Disclaimer: this essay is originally published in Pikara Magazine (Spanish) and its reproduction has been kindly conceded to us.
Exclusionary feminisms: international expansion and some possible responses
In recent times we have shared among ourselves on several occasions our concern and alarm about the political directions that an important sector of the feminist movement is following, both in Argentina and in Spain, among other contexts. We now put it in words to, on the one hand, analyze and denounce this drift, and, on the other hand, to invite a collective debate about what is happening and its serious implications on a global scale. There is a set of recent interventions in the political and academic fields and in the media that, at first glance, would seem to come from an opposite shore to conservative positions and yet, in fact, share many of their assumptions, with the aggravating circumstance that they are invested with a certain legitimacy – and even moral or political immunity – because they emerge from the core of feminism.
We refer, of course, to the advance of the so-called ‘trans-exclusionary feminism’ or TERF. A movement that is not new, but that is getting stronger and is becoming increasingly visible in many areas of the Spanish-speaking world. TERF feminism is often highlighted for its opposition to the incorporation of trans women into the women’s movement (or the collective itself). However, it is actually an exclusionary feminism in broad terms, which from privilege, opposes different forms of decisional autonomy, bodily autonomy, right to identity, right to a life free of violence, etc. The exclusionary feminist movement is opposed to many forms of existence: not only of the entire spectrum of trans and non-binary people, but also of sex workers or any person who turns to surrogacy, among others. In the case of the latter two, sex work and surrogacy are understood in all cases as violence against women.
This analysis, which we do not agree with, is not in line with reality, hinders the progress of rights for those directly involved in such matters and places them in the position of passive victims without, in addition, listening to them. It is, in short, a sector of feminism that shows an enormous lack of empathy and solidarity with many subjects, including many women. That is to say, we are not only talking about a discussion on whether a person can take hormones or what kind of activities (such as sex work) can be carried out to earn an income. We are dealing with arguments against the very existence of certain types of people, of entire social groups, as in the case of trans people, including trans children.
The arguments of these lines of feminism are easily refuted, although this does not prevent them from being reproduced at an alarming rate and we can find them echoed almost identically in different representatives of the movement both in Europe and Latin America. For example, it is often alleged that trans women exclude themselves (sic) by advocating issues that are not those of feminism. Hence it is more interesting, according to this feminism, both theoretically and strategically, that they form another group, with which eventually “feminism” can make specific alliances. This exclusionary feminism forgets that trans women are part of the feminist movement, with full rights and presence in it. In the case of the Spanish State, this presence is already clear at least since the first half of the 1990s.
It is also worth remembering that, historically, so far we have not had in the feminist movement the transphobic attitudes that some have been showing recently. In the Argentine case, there has been much more hostility from the feminist movement towards trans people than vice-versa, considering that the latter have contributed with enormous efforts, strategies and resources to causes of the feminist agenda, such as decisional autonomy or non-reproductive rights. Meanwhile, identitarian and biologicist assumptions of certain lines of feminism have prevented them from seeing the relevance of these obvious and necessary alliances that they now allege as an excuse for their exclusionary practices. Along these lines, both in Spain and in Argentina, it is being argued that the demands of trans and queer collectives “erase women”, as if rights could not be thought outside an identity framework and as if the achievements of these groups did not imply improvements for all people, including women (and, paradoxically and ironically, also TERFs).
It seems, however, that talking about TERFs, while, at the same time, foregrounding this criticism, creates the illusion that TERF feminism is bad and everything else is free of problems, and, above all, free of cissexism. We see there a slippage between transphobia and cissexism, according to which a person who is not openly transphobic would be free of cissexism and would have no problem to be checked. Exclusionary feminism is a very extreme an obvious expression of cissexism, but cissexism expresses itself in innumerable ways.
Like sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, among so many other oppressive belief systems, cissexism runs through all of our institutions, our practices and our perception of the world. It is not something we can get rid of merely by saying that trans people are people. We have reached a scary point of TERF feminism’s pervasiveness in the political, activist, academic, and educational realms, which makes it necessary to openly discuss this issue in all the spaces we occupy.
