Originally published: 06.04.17
I have been thinking lately about the power of language; in particular how it can be used to silence. I’ve been a feminist all my life, my mother was a second wave activist, and I care hugely for the future of our movement.
Over centuries feminists have been labelled man-haters, family destroyers, ugly; yet still we’ve continued to raise our voices. Recently however, we’ve seen those wishing to shut us up change tack.
Last week I posted an article online about a transwoman accused of violently raping two women. I expressed concern as to the risk to female prisoners should that individual serve their sentence in a women’s prison. And I was called a bigot and compared to a white supremacist by a friend I had known twenty years.
It hurt, but she is wrong. Conflating any questioning of transactivism with racism demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of the systemic, hierarchical nature of racist oppression – a similar misunderstanding that underpins the notion of “cis” women as somehow privileged in relation to transwomen. Missing is an understanding of both racism and sexism as centuries old class structures in which one group subordinates another in order to appropriate their labour and shore up capitalist systems. The imposition of socially constructed ideas of race and gender are sewn into the fabric of our society as a means of oppressing one group while granting dominance to another. Discrimination against trans individuals has no such historical or systemic context and as such, any comparison with racism is a dangerous – and for some insulting – false equivalency. None the less it has huge power to silence. Who might not be cowed by such an accusation, whether or not it stands up to any meaningful structural analysis?
At the root of women’s oppression lies an unassailable biological reality. Women are denied reproductive rights, paid less than men for doing the same job, and carry out the vast bulk of unpaid labour in the home, for no other reason than we are biologically female. As a woman I don’t get to opt out of this reality. I don’t, for instance, get to say to my employer that today I’m identifying as male so will be expecting a pay rise commensurate with that fact. Gender on the other hand is imposed and performative, so I can present as feminine in make up and heels, or I can choose to shave my head and wear masculine clothing. Either way my biology and the discrimination I suffer as a result of it remains a fact, not a privilege.
Recently the BMA has advised doctors to use the words “pregnant people” in favour of pregnant women, the HRC suggests “front hole” as an alternative to vagina, and Laurie Penny asks: “What’s a shorter non-essentialist way to refer to ‘people who have a uterus and all that stuff’?” We are seeing a fundamental change in the language in order not to exclude the one percent of people who identify as transgender.
In light of this, women need to be asking themselves some hard questions. Namely: if the language around our biological reality is being erased, who benefits? If it’s no longer acceptable to say that women have vaginas, experience pregnancy, or that rape is a gendered crime committed exclusively by men, then how do we discuss our biologically based repression? And if we cannot discuss it, how do we then organise to resist it? Finally, who might this lack of resistance serve?
We need to ask ourselves why, when it is men who are perpetrating epidemic levels of violence against transwomen, is it women on the receiving end of so much vitriol. Women – who have been conditioned their entire lives to fear male violence – commit the supposedly appalling crime of voicing discomfort at the idea of male bodied people in their sex segregated spaces, and are vilified and labelled bigots. You have heard the phrase: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
This looks and quacks like misogyny. Misogyny dictates over half the worlds population must have their language erased for the benefit of an apparent few. Misogyny sees no demands made on men to make their sex segregated spaces more inclusive and insists it is always women who must make uncomplaining room. Misogyny sees women with completely reasonable concerns continually smacked down.
We need a third way. It’s imperative that transgender people are able to live their lives in peace, free from violence and discrimination. It’s also imperative that women are safe and able to organise for the eradication of their sex based oppression. I see a future in which no group need be thrown under a bus for the sake of another. Until then, I will not be shutting up any time soon.
Jeni Harvey: Writer, feminist, mother. Likes cake, hates Jeremy Clarkson. These are my principles – if you don’t like them, I have others. @GappyTales or Huff Post