Oh, how like a slimer I am in aspect and in character! How viscous my thoughts, how stalker-like my attempts at forming them in context of evidence! I have committed a grievous sin, which I will admit here and hope for papal dispensation from the gatekeepers of intersectionality: I have looked at the Likes on a post on Facebook, on a post that I felt aggrieved people with whom I feel the need to side with in a particular fight.
Ophelia Benson, with whom I have stood shoulder and shoulder in a great many fights against awful human beings bent on destroying feminists for being feminists on the internet, has decreed that I am anathema, that I am like a slimepitter; I am a terrible person and very much creepy and stalkerish for my actions in deciding to disagree with her that the question of whether trans women are women is not an easy one and in my methodology in catching up in the matter. By my picking now, while she feels under assault, to disagree with her specific tack and her specific argumentation about trans women making awful terrible demands of her like asking yes/no questions for clarification, I am of course disingenuous, not legitimately asking but rather just trying to tear her down. I am “joining the mob”. And I am even indistinguishable — despite our history — from that mob.
Let’s get the housekeeping out of the way first — the backstory that moves me to post so floridly once more, despite my prolonged absence.
Ophelia has recently, ostensibly inadvertently, angered the online trans community, with whom FtB is generally friendly, after some rather tone-deaf commentary on the performance of beauty by Caitlyn Jenner. This brought to the minds of a number of trans folk hereabouts a post from a year ago about Hobby Lobby, when she both dismissed a request to acknowledge that Planned Parenthood actually also benefits trans men who still require OB/GYN services, and subsequently misgendered a trans person who claims to have given their preferred pronouns — they were understandably wary of her and evidently viewed Jenner post as trans-antagonistic. This sparked a large fight, during which time Ophelia acted as though — if you’ll pardon my interpreting her feelings here — that she was under siege by a number of dishonest interlocutors.
After this fight simmered for a month plus (while I’ve been preoccupied with my own life nonsense and could not be moved to post even silly videos about turtles or about the latest video game that I’m obsessed with), things came to a renewed head recently, when a trans person asked her point blank whether trans women are actually women, and demanded a yes or no answer.
Sensing this as a trap, she has posted about how awful this tactic is, how holding her hostage to a yes or no answer is abridging freethought and demanding dogmatic adherence to a specific ideology. The trans community was, in my estimation rightly, incensed by this refusal to acknowledge their requested validation of trans women’s womanhood.
Ophelia’s reaction seems odd to me because the question has a very obvious answer that, as long as you recognize gender for the social construct that it is and are not trying to police what “counts” as womanhood while also demanding that we be critical of the gender binary, works entirely logically and equally with every other adjective you might add to “woman”. 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.”*
It’s for that reason that I can without hesitation answer the question of ‘are trans women actually women’ with an unequivocal yes, with no qualifiers or asterisks.
Whether “womanhood” as a construct is valid is a separate question, and one I think Benson with her “gender-critical” views (as evidenced by her reaction to Caitlyn Jenner coming out as trans, and the backlash thereabouts) has been attempting to undertake herself, and she clearly sees being sideswiped by the question of whether or not a trans woman “counts” as a woman as a monkey wrench in the gears she’s trying to build to grind gender away into nothingness.
I’ll happily talk more about gender as a construct and a performance, and the nexus of the expected performance vs the actually performed one, at a later juncture if anyone’s interested, but it’s not particularly important here. The short form of my argument, though, is that since classification as “woman” has no bearing on whether you have certain physiological needs e.g. trans men also need OB/GYN services, what is left is the societal construct only, and thus denying the desired gender role of the trans person just because of physiological concerns like “has penis” is every bit as gatekeeping and gross and gender-prescriptive as denying womanhood because of somehow insufficiently womanly performance.
What’s important now, though, is that there was a conversation between some people I consider friends and allies on Twitter this morning, which I think was going in completely the wrong direction because of a certain specific recalcitrance to recognize that trans folk might actually have found Ophelia Benson’s arguing against the full womanhood of trans women to be damaging and might actually have been coming to that position through a rational examination of the evidence at hand. Even if that wasn’t her intent — even if her painting the entire exercise of asking for clarification because she’s been unclear to that point as pure McCarthyism (“Are you now or have you ever been”) was entirely out of fear of being painted into a binary yes/no question on a situation she thought was more complex, it’s clear that the correct answer was “yes” at the specific resolution in which it was being asked, and any “buts” actually come as nuance to the argument about the gender role, and not about the desire for that gender role by the trans person. Being unable to simply give the “yes” and then add whatever clarification was necessary, that act itself hurt those trans folks who posed the question.
