Transfeminism or No Feminism at All

When the Supreme Court’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization hit the internet earlier this month signaling the imminent end of abortion rightsin the United States, a group of feminists known as Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) on account of their belief that trans women should be excluded from the category of women had thoughts. For example, on the day after Politico broke the Dobbs story, Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), an anti-trans feminist group best known for filing an amicus brief in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opposing the extension of Title VII sex-discrimination protections to trans people, interrupted their usual rhythm of tweets demonizing transwomen as rapists and child murderers to share a quote from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg about the importance of bodily autonomy and reproductive choice. “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity,” WoLF declared via RBG meme; “It is a decision she must make for herself. When the government controls that decision for her, she is being treated less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”

A day or two later, best-selling author and outspoken feminist critic of the trans rights movement, J.K. Rowling, also chimed in on Twitter with her own declaration of support for abortion rights. Alongside Rowling’s nearly two years’ worth of tweets insisting that trans rights are a threat to women’s rights and that gender affirming healthcare is “a new kind of conversion therapy” promoted by “a homophobic medical establishment,” you can now find Rowling proclaiming that “women all over the world should have access to safe, legal abortion.”

Perhaps the most remarkable TERF reaction to the leaked Dobbs opinion so far has come from Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman. Writing for UnHerd, a British online news magazine that claims to give voice to the voiceless but, in fact, platforms the already consummately platformed, Freeman expresses her dread at “how close American women are to losing their autonomy” and returning to the dark days before abortion was safe and legal. Having offered this lament, Freeman might have proceeded to a thundering denunciation of the conservative movement whose raison d’etre for nearly 50 years has been demolishing the constitutional foundation of abortion rights. Instead, she blames trans people and their political allies. “Many will disagree,” Freeman writes, “but I find it hard to separate the disintegration of a woman’s right to bodily autonomy in America from the rise of gender ideology and the focus, as Planned Parenthood would put it, on trans and non-binary people.”

If this TERF discourse on abortion rights feels a bit confused and cognitively dissonant to you, it’s because it is. A small but vocal wing of the contemporary feminist movement has aligned itself with some of the most reactionary and anti-feminist forces in domestic and global politics to oppose trans rights; in the twilight of Roe, TERFS demand  the very rights to bodily autonomy and self-determination for pregnant people that they would see trans people denied. In the muddled mind palaces of so-called “gender critical” feminists, there is no parallel between a ciswoman seeking to terminate an unwanted pregnancy via medications like mifepristone and misoprostol or a procedure like suction aspiration and a trans person seeking gender transition via puberty blockers, hormone therapy, or gender-affirming surgery. When a woman has an abortion (and TERFs are adamant that only women can have abortions and strenuously object to the use of more accurate and inclusive language like “pregnant person”), TERF reasoning goes, she is exercising a legitimate right to do what she wants with her sex organs, hormones, and bodily capacities; but when a trans person undergoes a medical transition, they are mutilating their sex organs and flouting the immutable reality of “biological sex.” As stand-up comedian and self-proclaimed member of “Team TERF,” Dave Chappelle, once put it in a now notorious comedy special, “Gender is a fact. Every human being on Earth had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on Earth. This is a fact.” The upshot? “Real” women have wombs and birth babies. Transwomen can’t perform this reproductive function. Therefore, according to TERF logic, they aren’t real women.

But if women’s wombs and their capacity to birth children are the ultimate foundation of the undeniable “fact” of sex difference, then what to make of abortion? Aren’t the ciswomen who intervene in, meddle with, and disrupt “natural” biological processes having to do with their reproductive organs and capacities in the context of abortion flouting “facts” and “nature” just as much as trans people who do the same in the context of gender transition? Aren’t ciswomen who seek abortions just as subversive of the “natural” gendered order TERFs seek to protect as trans people?

Judging from the responses to the leaked Dobbs opinion surveyed in the opening paragraphs of this essay, TERFs don’t seem to think so. However, some of their most prominent conservative allies most certainly do. Consider, for example, Wall Street Journal columnist and author of the anti-trans screed Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, Abigail Shrier. In 2021, Shrier publicly opposed the Equality Act, legislation that would update federal civil rights law to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics, on the familiar TERF grounds that trans-inclusive antidiscrimination policies harm women and girls. Shrier has also worked to forge a link between longtime archvillain of the anti-abortion movement, Planned Parenthood, and what she calls “the transgender war on women.” In a Substack post entitled “Inside Planned Parenthood’s Gender Factory,” Shrier tells the story of a person she claims worked at a Planned Parenthood clinic for 18 months in 2019 and 2020. According to Shrier, while abortions were “the bread and butter” of this clinic, trans kids, especially trans boys whom Shrier patronizingly refers to as “biologically female teen patients,” were its “cash cows.” Abortions, Shirer notes, are a one and done affair, but testosterone therapy to treat gender dysphoria requires years of follow-up visits, blood tests, and prescription refills. “[I]n affirmative care clinics like this,” she writes, “for teens seeking fast medical transition – the medicine cabinet is fully stocked, the customer is always right, and the light is always green.” The implication of this breathless reporting is clear: Planned Parenthood is more than just the abortion factory conservative Christians have long vilified; it’s also a “gender factory” exposing vulnerable “adolescent girls” to “serious risks,” which, for Shrier, include everything on this list: “deepened voice, enlarged clitoris, increase in red blood cell count and greater risk of heart attack, infertility, vaginal and uterine atrophy, [and] endometrial cancer.”

