have only one kidney because their husbands have sold their other one. Women are often denied education and, even in industrial countries, are paid less for carrying out the same work as men.
How, in an age in which some born with male bodies self-identify as women, can those born female define their unique oppression based on their experience? As laws in Europe, Canada and the United States are rewritten to broaden the definition of what it means to be female or male, how will such change affect the struggle for equality by those born as females?
The debate over gender identity pits the trans narrative against radical feminists. It is one of the most bitter and acrimonious battles on the left. Radical feminists are castigated by many on the left as reactionary for their insistence that those born female hold a unique and separate identity as an oppressed group, one that requires them to form protected spaces and organizations.
“Freedom of association is especially important to the oppressed,” Alice Lee, a co-founder of Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, said when I reached her in Vancouver by phone. “It is absolutely necessary for oppressed people to be able to group together. It allows us to dare to identify and vocalize our shared experiences and find ways to effectively strategize to overthrow our oppressors. The formation of such civil rights groups, anti-racism groups, women rape crisis centers and shelters, caucuses, clubs, associations and religious organizations is a hallmark of a democratic civil society. Decisions about group membership must be a process of self-determination. Having the criteria dictated to us by the state, or by those who belong to the oppressor groups, means defeat at the outset.”
“The neoliberal approach centers on individual feelings and choice at the expense of shared group experience,” Lee continued. “It is a deliberate strategy to prevent the development of any effective challenge to male supremacy, white supremacy, heterosexual supremacy, and rule by those who control capital. Forcing us to open our groups to those who do not share the basic experiences of our reality cuts off the potential for revolution at the root.”
Many members of the trans community strongly disagree. One is Misty Snow, a Utah Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in last November’s general election and the first transgender woman to run as a nominee for such a seat. [Click here to read and hear an interview of Snow that Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer conducted for his KCRW podcast, “Scheer Intelligence,” in October 2016.] She recently announced her candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives.
When I spoke to Snow by phone, she said:
The argument that the inclusion of trans people in spaces traditionally reserved for girls and women somehow infringes on the rights of girls and women presupposes a collective sisterhood that does not exist.
Women of color, who have long been marginalized by white feminists, face different forms of oppression, in the same way trans people face different forms of oppression.
This recycles the old feminist argument from the 1950s when women of color were excluded from the feminist movement. A lot of this is about privileged women, especially white women, clinging to the status quo.
The equal rights of girls and women in the United States are protected under Title IX, but new laws are blurring the lines of what it means to be female. Feminists say these laws, passed in the name of inclusivity, amount to an erasure of what it means to be female. They charge that such change is a gift to patriarchy and the corporate state, which seeks to turn everyone, especially the most vulnerable, into disempowered, atomized commodities. As societies break down, it is girls and women, along with children and the elderly, who bear the worst abuse and violence. The need for collective strength, given the global unraveling of civil society and the rise of authoritarian and protofascist governments, is vital, these feminists say.
“Patriarchy is a millennium-old system of male supremacy by which male-bodied people are exploiting female-bodied people for reproductive, sexual and domestic labor,” feminist MaryLou Singleton told me during a conversation in New York. “When power and property are held by men and passed to the heirs of men, men need to police and control women’s bodies to know who their heirs are. Now it’s global in scope, where women don’t have control over their own reproduction and are dependent on men in terms of having and raising our children.”
The consumer culture grooms women through female socialization, which it defines as gender, to participate in their own subjugation. Prostitution and pornography, for example, are sold by patriarchy as liberating and empowering for women. Those who meet the rigid standards of female socialization are rewarded and celebrated. Those who do not are dismissed, marginalized and often attacked.
“Capitalism thrives on promoting extreme individualism and this idea that we are all separate, unique individuals,” Singleton said. “We are at a point in late-stage capitalism where identity is for sale. People take on consumer identities. I believe this particular [trans] identity is being marketed to our young people who are at an age where they experience a lot of questioning naturally about their identity. It’s always been acknowledged that children and teenagers and young adults question who they are and what they want to be.”
Trans activists, however, dispute the idea that being trans is a manufactured identity.“Being transgender is not a consumer identity pushed on us by a capitalist system,” Snow said. “Transgender people have existed long before capitalism and will continue to exist. Pushing the narrative that trans identities are simply a ‘consumer’ rather than an authentic identity only reinforces rigid standards of what it means to be female. Trans women are often dismissed, marginalized and attacked for failing to meet these rigid standards of what it means to be female. So-called ‘feminists’ who wish to label trans identities as being inauthentic are actually doing the patriarchy’s work of enforcing rigid standards and ideas of what it means to be female.”
There is a billion-dollar industry built around gender reassignment surgery. Pharmaceutical companies provide drugs and hormones that block puberty and the secondary sex characteristics of children. In our courts we do not try children as adults, recognizing that they do not have fully developed brains, yet children are permitted to ingest potent drugs that will affect them for life. Those who change their minds about a gender identity decision often must cope with permanently altered bodies.
