As a trans woman working in academia, one of the questions I regularly get asked is how I get along with feminist colleagues. When I invariably answer “incredibly well”, I’m often met with a quizzical look.
I can understand why. As trans and gender diversity has become a regular topic of public debate and a favoured target of rightwing attacks, feminist critics have joined the fray.
That has put trans and feminist activists on a seemingly unrelenting path of mutual antagonism. Trans rights have been pitted against sex-based rights for “real” women, with conflict forever spiralling into charge and countercharge of hate speech and silencing, and into bitter social media wars.
Frustratingly, this conflict has become the dominant media story of trans and feminism, especially in a viciously divided UK. And, like post-lockdown carbon emissions, antagonism has now sadly rebounded – this time, via the tweets and blogs of JK Rowling and the ripples of commentary that have followed.
One of the most distressing aspects of this relentless feminism versus trans narrative is that it tells a completely lopsided story. In fact, it sidelines a very different reality of alliance rather than division.
Trans and feminism have certainly had a wobbly relationship over the years, but trans writers have energetically drawn on and contributed to feminist theory, while trans politics has been positively embraced by many feminists. The story here is not one of political conflict, it’s of mutual recognition.
It’s the same reality at the institutional level. Right now, trans and feminist advocates are happily working alongside each other in educational and cultural institutions, health settings, political parties, activist groups, media organisations and elsewhere.
It is little wonder that my own daughters, both young feminists themselves, unreservedly see trans as ally, not enemy. The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. After all, a fundamental tenet of feminism is to end forms of oppression; and the same rule must apply for a trans and gender-diverse minority.
What’s more, much contemporary feminism rejects the pathologising dogmatism of “gender critical” and “sex-based rights” advocacy that paints trans and gender diversity as effectively delusional.
As both feminist and transfeminist writers have long pointed out, we are not immutably tethered to an innate experience of womanhood or manhood simply by being designated an F or an M at birth.
This is not fantasy; it’s based on decades of well-evidenced research. Bodies and their sex characteristics have material reality, a reality that trans people know all too well. But how we make collective sense of biology rests on social and political assumptions that are open to change. Likewise, gender socialisation on the basis of one’s assigned sex does not automatically determine our gender sensibility.
None of this disputes theories of women’s oppression or seeks to diminish the gendered violence that women of all backgrounds experience. Nor does it suggest that sex and gender are matters of mere whim. It insists that trans and gender-diverse individuals have bodily knowledge and lived experience that either crosses or doesn’t fit a man/woman binary.
Trans is no fleeting and shallow “identity choice” and no onslaught against women’s rights. It asks us to rethink conventions of sex and gender and to deal generously, not defensively, with change.
This is a process, not a flick of a switch.
The growing recognition of trans as a social reality ushers in both easily solvable and sometimes difficult shifts in the way we institutionally manage sex and gender. Given the history of gender politics, feminism has a stake in this change and feminist voices need to be heard.
But a trans and feminist dialogue can only work through respectful alliance, not divisiveness. It can only be effective through abandoning the dead-end of territory-claiming wars over biology and rights.
This much has long been recognised within more alliance-oriented trans and feminist politics – and it matters on a personal as well as political level.
To return to my starting point, as a trans woman I have found little but warm regard from feminist colleagues, students and friends of all ages. This has been an uplifting experience. But more than this, it provides respectful political ground on which to mutually live and think through sex and gender. Surely, in a time of pandemic, this is ground to further cultivate.
• Kim Humphery is associate professor in sociology and social theory at RMIT University