Last week’s New Yorker article, “What Is a Woman: The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism” by Michelle Goldberg has been widely criticized since its publication. The article purports to offer a history of conflict between trans-exclusionary feminists and trans women. Yet it ignores the vast majority of that history, offering New Yorker readers a one-sided view of the conflict framed as balanced reporting, inaccurately representing the history of trans women in feminism and the active role trans-exclusionary feminists played in further marginalizing them. This effectively advances the views of a group that wants to see the genocide of trans women, a group that, data shows, faces extraordinarily high rates of discrimination in every measurable way. Indeed, the article becomes a case study for other publishers on how to avoid The New Yorker’s mistake.
Bitch Magazine accurately called the piece “a one-sided profile that’s sympathetic to writers and activists who’ve spent their careers working to marginalize and persecute the already-oppressed transgender community.” It is an article more worthy of the undeniably biased National Review than of The New Yorker. This is not a case in which “both sides” need to be presented for balance. Just as the anti-gay Family Research Council is not considered a valid voice on gay rights, trans-exclusionary feminists should not be considered a valid voice on trans rights.
The article’s skewed narrative begins in the title: radical feminism as a movement has never existed solely to oppose trans rights. Trans-exclusionary radical feminism came out of lesbian separatism, a subset of radical feminism. And members of that subset have consistently undermined their own positions in the service of trans exclusion, a paradox that Goldberg doesn’t address when presenting their arguments. She leaves unquestioned, for example, the position that women are defined and oppressed by men as a class because of pregnancy, an argument that makes no sense for lesbian separatists to make.
Transgender people, who identify with a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth, are framed not as an identity group but instead a theoretical position by the use of the word “transgenderism.” Goldberg draws this word from the title of a new academic book by trans-exclusionary feminist Sheila Jeffreys, Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism. To any observer aware of the conflict, the article reads like a push piece for Jeffreys’ book: It accepts her framing on a number of issues, and the only trans woman voices, included at the end of the article, are women trans-exclusionary radical feminists have attempted to discredit, quoted using trans-exclusionary feminists’ framing. Goldberg establishes that trans identities should be up for debate by first quoting a trans-exclusionary radical feminist using male pronouns to refer to trans women, and then using male pronouns herself.
This tactic flies in the face of the style guides of major media organizations—including the Associated Press, The New York Times, and the Washington Post—that say trans people should be referred to with pronouns that match their gender identities. As actress and advocate Laverne Cox has explained, “When a trans woman gets called a man, that is an act of violence.” All major medical organizations and even the US government recognize trans people’s identities, and discounting this mass agreement helps make trans-exclusionary arguments seem viable. In this vein, Goldberg presents without question the notion that the term trans-exclusionary radical feminists, abbreviated as TERFs, which is an accurate description of a group, is a slur. She makes no similar comment about referring to trans women as men.
She also presents trans identities with the notion that trans women have male bodies but “feel female.” While an accurate description of trans-exclusionary feminist’s framing of trans identities, and a way in which they have been presented in the past, this is not generally how trans people understand themselves now, and many advocates, including Janet Mock—a prominent figure whose views are not presented in Goldberg’s article—have explained they were never male, and that the existence of trans people calls for a reexamining of simplistic and inaccurate notions about how gender works.
Goldberg uses article space to quote individual Tumblr users who have made angry and violent comments about trans-exclusionary feminists. It is true that these violent comments are unacceptable. But it is also true that they are the statements of young people with no sociopolitical power behind their anger, who are expressing understandable rage on social media directed at a hate group that has targeted them since before they were born. These are not the statements of power actors in a political struggle being published by Routledge, as Jeffreys’ book is, but personal statements of frustration, yet they are given more weight than hate speech based in trans-exclusionary views.
Any editor should find suspect an article that quotes individuals on Tumblr and Twitter and ignores actual spokespeople and major advocates, including the leadership of any major trans rights organizations. Indeed, as Autostraddle points out, Goldberg mentions 14 trans-exclusionary feminists and quotes nine, while only two trans women are quoted to offer different views. Quotes include individuals with no media presence who feel personally slighted by trans inclusion, and multiple examples of de-transitioners. De-transitioning is incredibly uncommon: As writer and advocate Parker Marie Molloy explains, this would be like quoting ex-gays in an article debating homosexuality. If The New Yorker had paid attention to or checked in with major trans advocacy organizations, they could have confirmed that this information was irresponsible and inaccurate.
Further, Goldberg references and quotes Janice Raymond’s 1979 book The Transexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, to which Jeffrey’s Gender Hurts is a clear successor. But Goldberg ignores the legacy of harm Raymond and other trans-exclusionary feminists have done to trans women, which no doubt informs angry comments on Tumblr. Raymond wrote a paper that was used by Jesse Helms to explicitly exclude transgender people from healthcare coverage. These healthcare exclusions have been directly linked to negative health outcomes and high suicide and mortality rates in the trans population. The article also does not discuss contemporary attacks on trans women by trans-exclusionary feminists. As The Huffington Post explains, they use “the banner of feminism in the same way that Westboro Baptist Church uses Christianity.” Much of this recent history is outlined in an excellently reported Bitch Magazine article by Tina Vasquez published in February.
The only trans voices allowed to offer any opposition in the article are Sandy Stone and Julia Serano, who are both quoted briefly toward the end. Stone is a movement leader who was pushed out by Raymond at one time. Goldberg uses Jeffreys’ personal attack on Serano from her book to introduce this major trans expert.
While Serano is quoted briefly, space is taken up discussing the claim that she is an autogynephile. Autogynephilia is an invention of Dr. Raymond Blanchard used to pathologize lesbian trans women. Blanchard’s work has been widely discredited—the Bilerico Project has an excellent piece about Blanchard’s theory—yet it is the only medical thinking on trans people Goldberg presents. Luckily for us, Serano has published her emails to Goldberg and outlined what was discussed in their conversations. Serano makes it clear that she informed Goldberg about trans-exclusionary feminists’ attacks on trans people. She also informed Goldberg that Blanchard’s work has been discredited. This seriously brings into question the notion that Goldberg was aiming at a balanced take on the conflict, and should have been an obvious red flag to New Yorker fact checkers who contacted Serano.
The notion that trans women silence trans-exclusionary feminists flies in the face of the historical record. Yet The New Yorker let this version of history be presented unchallenged. In this case, the media obsession with telling both sides of the story has led to a one-sided narrative. The history of trans-exclusionary radical feminism should not be ignored, and responsible reporting has been done on this topic. The New Yorker could have contributed an article that informed the public by honestly presenting the history of trans exclusion from feminism, the extreme oppression faced by trans women, and the ways they are linked. Instead, the magazine presented the discredited and widely rejected views of a hate group.