Hate as a Cycle: Rhetoric, Morality, & Behavior

Sex Essentialist Discourse
May 23, 2017
Keywords: Sex Gender Social Constructionism Dialectics Rhetoric

I appreciate being able to relate this narrative history within the context of this conversation. I will review the sex binary assertions made by sex essentialist “radical feminists” and examine its outcome upon both the trans and feminist communities. Moreover, I’d like to consider a morality which informs their rhetoric which in turn justifies certain behaviors towards trans people and the feminists who stand in solidarity with them. Lastly, I’d like to represent this moral and behavioral reality as a self-reinforcing ideological linguistic/rhetoric framework which reenacts past ideological behavior.

RHETORIC informs MORALITY which informs BEHAVIOR which informs RHETORIC which informs…

I’ve chosen to separate behavior from rhetoric because it is a specific morality which informs the way anti-trans sex essentialist “radical feminists” speak about trans people. It’s one thing to compare trans people to monsters and parasites and another to attempt to murder a trans person. It is the dehumanizing rhetoric which speaks to a specific gaze that inspires specific actions on the part of sex essentialists, and it is their morality – not radical feminism itself – that colors their collective view. These act as a self-reinforcing ideological framework which sex essentialists euphemistically refer to as “gender critical,” “radical,” or “gender abolitionist” feminism.

Style Note: by way of rhetorical commentary, certain sex essentialist “radical feminist” rhetoric throughout this article is visually flagged with differing typography styles.

 The Morality 

Janice Raymond takes great pains to protect her ideological framework from being critiqued as just an appeal to the morality of the natural. She attempts to address such critiques before they are made. Raymond asserts, “I am not arguing that what is natural is good, I am not polarizing technology against nature.” Such an assertion might withstand scrutiny if it were not immediately followed by, “I am making an appeal to the integrity or harmony of the whole.”1 This equivocation seems to be a painfully transparent attempt to dodge a significant criticism of her framework. According to Raymond’s body ontology, she’s not appealing to the body’s natural state; rather, she is instead appealing to the body’s whole state. Raymond’s equivocation seems exceptionally disingenuous when she – throughout her book, The Transsexual Empire, The Making of the She-Male – takes pains to withhold what is natural through her consistent representation of trans people’s non-natural states through terms such as “male-to-constructed-female.” While Raymond claims that her “whole” (i.e. unaltered) body ontology isn’t presented as a moral opposite to that which is natural and therefore good, Raymond appeals to the concept of a “natural-born” woman. For instance, Raymond takes pains to detail that which is non-“genuine” (i.e., “synthetic”) about trans people:

Instead of developing  genuine integrity , the transsexual becomes a  synthetic product .  Synthetic parts , such as  chemical hormones  and  surgical artifacts  of  false  vaginas and breasts, produce a  synthetic whole . Furthermore, the fact that transsexuals are  synthetic products  is one clue to their future demise… This is not to say that whatever is natural is necessarily good, but rather that it is the harmony or integrity of the whole that is good. – Janice Raymond2

Raymond’s usage of “the harmony or integrity of the whole” and “synthetic whole” is used as moral polarities. Raymond takes pains to make it appear as if she’s not indicting the “synthetic” because it takes away the “genuine integrity” and “harmony” of the “whole that is good,” but that is precisely what she does:

  • As alchemy treated the qualitative as quantitative in its attempts to isolate vital forces of the universe within its laboratories of matter, transsexual treatment does the same by reducing the quest for the vital forces of self hood to the artifacts of hormones and surgical appendages… [producing] a surgically constructed androgyne, and thus a synthetic hybrid.3
  • It would not replace gender suffering with an artificially prolonged and synthetic maintenance of the problem so that the transsexual becomes an uncritical and dependent spectator of his deeply decaying self.4
  • Transsexual existence initially depends upon… synthetic hormone injections… and lifelong sustenance from exogenous sources.5
  • [Transsexuals] purport to be the real thing. And our suspension of disbelief in their synthetic nature is required as a moral imperative.6

It would be an astounding feat of credulity to believe Raymond when she asserts that she does not appeal to the morality of the natural as a central ethic in her work. Raymond herself noted that a synthetically natured trans woman is morally unacceptable as a “real” woman. For Raymond, “genuine integrity” is lost in transition and thus constructs a “synthetic whole” of “false” sexed attributes.

What else is this but an ad naturam moral argument? Raymond’s morality even privileges her in denying humanity to trans women; instead, trans women are represented to be “synthetic products.” When trans people are no longer human in the sense that Raymond is human, the moral imperative to respect the body integrity, identity, selfhood, and life of a trans person becomes less important:

I have argued that the issue of  transsexualism is an ethical issue  that has profound political and moral ramifications;  transsexualism itself is a deeply moral question  rather than a medical-technical answer. I contend that  the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence . – Janice Raymond7

While Raymond may claim that she’s not appealing to the morality of the natural, it is precisely this morality that enables Raymond to condemn that which must be seen as unnatural, i.e., “synthetic.” Having a body with “synthetic” parts (synthetic hips, hair color, tattoos, teeth, etc.) in and of itself is ethically neutral unless one’s personal morality constructs such as being immoral. It is Raymond’s ad naturam morality that deems transition as being inherently synthetic which violates the untransitioned body’s natural “integrity.”

Sheila Jeffreys, acting to protect her stake in the ad naturam asserts that “cisgender” should not be used because it somehow impugns the nature of her own claim within a natural sex binary framework:

One of these new terms is ‘cis’, which they apply to all those who are not unhappy with their ‘gender’. In effect the term ‘cis’ creates two kinds of women, those with female bodies who are labeled ‘cisgender’, and those with  male bodies who are ‘transwomen’ . Women, those born female and raised as women, thus suffer a loss of status as they are relegated to being just one kind of woman and their voices will have to compete on a level playing field with the other variety,  men who transgender [sic] . – Janice Raymond8

Jeffreys’ “status” as a woman “suffers a loss” if “born” women are “relegated to being just one kind of woman.” For Jeffreys, this is a moral issue.

