Op-ed: An Open Letter to The New Yorker

When The New Yorker took a look at the tension between transgender women and radical feminists, one writer says the examination was unfair.

BY Julia Serano

August 05 2014 4:00 AM ET

Dear New Yorker magazine,

You probably don’t remember me — I was the transgender activist who briefly appeared toward the end of that Michelle Goldberg article you ran last week. You know, the one about the “dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism.” I know, that topic sounds somewhat bizarre and potentially fascinating — I’m sure you got lots of click-throughs on it! But the thing is, it was a rather awful experience on my end, and I want to share why with you.

For me, the story begins several months ago when Goldberg contacted me about an article she was intending to write about “tensions between trans activists and some radical feminists.” She wanted to interview me for her piece, which makes sense for several reasons. I am a trans woman who has written two books about the intersection of feminism and transgender activism. Some of that work critiques strands of feminism that have historically been antagonistic toward transgender people, and trans woman-exclusion policies (i.e., when women’s spaces or organizations bar trans women from attending because we were assigned a male sex at birth). As you can imagine, trans-exclusive radical feminists (or TERFs, as they are often called*)—who believe that transgender activism upholds the patriarchy and who deny and disrespect trans people’s identities — are not especially fond of my work (to put it quite mildly).

To be honest, I was wary when I received the interview request. This is partly because journalists often do a poor job of covering transgender people — sometimes because they do not bother to do background research or take our perspectives seriously, or else they view us as “fascinating subjects” and present us in a sensationalistic manner. I was also worried because this particular subject is extremely complex and cannot be adequately understood without unpacking the long history of these debates or delving into the nuances of feminist theory. It was hard for me to imagine that a several page piece intended for The New Yorker’s largely mainstream audience could do this topic justice.

Also, in the past I have found that mainstream publications seem to enjoy portraying these debates under a false transgender-people-versus-radical-feminists dichotomy. (“Hey, two groups of gender-freaks just so happen to hate one another — let’s publish that!”) In reality, many transgender activists are also feminists, and TERFs tend to be antagonistic toward many other feminists and gender/sexual minorities, including sex-positive feminists, femme/feminine people, bisexuals, and other non-lesbian-identified queer people, and sex workers, just to name a few. Really, a more accurate framework for the article would be “the dispute between radical feminists and the vast majority of feminists and LGBTQ activists who disagree with them,” but that isn’t so sexy and probably wouldn’t generate quite as many page views.

I was also a bit hesitant about the fact that the interview request came from Michelle Goldberg. I don’t know her personally, although I have read her writings over the years. She mostly writes about mainstream feminism and politics, and on those matters, we probably agree far more than we disagree. However, there is nothing about her previous work to indicate that she has had any previous interest in, or strong familiarity with, transgender issues or LGBTQ communities (i.e., the politics and settings central to these debates).

While I was leery about the situation, I knew that Goldberg was going to write this article anyway. And it was quite likely that (because of my books and activism) I would be a subject in it whether I participated or not. So I agreed to do it. At least that way, I could voice my opinions on the matter (or so I told myself).

Goldberg and I talked on the phone — that first interview was well over an hour long. We discussed many things related to these debates and their history. She asked me about transgender perspectives on these issues, and I shared those with her. She expressed concern about instances where trans people have allegedly personally attacked TERFs, and I shared with her a long list of instances where TERFs have personally attacked me and other trans women without provocation. (I mention a few of these instances here, but all you have to do is Google “TERF” and you’ll find a slew of others.)

Goldberg also expressed her concern about TERFs being silenced by trans folks (e.g., their events being protested or boycotted, or venues pulling out after trans people and allies complained). I explained to her that, while I believe that TERFs should be free to assemble and hold their own events if they wish, some of these situations are far more complicated than that. For instance, if an explicitly LGBTQ organization (which sports a “T” for transgender in its acronym) holds an event, wouldn’t it be somewhat hypocritical for it to host performers who tacitly support or outright advocate for trans woman-exclusion policies? Or if a college has a policy protecting students and staff from discrimination based on gender identity, and Shelia Jeffreys comes by to give a talk about her new book in which she describes trans men as “women” and trans women as “men,” and insists that the latter group are merely sexually deviant men who are trying to take over feminism (we’ll get to that in a moment), well then, there is a serious conflict of interest here!

