Unclenching

Last week, I was in the Netherlands. It was my first trip to Europe. At the risk of sounding like that person, it was an absolutely incredible four days.

I don’t think I realized how angry Americans are — how much of our time we spend clenching — until I saw the conspicuous absence of that anger.

In the view of several Nederlanders with whom I spoke, Americans wrap everything up in identity. We don’t vote republican or democrat, we are republican or democrat. The Dutch have several political parties and a given citizen might well vote for a different party each election, because they are looking at the issues instead of signaling an alliance. It probably helps that their most conservative party resembles our liberal party.

We don’t hold a view, we live and breathe it, we argue it, we express our desire to annihilate the people who don’t espouse it (and of course, we have enough guns to make good on our threats). In the view of at least two women with whom I spoke, Northern Europeans handle disagreement by literally shrugging. They hear your view. They are confident in their own. They don’t worry about it.

The word that kept coming to my mind for them was grace.

The Dutch will talk about religion and politics at the drop of a hat, as far as I can tell, because they can. They don’t have to steer clear of these topics because they don’t make enemies of those with whom they speak about them. They will talk about Trump and then they will talk about mayonnaise-and-garlic-covered fries. I detected no change in their blood pressure as they moved between these topics.

The mayonnaise-and-garlic-covered fries were delicious, for the record.

I met a young a woman in her early twenties who escaped civil war in Libya and moved to Scandinavia. She regularly braves gunfire to cross the border in order to fight for women’s civil rights. She is a badass and she does not have time for your shit.

I met a man who survived the Breivik attack in Norway. He corralled children and led them to safety. He now spends his time in a snow-covered cabin in the wilderness.

I met a law student concerned about the ethical ramifications of a virtual reality now technically advanced enough to blur the brain’s ability to distinguish reality from (potentially violent) fantasy.

People who aren’t busy proving themselves to the masses are free to take up important and interesting work.

On Saturday, I left Maastricht to spend the day in Amsterdam. I arrived a bit late thanks to transportation difficulties and was worried I’d missed all the fun. But the weather was temperate and I got a bit of walking in before returning to my airbnb. There, the lovely lesbian couple who hosted me immediately shoved a tumbler of Jameson into my hand and plied me with brilliant, uninhibited conversation well into the night.

I bonded with a number of people quickly because none of them were afraid to get real.

I think living in Europe could be really good for my health.

TERF: It’s time for you to drop this expression of misogyny from your vocabulary.

Welcome to what I hope will be the only article I ever write on the concept of so-called “trans exclusionary radical feminists” (“TERFs”), an alleged contingent of fringe-belief feminists who reportedly hate transgender people. This article, in its pursuit of reason, will issue its readers a few challenges. However, they are challenges that all sane and reasonable people should be able to accept.

The first challenge is this: if we are friends in some capacity, whether in the real or virtual world, read this article to the end before you choose to “unfriend” me. Your fair judgment of me should be based on my actual views and not on views that someone else has invented and pinned on me. If we’re real-life friends, and you’re confused about what I believe, I further invite you to grab a cup of coffee with me and ask me absolutely anything you like. I have nothing to hide and I’ve never had anything to hide.

This is not because I require everyone’s friendship. To the contrary, if you’re a knee-jerk unfriender, then I probably don’t need you in my life. It’s because I have faith that the people I’ve chosen to surround myself with are up to the task.

Are you ready to hear my other challenges? Are you scared? Don’t be scared. Come bravely with me on this journey.

Here are the totally intimidating things (that’s sarcasm) that I’m going to ask of you:

– Confront your unconscious biases.
– Partake of the forbidden fruit of knowledge (i.e., read).
– Beware of ad hominem and strawman fallacies.

Let’s talk about unconscious biases. We all have them, however liberal and cool we may think we are. Here’s a set of now-famous tests from Harvard that reveal our unconscious biases about everything from age to weight to race.

Sex is one of the things we have unconscious biases about. It’s those biases that cause us to think of an opinionated male as assertive and an opinionated female as bossy or shrill. The term “TERF,” which is in practice applied mainly to women, appeals to that very bias.

Here’s another one of my crazy challenges: I challenge you to concede that it’s ok for women to be opinionated. That being opinionated, in and of itself, doesn’t make us objectionable people.

The power in the word “TERF” relies partly on the fear of another scary word contained within the acronym: “radical.” But “radical” in this context doesn’t mean what you think it means. It means “root.” Note that the square root symbol in mathematics is called both a “root” and a “radical,” and that a Rancid song, as well as the Jimmy Cliff song to which it alludes, both refer to political allies as “roots radicals.”

Roots movements are movements that wish to get to the causes (i.e., the roots) of problems rather than to treat to their symptoms. Remember when republican men said feminists needed to support Sarah Palin because she was a woman? And we said no, we want to address the system that causes the inequality, not chip away at the inequality by promoting the advancement of a single individual? That’s addressing the root insead of the symptom.

