April 2021 Guest speaker, Dr Elizabeth Reid

Jane introduced our Guest Speaker, Dr Elizabeth Reid, who spoke on the topic “A Feminist Perspective: Trans Issues”. Elizabeth is a well-known Canberra-based feminist and academic, and a proud member of the Vintage Reds.

photo: www.abc.net.au, 2020

Her talk was followed by a lively discussion. Here is Elizabeth’s paper which was the basis for her talk:

Notes for A Feminist Perspective on Trans Issues


The relationship between feminist and transgender politics and theory is surprisingly fraught, especially in the USA and the UK.

Transgender activists may insist on the introduction of regulations governing the use of pronouns, especially in universities and government bureaucracies, demand access to women’s facilities, such as women’s toilets and changing rooms, and/or demand to participate in events organised exclusively for women (sporting, musical, etc.).

The relationship is becoming increasingly oppositional in Australia also, as can be seen, for example, on placards that read ‘Trans women ARE women’.

This is not a recent tension. As far back as 1973, Robin Morgan said in a speech:

I will not call a male ‘she’; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title ‘woman’; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.

Yet, trans women say they are women because they ‘feel female’, that they have ‘a man’s body but a woman’s brain’, because they are women ‘trapped in a man’s body’.

One trans woman said to me: ‘If men were allowed to be pretty, I probably would not have transited’.

This is how they make gendered sense of themselves.

Some of the key terms and issues in this tension will be outlined and discussed.

Principles for a discussion

There is no right and wrong, true or false positions. There are only genuine beliefs, points of view, bigotry, etc.

A politics of inclusion is always better, if it can be reached, than a politics of exclusion. This is both a strategic principle and a moral one.

Feminists are opposed first and foremost to patriarchy and racism, and to patriarchal and racist systems.

Wherever possible, feminists prefer non-violence, including non-confrontational or non-oppositional stances, to violence, whether physical, verbal, emotional, etc. or to threats of violence.

Applying a feminist lens: Where do our interests overlap? Instead of: Where do they differ?

Trans terminology – tentative

Transgender is often used to refer to people who do not conform to prevailing expectations about gender, namely, either male or female, by presenting, and living, genders that were not assigned to them at birth or by presenting and living genders that may not be readily understood in terms of more traditional conceptions of gender.

Used as an umbrella term, it generally aims to group several different kinds of people such as transsexuals, drag queens, drag kings, some butch lesbians, (heterosexual) male cross dressers and the gender fluid.

The term currently flags the political stance of resisting the medical pathologization of trans people. Thus, it is placed in opposition to the older notion of transsexual.

Trans*, a term used instead of transgender, is an umbrella term for those whose gender differs from that which they were assigned at birth.

This includes binary trans people (trans men and trans women) and non-binary trans people, who may use descriptors like gender-queer, bi-gender, a-gender, or gender-fluid (though not all non-binary people use trans as a descriptor).1

Transsexual is often used to refer to individuals who use hormone therapy and/or surgical technologies to alter their bodies to conform to their gendered sense of self, in ways that may be construed as at odds with the sex assigned to them at birth or in ways that may not be readily understood in terms of traditional conceptions of sexed bodies.

It may also be used to indicate people who self-identify and live as the sex ‘opposite’ to the one assigned to them at birth.

Traditionally the term transsexual has been connected to psychiatric notions such as gender dysphoria and has also been associated with the metaphors of ‘being trapped in the wrong body’ or ‘having a woman’s brain in a man’s body’.

Gender dysphoria is the feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people might experience gender dysphoria at some point in their lives.

FTM and MTF are abbreviations of female-to-male and male-to-female. They were originally connected to transsexual (medical) discourse indicating individuals who transition to the ‘opposite’ sex but they have now moved away from this medical discourse.

Queer is a political and a theoretical term and is used as an umbrella term to apply to individuals often associated with the categories lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT).