Another reason for adherence to pronouns that indicate biology is that, as a feminist, I consider the female pronoun to be an honorific, a term that conveys respect. Respect is due to women as members of a sex caste that have survived subordination and deserve to be addressed with honour. – Sheila Jeffreys

Here, Jeffreys seems oblivious to the reality that when she explicitly appeals to the embedded ad naturam morality within her natural sex binary framework, she is publicly pronouncing her attachment to and support of behavioral norms and taboos predicated upon a coercive binary cultural system. We generally call such systems “gender.” Not buying into the naturalistic binary of Jeffreys’ female-essence is, to her mind, a morally dishonorable behavior. Jeffreys’ drive to lay claim to labels rooted in a morally natural male/female essence means that she is privileged to dismissively or mockingly disregard another’s identity precisely because, within her gender system, such behavior is honorable.

With an ad naturam foundation, certain ways of speaking about trans people becomes honorable, and as history bears witness, those with moral authority do not limit themselves to words alone.

 The Rhetoric 

The foundation of sex essentialist discourse is a rhetorical test that’s rigged to ensure authenticity is forever withheld from the trans experience: the “woman-born woman” trope. The book A to Z of the Lesbian Liberation Movement defines woman-born woman as a “term used to identify women who were born women opposed to male to female transgendered [sic] persons who may have, and retain, male privilege. Identifying or declaring oneself woman-born woman helps to keep ‘woman only’ or lesbian-separatist space pure. This version of the women’s/lesbian’s community’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy has been challenged at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, by transgendered [sic], transsexual persons, and lesbian and queer activists identifying as boyz, andros, trannie boys, lesbian, bi, FTM, girls, boychick, femme, stone-butch, or simply queer.”9

Contemporary Rhetoric

Within the “woman-born woman” rhetorical framework, there exists a discrete “woman” that is authentic and one that is not. Jeffreys critiques claim authenticity by appealing to a certain gaze sex essentialists share:

[Anne] Enke argues, as is common in the transgender version of feminism, that both gender and sex are socially constructed: ‘Gender, and also sex, are made through complex social and technical manipulations that naturalize some while abjecting others’. All bodies, Enke argues, are ‘made’, and the problem with many feminists is that they believe that there is a difference between men’s bodies and women’s bodies and that that difference of  biological sex matters . In fact,  he [sic]  states, all bodies are ‘made, one kind of body no more or less technologically produced than the other’, and ‘feminist, queer, disability, and critical-race theorists, trans studies’ recognise this. Some feminists, though, ‘preserve sex as a category’ and presume ‘that there is a knowable difference between male and female bodies’. It is quite hard to know what Enke means here, since the reproductive differences between male and female bodies,  breasts that can lactate , wombs and menstruation, non- surgical  vaginas, penises, testes, are all objectively ‘knowable’ except in the argument of someone trying to  deny common sense . In fact, Enke points out that ‘the vast majority of transsexual people and people with significant cross-gender identification will have no genital surgeries’, so the differences will be quite clear to the naked eye.

 Transfeminism, it seems, is based on a rather mystical principle that there is no such thing as biology.  Enke makes a land grab for feminism itself, arguing that it is but a variety of transgender practice: ‘most feminists should be seeing feminism as a transgender phenomenon: Some version of gender self-determination and resistance to binary gender norms and oppressions has always been central to feminism’. – Sheila Jeffreys

Here, Jeffreys casts that which is critical of an unconstructed ontology as “transfeminism,” conveniently erasing the analysis of generations of radical feminists like Monique Wittig, Ruth Herschberger, Christine Delphy, Catharine MacKinnon, Monique de Beauvoir, Dana Densmore, and Andrea Dworkin. Such erasure is a rhetorical pattern for Jeffreys. When Jeffreys spoke at the Andrea Dworkin Commemorative Conference, she credited Dworkin as being her inspiration. Moreover, she spoke at length about Dworkin’s pioneering book, Woman Hating while at the same time denigrating the bodies of trans women. During her entire presentation, Jeffreys never once noted that – in the very book she cited as being the inspiration for her activism – Dworkin advocated that:

  • Trans people be given free access to trans medical care;
  • Dworkin viewed gender identity research as being rightly subversive to patriarchy;
  • Exclusion was a trans person’s “primary emergency;” and,
  • The very sex essentialism Jeffreys promoted in her commemoration of Andrea must be subverted.

We can observe this same erasure reenacted by Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF) sex essentialists who support the Festival’s so-called “woman-born woman” policy. In 2014, a group of self-identified “radical feminists” produced a “Welcome” booklet which asserted: “[T]his zine… [offered an] opportunity to answer the following questions: what is radical feminism; where is it going and/or where should it go; and, why and how should women join the movement?”10 The zine answers these rhetorical questions through assertions such as:

In this climate of accusations of “transphobia” taking over our precious few  women’s safe spaces , activist organizations and advocacy groups, what is to become of women’s rights and needs in the coming months, years and decades?  It is up to us to organize to  take back our institutions and our rightful place as leaders, visionaries  and dedicated followers in our communities. There are and will be plenty of women (and of course, men) who do not put women first in their advocacy work, but instead, will fall for the lies and   false  promises of gender liberation for “all women” – including  men who claim to be women.  The transactivist movement is like an  invasion of the body snatchers only worse, because not only does it  harm  our ability to organize  authentic safe spaces for women , but it is  harmful to those who practice transgenderism [sic]  too.  Synthetic  hormones, puberty inhibitors and  genital mutilation  are not methods of human liberation and health. We need to speak out against this  practice  and inform parents of the harms their children will be facing if they “transition.” – Thistle Pettersen11

Beverly “BevJo” Von Dohre – a long-term sex essentialist opinion leader – spoke to what she believes to be real radical feminism:

Seventies Radical Feminism was about supporting women to feel strong and proud in rejecting  patriarchy Later  diluted  liberal feminism patronizes women as too weak and damaged to be given credit for the choices that we make and keeps women infantilised… Liberals have been very comfortable in  feeling superior and try to stop women from talking back , so they project and repeat patronizing, insulting and  oppressive male tactics  to  censor and silence Some actually claim that they are the Radical Feminists, which is reminiscent of  trans cult claiming that they are more women than real women 

Radical Feminists do not believe that males are  raping and murdering  because they were somehow “socialized” that way (which leads once again to women devoting even more time to change males.) There are clear  biological, mental, and emotional differences between females and males.  This doesn’t mean that males should not be held accountable for the crimes they commit, but rather that we be aware of how  dangerous they are. 

