This essay was originally published at From the Shadows.
I learned a new term this week, I’m sorry to say. The term is TERF, which stands for “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.” Apparently there is a whole subculture of feminists who are dedicated, not to fighting the patriarchy, but to fighting the quest of people who are transgendered to acquire equal rights. I learned about this because a woman who goes by the name of Pleope Septara Cyantornus set out to harass my friend Nornoriel Lokason on his blog this week. She was determined to inform Nornoriel that he is not actually a man, he’s a woman because biology has determined this. She tried to convince him, and his readers, that “transwomen” threaten women because their challenges to existing laws endanger women’s “protected status.” She tried to appeal to me in particular because I identified myself as a woman and a feminist. Some particular gems:
Because no matter what she does shes still a woman. Women are oppressed by men due to their biological sex, gender is the social norms enforced on women that support patriarchy. Gender social construction, bio sex not.
Its not just harmless dudes playing dress up though, its dudes who are changing laws so that women are no longer a protected class based on their sex. They want to make women-only space illegal and that is hateful.https://gendertrender.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/the-right-to-gender-identity-a-clash-with-the-rights-of-women-submission-to-the-human-rights-and-anti-discrimination-bill-professor-sheila-jeffreys/
I fail to grasp this logic.
When Z. Budapest chose to exclude transgender women from her women’s ritual at PantheaCon a couple of years ago, and T. Thorn Coyle led a protest, this issue was brought to the forefront of Pagan consciousness. Until then I was generally of the “live and let live” camp as far as being transgender was concerned. I figured that how you chose to identify yourself, and what sort of genitals your underwear contained, were none of my business unless I intended to sleep with you. And in my cisgender privilege, even though I am bisexual and active in supporting LGBTQ rights, I didn’t think about it much otherwise.
But Z. Budapest is the effective founder of the North American women’s spirituality movement. And I’d met Thorn by that point, read her book and taken one of her workshops, and I respected her deeply. So these two opinions were in direct conflict, and because I had reason to respect them both, I was forced to confront the issue directly. What is it, exactly, that determines gender? As a feminist for whom feminist spirituality was of major importance in building my self-esteem and my spiritual path, this was confronting and I gave it some serious thought. If “gender” is a societal construct, and if our expectations of a person based on gender were merely culturally-assigned roles, then why was “gender identity” such a big deal?
Some say that the idea of gender-fluidity is a new concept that is unique to the Western world, and therefore it’s unnatural. Yeah yeah, I heard those same arguments about being gay. It was bullsh*t then and it’s it bullsh*t now. Here’s a helpful map that proves it.
Some say that the biology is inarguable. That sounds very scientific, but appealing to nature is by definition a logical fallacy. Even if it wasn’t, the science actually proves that biological gender is hardly a binary thing to begin with. At what point is a woman not a woman? In women’s spirituality, we use the holy mystery of menstruation as a spiritual point around which to unite. But what if a woman doesn’t menstruate? What if she was born with a disorder of the uterus? What if she has infertility problems? What is she has had a hysterectomy? What if her vagina has been damaged? What if she is visually female but has an X and a Y chromosome? What if she’s visually male but has two X chromosomes due to a hormonal imbalance in the womb? What if s/he is intersex?
Besides the point, who am I to say where the line should be drawn, if Nature makes it so unclear? Who am I to determine anyone’s identity? I could only conclude that this would be the height of hubris, to think that I could decide better than anyone else whom they should be.
It’s a flaw of the feminist movement; we talk about defending our right to choose, and our right to determine for ourselves; until someone makes a choice we don’t approve of. Then we arrogantly proclaim we know better than the people we would “defend,” and we announce confidently that all heterosexual sex is rape without giving any thought to how completely that denies the agency of all heterosexual women (or that this is a completely misquoted opinion); or we denounce sex work as the oppression of women when sex workers often tell us that they chose this work because they like doing it or they chose to make better money than other careers might have offered them. But if we don’t like a dissenting opinion to our own, we tell the people who hold it, and ourselves, that those people are simply too stupid or too uneducated to know what’s best for them, and we have an obligation to save them from themselves.
Doesn’t this circular logic hurt your head?! Do we not realize how much we sound like the right wing jerks we claim to oppose?! The hubris astounds me. The gods don’t take kindly to hubris, in case you missed that from the myths.
Pleope is angry because she feels that transgender women “are changing laws so that women are no longer a protected class based on their sex.” If we had gender equality, there would be no need for women to be “a protected class based on their sex.” Requiring us to remain a “protected class” assures segregation, which, by definition, eliminates all possibility of equality. Racial segregation was nominally for the “protection” of people of colour, too. It was bullsh*t then and it’s bullsh*t now.
I knew that stuff was out there but I had no idea how crazy people were about it. As a feminist I don’t understand it at all. How can anything or anyone who challenges the assigned roles that the overculture would demand of us due to (perceived) gender possibly hurt the cause of feminism? Isn’t that what we want; to challenge this? Doesn’t patriarchy hurt everybody?
It seems to me that these “TERFs” are actually bringing great harm to the cause because (a) they are alienating people who are natural allies (b) they sure make us all look bad. They’re kind of like nerdy kids who bully nerdier kids so that no one will perceive them as a target for bullying. And for those who espouse this philosophy, isn’t this patently hypocritical? If a “women’s way of relating,” which, theoretically involves connection over competition, equality over hierarchy and peace over war, is the “better way,” aren’t they participating in all the structures they claim to oppose by being bullies and oppressors?
(I don’t believe in a “women’s way of relating,” by the way. I think genderizing these things is not only prejudicial but inaccurate. I’ve said so before.)
I learned another new word this week: Kyriarchy:
Kyriarchy is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The word is a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism,homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.
Well, call me crazy but this is what I stand against. Any system that oppresses a person – ANY PERSON WHATSOEVER – is flawed and needs to be changed. It’s not going to happen overnight, and it’s never easy because reprogramming unconscious assumptions is bloody hard, but this is the work that we, as a species, need to do. So when I see garbage like this, I have to work very hard to fight despair. Because, for the sake of all the gods, how can we do this if those of us who want to fight the good fight are contributing to the problem?!
The Author: Sable Aradia
Sable Aradia (Diane Morrison) has been a traditional witch most of her life, and she is also a licensed Wiccan minister and a Third Degree initiated Wiccan priestess in the Star Sapphire tradition. She makes her living doing psychic and Tarot readings, writing, and teaching workshops, and she is also a speculative fiction writer and a musician. Sable is the author of “The Witch’s Eight Paths of Power: A Complete Course in Magick and Witchcraft” (Red Wheel/Weiser, 2014). She continues to write “Seekers and Guides” at her new blog Between the Shadows here at Patheos Pagan, and she also writes a column called “49 Degrees: Canadian Pagan Perspectives” at PaganSquare. For further information, please visit her website http://www.sablearadia.com.