It generally indicates opposition to identity-based categories and signals a strong antipathy for ‘heteronormativity’, that is, the taken for granted social and sexual arrangements in a heterosexual-centered world-view.

Queer Theory applies to theoretical work that aims to study and ‘deconstruct’ hetero-normative ideology. It emerged in the 1990s through thinkers such as Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

The term genderqueer is used as a term of self-identification by individuals who do not subscribe to the traditional binary division between male/female, man/women, and masculine/feminine. An individual who self-identifies as genderqueer may claim both sexes or genders, neither, or a complex blend of them.

Transphobia is the mistrust, fear, hatred, disbelief, or in other ways rejection of people who are transgender, thought to be transgender, or whose gender expression does not conform to traditional gender roles.

Transphobia can prevent transgender and gender nonconforming people from living full lives free from harm.2

Many forms of transphobia involve categorizing individuals contrary to their own sense of self. Caution is thus required in applying terms to individuals who may not self-identify with them.3

Other terms used in discussions of gender, trans people and trans-sexuality

TERF stands for ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’. It is used to describe radical feminists who hold ideas that some other feminists consider transphobic, such as the belief that trans women are not women. They are generally opposed to the transgender rights movement, often to the medicalisation of trans, and support the exclusion of trans women from women’s spaces and organisations.

These feminists, including Sheila Jeffery, Mary Daley, and Janice Raymond, are relatively powerful in the UK, and in the US. They have collaborated with conservative groups and politicians who oppose legislation that would expand transgender rights, in the US, the UK, and Australia.

CIS: A cisgender person (sometimes cis-sexual, informally abbreviated to ‘cis’) is a person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. For example, someone who identifies as a woman and was identified as female at birth is a cisgender woman.

The term ‘cisgender’ is the antonym of transgender. It was introduced so our language could be fairer and more inclusive, and to make us more aware of everybody’s experiences of gender.

Woke is an adjective meaning: alert to social injustice in society, especially racism. For example: ‘We need to stay angry and stay woke.’

In the six years since 2014, when the term became linked to the BlackLivesMatter movement, “woke” has evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centred on social justice politics and critical race theory. This framing of “woke” is bipartisan: it is used as a shorthand for political progressiveness by the left, and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right.

Despite renewed activism against police brutality in 2020, the way that terms like “woke” and “wokeness” are used outside of the Black Lives Matter community seems to bear little connection to their original context, on either the right or the left. 4

Cancel culture: Cancel culture (or call-out culture) is a modern form of ostracism in which someone, often a celebrity, is thrust out of social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in person. Those who are subject to this ostracism are said to have been “cancelled”.5

Feminism and trans*

Some feminists see no difficulty in including trans people, in reconciling a commitment to feminism with a commitment to the rights of trans people. These feminists tend to take the view that trans women are women and that, as such, they, like cis women, are part of the constituency that is feminism’s primary concern.

Trans people more broadly are also regarded as an oppressed group in their own right, and hence proper recipients of the solidarity of feminists who struggle against the different forms of oppression, such as those relating to race, class, gender, or sexuality. These struggles must be conceived of not as unconnected or competing struggles, but as fundamentally intermeshed.

Other feminists, while expressing condemnation of transphobic violence and harassment, and affirming the right of trans people to live in dignity and safety, contend that there is a deep tension between the demands of some trans women to access women-only spaces, and a feminist concern for the safety and well-being of those born and raised female, who have often already been subject to violence and discrimination on the basis of their sex.

There is no shortage of transphobes who are unembarrassedly bigoted and who continue to depict trans people as perverts, freaks, or monsters.

The J K Rowling affair

In 2017, JK Rowling ‘liked’ a tweet that linked to an article sharply criticising the transgender rights movement.


The immediate result was an avalanche of criticism and negativity. Many feared that this simple ‘like’ signalled that the author, who had been almost irritatingly ‘woke’ until then, had aligned herself with a movement known for its open hostility towards the transgender community, a movement which calls itself ‘gender-critical feminism’ but is also known as ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF)’.

