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.
  2. We are currently, globally, experiencing a shift towards the reactionary right wing. The increase of “woke” insults is no coincidence. Trump in the US, BoJo headed for office in the UK, women’s and gender studies courses being banned by the government across Eastern Europe (under the banner of “fighting gender ideology”), Bolsonaro (and many similar politicians) in South America, neo Nazi terrorists in Germany, the list goes on. In the UK even separately from the backlash against trans rights, we’ve in the last two years seen a stepping up of attacks on women’s access to reproductive health and growing need by feminists to resist attempts to co-opt struggle against VAW by fascists. We do not at this point need to be in an existential struggle within feminism, trans liberation and left wing activism while an enemy on this scale is at the door.

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.
  2. Be bold and avoid vague allegations around serious abuse. This is risky, granted, but is an important counter to the widespread insinuations that trans activism is a “men’s rights lobby”, “rape enabling”, sympathetic to “MAPs” or whatever else. Having to endlessly pick through frustratingly vague allegations in this line is exhausting, mentally abusive and frequently triggering, not to mention reminiscent of the sort of smear campaigns that turned the PIE infiltration of gay rights campaigns in the 80s into generalised attacks on LGB people. If you have knowledge of a serious child safety risk or predator report it. If you have concerns about known abusers infiltrating our movement let us know and let us deal with it (we have no patience for them). Please don’t perpetuate myths defaming the community to score points recklessly.
  3. Do not use me as a cipher for all your problems with trans activism. The point of me doing this is that I disagree with most of the representations of trans activism and think they’re factually incorrect about the character of trans liberation struggles and erase a lot of our existing work and overlap with feminist struggles. I am not your straw tran to beat up. I will also respect any differences you have from my experiences of engaging with TAF. This is an important part of respecting each other as individuals and not as punchbags for our frustration with “the other side”. I’ll be tolerant of one off requests to discuss arguments you’ve had with other trans people but either I will defend it (at which point it becomes my argument) or I will not (in which case, sorry) and I expect that to be respected.
  4. Show compassion and respect that this is traumatic. I know this goes very much for people both sides of this. I’m not arguing with TAF because I want to hurt it. I’m fighting for our freedom and I know you’re fighting for yours and this has all gotten careless and nasty. I don’t expect anyone to listen to my sob stories and I’ll try to mostly keep them to myself outside of cases where my experiences illustrate my views on things, but any discussion for me proceeds from a need I have to try to make the world safer, and if you’re not a making the world safer sort of person we don’t have anything to discuss.
  5. Please do not try to use me as your pet “good tran” to criticise others with. I object to this strenuously and have no interest in having this work at mutual understanding corrupted by instrumentalising it against trans radicalism. I refuse to be turned into a liberal caricature just because of my willingness to keep communication channels open. This isn’t to say I don’t object to conduct by some trans people and allies in the name of trans rights. I have in many cases where I seen misogyny, ablism, racism or homophobia expressed on our behalf spoken out against it. I have a strong commitment to the belief that these prejudices and oppressions are an infection which must be rooted out of any liberation movement. But I also openly support a range of forms of political action in certain circumstances far beyond just talking about things and this project shouldn’t fool anyone otherwise.
  6. Try not to deploy cliché hypotheticals. Sometimes abstract philosophy tells us new and interesting about an issue. Zeno’s paradox tells us something interesting about the number of spaces in a finite continuous range, for instance. In the case of clichés around the TERF wars though, these regularly take the form of imposing a rhetorical framework on an adversary (the philosophical proposition) and putting them in an impossible position that often isn’t relevant to a position they hold. This takes things out of sharing understanding through analogy into manipulating the other into a submission hold. It sucks. Trying to progress society doesn’t involve solving impossible abstract problems. It involves practical problems we have right now and building solutions that aren’t creating more problems.

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.

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