And we want to make pejorative, exclusionary and — in Singer’s case — homicidal* decisions based on our superior knowledge of your inner state.
I had just written my random thoughts on the importance of trans* [**], Autistic and other former others rejecting the default setting, and my view that this made it easier for all of us “to be who we are and find or create our own cubbyhole, or none, or multiple,” when the New Yorker published “What is a Woman?” by Michelle Goldberg, an article describing the anti-trans* faction of “radical feminism” called, variously, Radfems or — more pejoratively but accurately — “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (“TERFs”).
But what truly reminded me of Peter Singer was the TERFs’ certainty that they know the inner life of transwomen and transmen. One Sheila Jeffreys has written a book, “Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism,” in which she proclaims her knowledge of and judgment on the inner life of transmen and transwomen by seeing them entirely through the political prism of male-dominated society. A man, per Jeffreys, can never appropriate the experience of being a woman. Accordingly, Jeffreys “insists on using male pronouns to refer to trans women and female ones to refer to trans men.” To her, transmen are simply trying to “raise their status in a sexist system” while transwomen, well, “when trans women ask to be accepted as women they’re seeking to have an erotic fixation indulged,” or — according to the psychology professor on whose work she relies — transwomen have “‘autogynephilia,’ meaning sexual arousal at the thought of oneself as female.”
So Jeffreys and other TERFs — ciswomen all — have decided that they know the inner life of transpeople better than transpeople themselves do, and not only pontificate about this in writing, but ultimately reject transwomen as women, refuse to use their preferred pronouns, and in some cases exclude them from women-only spaces.
This is rank Singerism. Peter Singer is a Princeton professor who believes that, well, I’ll let Harriet McBryde Johnson describe it:
Applying the basic assumptions of preference utilitarianism, he spins out his bone-chilling argument for letting parents kill disabled babies and replace them with nondisabled babies who have a greater chance at happiness. It is all about allowing as many individuals as possible to fulfill as many of their preferences as possible.
In other words, privileged white male Princeton professor asserts that he knows with such certainty the inner life of people with disabilities that he advocates killing them as infants. To me, Singerism means making policy — usually negative — based on the facially impossible premise that you can know and pass judgment on someone else’s inner life. Singer can never know how happy any particular person is or will be, much less disabled infants he’s never met. Jeffreys and the TERFs have no idea how transwomen experience their lives and their identities.
Where the fuck do they get off deciding to kill, insult, and exclude people based on these arrogant and patently impossible judgments?
Jeffreys claims that cases of “regret” — people who have physically transitioned and later regretted the move — “undermine[ ] the idea that there exists a particular kind of person who is genuinely and essentially transgender and can be identified accurately by psychiatrists.” Well, it might undermine that idea for the person experiencing regret but how it undermines the self-knowledge — often hard-won — of everyone who has ever transitioned is hard to see. More Singerism.
The New Yorker article describes one TERF group, Deep Green Resistance, as holding the view that “a person born with male privilege can no more shed it through surgery than a white person can claim an African-American identity simply by darkening his or her skin.” I suppose that may mark the far outer boundaries of my “Free to Be You and Me” approach to identity, that is, that we should credit people with knowing themselves and defer to the identity each asserts. Could a white person declare himself black in the same way a person born with female parts can declare himself to be male? Can I decide to be disabled without actually having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities? When does the assertion of identity become appropriation? I think we avoid Singerism by saying (1) we don’t know; and (2) we have no business killing, insulting, or excluding people based even on identities that push the boundaries of credibility.
It is reassuring that TERFs find themselves marginalized in feminist and academic circles, though frustrating that Singer is not similarly ostracized. It is apparently more acceptable to mainstream academia to advocate killing disabled infants than it is to advocate excluding transwomen from all-female music festivals.***
I conclude with this quote from the New Yorker article:
Older feminists . . . can find themselves experiencing ideological whiplash. Sara St. Martin Lynne, a forty-year-old . . .
Hold on! “Older” and “forty-year-old” do not go together! But assuming that “older feminist” would accurately describe this 54-year-old, I experience no whiplash, but only a deepening appreciation for each way we let people be themselves, and each mind-opening step we take away from the default setting.
Update: Here is an excellent response to the New Yorker article, in Bitch magazine.**** TERF War: The New Yorker’s One-Sided Article Undermines Transgender Identity by Leela Ginelle. Lots of good points about the the TERF problem, though I disagree that the original article undermined transgender identity. I thought it was fair, and that the TERFs were portrayed as the narrow-minded troglodytes that they are.
Update 2: Julia Serano, who is mentioned in Goldberg’s article, has an informative rebuttal in The Advocate. Here is my comment:
This is an excellent rebuttal to the New Yorker piece, but reading this & the rebuttal in Bitch made me wonder whether we read the same original article. First, though, I agree that Julia Serano has every right to feel personally pissed. But while Goldberg clearly skates over the surface of a complex issue, and probably did sensationalize the feminist catfight angle, I thought the TERFs came off in her article as deeply misguided, insular, and hateful. Specifically the reference to “autogynophilia” seemed to me like a self-evidently hysterical use of scientific-sounding Greek word roots to disguise abject quackery. All that said, Serano’s response adds a great deal of useful detail; would be great if The New Yorker published it.
* I was going to say “life-threatening” but Singer doesn’t just want to threaten the lives of disabled infants, he wants to permit people to kill them. Let’s call it what it is.
** “Trans*” is a way of indicating a wide variety of trans ways of being. As Slate explains, “the asterisk stems from common computing usage wherein it represents a wildcard—any number of other characters attached to the original prefix.”
This can get confusing here, in light of the fact that the ThoughtSnax Style Manual calls for asterisks for footnotes. We’ll muddle through.
*** The article noted that violence and threats have been directed toward TERFs, which is of course deeply offensive and wrong . . . except the graffiti “Real Women have Dicks,” which is just the sort of smartass, mind-opening civil disobedience I love.
**** Of course I read Bitch Magazine — it’s my trade publication!