Surf and TERF

"And so castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually." Jimi Hendrix

“And so castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually.” Jimi Hendrix

An old friend of mine has become a hard-line Radfem. Donna asked if we could stop and visit with her on our way from New York to Cape Ann (she lives in the feminist stronghold of Northampton), and she said no.

She said a lot more than no. She’d read Gender Hurts by Sheila Jeffreys and agreed with everything in it. I sat on the beach, surfed the internet, and downloaded a copy (see notes below). I wanted to understand what I was up against.

If you are unfamiliar with the Radfem perspective, this is my brief summary based on reading the book:

  • Gender is a caste system constructed by the patriarchy to oppress women.
  • Gender should be abolished.
  • There are only two sexes – men and women. It doesn’t matter how you identify, what hormones you take, and what surgeries you have; there is no escaping your original genitals and chromosomes.
  • Changing your sex (Radfems don’t believe in gender) is an illusion, a delusion, or a fantasy.
  • Trans women are not women; they are men who claim they are women. They are out to destroy feminism and lesbian/women only spaces (by invading them and insisting on their right to be in them). Radfems believe that only “women born women” can know what it feels like or what it means to be a woman.
  • Trans men are women who claim they are men. They have mutilated themselves to gain male privilege. They are unwittingly destroying feminism and lesbian/women only spaces (by leaving the community and taking their partners with them).
  • Radfems do not recognize/use the terms gender binary, cisgender, non-binary, or genderqueer; you are either a Radfem or a dupe/puppet of the patriarchy. They consider the word cisgender to be a slur because they believe that women are by definition “women born women.”
  • Women should choose, as a political act, to be lesbians or remain celibate.

Whew. Radfems are a small (tiny) segment of feminism. I would say fringe, but I know that many mainstream feminists also sit in judgement. They doubt the authenticity of trans women’s lives (without demonizing them) and think that trans men are butch lesbians who drank the Kool Aid. On a really bad day, when I am wracked with self-doubt, those thoughts cross my mind, but then I talk myself out of it. All gender identities are valid, including mine.

Some Radfems, called TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) by people outside their movement, are very angry and can get very ugly about trans women insisting that they are women, and especially at trans women who identify as lesbian. My friend falls into this camp. It is hard for me to reconcile my view of her as my friend with her view of herself as the defender of lesbian sovereignty.

Both of us were tomboys, both of us rejected the female gender roles that we were expected to follow, and both of us were lesbians. However, she is increasingly woman identified while I identify as both butch and trans. She recommended that I read Dirt’s blog (which is virulently anti-trans) quoting “Why not change the world instead of changing your body?”

I don’t know how to answer this question except to say that I have chosen to do both. I have also changed how I think about sex, gender, language, and identity. I am less rigid, more accepting, and happier because of it.

Notes: Normally I believe in supporting writers by buying their work or borrowing it from the library. However, in the spirit of Abbie Hoffman, you can download Gender Hurts here. Please be aware that it is a transphobic screed, but interesting if you want to know what Sheila Jeffreys really thinks. She lets it all out, including lots of half-truths and misrepresentations.

Jeffreys’ arguments are bitter and abrasive. It was hard to hold onto my sense of self in the face of all that hate. I’m sad that my friend believes it.

I also found three affirmative pieces that I think are worth reading on this issue: first an interview in Trans Advocate with Judith Butler that critiques Radfem theory, second Roz Kaveney’s review of Gender Hurts originally published in the Times Literary Supplement, and third “Erasing transgender women doesn’t erase gender” by Juliana Qian, published in Overland.

22 thoughts on “Surf and TERF

  1. butchcountry67

    Ouch! I have a severe dislike of Terfs or radfems, or any in your face, it’s my way or the highway “isms” ….. to me and what I would like the world to understand , ALL people ALL Genders are equal and deserve the same respect , right across the board, women are no better or worse than men, and visa versa, you can find bad people within every gender spectrum, you can also find good , as for Trans issues, for me it is quite simple… if you present yourself as a male, I will respond and treat you like a male (respectfully) I care less if you “pass” or not , same with if you present yourself as female, I will respond and treat you as such ( treat as in pronouns and not question you at all about who you are in your eyes, simply accept you as you are.) if you present yourself as what I call a blend of genders ( both or all) I will ask which pronouns you prefer, I ask if I don’t know, but regardless… each and everyone is equal no better or worse or different from the next …. it’s pretty simple really… it’s called not judging lol the whole men only or women only space that society covets so much is one of the very things that keep the gender wars and gender rift fuelled, can’t have equality if we are busy separating everyone , you need to have unity and all inclusive to have equality , so when you stop and think about it …. does anyone truly want equality or does everyone just want equality when it suits their personal needs?

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I agree with the big tent viewpoint. I have a really hard time wrapping my mind around exclusion – casting people out of your community and then claiming victimization. It turns out that the breaking point for her was my decision to get top surgery, which she sees as the ultimate act of misogyny and mutilation, but for me is a huge relief and a liberation.
      I’ve written to her twice (offering out the olive branch only to have it chopped up into little pieces and burned) and I am going to give it one more try before writing her off.

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      1. butchcountry67

        I am so sorry that someone who you thought of as a friend would do that to you , personally, I would just walk away, though it is very hard to do emotionally, I have lost many friends over the years due to my transitions, it’s rough and it hurts, but then, you have to stop and ask yourself, if they are so judgemental and condemning …. do you truly want or need them in your life? people will come into your life who are non judgemental and condemning and become true and trusted friends.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I believe that the Radfem perspective is that all sex with men is rape (and some believe that any penetration is rape). I actually read most of the book twice – it was hard to take it in and then I had to spend some time getting it out of my system (hence the post on it).

