As Lesbian feminists of the Second Wave, we are raising our voices against a dangerous trend in the LGBT and "transactivist" communities: the use of violent rhetoric, imagery, threats, and acts against women because of disagreements about sex/gender theory.
The recent Degenderettes art show at the San Francisco Public Library, and the mobbing and acts of physical violence directed against ten or so older Lesbian women at the San Francisco Dyke March (June 23), illustrate how violent words and images may lead to violent actions.
Further, we oppose the practices of terfing (labelling a feminist, often a Lesbian feminist, as a TERF or "Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist") and no-platforming of feminists so terfed. The recent terfing and no-platforming of Max Dashu, a Lesbian feminist scholar who was scheduled to present at the Modern Witches Confluence (MWC) scheduled for this fall, is a prime example. Fortunately, her exclusion has led to such an outcry among defenders of free speech and open dialogue on sex/gender issues within the women's and Lesbian communities that MWC is reconsidering its unwise decision.
As older Lesbian feminists not so unlike our sisters who were physically attacked at the Dyke March, or our sister Max Dashu who witnessed this attack and reported on her experience, we would like also to place these dangerous trends of violence, exclusion, and dehumanization within the context of a longer 45-year conflict among Lesbian feminists which we know from firsthand experience. Our purpose is to promote truth and reconciliation, and to emphasize that respect for boundaries is essential if we are to live and let live despite inevitable differences on feminist theory and practice alike.return to top
At least since 1972, there has been a controversy within women's and specifically Lesbian feminist communities about the presence of transsexual women, people who are born in more or less "standard" male bodies, but by early childhood express a desire to change sex and live as women. After being raised as boys, and thus experiencing male privilege, male-to-female transsexuals choose and undergo a process of sex/gender transition. For such transsexuals who are Lesbian feminists, this process of transition has at least four aspects:
Physical or medical transition, which involves the use of hormone therapy and surgery to change many although not all primary and secondary sex characteristics, so as to approximate the anatomy of women born and raised.
Social and legal transition, including the obtaining of new identity documents and, of course, moving into the everyday reality of living as a woman.
Female and more specifically feminist (re)socialization, in which one becomes a "woman-identified woman" (the name of a famous manifesto by Radicalesbians in 1970) by identifying and living not only as a woman but with other women in sisterhood and solidarity.
Feminist (re)education, in which one studies women's herstory, and experiences women's culture and feminist process together with one's sisters.
Such a process is emphatically not just a matter of saying, "I identify as a woman." Rather, as in immigration and naturalization, years of transforming education and experience, as well as medical transition, are involved.
During what may be called the Lesbian feminist movement within Second Wave feminism, roughly 1970-1980, many Lesbian groups and communities freely accepted transsexual Lesbian feminists as equal sisters. Others restricted membership or events to natal women or Women Born Female (WBF) — a fairly recent term widely accepted, however, by feminists with Second Wave roots. To describe transsexual women, a good corresponding term might be Women Reassigned Female (WRF), since the process of transition is often called "sex reassignment."
Then, and now, the sane and sisterly policy is one of mutual respect: to recognize that each women's and Lesbian community has the right to set its own boundaries and decide its membership using whatever definitions or concepts it chooses.return to top
Some radical feminists and feminist groups place a special emphasis on what may be called "sex-caste oppression" that only women who are WBF experience. Here a caste means a social group based on birth. Thus natal women or WBF are raised from birth as girls, the "perinatal pinking" described by Naomi Scheman, facing many disadvantages under patriarchy. Sex-caste oppression involves being directly targeted by role expectations and stereotypes like inferiority in science and math, beauty and glamour culture, sexual objectification, rape culture, etc. It also involves unspoken biases, such as the documented classroom pattern of calling on boys more frequently than on girls.
