Recently I spent several days in a public internet group for "gender critical" people, after a few intersex friends voiced some positive things about this line of thinking. Feminists who call themselves "gender critical" are a controversial bunch, but their critique of the term "cis gender" had caught the interest of some intersex people I respect. The term "cis gender" is an awkward one to use in the context of intersex people, which was the subject of my last blog post. So I wanted to approach this branch of feminism with an open mind, and see if there was theorizing or political advocacy I could use in my intersex work. The group I joined promised respectful listening to people of varying beliefs, and banned personal attacks, so I had high hopes.
My hopes, I'm afraid, were naive. The group turned out to be completely dominated by "TERFs," trans-exclusionary radical feminists, and when it came to intersex topics, not people I would consider good allies in the least. So, since I know there are other intersex advocates who've presented "gender critical" politics in a positive light, I wanted to write a post about why I consider this a bad idea.
First, since I suspect that a good number of readers may be unfamiliar with the terms "gender critical" and "TERF," I will present an overview of the beliefs involved, in the form of a handy numbered-list primer.
A TERF Primer
1. Calling themselves "radfems" or "gender-critical feminists," and named TERFs by radical-feminist-identified people who are not transphobic, these are cis women who oppose the inclusion of trans women in feminist organizations, women's spaces, and female facilities. TERFs do not describe themselves as cis women, however, but as women-born-women, natal women, or (unmodified) women. They assert that the terms "TERF" and "cis" are slurs. Generally they just refer to one another in discussions as "feminists" and as "women," as if anyone who is a feminist would agree with all that they say, and as if their female status should go unmarked, as the normative or "real" female status.
2. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists believe that sex is a natural binary, innate and immutable: men have penises, women have vaginas and uteri. They note that gender is a relationship of power, in which men seek to control women's uteri, reproductive capacities and lives. The ultimate expression of this patriarchy is the use of the penis to rape. As a result, "gender critical feminists" make the strong claim that anyone who denies that sex is a binary and that genitals determine gender is ignoring the terrorizing of (natal/cis) women by rapists.
3. TERFs argue that sex cannot be changed: trans women are really and eternally men, and trans men are really and eternally women. Identifying with a gender that doesn't match one's genitals is a delusion or mental illness. The phrase "gender critical" denotes being critical of (or more bluntly, rejecting) the concept of gender identity--most especially the fundamental precept of trans gender advocacy, which is that when gender identity and legal sex conflict, this provides pragmatic and ethical justification for a change of legal sex.
4. TERFs deny that they are transphobic, and say they have compassion for men under the delusion that they are women, which they present as equivalent to believing one is really a horse or a space alien. Dysphoria with one's body, they point out, is not a special characteristic of trans people, but a near-universal, and the solution is to accept one's body. Accepting one's body means accepting that one cannot call oneself a woman while having a penis. (Nor can sex be altered through genital reconstructive surgery , which is a radical mutilation to no purpose, as genes can't be changed and binary sex is essential. But in most of the discussion threads I read, it was assumed that trans women all have penises, making them dangerous, as penises are rape weapons. In fact, I've never read the word "penis" so often outside of a urology blog.)
5. TERFs are not just binary sex essentialists, they also have a theory of gender socialization. Their vision of gender socialization is bleak: boys are socialized to dominate, control, and rape women; girls are socialized to submit to this and embrace their oppressors and call this "femininity." Clearly this is bad, and feminism is a movement of (natal/cis) women that teaches women to recognize and resist this programming. Men, however, are presented as inevitably and eternally shaped by their socialization into patriarchy, as it advantages them. Trans women are men, and while they may claim they do not enjoy being treated as men, this just illustrates their blindness to their own privilege. Trans women are inevitably socialized to try to control "natal" women, as evidenced by their belief they should be able to force cis women into supporting their gender delusion and treating them as sisters.