Radical Feminists NEVER agree to the female-hating  trans cult con that men could be women or Lesbians.  ( We also do not accept “‘trans-paraplegic” able-bodied men  who demand to be accepted as paraplegic Lesbians.) This includes not supporting these men  appropriating our identity  by calling them “transfolk” or “transwomen” or any other terms that give credence to the idea that they are somehow more special than other  misogynist female impersonators  Radical Feminists never call men “women” of any kind or “she” or “her,” or call women “men.” … Radical Feminists do not lie, threaten, bully, manipulate, play games, name-call, ridicule, taunt, insult, abuse, or use oppression against other women (such as using classist or racist terms aimed to humiliate women oppressed by classism or racism.) – Beverly “BevJo” Von Dohre12

Ironically, Von Dohre asserted that radical feminists are not violent. While the idea that radical feminists aren’t violent isn’t itself ironic, when we review the behavior that is consistently produced by the “woman-born woman” framework, it will become glaringly apparent why Von Dohre – author of Dykes and Gorgons (1973) – making such a claim is ironic. The zine continues in its “radical feminist” critique of trans people:

Transgender politics impact all women because we are  coerced into accepting something that is not real , but that has real consequences in our abilities to organize away from men.  If even one man, dressed as a woman comes into our women-only spaces , the whole experience of that space is transformed by  his violent presence … Transactivism impacts women’s ability to unify and show solidarity even when there are no “trans” people present.  Just the idea of “transgender rights” as a legitimate front for social change is harmful to women’s solidarity and movement.  It is so sad and infuriating, that even lesbians are calling other lesbians “hateful” if they question the good of transgenderism [sic].

 A man demanding to be seen as anything other than a man is oppressing the woman he [sic]  is talking to when she resists or questions  his [sic] “gender identity.” Transgenderism [sic] is an oppressive ideology that hurts girls and women the most  because it does not allow us to speak in our own terms about ourselves or about male  violence and dominance  in our lives.  Women do not oppress men (“trans women” are men)  because we are not in positions of gender power and privilege in society. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary online defines the word “oppression” to be a: unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power b: something that oppresses especially in being an unjust or excessive exercise of power.

 There is no such thing as “trans” , other than it exists as a social phenomena that intentionally or unintentionally,  promotes male rule of our lives and separates us from our connection to ourselves and the laws of nature – Thistle Pettersen

Within the ethical framework of trans exclusionary radical feminism, trans people are rhetorically constructed to be unnatural, monstrous, and inevitably dangerous, not only to the bodies of women, but to the asserted natural order of sex itself, warning, not infrequently, of “female erasure.” In 2016, the sex essentialist feminist community raised $27,154 to publish a book titled, Female Erasure: What You Need To Know About Gender Politics’ War on Women, the Female Sex and Human Rights. The book’s forward, written by Germaine Greer, critiques what it asserts to be the gender essentialism of trans people:

The irony of gender-reassignment is that it reinforces essentialist notions of sex binary…  Men who adopt femininity may believe that they are achieving femaleness, but femaleness is a tougher destiny than they can know or guess. Femaleness is demanding and painful, whether at menarche, menstruation, childbed or menopause , and born women have no choice but to deal with it.  Painted faces, depilated bodies, hair extensions and pumped up tits  are available to all human beings. Femininity is a de-sexed masquerade.  Men can be as good at it and better than women, but that does not make them women.  – Germaine Greer 

“Femininity” as Greer defines it — “painted faces, depilated bodies, hair extensions and pumped up tits” — is what the authors of this book assert trans people essentialize about gender. If that is so, what are we to make of the butches, dykes, studs, and androgynous trans women? Indeed, what are we to make of the decades of activism the trans community has invested into deconstructing the gender binary?

The book seeks, “a world in which everyone’s biological reality is honored, our sacred bodies are celebrated, and where sex-based violence and enforced gender roles become obsolete.” Here we see the basic presumption of sex essentialist radical feminism: while sexed behavior is culturally constructed, sexed bodies are not. However, one need look no further than the first two words in the book’s title to see the fallacy inherent to the very idea of Female Erasure; for if, as sex essentialist activists assert, sexed bodies aren’t culturally constructed, how can culture erase females? The book warns, “Female erasure is being enacted in a variety of ways, where even the word ‘woman’ and ‘female’ are redefined to no longer refer to a group of human beings who are the source of human life.” Indeed, that these activists fear that the functional notion of ‘woman’ and ‘female’ may become decoupled from the ability to produce children for men, one might better understand how and why so-called “radical feminist” organizations are now funded by a James Dobson anti-abortion group or why “radical feminist” sex essentialist activists are invited to lecture at the Heritage Foundation.

Historical Rhetoric

The contemporary “radical feminist” sex essentialist didn’t invent the rhetoric that is commonly used when promoting the “woman-born woman” framework. Its historical roots are embedded in a sex essentialism that grew out of the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1970s.

The Transsexual Empire Word Cloud: The larger the word, the more frequent the word is used in Janice Raymond’s book, Transsexual Empire. This model represents terminology frequency within the 1994 edition of Raymond’s 1979 book. A larger, more detailed image of this computer model can be found here

The above word cloud represents the frequency of terms used in Raymond’s Transsexual Empire. Larger words represent ideas which are more commonly referenced within her book. Such computer modeling allows for contextual representations of ideological concepts supporting and informing Raymond’s natural sex binary framework.

While looking at the frequency of terms is perhaps helpful, it is also helpful to review the ways in which Raymond frames the trans experience. Surgery was referenced by Raymond 212 times. In what way was this concept framed in Raymond’s work?