Further, a large majority of natal women can become pregnant and give birth, reproductive powers esteemed in the pre-patriarchal "matrix cultures" studied by Max Dashu, but which under patriarchy become reproductive vulnerability and servitude. Natal women who grow up under the expectation that they will bear children, but are infertile, also experience a kind of reproductive oppression, which may be internalized, by failing to meet this expectation.
In contrast, transsexual women or WRF, who are deemed male at birth and are raised as boys, do not experience these forms of female sex-caste and reproductive oppression. However, WRF who have transitioned do experience "sex-class oppression," the everyday oppression visited on all women by the patriarchy, related in fully transitioned transsexual women to their female or more precisely neofemale sexed embodiment. Both a transsexual woman's sex (physical embodiment) and gender (social position) are involved in this sex-class oppression — as is also true for natal women or WBF, of course.
Some Lesbian feminist communities place a main focus on sex-caste oppression, and draw a WBF-only boundary on their membership or participation in events. Others, while recognizing how sex-caste oppression uniquely affects natal women or WBF, place an emphasis on "sex-class solidarity" and welcome natal and transsexual women (WBF and WRF).
In a truly "inclusive" feminist movement, there is room for both approaches, WBF-only and "WBF and WRF together," with autonomous choice and boundary-drawing by each group or event, and mutual recognition and respect among groups with different positions.
Similarly, some Lesbian groups define a Lesbian simply as a woman, WBF or WRF, who loves and has a primary affectional orientation and commitment to women. Other Lesbian groups hold that only natal women or WBF can truly be Lesbian, having shared the sex-caste experience under patriarchy of surviving girlhood. There is room for both views, and a need for mutual recognition and respect of boundaries.return to top
The expression "Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist" or TERF seems to have originated in 2008 in discussions of feminist theory, without any intent to be insulting, but rather simply to distinguish between different radical feminist positions on transsexualism and related sex/gender issues.
However, over the next few years, two key factors made a term with good intentions into a slur and indeed often a weapon of dehumanization and incitement to violence. First, feminists favoring WBF-only communities, or taken rightly or wrongly to do so, did not accept the "TERF" label, but rather made it clear that they heard it as an insult. Secondly, those "terfing" these women made it increasingly clear that their intent was often not to distinguish between approaches to radical feminism in a benign or neutral way, but to wound and insult.
During the last several years, terfing of women has become, like the patriarchal witchhunts that reached their height in 15th-17th century Europe (not the "Dark Ages," but the celebrated High Renaissance!), or the McCarthyist witchhunts in the USA during the 1950's, an indiscriminate weapon where any feminist may become "fair game." Simply defending the right of WBF-only women's or Lesbian spaces to exist, or disagreeing with some tenet of current "queer theory" or "transactivist theory," makes a WBF or WRF feminist a possible target.
For example, Caroline Criado-Perez, a leading radical feminist in the UK, wrote an article in 2014 critical of the "cis/trans" binary that is a feature of recent queer and transactivist theory. Despite the fact that Criado-Perez has also written about the valuable role that trans women play in feminism, she was terfed on Twitter, receiving immense hostility — after having earlier been harassed and threatened for her many efforts to advance the status of women, by a male antifeminist who was successfully prosecuted.
Not only is terfing a form of verbal disrespect or even violence against women who are our sisters, whatever our disagreements; it interferes with honest and open dialogue about sex/gender issues among feminists based on mutual respect and the willingness to engage in radical listening to each other.
A truly inclusive feminist, or more specifically Lesbian feminist, movement must allow room for differences without insults, dehumanizing rhetoric, or bullying and threats of violence. We urge all Lesbian feminists, WBF and WRF alike, to join us in reaffirming our commitment to mutual recognition and open dialogue.return to top
We decry the weaponized and misogynist aspects of the Degenderettes art show exhibited this last March-April at the San Francisco Public Library. The disturbing violent aspects seem related to a movement calling itself Antifa (i.e. "anti-fascist") which in the name of "progressive" values seeks to "punch" and otherwise launch physical assaults against people deemed to be "fascist," "reactionary," or otherwise undesirable.