6. Thus, this conclusion about trans people: trans women are confused men, fetishists of the feminine, who are prompted by their male socialization to seek to control women--in this case, due to their delusion that they are women, to control feminism and women-born-women's spaces. Trans men are less of a problem, since they pose no threat to anyone, lacking both penises and socialization into the role of the oppressor. Trans men are just sad: women who don't understand that it's ok to be a butch woman or a lesbian, victims of Stockholm syndrome identifying with their oppressor. Women who are deluded into thinking they are men should be pitied and exhorted to return to the fold. But men who delude themselves that they are women are a serious problem. They must be stopped: with exclusionary policies, taking back feminism from a trans-obsessed trend; by fighting antidiscrimination clauses that would let trans women and girls use women's bathrooms; through telling the world that supporting trans children in their identities is child abuse.
7. Feminists who are trans allies and transfeminists counter each of these points. They state that sex is not a natural binary, but naturally a spectrum (i.e., intersexuality happens). They point out that many cis women lack uteri, yet are still considered women by everyone, even TERFs. They note that gender socialization is complex and variable, that it is shaped by the gender with which one identifies, and that acknowledging both these facts is in no way a denial of the reality of patriarchy. They assert that it is important, however, to acknowledge the intersectional nature of marginalization and privilege, and speak not just of patriarchy but of kyriarchy, taking into account race, age, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, and other dimensions along which power is distributed. And one of these dimensions is the axis of cis privilege and trans marginalization. Trans women--particularly those who are poor, of color, and/or have a disability--suffer huge levels of social stigma, violence, employment discrimination, etc. Cis women need to acknowledge that while they are marginalized as women, they are privileged as cis people.
8. TERFs respond to trans allies with anger. They say trans allies are dupes, following a trend that counters basic logic, biology, nature, and the English language when they accept the idea that a person with a penis can be called female. (Quoting the dictionary is popular to "prove" that genitals determine gender.) They discount all the statistics about violence against trans women (and to a lesser extent trans men) as manufactured and overstated. They assert that a woman can never oppress a man, and trans women actually being men, "natal" women cannot oppress them. The TERFs repudiate being termed cis gender, equating the term "cis" with gender-conforming and unenlightened femininity, and regularly linking it to the violent phrase "die cis scum," which they assert is the core sentiment of men who think they are women, as if trans women's goal is to kill off all cis feminists so that trans women can have every feminist organization that exists all to themselves. Finally, they equate acknowledging cis privilege with asserting a belief that women are not oppressed.
Intersex People and "Gender Critical" Politics
It's clear that I view TERFs, in a word, as bigots. Their mission is to discriminate against and exclude a marginalized group. I hoped I might encounter something less stark and more nuanced in the "gender critical"internet discussion group I joined, since some other intersex advocates have had some positive things to say. But that's not what happened, and a couple of days spent reading and attempting to have conversations left me feeling depressed and sullied. There were a few positive moments, but they were vastly outweighed by slogging through a lot of LOLing about how stupid a person must be to think they can call themselves female when they were born with a penis.
So, my first question is, why have a few intersex friends had anything good to say about TERFs? I think I can point to a few things.
1. The phrase "gender critical" sounds appealing. My intersex friends are critical of the way sex and gender are understood and enforced in the contemporary West, since this involves unconsented-to surgery performed on intersex infants' genitalia with lifelong ramifications that can be quite negative (loss of genital sensation, loss of fertility, loss of a source of natural sex hormones, and sometimes assignment to a sex with which the child does not grow up to identify). A group that says they critique gender from a feminist perspective certainly sounds like it would make a reasonable ally.
2. Intersex people are often uncomfortable with the application of the terms "cis" and "trans" to intersex experience. The terms apply very poorly because they presume that physical sex is binary (even if gender identities may be nonbinary). That is, if a person is born genitally intermediate, surgically assigned female, and grows up to identify as a woman, is she "trans gender" because she was surgically genitally altered to become female, or "cis gender" because she identifies with the sex she was assigned at birth? Either term winds up misrepresenting something about her experience. (I've suggested the term "ipso gender" in my last post as an alternative.) In any case, TERFs reject the term cis gender, and this may appeal to an intersex person frustrated with this terminology.