My interjection into the Twitter conversation was explicitly about the potential of interpreting Benson’s response of the “trans women are women” question as having a qualifier that makes the womanhood of these trans women somehow questionable, that the use of the adjective somehow changed “women” in a way that “white” does not, and how her liking the responses that evinced that position might lead someone outside the argument to genuinely interpret Benson’s position as anti-trans. My argument was that judging Benson’s position as being anti-trans was actually fairly reasonable based on the evidence at hand.
I will note now that it is well possible to hold a nuanced view about gender as being a malleable and mostly-societally-prescribed construct without denying access to the desired gender role to the person who feels, thanks to nature or nurture, more comfortable in one over another. Given that we all get boxed into specific roles, and those specific roles might chafe (as I’m sure the specific roles Benson is saddled with chafe her in myriad ways, as she’s railed against them severally over the years), especially in context of society mistaking physical sex organs for appropriate classifying criteria for the otherwise malleable gender roles. It therefore seems only just and right to rally to assist those of us who would be more comfortable in another role, especially where our support of them comes at absolutely zero cost to us except to our own prior unexamined programming with regard to gender roles.
In fact, if the goal is the deconstruction of gender, it seems apposite to cause people to rethink how others might like to perform gender in their own ways regardless of the apparent discrepancies in their physiology, seeing as how the correlation between said physiology and their desired gender is entirely a shim between a fact and a societal construct. So, calling trans women women, saying yes to the dread question — if indeed “trans” alters the fact of “woman” in any way more proximately than “white” might, which I actually expressly deny — would thus aid in the deconstruction of the gender binary that so chafes at Benson and, frankly, us all.
Strangely enough, when I felt the need to catch up on this specific fight and interject in a conversation between these friends and allies on Twitter, apparently my simple act of reading a public Facebook thread where Benson asked for support against these arguments that were being made against her, and noticing that she’d liked some comments that apparently interpreted her position as something approximating “trans women shouldn’t need the adjective if they were actual full-stop women” (comments that I found particularly repulsive and moved me to see who liked them), was somehow creepy and stalkerish and Slimepitter-like. While this strikes me as a particularly vast overreach by someone who feels themselves under siege, I empathize with the thought processes that led to it, even if I disagree strenuously.
Being pointed to a thread, seeing who agreed with a repulsive comment, and noting that Benson herself did so, is not in fact equivalent to following her around social media for years and itemizing and indexing her every comment, like, edit, and all the rest of the social media equivalent of rifling through her garbage. Noting her public endorsement of a repugnant thing is not, actually, somehow thought-policing her. I have lost a number of friends — Benson included — over daring to suggest that Benson’s actions in this regard are actually relevant in determining Benson’s own views on trans folk, despite the fact that this collecting and parsing of evidence is only necessary since she’s so recalcitrant to give a simple yes or no when asked. Make no mistake that I have been burned for making this stand. But, I do not claim the victim mantle for that; anyone who’d burn me for these actions isn’t someone I’m wont to associate with anyway. I prefer people who can take a complicated and close topic like this and give it the nuanced treatment it deserves.
To be honest, I could not give you a link to the specific Facebook post now (since I’m not, you know, actually stalking her, committing URLs to my eidetic memory or copying them to my How-To-Burn-Ophelia file), nor do I care to put the full scope of how she’s behaved on trial (since I’m not trying to have her excommunicated or drummed out of anything or set on fire as a witch, despite her protestations). I am speaking only for myself, how I reacted to how I saw her behave and what I saw her endorse, and I am merely disagreeing with the whole vector this conversation and her repeated doubling-down against what should be a simple concession, much as she once disagreed with Michael Shermer for atheism being “kind of a guy thing” over his and fanboys’ howls of being witch-hunted. If you consider me a dishonest narrator, so be it. Since I can’t offer proof of what I saw or how I reacted, that’s your call.
