by Leela Ginelle
August 1, 2014
Reading Michelle Goldberg’s recent New Yorker article “What is a Woman? The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism” made me feel sick.
The article is meant to paint a clear picture of a longstanding debate within feminist groups about whether transgender women should be accepted as women, profiling several feminists and exploring the history of current discussions about the push to exclude transgender women from “women only” spaces. But in the process, it paints trans identity as suspect, does nothing to counter the hurtful misconception that trans women are either “men” exercising entitled “male privilege” in deeming themselves female or sexual fetishists acting out “erotic compulsions,” and holds up authors who’ve written book-length academic works delineating these ideas as noble, aggrieved scholars.
While this may sound like speculative fiction set in a world where trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) theories have conquered queer and gender studies communities, it’s not. Instead, it’s something more disheartening: a one-sided profile that’s sympathetic to writers and activists who’ve spent their careers working to marginalize and persecute the already-oppressed transgender community.
Trans-exclusionary radical feminists posit that transgender women can never be considered women. At their worst, they argue that transgender women are malicious in their deceit, aiming to infiltrate female-only spaces with the goal of harassing or raping other women. These are the feminists who campaign against gender-neutral bathrooms and support the exclusion of transgender women from other women-only spaces.
In the article, it feels like Goldberg personally has a low opinion of social justice activists—that’s the view presented in her other recent article “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars.” One of the biggest problems in the New Yorker piece is that Goldberg presents trans people’s self-definitions as opinions: “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.” TERF’s views are presented the same way, following the previous statement with this one, “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.”
Reading this passage, one might think TERFs and trans people have a philosophical or semantic debate. Trans people’s identities, for which they and their allies are waging a worldwide human rights campaign to define as legally legitimate—backed by decades of medical and psychological data—and TERFs’ hateful academic theories carry equal weight and import. If those two sides were balanced in the piece, readers might walk away with a shoulder shrug, “Who knows whether trans identity is legitimate or not?” The title of the piece certainly encourages this confusion, making it a question as to whether transgender women should be seen as women.
But the piece isn’t even balanced. In a response to Goldberg’s piece published on Autostraddle, Mari Brighe noted that Goldberg cited 14 radical feminists, quoting nine and including two quotes from books. In contrast, she quoted only four trans women, including no quotes from books; two of her trans sources actually support radical feminist viewpoints. Likewise, Goldberg quotes TERFs misgendering trans women repeatedly, never mentioning that trans women find such language dehumanizing and hurtful. “Sadly, what she presents is a disturbingly one-sided view of the situation that relies on heavily anecdotal evidence, uncited claims and debunked theories, and ignores the extended campaign of harassment and attack that the trans community has endured at the hands of radical feminists,” writes Brighe.