That the anti-trans views of conservatives like Shrier are deeply bound up with anxieties about women’s fertility is unsurprising. What is surprising, however, is just how broadly these concerns about protecting the fertility of women and girls are shared by expressly pro-abortion TERFs. J.K. Rowling serves as an illustrative example. In her now infamous blog post from the summer of 2020 defending what had been up until that point only a smattering of anti-trans statements on social media, Rowling delineated “five reasons” that she is “worried about the new trans activism.” Here’s reason number four: “I’m concerned about the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition and also about the increasing numbers who seem to be detransitioning (returning to their original sex), because they regret taking steps that have, in some cases, altered their bodies irrevocably, and taken away their fertility” [emphasis added].

This concern that vulnerable young women are making rash and irreversible reproductive decisions that they will come to regret fuels TERF opposition to trans rights and the anti-abortion movement’s efforts to undermine Roe. Mandatory waiting periods, parental and spousal consent laws, onerous state-mandated informed consent protocols, and outright bans are all policies promoted by opponents of abortion to “protect” women from making the “harmful” choice of terminating a pregnancy. The tragic victim of “post-abortion syndrome,” a mainstay of anti-abortion rhetoric, mirrors the abject figure of the “detransitioner” invoked by Rowling and the “angry, regretful, maimed, and sterile” trans man conjured by Shrier in an op-ed she wrote defending herself against allegations of transphobia. TERFs are, of course, oblivious to the parallels between their own positions and those of anti-abortion conservatives because seeing them requires that one accept that trans people are people who deserve bodily autonomy and reproductive choice just as much as ciswomen. Despite the pains many TERFs take to distance themselves from more overtly reactionary opponents of trans rights, the fact is that if TERFs were genuinely concerned about the risks medical gender transition poses for the fertility of trans people, they would be borrowing talking points not from anti-trans conservatives, but from a robust and intersectional reproductive justice movement that centers trans bodies and needs by advocating for fertility preservation options like egg and sperm freezing for people undergoing medical gender transition. By parroting the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement and fanning the flames of moral panic around women’s fertility, TERFs reveal that their investments in patriarchal conceptions of sex and gender may run deeper than their feminist commitments to bodily autonomy and reproductive rights.

At least one TERF organization is clear-eyed about the incompatibility of their support for abortion rights and their opposition to trans rights. Hands Across the Aisle describes itself as a coalition of “radical feminists, lesbians, Christians and conservatives that are tabling our ideological differences to stand in solidarity against gender identity legislation.” Foremost among the “ideological differences” members of Hands Across the Aisle are “tabling” are those pertaining to abortion which receives not a single mention on the organization’s website. The “radical feminists” of Hands Across the Aisle have apparently recognized the difficulties posed by their strategic decision to partner with anti-abortion conservatives to do things like bar transwomen experiencing homelessness from single-sex women’s shelters. They have done their Machiavellian math and concluded that “reclaim[ing] the definition of sex as a binary concept that refers to one’s biological status as male or female” is a higher feminist priority than keeping abortion safe and legal. While I believe this conclusion is wrong, I appreciate its intellectual honesty. While other TERFs virtue-signal on social media about their unyielding support for abortion rights, Hands Across the Aisle makes no pretense of taking bold feminist stances of any kind. Their silence on the abortion issue is at least an implicit concession that feminists cannot in any coherent way stand for a woman’s right to choose while standing against a trans person’s right to do the same.

