Why Trans Liberation Must be Part of the Feminist Fightback

When we formed about 15 years ago, Feminist Fightback described ourselves as open to all self-defining women, explicitly signalling that we welcomed both trans women and cis women. In 2017 we strengthened and expanded this, to welcome ‘all women, including intersex, trans and cis women, and to people of diverse gender identities in need of feminist solidarity.’ It is interesting to reflect now how, back in 2007, it seemed obvious that a feminist collective should be open to both trans women and cis women – why would we not be? But since then, the so-called TERF Wars have turned this into a controversial position. We therefore feel it’s timely to spell out exactly why we see trans liberation as part and parcel of feminism.

As Feminist Fightback re-groups post-Covid, we have decided to focus on the gender politics of right-wing populism and nationalism and to consider how to resist it at a grassroots activist level. Abortion rights are being attacked all over the world (including in Britain where women are being prosecuted for ending pregnancies without 2 doctors’ permission). But this same right-wing agenda is also targeting trans people (just look at how trans rights were used as a political football in the first of the Conservative Party leadership elections). Many who attack so-called ‘gender ideology’ target women’s reproductive rights and sexual freedom, LGBQ+ people and trans people. If we want to properly understand this dangerous threat, and build an effective strategy to resist it, it’s essential that we think about how transphobia and misogyny, as well as how trans liberation and women’s liberation, are bound up with each other.

Bodily autonomy has always been one of the touchstones of feminism. Be this the right to freedom from sexual and domestic violence, or the right to choose whether or not to have a child. Bodily autonomy is also central to trans liberation – the right to dress and look a certain way without fear of violence; the right to gender reassignment surgery without having to jump through unnecessarily difficult hoops set up by the medical establishment. Women and trans people are disproportionately affected by rape and domestic abuse, and in both cases this violence is symptomatic of a patriarchal society which defines them as inferior to cis men and uses violence to ‘keep them in their place’.

Feminism has also always rejected the notion that biology is destiny – e.g. that being born with a particular set of genitals should circumscribe what you are allowed to be and do. Trans people also call this into question by demanding the right to transition from one gender to another. Disrupting the gender binary also entails disrupting its hierarchy – e.g. the notion that male superiority and domination are ‘natural’ and cannot therefore be changed. Trans people and cis feminists who rebel against gender norms are both frequently punished for transgressing the roles that patriarchal society expects us to conform to.

Trans women are sometimes criticised for supposedly conforming to a normative feminine aesthetic. Apart from the fact that no woman should be punished for dressing in the way that she chooses, such criticism ignores the pressures on trans women to ‘pass’ – whether this comes from the medical establishment as a criterion for receiving gender reassignment surgery, or a strategy to avoid transphobic violence when walking down the street. Cis women and trans women have a great deal to gain in uniting in the struggle for all women to love their bodies whatever form they take.

Just as feminism has often been dismissed as a trivial matter, or a ‘bourgeois deviation’ from more serious economic and political struggles, the fight for trans liberation is often ridiculed as the petty concerns of the ‘snowflake generation’ or the preserve of a privileged few. Or it is dismissed by a few self-proclaimed Marxists as ‘anti-materialist’. This is to grossly misunderstand the nature of how capitalism has always been entangled with and profited from patriarchy (as well as white supremacy). And furthermore, to fail to recognise the central role that attacks on ‘gender ideology’ currently play in cohering various disparate strands of the far right. If the left is serious about winning against the existential threat of global fascism, then we need to tackle its gender politics head on, and it’s impossible to confront its misogyny without simultaneously confronting its transphobia.

Given the many natural affinities between the struggle for trans liberation and women’s liberation, why do some feminists present them as in opposition to each other? Although the vast majority of feminists are trans-inclusive, over the last decade or so British trans- exclusionary feminism[1] has become increasingly vocal and visible. Trans-exclusionary feminists argue that trans women are not women and therefore should not be included in the feminist movement. Particular attention is paid to how they should be excluded from women-only spaces such as women’s refuges, women’s prisons and women’s toilets. Trans-exclusionary feminists often justify this on philosophical grounds, arguing that sex (bodies) and gender (the social role attached to them) are distinct. While feminism has long argued that gender is socially constructed and therefore malleable, trans-exclusionary feminists argue that sex is biological and fixed. Moreover, many of them claim that women’s oppression historically derives from their biology – in particular their ability to bear children.

