What Voltaire almost said…

Evelyn-Beatrice-Hall-Voltaire

I was recently sent an open letter with an attached petition, seeking the signatures of trans people and allies to protest against the publication in the New York Times of Elinor Burkett’s Op Ed “What Makes a Woman?” This article, inspired by Caitlyn Jenner’s public transition and her Vanity Fair photoshoot, was critical of the positive publicity surrounding her transition, Caitlyn Jenner’s motives for transitioning, and was furthermore deeply critical of trans people in general (both in terms of any medical  rationale for their existence, and of their impact as a social force). The open letter begins with the following challenge:

“The transgender women undersigned, along with our allies in the following section, write this letter to express our extreme disappointment and anger over the publication of Elinor Burkett’s “What Makes a Woman?” in which the Times continued its pattern of permitting cisgender women to comment on Caitlyn Jenner’s transition without devoting equivalent space to the perspectives of trans women.”

Insofar as this goes, I can see the point in it. Given its supposedly centrist, liberal editorial stance, one would have thought the NYT could have made this highly debated subject into a dual feature and had a trans-supportive feminist or a trans activist contribute a piece to balance Elinor Burkett’s openly trans-critical feminism. However, as regards the following…

“The New York Times showed unacceptable prejudice and privilege in allowing the deepest recesses of our personal truths to be the subject of debate, as though we must pass a test run by cisgender women to be allowed to exist as women. We’re done with tests. Like the oppressed minorities that have come before us, a fundamental part of our dignity is the ability to exist as human beings without condition. Given that gender is an embedded part of humanity, we demand that The New York Times publicly apologize for questioning our right to exist, and to pledge never to do so again in its pages.”

…I felt unable, at the last, to add my signature. I am not disputing that Burkett’s piece is highly and intentionally provocative – especially her snide stab at “self-described transgender persons”, thus calling into question the whole validity of transender experience – but that in itself seems an excellent reason not to bite at such an obviously-baited hook. I know very well what I am and what I am not, and I do not need Elinor Burkett to reassure me of my gender identity, any more than as a Christian I need Richard Dawkins to tell me that God exists, or as a socialist I need Donald Trump to tell me that capitalism is exploitation. None of them would willingly oblige, in any case, so what would be the point of forcing a blatantly insincere statement out of them? If I cared too deeply about such a thing, that might even be said to argue that I am none too secure in my own beliefs, and that would be perfect ammunition for their weapons…

So, much as I respect the principles of those who have composed and signed this letter, I must respectfully decline to add my name. I am very fearful that the trans community might gain a name for being pro-censorship, in the wake of similar issues such as attempts to no-platform the likes of Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel: both exponents of controversial and arguably repellent views, but neither of them actually committing acts of incitement or criminal hatecrime. One can hardly do better at such times than to take the words of Beatrice Evelyn Hall (and not of Voltaire) to heart…

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

…and to not only allow such opinions to be expressed, but to respond to them intelligently and vigorously. Hadley Freeman in the Guardian answers Burkett in a well-balanced article that nevertheless manages to ruthlessly dissect several of her more tired points:


She compares a trans woman to a white man “using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expecting to be embraced by the black community”. But comparing gender to race is a trope as tired as it is irrelevant. Her claim that “the insult and outright fear that trans men and women live with is all too familiar to [women]” is simply laughable. Second-wave feminists, of which Burkett is one, remember clearly the fights they led to liberate women from horrible constraints, and they did this so successfully that few women born after 1980 can imagine living under such constraints today. But at no point did western women endure the kind of marginalisation and risk of violence and suicide still suffered by so many trans people today.

If, as Burkett contends, a trans woman who has lived for most of their life as a man cannot understand what it feels like to be a woman, then a woman certainly has no idea what it feels like to be trans woman. And if a trans woman should not define what it means to be a woman, neither, really, should anyone as that path is paved with generalisations. Burkett’s list of sample experiences that make a woman (“the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway”) is as reductive as the signifiers of femininity (cleavage and nail polish) Jenner references, which cause Burkett such rage. In any event, surely Jenner’s belief that she needs such accoutrements in order to look acceptably feminine could just as easily be cited as a near universal experience for women. As for the contention that trans women “undermine almost a century of hard-fought arguments that the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us”, well, considering all that feminism has accomplished, I reckon it will probably survive Vanity Fair dressing up Caitlyn Jenner in a tight dress.


But I will give the last word to Prof. Ellen McLarney, as expressed in the opinion pages of the New York Times itself, where opinion on Caitlyn Jenner is obviously divided, but where there is no shortage of intelligent and trenchant support for trans people, and for a more liberal and positive type of feminism:

To the Editor:

Elinor Burkett’s cranky, Debbie Downer version of what makes a woman, and what makes feminism, is what gives the movement its dismal reputation. Periods, reproductive anxiety, inequality and weakness do not a woman make. Where’s the joy, Elinor? Where’s the celebration of the strength, the power and the sheer intelligence of being a woman?

Your truth is not my truth. Your brain is not my brain. Welcome, Caitlyn.”

My feelings exactly.

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