To whomever might be reading,
I wish I could be more specific in saying hello. But that’s the problem with an open letter, isn’t it? You can never know who your reader is. I don’t know your age, or your race. I don’t know what country you’re from. I don’t know if you’re a man or a woman, I don’t know what kind of feminist you are, I don’t even know if you think of yourself as a feminist at all.
But I do know, with some certainty, that you would find a statement like this offensive:
Being a woman means being nurturing, caring, social, emotional, vulnerable, and concerned with appearance.
Come on now – who wouldn’t scoff at such an obviously sexist idea? Even the most conservative religious nuts around would think that’s a bit reductive. Same goes for something like:
Little girls are biologically wired to like princess dresses and dislike superheroes.
I’m willing to bet you rolled your eyes at that one too. We stopped teaching about pink and blue brains in the 1950’s, right? I sure thought so. Well, what about:
An essential part of understanding womanhood is cooking and gossiping.
Okay, okay, I’ll stop. It’s just as painful to type them out as it is to read them. But plenty of people really are out there teaching this nonsense as fact. If you had to guess, where do you think these quotes come from? Church newsletters, Fox News, some basement-dwelling Twitter troll? Unfortunately, the truth is a lot more depressing. These all come directly from popular, mainstream transgender organizations and activists.
Don’t believe me? Look for yourself. You can still find the first statement in the Guide to Gender, Sexual, and Relationship Diversity from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, written after extensive consultation from UK transgender organizations. The second is from a children’s book written by transgender teenager Jazz Jennings. And the third comes from transgender activist Janet Mock’s autobiography Redefining Realness, a book that is regularly taught in gender studies classes across the country. You’ll see some other examples later, if you don’t like those. Turns out, there’s no shortage of this thinking out there.
Now, like I said at the start – I don’t know you. I don’t know how you reacted to reading those last two paragraphs. Maybe they made you furious, or uncomfortable, or just confused. Whatever you felt, that’s okay. But please, if you were bothered even a little bit by those statements back there, read on. It won’t make you a traitor, or a bigot, or a monster, no matter what you may have been told. It’s okay to be worried, conflicted, or even just curious about these things; healthy communities and cultures don’t try and shame you for expressing concerns or scare you away from difficult topics.
The issues of transgender inclusion, women’s liberation, civil rights, and social justice are complex, with good people on both sides just trying to do the right thing. I don’t know you, but I’m willing to bet you’re one of those good people. So please, take a moment to consider why so many feminists have serious concerns about the direction transgender activism is taking us. Many of these women have been fighting misogyny, white supremacy, and homophobia for decades. Ask yourself what’s more likely – that thousands of socialists, feminists, and gay rights activists have suddenly become raving bigots… or that maybe the new line of transgender activism isn’t as progressive as you’ve been led to believe?
No matter which side you fall on, there’s no question that the world we live in today is pretty fucked up. After all, we live in a society where a human being’s entire future depends on the shape of their genitals at birth! Male babies wear blue and learn to toughen up; female babies get pink dresses, a lifetime of silencing, and a one-in-five chance of sexual abuse. And while it starts in the nursery, it certainly doesn’t stop there. This completely imaginary, pointless set of demands will worm its way into almost every aspect of our entire lives, from what kind of shampoo we buy to how much we get paid to whether or not we’re afraid to walk home alone at night. It’ll even determine how people remember us long after we’re gone – all because of what a nurse once saw between our legs!
It may be hard to believe, but we weren’t always quite so stupid. Early on in human society, the shape of a person’s genitals wasn’t particularly important. Some social roles like hunting and gathering were split between sexes, but pre-agricultural human cultures were often remarkably egalitarian. Then, about ten thousand years ago, something changed. Between the rise of cities, farming, and private property, female human beings soon found themselves ruthlessly exploited by male human beings for domestic and reproductive labor – so much so that, by the time the first written word was developed by the ancient Sumerians, male supremacy was almost universal across the civilized world.
Now, history is absolutely stuffed with examples of oppression, and in every case those stories follow the same pattern. Think of the slave trade, or the genocide of the American Indians, or Britain’s colonization of India and Africa. You start with a group of people who want something – whether it be diamonds, tea, land, or cheap labor – that another group of people has. So they go out and wage war, sow disease, spread terror, and otherwise inflicts abuse until their victims can no longer resist. But then what? You’ve got a huge number of people you need to control, and no matter how many soldiers you might have, you can’t have someone standing over them with guns every hour of the day.
