Six weeks after the success of the 1917 Russian revolution, the Soviet Union became the first country to make gender and sexual variance legal. Trans people, as we are now called, in Russia between 1917 and 1933 enjoyed access to healthcare, gender affirmation surgery, and occupied notable positions in politics and the Red Army. One hundred years later, the U.S. government is proposing a retrograde definition of sex to try to exclude trans and intersex people from U.S. civil society, by definition. The lack of legal and social protections for trans people, especially trans women, already contributes to trans people being the most susceptible social group to suicide. This does not seem to be an issue for the Trump administration.
On October 21, 2018 the New York Times published an article entitled ‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration based on a document leaked from the United States Department of Health and Human Services. According to this leak, the Trump administration is attempting to establish a legal definition of “sex” under title IX of Federal law, “the civil rights law that bans gender discrimination in education programs that receive government financial assistance.” The legal definition of sex would narrowly define gender as a “biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.” The reasoning behind the proposed legislation, that also calls for genetic testing to resolve any “disputes” about a person’s sex, is that the “lack of clarity” around the legal definition of sex in the past government allowed the Obama administration to “wrongfully extend civil rights protections to people who should not have them.” This legislation would virtually render trans and intersex people outside the sphere of civil rights protections—in legal terms, non-persons.
Trump’s Anti-Trans Track Record
The first moment of LGBTQ community outrage against Trump was sparked last year when his administration tried to make it possible to ban trans people from the U.S. Army except under “certain conditions.” The Army policy did not define these “certain conditions” but did state that “experts” decided trans people presented considerable risks to the military’s effectiveness and lethality. Top military officials and civil rights groups opposed the ban arguing that everyone should have a right to join the military. Joshua Block from the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT and HIV project said that trans people should not have to choose between “their humanity and their country.” It is worth mentioning this maneuver, regardless of whether you believe trans people or anyone should join the U.S. military, because the targeted approach of this policy fits into a larger anti-trans sentiment pushed forward by the Trump administration.
In another New York Times article published on May 18, 2018, columnist Katie Benner explained how the Trump administration rolled back protections for gay and trans people in prisons. The Bureau of Prisons ruled that that they will now use a person’s biological sex to determine “where they will be housed and what bathroom the person will use.” The Transgender Offender Manual also states that “assigning an inmate to a prison facility based on the person’s identified gender is appropriate only in ‘rare cases.’” Vanita Gupta, chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under the Obama administration, argued that the Trump Administration “seems to be using every opportunity to roll back the progress for LGBTQ people… even against the grain of where the public is, and is headed.”
Alongside the reform to prison assignment, the Justice Department has ceased to ask about sexual orientation and gender identification in their National Crime Victimization Survey. The consequence of this is that vital information about the different levels of violence that gay and trans people experience will be lost. Existing data shows that gay and trans people are subject to more bullying, physical assault, and threats by weapons in schools. Revoking research into how gay and trans people, including youth and the elderly, experience violence could stymie efforts by civil and human rights advocates that lobby for more protections for gay and trans people based on their sexual orientation and gender identification. It also would also make it harder for grassroots organizers to collect information about trans antagonistic discrimination in order to struggle against it.
Many racialized and working class gay and trans people know that the law has never been there to protect us, yet this news still hit us hard. Miss Major, a trans elder and activist tweeted: “after 70 years I’m here to tell you that the system has always tried to break us. All us trans girls know we got to depend on each other and when enough bitches come together we can burn it down and use the ashes to build the motherfucking mansions we deserve.” Not all of the responses were as revolutionary as Miss Major’s; another Twitter user tweeted: “This is very, very, very, very, very, very bad. I cannot express how bad this will be.”
Dean Spade elaborates on this, arguing that defining gender as biological sex through federal legislation will have immediate negative material consequences for trans people. In his article, Right Wing Fantasies About Gender are Killing Trans People, Spade argues that “even the rumors of such a policy is enough to stir increased transphobic action by low-level bureaucrats at shelters, welfare offices, DMVs, schools and other places where there is the power to make trans people’s’ lives difficult and dangerous.” Spade continues, “these plans could create a norm that keeps trans people out of basic services and makes us more vulnerable to discrimination and violence. Trans people could see renewed and enhanced barriers in health care, education, employment, and ID.” Spade identifies that the policy is part of a “ broader patriarchal and authoritarian ideology about enforcing a gendered worldview that constrains everyone, especially those most touched by state systems that target and control the lives of poor people and people of color.” The Trump administration’s retrograde definition of gender is part of creating the mythical American past that Trump calls “great”—a past that never actually existed.
