Making more sense

Michelle Goldberg has written an article about heretical trans women – you know, the ones who don’t buy the ever-shifting but always-binding Current Dogma of how one is allowed to understand and talk about gender.

Last month, a 42-year-old English accountant who goes by the pseudonym Helen Highwater wrote a blog post disputing the idea that trans women are women. Helen is trans herself; in the last few years, she says, she has taken all the steps the U.K.’s National Health Service requires before it authorizes gender reassignment surgery, which she plans to have in 2016. Yet she has come to reject the idea that she is truly female or that she ever will be. Though “trans women are women” has become a trans rights rallying cry, Highwater writes, it primes trans women for failure, disappointment, and cognitive dissonance. She calls it a “vicious lie.”

“It’s a lie that sets us up to be triggered every time we are called he, or ‘guys’ or somebody dares to suggest that we have male biology,” she writes. “Even a cursory glance from a stranger can cut to our very core. The very foundations of our self-worth are fragile.”

From the perspective of the contemporary trans rights movement, this is close to blasphemy. Most progressives now take it for granted that gender is a matter of identity, not biology, and that refusing to recognize a person’s gender identity is an outrageous offense.

Hm. That’s not the best wording. The dichotomy isn’t identity / biology, but identity / socially mandated hierarchy (which is mandated according to sex).

At any rate – Highwater bought that version for a long time, and found it a lifeline out of self-loathing.

This year, however, Highwater joined Twitter, where she began to follow the furious battles between trans rights activists and those feminists derisively known as TERFs, or trans exclusionary radical feminists. The radical feminists—who, to be clear, don’t represent all feminists who think of themselves as radical—fundamentally disagree with trans activists on what being a woman means. To the mainstream trans rights movement, womanhood (or manhood) is a matter of self-perception; to radical feminists, it’s a material condition. Radical feminists believe women are a subordinate social class, oppressed due to their biology, and that there’s nothing innate about femininity.

Can we think it’s both? I don’t think I would claim that self-perception has nothing to do with it at all. I think the self-perception is largely created by the way the rest of the world treats the self, which means I’m bad at imagining what it’s like to have a self-perception that’s the opposite of what the world thinks it sees…but I don’t think the self-perception is non-existent.

At first, Highwater felt incensed by these radical feminists. But she also wanted to understand them, and so she began to engage with them online. She discovered “people who had a pretty good grasp of gender as an artificial social construct—the expectations of what females are supposed to be, the expectations of what males are supposed to be, and how much of that is socialized,” she says. “What I started to find is that the women I was talking to actually made so much more sense than the trans people I was talking to.”

Yes, I had that same problem. I would say I had the same experience, but having the experience turned out to be a problem. It’s not a problem for me; I find the explorations very interesting. But it made me a Problematic Person in the eyes of some very hypervigilant thought-cops.

To be gender-critical is to doubt the belief, which its critics call “genderism,” that gender is some sort of irreducible essence, wholly distinct from biological sex or socialization. Gender-critical trans women have different theories about why they were driven to transition, but in general, they don’t think they were actually women all along. (There appear to be few if any gender critical trans men, though there are gender-critical lesbians who once identified as male before reassuming a female identity.)

Gender-critical trans women are a uniquely despised group: They experience the discrimination all trans people are subject to as well as the loathing of the trans rights movement and its allies.

They have a lot of high-quality friends too though. See above – “What I started to find is that the women I was talking to actually made so much more sense than the trans people I was talking to.” Being loathed by people who don’t think very well is less painful than being loathed by people who think better.

More later.

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