One of the items displayed as part of this art show was a shirt soaked in blood with the motto "I Punch TERFS." In past decades, feminists have often protested images of violence against women in pornography and the media, such as the notorious cover of Hustler magazine showing a woman being run through a meat grinder.
It is not hard to draw a connection between that bloody shirt and the actual violence, preceded by cries of "TERF," against the group of ten or so older Lesbians at the Dyke March a few months later.
Also, the Degenderettes art show included an image with the text: "Let TERFS wither cold and alone." These words suggest the usual misogynist image of a spinster or older woman who does not fit into patriarchal expectations of heterosexual marriage, and ends up "withering cold and alone." A printed commentary accompanying this illustration explains that it expresses the hope that feminist women whose opinions supposedly warrant terfing will be abandoned by partners and friends, a fantasy more worthy of the patriarchy than of women seeking sisterly and respectful dialogue.
While the Degenderettes is a group with a variety of members, oriented generally to "queer" and "transactivist" culture, it appears that many identify specifically as "Trans Dykes." We therefore ask how someone who seeks to be recognized and accepted as a woman among women — Lesbian or otherwise — would use patriarchal rhetoric and images of violence against women.return to top
Max Dashu's eyewitness account of what happened at the Dyke March clarifies that the ten or so Lesbian elders who were attacked, who were there through invitations from friends rather than as an organized group, at no point themselves initiated violence. Rather some carried signs that expressed their positions on certain community issues, such as "Lesbian Not Queer." Max adds that in her view some of the signs were "confrontational," and that she had urged the use of greater discretion for this setting. A possible example would be a sign reading "Change Society, Not Your Body." In reaction, they faced a mob directing at them chants of "TERF!" — sometimes amplified by bullhorns. Members of this crowd then started grabbing their signs, an act of physical violence. As a result, some of these older Lesbians were thrown to the ground; some resisted in self-defense, assisted by Max when she saw what was happening. It was only after completing all but the last block of the Dyke March that some of these older Lesbians sought and received police protection in leaving the event without further attacks on them.
This incident should bring home to all feminists that terfing is speech that leads to dehumanization and violence — here, violence against women in their sixties, some with disabilities. As natal and transsexual women, we revere these elder sisters of our own Second Wave generation, and decry the violence directed against them in the name of "inclusive feminism." A truly inclusive feminist must reject violence and embrace differences.return to top
We affirm that our sister Max Dashu's struggle against terfing, no-platforming, and the use of guilt by association is also our struggle as Lesbian feminists of the Second Wave.
Now that the Modern Witches Confluence (MWC) has wisely decided to reconsider its decision to no-platform her — that is, to deny her a platform where she can express her views and participate in public discourse — we join many other Lesbians in affirming that it must renew her invitation to speak, and thus set a precedent in favor of frank and honest dialogue among sisters that will benefit us all.
We join Max in decrying the kind of campaign that resulted in her no-platforming: the citing of actual or often imagined past writings, and of alleged ties with this or that activist or group, as a tactic for silencing an eloquent and outspoken woman's voice. If her right of free speech is in jeopardy, none of us in the Lesbian community is secure in this precious right.return to top
In any Lesbian feminist community, the sexual ethic of noncoercion and enthusiastic consent must be paramount. That is, the only reason for women to have sex with each other is mutually enthusiastic desire and free consent. Rape culture, sadly, is not only pervasive in the larger society, but can appear within Lesbian communities also. Woman-on-woman sexual harassment, outright sexual assault, and domestic violence are tragic realities.
This should go without saying, but we feel a need to emphasize that no Lesbian has either a right or an obligation to have sex with any other Lesbian! Why are we stating such an obvious fact?
The reason is because of certain trends in "transactivism," in which women who choose not to consider or have sex with self-identified "transactivists" or the like are called "transphobes" or terfed. Such conduct is a form of patriarchal rape culture. The simple feminist rule is this: "No means no — no explanations needed!"
