Radical feminism, transgender issues, and phenomenology

Sarah Stein Lubrano
August 24, 2014

It’s an old debate in radical politics, and apparently far from resolution. Recently, a New Yorker article  entitled “The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism”  outlined the conflict between some radical feminists and many trans[1]  activists, explaining that a subset of radical feminists have long seen  transsexual or transgender people as a threat to the feminist cause.  This is because many trans people feel that their gender is innate,  whereas the radical feminists see gender entirely as a social construct,  an element of the oppressive patriarchy. As the New Yorker  article describes, some radical feminists even hypothesize that  female-to-male trans people were trying to gain a higher social status  within the patriarchy, while male-to-female trans people had a peculiar  fetish and sexually enjoyed their new identity (the latter idea appears  to be scientifically unfounded).[2]

The conflict is remarkably bitter two groups of social-justice-minded  people. The radical feminists in question excluded trans women from  events or blocked them from using the women’s bathrooms, while some  trans activists posted murderous threats towards the radical feminists.  The New Yorker article, too, spurred serious debate. Julia  Serano, who was interviewed for the article and who feels she was  misrepresented, wrote an op-ed  decrying the piece: “ it is clear to me now that Goldberg merely used  me as a prop to give her piece the pretense of balance.” A number of  other commentators chimed in as well, saying the piece’s sources were skewed towards the anti-trans radical feminists and its slant was biased. Pieces are still being published every couple of days.

What is striking upon reading this debate is that the terms of the  disagreement are not always as clearly defined as they might be, and  their philosophical roots are not fully examined. The radical feminists  see gender as something entirely external, created by society and  imprinted on the individual forcefully. In contrast, although there is  hardly one concrete, agreed-upon theory about gender inside the trans  community, many trans people feel that their gender is either partly or  fully innate, an aspect of themselves that they discovered to be true  whether they willed it or not.

However, these two ideas—gender as a social construct and gender as  innate—are not necessarily in conflict as they appear. To be a student  is a social construct in some form, yet we can feel quite strongly about  that as part of our identity. In fact, we can feel like a student  without societal constructs in some sense; even if we no longer are  undergoing formal education, we can think of ourselves as an “eternal  student”. Similarly, many personality traits—kindness, intelligence,  wit—are derived from a combination of external and internal measures.  They often only exist in terms of a spectrum, and we find our place in  comparison to others we know. These traits, too, are deeply felt as  parts of our identity. Though gender is surely different, if not unique,  there are conceptual possibilities outside of strict binaries that  should be embraced. Our identity relies both on the available  information from society and our own relatively internal inclinations.

It seems, then, that the radical feminists who oppose recognizing  trans people not only fail to recognize this false dichotomy, but they  also tend to distrust trans people who report where they find themselves  falling along the spectrum between innate and socially-constructed  gender. What makes this particularly odd is that the feminist movement  has long relied on and advocated for the importance of personal  experience. Feminists coined (and Carol Hanisch popularized) the term  “the personal is political.” Radical feminism relies, in short, on a  historical and epistemological grounding in phenomenology. In simpler  words, their own ideas make little sense without the assumption that  people’s individual experiences are valuable and meaningful.

I am not the only person to apply the shiny philosophical word phenomenology to this issue. Sara Ahmed,  for example, suggests there are a number of different  phenomenological—in the sense of lived and subjective—experiences to  consider. The point here—without delving too far into the different  possible kinds of trans experiences or phenomenology—is that there are different  kinds of personal experiences on this question. It is, simply put,  rigid, controlling, and uncreative of the anti-trans radical feminists  to imagine that lived experience can only conform to social norms or  expectations, which is essentially the claim such radical feminists make  when they imagine transsexual or transgender people as trying to regain  power in the patriarchy or having sexual fetishes. Moreover, to claim  that ones lived experience of female-bodied-woman-in-the patriarchy is  so meaningful that it renders the lived experiences of others mute or  incorrect is to miss the point of phenomenology itself. If subjective  experience matters, then the subjective experiences of trans people must  matter too. The task of a feminist, radical or otherwise, is thus (at  least as the first course) to trust others about their lived  experiences, to believe them as they wish for all women to be believed.


[1] Refers To Transgender But Also Sometimes Transsexual, An Older Term That Some Trans People Prefer.

[2] See Here And Here  For A Scientific Explanation Of Why. To Summarize Very Briefly, It  Appears That Among Other Things, Cis (Non-trans) Women Have Very Similar  Fantasies About The Sexual Attractiveness Of Their Own Bodies, And At  Similar Rates.

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Sarah Stein Lubrano