The answer is always the same, whether you’re an American slave trader in 1800 or a Roman general in 100 BC. All you have to do is create a system of beliefs and customs that naturalize the hierarchy you’ve created, until it doesn’t even look like violence anymore. When Britain invaded and colonized Ireland, for example, they immediately set out to portray the native Irish as inherently inferior and childlike, incapable of managing their own country. Soon, the British were no longer aggressive thieves and killers; they were paternalistic guides for an “Irish race” that couldn’t survive without them. This narrative – that the Irish and the British were two distinct types of people – was key to ensuring that the colonized never questioned their abuse and the colonizer never second-guessed their abusing.
The race system in America served just the same purpose, as did the notion of the “savage Indian” who could never be tamed – except, it just so happens, by being removed from their lands and stripped of their resources. All throughout history, across every continent, this pattern plays out. Luckily, the oppressed peoples of the world have struggled for just as long to assert the truth: That there is only really one type of human being, and that submission isn’t the natural state for anyone.
So what does this have to do with gender? Well, we can go back to the ancient Sumerians and see the exact same problem: What do you do with all these female human beings, now that you’re exploiting and abusing them to keep your civilization running? Male supremacy required the exact same justification that white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism needed. And the name we have for that justification – that set of beliefs and practices that justify the domination of male people over female people – is called gender.
Gender is the idea that female human beings are a certain type of human called a “woman,” and male human beings are another called “man.” It’s the belief that these types of humans are fundamentally different, and it’s the set of practices that ensure one stays above the other in the social hierarchy. Just like race, and just like class, it’s something invented by the powerful to define the powerless.
In other words, it’s a fiction. Bullshit. It makes reference to something real – our sex – but fills up those real human bodies with meaning that is completely invented. Think about race. Do some people have thicker hair and darker skin? Of course. Does thicker hair and darker skin mean you’re destined for slavery and servitude? Of course not. Do some people have a vulva and a uterus? Of course. Does that mean they exist to pump out babies and clean the kitchen? Of course not. Our physical bodies are real, but the mythology created around them is pure fantasy.
So what’s the solution to these fantasies? For the feminist, it’s obvious: Just get rid of the damn things! The entire project of feminism is to break apart this nightmarish set of rules and restrictions in their entirety, and to create a world where anyone can dress, speak, move, live, and love as they’d like to. We imagine a future where what’s between your legs matters about as much as which hand you use to write or how your earlobes hang.
Does this sound like a good idea to you? For most people, what I’ve just described is common sense. So it may shock you to know that, if you do agree, there are quite a few transgender activists out there who will call for you to be fired, jailed, and even murdered. That’s no hyperbole, I promise – radical feminists are routinely harassed, threatened, and physically assaulted whenever they advocate for a genderless future. What on Earth explains this? What about the radical feminist analysis of gender could make so many people so furious?
Part of it is just that queer theorists and transgender activists have a very, very different idea of what gender is and how we should relate to it. Actually, I should say they have very different ideas about what gender is, because they themselves don’t always agree. For some, gender is neurological. For others, it’s a social construction. You might also hear that it’s a mix of both, or even that there’s no definition we can make at all. But even if they can’t agree on exactly what gender is, transgender activists do agree that we ought to keep it around. To eliminate it completely, they argue, would do away with a fundamental aspect of who we are; some have even compared the abolition of gender with literal genocide.
Equating a world without pink and blue boxes to Hitler’s Reich might be on the dramatic end of the spectrum, but even the most level-headed transgender organizations are very clear that gender is an essential, unquestionable, and valuable part of who we are inside. For them, the problem isn’t gender itself; it’s just our rigid, binary, sex-based ideas about gender. If only we could loosen up the whole system, so the story goes, then we’d all be free to pick whatever gender suits us best. We could even invent new ones, if we’d like, or move between a handful whenever it suits us.
On the surface, this seems like a pretty sweet deal. And it would be a pretty sweet deal, if gender was just a set of feelings we all had inside. Unfortunately, we have the last ten thousand years to show us that it’s much, much more than that. Do we have psychological experiences that relate to gender? Absolutely, just like we have psychological experiences that relate to our age, or our race, or our nationality. But gender itself exists in the real world, outside our heads. If you don’t believe me, try and identify your way to an equal paycheck. Try and find the set of feelings that will make a strange man back off when you’re walking alone at night.