There was silence from Rowling herself until 2019 when she began tweeting on the issue again. In June 2020, she criticised an INGO for talking about ‘people who menstruate’, tweeting ‘I am sure there used to be a word for these people. Someone help me out.’.


Rowling’s insistence that only women experience menstruation has been criticised as being transphobic by some Twitter users, who have pointed out that her comments are ‘just not accurate’ when it comes to people who menstruate.

One person wrote: “Trans men who haven’t transitioned still menstruate.”


Another tweeted: “I know you know this because you have been told over and over and over again, but transgender men can menstruate. Non-binary people menstruate. I, a 37-year-old woman with a uterus, have not menstruated in a decade. Women are not defined by their periods.”


Another wrote: “Hi @jk_rowling, using non-gendered language is about moving beyond the idea that woman = uterus. Feminists were once mocked for wanting to change sexist language, but it is now common to say ‘firefighter’ instead of ‘fireman’.

“It seems awkward right now to say “people who menstruate” but this is just like changing other biased language.


“Menstruation is a biological function; not a “woman thing”. It’s unnecessary to gender body parts and doing so can restrict healthcare access for those who need it.”


Rowling responded to the backlash by posting a series of tweets to defend her earlier statements.

She tweeted: “I know and love trans people but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.

“The idea that women like me, who’ve been empathetic to trans people for decades, feeling kinship because they’re vulnerable, in the same way as women are, to male violence, ‘hate’ trans people because they (ie. women) think sex is real and has lived consequences, is nonsense.”


On 10 June 2020, the author posted a tweet that read “TERF wars” with a link to her website for a blog post titled: “J.K. Rowling writes about her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues.”

In the post, she revealed her experience with domestic abuse and sexual assault for the first time.

She wrote: “I’m mentioning these things now not in an attempt to garner sympathy, but out of solidarity with the huge numbers of women who have histories like mine, who’ve been slurred as bigots for having concerns around single-sex spaces.”

In the blog, Rowling writes about her struggles with sexism and misogyny, adding that reading accounts of gender dysphoria by trans men had made her wonder “if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition”.

She wrote that she believed that misogyny and sexism were reasons behind the 4,400 per cent increase in the number of girls being referred for transitioning treatment in the past decade.

Issues in the discussion/debate on trans people

The pronoun debate

Is it appropriate to require everyone to declare their gender identity by, for example, insisting that a person’s preferred pronouns are included in electronic signatures or on one’s Zoom name?

    It has been an accepted rule of grammar that pronouns should agree with their subjects in both gender and number. However, this rule is now being challenged by non-binary people who identify as neither male nor female.

    A 2017 survey of trans, non-binary and genderqueer people found that 10.7 % of respondents preferred their names to be used in place of pronouns (for example, in a classroom setting).

    Since the late 20th century, non-binary people have searched for words to accord with their identities, and trans men and women have insisted on the use of pronouns that agree with their felt sense of gender.

    English pronouns are in their nature political. Their usage has historically been governed, and in some ways is still governed, by norms that are produced by hierarchies of power. For example, in British English, the informal ‘thou’ has usually been used for social inferiors; ‘it’ for enslaved black people; the generic ‘he’ for all of humanity.

    These once ubiquitous pronoun practices were both symptoms of, and conducive to, injustice.

    Trans and non-binary people want it to be recognised that the same thing is true of contemporary pronoun practices.

    However, requiring that pronouns be included could become problematic if one has not yet made up one’s mind.

    It could be seen as an intrusion into one’s privacy and one could well prefer to keep this information private.

    It is also the case that some people feel ‘she’ for example, reduces the person to a thing. Unlike ‘You’.

    Possible ways forward:

    • Do not force people’s ‘outing’, for example, by doing a round of introductions at the start of a meeting asking people to state their preferred pronouns, or by requiring that they be on the Zoom signature after one’s name.
    • Ask people to email you or get in touch with you in some other way to discuss.
    • How would any of us, trans or not, binary or not, feel if others, convinced that they knew the truth of who we really were, insisted on referring to us using words that, so far as we were concerned, didn’t apply to us?