3. In recent months, there have been a series of "mainstream" articles and online posts in which TERFs' positions have been sympathetically expressed. For example, one article mentioned by an intersex friend critiqued the term "cis privilege" by caricaturing it as meaning "having a female body is a privilege." Clearly this is false: because of patriarchy, female bodies are sexualized, framed as weak, and subjected to surveillance. Tons of cis women don't enjoy getting periods or feeling constantly at risk of an unwanted pregnancy. Having a female body is not a privilege--but it is also not how trans advocates define cis privilege at all. Trans people actually define cis privilege as "the benefits one derives from being seen as a 'real' and 'natural' member of one's identified sex" (lack of public scrutiny of one's primary and secondary sex characteristics, being able to use a public bathroom with relative ease, having an ID that matches one's identity, etc.). Nor do trans people deny, as the linked article claims, that cis people also suffer from gender policing. Someone who identifies as a woman yet who is very butch can suffer from bathroom panic, and a male-identified person who is quite feminine may face a great deal of street harassment. That is why trans advocates always fight for laws banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender expression. But if you read the linked article and took it at face value--why, the arguments of trans women sound regressive and ludicrous and enforcing of binary gender stereotypes. Trans women are telling "natal" women their privilege is to enjoy being pretty and silent and submissive and having lots of babies, says the author! If that were true, transfeminists really would be revealed to be patriarchal oppressors in disguise. Only. . . it's not true. It's a false characterization on par with saying that "feminists are man-haters."
OK, now we have some ideas about why intersex people might think that "gender critical" camp could be reasonable allies for intersex people. The next question to address is what did I actually find TERFs to say about intersex issues when they were raised in group discussions? Clearly the "gender crits" aren't trans allies, but are they nonetheless intersex ones?
The first thing I really want to acknowledge is that it's not all bad. A couple of points came up where "gender critical" positions did align with intersex advocates'. Most centrally, since TERFs believe that the "natural" sexed body should be accepted rather than medically altered, a good number of commenters were opposed to performing genital surgery on intersex infants, seeing it as mutilation. That's a good thing. And secondly, when I posted about Dutee Chand, an athlete who has been excluded from international sports due to sex-policing of her natural levels of testosterone, I found that at least in situations in which a person was born with vulva, raised as a girl, and has XX chromosomes, the TERF posters believed she should be allowed to compete in women's sports despite having testosterone levels that were considered "male." Also good!
Well, those positions sound heartening! Why then do I say that the "gender critical" partisans are not good allies for the intersex community? Because of these numerous other positions of theirs:
1. There was a total consensus among the trans-exclusionary feminists that sex is naturally a binary. The fact that people are born sexually intermediate was somehow said not to undermine this assertion, because intersexuality was presented as a disorder, and, I was informed, "you can't take a disorder and call it a sex." All intersex people were held to have a true binary sex. While doctors shouldn't perform cosmetic genital surgery, TERFs asserted they should examine the infant and assign them to the correct binary sex on their birth certificates. I was told that the correct sex would be based on capacity to reproduce in the "very rare" situations in which that would be possible without surgery, and otherwise on genes.
2. Removing sex-markers from birth certificates generally, or making a preliminary sex marker amendable at will at maturity to M, F, or a nonbinary category--as suggested by intersex advocates--were thus framed as crazy. It could confuse the child into believing they are members of a third sex, while "real" intersex people identify as women or men, discussants claimed. It was presumed to be bad for intersex children, while encouraging trans genderqueer fantasies. Since TERFs see gender identity as a sort of delusion or myth, the idea that families and society should allow the child to mature to develop and assert their own gender identity (male, female, or something else) is basically incomprehensible.
