Why Do Cis-Feminists Discriminate Against Trans*-Women?

A colleague of mine just shared with me a defensive manifesto of “gender-critical philosophers,” which I find extremely transphobic. When I read things like this, I’m not sure if I’m more angry, sad, shocked, or just embarrassed by my own naïveté (why can’t we just be respectful and get along?!).

These feminists (!) claim that “no trans woman is an adult human female, no trans woman is correctly categorised as a woman,” but they “don’t accept that [their] views are ‘transphobic’.” Instead, they claim that their “views are motivated, as most views in political philosophy are, by a belief in the existence of a certain combination of values and facts.”

What is it that makes members of a minority lash out against similarly or even more marginalized individuals within the same group?

I asked a similar question in a paper that’s currently under review with History of the Human Sciences, namely: Why did Marian Annett, a marginalized woman psychologist, propose sexist and ableist psychological theories?

Here’s some of the literature that helped me think through this apparent conundrum.

First, what helped me make sense of Annett’s case is the concept of internalized oppression (see the old classic and a more recent volume). The idea behind this concept is that members of marginalized groups, including women psychologists like Annett, get habituated to the oppression they experience and perpetuate their own oppression by using their oppressors’ tools against themselves and members of their own group. This is one explanation for why female neuroscientists come up with sexist theories about women’s brains. They are, at least in part, attributable to internalized sexism.

This concept doesn’t quite apply to cis-women’s discrimination against trans*-women. The discrimination of cis-women against trans*-women might be connected to internalized oppression, but I’m not sure if there are any studies on the ways in which internalized misogyny may relate to transphobic views. (Do you? – Leave a comment!)

More readily applicable in this context is the concept of intra-group discrimination (or “intra-intersectionality” or “intra-categorical intersectionality“) as elaborated on by Carbado et al. The most powerful idea by which the concept is illustrated is the hypothetical Fifth Black Woman: Imagine that a company promotes four black women, but not the fifth, presumably because the fifth black woman did not act “white enough” (because of her hairstyle, dress, accent, you name it). Similarly, transphobic cis-women don’t see trans*-women as “female enough.”

This is just a first attempt to help understand (but NOT excuse) transphobic statements of women who call themselves feminists.

I have another piece on transphobia (in neuroscience) in the pipeline. If I can’t get it published elsewhere, you’ll find it here soon. 🙂


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