You won’t be able to, of course, because our experience of gender is a social experience. We can’t choose where we end up in the hierarchy. If you don’t believe me, listen to the transgender people around you! They’ll be the first to admit that their stated gender is routinely ignored, dismissed, or denied. Like it or not, we don’t identify ourselves in this gender system – we’re identified by others. And that identification is undeniably based on our sex at birth.
But even if it wasn’t – even if we could choose exactly where in the hierarchy we ended up – why would that be any better? Gender was created to mark off the category of people it’s okay to hurt, and the category of people who are allowed to hurt them. The problem isn’t that the wrong people are ending up on the bottom or the top; the problem is that anyone is ending up anywhere in that atrocious arrangement of power. We are seriously lacking in imagination if free movement between oppressor and oppressed is the best we can imagine.
Of course, completely abolishing gender isn’t something you can do overnight, and it’s not something we should expect any individual person to dedicate their whole lives towards. But gender identity as a concept moves us in exactly the wrong direction. It teaches us that gender – the coercive, harmful set of stereotypes we have about being male or female – is really an indispensable part of who we are. It naturalizes gender, and that naturalization has real consequences. Don’t believe me? Flip back over to the quotes at the beginning. That regressive, sexist junk isn’t some fluke or one-off mistake. It’s the inevitable result of gender identity as a concept.
Why? Well, try it yourself: Try and define what it means to “feel like a woman” without referencing stereotypes. Can you do it?
Don’t be surprised if you can’t – the transgender movement can’t either! No one can define a female gender identity without referencing these stereotypes, because the concept of “feeling like a woman” would be meaningless apart from them. In order to “feel like” something, that something needs to exist, or act, or look, or live a certain way. But feminists have been working for more than a century to get rid of the idea that certain thoughts and feelings are more “manly” or “womanly” than others, and they had great success in doing so. Most of us cringe now when we hear about “women’s work” or “womanly emotions.” It’s a tragic slide backwards when those same ugly stereotypes are used to define womanhood itself.
Under this new ideology, the transgender movement has become an odd mirror image of the traditional patriarchal setup. Conservatives say that if you’re female, you play with dolls and love pink; gender identity says that if you play with dolls and love pink, you’re female. They might disagree on which is more important, biology or psychology, but both are absolutely convinced that there is a meaningful link between sex and the idiotic stereotypes we’ve built around them. Only radical feminists are out there saying what should be common sense – that our bodies and our minds are fine just the way you are, no matter how we choose to speak, dress, live, and love.
Progressives, feminists, and reasonable people everywhere need to make a choice: Are these stereotypes culturally imposed nonsense, or vital facets of a person’s deepest self? You can have one or the other, but you can’t have both. You can’t encourage men to be nurturing and sensitive if you also think those traits are fundamental aspects of being a woman. You can’t expect women to be assertive and loud if, when they are, people suspect they’re really men. It’s just not possible to change our gendered assumptions while, at the same time, maintaining them to validate someone’s gender identity. Doing so derails even the most minor attempts to loosen things up; model and actor Jaden Smith, for example, was condemned by a transgender activist for something as simple as wearing a dress for a Louis Vuitton fashion show:
Male-to-female transgender people rely on props like clothes, shoes, make-up and hairstyles to create the gender identity they want to portray to the world because most of the time their bodies alone are unable to do that. … The danger for trans women is that if wearing what are traditionally women’s clothes becomes the norm for men too, then trans women will no longer be able to rely on these props to help them display a female gender identity – and for many, that could be a serious problem.
Now, you might think I’m making up a strawman argument here by quoting such a silly take. Does all transgender theory really see the world in such simplistic shades of pink and blue? Well, you can look for yourself. Read essays by trans journalists, or visit a forum online for trans people. You’ll see the same gender stereotypes pop up again and again. For example, the popular website Trans.Cafe – which offers paid inclusivity training and policy advising for businesses and schools – posted an article just last year titled “17 Signs I Was Transgender But Didn’t Know It.” On the list? A desire to wear women’s bathing suits, a love of shopping, and being “deeply attracted to the idea of beautification and being pampered.”