Woman-on-woman boundary violations can be committed by and against natal and transsexual women, WBF and WRF, alike. A problem in recent years have been the claim of a few "transactivists" who have not or do not intend to have Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) that it is somehow "transphobic" for Lesbian women to prefer to have sex only with people who have vulvas. We reply that each woman has absolute sovereignty over her body and her decision to have or not to have sex with anyone or everyone. This same sovereignty applies to women who choose to have only natal women or WBF as partners.
Within the Lesbian community, women have been engaging in various consensual dialogues about body image and sexuality as they relate to matters of race, colorism, fat, intersex variations, transsexual history, etc. However, such dialogues need not and must not bring into play the "rapey" logic: "Have sex with me, or else you're a bigot." Such false logic not only violates women's personal boundaries, but endangers the health of the women's community and feminist movement. When unreciprocated attractions occur, Lesbians must be able to say and accept "No" and continue as sisters and friends in ongoing community.return to top
Different feminist groups, as we have noted, may have different concepts of "woman," "female," and "Lesbian." A truly inclusive Women's Liberation movement requires mutual respect in sometimes "agreeing to disagree."
Thus terfing must absolutely be avoided if we are to have any kind of open dialogue: WBF-only women's and Lesbian communities deserve respect from natal and transsexual women with a different view. Also, some Lesbian women enthusiastically participate in both WBF-only and WBF-and-WRF groups and events.
Clearly identifying an event as WBF-only — or as "women only" or "female only" with a definition of who is deemed to be a woman or female — promotes this mutual recognition and respect. Simply using the term "women-only" or "female-only," without a definition, can promote misunderstandings.
Likewise, groups or events intended for both WBF and WRF participants should make this explicit, as some women may read "woman-only" or "female-only" to mean WBF-only unless these terms are defined.
We also strongly urge that while women's and Lesbian groups have every right to embrace and apply whatever definitions they wish on these issues, certain language guidelines can serve to promote mutual respect.
Whether or not transsexual women or WRF are deemed women, (neo)females, or Lesbians in a given feminist group, we ask that they not be referred to as "men" or "males." Terms such as "ex-males" or "male-socialized" express much the same point without seeming to erase a person's current sexed embodiment or social status.
Also, groups which do welcome WBF and WRF alike sometimes describe themselves as "inclusive" — but women favoring WBF-only groups can take this to imply that they themselves are "exclusionary," a theme of terfing. We might better speak of "mixed" or "motley" women's and Lesbian groups, terms which define one option in setting boundaries, rather than a monopoly on the moral virtue of "inclusion."
We emphasize above all else, however, that language which seems less than ideal is not a reason for terfing, no-platforming, and threats or even acts of violence against women. Rather, showing sisterly respect and seeking more dialogue is the right feminist response.return to top
We emphasize that Women Reassigned Female (WRF), especially WRF who are feminist, feel and act on sex-class solidarity with their WBF sisters — even when some of these sisters may at times seek the sweeping exclusion of WRF feminists from the women's and Lesbian communities, as opposed to creating and defending WBF-only groups and spaces within these larger communities. There is a gulf between the situation of either WBF or WRF and that of transactivists for whom feminism is at best a secondary value, given the very different outlooks, life experiences, and politics of these groups. Thus WRF Lesbians have every reason to ally with their WBF sisters in the face of anti-Lesbian transactivism. Indeed, transsexual Lesbian feminists really do hold to this alliance of some four decades when push comes to shove.
One very basic reason is that WRF who have successfully transitioned both physically and in terms of resocialization share the concerns of WBF about bodily privacy and sexual boundaries, because they come with living as female in our society. Transactivists who do not respect the Lesbian culture of noncoercion and enthusiastic consent (Section 8) exempt neither WBF nor WRF from pressures to socialize as female peers, date, and/or have sex with them. Such transactivists have terfed WBF and WRF (some of whom transitioned decades ago) alike for standing up for women's boundaries.