I sincerely doubt that the mere action of looking at the Likes on a particularly gross post on Facebook and discovering the person you’re in the process of collecting data on is anything approaching the years-long, patently unfair and grossly fixated harassment campaign she amongst others hereabouts has endured at the hands of the numerous antifeminist atheists who inhabit the slime pit. And yet, a number of long-term commenters at Freethought Blogs, who should know who I am and what I’m about, evidently feel strongly enough that my noticing her liking comments that I find repugnant is somehow a literal witch-hunt that, despite the innumerable fights we’ve had over criticism vs McCarthyism, they agree that I am somehow dredging the annals of Benson’s history of associations to find some few words to hang her by like some Cardinal Richelieu.
Except, that is patently not my intent here. I disagree with the specifics of why Benson refused the yes or no question. I do not think she should be excommunicated or excoriated or burned at the stake or drummed out of the movement or drummed out of the blog network or defriended or block-botted or what-have-you, except I do not deny that people who’ve been hurt might feel otherwise. That people have reacted genuinely to being hurt and feeling betrayed by her is not particularly invalid, nor am I one to judge those cries and those blocks and those friendships thrown on the pyre. But in the meantime, I absolutely refuse to believe — despite her feeling under siege presently — that anyone should hold off on nuanced criticism.
I absolutely empathise with her reaction, though. It’s surely difficult to recognize valid criticism when you feel you’re under siege from all parties. I’ve seen so many of us go siege mentality. I’ve done it myself. I get what it feels like to be attacked, and for such a length of time. I’ve seen it in others where no valid criticism ever gets through to you, being drowned out by the rage and the howling. I’ve even seen how she’s reacted to others acting exactly as she’s doing now — when others deny there’s anything valid there, she holds them to account even despite the defense and the protests of witch-hunts.
Except honestly, much — maybe even most — of the criticism she’s receiving is, indeed, valid. What I’m seeing is a lot of valid, stretched out over time, peppered with a little overreach. Admittedly, I’m not the locus, but I’m certainly seeing a good deal of legitimate criticism of the calibre that you didn’t see with Rebecca Watson or Anita Sarkeesian.
Even if you CAN find me tons of examples of overreach, of attacking her directly, of attacking her for specious connections and tenuous arguments bolstered only by rumours and insinuation (none of which I can deny because it is in the very nature of a dogpile to contain overreach like this), a good deal of the criticism she is facing is actually valid. There are honest interlocutors genuinely hurt by things she’s said and done, that they can point to, that are still extant on the internet and not grossly misinterpreted; and these honest interlocutors are demanding a genuine and contrite apology and improvement in behaviour in the future. That is to say, nothing that would cost her a damn thing except a moment’s introspection.
When she’s ready to hear these requests, they’ll still be said. These people will still be here. The arguments will continue to exist, despite their various handwaving dismissals by Benson and supporters. And they’ll be provided by the people whose axe to grind is against their own oppression, not against Benson as a person, not against dishonest pilers-on from places slimey and antifeminist and only interested in taking down another strong feminist to the end of their holy war against feminists on the internet. Mind you, the longer she grabs at the victim mantle and paints all criticism equally, the more likely she’s doing damage to herself, and the more exasperated the honest interlocutors will get. The more likely it is, over time, that many of these people will have left, tired of waiting for Benson to catch up.
In the meantime, I side unequivocally with the trans folks who are hurt by this whole incident. Not out of spite of Benson, nor malice, nor attempting to drive traffic or steal traffic or popularity or “drama blogging” or whatever other excuse one might pull from the Grab Bag of I Don’t Wanna Deal With My Criticism. Let’s be honest — I barely blog any more. I can barely find it in me to do any sort of activism, given how high a price you pay when you dare disagree with people within your own community. I am only moved to fight the most proximate of injustices, and I harbor no pretenses that I’ll actually impact on them. Given I have two orders of magnitude lower traffic than Benson at the moment, I suspect only she will really see this (and only then thanks to the two links back to her posts in this one, thus the trackbacks). I further suspect only a select few very close to this issue or motivated to defend her against all attacks might comment. But if she does see this, and makes it to the end of this post without ragequitting half way through, good on her. She should hopefully know I have no “grudge” against her, no “beef”. Maybe the whole story laid out like this will bring her to realize this isn’t an attack, it’s a genuine request for dialogue.
I’m not kidding myself, though. Probably not.
*”Are blue candies actually candies?”
“OBVIOUSLY NOT. YOU WOULDN’T NEED TO QUALIFY THEM AS BLUE UNLESS THAT MEANT SOMETHING SPECIAL IN TERMS OF THE CANDY LABEL.”