It’s a political truism that the wings of politics aren’t really wings at all — they’re a big old circle, which means that extreme right and extreme left often end up meeting on some unholy shared ground of blinkered self-righteousness and intolerance. So it’s gone over the last few days, with transgender women being the object of the left and right’s shared opprobrium. On the right, it was Christian family man Mike Huckabee, confessing that he would have totally pretended to be trans so that he could get into the girls’ showers at high school, while on the left it was Elinor Burkett’s New York Times op-ed about what it apparently does and doesn’t mean to be a woman. It’s amazing just how much common ground people can find when it comes to kicking one of the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups on the planet, no?
What’s notable is that both points of view stem from the same idea: that transgender people are deceptive, and that they’re pretending to be something they’re not. If you’re Mike Huckabee, they’re men pretending to be women so that they can get into the women’s bathroom and do… something (seriously, if anyone can find a single example of a trans woman assaulting a cisgender woman in a bathroom, that’s one more than I’ve found). If you’re Elinor Burkett or a likeminded second-waver, they’re men pretending to be women so they can ruin feminism just like men RUIN EVERYTHING ELSE. You might argue that the first view is more obviously outlandish, but they’re essentially the same argument: that trans women aren’t really women, that they can’t be trusted, and that they have ulterior motives.
The narrative of deceptiveness is something that’s been thrown at trans people for millennia, of course — it’s a prime reason that violence against trans people exists, so much so that it has been used in courtrooms as an analogue to the “gay panic” defense in trying to justify such violence. (In particular, see the 2002 murder of Gwen Araujo, who was beaten and strangled to death after a gang of men with whom she’d had sex “discovered” that she had a penis, and the murder of Brandon Teena, a trans man whose story became the basis of the movie Boys Don’t Cry.) It’s also been used against trans people in “rape-by-deception” cases like this one. The idea of complimenting trans men or women for “passing” only serves to reinforce this narrative.
With all this in mind, it becomes clear how ridiculous the idea that anyone might use a pretense of being trans to further some sort of hidden agenda is, if that wasn’t already clear already. Is any high-schooler really going to expose himself to the potential for violence, marginalization, and possible death just to get a peek into the women’s bathroom? Of course not. Are any trans campaigners asking for anything more than to be heard in the discourse of feminism? Nope. Burkett’s rhetoric would have you believe differently, of course — she cites a few examples of how trans activists have made a nuisance of themselves in demanding changes to feminist rhetoric to include them, as if the desire of a marginalized minority to be heard is nothing more than a silly annoyance to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. (If you want a more detailed takedown of Burkett’s arguments, I highly recommend this.)
Anyway, the point is that the brand of (largely second-wave) feminism that views trans women as freakish curiosities still holds plenty of sway as far as popular feminist discourse goes. The very fact that Burkett gets an op-ed in the freaking New York Times to air her views is proof enough of that, and hers isn’t even the most hostile piece to be published in a major newspaper in recent times — that dubious honor goes to Julie Burchill, who published a startlingly offensive article in the Observer two years back that culminated in the claim that “shemales” were men who “have [their] cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women”. (It’s here, if you want an example of just how hostile feminism can be to trans women — and Burchill was at it again this week, because of course she was.)
The idea that trans women somehow have it better than so-called “real” women is startlingly asinine, unless you equate the travails of “suffer[ing] through business meetings with men talking to [your] breasts” or “cop[ing] with the onset of [your] period in the middle of a crowded subway” with the daily threat of a violent death in a public bathroom. Clearly, no one wants to get into a privilege-measuring competition, but by pretty much every metric imaginable, in pretty much every society, trans people are amongst the most disadvantaged, marginalized, and generally mistreated people you can find. The thought that anyone would endure such discrimination and pain on a whim, rather than out of absolute necessity, is as demonstrably silly as it is offensive to the people who do live that life.
Clearly, Caitlyn Jenner — who prompted this entire discussion — has come from a life of privilege, and as such, she’ll most likely be insulated from the realities that many trans people face every day. But Gwen Araujo wasn’t insulated from those realities. Brandon Teena wasn’t. The transgender woman pushed onto the tracks of the New York subway last week wasn’t. The transgender musician beaten in a Sydney pub last night wasn’t. And so on. It’s not surprising to see people like Mike Huckabee spouting ignorant waffle about trans people; from the New York Times, you’d expect better.