“Pediatric medical gender transition is being pushed extensively in the medical field,” said Singleton, who is a nurse practitioner. “Every conference brochure I get has something about transgenderism. It’s a huge money-making experiment on our children, where children as young as toddlers are being diagnosed as being in the wrong body and taken to these gender clinics where they are first socially transitioned to live as the opposite sex. I find that problematic too. I think children should be able to do whatever they want [without having to make gender decisions]. What does it mean to live as a boy or live as a girl, other than sexism?”
“After social transitioning, when those children get close to puberty, they’re placed on very strong drugs that suppress puberty,” she said. “They’re called puberty blockers. Those drugs have many long-term dangerous side effects that we already know about from children who have been put on them in the past. Once they hit young adolescence and their peers are starting to go through puberty and they still have a child’s body, the pressure is to give them cross-sex hormones. If you give a child puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones before a natural puberty, that child will never develop normally as the sex they are. They will be permanently sterile and permanently dependent on synthetic hormones because their ovaries or testes never developed and cannot make their own hormones.”
Is there such a thing as a “female brain”? Or do men and women—and girls and boys—act differently because society has conditioned them to behave according to male and female stereotypes? Is a boy who dresses as a girl and plays with dolls a girl, or simply a boy who dresses as a girl and plays with dolls?
“The idea that transition-related care is being pushed on people to simply make money is absurd,” Snow said. “Capitalism has actually been a barrier and not a promoter of transition-related care. Throughout most of the 20th century and even into the 21st century, transgender people have struggled to get even the most basic transition-related care due to many doctors and hospitals being unwilling to treat transgender people for fear that it could harm the reputation of their practice and hurt their business. Furthermore, there have been, historically, lots of restrictions on who is even allowed access to such care, with mental health professionals serving as gatekeepers often delaying or denying transgender people the care they need. Transition-related care is not some ‘money-making experiment’; it is treatment that has been proven to be effective for those who have gender dysphoria. It is not treatment that is prescribed by doctors on a whim or pushed on people in the interest of making money.”
“Children and young adults are not deciding they are trans because it was ‘marketed’ towards them,” she went on. “There is a lot of science that supports the fact that male and female brains are different and respond to hormones differently, and children are often innately aware of the fact that they are different as soon as they are able to tell the difference between male and female and will start to identify with the sex they know themselves to be. Far too often assertions from a child about their gender identity are ignored by parents and other trusted adults, which leads to shame, confusion and depression in the child. These children often feel the need to hide their true identities to avoid disappointment of their parents and bullying by their peers. When they reach adulthood, only then do they feel they have the freedom to live an authentic life. However, by then it is often too late, as their bodies have already experienced the ravages of puberty that made irreversible changes to their body. This is why it is very important for transgender people to have the love and support they need to express themselves authentically starting in childhood. As they approach the teenage years it’s very important that they are able to access treatments that will allow them to avoid the terrifying experience of going through the wrong puberty and allow them to develop secondary sex characteristics that are typical of their gender. Denying these treatments to children is cruel and can leave them with lots of regrets when they reach adulthood and a feeling that they were robbed of their childhood and ever being able to live a normal life.”
Laws passed to protect trans people from discrimination often do so by expanding the legal definition of what it means to be a woman. The trans community unquestionably needs legal protection. Transgender people commonly are bullied, suffer violent attacks, including by the police, and are discriminated against in much higher percentages than the general population. The transgender community also has much higher rates for attempted suicide, poverty and homelessness. But, some feminists argue, these new laws, however well intentioned, effectively eradicate girls and women as a uniquely oppressed group. “There are two primary vehicles [for cutting back on women’s legal gains] being explored right now,” said attorney Maya Dillard Smith, who was pushed out of her position as the head of Georgia’s ACLU chapter when she questioned the decision by the Obama administration to allow male-born trans people to enter women’s restrooms. “One is through Title IX. Title IX is a 1972 legislative act that essentially prohibits all schools that receive federal funding from discriminating against folks on the basis of sex. One of the ways in which the law is attempting to be converted is, under the Obama guidelines that were issued last year, it basically reads into the prohibition against sex discrimination [that] someone who self-identifies as male or female should be extended the same protections as someone born a woman. That means, in the context of schools, sports, housing, bathroom and locker room facilities, that [trans] individuals would have access to those facilities.” [Editor’s note: In February of this year the Trump administration rescinded the Obama guidelines.]
“However,” Dillard Smith continued, “in 1975, Justice [Anthony] Kennedy essentially said that sex, like race, is an immutable characteristic. An immutable characteristic [means that], by no fault of your own, just by an accident of DNA, you’re either born with melanin in your skin, like me as a black woman, or to be female or male with your sex organs. There is nothing that can mutate that.”
