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[CONTENT WARNING: Transphobia]
[HJH 2015-08-06: Added a little extra to the end of this post.]

I go away for a few days, and this happens. Also, apparently some of you are mistaking me for M.A. Melby. Alas, we are two different people who merely share a blog. I’m a bit bolder on Benson than she is, but I think the evidence backs up my opinions.

Speaking of which, let’s skip the name-calling and look at the facts. Benson says

It wasn’t a “TERF comic.” It was a comic done by someone who is (I’m told, and I take their word for it, which judging by the last few weeks may be a mistake) a TERF. Not a TERF comic but a comic posted by a TERF. In other words I did not knowingly post a TERF comic – the content wasn’t about trans issues.

So right at the outset he’s poisoned the well – he’s been dishonest. I did not post a TERF comic.

image

I say that comic is transphobic. What’s my evidence? Well, at least one transgender person has said it was transphobic.

Speaking as a trans woman who has some familiarity with TERF arguments and tactics; the creator of that graphic meant that image to be transphobic. And every image on that site is pure TERF.

You may not care enough to check it out (And, frankly, I do not blame you.) So I will repeat my request, say you removed that image because it is bigoted, not because slymetrolls started crowing.

This isn’t a perfect guide, but generally we can be confident a minority has a pretty good idea of what oppresses them. But let’s pretend otherwise. After all, there must be some reason for why it’s transphobic.

So I will explain what is meant by “Gender Fatigue” and why it is transphobic.

TERFs like the talk about how they are gender critical. And part of that mindset is that they are out to dismantle gender. Trans people, and especially trans women, are seen as holding up traditional gender roles by simply working at being seen as women instead of just renouncing gender altogether.

Hence, gender fatigue.

So the very idea of that comic was screaming transphobia. In a lot of ways, you might as well been holding up Cathy Brennan’s “Sorry About Your Dick” stick figure man.

Admittedly, that explanation of why it was transphobic was a bit jargon-heavy. Maybe an outsider can add a second opinion?

Not only does coded language allow you to get away with saying racist/sexist/classist things, you might trick non-racist/sexist/classist people into supporting you. I myself was thinking of sharing an image elsewhere, until I saw octopod raise the TERF flag and went “hmmm, I might be missing something here.” On and off over several hours, I scratched my head trying to work out what that was. …

Suddenly, that odd “rainbow” comic made perfect sense. It pictured the acronym “QUILTBAG” (queer, undecided, intersex, lesbian, trans*, bisexual, asexual or allies, gay) over a rainbow, but the “L” was parachuting out. “Get the L out” is actually a really obscure slogan calling for lesbians to leave inclusive spaces, as according to radical lesbians having “men” there only propagates the patriarchy. “Sisters before Misters” was actually a middle finger to trans* women. And that cartoon I was going to share, about men invading women’s spaces, wasn’t actually about sexist dudebros trying to invade safe spaces, it was about trans* women trying to invade lesbian spaces in search of sex. Hopefully I don’t need to explain the code behind picturing a hairy guy invading a space to explain things by this point.

In that moment, a page I originally thought contained a mix of funny but heavily obscure comics was revealed to be a vicious cacophony of sexist dog whistles. EVERY comic was dripping with hate, but in some of them it was so carefully hidden that it looked like feminist commentary.

We have two separate explanations for why the comic was transphobic, one from someone who can claim authority on the subject, the other from me but backed up by extensive research. The comic is transphobic.

Back to Benson.

I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s easy to post good stuff by people who also do crappy things. It’s not something worth dragging people over the coals for. It’s not an issue. It’s an accident.

It’s true, that comic was easy to misunderstand. If no-one pointed out the dog whistles to Benson, it’d be perfectly understandable if she never picked up on those.

But all those explanations were mentioned below her original post. Benson had all the information she needed to understand why it was transphobic. If she cared to avoid this situation in future, all she needed to do was read the comments. Here’s Janine again:

And I will ask this question, Ophelia. What if I commented about that cartoon first and asked you to remove it because of it’s transphobic content. Would you have made a comment about how you had to remove it because of trolls?

Someone from the Slymepit pointed out the comic was transphobic, and Benson immediately takes the comic down. A trans*woman asks that Benson understands why it’s transphobic, with her and I even going out of our way to provide detailed explanations, and…

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. […]

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.

… Benson refuses to learn. She only cares about trans* issues when it is politically expedient, she doesn’t concern herself with higher issues of ontology.

If I’m sounding like a broken record on this, there’s a reason.

That’s nice. That’s charming. That’s pleasant. Based on nothing so far, he’s decided I’m a bigot.