3. Nobody on the site at the time I was on it seemed aware what the result of the sex assignment scheme they described would be. For example, people with CAIS, born with typical vulvae and developing female secondary sex characteristics at puberty if unaltered by gonadectomy, would be understood as permanently and naturally male, being infertile and having XY chromosomes. Yet CAIS is often not diagnosed until late childhood or puberty, so either CAIS teens would be forced into gender transitions--a process the "gender crits" frame as impossible--or the TERFs would have to accept XY women. Meanwhile, people born with a phallus fully masculinized by CAH would be permanently assigned female based on having XX chromosomes, while left surgically unaltered. Given that the most central tenet of TERF politics is that a person with a penis cannot be female, this is a particularly strange outcome.
4. I was surprised to find myself repeatedly informed that "intersexuality is a derail" when I raised concerns in conversations. One reason for this is that being born intersex was framed as vanishingly rare. Basically this argument held that half the population is made up of "natal women" under threat from men trans-deluded into thinking they have a right to enter women's spaces, while intersex issues only impact a handful of people, and concerns about a minor edge case shouldn't come to dominate a discussion about masses of women-born-women.
5. The main reason I was told that TERF group members were "far beyond the point of reasonable frustration or tolerance for the intersex derail in conversations about gender identity" is that it was supposedly "only ever brought into conversations" as a distractor by men (that is, trans women) trying to deny the reality that genitals determine immutable binary gender, that "natal" women are oppressed rather than privileged, and that trans women are privileged rather than oppressed. The fact that I, who am intersex and not a trans woman, was the person raising intersex issues was glossed over. Intersexuality is presented as a straw man issue beloved by trans women.
6. Another thing I was told is that most people claiming to be intersex are actually trans gender pretenders. Now, I as an intersex advocate have spoken before about there being an issue of "intersex wannabes"out there, a problem for our community when they present physically-impossible stories--such as having been born with a full set of female reproductive organs and a full set of male ones--that contribute to disinformation. But I do not appreciate being told that most people who say they are intersex are liars, and that the "tiny minority" of people who actually are intersex are being used by these men-who-caricature-women, proof that real intersex people should revile trans people. I can make my own determinations about the true prevalence of intersex status, and who is supporting or exploiting me. Not to mention that asserting that most people who identify as intersex are in fact lying itself contributes to disinformation about our community.
7. The main situation in which intersex concerns were actually treated as relevant was in the context of discussions of trans-identified children. (A particularly overwrought conversation in the group discussed an article which bore the blaring title "Toddler Aged 3 Assessed for Sex Change at London Clinic," which actually just reported that a 3-year-old was assessed for gender identity issues, not that the child was offered any sort of hormonal or surgical treatment.) A claim made in the discussions of trans-identified children was that for parents to "indulge" this "fantasy" by bringing them to a clinic to be diagnosed, changing the pronoun they used to refer to the child, and/or having the gender marker on their ID changed was analogous to forcing genital surgery on intersex children, and thus a human rights violation that should be banned. I don't see an analogy at all, but rather an inversion: forced genital surgery performed on infants violates their autonomy, while validating a child in their gender identity supports the child's autonomy. I see TERFs appropriating intersex concerns about unconsented-to genital surgery to advance their goals.
So: I followed a recent suggestion that "gender critical" politics might be useful to intersex people, and spent several days reading posts and participating in a group for "gender critical" partisans. What I found was something that left an awful taste in my mouth: a lot of transmisogyny, a denial of the lived reality of trans people of all genders, and an insistence on an immutable sex binarism that frames intersex people as disordered. I was told that most people who say they are intersex are trans pretenders, using a tiny minority to advance their nefarious goal of insisting that gender identity should be respected and genitals treated as nobody's business other than the person bearing them and their intimate partners. And I found the intersex community's concerns being co-opted to vilify parents who support their children in identifying with a gender other than that on their birth certificates.
They may call themselves by the intriguing moniker "gender critical," but I believe these trans-exclusionary feminists make very poor allies for the intersex community.