Following recent transphobia in the Welsh independence movement and at Cardiff University, a member of Merched Undod gives context to the “trans debate”, trans oppression and the ideology of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists.
Undod stands in unconditional solidarity with trans and non-binary people in Wales and beyond.
Content note: The text discusses transphobic violence and virulent hate in detail and references sexual violence and suicide.
Trans and non-binary people have found themselves the subject of a debate. The validity of their experience, their basic health needs and safety – their very existence – has been made a matter for discussion, “opinions” on which are published in newspaper columns and contested on news shows. Their private lives – for a long time largely unknown and invisible, a rare oddity or perhaps the butt of a joke – have over the last decade been made a controversial public issue in the manufactured “culture war”.
This sudden media spotlight coupled with a resurgent far-right has left many trans people feeling anxious. This “debate” has spilled over to Welsh politics, the Senedd and even the Welsh independence movement. To those new to these disagreements – perhaps unfamiliar with the terms and language used – it can appear a complex and heated issue, in which good citizens should consider a balanced view of both sides. Meanwhile, trans and non-binary people continue to face violent oppression and transphobia in their daily lives. Before looking further at the nature of this debate, it’s worth spending a moment considering this often lost context: the oppressions faced by trans and non-binary people in Wales today.
What forms does transphobia take?
While pundits play “devils advocate”, we are verbally and physically attacked on the street. Trans feminine people in particular face violence at the hands of men – for Black trans femmes this violence is only more gratuitous (notably so from the police). Trans healthcare (that is, the right to care for and change our own bodies) remains in the hands of cis gatekeepers, who, if we are lucky, judge our private lives and pathologise our identities. NHS waiting lists for gender services (lengthened still further by Covid) leave working-class trans people in anxious limbo for years, while trans migrants are denied healthcare as part of the government’s “hostile environment” policy. Coming out to our families, in our communities, schools and workplaces is still fraught with risks and difficulties or even dangers and unemployment. Lack of acceptance often forces younger trans Welsh speakers to leave their linguistic communities for cities where they can find anonymity and support groups. Trans femmes are exoticised in the mainstream porn industry while precarious trans sex-workers are criminalised. Trans and non-binary prisoners are denied medical care and dignity where they face violence from screws and fellow inmates. Trans children and youth (the British press’ latest moral panic) not only face a denialist medical establishment, but often bullying from peers, condescension from teachers and a lack of understanding if not hostility at home. We are regularly misgendered, non-binary people systematically so. Trans feminine people tend to be rendered vulnerably hyper-visible, trans masculine people oppressively invisible. The rare acceptance we receive is often conditional and fragile while our legal rights are limited and precarious (or for non-binary people, practically non-existent). Such conditions of life often have severe mental health consequences, and it’s horribly unsurprising that suicide rates are high.
The examples given above are only some of the most obvious. Not all trans and non-binary people face the same oppression – especially as these oppressions intersect and recombine with racism, disableism, sexism, visa status, class – but most can tell you first hand of experiences similar to the above. The beautiful surprise is that despite this trans life lives on, and trans culture continues to grow (to the great frustration of transphobes everywhere). Oppression is not simply received, but resisted in a multiplicity of ways, creating livable worlds of joy and care.
Yet it’s rare that you will read stories such as these on Welsh twitter, let alone Guardian columns. Instead you will see arguments marked by the views of a small number of trans hostile activists, often masquerading as “feminists”. Rather than beginning with the lived oppression of trans people, the aforementioned debate is usually instigated by and even framed in the discourse of these peculiar activists.
What on TERF?
While transphobia takes many forms, this particular ideological transphobia, described today as “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism” (TERF) or “Gender Critical” *, is a largely English-speaking phenomenon. Evolving from certain groups within the Radical Feminist movement, it crystallized in in the USA in the mid to late 1970s, most notably with Janice Raymond’s “The Transexual Empire: Making of the She-male” (published 1979). The book was written specifically to “out” and humiliate a trans woman named Sandy Stone. The lesbian women’s record collective which Stone was a part of (already aware that Stone was trans) stood by her, even in the face of armed death threats. Raymond’s ideas were far from being shared by all Radical Feminists – trans women had been a part of the movement since its inception, key theorists such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin were supportive of trans people, and Stone’s reply, “The Empire Strikes Back”, was generally well received. All the same, Raymond’s text and similar harassment campaigns were an escalation of earlier anti-trans currents in the movement. Radical Feminism was also, for the most part, anti-sex-worker, anti-makeup and at odds with Black and Marxist feminisms. It was soon transformed and surpassed by so-called “Third Wave Feminism” in the 1990s and its anti-trans variant largely disappeared, though held on by a few prominent Anglo academics.