  • A 1991 article in The Lancet, while acknowledging that the surgery may benefit some individuals, nevertheless warned about “medical collusion with unattainable fantasy…”
  • Transsexual surgery is the invention of men initially developed for men.
  • Behind this construction of man-made femininity is also the age-old patriarchal perception that women’s bodies should be available to men. Transsexual surgery, I admit, is a peculiar variation on this theme, but it points to the general accessibility of women, this time with men acquiring the female body not only as sexual and/or reproductive property, but through hormonal and surgical construction.13 

These three examples come from the Introduction to the 1994 edition of The Transsexual Empire. How might her contextualization of “surgery” as it relates to the trans experience differ from that of her 1979 edition? From page one, paragraph one:

Transsexualism [sic] highlights, in a unique way, several key issues in feminist studies… Important issues in medical ethics, such as bodily  mutilation  and  integrity ,  “nature”  versus technology, medical research priorities, unnecessary  surgery , and the inevitable issue of the medical model, are involved also. – Janice Raymond14

Terms are given a very specific context within Raymond’s natural sex binary framework. Terms such as biologic, native, whole and body integrity are given a specific moral context and terms such as synthetic, artificial, and constructed are given immoral contexts. Consider the contextual binary Raymond constructs for some of these terms in the above paragraph. Within Raymond’s representation of the trans experience, the opposite of body integrity is body mutilation. Raymond clarifies what “integrity” means in her framework later in her 1979 Introduction: “I am making an appeal to the integrity or harmony of the whole.” In Raymond’s vernacular, that which is not “whole” is synthetic, artificial and constructed.

Consider the context of integrity and construction in Raymond’s infamous “rape” passage:

Rape, of course, is a masculinist violation of bodily  integrity . All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transsexually  constructed  lesbian-feminist  violates  women’s sexuality and spirit, as well. – Janice Raymond15 

Thirty-five years later in 2014, Raymond finally conceded that transsexual people do not, in fact, rape women’s bodies by existing. She explained that the term “rape” was used as a euphemism for violation.16 However, even with Raymond’s late revision, her meaning remains clear: the existence of trans bodies is a violation of authenticated women’s bodies, sexuality, and spirit.

It should be noted that Raymond’s work represents only part of the historical “woman-born woman” framework. Raymond’s feminism was informed by her dissertation advisor, Mary Daly. Raymond’s dissertation was later published as The Transsexual Empire. Around the same time Raymond’s Transsexual Empire debuted, Daly’s Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978) was well-received within the Lesbian feminist community:

The madness which is the Dionysian Final Solution for women is confusion – inability to distinguish the female Self and her process from the male-made  masquerade . Dionysus sometimes assumed a girl-like form. The phenomenon of the drag queen dramatically demonstrates such boundary  violation . Like whites playing  “black face” , he incorporates the oppressed  role  without being incorporated in it. In the phenomenon of transsexualism [sic], the incorporation/ confusion  is deeper. As ethicist Janice Raymond has pointed out, the majority of transsexuals are “male to female”, while transsexed [sic] females basically function as  tokens , and are used by the  rulers  of the transsexual empire to hide the  real nature  of the game. In transsexualism, males put on “female” bodies (which are in fact  pseudo female). In a  real sense  they are separated from their  original  mothers by the rituals of the counseling process, which usually result in “discovering” that the mother of the transsexual-to-be is at fault for his “gender identity crisis”. These “patients” are reborn from  males . As Linda Barufaldi suggested, this fact was symbolized in the renaming of the renowned transsexual of tennis, Renée (literally, “re-born”) Richards, whose  original  first name was Richard. The re-birthing male supermothers include psychiatrists, surgeons, hormone therapists, and other cooperating professionals. The surgeons and hormone therapists of the transsexual kingdom, in their effort to give birth, can be said to produce feminine persons. They cannot produce women. – Mary Daly17

The way in which the trans experience is represented within the contemporary “radical feminist” sex essentialist community is merely a reflection of its own ideological history. Themes of violation, inauthenticity, caricature, mutilation and monstrosity continue to feature prominently as a foundational moral dialectic which is reenacted daily on social media and within feminist spaces.

Prior to Raymond and Daly’s books, Raymond alerted the feminist community to the fact that the radical feminist lesbian separatist women’s music collective Olivia Records was trans-inclusive. In 1977 Sister published an open letter to Olivia which was signed by MichFest organizer Lisa Vogel  as well as several other MWMF-affiliated women:

We do not believe that a man without a penis is a woman any more than we would accept a white woman with  dyed skin  as a Black woman…  He  [sic] has never had to suffer the discrimination, self-hatred or fear that a woman must endure and survive in her life. And  he  [sic] cannot possess the special courage, brilliance, sensitivity and compassion that derives from that experience. -Lisa Vogel, et al.18 19


Open letter to Olivia published in Sister, June 1977

Perhaps the earliest known instance of sex essentialism causing a rift within a feminist community was recounted in the Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement (2006):

Beth Elliott was a preoperative MTF (male-to-female) transsexual who joined DOB in San Francisco in 1971. She was honest about her transition and, after heated controversy and disagreements among the members, was accepted, even becoming vice president of the local chapter.20

This “heated controversy” landed on a national stage at the 1973 West Coast Lesbian Conference. Though Elliott had helped organize the conference, a sex essentialist group calling itself the Gutter Dykes threw the entire conference into violent chaos, demanding that the conference become a trans-exclusionary space. Some of the controversial discourse was preserved by a conference organizer and Lesbian Tide Collective21, Barbara McLean in her diary and was later reprinted in The Lesbian Tide:

This woman is insisting that Beth Elliott not be permitted to perform because Beth is a transsexual. Beth was on the San Francisco steering committee for the conference, a part of the original group that gave birth to the idea…. She’s written some far-out feminist songs. That’s why she’s here. No. We do not, cannot relate to her as a man. We have not known her as a man.

 He  [sic] has a  prick ! That makes  him  [sic] a  man  [sic].”

That’s bullshit! Anatomy is NOT destiny! There is a contradiction here. Do we or do we not believe that anatomy is destiny?

