Laurie Toby Edison

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A Transgender Woman Fights Back: Julia Serano’s Open Letter to the New Yorker

Debbie says:

This blog has long been a fan of Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, and Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.

Serano

Laurie and I were both especially impressed with Serano’s “Open Letter to the New Yorker,” written in response to Michelle Goldberg’s article, “What Is a Woman? The Dispute between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism,” and published in The Advocate (but not, apparently, in the New Yorker). Goldberg approached Serano while she was writing the article, and Serano is–well, unhappy is a mild term–for how her responses to Goldberg were included.

Serano starts by dissecting the premise:

I have found that mainstream publications seem to enjoy portraying these debates under a false transgender-people-versus-radical-feminists dichotomy. (“Hey, two groups of gender-freaks just so happen to hate one another — let’s publish that!”) In reality, many transgender activists are also feminists, and TERFs* tend to be antagonistic toward many other feminists and gender/sexual minorities, including sex-positive feminists, femme/feminine people, bisexuals, and other non-lesbian-identified queer people, and sex workers, just to name a few. Really, a more accurate framework for the article would be “the dispute between radical feminists and the vast majority of feminists and LGBTQ activists who disagree with them,” but that isn’t so sexy and probably wouldn’t generate quite as many page views.

*Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists

Serano then gets into Goldberg’s initial (and final) position in the article:

Goldberg also expressed her concern about TERFs being silenced by trans folks (e.g., their events being protested or boycotted, or venues pulling out after trans people and allies complained). I explained to her that, while I believe that TERFs should be free to assemble and hold their own events if they wish, some of these situations are far more complicated than that. For instance, if an explicitly LGBTQ organization (which sports a “T” for transgender in its acronym) holds an event, wouldn’t it be somewhat hypocritical for it to host performers who tacitly support or outright advocate for trans woman-exclusion policies? Or if a college has a policy protecting students and staff from discrimination based on gender identity, and Sheila Jeffreys comes by to give a talk about her new book in which she describes trans men as “women” and trans women as “men,” and insists that the latter group are merely sexually deviant men who are trying to take over feminism (we’ll get to that in a moment), well then, there is a serious conflict of interest here!

If I say I am fat (or old or disabled or …), and you look at me and say, “You’re not fat (or old, or disabled, or …)!” you are overriding my sense of myself and my lived identity with whatever your personal definition of “fat” (or your personal aversion to the word) might be. Serano is making the very same point about gender.

And then it gets personal …

When The New Yorker fact checker contacted me to verify the parts of the article that involved me, it became clear that several passages from my book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity in which I discussed certain aspects of my sexual history were going to be included in Goldberg’s article. I got the impression that they were intended to show “my side” of the story in relation to Jeffreys depicting me as an “autogynephile.” Being naturally horrified by the possibility of having my sexual history litigated within the pages of a national magazine, I sent another email to Goldberg expressing my concerns about the inclusion of this material (I have subsequently made this and another related email publicly available here), and she told me that those passages had subsequently been removed from the final piece.

Last Monday the article came out. And I was rather dismayed to see its final form. While (thankfully) Goldberg was truthful when she said that the passages of my sexual history would be removed, she hadn’t mentioned that the article was going to include Jeffreys’s and Blanchard’s views about “autogynephilia” without any mention that the theory has been scientifically disproven. And if that weren’t bad enough, Goldberg casually mentions that Jeffreys (who is depicted as a sympathetic, if eccentric, character in the article) considers me to be an “autogynephile” without mentioning any of my arguments against the theory and Jeffreys’s hypocritical appropriation of it.

(See the link to Serano’s whole letter for a long discussion of “autogynephilia” and why it is, to be overly kind, not a reasonable descriptor of anyone.)

And then it gets even more real:

Oh, and one last thing: In the last week since you published Goldberg’s article, a teenager was stabbed in Washington D.C., because of the fact that she is transgender. Also, in the last six weeks, two trans women of color have been found brutally murdered in Baltimore, and some suspect it may be the work of a serial killer who is targeting trans women. So here’s an idea: Why don’t you publish articles about these more serious matters rather than faux journalism pieces about trans activists purportedly “oppressing” radical feminists? Oh yeah, I almost forgot: You wouldn’t get nearly as many page views…

If you haven’t read Goldberg’s article, don’t. But if you haven’t read Serano, either this essay (there’s lots more, and it’s all good!) or her books, you have a treat in store.

2 Responses to “A Transgender Woman Fights Back: Julia Serano’s Open Letter to the New Yorker

  1. Lisa Hirsch Says:

    I think there is something to be said for reading Goldberg’s article, to get some sense of the context for Serano’s responses. I read it a couple of weeks ago (I get the print NYer), and I sure wish Goldberg had been less “objective” in discussing autogynephilia, which had my jaw really dropping, for oh, so many reasons.

  2. Laurie Says:

    Lisa,

    Yes, it certainly is jaw dropping!

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