Is The Ideology Of The Transgender Movement Open To Debate?

By Robert Jensen / Voice Male Magazine

A few weeks after I had published online a critique of the ideology of the trans movement, I was at lunch with a friend who has long been part of various movements for racial, economic, and gender justice and works as a diversity coordinator at a nearby university.

The meeting came on the heels of a local activist bookstore denouncing me in an email to its listserv, which had led to tense conversations with some comrades. At the end of lunch, my friend hesitantly brought up the controversy, and I got ready to hear her critique of my writing.

Instead, she leaned forward and said, “I don’t dare say this in public, but I agree with you.”

It was reassuring to know that someone whose work I respected shared my analysis. But it was disheartening to be reminded that a progressive/liberal orthodoxy on trans issues has left many people afraid to speak.

Most people involved in feminist movements know how bitter the trans debate has become, and those of us who identify with radical feminist principles are used to being labeled transphobic TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist), sometimes even accused of supporting a climate of violence against trans people. My goal here is not to assign responsibility for the breakdown of dialogue, but to point out one consequence of this state of affairs: Many people are afraid not only to disagree with the trans movement’s policy positions but even to ask questions about the underlying claims.

I have condensed into a question, a challenge, and a concern what I believe are the most important points in the trans debate.

The Question

If the claim of trans people is that they were born into one biological sex category, such as male, but are actually female, what does that mean? Is it a claim that reproduction based sex categories are an illusion? That one can have a female brain (whatever that means) in a body with male genitalia? That there is a non-material soul that can be of one sex but in the body of the other sex? I struggle to understand what the claim means, and to date I have read no coherent account and am aware of no coherent theory to explain it. (Note: The concerns of a people born intersex are distinct, raising issues different from the trans movement.)

The Challenge

If the claim of trans people is that they were socialized into one gender category, such as man/masculinity, but feel constrained by the category or feel more comfortable in the norms of the other category— that I can understand, partly as a result of my own negative experiences with the culture’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms. But those norms are the product of patriarchy, which means we need feminist critiques of patriarchy to escape the gender trap. While some in the trans movement identify as feminists, others embrace traditional gender norms, and in my estimation the movement as a whole does not embrace a feminist critique of institutionalized male dominance.

The Concern

As one pro-trans writer put it after reviewing the dramatic interventions into the body that happen in sex-reassignment surgery— which involves the destruction of healthy tissue—“It can seem and feel as if one is at war with one’s body.” Is this procedure, along with the use of hormones—including puberty-blockers in children— consistent with an ecological worldview that takes seriously the consequences of dramatic human interventions into organisms and ecosystems? With so little known about the etiology of trans, is the surgical/chemical approach warranted? I have developed these ideas in more detail in online essays (details below), which I hope people will read and consider, and I am working on a book that puts these issues in the context of a broader critique of patriarchy and the politics of rape/sexualized violence, prostitution/pornography, and trans.

The pornography issue was where I first encountered the splits between radical feminism and liberal/postmodern feminisms; a radical critique of the sex industry, in which men buy or rent objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure, often got one labeled a SWERF (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist), as if a critique of institutionalized male dominance was nothing more than an attack on vulnerable women.

Is sex reassignment surgery consistent with an ecological worldview that takes seriously the consequences of dramatic human interventions into organisms and ecosystems?


But I continue to believe that a focus on systems of oppression is essential. Since my first exposure to radical feminism in the 1980s, I have been convinced that such feminist intellectual and political projects are crucial not only to the struggle for gender justice but for any kind of decent human future.

Is reasoned and principled argument, within and between movements and political perspectives, possible? In some settings, the answer these days appears to be “no.” For example, when I submitted a piece (see “Feminism Unheeded” below) to a website that had previously published my work, I warned the editors that it was a controversial subject. But they accepted the piece, made a few changes in editing, and posted it online. Within a couple of minutes— so fast that no one would have been able to read the whole article—a reader denounced me as transphobic, and the editors of the site, who had originally thought the piece raised important questions, took it down within a few hours (it was posted later on a different site).

Perhaps if these debates concerned purely personal matters, there would be no compelling reason for a public discussion. But the trans movement has proposed public policies—from opening sex/gender-specific bathrooms and locker rooms to anyone who identifies with that sex/gender, to public funding for surgery and hormone treat-ments—that require collective decisions. There’s no escape from the need for everyone to reach conclusions, however tentative, about the trans movement’s claims.

The trans movement is, of course, not monolithic, and varying people in it will identify politically in varying ways. But after two years of further conversations, reading, and study, I will reassert the conclusion I reached in the first article I wrote in 2014:

Transgenderism is a liberal, individualist, medicalized response to the problem of patriarchy’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms. Radical feminism is a radical, structural, politicized response. On the surface, transgenderism may seem to be a more revolutionary approach, but radical feminism offers a deeper critique of the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of patriarchy and a more promising path to liberation.

One of the most common reactions I’ve had from people in progressive/liberal circles who agree with this statement but mute themselves in public conversations is that, in plain language, they just want to be nice—they fear that any question, challenge, or expression of concern will hurt the feelings of trans people. Sensitivity to others is appropriate, but should it trump attempts to understand an issue? Is it respectful of trans people to not speak about these matters?