While anti-trans feminists have seen a particular resurgence in the UK, it’s important to remember that even here they remain a minority at odds with the feminist movement (which views transphobia as a form of patriarchy). Despite this they are given a platform and disproportionate air-time by the British media, a media which has a history of monstering trans women. And though their ideas are extreme, they tap in to transphobia in society in general – finding particular resonance with the far-right.
What exactly is the content of their ideas? At its core, they deny our validity, describing “male to female” transition as a convoluted plot by men to prey on cis women. Founding texts such as “A Transexual Empire” describe trans women as the artificial product of the porn industry, claiming that transitioning to become a woman is itself a form of “rape”. From here they accuse trans women in womens’ spaces of being sex predators by virtue of being trans and celebrate the incarceration of trans femmes in men’s prisons where they face high levels of physical and sexual violence. (Trans exclusionary feminists are ultimately a form of carceral feminists, who see more prisons and police as the solution to patriarchy.)
It is no exaggeration to say that TERFs are quite simply obsessed with trans women. Rather than fight patriarchy and build social movements, they focus their time and attention on targeting, doxing, humiliating and lobbying against trans feminine people. Our right to use public toilets without being reported to security or abused is a particular bizarre target, as is the fear of a “trans agenda” brainwashing schoolchildren. (Both of these are clear reiterations of 1980s style homophobia, when gay men and lesbians were accused of being predators in public toilets and Thatcher’s Section 28 legislation.)
TERFs usually attack non-binary people in similar (if confused) ways, or deny their existence altogether, whilst describing trans men as scientific mutilations, “traitors” to womanhood or helpless victims of trans ideology. Despite claiming to base their theories in “sex” and “biology” they usually erase the existence of intersex people altogether (or otherwise deny autonomy to intersex people who desire consented genital surgery later in life). Less often commented upon is that their ideas are steeped in a colonial mentality, one which imposes their view of a (Western) cis gender binary on the whole world. Many cultures and indigenous identities exist which refuse this model; Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists contribute to the racism that erases these peoples’ ways of life. They are part of the legacy of the British empire, an empire which attempted to eradicate the Hijra population in South Asia just as it enacted similar violence across the globe.
Why does all this matter?
In a recent twist, this quite English fringe ideology has more recently been taken up, in part or in full, by a minority of Welsh nationalists. Such individuals have happily joined forces with their usual enemies – Tory populists, UKIP and other reactionaries – to attack the few civil rights that trans people have. Groups such as A Women’s Place, Transgender Trend and homegrown Women’s Voice Wales continue to use the same language as Janice Raymond, decrying trans people as predators. Alliances between new TERF organisations, the far-right and conservative Evangelicals continued to evolve – a trend which has only accelerated during the pandemic.
In the lead-up to the recent elections, anti-trans sentiment online in the Welsh indy movement reached fever pitch. Transphobic slurs, malicious targeting and purposeful misgendering were carried out in the name of Wales. Others at the sharp end have written eloquently about specific events, and we urge you to read their statements. Since these events, the most blatant transphobes in the Senedd – Helen Mary Jones, Neil McEvoy, UKIP and its offspring – have lost their seats, whilst Alba (with its anti-trans populism) proved to be an electoral disaster. It also appears that YesCymru is beginning to take transphobia (and other oppressions) seriously. But in so far as transphobia remains a structural part of Welsh society, its ideological counterpart will only continue to haunt our movements.
Some critics claim that trans and non-binary oppression is marginal to the question of Welsh independence. On the contrary, it is the actions of a small number of anti-trans activists that have threatened to derail the movement. Further, Wales will only be free if it brings meaningful change to those most marginalised by British society. Undod’s message is clear: this freedom cannot be posited on the basis of oppression. Any movement that fails to recognise this digs its own grave.
Whether or not the Indy movement successfully deals with its problems, trans and non-binary people will not give up. The examples described above are bleak and the political climate toxic, but trans life is no tragedy to be pitied any more than it is a threat to be feared. We continue not only to survive but to find meaning, joy and new forms of resilience, with groups of care, mutual aid and struggle blossoming in the face of the Covid pandemic. Trans and non-binary people are not defined by the transphobia we face, but by the excess of life that we affirm everyday.
* “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism” and its acronym were first used in 2008 by (cisgender) feminists as a neutral term to distinguish the current from trans-inclusive Radical Feminism. Anti-trans feminists have increasingly rejected the label, tending to refer to themselves simply as Radical Feminists (despite an increasing number in fact belonging to the reformist feminist tradition). “Gender Critical” originally referenced “a trans-inclusive, queer feminist critical analysis of the sexist aspects of gender, such as gender stereotypes, gender roles, and gender hierarchies” (Cristan Williams, The SAGE Encyclopedia of Trans Studies, 2021). It was promoted by Elizabeth Hungerford in 2013 however as an identity for anti-trans feminists, who have since appropriated it wholesale . “Gender Critical” in this new usage is a thin disguise for binary sex essentialism and a euphemism for transgender critical.