 [This is] the most bizarre and dangerous co-optation of lesbian energy and emotion [we] can imagine. 

 I see The Gutter Dykes’ objection to transsexuals is that they have or had been socialized as men, male identified, and therefore oppressive to women Well what about the dykes who have been socialized as men, either by their families or that portion of the gay community which has (and had exclusively) in the past emulated straight society and its sex-role stereotyping? What about the former and current BUTCHES? – Barbara McLean

McLean’s diary also recorded her thoughts on Robin Morgan’s infamously transmisogynistic keynote Conference address:

Did I hear [Robin Morgan] right. I did. She said that rather than call for unity, she chooses to call for polarity. I’m confused. I’m still confused. Especially since the announced purpose for the conference is UNITY… I’m angry. I somehow feel betrayed…  Now she’s trashing Kate Millet. Now she’s trashing us over the transsexual thing. Now she’s trashing EVERYONE. I can’t believe she ever wrote anything about “sister-hood.”   – Barbara McLean22

Morgan’s speech did address “the transsexual thing.” In fact, her speech introduced for the first time on a national stage, numerous tropes commonly found in contemporary sex essentialist radical feminist discourse:

[A]re we yet again going to defend the  male supremacist yes obscenity of male transvestitism ? How many of us will try to explain away—or permit into our organizations, even,  men who deliberately reemphasize gender roles, and who parody female oppression  and suffering as “camp”? No.  I will not call a male “she”: thirty-two years of suffering in the androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the name “woman”; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain?  No. In our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call  him  sister. We know what’s at work when whites wear  blackface ; the same thing is at work when  men wear drag .23

Even in this early example, we can observe the clash between ideological sex essentialist and radical feminist discourse. Note that the sex essentialist gaze produces a “dangerous” trans caricature who is taking away woman “energy” and “emotion.” Such moralistic rhetoric is commonplace in contemporary sex essentialist discourse. While this discursive moral appeal might seem hyperbolic, for the sex essentialist, it is experienced as a moral imperative.

Nick Haslam of the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences identified two types of dehumanization. Dehumanization occurs when “characteristics that are uniquely human and those that constitute human nature” are denied by certain groups:

 Denying uniquely human attributes to others represents them as animal-like, and denying human nature to others represents them as objects or automata.  Cognitive underpinnings of the “animalistic” and “mechanistic” forms of dehumanization are proposed.

This model proposes that there are two dimensions of humanness that may be denied to others. ‘‘Human Uniqueness’’ refers to attributes that are seen as distinguishing humans from other animals and involves refinement, civility, morality, and higher cognition. ‘‘Human Nature’’ refers to attributes that are seen as shared and fundamental features of humanity, such as emotionality, warmth, and cognitive flexibility. When Human Uniqueness attributes are denied to people, they are explicitly or implicitly likened to animals and seen as childlike, immature, coarse, irrational, or backward. When Human Nature attributes are denied to people, they are explicitly or implicitly likened to objects or machines and seen as cold, rigid, inert, and lacking emotion.

Being treated as incompetent, unintelligent, unsophisticated, and uncivilized results in aversive self-awareness and self-blame, leading to feelings of guilt and shame. On the other hand,  denials of Human Nature constitute more severe forms of maltreatment. These kinds of dehumanizing experiences have implications for basic elements of a person’s identity, leading to cognitive deconstructive states  and feelings of sadness.24

Trans people are constructed to be monstrous and parasitic or even embodied caricatures of fictitious serial killers. Within the “woman-born woman” framework, the notion that trans people are actually, as Raymond put it, “synthetic products” is academically debated. In Jeffreys’ iteration of Raymond’s morality, trans people are deviant and violent liars and betrayers whose sexual fetishes harm all women.

Mary Daly noted that trans people are “Frankenstein” constructs, invaders bent on violating women’s boundaries:

Today the  Frankenstein phenomenon  is omnipresent not only in religious myth, but in its offspring,  phallocratic technology. The   insane  desire for power, the  madness of boundary violation, is the mark of necrophiliacs who sense the lack of soul/spirit/life-loving principle with themselves and therefore try to invade and kill off all spirit, substituting conglomerates of corpses. This necrophilic invasion/elimination takes a variety of forms.  Transsexualism is an example of male surgical siring which  invades the female world with substitutes Male mothered genetic  engineering  is an attempt to “create” without women. The projected  manufacture by men of artificial wombs, of cyborgs which will be part flesh, part robot, of clones  – all are manifestations of  phallocratic boundary violation25

Germaine Greer noted in The Whole Woman (1999) that trans people are like fictitious serial killers who murder their own mothers:

There is a witness to the transsexual’s script, a witness who is never consulted. She is the person who built the transsexual’s body of her own flesh and brought it up as her son or daughter, the  transsexual’s worst enemy, his/her mother . Whatever else it is gender reassignment is an  exorcism of the mother . When a man decides to spend his life  impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in Psycho) it is as if he murders her  and gets away with it, proving at a stroke that there was nothing to her.26

Not only are the bodies of trans people mutilations, within the “woman-born woman” framework, the bodies of trans people are smelly (as Jeffreys asserts) or decaying (as Raymond asserts). The message sex essentialist radical feminist opinion leaders/scholars send is clear: trans women represent the wolf in sheep’s clothing; an enemy that’s anywhere and everywhere, but especially in authenticated women’s spaces. For Jeffreys, when a trans woman pees in a public restroom, it is a violation of an authenticated women’s international human rights:

Dignity is an important principle in human rights law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights opens with the words, ‘Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. The entry of  male-bodied  persons into women’s toilets is happening with increasing frequency in the United States in particular, and is being  justified  successfully with reference to gender rights. This  subjects women to the potential for a range of sexually harassing behaviour by men that violates women’s right to human dignity .

