Response to John Stoltenberg: Andrea Dworkin & Transphobia

This letter was originally published at Gender Detective, with the following introduction:

About a year ago, pro-feminist author John Stoltenberg wrote a very disturbing article entitled “Andrea Dworkin Was Not Transphobic” for the website Feminist Times. In response, Jonah Mix wrote an open letter. John Stoltenberg’s response is in the comments of that open letter. Derrick’s contribution to the discussion follows:

I’d like to thank you both for the above exchange, which is both illuminating and disturbing.

As a fellow writer, I understand that publishers come up with article titles. Sometimes they don’t ask my approval on them, and sometimes they do. And as a writer I know that when I find a title harmful I demand it be changed. So it was illuminating, disturbing, and unfortunately not surprising to learn that you approved the title “Andrea was not transphobic.”

By now you must be aware that the phrase “transphobe” is routinely used as a rhetorical cudgel to browbeat many women into silence and submission, women who want nothing more, in many cases, than to be allowed to use the bathroom or locker room or shelter free from the presence of biological males. By denying that Andrea Dworkin was a “transphobe” you were by contrast lending credence to the notion that these other woman are in fact “transphobes.”

I’ll spell it out. The women I know who have been called “transphobic”—and who have been threatened with rape, other forms of torture, and murder by many of the very same biological males who are labeling these women as “transphobic”—are not, in fact, “transphobic” in that none of them wish to exploit or wish any harm on people who identify as transgender. They don’t want for them to be murdered. They don’t want for them to be imprisoned. They don’t for them to be raped. They don’t want for them kicked out of their homes. They don’t want for them to be harmed in any way. They don’t want for them to be exploited. They don’t perceive them as inferior. They don’t care with whom they sleep. They don’t care what they wear. They don’t care how they organize. They don’t care how much money they make. They have no desire to control the lives of these others.

They just disagree that those biological males who identify as “transgender” are women, and they mainly want to be left alone. And for that they are labeled as “transphobic.”

Disagreement is not hate speech, and disagreement doesn’t imply “phobia.” Any hatreds being manifested here are by those who threaten rape and murder when women do not submit. But that’s a story we’ve all heard before.

I’m not suggesting that transphobic violence doesn’t occur, but those who perpetrate it are a whole different set, a whole different politics, and a whole different sex.

As support for your statement that Dworkin was not “transphobic,” you mention the fact that in an anti-pornography ordinance, Dworkin and MacKinnon included the following sentence, “The use of men, children, or transsexuals in the place of women…is also pornography.” The fact that you use this statement to support the notion that she was not a “transphobe” implies that those who are labeled as “transphobes” would believe something different. But none of the women I know who have been labeled as “transphobic” would disagree with that statement. Pornography is pornography. I’m sure that Dworkin and MacKinnon and many others would agree that pigs or donkeys or horses being used “in the place of women is still pornography.” So you’re creating a false dichotomy. And further, the fact that she included “transsexuals” in the list in no way implies that she would believe that women should be forced against their will to accept biological males into their bathrooms and locker rooms and shelters. And that is what women are being called “transphobic” for: not for believing that the legal definition of what is called pornography shouldn’t include “transsexuals” (or “transgenders,” for that matter). For crying out loud, it was an ordinance, a legal document, and if they didn’t include transsexuals, that would leave a loophole big enough for the owners of “Chicks with Dicks” (pornographers’ term, not mine) to drive a truckload of money through.