“Another vehicle is through ‘equal protection,’ ” she said. “ ‘Equal protection’ is the [constitutional] basis on which this notion of immutable characteristics first arose. It arose to protect African-Americans against race discrimination. There’s now a term called trans-black or trans-race that is being highlighted, particularly by the white woman Rachel Dolezal from the Northwest who passed as a black woman and [was] a leader in the NAACP, and now identifies herself as trans-black or transracial. So the implications of the law will have the greatest consequence to the advancement of rights for women but also have deep consequences on the advancement of people of color.”
“How do we explore these rights for transgender folks in a way that does not undermine the rights of women or people of color?” she asked. “There have to be accommodations. But how do we do that in a way that does the least harm to the rights of others?”
Most trans activists reject the analogy between being trans and defining yourself as a member of another race.
“Bringing up Rachel Dolezal to make a point is a false equivalency that has no relevancy when talking about transgender people,” Snow said. “Gender dysphoria is a very real and documented condition with a biological basis and very specific treatment guidelines and a long history behind it. Transracial and trans-black are terms with no history that Dolezal made up and cannot be equated with the experiences or realities of transgender people.”
Dillard Smith, returning to the intense issue of restroom access, said, “It’s really unfortunate that we’re starting an entire national narrative around bathrooms. But let’s just start there. There are a lot of folks who say that not allowing trans people to go into the bathrooms of their gender identity is creating ‘separate but equal’ facilities. They equate that to the ‘separate but equal’ facilities that existed before the civil rights movement where we segregated bathrooms on the basis of race. To which I say, when bathrooms were separate on the basis of race, it was done so purely for discriminatory purposes. The difference in terms of single-sex bathrooms, bathrooms for men and bathrooms for women is that the implementation of Title IX specifically permitted these things to protect the privacy and safety rights of women. In providing them you have to provide equal accommodations. There was a legitimate justification that was not discriminatory.”
Singleton said, “Women have sex-based protections under the law. Under the U.N., there are certain sex-based protections. Female prisoners deserve to be housed separately from men. If a prison contains both sexes, the women need to be as far as possible from the men. That’s international law. That’s also U.S. law. Now we have a situation where any male criminal can self-declare himself as a woman even if this is a serial rapist. These men are being transferred to women’s prisons. There is a lawsuit in California where women are feeling unsafe with these violent male-bodied people in prison.”
“Our crime statistics are changing,” Singleton went on. “Men who identify as women rape women with their penises, and these crimes are being recorded as committed by women. Those are examples. If a woman seeks shelter at a women’s shelter, there may be male-bodied people there. There have been attacks in those shelters by male-bodied people on female-bodied people.”
Snow rebutted the assertions of Dillard Smith and Singleton:
Trans people suffer more bullying, discrimination and violence than almost any other segment of the population. These feminists seek to portray trans people as aggressors, which is factually untrue.
It is not that there are no criminals in the trans community. There are. But using these criminals to characterize the entire trans community is no different from white racists who use black criminals to characterize the entire black community.
We as trans people need to be included in [women’s] spaces because when we enter male spaces we are harassed, threatened and sometimes attacked. The charges these feminists make have no basis in reality.
Transgender people have the same needs as any other people, and they need access to restrooms as much as anyone else. If a transgender person is not allowed access to the restroom, how can they go to work? How can they go to school? Banishing a transgender person from a restroom, in essence, bans them from them from being able to participate in public life.
Dillard Smith said, “My life’s work has been about defending the rights of all people. In so doing I am called to balance the rights of all people. What I’m exploring in raising the questions I’ve been raising is how do you create accommodations for trans people at the same time that we don’t overly or unnecessarily infringe on the rights of others—like women, or children, or parents? It’s a delicate balance. To achieve that balance, we must engage in healthy discourse and agree to disagree to come up with the best public policy possible.”
Singleton said, “I am fully supportive of the rights of transgender people to be free of discrimination. Like Maya, I think we need a national conversation on where those rights end and where women’s rights begin. From what I can see, the transgender narrative very much reinforces patriarchy. In our culture, gender is a synonym for sexism. It’s the behavioral caste system that says how men behave and how women behave. It has no basis in material reality. It’s completely based on sexual stereotypes. I’ve never heard a trans narrative that does not rely on sexual stereotypes to explain how someone knew they were actually born in the wrong body. I’d like to return to the old feminist war cry: Start a revolution and stop hating your body.”
Snow said the issue is not about hating one’s body. Rather, she said, it is about allowing male-born people who internally are female to be who they truly are.
“So-called ‘feminists,’ ” Snow said, “are upholding a very patriarchal [idea] of what a woman is. Protecting the rights of trans women and allowing them to access women’s spaces does not infringe on the rights of women. These fears are unreasonable and unfounded and are more about protecting the privilege of certain women than protecting the rights of all women.”