Both WBF and WRF who are Lesbians face a push to turn us into generic "LGBT people" whose community and culture, rather than being founded on our unique Lesbian and woman-identified heritage, are dissolved into a vague (and usually male-defined) "LGBT" or "Queer" culture. Problems occur especially when the right of Lesbian women to draw our own boundaries on sexual relationships, to have vulva-only or WBF-only preferences, are questioned. To subjugate our Lesbian culture and fail to respect our bodily autonomy is the essence of Lesbian erasure, as it affects WBF and WRF alike.
Another aspect of Lesbian and female erasure is the refusal of some transactivists to understand the nature of women's oppression. The situation of a WBF feminist who has lived under sex-caste oppression for her entire life, or of a WRF feminist who has experienced sex-class oppression for a good part of her life, is equated with that of a transactivist who retains male privilege in everyday life and sometimes crossdresses or takes part in other cross-gender expression. This leads to the idea that self-identification alone makes one a woman — as opposed to either one's body or one's everyday social condition as a woman. Claims to access female facilities such as spas or changing rooms where nudity is expected, based on self-identification alone or before surgery, are problematic for many women, WBF and WRF alike.
Certain transactivists and allies have promoted female erasure by objecting to vulva cupcakes and celebrations; an event for women's reproductive rights entitled Night of a Thousand Vaginas; and other affirmations of women's bodies and experiences that are shamed and degraded by the patriarchy, such as menstruation and childbirth. To WBF feminists, these events are an opportunity to shake off lifelong external oppression and internalized misogyny. To WRF feminists, who have acted out of a deep-seated need to share this embodied female reality through what might appear extreme measures (hormones and surgery), such events — even those intended for WBF only, a boundary to be respected — are a treasured affirmation of what they now share in good part (although not menstruation and childbearing, for example) with their WBF sisters. To seek an end to such events and celebrations is an act at once of female erasure and Lesbian erasure.
Yet another facet of female and Lesbian erasure, highlighted by Max Dashu, is the replacement of Women's Studies in much of academia by Gender Studies, as if the latter could be a substitute for the former, as opposed to a possible complement or alternative perspective (as with chemistry and physics, which may look at some of the same phenomena in different ways). Unfortunately, the loss of Women's Studies departments has tended to deprive dedicated WBF feminists of careers, with "Queer Studies" or "Trans Studies" displacing them. Lesbian feminists, WBF and WRF, affirm the centrality of women's herstory and women's culture.
For the Lesbian feminist community, "inclusion" has two sides, one of them too often neglected. The first side, better known, is recognizing that the Lesbian community as a whole includes both WBF and WRF feminists alike — and also includes a myriad of Lesbian groups and spaces with a right to draw their own boundaries (e.g. WBF-only) without being branded "exclusionary" or getting branded "TERF."
The other side of inclusion is that Lesbian women have a right to have our community's character and culture respected, not erased; and likewise our personal boundaries. Erasure is the ultimate form of exclusion. This is why Lesbian feminists, WBF and WRF, are determined as women-identified women to resist this erasure, however delicate the politics involved within our community and regardless of the fears some of us may have of becoming collateral damage as we maintain resistance together.return to top
As Second Wave Lesbian feminists, we express unity with our sisters who are being terfed; targeted like Max Dashu for no-platforming; degraded and subjected to violent words and images like those of the recent Degenderettes art show; and sometimes physically attacked, like the older Lesbians at the San Francisco Dyke March.
In opposing this trend of misogyny and violence against women, we also hope to demonstrate by example how natal and transsexual women, WBF and WRF, can stand together as sisters in the struggle for Women's Liberation and a flourishing Lesbian feminist community and culture. In such a culture, differences lead to open dialogue, and boundaries are respected.return to top
Fifth draft of statement being written by
Beth Elliott and Margo Schulter
26 July 2018
HTML version 8 August 2018