Ophelia Benson is claiming I have no grounds for declaring her a bigot, in a post that links to some of my grounds for calling her a bigot. This is not the work of someone innocently slighted, but a person deliberately misrepresenting the arguments to save her skin.

I do not take kindly to that. So let’s turn the screw: here’s even more evidence behind my conclusion that Ophelia Benson is almost certainly a transphobe, and that her view of trans* women appears identical to that of a typical TERF. This was originally one of the last comments on The Mended Drum.

=====

I’m backing up Tony and Nate, here. I had to write something about Benson after all this shit went down, but since that I’ve been torn about what to put on my mental note about her:

“TERF,” or merely “transphobe.”

The main evidence for the former is that her views and arguments are indistinguishable from TERFs. Modern bigots are sophisticated enough to avoid outward hatred; instead, they try to find a plausible cover story so that others (and, more importantly, themselves) can be assured they’re not discriminating on an arbitrary basis. White supermicists don’t hate black people, they just want to preserve the purity of the beseiged white race. Some atheists don’t hate Arabs, they just hate the Islamic religion. And so on.

With TERFs, their fig leaf is gender. They want to critique it, analyze it, and abolish it.

We are  revolutionaries, fighting for social  change, and  overthrowing  current patriarchal  systems. We want a radical alternative  to both right wing, biological determinist  and  post modern  versions of “genderism”.  In other words,  we oppose the promotion of gender  roles  as “natural” inevitable,  desirable, innate, or  exaggerated performances  of  “femininity”  and “masculinity”. We  believe  that gender  is  a destructive  hierarchy, which harms women and  needs  to be abolished.

On the surface, it’s all pretty awesome. But when you look at the details, things break down.

We welcome radical feminists and those women who  want  to learn  more about radical feminism. It is women-only because we believe  that we  need  to organise  autonomously in  order  to fight  for our freedom from patriarchy. We aim  to  make  the conference a safe  space for female victims/survivors  to talk about multiple experiences  of male violence and oppression.We need women-only  (female)  spaces  to do that.

Why exclude trans* women? The rationale hinted at above is that trans* women are men, and thus carry the baggage of patriarchy in with them. This assumes patriarchy is biologically innate or “natural,” though. Oops.  A more sophisticated defense is that trans* women were raised male, and thus retain their male socialization after transition. But this assumes women did not grow up in a patriarchal culture, or that their gender makes them mystically immune, or that social behavior can be irreversibly burned into our biology. The fig leaf is exposed for what it is, a cover for bigotry.

So, why didn’t Benson answer the question?

The more I think about the ontology of gender, the less I think I understand it. It’s slippery. That makes it impossible to answer yes/no questions about it. […]

I have thoughts and questions about gender, broadly speaking; gender as if affects all of us, and women in particular. I don’t think those thoughts are transphobic.

This is straight from the TERF playbook: it’s all about gender roles and criticism. But wait; if Benson is so critical and confused over gender, why did she just invoke “women” as if it was well known and defined?

Jenora Feuer’s new guest post on the subject is illuminating, I think. Read it in tandem with this.

It is indeed illuminating.

Am  I  a  woman?  Yes.  And  no.Even  though  I  was  identified  female  at birth and  have  gestated  and  lactated,  there are  ways  in  which  I  do  not  feel particularly comfortable  being  labeled  “woman”  and  in which  some people  would  classify  me  as not-a-woman.  Being  a  woman  is  a  social identity  grounded  in  part,  but  only  in  part on  physical  characteristics. It’s  not  a  you are-or-you-aren’t  category.

If womanhood is primarily a social identity, would that make it more likely that trans* women are women? When categories become fuzzier, don’t they become more inclusive, not less?

Not only does this line of argument favor labelling trans* women as women, it doesn’t even answer the original question. Implicit in the original question’s invocation of “woman” was the assumption that “woman” carries the typical definition in our culture. Look at your driver’s license; does it say you’re probably a woman, or there’s a decent chance you’re a man? No, because our culture defines precisely two options, with no ambiguity or additional context needed. Answering the question within that context, though, turns it into a binary test for bigotry; so instead, a bigot is forced to change the context to a general question about gender roles. They have to play the “gender critic” card and dodge the question, exactly as Benson does.

All in all, it’s pretty strong evidence Benson is a TERF. My defense of the “transphobic” side is as follows:

1. She’s not actually a TERF, she’s just absorbed some of their views due to exposure.

2. I’ve been a fan of Benson for years. She’s done great activist work in sharing petitions and bringing international causes to light. I simply adore her writing style.

… I don’t think I need to tell you which side is currently winning.

