Who Counts As Female?

Michelle Goldberg observes how radical feminists and transgender activists are quarreling over that question:

Trans women say that they are women because they feel female – that, as some put it, they have women’s brains in men’s bodies. Radical feminists reject the notion of a “female brain.” They believe that if women think and act differently from men it’s because society forces them to, requiring them to be sexually attractive, nurturing, and deferential. In the words of Lierre Keith, a speaker at Radfems Respond, femininity is “ritualized submission.”

In this view, gender is less an identity than a caste position. Anyone born a man retains male privilege in society; even if he chooses to live as a woman – and accept a correspondingly subordinate social position – the fact that he has a choice means that he can never understand what being a woman is really like. By extension, when trans women demand to be accepted as women they are simply exercising another form of male entitlement. All this enrages trans women and their allies, who point to the discrimination that trans people endure; although radical feminism is far from achieving all its goals, women have won far more formal equality than trans people have.

Sonny Bunch criticizes trans activists’ harassment of “TERFs,” or “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” at conferences and online:

As an interested observer with no real horse in the fight – I am neither a radfem nor a trans activist, believe it or not – I do wonder whether or not it’s self-defeating for the transfolk and their allies to behave in such a way. Bullying to gain acceptance, rather than persuading those who do not understand who you are or what you have gone through, is a tactic that could easily backfire on a community that comprises roughly one thousandth of one percent of the population. Then again, perhaps the transfolk have an understanding of how outré their cause appears to the rest of us and believe that persuasion is impossible.

But Mari Brighe slams Goldberg’s piece as “a disturbingly one-sided view of the situation that relies on heavily anecdotal evidence … and ignores the extended campaign of harassment and attack that the the trans community has endured at the hands of radical feminists”:

Let’s start with the numbers. In the piece, Goldberg mentions the names of 14 radical feminist activists (frequently providing physical descriptions), and provides quotes from nine of them — including two from books penned by radfems. In contrast, she mentions and quotes a total of four trans women (zero from books), and two of them are quoted to supporting the radical feminist position. The problem isn’t necessarily that Goldberg appears to side with the radical feminist viewpoint; that’s perfectly within her rights, and perfectly within The New Yorker’s right to print it. The real issue is that Ms Goldberg gives the impression that she’s covering the conflict between the trans rights movement and radical feminism – after all, the piece is subtitled “The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism”– but gives only passing lip service to the transgender community’s side of this situation.

The problem, as Brighe sees it:

Beyond their work to influence policy in a manner that harms the trans community, trans-exclusionary radical feminists have engaged (and still do) in numerous campaigns of personal harassment against trans women, particularly vocal trans activists. The previously mentioned Cathy Brennan is thought to be connected to some of the ugliest of the harassment, including revealing personal information about trans women (a practice often known as doxxing), as well as contacting doctors, employers, and parents of any individual who dares challenge her or disagree with her. The blog Gender Identity Watch, which Brennan is rumored to be connected with, engages in extensive harassment of trans woman, including posting their “dead-name” (pre-transition name) and pre-transition photos. They also engage in systematic harassment of trans women and trans allies on twitter, most by repeating their same tired rhetoric: “trans women are men” and “penis is male”. They also engaged in an extended harassment campaign targeting Against Me! singer and trans woman Laura Jane Grace. Earlier this year, Tina Vasquez penned a lengthy piece on for Bitch Magazine running down dozens of examples of harassment perpetrated by radical feminists against both trans activists and trans allies, including herself.

Julia Serano adds:

When Goldberg interviewed me for the piece, I talked extensively about TERF attacks on trans people: About the hateful speech I (and other trans women) regularly receive from TERFs on my Twitter feed, blog comments, etc., and how much of it is of a sexualizing nature. I talked at great length about Cathy Brennan, who is notorious for her personal attacks and outing of trans people, her various websites where she engages in smear campaigns against trans women (once again, usually of a sexualizing nature). I mentioned how, after my appearance at a SF Dyke March forum on age diversity and gender fluidity – which was designed to build bridges between trans-positive queer women and those (often of older generations) who are trans unaware, and which resulted in respectful and constructive dialogue on all sides – several TERFs crashed the Facebook page and spewed so much hateful speech that they had to shut the whole thread down.

None of this made it into the story, which will likely lead uninformed readers to presume that trans people are simply mean and out of control, rather than reacting to the transphobia/trans-misogyny/sexualizing comments we constantly face from TERFs.

Meanwhile, Mona Chalabi tries to nail down how many trans Americans there are in the first place:

[C]ounting the transgender population nationally remains a steep challenge. The US Census Bureau doesn’t ask who is transgender, nor do the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But even if they did, the responses might not be reliable because some people are afraid to answer, while others disagree on what “transgender” even means. If you see someone cite a statistic about transgender people in the United States, you’re seeing a rough estimate at best.

Gary Gates is an LGBT demographer at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law’s Williams Institute, which studies sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. He is responsible for one of the most frequently cited estimates of the transgender population – 700,000, about 0.3 percent of U.S. adults. That figure is based on data from two surveys. One, conducted in Massachusetts in 2007 and 2009, found that 0.5 percent of respondents ages 18 to 64 identified as transgender. The other, done in California in 2003 to look at trends in LGBT tobacco use, found that 0.1 percent of adults in California identified as transgender. Using the surveys to get to the 0.3 percent estimate “takes a lot of statistical gymnastics,” Gates said.

The Dish’s long thread on transgender identity is here.