A couple of months after the lunch described above, I had a conversation with a long-time comrade in feminist and progressive movements, who agreed with my analysis but said that she thought trans people had enough problems and that she didn’t want to seem mean-spirited in raising critical questions.

“So, your solidarity with that movement is based on the belief that the people in the trans community aren’t emotionally equipped to discuss the intellectual and political assertions they make?” I said. “Isn’t that kind of a strange basis for solidarity?”

She shrugged, not arguing the point, but sticking to her intention to avoid the question. I understand why, but those who make that choice should remember that avoiding questions does not provide answers.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author most recently of Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, 2015). Information about his books, article archives, and contact information can be found at http://robertwjensen. org/.

For more extensive analysis of the issues raised in this article, Jensen recommends the following:

“Some basic propositions about sex, gender, and patriarchy,” Dissident Voice, June 13, 2014.

“There are limits: Ecological and social implications of trans and climate change,” Dissident Voice, September 12, 2014.

“Feminism unheeded,” Nation of Change, January 8, 2015.

“A transgender problem for diversity politics,” Dallas Morning News, June 5, 2015.

15 thoughts on “Is The Ideology Of The Transgender Movement Open To Debate?”

    1. Sorry about that, we’ve fixed all we could find. Thanks for letting us know.

  1. this is uninformed trash. someone’s gender identity is whatever they say it is regardless of their bodies. being trans is not inherently medical at all, although some folks do pursue medical treatment for their gender dysphoria, some do not and that does not make them less trans in any way. The gender binary is a western phenomenon and in many other cultures more than two genders have been present for millennia. conflating sex and gender and criticizing folks for pursuing non-binary gender identities seems like colluding with patriarchy, not fighting it. This author clearly knows very little about trans people’s experiences and feelings about themselves and is content to speculate instead of doing research. Speaking of “the other category” clearly sets up trans people as reinforcing the gender binary, when in fact gender isn’t binary and most trans folks don’t see it that way. Also, trans folks are super feminist. If the author thinks otherwise that’s another sign that speculation was substituted for research. Whining about being a victim of the orthodoxy police doesn’t fix faulty logic, lazy research, and conflating basic terms.

    I am a practicing permaculturist and I like dgr’s ethos in other ways, but I am really confused why stuff like this is in the party platform, so to speak. Associating dgr with trans-skepticism is a great way to alienate people who could well be allies.

    1. Thank you fiddler jones.

      The article proves one thing conclusively, and that is white males will be rigid, and controlling in an area that is important to them regardless of how they talk about other issues.

      The “brilliant” claim that trans people cannot point to a physical difference between their bodies and a cis body points right back to the circa 1950’s attacks against gays. By extension, it can be said that all the gays that were subjected to “cures” of their gayness must have been cured.

      I’m not a member of the trans “movement”, but when I finally faced the reality of my sexuality I ended 60 years of depression and suicidal ideation. I’m not a member of some movement because, just as Mr. Jensen proves in spades above, people are evil, controlling, small minded busybodies that will hurt or kill anyone different given the chance. I will give them no chance.

      “Transgenderism is a liberal, individualist, medicalized response to …”
      Another brilliant statement Mr. Jensen. Do you know me? Since I am trans, obviously I am a liberal. I am obviously “medicalized” as well. “Individualist”? What does that even mean? Does Mr Jensen think all trans people should be exactly the same since they have been lumped by an arbitrary term?

      Mr. Jensen, since you have no experience with the subject, and have obviously taken no time to think you must resort to generalized, nonsensical statements like the one quoted, or be silent. It seems to me that you should take some advice, and actually be silent rather than say stupid stuff and remove all doubt about the fact that you are a fool.

  2. Splendid article that R. Jensen has made.

    Great with the other links at the end as well.

    thank you.

  3. Something that doesn’t get mention is the lack of protected status for women and children. When we have violence perpetrated against us it isn’t classified as a hate crime. Although the perpetrators certainly do hate us. I am not trans phobic, homophobic nor an out of hand male hater. I want real equality and justice where very little exists.

  4. Well, blow me down. I’m lying here, recovering from the second stage of my female-to-male gender reassignment surgery and worrying about all sorts of things. Worrying about the headlines and the rising tide of fascist ideology in the UK. Worrying about the trans friends I won’t see for a few weeks, some of whom are incredibly vulnerable and can’t even use the public facilities of their choice without fear. Worrying that I’m a good person and that that one time three years ago when I said someone’s hair looked like a pineapple that they didn’t overhear me and go into a downward spiral of depression. One thing I wasn’t worried about, until just now, was that I was contributing to an impending ecological disaster and the oppression of women. Thanks a bunch, Robert Jensen.

    Mr. Jensen. I have a lot of time on my hands at the moment. Time enough, as it happens, to answer your question, meet your challenge and address your concern, in my small voice alone, but then, every voice is surely worth a listen.

