It was about a year ago, I think, that I walked up to Ophelia Benson and said she was my favorite blogger on FtB. I adore her writing style, which feels like a conversation between old friends, and her frequent posts on international news were a breath of fresh air.
[ HJH 2015-07-31: There’s a semi-sequel to this post over here. Like most sequels there’s a lot in common with the original, so I’ll take no offence if you wait for it to come out on NetFlix instead. ]
Even as those words were escaping my lips, though, I could see clouds on the horizon. I got burned by a TERF comic she once posted, which led me to do some research into Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism. The glib summary is “lesbians freaking out over potential penis,” which is surprisingly accurate.
More worrying to me was what Benson didn’t do: learn from the situation. I saw no evidence she took a step back and reconsidered, on the contrary she went stony silent and refused to be pigeonholed. I brushed this off, but pinned a mental note in case it happened again.
There’s a tension between the idea that gender is socially constructed and we get to shape it any way we want to, and the idea that it’s firmly binary and we are one or the other with no overlap or shaping allowed. This whole thing is just riddled with tensions, and it’s not transphobic to try to think about them.
It’s only in hindsight that can I explicity see the TERF influence. Just because reality is complicated doesn’t mean that the social construct which explains it is also complex. Quite the opposite, as a simplified explanation should be simple and full of sharp boundaries. We also do not get to shape our constructs arbitrarily if we hope to use them as explanations. The tension is not from the interplay of constructs and reality, it’s from the misunderstanding of constructs in order to hide your bigotry.
But back then, all I saw was history repeating. The mental note was taken down, and replaced with another: “inadvertent transphobe.” I guessed that she was hanging out with TERFs, and had soaked up their rationalizations for why they didn’t actually hate trans* women (which eerily enough was pretty bang-on).
So when someone asked Benson, point blank, if she thought trans* women were women, I felt no surprise at the resulting freakout. As Thibeault put it,
The phrase “are trans women actually women”, when you replace the adjective with another like “white”, or when you remove it altogether, has an obvious answer.
“Are white women actually women?”
“Yes — the ‘white’ part is not a modifier per se of the word ‘woman’, thus you are asking ‘are women actually women’, and thus the answer is yes.”
“Are women actually women?”
“Of course they are. That’s a tautology.”
The question is only “problematic” or “loaded” if you think the answer is “no,” but know that saying it will out you as a transphobe. So you don’t say “no,” but you can’t say “yes” either, so instead you cloak yourself in nonsense and baffelgab. Meanwhile, people who realize what’s going on take you to task for being a transphobe, which you’re totally not because you haven’t said so and how dare anyone suggest otherwise. This is the iron fist to a matching velvet glove.
You’re about to be love-bombed by a bunch of bigots who think that trans kids aren’t real, that trans related surgery is mutilation, that trans women should be turned away from shelters, that allowing trans women in bathrooms will result in rape, that trans women attracted to women are autogynophiles, that radical self-acceptance will magically make dysphoria disappear, that trans women being respected as women is a form of appropriation or mockery of “real women”, that trans women that were “socialized as boys” retain male privilege and entitlement and are therefor inherently violent, that transition is reinforcing oppressive gender norms and doesn’t *actually* save lives, and blah de blah blah blah.
This is how budding TERFs hatch from transphobic eggs.
Sigh. At least Benson’s still a good writer.
[HJH 2015-07-26: Shoulda inserted that “more” tag. Apologies for hogging.]
[ HJH 2015-07-27 ] I should share Benson’s transphobic comic post, as it provides some evidence. The post went through three revisions, all of which are visible.
1. “Cartoon removed because trolls exist.”
In the comment section, a number of people point out it’s one of many transphobic comics on the site Benson got it from.
Fine. My bad. A couple of Twitter-slime pitters are taunting me over this. I saw the cartoon on Facebook and didn’t seek out the provenance. This particular cartoon made me laugh because of its fit with a current situation (which I won’t name, because I’m sanctimonious that way).
You can then see ignorant past-me pop up to defend Benson and the comic.
2. “Or, less facetiously, because people told me it was from a transphobic site.”
Janine then pops up: “Ophelia, I have to be honest and state this, I would feel better if you stated that you removed that graphic because of the bigotry of the creator and not because troll exists.”
It was a simple cartoon. I hadn’t looked at the site it came from, and still haven’t. I took it down because people yelled at me, starting with the trolls. That’s the reason. I take the word of the non-slime people that the source is shitty, but I don’t know that first-hand myself, and I’m not nearly interested enough to look.
This is where things get strange. You post something people tell you is bigoted, and you can’t be bothered to confirm or understand the bigotry? How on Earth do you plan on avoiding this mistake in the future, then? Other people start explaining why the comic is bigoted, including a more enlightened past me, but the above note remains in place.
3. “I’ll just replace the cartoon with a screen grab of a comment on Michael Nugent’s 4,839-word post rebuking Adam Lee yesterday …”
Said screen grab is a comment made by a “Twitter-slime pitters.” There’s still no evidence Benson understands why the comic is transphobic, or even that she herself thinks it’s transphobic. Janine’s request that she do either fell on deaf ears.
Well yes but on the other hand I don’t actually want people telling me word for word what to write on my blog. If I didn’t accept that it should be taken down, I wouldn’t have taken it down.
Is that “should” for political reasons, or ontological ones? Benson bends over backwards to obscure her opinion on the personhood of trans* people. This suggests that she knows most people wouldn’t approve of it.