You argue there that Dworkin wasn’t a “transphobe” because she mentioned “transsexual” as a category of people who could also be used in pornography. I’ve above addressed the point that she was drafting an ordinance, and needed to be inclusive for at the very least legal reasons (and please recognize that legal language doesn’t always translate to reality: legally, corporations are defined as persons, which I think most sane people understand as both nonsensical and deeply harmful). But you seem to be making an additional point as well. You wrote that, “Her acknowledging that a person could be subordinated like a woman [which is not actually what she said, but we’ll leave that aside] without having been assigned female at birth is consistent with her view that the category ‘woman’ is not tethered to female biology but originates instead in the male supremacist quest for identity through domination, disidentification, despisal, derogation, destruction, and death.” First, I’m afraid I must correct your language, which has, your protestations that you “eschew” queer theory aside, an explicit alignment with a body-denying inaccuracy derived from postmodernism and queer/trans theory, which is the notion that someone can be “assigned female at birth.” That’s complete nonsense, and you know it (or should, and if you don’t know it, you shouldn’t be writing about males or females). No one is “assigned female at birth.” Female is a real, physical state, whether we’re talking about female mice or orcas or human beings, or marijuana plants, for that matter. To use the postmodern/queer/trans language of saying that one is “assigned female at birth” makes as much sense as to say that one was “assigned human at birth” or “assigned mammal at birth.” One can be recognized as female. But one is not “assigned” female. I hope you were merely being careless, and not intentional. If you were careless, you, as a writer, should know better. And if you do know better but wrote it anyway, then you are committing the worst sin a writer can commit: propagating untruths—that is, lying—for ideological reasons.

Once one is born male or female, of course one is then molded into social roles after that. No one here is denying that.

But the real point seems to be that you are suggesting that Andrea Dworkin’s inclusion of “transsexual” as a category of people who can be forced into subordination “like a woman” (as you put it, not her) means somehow that they must be accepted by women as “women” (because, once again, that is the crux of this whole “transphobia” discussion, and why so many women are called “transphobes”: because they do not believe that “transwomen” are women who were wrongly “assigned male at birth” or who were “subordinated” into becoming women). But the quote you attempted to use to support this in no way supports this. Dworkin’s and MacKinnon’s list also includes the categories “men” and “children.” Are you going to suggest they meant by this that “men” and “children” are “women”? Why did you only pick “transsexual” from that list? Is it because the inclusion of “men” and “children” would make clear that your argument made no sense? One could far more easily argue that by including “transsexual” as a separate category who can be subordinated “like a woman,” as you say, she was clearly differentiating “transsexuals” from women. Otherwise she wouldn’t have included the separate category. She didn’t, for example, separate women with blonde hair from women with brunette hair, or women from China from women from Germany. Those are all categories of women, not other categories whose members can still be subordinated “like a woman.” So if the quote you give makes any relevant point at all (and I’m not sure it does), it makes precisely the opposite point of the one you are torturing it into meaning.

I’ll say it clearly: the fact that one has been subordinated “like a woman” does not in fact mean that one is a woman. I’m embarrassed to even have to write this, but it is too often forgotten. This is true of all forms of subordination. Does the enslavement of a prostituted woman from Eastern Europe mean that because she was enslaved she is now also black, as in those forced into chattel slavery and brought to the US from Africa? Of course not. She is subordinated. They are subordinated. It doesn’t mean their experiences are the same. Likewise a biological male who is treated “like a woman” is not then a woman. That should be obvious. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “He beat him like a rented mule.” Not even the most dedicated postmodernist or queer or trans theorist would parse that to mean that the person who was beaten actually is a rented mule, or even that he was beaten in the same places as a mule would be beaten, or that this means the other mules have to accept him into their herd, or in fact that he has anything in common with a rented mule other than that he was beaten like one. Yet that’s what you’ve done.

And even your own language suggests you understand that those who are not women are in fact not women. You wrote that those other than a woman could be “could be subordinated like a woman.” But if you say something is “like” something else, you are by definition saying that it is not the thing. You don’t say, “This is like a summer day,” in the middle of July. You say that if it’s hot in November. And even then we understand it’s only like it because of temperature, not length, or the sounds of insects, or by any other measure. And the next time you’re eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, try telling the person next to you, “This tastes just like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” and see what kind of look you get. Or think about your own example: you would never say, “That Belgian woman was subordinated just like a woman,” or “That brunette woman was subordinated just like a woman.” Yet you would say that, “This German man was subordinated just like a woman.”

