On Monday, the Guardian once again published an opinion piece on the supposed trans erosion of women’s rights. The piece, written by Suzanne Moore, argued that “female oppression is innately connected to our ability to reproduce”, and that trans people are a threat to cis women on that basis. It offered nothing new in the sea of Guardian opinion pieces blaming trans people for women’s oppression.
As a trans activist, my first thought on seeing the article was “let us live”. I meant it both literally and metaphorically. I’m bored and exhausted by pieces like these, and I’m too busy as an activist and QTIPoC organiser fighting for the climate, against the rise of the far right, and for the survival of my people, to care about opinion pieces in the Guardian.
From its coverage of trans rights over the last few years, it seems the publication is hellbent on regurgitating tired transphobic rhetoric – under the guise of “balanced debate”. The same article has been rolled out on repeat for the last few years. The central argument usually suggests that trans people are fighting for men to dress up as women to assault cis women, and that reproductive function is a central part of womanhood. The author invariably goes on to argue that access to women’s only spaces should be determined by a binary definition of biological sex, thereby excluding trans people.
The content of these articles doesn’t hold up for many reasons, notably the fact that their arguments always start from the premise that trans people are trying to gain new rights at the expense of cis women’s existing ones. In actual fact, the current wave of “sex-based rights” organising was catalysed from the UK government’s Gender Recognition Act consultation in 2018 – which sought to streamline the intrusive and medicalised process by which trans people can access our 15-year old legal rights to gender recognition. The “debate” around this is cis women trying to roll trans rights back a couple of decades.
“There is no ‘balanced debate’ on trans lives. Instead, what we see in the British press is an ideological position being waged against a marginalised subsect of society”
There is little debate, and certainly no balance in the Guardian. There is a notable absence of opinion pieces written by or for trans folks on the legacies of our feminist activism, what it’s like to navigate life-saving services as trans people, and certainly none on how it feels to have women we’ve fought alongside for decades waging a campaign against our right to fight and our right to survive. Instead, the Guardian amplifies the same opinions of a select few liberal white feminist voices rolling out the same liberal white feminist thoughts.
There is no “balanced debate” on trans lives. Instead, what we see in the British mainstream press is an ideological position being waged as a campaign on the rights of a small and marginalised subsect of society, who have little to no platform to speak.
As a trans person right now, the long silence from allies and friends when articles like this come out is often the worst thing; amplifying a sense of abandonment and loneliness. So, I got to work quickly helping to coordinate a letter to the Guardian with allies at NEON, a network of activists working to build an economy and politics based on social justice. Within 24 hours, our letter had over 200 signatories from a wide range of public life including CEOs of women’s and human rights organisations, representatives of the LGBTQ+ community, and members of ACRAN, a feminist collective that took part in the Cesar’s action against Polanski (whose actions the article had misappropriated to further its ideological agenda).
The Guardian published the letter, but perhaps the most disheartening part of this process was their decision to title it: “Differing perspectives on trans rights”, and summarise over 200 signatories to 14 plus “over 100 others”. On the same page, the paper also included a number of letters in support of the original piece; something they did not do for a letter in support of sex-based organising with 13 signatories last week.
“White feminism finds its lineage in biological determinism, eugenics and scientific racism”
What was notable, however, was the speed and velocity with which women of colour signed the letter. This list of signatories shows up the white feminism at the heart of the article’s “sex-based rights” ideology. For centuries, white women have been actively complicit in the oppression of black women and other women of colour. White feminism finds its lineage in the biological determinism, eugenics and scientific racism of 19th century, which led to the categorisation of bodies within a racial hierarchy that deemed some women inherently more “human” than others. Therefore white women’s social, civil and political rights were fought for while black women were pushed to the back, and often dehumanised; for example in the US based and UK based suffrage movements.
The feminist lineage that “sex-based rights” feminists hold most dear is the second wave radical feminist tradition. In many ways, I am grateful to this tradition, for winning many of the rights that enable me to exist today in the way I do, as someone who navigates the world as trans, a feminist, and a survivor of gender-based violence and oppression.
However, in their incantation of second wave feminism, radical feminists conveniently forget the blood, sweat and tears of black feminists and womanists who fought white women for their seat at the table in the movement. Back then, white women weren’t uniting under the banner of “white feminism”, and many wouldn’t have considered themselves racist, much like today. But their prejudices based on their privilege as white women meant that they were fighting for a feminism that excluded racialised women from both the category “woman”, and from the feminist movement – despite their central contributions to the fight against patriarchy.
Throughout history, cis, white, middle-class women have utilised their racial and class privilege to become the self-appointed gatekeepers of the feminist movement. We can see sex-based rights feminists carrying this legacy alongside the rest of the radical feminist ideology into today’s exclusion of trans folks from women’s and feminist spaces.
“Throughout history, cis, white, middle-class women have utilised their racial and class privilege to become the self-appointed gatekeepers of the feminist movement”
This age-old formula of exclusion is being weaponised against trans women in a number of ways. As Jameela Jamil pointed out, they use the same tactics that right-wing racists use against migration and apply them to trans people – pointing to a few exceptional cases of violence perpetrated by someone holding a shared identity, and generalising that behaviour to the whole group. The effects of this are far-reaching; one area where anti-trans ideas are taking hold is in the prison system, where lobbyists have managed to rewrite the policy for transgender inmates, largely based on moral panic from one case. This also demonstrates how current sex-based feminism is based in carceral feminism – the use of police and prison as the solution to sexual and gender-based violence. “Sex-based rights” feminists are partly able to make gains against trans people within the prison system because so few of the population care about imprisoned people’s rights to start with. This makes their tactics all the more insidious, and we must call them out at every turn.
The black feminist struggle for a seat at the table was not to be able to fight but to recognise we do fight; a direct parallel with the ways that radical feminists are currently arguing for an ideological border at the table of feminism against trans people. In light of Monday’s article in the Guardian, we must refute the premise that this is an equal fight in a conflict of rights. This is about borders being drawn around who is entitled to rights, and more than that, it is about white women fighting to be the arbiters of who is “woman”, and who is “other”.