“Why does it matter, saying ‘women’ instead of ‘people’ when we talk about abortion or contraception or pregnancy? It matters for the same reason we have the word ‘feminist’ at all — because it picks out the fact that women are treated as an inferior caste, whose bodies don’t fully belong to them.”
Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, according to her website, is a political philosopher in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. She describes herself as “a once liberal, now increasingly radical, feminist.” She is authoring a book about sex, gender, and identity; recently gave a talk at a crowded pub entitled “Critically Examining the Doctrine of Gender Identity”; and has a sold-out speaking engagement on the same topic taking place this May. Reilly-Cooper opens this talk by stating, “I raise these questions, not out of prejudice or bigotry, but out of a sincere belief that this doctrine about the nature of gender is false and damaging to everybody.”
Like many other avowed feminists, Reilly-Cooper is bent on “proving” the absurdity of trans identity. More than that, she seeks to reveal how cis, white women like herself are actively harmed by policies and laws which aim to protect transgender individuals from discrimination and ensure their equal access to services.
Never mind that this view is completely ignorant of the facts. Never mind the damage this narrative does.
In 2014, Transgender Europe (TGEU) contributed to the OSCE Hate Crime Report, which stated that there were 69 recorded hate crimes and incidents from 10 different countries. According to a report by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Trans People of Color Coalition (TPOCC), in 2015 “at least 21 transgender people have been victims of fatal violence in the United States, more killings of transgender people than any other year on record. More transgender people were killed in the first six months of  than in all of 2014.”
This year, HRC released a report stating that there are 44 anti-transgender bills filed in 16 states so far, 23 of which target children. Currently, there are nine states with active bills that aim to prevent transgender individuals from using public restrooms that match their gender identity. It is difficult to pin down the exact numbers due to irregular reporting, inaccurate police reports, and an apathetic media, but as of the writing of this piece, there have been at least seven reported murders of trans individuals in the U.S. so far this year.
As these statistics show, trans individuals, especially trans women of color, are being targeted simply for existing and living their truths. Their suffering is real; the idea that cis women are being harmed by their identity is not.
Cis women aren’t being murdered because trans and gender non-conforming individuals exist and, in some locations, receive protection under the law. Cis women are not being denied entrance or access to restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms because trans and gender non-conforming people exist and need access to those same spaces for the same reason cis women need them. Cis women aren’t being thrown into the streets because trans and gender non-conforming people need shelters, too. Trans inclusion does not, has not, and will not result in the exclusion of cis women.
People are in need, and an awfully vocal group of white cis women has decided that they come first — no matter what. Binary transgender, the lack of gender, the fluidity of gender, and the rejection of the binary has existed for centuries. Then Western culture manufactured and inculcated the gender binary. For example, the indigenous peoples of North America now use the term, Two Spirit, to identify individuals who “cross social gender roles, gender expression, and sexual orientation.” Mae Louise Campbell, an Ojibwa/Métis from Kississing Lake in northern Manitoba and the elder in residence at Red River College in Winnipeg, told CBC News that it was “an honor to have a child that was two-spirited to be born in the community. . . . Because they carry both [energies], many of them became leaders in the community, leaders in the elder capacity. People went to them because they were revered.”
As more people come out and express to the world their true selves, despite the psychological, emotional, and physical danger this openness invites, women like Reilly-Cooper believe it must be some kind of conspiracy to further oppress “real” women.
Why are the lived experiences of trans and gender non-conforming people not held as high as the opinions of cis women on trans people? Why do their feelings trump our actual lives?
Ophelia Benson is a feminist author, blogger, editor, and columnist at the Freethinker and Free Inquiry. In an interview with Vanessa Urquhart for Slate last summer, she said she considers herself to be an ally to the trans community. She later expanded on this by saying, “That means being aware of what it means to be trans, it means taking [trans people] at their word when they talk about their experience, and it means standing up for them if you hear someone attack them.” But Benson’s actions do not support these hollow sentiments. She regularly ridicules transgender individuals and promotes anti-trans voices.
My essay, published here last December — “Trans-Exclusionary Feminists Cannot Exclude My Humanity” — was reposted on her website for the purpose of derision. She concluded, “It’s as painful to read as tearing off a strip of skin would be.” She took a very real, very honest depiction of what gender dysphoria sometimes feels like, and mocked it.
In March, Benson caught wind of Katie Klabusich’s piece — “Inside The ‘Fetal Assault Law’ Sending Pregnant People To Prison” — and complained about Klabusich’s trans-inclusive language. Benson later wrote in a separate piece:
What such rhetoric fails to acknowledge is that the inclusion of another marginalized group does not make your marginalization any less important or real. Cisgender women are not the only people who can become pregnant, and acknowledging this indisputable fact doesn’t erase anyone; it includes those who were previously erased. Moreover, trans and gender non-conforming people, as well as cis women, are “treated as an inferior caste, whose bodies don’t fully belong to them.” Why play a game of oppression Olympics, rather than advocating for inclusivity?
Journalist Michelle Goldberg also repeatedly and voluntarily puts herself in the middle of trans debates. She’s given credence to damaging purity tests where trans people are measured by the extent of their surgeries, and pontificated over what makes a woman a woman. Then there’s bioethicist and author, Alice Dreger, who often positions herself as a trans ally, but who is quoted by the The Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group, the Family Research Council (FRC), in the extremely transphobic and damaging report, “Understanding and Responding to the Transgender Movement.” According to writer, performer, and biologist, Julia Serano, “[Dreger] has a vendetta against transgender activism,” stating:
“She repeatedly positions herself as an ‘expert on’ or ‘friend of’ trans people, while at the same time completely ignoring or undermining the perspectives of the trans community at large. As someone who is both a scientist and knowledgeable about transgender people and issues, I feel compelled to set the record straight on these matters.”
