Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What Makes a Woman? or Birth of a TERF

Testosterone-driven human systems – otherwise known as male bodies – are larger and heavier-boned than those running on estrogen. An average male will quickly defeat an average female in hand-to-hand combat. The same testosterone which gives male-bodied people this advantage also makes them more aggressive: not only are they more likely to win the fight, they are more likely to initiate it. 

Because of this discrepancy the shadow of violence looms constantly over male-female interactions. "Every man is a potential rapist" is more than just an inflammatory feminist slogan: it is female reality. A woman has no way of knowing if or when that uncomfortable date may become something much worse, that third drink may lead to a gang rape, the man she considers a friend will violate her trust and her body. Should she be attacked, there is no guarantee her attackers will face justice or even that her report will be believed.

Life in a war zone is exhausting. Many women have sought comfort and healing by withdrawing from the patriarchy. Amongst their fellow women they have created communities ranging from women's music festivals to domestic violence shelters and lesbian communes. These disparate groups and gatherings had in common their shared femininity, and are now faced with a common question -- what makes a woman?

* * * * * 

In 2011 lesbian pornographer Lily Cade canceled a shoot with Drew DeVereaux after discovering Drew was a post-operative MtF transsexual.  This led to lengthy discussions throughout the blogosphere and Twitterverse, all of which culminated in a workshop entitled "Overcoming the Cotton Ceiling: Breaking Down Sexual Barriers for Queer Trans Women." As the organizers explained:
The term cotton ceiling is a reference to the “glass ceiling” that second wave feminist identified in the workforce, wherein women could only advance so high in the workforce but could not break through into positions of power and authority. The cotton represents underwear, signifying sex. 
The theory of the cotton ceiling is useful in identifying the dynamic trans women are experiencing, and is meant to open up conversation around desirability’s intersections with transmisogyny and transphobia.
Like the fear of violence, desirability casts a long shadow on the female experience. Women are judged largely, often exclusively, on how well they conform to social standards of beauty. Black feminists have talked about how kinky hair, dark skin and non-European facial features impact their lives; fat feminists have called into relief our culture's unrealistic worship of "Barbie Doll" bodies.  Alas, any nuanced discussion was soon drowned out by shouting on all sides.

Rebuffing trans lesbians = Hitler
Cade would later find herself under fire again when she refused to hire nonoperative male-to-female transsexual Chelsea Poe.  Ultimately Poe and several other trans activists called for a boycott against Cade's "anti-trans" hiring practices and against the Feminist Video Awards until such time as they quit discriminating against the female penis.

 Cade remained remarkably even-tempered throughout these exchanges: many of the lesbians watching were less patient.  For them the whole brouhaha was yet another case of males wanting access to female bodies. Like sensitive New Age guys inviting nubile young ladies to cast off their inhibitions, these trans activists were framing sex as a revolutionary act -- and where the women uninterested in SNAG penis were just frigid and uptight, lesbians who withheld sex from transwomen were reactionary bigoted transphobes.

She broke my heart
so I busted her transphobe jaw
Trans activists generally dismissed these objections out of hand: their opponents' "cisgender privilege" neutralized any merit their complaints they might have.  Besides that, as "TERFs" (Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists, a term coined by radical feminist and noted transgender critic Cathy Brennan) they were a hate group aimed at destroying a marginalized class.  As such, they were worthy only of contempt: paying attention to their claims, even to rebut them, would grant them a legitimacy they didn't deserve.

* * * * *

I can't wait until Annamaria is six
and we can buy her a bondage collar
In 2009 Stefonknee (formerly Paul) Wolscht was found guilty of 14 counts of criminal harassment, assault, criminal mischief and uttering threats against her former wife and seven children: she was served with a two-year restraining order forbidding her from any contact with them.  After this Stefonknee moved to Toronto where she stayed at a shelter alongside women escaping domestic violence and abuse.  Stefonknee is non-operative: she is also 6'2" and weighs some 270 pounds.  