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  2. Fredrication

    This is worse than when my friend had to ask her pastor if she could continue to be friends with me when I came out as gay after eight years of close friendship. Luckily I’ve never heard of this way to look at gender before. I find it hard to take people who insist that certain humans are more worthy than others seriously. It doesn’t matter which way you divide humans, it’s still “we” against “them” and that view has never helped anyone before.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      This view has been around since the early 1970’s in the writing of Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin, Robin Morgan, and Janice Raymond. There have been several huge rifts in the lesbian community (at least in the US and UK) over pornography, BDSM, sex toys, and butch/femme, and the Radfems have been on the conservative/prurient side of all of them.

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  3. Kris

    If Fredrik will allow me to borrow from his comment and adapt it: “I find it hard to take people who insist that certain humans are more worthy than others…” Full stop for me after this. Coming from a friend, must hurt, but she sounds angry and bitter and I do not believe she is in as happy a place you have reached. Thanks for the affirmative pieces’ links. I will not be able to stomach Gender hurts. Take care.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I do not view men as a different species. I look at people’s actions and their words. When I wrote her that I am the same person (with breasts or with a chest) that has hung out with her for 30 years, and that I have the same stupid sense of humor, tastes in music, and dislike of popular culture that I’ve always had, she can’t hear it. It is profoundly disturbing.

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  4. afish25

    IMHO we don’t need more ways to separate to them and us. For me, life is about being more loving because it makes ME happy. No drama, no anger, no confusion. This person can not care about you, but I do. It’s hard to loose a childhood friend. Be happy my friend.
    reallove.com

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks. I have thrown out a couple of olive branches to her, and I will try again. I can’t see being part of any movement or religion that encourages you to demonize people instead of struggling to understand them and make peace with them. Unfortunately right now this is a one way struggle, but I don’t intend to let her walk out of my life quite so easily.

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  5. Lesboi

    The thing I’m still struggling to grasp here is that she told you no that you couldn’t stop by to see her. Because you’re not a radfem like her? Does that mean she doesn’t want to have a relationship with you because you’re butch and trans identified? Hmmm..I don’t see much friendship there. I’d say she’s the one who’s drank the kool aid.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Because I had top surgery. This is someone who came to Thanksgiving dinner at my house for 20 years. It is hard, and part of me believes that she will come around because I am irresistible, and I can’t believe that she wouldn’t want to be friends with me – and part of me feels like I’ve got a terrible case of the cooties and she will distort everything I do to fit her theories.

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  6. Bunnies!!!!

    So she’s able to hate on both you, for being trans, and probably on me for being straight and married to a man.

    Yet we’re able to hang out and have lunch just fine…I’m sad that she’s so wrapped up in hate that she can’t just be happy that you figured out who you are.

    Winters are long up here: maybe that will give her time to reflect on her choices and make amends.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      She would probably like you and talk to you about dogs and books by women authors as long as you never mentioned Matt. She is a huge Virginia Wolf fan, and interested in all of the women associated with Virginia Wolf.
      It has always been as if the other half of the world didn’t exist, but now she is making it even smaller.
      And the only way to know how someone identifies is to ask them point blank – someone like me could identify about twenty different ways since very few identities are mutually exclusive (lesbian, gay, dyke, butch, non-binary, genderqueer, trans, trans man, demi-girl, neutrois, etc…). Looks can be deceiving – as you know since you have been mistaken for being gay (too many dogs, too much tie dye, and no make-up).

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  7. Bunnies!!!!

    Oh and if gender doesn’t exist, how does she know who she is ok with talking to or interacting with? Some people are a little hard to read, as far as what they are. And it sounds like that’s really important to her.

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  8. Kit

    This is really rough, and I’m sorry to hear it. I have no thoughts, because I try not to expend much mental energy on the TERF perspective. It’s too damn depressing. But still, I’m unhappy to hear that a close friend was willing to allow an ideology to do so much damage to your relationship. Friendship ought to transcend those things.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I avoided the TERF issue because I find it useless to argue with bigots and trolls that I don’t know personally. However, since this is someone whom I considered a good friend, I’m hesitant to just let her walk away because of her ignorance and prejudice.

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  9. genderneutral

    I don’t know how to answer this question except to say that I have chosen to do both. I have also changed how I think about sex, gender, language, and identity. I am less rigid, more accepting, and happier because of it.

    Couldn’t have said it better. Thx.

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  10. Ariadne

    Thanks for the link to “Gender Hurts.” I’ve been looking through it… it’s a pretty harsh read! So full of bias and bizarre logic. (The whole chapter about “Women in the lives of men who transgender”… ouch.) It doesn’t even pretend to be objective. I’m sorry your friend was swayed by it.

    I think people in general tend to suffer from a failure of imagination. For example, as someone who is not trans, I might imagine what it would mean for me to decide to go on testosterone and live as a man… and it would be completely invalid for me to draw conclusions about what might motivate me to do that and then assume that trans people have the same motivations. Books written by people who are trans themselves carry a lot more weight with me.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I was happy to download it and pass it on – I think it is useful to see how they misrepresent and twist things.
      I hadn’t read any Radical Feminists since the early 1980’s (Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin, Robin Morgan) and I forgot how harsh they are. I did a lot of political work with ACT UP, and then against the war in Iraq. I can work well with queer folk and or pacifists, but the Rad Fems are too sectarian for me – and are not open to working with people with whom they disagree (which makes it hard for them to change and grow).

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