In recent times we have seen how they have occupied research institutes, professional networks and undergraduate and graduate classrooms; how they have attracted young people with interest and enthusiasm for feminism; and how they have multiplied in congresses and publications, while boycotting conferences and other activities that do not follow their ideology. Too often, their speeches are disseminated under the excuse of “theoretical debate”, another common trap in academia: it seems that since ideas are being debated, everything is allowed, when what is being “debated” is the right to exist of certain people. And not even, on the vast majority of occasions, is anything debated: the round tables and conferences on these issues are mere expositions of their arguments, as we are already used to seeing with the issue of prostitution, where it seems that the feminist position is abolitionism and nothing else exists.
Those of us who work from a queer and/or transfeminist perspective find ourselves as one of the main objects of critique of TERF feminism, while, at the same time, we have many tools to understand the phenomenon. Queer perspectives on gender and sex, but also on the disputes of meaning around gender, moral panic, normativity, among other issues that have been worked on since the origins of queer activisms and theory, offer us a set of tools to understand what is happening and how to respond to it. It is not difficult to sense that this is precisely why all this theoretical body and this already long queer political journey (from the late eighties onwards) is now so much in the spotlight of this feminism. Who would have thought, in the 1990s, that queer theories would be considered a Trojan Horse of feminism. It is quite clear that we have come a long way.
Indeed, from a queer, transfeminist perspective, we can see these forms of feminism as a series of interventions within a power dispute. It’s not a feminism that went off the rails, it’s not a group of people who didn’t understand, it’s not a hangover from the past. It is a very powerful line within feminism that is consistent with how much of the movement has understood the subject of feminism, the body, sexual difference, and so many other things. And they are also power disputes because we are talking about institutionalized feminisms, which occupy spaces in institutions and use them to multiply their voice. In the case of the university, academic spaces legitimized by the label “feminist”, “women’s” or “gender” are used as a platform to disseminate hate speech. We are talking here about academics who use their prestige and reputation to campaign against the trans children’s law in Mexico, against the rights of sex workers in Argentina and Spain, or against the current trans law project in the latter country as well. Perhaps from counter-hegemonic perspectives we have focused a lot (and rightly so) on the dangerous attacks on the so-called “gender ideology” by religious and anti-rights groups, but it is important that we stress that these hate speeches are also coming from certain strands of feminism. The two movements are getting dangerously close. This logic of re-appropriating frameworks of analysis and discourses on rights in order to maintain and strengthen their power is not, on the other hand, exclusive to this transphobic feminism. It is the same one being used by neoconservative and fascist groups. It is part of a planetary trend.
Exclusionary feminism advances in our institutions, among other things, attracting people who are in search of spaces of belonging (and work), who read these arguments as part of a gender justice project.
We need to be explicit and firm in our response. First, by making it clear that justice can never be given at the expense of the most vulnerable subjects within a collective. Second, by maintaining that the right to a dignified existence and life is not something that can be debated. Third, by putting our efforts into continuing to build communities of belonging where there is a place for all life projects and all ways of living gender, body and sexuality.
And this is not something that can be achieved in a merely symbolic or performative way: as activists we know that this is a daily effort, which is driven by actions, not mere words, and requires enormous doses of humility and self-criticism.
At the present time, as Silvia Federici has recently pointed out, movements fighting for social change should unite, because what is coming, what is already here, is horrible. The context of global pandemic, moreover, does not seem to be the prelude to a time of greater freedoms and rights, but quite the opposite. However, alliances cannot be made at the expense of renouncing the agenda, the rights or the very existence of the most vulnerable groups within each collective. We do not want this pointless confrontation, which only seeks to strengthen some in their positions of power, nor should we make room for exclusionary practices of vulnerable subjects who are, moreover, our partners. Not in the name of (all) feminism, not in our name.
Gracia Trujillo is Professor of Sociology at the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain, and a queer and feminist activist. Moira Pérez is an Argentine professor and researcher in Philosophy, and coordinates the Group of Applied Philosophy and Queer Politics (@PolQueer).