A quick glance at feminist history reveals just how far from long-standing feminist thinking about sex and gender TERFs have strayed. The TERF position is of relatively recent vintage, dating back to the late 1970s and the publication of Janice Raymond’s paranoid cri de coeur, The Transexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (1979). The roots of contemporary pro-trans feminism, by contrast, extend as far back as the birth of modern feminism itself. Take the Eighteenth-century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, for example. In her foundational feminist text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman(1792), Wollstonecraft praises one Madame d’Eon as an exemplary woman whose “courage and resolution” prove that women, when provided with a quality education, are capable of feats of virtue, heroism, and genius equal to those of any man. Eighteenth-century readers of Wollstonecraft’s text would have immediately recognized Madame d’Eon as the person born Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, a soldier, diplomat, and spy who immigrated to England from France in 1763 and lived life as a woman from 1777 until their death in 1810. Madame d’Eon was without a doubt a person we would today recognize as a trans woman. That Wollstonecraft saw fit to celebrate her as a paragon of womanly excellence is a fact of feminist history that no amount of TERF revisionism can erase.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Chapman, after Unknown artist stipple engraving, published 1798 NPG D7842 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Looking to the more recent feminist past, we see the trans-inclusive feminist tradition inaugurated by Wollstonecraft persisting. Even the radical feminists of the 1960s and 70s who TERFs purport to pattern themselves after were not uniformly suspicious of or hostile to trans identity. Andrea Dworkin is a prominent example. While many TERFs believe themselves to be the scions of Dworkin’s militancy and radicalism, Dworkin emphatically rejected the reductive sex and gender essentialism at the core of TERF ideology. Dworkin’s partner and radical feminist comrade, John Stoltenberg, has even published a defense of Dworkin’s legacy against TERF appropriations and identified Dworkin as a “trans ally.” According to Stoltenberg, TERFs’ “invidious ideology of biological sex essentialism inflames a bigotry that would have appalled Andrea. Its reactionary insistence on a biological boundary around the category ‘real woman’ plays right into the male-supremacist agenda that wants, more than anything, to secure the borders of the category ‘real man.’” Stoltenberg goes on to quote a lengthy passage from one of Dworkin’s most influential works of radical feminist theory, Woman Hating (1974), which reflects what he aptly describes as Dworkin’s “prescient and empathetic” view of trans identity. Before I reproduce the quote in its entirety, a brief note of context is called for. Throughout this passage, Dworkin uses the term “transexual.” While it may strike some twenty-first century readers as old-fashioned or even oppressively narrow and medicalizing, in the 1970s, “transexual” meant essentially what terms like “trans” and “transgender” mean today. For Dworkin, a “transexual” was a gender-variant person who moved away in some deliberate fashion from the gender they were assigned at birth, thereby confounding patriarchal conventions about sex and gender:

There is no doubt that in the culture of male-female discreteness, transsexuality is a disaster for the individual transsexual. Every transsexual, white, black, man, woman, rich, poor, is in a state of primary emergency . . . as a transsexual. There are three crucial points here. One, every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means that every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition. Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing, and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised. Three, community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.

Dworkin and Stoltenberg at home in Brooklyn, 2003. Photo: Courtesy of John Stoltenberg. Retrieved from New York Magazine 2005.

While some TERFs may share with Dworkin an ultimate utopian goal of a society so thoroughly liberated from the concept of gender that trans identity, along with all gender roles and identities, is rendered obsolete and unintelligible, their departure from her on points one and two could not be starker. The things Dworkin demands here—public support for gender affirming medical care and an end to anti-trans bias, stigma, and persecution—are precisely the things that TERFs, in conjunction with anti-trans, anti-feminist, and anti-abortion conservatives, are vying to prevent. When TERFs seek to deny trans people rights to self-determination, bodily autonomy, and reproductive choice, they are betraying the very radical feminist legacy they purport to represent.

The point I’ve endeavored to make here, that opposition to trans rights is incompatible with support for ciswomen’s reproductive rights, is not new. Transfeminists have been making versions of it at least since Sandy Stone published “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” in 1987. In this swashbuckling retort to the urtext of TERFism, Janice Raymond’s The Transexual Empire, Stone, a transwoman who Raymond specifically targeted and likened to a rapist merely for being present in lesbian feminist spaces, offers a visionary transfeminist critique of various autobiographical and medical accounts of transsexuality from the early and mid-twentieth century. The deep affinity between feminist analysis and trans liberation embodied in works like Stone’s is worth recalling now because the leaked Dobbs opinion makes it undeniably clear that trans rights and abortion rights (not to mention rights to same-sex marriage, interracial marriage, contraception, and a right to sexual privacy that makes criminalizing gay sex unconstitutional) are joined at the jurisprudential root. In various cases stretching back some 60 years, the Supreme Court has located each of these rights in what Justice William O. Douglas, writing for a 7-2 majority in the landmark marital privacy case Griswold v. Connecticut, called the “penumbras” of the constitution. What this means is that, although the text of the constitution itself does not explicitly guarantee a right to privacy that encompasses the rights to have sex, marry, bear children, and work out our own identities and destinies as we see fit, the liberty the constitution does explicitly guarantee entails protection of these rights. Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs insists that the court can overturn Roe while leaving all these other related substantive due process rights intact. This claim strains credulity. Conservative opponents of abortion know that ending abortion rights is just one piece of a much larger agenda. Feminists should be as clear-eyed about this as conservative activists are. Rights to bodily autonomy for ciswomen are bound together with rights to bodily autonomy for trans people. You can’t defend one if you’re unwilling to defend the other. Transfeminism or no feminism at all.

Featured Image: Abortion rights activist protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday, May 3, 2022 in Washington.   –   Copyright  Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

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