Also, let’s say that some biological male has been subordinated “like a woman.” As I just said, that doesn’t mean he is now a woman. It just means he has been subordinated “like a woman” (and I need to say, for the record, that a woman’s experience is much more than merely being subordinated: to believe that subordination equals womanhood would be deeply objectifying and insulting to women). And the real point is that it doesn’t mean that he is now no threat to women. Indeed, most abusers were themselves abused—that is, they were, using this formulation, treated “like a woman.” That is one way masculinity perpetuates itself. You should know this. This is all just Abuse 101. To take a fatal example, look at the childhood of almost any serial sex killer, and you will find that he was horribly abused. His father (sometimes mother, but most often father) subordinated him “like a woman.” Does that make him a woman? No. Does that make him not a danger to women? No. Do all abused males end up abusing women? No. Do some? Yes.

The real point here, having to do with “transphobia,” is that a biological male having himself been subordinated “like a woman” by biological males does not mean that he is not a threat to biological females—or, to use your language, to those “assigned female at birth,” or, to use the everyday language of common sense rather than the language of postmodernism/queer/trans theory, to “women.” It is not up to women to allow biological males into their most vulnerable spaces simply because those biological males have themselves been subordinated “like a woman” or for any reason other than that the women choose to. No means no, remember? And it is not up to women to allow any particular biological male into their political organizations because the biological male declares he is a woman or because the biological male has been subordinated “like a woman” or because the biological male perceives himself as having been wrongly “assigned male” or for any reason other than that the women choose to.

I would say the same thing about any other oppressed group: it is not required that Mexican-Americans allow those who are not Mexican-American into their organizations; it is not required that American Indian nations allow non-Indians into their sacred spaces; it is not required that those who identify as transgender allow me into their private meetings; and it is not required that organizations of gay males allow me in either. Once again, no means no.

It is up to men who care about women to differentiate themselves from other biological males. And one way to do so is not by claiming to be women, and another way is not by labeling those who wish to be left alone as “transphobes.”

As writers, nearly the only thing we have to work with is words. Words matter. And the title was both harmful and propagandistic. It was propagandistic in that it was inaccurate in order to serve ideological purposes. It also answers the wrong question. “Was Andrea Dworkin transphobic?” is the wrong question for the reasons given above: the women who are often labeled as such are not in fact “phobic” in that I’ve yet to hear of a single assault or death threat or rape threat by a “radical feminist” against a person who identifies as “transgender.” I’ve seen hundreds the other way, by people who identify as “transgender” against those they label “transphobe.” In fact the only slur I’ve seen in this discussion came from your title, with the slur “transphobe.” And that is a slur directed at women.

A much more important and relevant question is “Were Andrea Dworkin alive today, would she be labeled a ‘transphobe’”?

It’s an easy question to answer. We can do it with some other questions.

Would she believe that women living in a rape culture, including those who have themselves been raped, should be forced to accept biological males—men, including those who have been, to use your term, “subordinated like a woman,” and including those who believe (or in some cases simply state) they were wrongly “assigned male at birth”—into vulnerable spaces like bathrooms and locker rooms and shelters?

If the answer is no, then she would be labeled as “transphobic.” Neither this nor any of the other questions and responses are hyperbolic. They have all happened to people (both women and men) I know.

To be even more clear about this one. The biological males who say they want to go into women’s restrooms because they’re afraid of being assaulted aren’t afraid of women: they’re afraid of biological males. Would Andrea Dworkin suggest that in order to alleviate the very real and understandable fears of these biological males of being assaulted by other biological males in restrooms, that women then be subjected to this same fear?

If the answer is no, then she would be labeled as “transphobic.”

