Last week’s New Yorker article, “What Is a Woman: The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism” by Michelle Goldberg has been widely criticized since its publication. The article purports to offer a history of conflict between trans-exclusionary feminists and trans women. Yet it ignores the vast majority of that history, offering New Yorker readers a one-sided view of the conflict framed as balanced reporting, inaccurately representing the history of trans women in feminism and the active role trans-exclusionary feminists played in further marginalizing them. This effectively advances the views of a group that wants to see the genocide of trans women, a group that, data shows, faces extraordinarily high rates of discrimination in every measurable way. Indeed, the article becomes a case study for other publishers on how to avoid The New Yorker’s mistake.
Bitch Magazine accurately called the piece “a one-sided profile that’s sympathetic to writers and activists who’ve spent their careers working to marginalize and persecute the already-oppressed transgender community.” It is an article more worthy of the undeniably biased National Review than of The New Yorker. This is not a case in which “both sides” need to be presented for balance. Just as the anti-gay Family Research Council is not considered a valid voice on gay rights, trans-exclusionary feminists should not be considered a valid voice on trans rights.
The article’s skewed narrative begins in the title: radical feminism as a movement has never existed solely to oppose trans rights. Trans-exclusionary radical feminism came out of lesbian separatism, a subset of radical feminism. And members of that subset have consistently undermined their own positions in the service of trans exclusion, a paradox that Goldberg doesn’t address when presenting their arguments. She leaves unquestioned, for example, the position that women are defined and oppressed by men as a class because of pregnancy, an argument that makes no sense for lesbian separatists to make.
Transgender people, who identify with a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth, are framed not as an identity group but instead a theoretical position by the use of the word “transgenderism.” Goldberg draws this word from the title of a new academic book by trans-exclusionary feminist Sheila Jeffreys, Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism. To any observer aware of the conflict, the article reads like a push piece for Jeffreys’ book: It accepts her framing on a number of issues, and the only trans woman voices, included at the end of the article, are women trans-exclusionary radical feminists have attempted to discredit, quoted using trans-exclusionary feminists’ framing. Goldberg establishes that trans identities should be up for debate by first quoting a trans-exclusionary radical feminist using male pronouns to refer to trans women, and then using male pronouns herself.
This tactic flies in the face of the style guides of major media organizations—including the Associated Press, The New York Times, and the Washington Post—that say trans people should be referred to with pronouns that match their gender identities. As actress and advocate Laverne Cox has explained, “When a trans woman gets called a man, that is an act of violence.” All major medical organizations and even the US government recognize trans people’s identities, and discounting this mass agreement helps make trans-exclusionary arguments seem viable. In this vein, Goldberg presents without question the notion that the term trans-exclusionary radical feminists, abbreviated as TERFs, which is an accurate description of a group, is a slur. She makes no similar comment about referring to trans women as men.
She also presents trans identities with the notion that trans women have male bodies but “feel female.” While an accurate description of trans-exclusionary feminist’s framing of trans identities, and a way in which they have been presented in the past, this is not generally how trans people understand themselves now, and many advocates, including Janet Mock—a prominent figure whose views are not presented in Goldberg’s article—have explained they were never male, and that the existence of trans people calls for a reexamining of simplistic and inaccurate notions about how gender works.
Goldberg uses article space to quote individual Tumblr users who have made angry and violent comments about trans-exclusionary feminists. It is true that these violent comments are unacceptable. But it is also true that they are the statements of young people with no sociopolitical power behind their anger, who are expressing understandable rage on social media directed at a hate group that has targeted them since before they were born. These are not the statements of power actors in a political struggle being published by Routledge, as Jeffreys’ book is, but personal statements of frustration, yet they are given more weight than hate speech based in trans-exclusionary views.