Respectful Discussion in the Lions’ Den


“Decency is Indecency’s Conspiracy of Silence”

– George Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists, 1903

Recently the trans discourse has inevitably turned back to whether trans people are being ‘respectful’ enough. Cis people complain that trans attitudes are “too hostile”, “too confrontational”. Whether that’s Chris McEleny’s self-contradictory victim-blaming bullshit in The Herald, or the accusation that John Boyne was “bullied off Twitter” for being told he was talking over trans people and refusing to listen to us (which he totally was), trans people are being exhorted to be more polite.

Trans people aren’t the only marginalised group this happens to. Other marginalised groups that are accused of being too aggressive are, oh, precisely all of them. And it’s never a fair point. It’s always a silencing tactic, and often coupled with the gaslighting that that silencing is justified by preventing silencing. So let’s not be silent. Let’s talk.

The first lie we need to put to bed is the idea that the term ‘TERF’ is disrespectful. A lot of trans people will say it’s not disrespectful because it’s objectively true that they are Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, but I have to say I don’t agree. It’s not disrespectful, and it is objectively true, but one of these is not the cause for the other. Many terms that are objectively true (and particularly abbreviations thereof) can be disrespectful. ‘Paki’ and ‘Jap’, for instance, are disrespectful epithets even though they’re abbreviations of an objectively true fact. Or TERFs’ own slur of ‘TRA’ — it’s objectively true that activists for trans rights are, well, trans rights activists, but it’s a slur because of the dogwhistle of implied adjacency to MRAs. “Objectively true” is the argument TERFs use to defend the definition of a woman as an “adult human female”, another dogwhistle, pretending that they’re not signalling to each other that they know that doesn’t include trans women. “Objectively true” cannot be a defence of a term when dogwhistles exist.

No, the reason ‘TERF’ is not disrespectful is because: What other term are we supposed to use to describe that group? It’s not so much because the term is objectively true, but because there is no other term that also is. They’d assuredly prefer “gender critical feminists”, but given that I’ve been told by a TERF that my philosophy is too reliant on the binary-smashing postmodernism of Judith Butler, it’s quite clear that they don’t even have a monopoly on gender critical feminism, much less on any of the other things they claim to speak for. Any alternative term to ‘TERF’ describes a different group. Perhaps a group with, at best, some overlap, but not the group we are striving to describe. The insistence that we use inaccurate or imprecise terms (which also goes for their objection to the term ‘cis’) is a confounding strategy, designed to make impossible discussion of our own experiences, and sabotage our ability to participate in “respectful discussion” from the off.

On the other hand, we need to talk about what “respectful discussion” means. The trans community has a set of clear and mostly unambiguous guidelines on how to talk to and about us respectfully — guidelines that, as far as possible, do not prohibit anything without suggesting an alternative way to express it. TERFs do not merely ignore these guidelines; they explicitly reject them, adopting the far-right talking point that discussing people respectfully is “compelled speech”. It should go without saying that one does not get to demand respect from others while complaining that the respect demanded of them is “political correctness gone mad”. But this hypocrisy is completely elided in the “respectful discussion” discourse bandied about in the press, where TERFs are “just asking questions” about their “legitimate concerns”, and the hostility is attributed entirely to the trans community.

In Iran, it’s said, that since homosexuality is outlawed, one partner in a gay relationship is forced to undergo gender transition to ‘correct’ them. This is horrific conversion therapy, but TERFs have told me I support this. No trans person I know supports this, because coercing a person into a gender they don’t identify with is entirely (and obviously!) the opposite of what the trans community stands for. The fact that many TERF talking points require a similarly tenuous grasp on the distinction between autonomy and coercion deserves its own discussion another time, but where this is relevant today is that TERFs will lie to our faces about our own beliefs and values, and we’re somehow expected not to find that infuriating. And, if they’ll lie about even that, what else will they lie about?