    Judith Butler insists on the importance of referring to people in the ways they ask for: ‘learning the right pronoun, she says, is crucial as we seek to offer and gain recognition. But she goes on to say:

    ‘At the same time, none of us are captured by the categories by which we gain recognition. I am that name you give me. but I am also something else that cannot quite be named.

    ‘The relation to the unnameable is perhaps a way of maintaining a relation to the other that exceeds any and all capture. This means that something about the other can be indexed by language, but not controlled or possessed, and that freedom, conceived as infinity, is crucial to any ethical relation.

    Ethics requires that we embrace a practice of naming that makes people’s passage through the world more bearable. But ethics is not exhausted by such a practice. A true ethical relation requires that we see the other, just as we see ourselves, as ultimately beyond names and categories, because each of us exists, finally, beyond the reach of mere words.

    Should people be able to list their gender instead of their birth sex on their identification papers?

    The Australian Academy of Science and the ANU have adopted a definition of a woman as ‘anyone who identifies as a woman’. This is a simple system of self-definition or self-identification, which does not require the indignity of arguing the case before a panel.

    Having incorrect gender markers on legal documents is understandably distressing, even if it does not prevent the person from actually accessing the relevant services and procedures.

    Further, having a birth certificate that does not match other documentation can cause a person to be ‘outed’ as trans, potentially leading to discrimination and harassment, and, in all cases, taking away their choice as to how and when to share this deeply personal information.

    However, if identity was self-declared (self-identified or self-defined), then (cis) men might cynically exploit trans-inclusive legislation or regulations in order to inflict violence within women-only spaces, or simply to annoy or disrupt.

    Men who want to attack women will try to get into spaces and access services and those who are determined enough will manage it, with or without a system of self-ID to exploit.

    Should there be time or age thresholds for medical interventions to assist transiting?

    It is argued that many young people struggling with gender dysphoria are being directed towards hormone therapy and/or surgery, when this may not be in their best interests, particularly if it is irreversible.

    Should there be time or age thresholds for medical interventions to assist transiting? For example, there may be an age limit for using hormones or for irreversible surgery. Or, they may be asked for proof of having lived for, say, at least two years in the person’s acquired gender and/or a medical diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria’. They could be asked to provide details of any medical treatment they may have received for gender dysphoria, such as hormones and surgery.

    Should trans women be allowed to access spaces and services set aside for women?

      Trans women are in some relevant sense women; their preferences as to names and pronouns, should be respected.

      But should access to women-only spaces and services be open to trans women or should they be restricted?

      The reality of violence and discrimination against trans women is connected to that faced by cis women.

      Men as a group systematically oppress and inflict violence on women. And trans women, or at least some of them, share, albeit to varying extents, in the features which make men more likely to inflict violence against, and otherwise to oppress, women.

      For example, trans women may have certain bodily features such as a penis, testes, and higher levels of testosterone, that is, trans women, or some at least, are ‘biologically male’ or simply ‘male’.

      Also, they may have been treated for at least part of their lives as boys or men, that is, some trans people have a history of male socialisation, a sense of male entitlement, and are bearers of male privilege.

      Trans women, or at least those who are substantially similar to cis men in these respects, are just as prone to commit violence against women as cis men.

      However, the available evidence shows that the phenomenon is so rare as to be almost insignificant.

      It is certainly the case that some trans women do have the bodily features noted and are, to this extent, male. It is also clearly the case that trans women are people who have been classified as male and treated in a way that reflects this, for some part of their lives.

      But neither of these features, either individually or taken together, are the correct basis for determining the risk that an individual poses in terms of violence against women.

      However, trans women are different from cis men. The definitive difference is that trans women see themselves as women or even as female and feel most comfortable navigating the social world with this gender presentation. Many trans women report having this experience from very early childhood.