=====

Since I wrote that, some new information has come to light thanks to anteprepro. For instance, many people are under the impression that TERFs outright hate trans* people. It’s not that simple; some do wish trans* people harm, while others are quite the reverse.

37. Transsexual people are a marginalised group who need and deserve support, empathy and compassion. They are human beings trying their best to live and to flourish under the constraints that gender imposes upon them, just as everyone is. They should be provided with whatever support and treatment they need to live happy, healthy, flourishing lives, and be treated with the same respect and kindness as anyone else. They have the same right to privacy as anyone else, and therefore there can be no justification for doxxing trans women or publicising their past identities, or bullying, abusing or harassing them, either in person or on social media. They have a right to physical integrity, safety from violence and protection from harassment, access to medical care, and protection from discrimination in education, employment and housing.

38. We can support trans people without pretending to believe in something that is quite clearly false, namely the current dogma which insists that that there is no such thing as male and female, that trans women are female and have always been female, that there are no important social and political differences between trans women and biologically female women.

Benson must be aware of this, because she follows this blogger. In a TERF Facebook group founded by Elizabeth Hungerford, Benson linked to the above as her first post to the group. The resulting discussion is illuminating.

Too much to share it all, but the key portion: Ophelia Benson: I'm getting tempted to do some kind of obnoxious parody thing. Like..."I appear to be an American but actually I've always thought of myself as Sri Lankan. Not that I've ever been there or know much about it, but I *feel* Sri Lankan. The rest of you don't know how fortunate you are, with your cis-nationality privilege."While not a frequent contributor, Benson fit in well with the other TERFs.

Lia Hodson: "Being a woman has nothing to do with anatomy or appearance - it has everything to do with how you identify." Ophelia Benson: "So I can identify as an African-American born in Brazil and educated at Oxford?"Thus when Benson says she supports trans* women politically, this doesn’t disqualify her as a TERF; on the contrary, the combination of political support and a lack of ontological support is in line with what many TERFs believe.

The same applies to being critical of gender.

The TERF movement is particularly effective in their campaigns against trans people and trans equality as they consistently couch their actions as political/feminist/lesbian/radical/womanist critiques of gender and are therefore welcomed in spaces that would reject the same rhetoric from right wing organizations. TERFs routinely enjoy acceptance in progressive environments such as academia and radical left-wing organizations.

TERFs do a good job of colonizing feminist discourse by framing their hate as a ‘feminist critique of gender,’ thereby representing the hate that follows as the feminist position. It’s not,” says TransAdvocate editor Williams.

Hungerford, in particular, is quite good at cloaking her bigotry as “gender critique.”

Throughout this response I will refer to myself and others who share my general view of gender as gender critical feminists (no acronym). Because that’s what we do. We are feminists who criticize gender as a harmful social construct that distributes power unequally. […]

Gender critical feminists are critical(!) of gender essentialism because it is the primary basis of and ideological justification for women’s oppression, including but not limited to the deadly epidemic of violence against women. […]

Additionally, domestic violence shelters are available for men. While this alternative does not “validate” one’s identity as a “woman,” it is still an available option to transwomen. And men.

Overall, I think this makes a pretty compelling case for Ophelia Benson being a TERF. Not in the “actively-fighting-against-trans*-people” sense, to be clear; after all that I’ve read, I still think Benson would never knowingly harm a trans* person. As some evidence of this, she rejects Hungerford’s extreme views.

The trouble is, I would rather not make this thread be about that letter [Hungerford sent to the UN]. I’m not in favor of it. I haven’t done anything to support it. I don’t think I need to answer for it. It’s nothing to do with me – no, having accepted a Facebook friend request from Elizabeth Hungerford doesn’t make it anything to do with me – so I don’t want to make it an issue here.

This business of trying to pin every bad idea and bad action on me because I sometimes comment in a Facebook group and accepted a Facebook friend request from an unapproved person is just more of this policing bullshit. I want people to stop policing me. Dragging in a letter that is nothing to do with me is not going to help with that.

(Nothing is, but at least I get to say which parts are bullshit. [spoiler: most of them])

When I say TERF, I mean in the “denies-the-fundamental-right-to-gender-identity” sense.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. All human rights are universal, interdependent, indivisible and interrelated. Sexual orientation and gender identity are integral to every person’s dignity and humanity and must not be the basis for discrimination or abuse.

That’s not the same as transphobic. Denying trans* women access to women-only spaces because they make you uncomfortable is transphobic, while denying them specifically because you reject their identity as women qualifies you as a TERF.

By that definition, Ophelia Benson is a TERF.

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