TERFS to blame too: the problem of “feminist” nostalgia
Nostalgia for glory days that never took place is not just concentrated in the White House; trans exclusionary radical feminists also engage in cissexist nostalgia, seeing themselves as the guardians of an illusory feminist struggle. There are two different approaches to gender within TERF ideology: that gender is socially constructed but sex is biological—the meaningless political slogan being “trans women are trans women”; and the analysis that echoes the reactionary definition pushed forward by the U.S. State, which is that gender is no different from biological sex. Both lines see biological sex as an ahistorical truth rather than a scientific concept birthed from the surgical manipulation and physical culling of people whose genitalia or gender appearance made us harder to sort into capitalist and colonial gender roles. Sex is not a preexisting quality in people, it is a scientific reduction of human being and human bodies, and its parameters are influenced by social and historical environments. Feminist theorist Monique Wittig states in The Category of Sex, “There is no sex. Only the sex that oppresses and the sex that is oppressed.”
It is hard to distinguish between the gender politics of these so-called “radical” feminists and the most reactionary religious bigots. Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the department of Health and Human Services referred to the Obama administration’s decision to label gender as “largely an individual choice” as “radical gender ideology,” and stated that the Obama administration’s policies were a “culmination of a series of unilateral, and frequently lawless, administration attempts to impose a new definition of what it means to be a man or a women on the entire nation.” Similarly, TERFs such as Kathy Brennan and Meghan Murphy have made a name for themselves by denouncing trans women as perverted men looking to “violate the boundaries” of women and arguing the answer to what makes somebody a woman or man is based on what was between their legs when they were born. The anti-patriarchal revolution proposed by radical feminist doctrine, ironically, finds its closest united front in the two primary institutions of patriarchy: religion and the State.
By splitting the forces of feminist resistance to patriarchy, and muddying the waters of who women’s enemies are, TERF activism has helped create the social conditions for anti trans legislation to become a possibility. As trans militancy has increased, so has the repression of trans people. In the conflict between trans women and patriarchy, TERFs have served as a divisive force within feminist struggle and have opened up a tactical opportunity for politicians to create legislation that harms trans women. The department of Health and Human Services suggestion that trans women have had civil rights wrongfully extended to us means that cis women deserve civil rights protection but trans women do not. The Trump administration’s anti trans legislation is an attack on the civil rights of all women—even cis women are affected because rather than women defining womanhood on their own terms, the power to define what is to be a woman is concentrated inside the hands of patriarchal men at the helm of a violently patriarchal State.
The TERF argument against trans women is that barring trans women from having civil rights protections as women does not have negative material consequences for trans women because we have access to “male privilege.” Yet, as sexual assault, murder, and suicide due to male violence are the most pressing gender power problems for trans women, it’s hard for us to not wonder: what privilege? The privilege to clean, fuck, and submit, or die? The social exclusion that will result from the new anti trans legislation in the U.S. is the same social exclusion TERFs have been arguing in favour of for decades. As recent as last year, leading trans antagonistic feminist organization Rape Relief put out a statement arguing that trans women should be excluded from “female-born spaces”; Meghan Murphy wrote an article for the Feminist Current stating that if “trans-identified males” (meaning trans women) actually had solidarity with “women” (meaning cis women) we would respect women’s only spaces and not enter them; and TERF activists initiated a struggle against Canada’s Bill C-16 which would protect trans people from discrimination based on their gender identification and presentation. TERFs are to blame too because their political views on gender align with and reinforce the harbingers of patriarchal violence: our bosses and landlords, the cops and government, and the abusive men who see trans women as disposable objects.
Radical feminists are agents of reaction
TERFs and the Trump administration have come to the same conclusion: trans people are not people and should not receive the most basic of social necessities. Defining gender as sex, and sex as immutable and natural, is an attack on women and the gains women have made through centuries of struggle.
In a society where men dominate all aspects of social and economic life, masculinity is not an essential quality but an institution of power. Inversely, femininity is defined through that institution of power; to be a woman is to have your very being defined in opposition to manhood. Trans women and cis women stand in social opposition to men alike. Black women also stand in opposition to white women who have internalized the logic of patriarchal white supremacy. Trans women stand in opposition to cis women who have internalized the logic of patriarchy and use their gender power in the service of trans women’s social and material extinction. If sex is defined as what the far right-wing American State finds easy to “administer” then TERFs are wrong: biological sex is not an essential quality, it is being legislated by the stroke of a President’s pen. A revolutionary overthrow of gender power begins with acknowledging this fact.