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Fintan O’Toole: How does defence of trans rights become search for women to blame?

Trans people’s enemy is patriarchy, not feminism

Over the weekend, Róisín Ingle was at the centre of a Twitter storm. Her crime was to tweet a link to a long essay by Suzanne Moore, explaining why she has left the Guardian. Moore, alongside JK Rowling, has become the wicked witch of TERF: so-called trans-exclusionary radical feminism.

Ingle’s admiration for Moore’s essay (about her whole professional life as a journalist) means she is contaminated by the same heresy. Given that the R rate for this infection is well over 1, it may well spread to anyone who does not think Ingle should apologise.

How on earth did we get here? How has the defence of the human rights of an oppressed and vulnerable minority – trans people – ended up as the search, yet again, for a woman to blame? Why has the real enemy, patriarchy, disappeared from view?

In this feverish climate, I have no great hopes for any attempt to address these questions. But that does not remove the duty to try.


One great reality here is the suffering, generation after generation, of trans people. Though not in all cultures or at all times, they have been subjected to everything from ridicule and contempt to physical abuse and murder.

When any oppressed group begins to find its voice, there is a damburst of joyous liberation, but also of pain and anger. A history of shame has to be countered by fierce self-assertion. Dambursts never flow in neat channels. Things get messy. So be it.

Internalised self-hatred

The second, equally profound, reality is misogyny. States, churches, institutions and cultures have all been built around the need to sustain male dominance over women.

The armed wing of this patriarchy is misogyny. Like the oppression of trans people, it is a full spectrum system of control whose weapons are both the literal ones used to kill and maim, and the subtler ones of internalised self-hatred and body shaming.

To dominate women, patriarchy has to create a rigid divide of gender, and then patrol that border. Everyone who crosses it can be defined as a threat

These two realities are aspects of the same system. The control of women’s bodies is the primary purpose of patriarchy. But this is a war with a lot of collateral damage.

In order to dominate women, patriarchy has to create a rigid divide of gender, and then patrol that border. Everyone who crosses it – gay men, lesbians, bisexual people, transsexual and transvestite people, intersex people, but also “girly men”, “mannish women”, any straight man or woman who does not wish to conform to the codes of masculinity or femininity – can be defined as a threat.

The great work of the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements has been to break down this construct of gender, to show how it is built and maintained, to play with it, to subject it to scrutiny, mockery, travesty.

This is one of history’s epochal achievements. And it’s an achievement for all of us. It potentially gives all of us the freedom to be who we are, to create relationships based on love and respect rather than on domination and submission, to raise our children without passing on to them the virus of shame with which we were infected.

Except that “achievement” is the wrong word. It’s not a done deal. It is fragile and brutally contested. As we’ve seen with other basic ideas of equality and democracy, it can be undone.

It ought to be obvious that protecting and expanding the gains that have been made in the struggle against patriarchy is a common cause. So how do we end up with this incipient civil war?

Shared project

The problem is that, while the undermining of gender is a shared project, the unravelling of sex is not. Gender is obviously an invention. Biological sex is not a simple or static idea – but it’s not a mere invention either. For most people, it is written in the body.

If you’re born in a body that does not match your deep sense of self, the notion that you can change your body may be, literally, a lifesaver. It is both a necessity and a joy. You need to think of biological sex as being just like gender, an invention that can be reinvented at will.

Unfortunately, for very many women, this same notion can seem to wipe out their experiences of their own bodies. If it were just an abstract idea, there would be no real issue. But misogyny is not an abstraction.

We can't have dignity and decency unless we recognise the duty to hold in our heads more than one truth

It is a lived reality and one of the ways it continues to live is by telling women that their bodies are awkward, problematic, eternally unacceptable, always in need of remodelling. Those women need to be able to assert against this assault the truth of their own bodily existence, without shame or apology.

Which of these perspectives is valid? Both. Both come from real, personal, lived experience. Sometimes, we can’t have dignity and decency unless we recognise the duty to hold in our heads more than one truth at the same time.

We have to find a way to live with this legitimate divergence without imposing orthodoxies or denouncing heresies. If we are to be liberated from oppressive caricatures, we cannot resort to new ones. And we must not lose sight of the common enemy – the patriarchy that teaches us all to despise our bodies and distort our selves.