They lie about trans being a “social contagion”. It is almost universal across the trans community that your gender identity, however much we’ll support you in exploring it, is something you have to decide for yourself. Sure, trans people will describe trans people who haven’t yet realised they’re trans as ‘eggs’ (i.e. yet to hatch), but almost exclusively as a past tense description of now-openly trans people before they realised they were trans — and if anyone does suggest in the present tense that someone is an egg, they’ll surely get an earful from the rest of community. Once again, trans people benefit from the idea that gender identity is an autonomous thing, and the notion that we’re out there ‘converting’ people runs directly contrary to that.

They lie about the process for trans children. There are two aspects to transition — social and medical. Children below the age of puberty are given no medical intervention; their transition happens entirely along the social axis. Children at the age of puberty might be given reversible medical intervention to delay said puberty until such a time as they can be judged competent to decide on their transition. But TERFs lie about rampantly medicalising children, and describe respecting a child’s personhood and autonomy as ‘abusive’.

They lie about the regret rate of transition, claiming it’s as high as 75%. This particular lie captures the imagination of cisgender people. Cis people love to talk about transition regret because they think they would regret it. And of course they would: they’re cis! There’s a limit to putting yourself in my shoes. Regret for medical transition actually sits at around 2%, which is something of a far cry from the 75% figure cited, which is mostly generated by unscientifically assuming that people who drop out of long-term studies must have regrets. That being the case, the regret rate of transition seems to be low even when compared with other medical interventions. Regret does happen, but that’s true of literally anything, and detransition does happen, but while the trans community is often accused of dismissing detransitioners, detransitioners are, by definition, cis, so that accusation sounds an awful lot like the familiar refrain of, “Why won’t you let cis people talk over you?”

They lie about our motivations for transition, running the gamut from the old-fashioned assumption of sexual fetish to the reheated homophobic accusations that we are sexual predators and paedophiles. Oh, they’ll call us homophobes, by some twisted logic that people will be trans to avoid being gay (which doesn’t even make any fucking sense, for a number of reasons — that only about 20% of trans people identify as straight, that sexuality is only a small part of identity, that conversion therapy being horrific because it’s an abrogation of autonomy doesn’t apply to situations where autonomy is respected, take your pick), but that won’t stop them from slinging exactly the same accusations at us that were used against gay people in the 80s and 90s.

With all these lies (and more), while simultaneously dismissing our own voices by alternately describing us as “a cult” or “mentally ill”, it’s abundantly clear that TERFs are not, in fact, abiding by the standards of “respectful discussion” that people seem to think it’s reasonable to demand of trans people. And yes, that absolutely makes us understandably angry, which brings us to the real point I wanted to make today.

Trans people are perfectly capable of respectful discussion when we’re not confronted with a hate group maliciously trying to mandate us out of existence. It’s true that trans people can be hostile under certain conditions, but if you’re universalising that, all you’re saying is that those conditions are the only ones under which you’re willing to listen to trans people. That says more about you than it does about us. The message you’re in fact sending is not that trans people need to be more reasonable, but that fighting is the only way for us to even be heard.

Media and politicians who refuse to listen to trans people unless it’s in a confrontational context feign surprise that trans people seem confrontational. Meanwhile, despite media protestations of “both sides” and “balance”, no such requirement is placed on TERFs. Certain journalists, like Jesse Singal or Lucy Bannerman, are literally making excuses not to listen to trans people — journalists unprofessionally ignoring a primary source — so that they can present the TERF side unchallenged.

And that’s before we even get to the point that tone-policing is inherently abusive. Every marginalised group in history has had their concerns dismissed because they weren’t polite enough, and every time, that’s been shown to be just an excuse for an oppressor group to dismiss their concerns. TERFs will even agree with that until it comes time to apply it to trans people. “Oh, well, that’s different,” they say.

Are there legitimate questions to be asked about trans issues? Yes, but any nuance is impossible when the discussion begins with us having to justify our existence. The hatred that self-professed ‘moderates’ court has a chilling effect on those discussions, and it’s past time to lay that blame where it belongs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.