So I have been a bit cowardly in the last year or so, unwilling to engage openly and nail my colours to the mast because my experience of these issues on social media has been unpleasant. But it's time.
I don't know if it's just me, but this last week or two it feels like some sort of awful transphobic explosion has occurred on social media. Was it always this widespread? Have I been so insulated by my own privilege that I failed to notice, or have we genuinely reached a tipping point where the backlash agains trans rights has become sufficiently legitimised for anybody who holds "gender critical" views to feel comfortable airing them? It just feels frighteningly busy on the transphobia front online at the moment; I can't even imagine how awful it must be for trans and non-binary people right now. I'm so sorry.
It has taken me a few years to get my head more or less round my chosen position on trans rights; I started out as a newly-awakened feminist with a fairly gender critical outlook. I didn't mind trans people existing, but I didn't want them "stealing" my identity as a woman. I objected strongly to the gender-neutralising of language, particularly in the maternity services and where it related to women's reproductive systems. For a while there it felt a bit like "men" had more right to call themselves a woman than I did. I came to transphobia as a woman who had always been uncomfortable with her gender identity - I never felt "good enough" as a woman; I wasn't thin enough, pretty enough, fanciable enough, recognised enough, promoted enough, valued enough, heard enough.
Then as a new mum I went through the early stages of a feminist awakening and finally I had a place to lay blame for all those painful feelings - the patriarchy, and by extension, men. I was filled with a deep, resentful anger towards men, who appeared to experience life set to "easy", without any of the material struggles that defined mine. Men didn't see, understand or even believe how difficult and dangerous everyday life could be for women, and this enraged me. All in all, this provided a fertile ground for my "othering" of men, and by extension trans women, whom I couldn't understand and therefore didn't believe.
It was during the process of writing Silver Moon that I started to notice changes in myself; Silver Moon was written against the backdrop of the unfolding of #MeToo and I was just so sick of the world being cruel and horrible. I became committed to writing a book of compassion and love - my way of trying to send something a bit kinder and gentler out into the suffering world. As my subconscious unravelled on to the pages, I came to a greater understanding and acceptance of myself, and gradually my growing compassion began to extend towards others. I experienced an awakening to the devastating effects of society's emotional neglect of men, and began to understand and accept my own small but significant part in that. In moments of levity I describe this as moving on from being stuck in the "men are trash" phase of a feminist awakening.
In time, I made a tentative fairy-tale foray into the world of gender nonconformity via the lovely Bearded Woman in The Strong Man, without a great deal of understanding of those complex issues, but with good enough instincts to spot how easy a target people who don't fit into our neat little M / F boxes can be. I'm glad I didn't go any further into it at the time, because I honestly hadn't been listening and understanding enough to do the subject any sort of justice. I'm not even sure I have that now, but I know I can't in good conscience let the continuing and growing transphobia out there continue without doing whatever I can to challenge it.
What I have come to understand, is that what we fear and criticise in others, are those parts of ourselves which we cannot tolerate. As feminists, we demand that men recognise our right to define ourselves outside of the roles assigned to us, to choose our own lives, and to live free of men's violence and oppression. We demand that they firstly believe, and secondly understand how scary it can be living in a world where in order to be safe you have to assume that virtually every second person you meet is a potential abuser until proven otherwise - and even then, you might be wrong. And if you're wrong, you'll get the blame as well as the trauma. I get it. It's fucking terrible, and it needs to change.
But try, if you can, to shift your point of view for a moment. Should trans people not have the right to define themselves outside of the roles assigned to them, as we demand women should? Should they not be allowed to choose their own lives, and live free from violence and oppression? In a world where any one person can be transphobic, how can we as women not bring ourselves to understand how exhausting and frankly terrifying it must be to live in a world where you may have to assume that every single person you meet is a potential abuser until proven otherwise?
When gender critical feminists feel angry about being expected to accept "men's opinions of what women are" do they not see the irony and the double standard of their own expectations that trans people should accept women's opinions of who and what they are?
What finally made me give up my transphobia, was recognising that the patterns of behaviour in some feminists towards trans people are the very same patterns we see throughout history in privileged white men towards feminists. Anger. Dismissiveness. Denial. Disbelief. Demonisation. Counter-accusation. Scorn. Condemnation. Derision. "This Has Gone Too Far Now". I include myself in this and I hold myself responsible, because I have been transphobic in the past, and I will probably mess it up and be transphobic again in the future because I'm just learning, and I'm subject to the same human frailty as everybody else.
But if, as feminists, we can shift our viewpoint yet again and look on ourselves as the compassionate leaders we insist we can be, is this not an opportunity for us to show how the struggle for women's rights *should* have been handled, back when women first started seriously chafing against the restrictions of being considered property rather than people? We have fought tooth and nail for the rights we have, only to be met with resistance, sabotage and abuse from those in a position to share their privilege. Is that really who we want to be to trans people? Would it not be more consistent with what we tell ourselves - that a world run by women would be a kinder, more peaceful place - for us to look first to empathy, compassion and acceptance where our fellow humans are concerned?
I get it - honestly, I understand how protective women feel of their safe spaces. In a world that feels unsafe a lot of the time, where our rights are hard-won and grudged at every step, it's reasonable to feel nervous and insecure around changes to our habitual experiences of gender. What we must not do, however, is allow that nervousness and insecurity to be redirected by media manipulation towards a group that faces even more hatred and violence for claiming their rights than we do. It's tempting to cling to the concept of women being right at the bottom of the privilege pile, but it only takes a moment of empathy to understand that while women have good reason to fear men, trans people have good reason to fear both men and women right now.
Having said all that, I do believe that transphobia is well named, at least for the moment. It's been 70 years since the civil rights movement, and that's long enough in my book for us to be able to consider racism a type of profound arseholery. I have a feeling, however, that we have a while to go yet before we can confidently put transphobia in that category - it will take time for our rigid gender conditioning to work its way out of our systems, and as we are forced to examine, perhaps even discard those neat little M/F boxes we've all grown up with, we will experience fear and discomfort.
The trick is going to be learning to own those uncomfortable feelings, process them and learn from them - as opposed to projecting them onto other people where they don't belong. We cannot continue to blame trans people for our own failures to see, understand or believe how difficult and dangerous everyday life can be for them.
For those reasons, and because I have come to believe that ultimately gender is bullshit and we are all just human beings at various stages of emerging from generations of gendered abuse and trauma, I am committed to being a trans ally. My feminism is inclusive without restrictions. Patriarchy harms cis women, it harms trans women, it harms cis men, it harms trans men, it harms non-binary people, it harms children, animals and the planet.
We need to dismantle patriarchy, not each other.