      There is clearly a difference between the experience of a child who is treated by others in ways that are characteristic of boys and also feels like a boy, and a child who is treated by others in ways that are characteristic of boys whilst feeling that they are really a girl.

      Gender identity does make a difference to the way in which biological and social factors manifest themselves.

      Trans women as a group do not share with cis men the features in virtue of which the latter pose a higher risk of violence to women. That is, trans women as a group are not violent towards women.

      What are women only spaces? A kind of best fit method for tackling the complex phenomenon of gendered and sexual violence.

      What the question demands then is an evaluation of whether trans inclusivity represents a better more pragmatic response than excluding trans women from these spaces.

      It is clearly not appropriate for trans people to have to use spaces that conflict with their gender identity (eg. trans women using men’s changing rooms).

      Further, any sufficiently stringent criteria for gender recognition and access, will both fail to differentiate between those trans women who do and who do not pose a risk comparable to that posed by cis men and will be open to exploitation by those who are in no sense trans but who are determined to gain access to vulnerable women.

      Thus, including trans women in women-only spaces is by far the most practical approach to take.

      Trans activists are arguing for strategies that go beyond what is necessary to achieve what they want, that is, acceptance, recognition, respect, and an end to violence.

      One example may be the enforced closing of Coogee Baths for Women: Trans activists requested that the changing rooms and the baths be open to trans women.

      The request was considered by Council who decided that a trans woman who had had her penis removed could use the changing rooms and baths. This was not considered a good enough reply by the trans activists. And so they forced the baths to close.

      Another example is that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Australia has been approached by some trans activists who want them to remove all references to women in their brochures etc. describing what services they provide, on the grounds that the term ‘women’ excludes some trans men from accessing their services.

      They argue for replacing the word ‘women’ with ‘people’. This, however, opens up the possibility of abuse. Would the College and its practitioners then have to include and consult men/husbands/fathers in decisions about a women’s genital and reproductive health and, in particular, about abortion, for example?

      Many in the college might argue that the provision of services to women is their very raison d’etre and that if they do not talk of services for women they may as well go out of business.

      Another example is the use of the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’. Some trans activists, for example, at the ANU, have demanded that these terms not be used as they exclude people who are parents but not men or women.

      The lifetime of socialisation experienced by biological women must no longer be seen as a way of understanding womanhood.

      What it is to be a women can not be limited to a woman’s reproductive capacity or biological sex, or her relationships within a social context.

      Who counts as a woman is a political or ethical question, rather than a scientific/biological or a metaphysical question.

      Consider the word ‘barren’. When predicated of a woman, it means infertile, sterile or childless. As Adrienne Rich pointed out in Of Woman Born (1976), there is in English no equivalent word for describing infertile, sterile or childless men. If you say a man is infertile, it will be taken metaphorically, to mean he is soulless or desolate, not that he is a biological failure. This meaning of barren encodes and perpetuates a worldview according to which it is women’s particular purpose to be mothers.

      Gender is a matter of social position: at least part of what it means to be a woman is to be subordinated on the basis of a classification conducted according to the type of sexual organs one either has or is imagined to have.

      Movement between the socially assigned positions of man- and woman-hood is possible, both/either in theory or practice. A person’s gender identity – their subjective sense of who they are – is an important aspect of what it means to be a woman, or man, or non-binary, alongside the ‘objective’ or social aspects.

      This subjective sense does not exhaust what it means to be of a given gender, honouring it is, in most contexts, the morally right and politically correct response. That situation is one in which trans women’s relationship to patriarchy has more in common with the relationship in which cis women stand to patriarchy than with cis men’s relationship to it.

      Trans Women are Women

      Trans activists argue that issues that specifically affect women, for example, abortion, should no longer be called women’s issues and, in particular, we should refer to ‘pregnant people’ or ‘people who menstruate’ rather than ‘pregnant women’ or ‘women who menstruate’.

      That is, biological women are redefined as a subset of womankind.

