Ground rules for trans/transantagonistic discourse

Good morning, good day, good evening, hello neighbour. Pull up a pew, I’m going to make a PSA.

Over the last year and a bit more† I’ve been engaging in attempts to converse productively with trans antagonistic Radical and Gender Critical Feminists (TAF from here on) in the hoping of exploring the possibilities (and limitations) of whatever good faith discussion is available and maintaining some sort of communication channel to counter the growing number of troll models of trans activism and trans liberation politics.

Obviously I have no authority to exclusively define trans politics and noone voted me to be some sort of diplomat for the trans community at large. I can only speak for myself. I do however have a long history in trans civil rights struggle including many areas which are particularly contentious for TAF right now (such as biological/medical autonomy, opposition to abusive medical sexualisation, solidarity with trans youth and previously radical self-advocacy as a trans youth, support for gender deregulation, and so on). I also have a past which involves some time spent involved or supporting feminist, LGBT, disabled people’s movement and antiracist/antifascist struggles. I am what gets dismissed by many followers of TAF as “woke”. I’m proud to be (little r) radical and unconcerned that people find that challenging or ridiculous.

I do however (like most actual trans activists I know) have a very different set of political, sociological and scientific beliefs to those which are routinely alleged of us by TAF and a motivating part of speaking up is that I see a lot of recently out trans ppl hearing and absorbing only the views of liberal charity orgs run by parents (hardly a hot bed of political sedition around gender, and noone should be surprised by that) or those mischaracterisations we hear from TAF. There is a lot of misunderstanding around and the increasing toxicity of the conflict over trans rights creates the illusion that only two perspectives (on the one hand, liberal, assimilationist, neuroessentialist and medicalist approaches to trans issues, or on the other a full scale rejection of all of the criticisms of cisheteronormative society trans feminism has brought into wider public awareness) are possible. This view of things creates the false impression that one or the other will win destroying the loser, between non trans radicals and a straw tran neither of which offer any vision or hope for the future for transgender people in my view.

So that’s me setting my stall out there.

Why rules?

I’m not sure if anyone who isn’t trans can appreciate the toll this conflict is having on trans people’s mental health, for those of us exposing ourselves to the discourse.

We are accused of supporting (or enabling) sexual violence, accused of sympathy for child abusers or of being child abusers ourselves, accused of intending to do violence to women and much more, on a daily basis. We face mug shots of rapists rubbed in our faces. We see stories of trans people gang raped or murdered dog piled by people saying “what about women” as if our concern for anti trans violence is in competition with the wider struggle against misogyny.

Many of us, myself included, are survivors of frequently sexualised systematic patriarchal violence, and our ability to speak out about this is under direct and frequent attack by people claiming to be feminists. Our sexualities are denied, the discrimination we face is denied, our real lived experiences are disputed by people who do not live them and do not have a stake here.

There has been a massive pile on by third parties who do not have a personal investment in the outcome and are simply betting on the winning side (both for and against trans rights), with minimal engagement in either the political or social issues, or willingness and openness to learn. A natural side effect of being involved in a conflict mostly for ones own entertainment is a detachment from needing to consider the other side’s propositions or well-being. On our side a handful of people have taken the word TERF which was once used to distinguish anti trans strains within obscure debates about feminism (which I was personally a party to, so please don’t try to tell me I’m wrong about this) and started throwing it at anyone. On your side there are men flinging “woke” and “misogynist" at nearly anyone while evidence of their commitment to feminist struggle outside of defaming trans people online is very limited indeed. This leads to exhaustion and burnout (doubtless on both sides) as well as an infectious jadedness and cynicism about producing a better political outcome.

This has turned into an exchange of thought terminating clichés where contextless slogans which barely denote any sort of clear idea beyond partisan allegiance are thrown back and forth exhaustingly and held up as rallying points. These help force the conflict into a space of retreading the existing battle lines and gradually escalating the heat of the situation with no end in sight. This is worrying to me as a radical and leftist for two reasons, both of them the far right:

  1. The decontextualisation of slogans makes them incredibly prone to being coopted and subverted by dominant culture (which neither feminism nor trans activism is really a major force within, and which will inevitably harm us both given a chance). A radical feminist saying “sex not gender” may be asserting resistance to the stereotypes embedded in gender, while the conservative right can get on board and trivially use that as a front for a campaign for sex essentialism and sex determinism (almost the opposite idea). To say the religious right are a much larger threat to us than TAF is equivalent to pointing out the Pope is a Catholic.

All in all this amounts to a need to work at de-escalating this conflict to whatever degree possible and to establish some sort of route to making the most out of those people who are concerned enough to act in good faith while reducing the harm to mental health that this discussion is producing in many of us (and I’m sure for the other side)

So without further ado I’m going to lay down my current rules. These are subject to change and evolution over time, I hope to develop these into something which provides a toolkit for biasing debates towards a shared understanding on some level or at worst to better understand what the limitations are of this sort of effort.

  1. Respect epistemic autonomy. Our minds, our thoughts, the words which express and frame those thoughts are different from each other. We have different understandings of the world. I will not dictate my frame of mind on you, and I expect you not to dictate yours on mine. We all use language and models of things to help us understand the world and the gaps between these idealised versions versions of reality and reality itself are certainly up for discussion, but noone has the right to force acceptance of any model on another.

That’s it for now and I hope those are acceptable as a pretty limited set of parameters on discussion.

† Strictly speaking I’ve been involved in intergenerational intrafeminist discussions on trans issues since the mid 00s, trying to do this stuff, but I acquired a family and moved away from the movement having other priorities for a while, and have been working my way back into actual not-just-vague-support advocacy and activism since 2017.

Written by

is a trans woman, sometime activist and researcher of cis studies.

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