Guest Post by Sheila Jeffreys
I was pleased to be invited to speak at the ‘Feminist’ Futures Conference that took place in Melbourne 28/29 May, because in the last couple of years I have been disinvited from or vetoed as a speaker at a number of feminist events such as conferences or Reclaim the Night marches.
Usually what happens is that members of a collective veto me, or they succumb to a campaign by transgender activists that pressures them to disinvite me, on the grounds that I am a ‘transphobe’. In the case of the Feminist Futures Conference the committee was brave enough to hold out against the campaign to disinvite me, which was mounted not just by transactivists but by pro sex work activists. I remained invited, but the campaign against me on the conference Facebook page, on a number of blogs and in letters to the committee was vitriolic and led to the committee inviting 4 representatives of the bullies to speak, and the placement of one of them on the panel I was to be on. I decided to withdraw and there follows the gist of the talk that I gave at an alternative event, named the ‘Real’ Feminist Futures Conference, which was organised at the last minute as a side event, and was very successful.
The campaign against radical feminists who criticize the harmful practice of transgenderism has been quite effective up ’til now in preventing any rethinking. But I think a tipping point has been reached. Support for the practice has been almost total on the left, amongst all those who see themselves as progressive, amongst feminists and queer theorists and activists. Now it is clear that a rethinking is beginning, in the medical profession and amongst an increasingly broad swathe of feminists. The fact that transgenderism has had such blanket support despite the fact that it involves sterilization, other brutal surgeries, and the ingestion of harmful drugs for life, is not without precedent in the history of ‘sexual surgeries’. The campaign to sterilize the ‘unfit’ was instigated by physicians and biological scientists, the very same groups of professionals involved in the construction of transgenderism, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was conceived as a practice of eugenics, to prevent the birth of ‘unfit’ people who would be a drain on the state’s resources and a social nuisance. These included those seen as mentally defective, criminals, sexual predators, homosexuals, prostituted women, gypsies and the chronically poor. The campaign led to the sterilization of tens, and probably hundreds of thousands of persons, mainly from the 1920s, when the practice was most widely taken up, through to the 1970s when it was abandoned. In Sweden, for instance, 63,000 persons were sterilized in this time period, 90% of them women. The medical campaigners represented a number of behaviours which formed the grounds for sterilization as biological, in precisely the same way that transgenderism is represented by the medical profession now. Tellingly, the vast majority of those on the left side of politics, and most feminists, supported the practice. It was considered universally just and the most reasonable way forward. There are few who think that now. Sterilization of the unfit is regarded with near universal opprobrium. This, I am quite sure, is the same fate that awaits the practice of transgenderism.
There are similarities and some dissimilarities between the two practices. The similarities include the forces that created the practice, scientists and the medical profession, the explanation, biology, the support from ‘progressive’ sectors of society, in some cases a similar set of victims, lesbians and gay men, and the aim, social engineering,. In the case of transgenderism the social engineering should be abundantly clear. The practice straightens out those who are a problem for the politically constructed gender structure that founds male domination. Those who do not conform to gender rules, and homosexuals, are surgically reconstructed to fit in. A whole industry and politics has developed to carve ‘gender’ onto the bodies of adults and children. Maintenance of the gender system is vital to the survival of male domination. Any challenge to the idea of gender threatens the main justification for the subordination of women.
Another similarity lies in the result of transgenderism, i.e. the removal of reproductive capacity. The practices are different in that the majority of those who were sterilized pre the 1970s had no choice. They were in institutions and hospitals and were sterilized against their will, or their compliance was engineered by their being told they may only be released if they agreed. But there were victims who volunteered even then, particularly those who were homosexual and felt afflicted by urges to sexual behaviour that was socially disapproved. Sterilization was touted as a cure for this problem. So there were some who begged their doctors for the supposed balm of sterilization, and in some cases castration which oftentimes involved the complete removal of genitals. However, the offer by the medical profession of in the present of transgenderism as a cure for the extreme psychological distress that those who suffer anxieties created by the gender system can experience, can be seen as an inducement that negates the idea that the practice is freely chosen. Quacks have always thrived out of the despair of their victims.
But, most importantly, the practice of transgenderism is presently being extended to children, often at very young ages. The voluntariness of the practice is seriously thrown into question by this development. A campaign by transgender activist groups such as GIRES in the UK has led to acceptance of the treatment of children with puberty blockers, cross sex hormones from the age of 16, and surgery at 18. The campaign has been very successful too. In Australia girls of 13, and 12, and in 2011 a boy of 10, have been officially transgendered through the Family Court and placed on puberty blockers. In the UK in 2011 the government agreed to an experiment in which puberty blockers will be administered to children identified as failing to conform to the rules of gender from 12 years old. The age of puberty is declining. Since intervention is recommended before any physical changes occur and some children reach puberty at 9, the age of intervention is likely to continue dropping. The treatment of transgender children sterilizes them. It is necessary for young people to go through puberty if their ova and capacity to produce semen are to mature and enable them to reproduce. If the puberty delaying drugs are followed by cross-hormones at 16, as is expected to be the case, then the children’s fertility is removed for life.
I have no doubt that the questioning that is now beginning in earnest, particularly within the feminist movement, will eventually lead to the ending of this harmful cultural practice, in the same way as a different form of sterilization of the unfit was ended in the 1970s. Unfortunately this will not be a happy event for many of the victims of the practice. They have already lost much in body parts and health. They cannot reclaim them, and once the whole practice comes into disrepute, as it must, then their rationale for existence, their identities and sense of self, will be under threat. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that transactivists oppose feminist critics so very fiercely. I can offer no solution to their understandable disquiet. It is necessary for the severe harms that the practice inflicts on adults and now children to be brought to an end.
Sheila Jeffreys is an academic and writer, originally from London, who teaches in Australia. She has been a rad fem activist for 38 years.