The  creation of a ‘right’ for men to enter women’s toilets  has, potentially, a number of  negative effects , such as the deterrence of women from using them, creating  potential health problems, and the forcing of women into the intimate proximity of men , some of whom  have a clear interest in the sexual excitements that they can access by violating  women’s right to human dignity in such places.27

Such moral contextualizations of trans women contribute to a social climate wherein trans women are publicly beaten when merely attempting to use the restroom. Moral rhetoric designed to dehumanize trans people informs a specific type of behavior that is observable in both the historic and contemporary iterations of the sex essentialist “radical feminist” movement and I contend that any morality that seeks to separate a group of human beings from their very humanity is not, in any sense of the word, feminist.

The Behavior

1973 Lesbian Tide Collective announcement for the West Coast Lesbian Conference, announcing that Beth Elliott would play, by Barbara McLean

In 1973, out trans woman, Beth Elliott received a phone call. The anonymous woman on the other line asked for “Mr. Elliott” and instructed Elliott to not attend the West Coast Lesbian Conference she helped organize and ended the call with a death threat. Beverly “BevJo” Von Dohre’s group, The Gutter Dykes had disrupted the conference and the group threatened to continue disrupting the conference unless it removed Elliott.28

While Morgan’s anthologized version of her keynote address she gave at the conference mentions many anti-trans tropes commonly featured in contemporary sex essentialist feminist discourse, her comments concerning Elliott directly are edited out.29 Missing from Morgan’s commonly anthologized version is the following call to action which precipitated the sex essentialist activist violence:

 [Elliott], the same man  [sic] who, when personally begged by women not to attend this Conference, replied that if  he  [sic] were kept out  he  [sic] would bring a Federal suit against these women on the charges of ‘discrimination and criminal conspiracy to discriminate… The same fine sisters who have for months worked day and night to create and organize this event, have — in one stroke, inviting this  man [sic]… insulted every woman here . I’m afraid they owe us an apology on the grounds of  divisiveness  alone. My point is that if even one woman last night felt that  he  [sic] should go, that should have been sufficient. Where  The Man  is concerned,  we must not be separate fingers but one fist I charge [Elliott] as an  opportunist, an infiltrator, and a destroyer—with the mentality of a rapist And you women at this Conference know who  he  [sic] is. Now. You can let  him  [sic] into your workshops—or  you can deal with him  [sic].30

It’s worth noting that the phone call Morgan references wherein Elliott was “begged” not to attend was the same call that began with misgendering her and ended with a death threat.31

Moreover, Morgan asserted that Elliott was an attempted to rapist and that she had single-handedly nearly destroyed the San Francisco chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis.  After Morgan’s speech, a Conference-wide vote was taken on whether or not the Conference should become trans-exclusionary. According to Transgender History (2008), “more than two-thirds of those present voted to allow Elliott to remain, but the antitranssexual faction refused to accept the popular results and promised to disrupt the conference if their demands were not met.”32

Having been given permission to stay, Elliott took the Conference stage to play her scheduled acoustic guitar set. However, Von Dohre’s group rushed the stage intent on bashing Elliott, yelling, “That’s not a woman! He’s fake! He’s a transsexual!” Conference organizer and Lesbian Tide Collective member Jeanne Cordova characterized the unrest as a seismic event: “It was like an earthquake – at first, a little earthquake. Then an 8.5.”33 She later said, “The fear of the conference blowing up was very tangible and very threatening to me personally as well as the other conference organizers.” I interviewed the pioneering Radical Feminist, Robin Tyler about what happened next:

Robin Morgan came up with this horrible speech and when Beth [Elliott] went on stage to play her guitar and sing, [TERFs] started threatening her. Patty [Harrison] and I jumped on stage and we got hit, because they came onto the stage to physically beat her.

We stepped up and defended Beth. When Robin Morgan came out against Beth, I said to her, look, you’re bisexual and you’re up here determining who should belong to this movement and who shouldn’t? Both Patty and I thought it was just terrible. It wasn’t like we totally understood transgender people at the time; because we didn’t, but how are you going to beat someone? It was just disgusting. – Robin Tyler

When Von Dohre’s group charged the stage to beat Elliott, radical feminists used their own bodies to shield Elliott from the violence. Fearing further violence and Conference disruption Elliott left the event. This incident was later featured in Raymond’s Transsexual Empire as being evidence of the “destructive” nature of trans women:

Having experienced on an everyday existential level the destructive elements of sex-role stereotyping in a patriarchal society, many women perceive that transsexuals do nothing to alter this society but merely reinforces it. Robin Morgan, in her speech to the Lesbian Conference in Los Angeles in 1973 address herself to this issue in responding to  transsexual intrusion  into the conference. ‘If  transvestite or transsexual males  are oppressed, then let them band together and organize against that oppression, instead of  leeching off women  who have spent entire lives as women in women’s bodies.’  Such critique, of course, proceeds from a feminist perspective.  However, what is important to note here is that what many transsexuals are saying, in stating that women are less tolerant of them than men, is that many women who probably would not call themselves feminists have an instinctual understanding of the  destructiveness of transsexualism34

In Raymond’s account, gone is the sex essentialist activist violence, gone is Morgan’s call to have Elliott dealt with, and erased is the courage of the radical feminists who used their own bodies to shield a trans woman from a public bashing by sex essentialists. Instead, Raymond is content to portray Elliott’s mere embodied presence as being essentially destructive.

This wasn’t the last time that radical feminists braved violence and even death at the hands of a sex essentialist group claiming to be “radical feminist.” Sex essentialist feminist violence and erasure of the trans experience also took the form of a national sex essentialist feminist effort to crush the pioneering radical feminist Lesbian separatist women’s music collective, Olivia Records because the collective was trans-inclusive. Not only were they trans-inclusive, they even paid for trans medical care. When Raymond learned of what she perceived to be Olivia’s biological treachery, she decided to do something about a problem named Sandy Stone. What Raymond set in motion became an organized domestic terrorist action against the women of Olivia and specifically, Olivia collective member and out trans woman, Sandy Stone. The actions Raymond set in motion included a public repudiation of Olivia by Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival organizer Lisa Vogel and escalated into a barrage of threats of violence against the women of Olivia and ultimately an attempt on Stone’s life by sex essentialist activists.