As a result, roots movements sometimes call for the overhaul of a system that’s deemed too broken to fix. An example would be to call for socialism instead of reforms to capitalism. That’s how the word “radical” starts to take on the connotation of “extreme”—the actual overhaul of a system, if accomplished, would be a more extreme solution than the reform of it.

It’s easy to cling to the “extreme” connotation of the word when you’re repeatedly told that radical feminists are mean and bigoted. But that’s all part of appealing to your latent bias against females, also known as misogyny. Women are ok, your monkey brain thinks, as long as they don’t get too uppity. Too opinionated. Too independent. As long as they stay away from unattractive, extreme behavior like growing out their armpit hair or forgetting about men. As long as they know their place.

As it turns out, though, being interested in the roots of female oppression does not make you mean. Despite what you’ve heard, there are zero radical feminists calling for violence or harassment toward transgender people. Don’t take my word for it; confirm for yourself by reading the words of roots feminists (not their detractors). Are you condemning books you haven’t read? Do you know who else does that? Young-Earth Christians and the antagonists of Fahrenheit 451 are a couple of examples.

No, radical feminists are merely feminists who investigate the roots of women’s oppression. As it turns out, their research locates the nexus of that oppression in biologically female* bodies, citing the many practices that solely or disproportionately target those bodies (like sex trafficking and FGM). Roots feminists also investigate how society’s assignment of sex stereotypes to females reifies and justifies this sex-based oppression.

This isn’t hateful. It just isn’t.

Not so long ago, it wasn’t even controversial—remember the backlash when Barbie thought math class was “tough”? But today, some activists, mainly trans women, object to the very existence of this entire forty-year-old field of study. Trans women have two concerns, as far as I can tell: that analysis of female bodies leaves them out, and that without some endorsement of sex stereotypes they’re left with little claim to womanhood.

But the feminist study of sexed bodies and sex stereotypes predates current transgender activists’ concern with “gender expression” by decades and has nothing to do with it. In fact, that’s exactly the problem.

Some transgender activists want feminists to renounce all interest in biological sex and replace it with an interest in gender expression. They theorize that people with vaginas aren’t oppressed; rather, people who wear lipstick are oppressed. Cool theory, but must it preclude investigation into all other theories? Suppose we agree that “woman” is a social role that includes both people born with female bodies and people born with male bodies. Why should the latter control the discourse of the former? Must we fall back on the perennial and regressive tradition of asking female people not to talk about their bodies? Let’s not let our fervor for supporting one group of people cause us to completely lose empathy for another.

Personally, I will continue to be interested in and fight for the rights of females, and I will not be shamed for that. As Maya Angelou said: “It’d be stupid not to be on my own side.”

Radical feminists don’t hate trans women. They simply aren’t talking about trans women. It is in fact trans men, not trans women, who fall under their realm of research. So “trans-exclusionary” is not simply beside the point, but a misnomer. The study of female bodies includes all of those who have them, including those who are trans.

We’re all very upset about transphobia, but there isn’t any to see here.

Now, let’s talk about the forbidden fruit of knowledge.

There’s an easy way to determine whether or not I’m right about all of this. Just read the work of radical feminists. Dig beyond the tweets and the comments section of Huffpo and find the primary sources.

Be advised, though, that this fruit is forbidden indeed, as discovered recently by feminist vlogger and sex educator Laci Green. She asked the world: “radfems out there, can you help me understand what specifically about the politics of gender/identity you find problematic?”

For the highly scandalous crime of asking people for information, Laci was immediately called a TERF, a nazi, and pro-rape; had her family harassed; and was treated to a rant from an Everyday Feminism author accusing her of delivering “transphobia on a platter.” Read the links and take note: these threats were directed at her not for espousing a particular position on the topic, which as far as I know she has not yet done, but for the specific act of asking for the information.

This is unfortunately not unusual. Here, Katie Herzog, a journalist for The Stranger, finds herself the recipient of “vitriol, hate mail, and threats” for inquiring into the lives of seven people who regretted transitioning and transitioned back to their birth sex. Even as her article itself denounces “TERFs,” the very act of asking questions places her among them for many readers.

And there’s more. Here’s a website documenting the harassment received by people promoting or asking about the radical feminist position. High points: “TERFs can choke on my girl dick” and “What if someone traced [her IP address] and killed her… I’d do that but I’m a bit far.” Here’s another. From that one: “I hope you get fucking skinned, very slowly, whilst a hot iron melts the skin back onto you, just to peel it off again. i hope someone breaks into your house and shits in your fucking mouth. i hope someone breaks in and murders you so brutally that they can’t even identify the body.”

This obsession for sniffing out and punishing “TERFs” is ugly business. And it has misogyny written all over it.