To be even more clear: given how hard women in the UK and US struggled for the rights to sex-segregated bathrooms, in order to be able to experience a more robust and less terrorized public life (because it greatly reduced the risk of sexual assault in public restrooms), would Andrea Dworkin be willing to force women to accept biological males into their restrooms?

If the answer is no, then she would be labeled as “transphobic.”

And one more time. Right now women in many parts of India are struggling for these very same rights that in the U.S. are being eroded: they want segregated public restrooms because that will enable them to attend school. Read that sentence again: girls are afraid to go to school for fear they will be raped when they go to the bathroom. Would Andrea Dworkin be unwilling to support these women and girls in this struggle?

If the answer is no, then she would be labeled as “transphobic.”

Would she believe that women living in a rape culture, including those who have themselves been raped, should be forced to accept biological males into groups advocating for the rights of women?

If the answer is no, then she would be labeled as “transphobic.”

Would she believe that women who call a rape crisis hot line after having been sexually assaulted by a biological male should be forced to take the chance that the counselor with whom she speaks is a biological male?

If the answer is no, then she would be labeled as “transphobic.”

Would she believe that women should be forced to compete with biological males in sex-segregated sports? Would she believe that Title IX should be eroded?

If the answer is no, then she would be labeled as “transphobic.”

Would she condemn women for speaking of safe access to abortion as a women’s issue?

If the answer is no, then she would be labeled as “transphobic.”

Women who say no to men in this culture run the risk of facing severe consequences for doing so. These consequences can include domination (as in forcing women to accept unwanted males in their spaces), disidentification (as in suggesting that one is not in fact a “female” but was “assigned female,” meaning that female-ness itself, and not just femininity, is a social construct), despisal (as in labeling those who wish to be left alone as “transphobes”), derogation (as in labeling those who wish to be left alone as “transphobes”) destruction, and death (as in the rape and death threats suffered by those who are labeled “transphobes”).

I seem to recall somewhere some woman or another writing some books about these processes of how this whole culture (and especially men as a collective in this culture) terrorize or manipulate or coerce or mindfuck women into saying yes. But just right now I can’t quite remember her name. . . .

Were Andrea Dworkin alive today, would she be labeled as “transphobic”?

But really, that’s not the question either. She’s dead. She can’t argue her case. So I don’t really see the point of doing an extremely superficial exegesis to figure out whether she would or wouldn’t be “transphobic,” Or, for that matter, whether she would or wouldn’t be “labeled as ‘transphobic.’” It smacks too much of those Biblical exegeses that took up so much ink in the early 19th Century trying to argue that Jesus would or wouldn’t have supported slavery.

It’s your essay, John. Not hers. Claim it. Claim whatever position you have. She’s just a dead writer, as you and I will each be some day. She’s not Jesus, and even if she were, we should still be thinking and speaking for ourselves.

And that’s the real point. Do you believe that women living in a rape culture, including those who have themselves been raped, should be forced to accept biological males into vulnerable spaces like bathrooms, locker rooms, and shelters?

Do you believe that women living in a rape culture, including those who have themselves been raped, should be forced to accept biological males into groups advocating for the rights of women?

Do you believe that women should be disallowed from saying no?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions.

And now we’re almost to the real question. As you know, the word “transphobe” is used as a rhetorical cudgel to browbeat women into silence and submission. Even if you disagree with these women, you have to agree that it is used as a way to silence women. You even acknowledged in your response that women are threatened with rape and murder on this issue (although you demurred from using the R or M words). So you know the terror to which women are subjected on this issue. And there is another form of silencing: you know that women (and men) are often deplatformed from speaking at universities on the mere accusation of “transphobe.” You know that. That is silencing. And either intentionally or carelessly you, a man, used your former intimacy with Andrea Dworkin, and even worse, her name and reputation, to legitimize a tool—the word transphobe as applied to women who do not wish to be forced to share their vulnerable spaces with biological males—that is used to silence women. What do you think she would have thought about that?

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No Responses — Written on February 7th — Filed in Essays

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