Should the college let Jeffreys speak? If it does, does that mean it should jettison all of its antidiscrimination policies because they are tantamount to “censorship?” Or should it only remove trans people from those antidiscrimination policies?  And if the college does that, what are the ramifications? Clearly, there are complex political and ethical issues involved here (none of which, by the way, are given serious consideration in Goldberg’s article).

In a follow-up email to Goldberg (after our initial interview), I additionally pointed out that the tactics she seemed concerned about when used by trans people are not anything novel:

If an especially homophobic or sexist or racist book was being published by a serious academic press, some activists would surely write letters to the publisher to get it to halt that project. If NARTH were to organize a conference, there would surely be gay activists who would try to put pressure on the hotel or conference space to not allow the group to use it. Dan Savage no longer uses the controversial word “faggot” in his weekly column because of pressure (exerted mostly by members of his own community) on the papers who publish him. And recently, countless activists were tweeting #CancelColbert because they found something he did to be racist. Of course, individual activists may disagree about whether any given campaign is productive or misguided. But the point is that the forms of protests I just described are analogous to protests that trans activists have carried out in the last few years.

So in general, trans activists’ attempts to protest or eliminate things that they feel slander or threaten them is not much different from what other marginalized groups have done. The thing that is new, however, is that for the first time, others are taking trans people’s concerns seriously. And this is not because we have become more vocal per se — trans activists were quite vocal on the Internet a decade ago, I can assure you! Rather, it’s because more and more people who are not trans recognize transphobia as a legitimate form of discrimination that should not be tolerated. A decade ago, most people didn’t take our identities or what we had to say seriously. Now people are listening to us.

Anyway, my impression from our initial conversation was that Goldberg was going to write a “she said”/“she said” type of article, sharing perspectives from both trans activists and TERFs about these sorts of incidents. While that is not the article that I would write about the situation, at least it would give a voice to trans people’s perspectives on the situation. But unfortunately, that is not how things turned out. Before I explain how it did turn out, I need to tell you about how I became aware that the article might take a hard turn for the worse, because this is also part of the story.

In our email exchanges, I mentioned to Goldberg that I had recently read what Sheila Jeffreys wrote about me in her book Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism and found it to be vile. Being that you don’t usually cover radical feminists in The New Yorker, you probably don’t know much about Jeffreys other than what Goldberg wrote about her (which frankly, made it sound like Jeffreys is the feminist version of Salman Rushdie circa 1990, being shuttled around from secret location to secret location). Well, I am very familiar with Jeffreys’s work, as we are diametrically opposed on many feminist issues. For instance, in her book Beauty and Misogyny, Jeffreys claims that women who are feminine are that way because they are suffering from a form of Stockholm syndrome, whereas I think feminists should take feminine gender expression seriously. We also differ greatly on our views about sexuality, transgender people, the direction that feminism should take, and other important issues. But you probably don’t care so much about those details. You’d probably rather focus on the “catfight” between radical feminists and transgender activists, wouldn’t you?

Anyway, I have critiqued Jeffreys’s theories on gender in both my books. Her theories. I have never engaged in a personal attack on her, used the wrong pronouns when addressing her, questioned whether or not she is a “real” feminist, or dissected her sexuality or sexual history. However, Jeffreys does all of these things to me in her book. And much of it she does via invoking Ray Blanchard’s theory of autogynephilia. Now, I am not going to get into the details of that theory here, because you are probably not interested. Really, all you need to know is that (1) his theory posits that many trans women transition to female in order to fulfill sexually deviant fantasies they have, (2) the theory has been scientifically proven incorrect (see reviews here and here and here if you are a science/sexology nerd), and (3) studies by other researchers have found that up to 93 percent of nontransgender women would be characterized as having “autogynephilia” based on Blanchard’s definition. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that Blanchard believes that homosexuality and nonreproductive forms of sex are abnormal.