      There has been serious, and successful, pressure on abortion rights campaigners and others to avoid using the term ‘woman’ in their literature as it excludes people with female genitals, who may be suffering from genital/reproductive related conditions, who do not self-identify as women.

      Does a trans activist have the right to object to abortion activists referring to pregnant women? Is this more than merely a semantic issue?

      To agree that trans women are women is more than just stating that to say or feel that one is a woman is all there is to being a woman. Nor is it to deny that many trans women have the biological features that they have, nor is it to define womanhood in terms of some mysterious ‘essence’, nor equating it with a feeling that a person has, or a statement that they make about themselves.

      A person’s gender identity – their subjective sense of who they are – is an important aspect of what it means to be a woman, or man, alongside the ‘objective’ or social aspects.

      While this subjective sense does not exhaust what it means to be of a given gender, honouring it is, in most contexts, the right political and ethical response to a social situation.

      Thinking through the issues and then presenting them.

      Principle for thinking through issues

      Bigotry/transphobia: How can one know when one is saying or holding views that are bigoted or transphobic? Consider the parallels between comments made in the context of trans people and those made in the context of race and immigration.

      For example, the infrequent incidents of violence by trans women against cis women reminds one of the times that our attention is drawn to violent sexual crimes by Muslim men against white women and girls, even while the vast majority of rapists are white.

      Talking about these issues

      When talking about these issues, feminist ethics requires that we embrace a practice of naming that makes people’s passage through the world more bearable, that respects their desires and sense of self.

      A person’s gender identity – their subjective sense of who they are – is an important aspect of what it means to be a woman, or man, alongside the ‘objective’ or social aspects.

      While this subjective sense does not exhaust what it means to be of a given gender, honouring it is, in most contexts, the right political and ethical response to a social situation.

      Terminology revisited

      Transfeminism: expanding categories of embodiment beyond the binary.

      Trans* holds open the meaning of the term and refuses to deliver certainty through the act of naming. The asterisk modifies the meaning of transitivity by refusing to situate transition in relation to a destination, a final form, a specific shape, or an established configuration of desire and identity.

      The asterisk holds off the certainty of diagnosis; and, most importantly, it makes trans* people the authors of their own categorisations.

      Principles revisited

      There is no right and wrong, true or false positions. There are only genuine beliefs, points of view, etc.

      Scientific evidence does not seem relevant to the discussion. The issues are strategic and moral.

      A politics of solidarity and inclusion is always better, if it can be reached, than a politics of exclusion. This is both a strategic principle and a moral one.

      Transfeminism must be capacious enough to include, recognise, and celebrate the femininities of women who were not born female.

      Butler’s work enabled eccentric narratives about being and becoming and nudged male masculinity out of the heart of our philosophical inquiries. We all stand in the space she created.

      Feminists are opposed first and foremost to patriarchy and racism, and to patriarchal and racist systems.

      Trans* and feminist activists could work together to oppose patriarchy, racism, economic and social disparities, white supremacy, and other ills facing the world today.

      Wherever possible, feminists prefer non-violence, including non-confrontational or non-oppositional stances, to violence, whether physical, verbal, emotional, etc. or to threats of violence.

      It may be helpful to distinguish trans activists, or the trans rights movement, from trans people. Most of the intransigent, threatening or violent, positions are taken by the activists.

      A feminist lens: Where do our interests overlap? Instead of: Where do they differ?

      The feminist principles of solidarity and sisterhood commit one to look for areas of support rather than to areas of conflict or tension.

      1 https://genderrights.org.au/information-hub/what-is-transgender/

      2 For a good discussion of transphobia see: www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/gender-identity/transgender/whats-transphobia

      3 https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-trans/, section 1.

      4 www.vox.com/culture/21437879/stay-woke-wokeness-history-origin-evolution-controversy?te=1&nl=morning-briefing:-australia-edition&emc=edit_mbau_20210407

      5 www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/30/20879720/what-is-cancel-culture-explained-history-debate