Trans-inclusive feminists do not argue that there is no difference between sex/bodies and gender/social roles, but that that difference is not always easily observed or rationally implemented. Trans women are perceived to be women, and so experience misogyny, regardless of their genitals or the gender they were assigned at birth. Or they fail to ‘pass’ and are perceived as deviant, effeminate men et cetera, an attitude which is also informed by misogyny and patriarchy which upholds masculinity as superior and subjugates anybody who deviates from it.

Black feminism helps to bring into perspective some of the problems of trans-exclusionary feminists’ refusal to include trans women in the category of woman. A trans-exclusionary position, which foregrounds biological sex as the key identifier of what makes someone a woman, not only excludes some women from this definition but also homogenises the experiences of women who fall within it. In other words, it relies upon an assumption that possessing a vulva creates a shared experience of womanhood in a way that cannot be understood by people who do not possess this physiology. But Black feminism – and many feminisms developed by other, overlapping, marginalised groups such as lesbians and working-class women – long ago pointed out that there was no single uniform experience of womanhood. And that when this was claimed, it was usually a narrow definition of white and/or middle-class womanhood that was being falsely universalised. In other words, women’s experience of patriarchy is cut across, shaped and often changed by their race and class etc. So trans women may have a particular experience of patriarchy and misogyny and being a woman (although certainly not all the same one), just as individual cis women have a particular experience of being a woman dependent upon their ethnicity, economic position etc etc.

Moreover, the notion of there being two distinct biological sexes, is not an objective fact but emerged alongside the European Enlightenment and imperialism. Many non-western cultures had different approaches, some identifying many different sexes or having more fluid boundaries between who counted as a man and who counted as a woman. But colonialism often entailed the violent enforcement of Western notions of a sex binary on these cultures. This is not just an obscure historical point. It has very concrete and often very painful implications for the present day. Attempts to police who enters women’s toilets, or who should be allowed into women’s sports competitions, often end up targeting cis women of colour who may not conform to white western notions of ‘femininity’.

Trans-exclusionary feminism, which is sadly often promoted by people who consider themselves progressives and/or have an impressive history of feminist activism, is a phenomenon fundamentally shaped by the rise of the global far right and the waves of austerity following the 2008 economic crisis. Some trans-exclusionary feminists have actively allied with right wing and reactionary religious forces. Yet even when this has not occurred, trans-exclusionary feminism has internalised the mentality of scarcity and competition generated by a failing capitalist system. Often, Feminist Fightback is asked, ‘why do you keep banging on about trans rights when [cis] women are being murdered by their partners on a daily basis?’ But why should one struggle for liberation be seen as inevitably in competition with, and stealing resources from, another? Trans exclusionary feminists often point to cis women’s reproductive capacities, experience of giving birth and raising children as a key component of women’s oppression, both historically and in the present day. But why should support for trans rights prevent us from also campaigning for reproductive rights, improved pre- and post-natal healthcare, child benefit and free nursery places?

Ultimately, our position as trans-inclusive feminists is about building the most effective movement we can. One that speaks to the needs of the largest and most diverse group of women possible, and that fully understands and prepares itself to confront the multifaceted ways in which right-wing forces are weaponising the worst kind of gender politics. It is only together that we can fight back.

[1] We use the term ‘trans-exclusionary feminism’ rather than TERF (an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminism) because today trans-exclusionary feminism is not limited to those with a radical feminist perspective but also includes some liberal, conservative and socialist feminists.

Acknowledgements: This article draws upon and is heavily indebted to the following writings by trans feminist scholars and activists. We encourage you to read their work.

  • Emi Koyama, ‘The Transfeminist Manifesto’, in Rory Dicker & Alison Piepmeler (eds.), in Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century (Northeastern University Press, 2003)
  • Ruth Pearce, Sonja Erikainen and Ben Vincent, ‘TERF Wars: An Introduction’, The Sociological Review, 68.4 (2020), 677-698.
  • Shon Faye, The Transgender Issue: an Argument for Justice (2021)