Context confirms that again and again. If that’s not enough, consider that radical feminists consider the word a slur. Suppose you became aware of a word for African Americans who hold a particular civil rights philosophy. If they informed you that the word is racist and is often used against them in anger, would you continue to use it?

Then don’t continue to use or condone a hateful word for women.

Creating gendered insults for “misbehaving” women is an old and established tradition: feminazi, bitch, slut, whore, harpy, nag, shrew, battle-axe, cunt. “Such a nasty woman.” “She was warned and nevertheless she persisted.” Will we, at some point, outgrow it?

But let’s talk about those despised feminist views. If there’s something offensive among the positions of roots feminism, what exactly is it?

Is it the idea that only female children are subjected to female genital mutilation? Is it the idea that women are not inherently bad at math? Is it the notion that oppression is a structural, rather than an individual, phenomenon? Is it the idea, articulated by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi, that the experiences of trans women are not identical to the experiences of natal women? Can you dissect and discuss those points on their own merit, instead of merely associating their proponents with hate (ad hominem) or accusing them of views they haven’t espoused (strawman, or actually, straw feminist)?

And are women whose opinions are not in lock-step with your own really worthy of driving out of town with torches?

Really?

Some ex-friends of mine continue to talk to an accused pedophile caught with what police called “a great deal” of child porn, but have deemed me untouchable, for holding – actually for being accused of holding, as they did not check with me – ultimately unremarkable feminist views. That’s misogyny.

When opinionated women are worse than pedophiles, that’s what misogyny looks like.

Instead of taking up your torch and falling in line with this witch hunt, investigate and respond to what radical feminists are actually saying. Can you refute their positions? Great! Your well-thought-out, considered responses can only enhance the dialog and add to the world’s greater knowledge. Your careless slinging of thought-terminating epithets, not so much.

“Ok, fine,” I hear you thinking. “Maybe you have a point. Maybe trans women aren’t identical to natal women. But isn’t it mean to point that out? Doesn’t that hurt their feelings? Why not just keep your mouth shut about it?”

Interesting idea, but unlike almost all of you, I was not given that option. I had the misfortune of being married to an unhappy transitioning person who demanded to know my innermost feelings on the issue and then became angry when faced with them. Dishonesty and evasion are not options when you’re married. At least, not the way I do marriage.

Blessed are you who were called upon only to stand on the sidelines and cheer, instead of spending night after night into the wee hours of the morning being grilled with questions for which no answers would be deemed acceptable enough. And then publicly outed – for what exactly? For thought crime. For spending fifteen years in a relationship that everyone in sight (including my ex) considered a heterosexual one, and not coming away from that experience with the conviction that it had actually been a lesbian relationship all along.

I supported my ex emotionally and financially, gave gifts of clothes and manicures, counseled excruciating spirals of depression, weathered the loss of much that I held dear, led the charge on preferred pronouns, and ultimately watched my ex completely drop out of a relationship that I tried in vain to hold together, but for the crime of perceiving, and not lying about my perceptions in private conversations, I was accused of “abuse.”

And then there’s the cruel little fact that only one of us is expected to forever keep quiet about those fifteen years (a third of my life, for what it’s worth). If my ex says that relationship was always a lesbian one, everyone else must revise the version of history they recall in favor of that version. But if I want to speak of what I experienced, my voice is to be muzzled. How candid and honest do you think I can be while “correcting” my speech to reflect the views of someone who isn’t me? How much meaning is preserved when language is coerced?

Consider how much my history changes, and how little sense it makes, when forced into its revisionist version:

– My wife and I got married in Indiana when same-sex marriage was illegal.
– I considered myself a lesbian when we met, but out of respect for her, I removed a pride sticker from my car so she wouldn’t think I wasn’t serious about her and might leave her for a woman.
– I wanted to go to gay bars when we first got together, but she refused because she said she’d feel like a tourist because she wasn’t gay.
– She ended up at a strip bar with her dad when it was assumed she should be included in a stag party with the other men.
– I had to take a pregnancy test when we thought she’d gotten me pregnant.
– She used to be very proud of how long she could grow her beard.

None of that sounds at all like what happened from my vantage point.

Perhaps my ex made a mistake by spending 40 years accepting male names and pronouns and presenting male to the world and entering into a heterosexual marriage and calling it one. But that mistake was not my mistake, and it is not my job to help cover it up.

Asking me to modulate my voice to reflect another’s reality is asking me to be complicit in my own silencing. To lose my voice, my story. To lose fifteen years of my life like it never happened.


* I use the scientific definition of the word “female,” as distinct from “woman” and other terms with potentially social meanings. Here I define a female as an individual with XX chromosomes and the reproductive system (typically ovaries, a uterus and a vagina) ordered to produce ova and gestate a child (whether or not these are functional). If you object to this definition, please feel free to rename such individuals with another word that you prefer. This underlying concept is meaningful, whether or not there is unanimous agreement on the terminology for it.