Even more recently, Good Housekeeping ran the story of Kimberly Shappley, a conservative Christian mother who first suspected her male child was trans when he exhibited “very strong female characteristics.” What were these “female characteristics,” you might ask? Pulling his t-shirt down to make a skirt, wanting long hair, showing no interest in fishing, and rejecting camouflage pants (By the end of the article, his mother decides to finally affirm his gender identity with a pair of princess-themed underwear). Another organization for transgender youth, Gendercool, recently posted this testimonial on their Twitter from a young trans woman: “It occurred to me at two years old. I put on a Tinker Bell costume and it was like a burst of light, a burst of realization of who I really was.”
On AskTransgender, Reddit’s largest transgender forum, people regularly ask for common signs of being transgender. In one such discussion last year, the most popular responses from trans women were being envious of pretty girls, liking the Olsen Twins, same-sex attraction, and choosing female characters in video games. Trans men, on the other hand, reported discomfort with tight clothing, a distaste for romance novels, and “getting pissed if any adult ever suggested I should be ladylike.” As I write this, the most active question being answered on AskTransgender is this:
I was wondering if anyone else has experienced increased feminine desires as they get older. I have been questioning since I was 12 and I am now 21. As time goes on the thoughts become more prevalent and I enjoy more feminine things like makeup, clothes, shows, music, etc.
Of course, no one expects Good Housekeeping to be a source of progressive gender politics, and no thinks you can understand the transgender experience just by looking through a thread on Reddit. But even among reputable transgender organizations – almost all of which declare themselves feminists – this kind of gender essentialism goes completely unchallenged. The three examples I gave at the start from Janet Mock, Jazz Jennings, and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, for instance, are all completely within the mainstream of modern transgender discourse. If you don’t believe me, I would encourage you to pick out these materials yourself and read them critically. Are you comfortable with a world where ridiculous, offensive stereotypes are treated as a fundamental part of who we are – more important, even, than our own physical bodies? When an interest in shopping is evidence of womanhood, but a uterus isn’t, something has gone terribly wrong.
This isn’t to say that all transgender people rely exclusively on stereotypes, or that we all have to embrace androgyny to call ourselves feminists. Living an authentic life inside our maze of gendered expectations and demands is difficult for anyone, and the alienation and distress that can result is real and worth our concern regardless of how anyone chooses to cope. But we can affirm the pain people feel while still critically analyzing the way we interpret that pain, and whether or not our proposed solutions really address the root of the problem. Empathy and compassion are essential, but they’re no substitute for thinking clearly. No one benefits when we stop asking questions or raising concerns.
I’ve tried my best in this letter to voice those questions and concerns, and to show how so much transgender ideology is fundamentally conservative. Like I said before, I can’t know who it is reading this. So I can’t know if you agree, or if you aren’t quite sure, or if want to kick my teeth in. But if you do worry even the slightest bit about where gender identity theory is taking us, at least know this: You’re not insane, you’re not a bigot, and you don’t deserve to be beaten or killed. There are thousands of brilliant, dedicated feminists out there who see you, understand you, and agree with you – even if transgender activists want you to feel isolated and ashamed for daring to question them.
If I could leave you with a final thought, it would be this quote from Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are.” Human beings are complex, exceptional creatures. We can dress, speak, live, and love in more ways than any one of us could even imagine. For the last ten thousand years, we’ve been shoving ourselves into one of two suffocating boxes; between the endless war, colonialism, rape, slavery, and ecological collapse, I think it’s safe to say it hasn’t worked out. The solution isn’t a new set of boxes, or more boxes, or boxes that open and close when we want them to. The solution is no boxes – a world where the ridiculous idea of gender is gone once and for all.
The BACP’s Good Practices guide is available on their website.
The quote on cooking and gossiping comes from this interview with Janet Mock.
You can listen to Jazz Jennings’ children’s book being read here.
If you’re interested in a deeper analysis of the history of patriarchy, Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy is a great resource.
For more about the social construction of race, check out Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, or The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.
www.terfisaslur.com collects examples of threats and harassment radical feminists receive from transgender activists.
The criticism of Jaden Smith I quoted was from this article in The Independent.
For the signs of being transgender, check out this article.
You can find the Good Housekeeping story here.
The quote from Gendercool came from its Twitter account, @gendercool.
Popular transgender reddits include r/Transgender and r/asktransgender.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s website is a great resource for her books and speeches.