Women like feminist writer and speaker, Germaine Greer, or poet, essayist and critic, Katha Pollitt, cry persecution the minute someone disagrees with their assessment of gender identity. Yet last I checked, they still write, speak, and get booked on television or published in prominent outlets. And their persistent views contribute to the needless death of so many trans individuals across the globe — suicide, neglect, and murder.
It is chilling to recognize that the two groups working most fiercely to strip gender-identity protection from the books, and to stop new legislation from passing, are conservative religious men — and progressive, feminist, cisgender women. These women are not literally pointing a weapon at transgender individuals, but they are plastering the airwaves with bigotry and transantagonism; they are contributing to their deaths, while crying, “I’m the real victim!”
This is where we go back to Rebecca Reilly-Cooper’s talk, where she is dismayed that she cannot experience gender identity in the way so many trans individuals do. “I don’t think I have this thing,” she states 29 minutes into her lecture. “I don’t have a deep, internal, personal sense of myself as a woman. I call myself a woman. It’s true. I think I’m a woman, but it’s not because in some sense, deep down, I feel like one. I call myself a woman because I am female. I have a body that has female sex characteristics. I have a uterus and ovaries; I have breasts and a vagina.” She goes on to say, “I am told that my biology and my physiology are irrelevant to the fact that I am a woman whether or not that I accept that. It’s an act of cisgender privilege, an act of oppression, for me to deny that I do.”
In a beautiful essay for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts entitled, “Fighting Against Ghosthood,” Gabrielle Bellot wrote, “But trans women remain marginal. To many people, we not only aren’t women; we are abominations, too, something that is wrong. Ugly, the thought of it, across many literatures, many minds.” Trans-exclusionary feminists often say trans women cannot know what it’s like to be a “real” woman. But here we have a cis woman complaining about the supposed “doctrine” of gender identity and how she can’t experience it or know what it feels like. Her entire talk is based around the premise that her inability to know what it feels like must mean it’s not real. If it’s not real for her, then it’s not real enough to be inscribed into laws and policies.
Rebecca Reilly-Cooper may not be holding the gun, but she is espousing ignorance and bigotry — it just looks nicer, sounds prettier. What struck me most while watching her lecture was how calm, friendly, and personable she was. How with such ease, one could spend an hour vilifying people like myself with a smile on her face.
Progressive, socially liberal women who increasingly and persistently attack, dehumanize, and slander trans and gender non-conforming people, are — in my eyes — more dangerous than religious zealots who do the same. The zealots’ views are harmful and put people in danger, there is no question there, but they can be spotted a mile away. They stand tall, proud, and anchored in their religious conviction; there is no deceit or mask. Their views are unabashedly conservative as they answer to a higher power.
These zealots don’t claim to be progressive; they are not fighting for progress and justice. They want to limit the rights and ignore the autonomy of large swaths of the population because of differences they refuse to accept. These women, on the other hand, claim progressive and feminist values. They fight for the autonomy and agency of individuals, and they vehemently oppose any and all restrictions placed upon women because of their gender. These so-called progressive feminists, who know precisely how reprehensible it is to vilify, attack, and discriminate against a person based on their gender, are doing exactly what has been done to them, all the while claiming to be the victim.
These women have a range of titles and backgrounds: journalist, author, activist, lecturer, scientist, feminist. They are all cisgender, and they all want to debate the identity of transgender people. If you’re like Reilly-Cooper, it’s because our myriad of identities are somehow harming her own. If you’re like Pollitt, it’s in the name of fairness. If you’re like Greer, it’s in the name of dismantling patriarchy. If you’re like Benson, it’s in the name of truth. If you’re like Dreger, it’s in the name of science. If you’re like Goldberg, it’s because all sides are valid in the name of true objectivity. In each case, the terms of the debate are not set by trans people, but by cisgender white women.
Reilly-Cooper concludes her talk by stating:
“If we take gender identity entirely subjectively, there becomes no way, either in principle or practice, to determine men from women. So, you could find yourself, say, in a room with all the people that are here today and be absolutely incapable of knowing who in this room is a man and who is a woman. There would be no way in determining it. . . . As soon as that happens men and women as a political class disappear; men and women can no longer exist if you define gender entirely subjectively.”
Her fearmongering about the elimination of cisgender men and cisgender women is identical to the fearmongering religious zealots use against gay marriage — if marriage isn’t confined to one man and one woman, then the word becomes irrelevant. Ryan T. Anderson, a research fellow at the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation, wrote last summer after the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling:
“Redefining marriage to make it a genderless institution fundamentally changes marriage: It makes the relationship more about the desires of adults than about the needs — or rights — of children. It teaches the lie that mothers and fathers are interchangeable. Indeed, the judicial redefinition of marriage to exclude the marital norm of male-female sexual complementarity raises the question of what other marital norms may be excluded.”
In the Q&A after her lecture, Reilly-Cooper expressed how troubling she finds it that there are “very young, vulnerable, distressed people going online and find[ing] this [gender identity] doctrine.” You see, it’s about the children, the poor, vulnerable children. The same children Anderson is concerned about; the same children supporters of Prop 8 were concerned about. These tactics are the same: make the claim that inclusion and equality will somehow lead to the complete and utter breakdown of society. If the social norms we invented are changed in any way, society will suffer. And if that doesn’t convince you — think about the children.
Reilly-Cooper, and others like her, are worried that if you cannot determine a person’s gender by observation, then “men and women can no longer exist.” In case you didn’t know, you already can’t go into a room full of people and determine their gender by looking at them; this has always been true.
This is important, because what she did was erase my existence, and the existence of many others who are neither man nor woman. Her fear is our lived existence, yet our realities aren’t real enough for her to grasp.