When you read the Christian Right’s wacky, ignorant statements about transgender people, have you ever wondered where they get this stuff?
The answer, often, is feminists.
In fact, the surprising nexus between radical feminists and Christian Right culture warriors has been with us a long time. In the 1980s, anti-porn feminists like Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin teamed up with anti-porn conservatives like Edwin Meese, leading to the passage of laws censoring sexual speech in the name of protecting women. In the last decade, anti-prostitution feminists have joined forces with fundamentalist Christians to prosecute sex workers under the aegis of sex trafficking laws.
And now, some essentialist feminists – pejoratively nicknamed TERFs, for “Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists” – have provided the pseudo-philosophical basis for fundamentalist Christians’ anti-transgender laws. Not all feminists, of course; in fact the term “TERF” was coined in 2008 specifically to distinguish radical feminists who welcome transgender women as women, and those who insist that biological sex determines one’s gender identity.
Cole Parke, LGBTQ & Gender Justice researcher at the left-leaning think tank Political Research Associates, has been tracking what Parke describes as a “symbiotic relationship” between TERFs and the Christian Right. Parke cited ake for example an April 2016 op-ed by Jennifer Roback Morse (president and founder of the right-wing Ruth Insititute) where she said she's reading "very interesting book" called Gender Hurts, by Sheila Jeffreys, writing "I would not have expected to agree with a radical lesbian feminist. However, in this case, I absolutely agree with her: Bruce Jenner was never a little girl. I don’t care what kind of fantasy life he has. I was once a little girl. So was Jeffreys. Jenner never was."
Meanwhile, the author of that book, Jeffreys, approvingly cites the anti-trans scholar Paul McHugh, who was responsible for shutting down the gender identity clinic at Johns Hopkins University and is frequently cited by right-wing scholars and writers. Closing the circle, McHugh cited Jeffreys in a recent anti-trans position paper published by the American College of Pediatricians.
In a recent article, Parke cited a second example: a June, 2015, five-point plan issued by the right-wing Family Research Council (FRC) for “responding to the transgender movement.” Its co-authors, Peter Sprigg and Dale O’Leary, have argued that transgender people suffer from “delusions” and should be sent to so-caled reparative therapy, or are “liars” who target children and expose them to “molesters and exhibitionists masquerading as sex educators.”
Among the sources cited in the FRC report was Janice Raymond, whom Parke describes as “a lesbian scholar and infamous anti-trans activist” who authored the 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male and proposed legislation in 1980 for the “elimination of transsexualism.”
To be clear, writers like Jeffreys and Raymond do not represent the majority of feminists, or of radical feminists. On the contrary, the status of transgender women has been a long, intra-feminist controversy that reached its greatest boiling point in the cancellation of the famous Michigan Womyn’s Festival (MichFest) over the question of whether or not to allow transgender women to attend the women’s-only festival. MichFest shut its doors rather than allow trans women to attend.
But the alliance with anti-transgender forces on the right has further reaching implications. The rhetoric itself is vitriolic, and surely has contributed to the increase in reported violence against transgender people, including a record number of murders in 2015. But it also has led to numerous anti-transgender laws, most notoriously North Carolina’s absurd, evidence-free, and dangerous crackdown against transgender people using bathrooms that correspond to their gender identities.
The rhetoric surrounding North Carolina’s law is couched in the language of TERFs: transgender women, in particular, are described as being men in disguise, either because of a psychological disorder or a pathological desire to assault women. Conservative religious writings likewise deny the existence of transgender people as a category; last year, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention said that trans people do not exist.
This despite the lived experience of millions of transgender people, and the scientific consensus among the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Society that gender dysphoria is a real condition that can be addressed and remedied. (Many trans activists, it should be noted, resist this medical diagnosis, since it can stigmatize transgender people as disordered.)
But this isn’t the first time when radical feminists and religious conservatives, diametrically opposed politically, have worked together in the name of “protecting women.”
In 1986, for example, Dworkin testified—without any evidence to support her claim—that 65 to 70 percent of women involved in sex work had been victims of incest of child abuse. She claimed that “snuff films,” pornography showing women actually dying, were commonplace, when in fact they were an urban legend. And MacKinnon argued that pornography is equivalent to rape.
They made these statements not at arcane academic conferences, but in front of the Meese Commission, and similar entities in Canada. They worked together with right-wing organizations like the Eagle Forum and Concerned Women for America. And, as described in Nadine Strossen’s Defending Pornography, the far left-far right alliance succeeded in passing laws limiting the distribution not just of pornography but of a wide variety of texts and films—including, ironically, two of Dworkin’s own books.
To be sure, some women are indeed coerced into pornography, or, more likely, find themselves with few other choices due to systemic discrimination and disempowerment. And as more recent scholarship has shown, porn does affect the brains of people who consume large amounts of it, leading, among other things, to the objectification of women and a lack of interest in actual sex with actual people.
But there are also many “adult” writers and actors who love what they do, find it empowering, and enjoy giving pleasure to others. Writers like Patrick Califia (who prior to his gender transition wrote as the female-identified Pat Califia) and Laura Antoniou have attempted to give voice to those whom the likes of MacKinnon purports to represent.
And let’s get real. Conservatives don’t oppose porn because they want to protect women; they oppose porn because they oppose sexual licentiousness and free sexual expression. Just like they oppose protecting trans people because transgender reality scares them, disgusts them, or offends their outdated theologies.
A similar shell-game has recently arisen in the context of sex trafficking. Human trafficking, of course, is abhorrent, tragic, and evil. But the definition if it has recently been stretched so far that police are busting sex workers, not traffickers, often shipping them off to church-affiliated “re-education” programs like Arizona’s project ROSE.
This was a deliberate deception on the part of anti-sex activists like the anti-prostitution group Demand Abolition. As exposed by The Washington Post in 2014, that group’s internal document said that “framing the Campaign’s key target as sexual slavery might garner more support and less resistance, while framing the Campaign as combating prostitution may be less likely to mobilize similar levels of support.”
Naturally, fighting sex trafficking had long been a feminist (and human rights) issue. But fighting sex work in general has, like opposing trans rights, united radical feminists and religious conservatives—both of whom claim to be protecting women.
“Abolitionist feminism,” for example, views all sex work as intrinsically sexist and exploitative, regardless of what sex workers might say. Prostitution, abolitionist feminists say, is a form of violence against women.
This view dovetails conveniently with the conservative moralistic view, which regards prostitution as a sin. And while many feminists have called out the conservative shell game, abolitionist feminist writings have been used to justify it. As a result, the women’s rights NGO Equality Now has teamed up with the conservative Heritage Foundation. Sex workers are defined as victims, whether they consider themselves to be so or not, and sent to church-affiliated programs that then preach sex-role-based messages that are the polar opposite of feminism.
The fundamentalist-feminist alliance against transgender people is thus the latest in a series of touch points between the two movements.
Then again, maybe TERFs and religious culture warriors aren’t that different after all. Both have a rigid definition of what constitutes gender—one based on universalizing their own experience, the other based on a narrow interpretation of religious dogma. Both claim to be protecting women, but do so at the expense of (other) vulnerable populations. And both find themselves on the political extremes, one on the left, the other on the right. Maybe anti-trans theocrats and anti-trans radicals have more in common than it would seem.