    Your question is, ‘If the claim of trans people is that they were born into one biological sex category, such as male, but are actually female, what does that mean?’ From my point of view alone (and bear in mind I’m not affiliated with any trans ‘movement’ and would never want to me – sounds like something you’d do with your bowels on the toilet), this is not, in fact, a claim that reproduction-based sex categories are illusory. We are instead honestly relating, as articulately as we can, that we’re all too aware of the reality of reproduction-based sex categories, and we seek neither to deny nor to undermine these. We do, however, experience severe dysphoria due to some degree of mismatch between our gender identity and our biological anatomy. By no means is this as simplistic as the claim to have the brain of one gender in the body of another. Transgenderism is an incredibly complex (and varied) phenomenon encompassing factors of psychology, anatomy and, yes, societal expectations of gender norms. In-depth social and medical studies have been conducted over a number of decades (results of which are all readily available in print and online), leading to a situation where it’s widely acknowledged by the medical community, and the trans community, and their friends, acquaintances and loved-ones, that transition (sometimes with hormonal treatment and surgical intervention) is the very best option to allow us to lead happy and fulfilled lives.

    When you separate intersex issues from trans issues, I wonder if you take into account the hundreds of different types of intersex conditions – genital, hormonal and chromosomal – and the area of overlap between intersex and trans. There are those exploring the idea that trans may be a type of intersex condition, for what is the definition of ‘intersex’, if not that someone does not fit neatly into the medical and societal ideas of the sex and gender binary?

    Your challenge – and I do hope I’ve read this right – is that trans people do ‘not embrace a feminist critique of institutionalized male dominance.’ I meet your challenge, Sir. I embrace the gosh-darned heck out of that feminist critique. I acknowledge that I, as a man, am part of an unjustly privileged group that oppresses women, and that this needs to be changed. I was female-assigned at birth and until the age of twenty-five, when I was ready to transition, I experienced the pervasive sexism to which all women are subject. Post-transition, every small difference in the way I am treated painfully highlights for me the subtle and insidious ways women are undermined in all areas of society. I feel the inequality deeply and personally because I have lived it. As a man, I am culpable for this oppression if I do not speak out and so I do.

    Your concern, with which I struggle the most, is that – am I reading this right or am I going entirely mad? – the medical process of physical gender transition will have negative long-term impact on the development of humanity alongside other ecosytems? I’m off to read your other work now, because if there is any consistency in your scheme of thought, I fully expect to find you opposing medical treatment and intervention of all kinds, from HRT in post-menopausal women to chemotherapy for cancer patients. I’m aware of the ecological cost of human advancement, but to pick out trans people as a focus here – that, perhaps, is what people are perceiving as transphobic.

    I’m fully aware of my impact on the environment. I still feel guilty for the many negative ways I, as any other human being, impacts this beautiful planet, including benefiting, as does everyone I know, cis and trans, from medical advancements that allow me to function and thrive when I otherwise wouldn’t. I’m fully aware of my privilege as a white male and as a male-presenting person the ingrained societal misogyny from which I benefit. But dash it all if I’m going to feel guilty for oppressing women, or the environment, for being trans. In fact, in my opinion, being trans has no correlation to either of these things which is worth studying in the least.

    1. many trans people say that you don’t need dysphoria to be trans, though. what do you make of that?

  5. I try to keep it simple. Trans is a cult where there is no disagreement or even thinking allowed. If you are a woman and try, you get rape and death threats. If we say this, we are told we are hurting men who demand we accept them as women.

    My first introduction to this was when a het man kept pressuring me to be his girlfriend ignored that I said I was in love with my best friend, another women. To him, women simply belonged to men. I kept saying no. He stalked me. He got another women who identified as a Lesbian to be sexual with him and he became more obsessed with Lesbians and then stalked me into our community, where he is a public pornographic, sado-masochist racist who most accept as a Lesbian (though he actually identifies as a bisexual.) He also lies, saying he felt he was a girl growing up.

    If men think they are in the wrong body and are really women, who do NOT ONE of them have a clue what a woman is? Why is their focus only on the fetish and male-identified, pornified images of women? Why are they autogynephilic?

    If they feel like women at all, why don’t they care about how their movement is harming women and show any concern at all? All they do is display classic male entitlement and arrogance. I have talked with and read countless men claiming to be women and Lesbians and none seems remotely like a woman.

    And the women claiming to be men? They hate women and want male privilege. When they see what is an obvious Butch Lesbian, like myself, they avoid our eyes. Most are Fem and many are bisexual/het women wanting access to gay men. It’s no coincidence that one of them is pornographer and sadist Pat Califia, who did so much harm to Lesbian communities, including glorifying gang rape. After all those years of harming Lesbians, she now claims to be a gay man.

    Why is there so much genuflection and submission when it comes to the trans cult’s demands, while Rachel Dolezal got the opposite for playing “trans Black”? There are others, like a white German man who has had extensive surgery to “become” a Black woman and the man who first claimed to be a Lesbian and now says he is a “Trans Dragon,” who had his ears and nose removed, “horns” implanted, tattooing, etc.

    At what point to people say no to this oppressive mess, which is harming all girls and women?

    Thank you for this post.

    1. Are you referring to a problem with our site? We don’t quite understand what you mean.

Leave a Reply

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