A searing conflict

More on the Michelle Goldberg article.

Cohn estimates that there are about 20 gender-critical trans bloggers, though their Internet presences tend to wax and wane; some who were active just a few months ago have pulled back, while others have just begun. Among the most prominent are Snowflake Especial and Gender Minefield, as well as Gender Apostates, a group blog run by both trans and cisgender women. Like many other trans people, the trans writers behind these blogs have experienced a searing conflict between their physiognomy and their self-conceptions. Like the broader trans rights movement, they believe in fighting violence and discrimination against trans people. But they reject the idea that biological sex is mutable, though sex organs obviously are. They see a difference between living as a woman and being one. Perhaps most of all, they object to the strain of online trans activism that seeks to erase sex distinctions through language alone—for example, by designating the penis a female organ, or by removing the word “woman” from reproductive rights activism.

There are good reasons for objecting to that. Women are still an oppressed class, as women, so removing the word that names them from discussions of rights they are denied is a very bad idea.

Highwater, for one, struggles to reconcile her convictions about gender with her desire not to hurt other trans women. “What I think a lot of trans people hear, if you suggest that trans women aren’t women, is, ‘Stop kidding yourself, you’re just a man, go back to living as a man,’ ” Highwater says. “That’s not what this means. The fact that I hold these views doesn’t mean that I think that trans women aren’t valid. It doesn’t mean that I don’t think they don’t have a right to live their lives the way they live their lives.”

So what does it mean? “I lived 40 years trying to live as a bloke,” Highwater says. “I’ve not experienced the things women have experienced. I’ve not been brought up that way. So why on earth would I want to claim that I’m a woman as much as any other woman? To me, it no longer makes any sense. What seems to be a much more honest approach is: ‘I am an adult human male who has suffered with a level of sex dysphoria for whatever reason for decades, and have now got to the point where I’ve had to make a social transition.’ ”

And they’re different things. The experience of trying to live as a bloke when you don’t feel like one is different from the experience of being brought up as a woman. Both have their issues; why mash them together?

Given the salvation she found in transitioning and the discrimination she faced afterward, Hart’s impatience with the mainstream trans rights movement might seem strange. To understand it, it’s necessary to understand how the meaning of the word transgender has expanded in recent years. There was a time when transitioning necessarily implied hormones and surgery, with doctors deciding who would be allowed access to them. The Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, the first official protocols for the treatment of what were then called transsexuals, were published in 1979; they required people who wanted surgery to first live in their new gender for at least a year and to produce two letters from medical professionals. Those wishing to transition also couldn’t be heterosexual according to their birth sex; anatomical males who were attracted to women—and who therefore would become lesbians—were ineligible.

The new generation of trans activists utterly rejects this model. To them, being trans is fully a matter of self-definition. Surgery is far from required; according to theHuman Rights Campaign, only 33 percent of trans people have it.

To a degree, Hart thinks the broadened definition is a good thing. “I don’t support Harry Benjamin saying you must be a heterosexual feminine-presenting woman in order to be truly trans,” she says. But as she and other gender-critical trans women see it, the reaction has gone too far, turning the words man and woman into floating signifiers that designate nothing but states of mind, and erecting a new set of taboos to enforce their ideology. As Hart puts it: “You can’t identify your way out of your body. Genderism is a myth that suggests that’s possible.”

If man and woman are just floating signifiers that designate nothing but states of mind then why wouldn’t all women simply identify as men, thus ending the hierarchy that subordinates women once and for all?

[G]ender-critical trans women clearly feel like they’re struggling against an ideological tide. A 28-year-old trans woman in Ohio with a gender-critical Tumblr—she asked me not to name it, lest it draw unwelcome attention to her—says she sees parallels between contemporary trans activism and her Christian fundamentalist upbringing. “It’s just this sense that there are certain things that are unquestionable, and you can’t even talk about them,” she says. “I guess a lot of belief systems have things that operate in that way, but there are just so many for trans activism and for fundamentalist Christians.”

There definitely are things that are unquestionable and that you’re not permitted to talk about them. If you do talk about them, sirens go off and everyone for miles around rushes to publish a statement disavowing what you said and hoping you burn in hell.

Like Highwater, Cohn thinks that premise sets trans people up for failure. “I think it’s very damaging,” she says. “The women we see in our lives—that’s the standard we’re trying to match. And that’s not possible. There’s always going to be dissonance, because we’re not women.”

The mainstream trans rights movement’s answer to this feeling of dissonance is to expand the boundaries of what woman means. “You can be whatever kind of woman you want to be,” Boylan says. “But what I don’t want is to take anything away from someone else, and I don’t want anyone else to take anything away from me. If your thing is saying that a transgender woman who has been through transition is not a real woman but some other kind of woman with an asterisk, then you are taking my womanhood away from me.”

I still wonder, though, why that reasoning doesn’t apply to other kinds of identity. People don’t get to identify their way to being Japanese or Colombian, black or white, tall or short, deaf or hearing, a runner or a swimmer. Some you can’t become, some you have to put in a lot of work to become; in no case is just identifying enough. Why is gender alone being treated as so easily reversed?

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