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Transphobia Redefined

A much-discussed essay in "The American Conservative" is an attack on trans people masquerading as an exercise in good faith.

George Hodan

Natasha Vargas-Cooper, a journalist and labor organizer, has published an essay titled “Womanhood Redefined” in The American Conservative. The piece is a jeremiad against trans-inclusive feminism, combining condemnation of American university discourse with a reiteration of the conventional view of biology as the defining experience of womanhood. The piece has occasioned much handwringing on both sides of the feminist aisle, but not in a new way. It was published this week (a bug at TAC’s site misstates the date), but had it come to us unedited from 1998, I would not have been surprised.

What really stands out from the piece is its tone. Vargas-Cooper talks about trans women and their sympathizers with the kind of dry sarcasm we usually reserve for the very stupid. The term “construct” is “college dorm parlance,” Vargas-Cooper writes, a short while before agreeing with Norman Mailer. Vargas-Cooper accuses the British writer Laurie Penny of writing that is “the product of too much French post-modernist theory.” And yet, her article could do with a good dose of poststructuralist thought, hobbled as it is by a false binary.

Trans acceptance is “a twofold proposition,” she writes: “the realistic and the rhetorical.” On the one hand are the realistic aims of trans women: To access medical care, to use the less dangerous bathroom, to possess accurate documentation. Vargas-Cooper is okay with those demands.

What Vargas-Cooper objects to is the “rhetorical” demands of trans people and their allies. By this she refers to the common complaint of trans-exclusionary feminists that it is no longer acceptable to say in public—especially at universities—that the gender you were assigned at birth defines your experience of gender in the world. Here are the “rhetorical” demands of the trans-sympathizing lobby, in her words:

…that surgical mutilation is brave; that men who decide to become women are immune from criticism after they’ve taken a certain amount of estrogen; that expression of discomfort is bigotry; and that the cause of women’s political and economic liberation is somehow hindered if we alienate transgendered women or if we discuss the realities of women’s biology.

This is the point of the essay where exasperation sets in. This is not trans-acceptance rhetoric, but trans-exclusionary rhetoric. Here, Vargas-Cooper loses any reader who was on the fence. This is not writing to convince, but to insult and to evangelize.

Setting aside the substance of Vargas-Cooper’s argument, using words like “mutilation” to describe surgery is insulting. Similarly, a phrase like “men who decide to become women”—and again, regardless of her argument—is designed and guaranteed to bruise trans women. At another point in the essay, she claims to make her position clear but, again, wraps her thinking in language so insulting that it reads like a lie: “In truth, I possess no phobia about trans men or women, but as a lifelong feminist I think it’s preposterous to snuff out a critique of men, and their relationships to women’s bodies, simply because those men want to be women.”

This is not an honest binary. Vargas-Cooper asserts that she respects the basic conditions of life for trans people, but she will not use language of sufficient neutrality to foster a conversation with any trans person.

Vargas-Cooper, like any person, is entitled to use her platform to put forth an argument of any kind. But when she uses language in this way, she disguises a very particular ideology—one that I believe leads to harm against trans people—beneath an exceptionally dishonest veneer of civility.

Second wave feminists deserve our respect. It probably feels very bad to be labeled a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist)—I see why they call it a “slur,” even though I don’t think they’re right to. Feminists who came of age before trans women were vocal and visible in the mainstream movement have been doing hard, valuable work protecting women and children for decades. It must be hard to be called a bigot when you have fought against male supremacy in your actions and in your heart throughout your life.

But for a young writer to side against other women, to insult them and their allies in language designed to injure, is difficult to swallow. We need each other. In terms of her argument, I thought Vargas-Cooper was most wrong when she wrote that “to achieve the realistic goals of feminism and trans assimilation, the two groups do not need to correspond or get along. In many ways, they’re better off without each other.”

A politics of solidarity demands that my ally’s needs are my own. I do not have children, but affordable high quality childcare is a priority in my feminism. My trans woman friends do not menstruate, but my particular health needs are a part of their feminism.

Agendas do not have to melt together or shed their distinctness or lose their efficacy when they “correspond or get along.” They do not have to align, at all. There are many who will never be convinced that trans women are women. But they will benefit from using mutually agreed-upon language and keeping a respectful distance, because that way, the patriarchy cannot use the rifts that exist between feminists against us. There is no time for any of this, I would say to Vargas-Cooper. I do not agree with you, and you do not agree with me. Why waste your breath hurting people? There is no time, and there is so much work to be done.