The experience of Stone and the other women of Olivia speaks to a pattern sex essentialist feminists used to not only colonize the radical feminist identity, but link radical feminism itself with an ideological rejection of trans people. I interviewed Stone about her experience:

[W]e were getting hate mail about me. After a while the hate mail got so vicious that the mail room made a decision to not pass that mail along to me.  This was vile stuff. A lot of it included death threats.  They would let me know about the death threats after a while. The death threats were directed at me, but there were violent consequences proposed for the Collective if they didn’t get rid of me.

The more hate mail that arrived, the more we could perceive that there was organizing going on, outside of the Collective, that had to do with transphobia and with isolating trans people wherever they popped up. I was not alone.

This pattern escalated. We were organizing what was for us, a major tour. We wanted to tour the country and provide women’s music for women in major cities along our route. It was the first time anything like that had been attempted. We had an entire network of lesbian separatist producers, people who could organize local logistical support, people who could advertise tickets and handle the selling and we wanted it to be completely done by women.

[W]e had gotten a letter telling us that when we got to Seattle that there was a separatist paramilitary group called the Gorgons.  The Gorgons was a group of women who wore cammo gear, shaved their heads and carried live weapons. We were told that when we got to town, they were going to kill me.  [W]e began checking this out and the women who had booked the hall for us said,  “Yes! These people are real and you guys had better do something about this because they’re serious!” 

We did, in fact, go to Seattle, but we went as probably the only women’s music tour that was ever done with serious muscle security.  They were very alert for weapons and, in fact, Gorgons did come and they did have guns taken away from them. 

I was pants-wetting scared at that event. I was terrified. During a break between a musical number someone shouted out “GORGONS!” and I made it from my seat at the console to under the table the console was on at something like superluminal speed. I stayed under there until it was clear that I wasn’t about to be shot… Not that it would have done me any good to be under there. – Sandy Stone

Fearing for her safety, the safety of her fellow collective members and the future of Olivia in the face of a threatened national sex essentialist feminist -led boycott, Stone left the collective but went on to apply the radical-to-the-root feminist ethics she learned at Olivia to what became a foundational document for trans feminism, Stone’s 1987 response to Raymond’s Transsexual Empire, The Empire Strikes Back.35 Raymond, the individual who started the transmisogynistic ball rolling against Olivia, recounted this event in The Transsexual Empire:

 Masculine behavior is notably obtrusive It is significant that  transsexually [sic] constructed lesbian-feminists have inserted themselves  into the positions of importance and/or performance in the feminist community. The controversy in the summer of 1977 surrounding Sandy Stone, the transsexual sound engineer for Olivia Records, an “all women” recording company, illustrates this well. Stone is not only crucial to the Olivia enterprise but plays a very  dominant role there … This only serves to enhance his [sic] previously  dominant role and to divide women , as men frequently do, when they make their presence necessary and vital to women. Having produced such  divisiveness , one would think that if Stone’s commitment to and identification with women were genuinely woman-centered,  he  [sic] would have removed  himself  [sic] from Olivia and assumed some  responsibility for the divisiveness – Janice Raymond36 

In Raymond’s account, sex essentialist feminist violence is erased and in its place appears a perverse caricature of Stone which acts as the narrative source of “divisiveness” – a profane euphemism for the domestic terrorism this trans-inclusive radical feminist women’s collective faced. Pioneering radical feminist and co-founder of both the Furies and Olivia collectives, Ginny Berson responded to Raymond’s description of what happened saying, “[That’s] very inaccurate… The anti-trans activists created some problems for us, and we went through some ugly and hard times because of them. Not because of Sandy.” Berson went on to recount the obturate behavior of the sex-essentials activists thusly:

It was horrible. It was ugly and destructive and mean-spirited and just stupid. How much easier it is to attack people close to you than to focus on the patriarchy! It was painful. It felt like everything we had done was invisible and irrelevant to those people. – Ginny Berson

Raymond’s fingerprints are also found on something far more devastating than any violent movement to crush trans-inclusive radical feminist spaces.  It was Raymond’s work that supported a full third of the US government’s findings which precipitated the end of private and public funding for trans medical care during an era when employment discrimination against trans people was ruled legal.

In the late 1970s, the government created a center to assess the efficacy of medical technologies. In order to do this, the National Center for Health Care Technology (NCHCT) was mandated to assess the “ethics” of any medical technology it reviewed. To that end, NCHCT contracted Janice Raymond to author its position on the ethics of trans medical care. Raymond’s work on the ethics of trans care must be viewed within the context of her stated moral: “I contend that the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.” Raymond’s statement on the morality of trans care came from her 1979 book, The Transsecxual Empire. This book was even referred to in the NCHCT report that led to a US ban on public and private insurance coverage for trans care.

Raymond’s stated goal of morally mandating transness out of existence was, at least on a functional level, achieved when the US government banned coverage of trans care from public insurance based, in part, on Raymond’s claims about the ethics of trans medical care. Shortly thereafter, this ban was cited to justify excluding the coverage of trans care from private insurance. It wasn’t until 2013 that the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Departmental Appeals Board reversed their ban on trans medical care. In their ruling, HHS reviewed the reason they had originally banned trans care in the first place:

HS Appeals Board Decision, page 3 | PUBLIC insurance policy exclusion: “Transsexual surgery for sex reassignment of transsexuals is controversial.”

The HHS Appeals Board Decision continues:

The [National Coverage Determination (NCD)] directly quotes from or paraphrases portions of an 11-page report that the former National Center for Health Care Technology (NCHCT) of the HHS Public Health Service (PHS) issued in 1981, titled “Evaluation of Transsexual Surgery.” The NCHCT forwarded its 1981 report to officials of the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA), now called CMS, with a memorandum dated May 6, 1981 recommending “that transsexual surgery not be covered by Medicare at this time.”

In other words, the report that promoted Raymond’s claim that the efficacy of trans care was controversial was used to ban trans services. What follows is from a 2009 UnitedHealthcare policy banning trans services:

UnitedHealthcare, 2009 | PRIVATE insurance policy exclusion: “Transsexual surgery for sex reassignment of transsexuals is controversial.”