Honestly, I am not sure how Jeffreys (who is a lesbian and radical feminist) was able to so forcefully promote Blanchard’s archaic and male-centric notions about sexuality in her book without her head exploding from cognitive dissonance. But what I do know is why she did it: If Blanchard’s theory is true (which it is not), then that means that trans women like me are really sexually deviant men who are infiltrating the feminist movement. This is the thesis she puts forth in her book. And instead of seriously addressing my views on gender, feminism, and transgender issues, all she had to do was excerpt portions of my book where I discuss my own sexual history (which I talked about primarily in order to challenge Blanchard’s theory and the stigma it has generated). And in doing this, she was then able to caricature me as a sexually deviant man who is trying to “reinvent feminism to fit my erotic interests.” She seriously says that, almost verbatim, except that she puts the word “feminism” in scare quotes and she misgenders me (because she doesn’t consider me to be a “real” feminist or woman).

Goldberg and I discussed all this in a second phone conversation we shared. I described Jeffreys’s approach as an ad hominem attack and the transgender equivalent of “slut-shaming” (when people bring up a woman’s past or presumed sexual history in order to dismiss her opinions or her as a person). Goldberg conveyed that she understood my concerns, but she said that she might bring up autogynephilia anyway. I offered her an analogy (by email) to make clear the potential ramifications of doing so:

Many [nontransgender] women have rape fantasies. It is one thing to respectfully attempt to explore and understand such fantasies. It is an entirely different thing to insist that there are two subtypes of women — those who have rape fantasies and those who do not; to use the label “autoraptophiles” when describing women who have such fantasies and to insist that they are primarily motivated by their desire to be raped; to include “autoraptophilia” as a modifier in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; and to encourage the lay public to actively distinguish between those women who are “autoraptophiles” and those who are not. Such actions would undoubtedly have a severe, negative impact on women (who are already routinely sexualized and marginalized in our culture). Yet, proponents of autogynephilia have argued that transsexual women should be viewed and treated in an analogous manner.

When The New Yorker fact checker contacted me to verify the parts of the article that involved me, it became clear that several passages from my book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity in which I discussed certain aspects of my sexual history were going to be included in Goldberg’s article. I got the impression that they were intended to show “my side” of the story in relation to Jeffreys depicting me as an “autogynephile.” Being naturally horrified by the possibility of having my sexual history litigated within the pages of a national magazine, I sent another email to Goldberg expressing my concerns about the inclusion of this material (I have subsequently made this and another related email publicly available here), and she told me that those passages had subsequently been removed from the final piece.

Last Monday the article came out. And I was rather dismayed to see its final form. While (thankfully) Goldberg was truthful when she said that the passages of my sexual history would be removed, she hadn’t mentioned that the article was going to include Jeffreys’s and Blanchard’s views about “autogynephilia” without any mention that the theory has been scientifically disproven. And if that weren’t bad enough, Goldberg casually mentions that Jeffreys (who is depicted as a sympathetic, if eccentric, character in the article) considers me to be an “autogynephile” without mentioning any of my arguments against the theory and Jeffreys’s hypocritical appropriation of it.

I could imagine Goldberg defending herself by saying something like, “I didn’t call you an autogynephile, I was merely a journalist reporting on someone else’s comments.” But as a feminist, she knows that you don't just casually mention that so-and-so thinks the woman in question is a “slut” or that the queer person in question is a “sexual deviant” without that leaving an impression in readers’ minds. And as a journalist, she knows that it is unethical to randomly quote some psychologist who believes that some group-in-question is abnormal and sexually deviant without any context or offering of counter arguments from psychologists/scientists who believe that those claims are scientifically invalid. And even if Goldberg was a bad feminist or a bad journalist, she still is not able to claim naiveté here because I clearly and repeatedly pointed these things out to her.

Goldberg purposefully played the “autogynephilia” card because her intention in writing the article was to make transgender activists look bad. The numerous biases in the article are discussed at great length in recent critical reviews from the feminist websites Autostraddle and Bitch Magazine. As Mari Brighe (in her piece for Autostraddle) observes:

Let’s start with the numbers. In the piece, Goldberg mentions the names of 14 radical feminist activists (frequently providing physical descriptions), and provides quotes from nine of them — including two from books penned by radfems. In contrast, she mentions and quotes a total of four trans women (zero from books), and two of them are quoted to supporting the radical feminist position. The problem isn’t necessarily that Goldberg appears to side with the radical feminist viewpoint; that’s perfectly within her rights, and perfectly within The New Yorker’s right to print it. The real issue is that Ms. Goldberg gives the impression that she’s covering the conflict between the trans rights movement and radical feminism — after all, the piece is subtitled “The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism” — but gives only passing lip service to the transgender community’s side of this situation.