While there Stefonknee discovered Fetlife, and met the couple of her dreams.  She told two Canadian journalists about her first encounter with the "Daddy" who accepted her not only as a woman but as a six year-old girl.
He ... took my virginity, and it didn't hurt, it felt beautiful.  I felt like a woman.  And like I'm surprised I didn't think I was going to be pregnant from it, I was so much a girl.  I actually have an erection right now from it *giggles* so I’m just going to pull my dress down a little bit
We are left to wonder how Stefonknee's shelter mates felt about her voyage of self-discovery or how many times she had to hide her erections in front of them.  (At least they were more fortunate than those women forced to share living space with Christopher Hambrook, a sexual predator who gained access to a woman's shelter by posing as a transgender woman named "Jessica").  And though she has been the subject of several heartwarming profiles in courage -- and even more stories treating her as the freakshow du jour -- we have also heard very little about any damage done to Stefonknee Wolscht's family.  If they are mentioned at all, it is only as intolerant villains who cruelly refuse to recognize their erstwhile husband and father as a sexually active prepubescent girl.
* * * * *

This posting's subtitle was typed with tongue firmly in cheek.   I have no doubt that my trepidations will mark me a traitor to the cause, and at this point "TERF" is primarily a snarl word like "fascist," "feminazi" and "libtard".   That aside,  I differ with the self-described TERFs on several important points.  One problem is that radical feminism neither needs nor wants input from male-bodied people.  More importantly, I do not believe transwomen are just men in skirts.  I have many trans friends and acquaintances and lived as a transperson for several years.  (I no longer "present female," whatever that means, because I find that living as a full-time parent does more to assuage my gender discomfort.  I hasten to add this is my personal journey and what works for me may not work for you).  I believe that there is more to gender dysphoria than entitlement or delusion.

But I also believe the life experience of a child assigned male at birth is categorically and qualitatively different than that of a child assigned female. This is true whether that child follows those pre-set paths enthusiastically or with enormous discomfort.  Because of this I believe there are reasons why people assigned female at birth might need space away from those assigned male -- even those who believe that assignment was erroneous and who are currently living as female.  And in any event, I believe that women-born-women have the right to create women-born-women spaces.

A few years ago I was one of the louder voices protesting a proposed Z Budapest ritual for "women born women" at Pantheon.   I believed then, and believe now, that such an exclusionary ritual was inappropriate for a public convention.  But I also believed, and still believe, that Budapest had the right to hold such a ritual in a private suite; to accept or reject members for her Susan B. Anthony Coven by any standard she sees fit; to allow or disallow transwomen at her private ceremonies.  The second wave feminists have made their position clear: further efforts to press your way into their spaces only prove you incapable of understanding that No means No.

What is the difference between a drag queen and a transsexual?  RuPaul caught enormous heat when he answered "About twenty-five thousand dollars and a good surgeon." But I'm not hearing any better answers from the legions of offended trans activists.  Many of those same trans activists are claiming Stefonknee Wolscht is an outlier, despite the fact that she is an active and very public member of the Toronto trans community.  And if her interviews are any indication she's also a textbook example of what Ray Blanchard and later J. Michael Bailey called "autogynephilia" -- a man's paraphilic tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman.  (In Wolscht's case this appears to be comorbid with autopedophilia).

The online translesbian community is comprised largely of white transwomen working in academia or the tech industry.  Much as the New Age movement and American Neopaganism re-envisioned religion as a self-help movement, this brand of Social Justice Warfare aims not so much at changing the world as at assuaging white liberal guilt.  Their gender identity disorder allows them to co-opt the sufferings of black and Latina trans sex workers living and dying in neighborhoods they will never visit: they need never worry about the sin of privilege because, as they will happily tell you and tell you and tell you, transwomen are the MOST OPPRESSED PEOPLE EVER.

(It's interesting to note how many trans activists are also active in the BDSM community, and how closely many of their complaints map onto "sissification" and humiliation fantasies. But that is, I am certain, merely a coincidence... ).

This oppression isn't just great fap fodder -- it's also a convenient Get out of Jail Free card.  That transwoman threatened to kick a TERF's teeth in? You have to understand how angry she is and how horribly they treated her.  (They presumably dragged her to their blogs and forced her eyelids open ala Clockwork Orange). Besides, the TERFs are always making up rape threats -- and if you note that Gamergate says the Exact Same Thing every time a woman files a police report, that's just further proof you're a transphobic TERF bigot and I hope you get cancer and die in a fire in for claiming we're violent....

And so once again we come to the same question we faced in the first paragraph: what makes a woman?  I still don't have an answer.  But that doesn't make the question any less pressing: neither does it make the "gender is all in your head" claim any more convincing. I'm happy to support equal employment opportunities for trans people; to use preferred pronouns; to fight for stronger laws against hate crimes and gender-based violence.  I'm not at all interested in guilt-tripping lesbians to widen the translesbian dating pool. Neither do I think it acceptable to offload the risks of our social experiment onto our most abused and disempowered. And if that makes me a bigot so be it: I can only express my sympathies if the facts turn out to have a transphobic bias.

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