Note that the exclusionary language in this private insurance policy is the same word-for-word language as the exclusionary language from HHS’ public insurance policy. One might well wonder what impact making trans care inaccessible has on trans people. Fortunately, the State of California attempted to answer this question. California reviewed  healthcare policies that stoped trans people from obtaining safe and legal trans medical care and found that such policies result in the death of trans people:

A meta-analysis published in 2010 by Murad, et al., of patients who received currently excluded treatments demonstrated that there was a significant decrease in suicidality post-treatment. The average reduction was from 30 percent pretreatment to 8 percent post treatment.

De Cuypere, et al., reported that the rate of suicide attempts dropped dramatically from 29.3 percent to 5.1 percent after receiving medical and surgical treatment among Dutch patients treated from 1986-2001.

According to Dr. Ryan Gorton, “In a cross-sectional study of 141 transgender patients, Kuiper and Cohen-Kittenis found that after medical intervention and treatments, suicide fell from 19 percent to zero percent in transgender men and from 24 percent to 6 percent in transgender women.)”

Clements-Nolle, et al., studied the predictors of suicide among over 500 transgender men and women in a sample from San Francisco and found a prevalence of suicide attempts of 32 percent. In this study, the strongest predictor associated with the risk of suicide was gender based discrimination which included “problems getting health or medical services due to their gender identity or presentation.” According to Gorton, “Notably, this gender-based discrimination was a more reliable predictor of suicide than depression, history of alcohol/drug abuse treatment, physical victimization, or sexual assault.” 

The state review concluded that removing barriers to treatment results in significantly lower suicide rates within the trans population. When Raymond was confronted with the results of the trans exclusionary policies she helped forge, Raymond asserted that trans people are like psychologically ill individuals who wish to have entire sections of their bodies removed or to become paralyzed:

I did not then or now believe that federal or state funds should subsidize transsexual surgery for anyone because, in my view, it is unnecessary surgery and  medical mutilation I would argue the same about healthy limb  amputations  now justified in some of the clinical literature for those designated as suffering from a  Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). BIID  subjects have threatened suicide or taken matters into their own hands if deprived of the surgery, as have  transgendered  [sic] persons who desperately pursue hormones and surgery. – Janice Raymond

In other words, even if trans people die because they can’t access care, that isn’t important because trans people are not sane. If trans people die due to lack of safe and accessible medical care, that should be seen as the result of the trans person’s insanity and not as a sign of any deficiencies within an ethical medical system. If we are to place any level of confidence in the State of California’s study linking the lack of medical care to the high mortality rate of trans people, we must concede that the medical system Raymond helped create resulted in the death of trans people.

The decades-old sex essentialist movement that acts in the name of an asserted “radical feminism” is justified by the ethical model it constructs through a rhetoric of denaturalization and dehumanization that informs a moral framework justifying behavior explicitly harmful to the existence of trans people. In this way, these sex essentialist activists aren’t merely critiquing culture, they are acting, to paraphrase Raymond, to morally mandate an end to the existence of transness.

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  1. Raymond, Janice G. The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-male. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979. 17.
  2. Ibid. 165
  3. Ibid. 155
  4. Ibid. 167
  5. Ibid. 172
  6. Ibid. xxiii
  7. Ibid. 120
  8. Jeffreys, Sheila. Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism. NY: Routledge, 2014. 50.
  9. Myers, JoAnne, and JoAnne Myers. The A to Z of the Lesbian Liberation Movement Still the Rage. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009. 245.
  10. Pettersen, Thistle, ed. Sparks from the Flame: Radical Feminist Greetings & Messages for MichFest 2014, for Womyn by Womyn, July 14, 2014, 2.
  11. Ibid. 2 – 12
  12. Ibid, 31 – 33
  13. Ibid. xii – xv
  14. Ibid. 1
  15. Ibid. 103 – 104
  16. “In The Transsexual Empire, I used rape as a metaphor as in the figure of speech, “rape of the earth,” to describe the male transgender person’s demand for access to women’s bodies in undergoing treatment and surgery to become women. It was not an appropriate metaphor, and I would not use it again in this context.” – Vigo, Julian. “Dispelling Fictions and Disrupting Hashtags.” CounterPunch. August 25, 2014. Accessed March 11, 2015. http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/08/25/dispelling-fictions-and-disrupting-hashtags.
  17. Daly, Mary. Gyn/ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978. 46.
  18. “Open Letter to Olivia.” Sister, June 1, 1977.
  19. It should be noted that Sister was trans-inclusive and chose to disband rather than acquiesce to the demands of sex essentialist activists.
  20. Gallo, Marcia M. Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2006. 190.
  21. It should be noted that the radical feminist collective, The Lesbian Tide, was trans-inclusive.
  22. McLean, Barbara. “Diary of a Mad Organizer.” The Lesbian Tide, May/June, 1973.
  23. Ridinger, Robert B. Marks. Speaking for Our Lives: Historic Speeches and Rhetoric for Gay and Lesbian Rights (1892-2000). New York: Harrington Park Press, 2004. 204.
  24. Bastian, Brock, and Nick Haslam. “Experiencing Dehumanization: Cognitive And Emotional Effects Of Everyday Dehumanization.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 33, no. 4 (2011): 295-303.
  25. Ibid. 71
  26. Greer, Germaine. The Whole Woman. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1999. 80.
  27. Ibid. 153 – 154
  28. See Feminist Transphobes in Transgender History. 101.
  29. Ibid. 198 – 211.
  30. Blasius, Mark. We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics. New York: Routledge, 1997. 429.
  31. Nettick, Geri, and Beth Elliot. Mirrors: Portrait of a Lesbian Transsexual. Rhinoceros ed. NY: Masquerade Books, 1996. 256.
  32. Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008. 105.
  33. Faderman, Lillian, and Stuart Timmons. Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. New York: Basic Books, 2006. 191.
  34. Ibid. 85
  35. Stryker, Susan. “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” In The Transgender Studies Reader, 221. New York, NY: Routledge, 2006.
  36. Ibid 101-102

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