And as one of the four trans women in the piece, it is clear to me now that Goldberg merely used me as a prop to give her piece the pretense of balance. I am introduced toward the end of the article, long after readers have likely concluded that transgender activism is out of control. I have a one-line quote that is immediately followed by Jeffreys’s description of me (which misgenders me and calls me an “autogynephile”). My views on Jeffreys, Blanchard’s theory, feminism, trans activism, my more nuanced opinions about activism more generally, and my experiences being personally attacked by TERFs — none of that is included in the piece (and even if it was, the slut-shaming surely would have undermined what I had to say anyway).

While I am upset about being misrepresented in your magazine, this incident probably won’t personally affect me too much within the feminist circles I exist in, where people are already highly skeptical about radical feminists’ views — not just of trans people, but of gender, sexuality, and feminism more generally. And given the backlash against Goldberg’s “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars” article from earlier this year (which many felt was biased against feminists of color, and some interviewees felt misrepresented), many activists I know will likely view this new article as another “hit piece” against minority groups who engage in forms of activism that Goldberg does not like. (I am not claiming that this was what Goldberg set out to achieve with this article, but it is how the piece is being perceived in some quarters.)

But what really bothers me is that your mainstream readers (most of whom have little-to-no prior knowledge about radical feminism or transgender activism) will most likely not see through the article’s journalistic-ish veneer, and will assume that it represents an “objective” and “unbiased” presentation of the situation. And they will assume that transgender activists are mean people and completely out of control, because they have not been offered any evidence to suggest otherwise. And the insinuations that Goldberg makes throughout her article — that trans people act irrationally, are sexually deviant, and potentially dangerous — will seem to have “truthiness” to your readers, because the media has been propagating these very stereotypes of us for almost half a century. And when your readers do eventually meet a real-life trans person, perhaps they will misgender them, or dismiss them as a “pervert,” and justify those acts by referencing a New Yorker article they once read.

In the aftermath of your publication of Goldberg’s article, I noticed several New Yorker tweets in my Twitter feed. They were there because I follow you on Twitter. For a brief moment, I considered unfollowing you and making a big public spectacle about it. It would have felt really cathartic, I’d imagine. But I don’t really want to unfollow you. I like some of the articles you publish. And I often laugh at your cartoons. And for those reasons, I will not unfollow you, nor will I organize a boycott against you. (I’m sure this may surprise you given Goldberg’s mischaracterization of trans activists as death-threat-making vandals who want to censor everything they dislike.)

But to be honest, the next time someone emails me to say, “I am writing an article for The New Yorker about fill-in-the-blank transgender issue and I’d really like to interview you,” I will definitely be inclined to say no. 

Oh, and one last thing: In the last week since you published Goldberg’s article, a teenager was stabbed in Washington D.C., because of the fact that she is transgender. Also, in the last six weeks, two trans women of color have been found brutally murdered in Baltimore, and some suspect it may be the work of a serial killer who is targeting trans women. So here’s an idea: Why don’t you publish articles about these more serious matters rather than faux journalism pieces about trans activists purportedly “oppressing” radical feminists? Oh yeah, I almost forgot: You wouldn’t get nearly as many page views...

*Note: Some TERFs claim that “TERF” is a slur — Goldberg highlights this in her article but never explains the reasoning behind it. From their point of view (which they have shared with me via their unprovoked attacks on me on Twitter), they should be referred to as MERFs — i.e., Man-Exclusive Radical Feminists—because they reject trans women (who they see as “men”) but not trans men (who they view as misguided “women” who have been brainwashed by patriarchal and transgender agendas). Needless to say, an overwhelming majority of transgender people reject this framing of the issue. And there is nothing inherently demeaning about referring to people who exclude transgender people and issues from their movement as “trans-exclusive.” This is why I use the acronym “TERF” throughout this piece.

JULIA SERANO is the author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity and Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.

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