Why TERFs don’t talk about trans men (and why cis men don’t either)

I quite often see discussions about why trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) tend to discuss most of their vitriol towards trans women, and largely ignore trans men. Sometimes, this is presented as a sign that trans men are better socially accepted than trans women. Personally, I don’t think that’s the answer, and at some level, it’s fundamentally a response to entirely the wrong question.

TERFs are described specifically in terms of their focus on exclusion. They are fundamentally focused upon keeping people out. What are TERFs trying to keep people out of? What is the turf they are defending (bad pun, I know)? It’s their notion of womanhood, against those women who they think don’t belong. And that’s your answer to why they aren’t talking about trans men. They don’t need to defend their vision of womanhood against trans men, because according to them the situation is either (a) trans men are in their category of woman, like it or not, on the basis of our presumed chromosomes/presumed reproductive capacity (but we fail to recognis this due to being  poor, deluded, vulnerable fools, misled by modern medicine, or autism, or Tumblr, or Skeletor, or whatever their preferred villain of the week is) or (b) we’ve voluntarily ducked out of the fight, so we’re wusses or traitors, and they can turn their backs against us. Either way, we aren’t encroaching on their turf, we’re trying to escape it. Hence no effort is needed to exclude us. Some TERFs do make an attempt to coercively fence us in, but for the most part they’re more interested in doing that for those who they see as vulnerable and salvageable – kids – than worrying about what us dyed-in-the-wool sell-outs might be up to. Plus deep down, I suspect a lot of TERFs come from a place where they can sympathise with the fundamental desire to escape womanhood, even if they think we’re going about it all wrong.

So the real question with regard to trans men isn’t why TERFs aren’t talking about us, it’s why there isn’t a comparable movement of cis men rallying round to say that trans men aren’t men. Except that isn’t a question, because we all know why. Cis men with an exclusionary attitude don’t see trans men as any kind of a threat to their turf, because no cis-penis. That’s it. They don’t see a need to dress that up with theory, or discussing social constructs, or stuff about innate essences, or socialisation, or selectively-curated research papers, or anything else. Transphobic cis men might mock trans men, or be disgusted by us, or threaten us, but they don’t see any need to waste time arguing with us, let alone bother defending their borders against us. And you can’t spin: “You haven’t got [what I consider to be] a willy” out into a Sunday broadsheet editorial, even if you write it in really big letters.

As trans people who are feminists, I think we’re often particularly outraged by the TERFs, because we feel that they should get it. They’ve thought about gender. Some of them get paid to write about this stuff. And yes, what they write is often dismissive and cruel and harmful, and they should know better. But that doesn’t give transphobic cis men a free pass, just because they can’t even be arsed to try to explain their logic for dismissing trans people, or haven’t thought about it beyond “willies”.

Patrick Califia nailed this years ago. The general social attitude is: Of course women want to be men. And of course they never can be. But that’s not acceptance of trans men, it’s – at best – a pitying glance. And it’s an intersection between misogyny and transphobia. It may well frequently be a less aggressively policed one than transmisogyny, but it’s certainly not acceptance of trans men’s identities as real and valid. I don’t think this particular intersection has been well-mapped out yet, and perhaps at some stage I’ll have a better stab at it. But for the moment, I’d like to point out it’s there.

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Scientific truths

It’s a fairly common occurrence that I see comments directed to trans people along the lines of “Trans people are denying science” “Science says penis= boy and vagina = girl” “Science says males have XY chromosomes and females have XX chromosomes”, “It’s basic biology, people”, and so on and so forth.

What do we mean by science? Well, my high school memory of what we were taught about science (from Karl Popper) is that the basic requirement is for a hypothesis which  is falsifiable. So for example, the statement that “All swans are white” is a hypothesis which can be proved false if I see a black swan. Seeing millions of white swans does not conclusively prove the hypothesis to be true (though may strongly support it, and in practice we sometimes have to work with the best theory we have), but the moment a black swan is observed, the hypothesis is proven false.

“All men have penises” is, on the face of it, a similar statement to the one about swans. It’s falsifiable if I can find a man without a penis. However, for this to work, we have to have a way of defining “man” which does not involve reference to penises. Otherwise, there is a logical fallacy. To go back to the swans, if I say “All swans are white”, and then I see a black swan and say “No, that is not a swan because swans are white, so that black thing cannot be a swan”, I have made a circular argument. If my definition of a swan requires it to be white, and I will not accept anything that is not white to be a swan, my premise is unfalsifiable. Therefore, it is not a scientific hypothesis, but simply a statement of how I am defining swans.

Now, I expect that if I got the leading world scientific experts on swans together, they’d probably all agree on what a swan is. They’d probably base their definition on a number of long-standing principles and conventions within biology and taxonomy about how to define a species. It would be possible to assess a definition of a species against those conventions. But all the same, that’s still only a convention of how biology goes about definition and classification, not scientific proof that those conventions are correct. And of course, scientific conventions are ultimately rooted within the society that scientists operate in. Why are swans also known as Cygnus, of the family Anatidae? It’s not because it is scientifically proven that Latin is the best way to describe birds. It’s because of the historic position of Latin within academia. This in turn can’t be entirely separated from social issues. Latin’s status as a language of learning derives from the role of religion in society. And throughout the last few hundred centuries, upper-class men have had far more access to Latin than working-class women. The definition swan = Cygnus is not a scientifically proven fact, it is a scientific convention, which arose within a particular social structure, and which is not neutral on issues of class, religion and gender.

Back to penises. There are scientific hypotheses which could be posited on the penis question which are falsifiable, and which do not contain circular logic. For example, the statement “Everyone with XY chromosomes has a penis” is clearly a testable, falsifiable hypothesis. So is “Everyone with testosterone levels between 8 and 30 nmol has a penis”. And “Everyone who self-identifies themselves with the social category man has a penis”. And “Everyone who is legally recognised under UK law as a man has a penis.” However, these hypotheses are not merely falsifiable – they have already been proven false. Remember, you only need one exception. One black swan proves that not all swans are white; one person with XY chromosomes and no penis proves that  XY chromosomes =/= penis. The scientific method does not allow you to  dismiss exceptions to your hypothesis on the grounds of being uncommon.

The problem here is with insisting upon a categoric statement about “All” or “Everyone”. Saying “Having XY chromosomes very strongly statistically correlates with having a penis” or “More than 98% of self-identified men have a penis” are falsifiable, scientific hypotheses which are very strongly supported by the evidence. But clearly they do NOT prove that penis = man.

The whole “science” argument gets even more unscientific when we get into practical implication. Biology has nothing to say about which bathroom trans people should use. I mean, we could derive a hypothesis and test it – “People with penises empty their bladder more efficiently if they are doing so behind a door showing a stick figure wearing trousers” – but I don’t think anyone would seriously expect anything other than a null result in a double-blind randomised controlled trial. Now, social science might well tell us a lot about social views about gender-segregated bathrooms, and why some people might feel upset or confused or threatened if their expectations about bathrooms are not met. But social science would explicitly recognise the role of social norms, and would not claim to have discovered an objective, eternal truth about where people should wee.

The problem is not that trans people are anti-science. The problem is that many of our critics don’t know what science is.