Compassion as cover: How transgender allies dodge debate

By Robert Jensen

Published in Feminist Current · November, 2018

Since publishing my first essay challenging the ideology of the transgender movement four years ago, I have often found myself in settings where liberal allies of that movement try to divert a difficult discussion by claiming the moral high ground of compassion. With each of these encounters, I become increasingly frustrated at this “compassion-as-cover” dodge that seems designed to give liberals a way to avoid accountability.

The conversations unfold pretty much the same way each time: I’m told that radical feminists’ involvement in an organizing project can be a threat to transgender people, even if the program has nothing to do with transgender issues. Sometimes this comes with the accusation that I am transphobic and bigoted, or at the very least unconcerned about transgender people.

I point out that in my writing I have never attacked individuals or expressed fear or hatred of people who identify as transgender. When I ask my critics to point to any statement that is bigoted, I’m told that simply raising questions and offering challenges could be taken as a threat to the legitimacy of transgender identities. When I ask how articulating a feminist critique of patriarchy is threatening, my liberal friends often try to end the conversation with some version of, “You want to have an intellectual debate and I am just trying to be compassionate to transgender people who feel vulnerable.”

I agree, of course, that vulnerable people shouldn’t be attacked, but this response begs my question: Why is a good-faith disagreement being labeled an attack? Hateful, irrational attacks should be rejected, but why should one side in a political debate be able to declare a serious challenge illegitimate without responding?

When the transgender movement makes public policy proposals that impose costs on others (on girls and women, in the case of transgender demands for access to single-sex facilities and programs), there obviously has to be space in public for debate of those proposals. But my concern here — out of my sense of compassion — is that when radical feminism is framed as opposition to transgender people, a key feature of the feminist position gets lost in the noise: Radical feminism offers not just a challenge to the current ideology of the transgender movement but an alternative analysis that we believe can better serve some, if not most, transgender-identified people.

Radical feminism offers a more liberating alternative for people who identify as transgender by identifying patriarchal society and institutionalized male dominance as the source of impediments to real freedom for individuals to be themselves. Patriarchy forces people into rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms that have nothing to do with biological sex categories. Radical feminist resistance to patriarchy has long challenged those norms, and the energy of collective resistance is productive not only politically but also personally.

I’m not arguing that every person who experiences some form of gender dysphoria can resolve that distress through political analysis and organizing. We know very little about the etiology of transgenderism, and so it’s not surprising that there’s no one-size-fits-all response. But the radical feminists I have met in 30 years of work against men’s violence and sexual exploitation are among the most compassionate I’ve known in my life, people for whom the struggle for justice is as much about sharing the pain in our daily lives as about political principles. Some of these radical feminists also are parents, trying to responsibly raise children who identify as transgender.

A person can be concerned about, and supportive of, individuals struggling with gender dysphoria while still rejecting public policy demands of the transgender movement that are anti-feminist. Everyone I work with in radical feminist movements fits that description. Those activists are, for example, worried about the physical and psychological consequences of puberty-suppressing drugs for children who identify as transgender. That’s not surprising, since radical feminists typically support an ecological approach to social problems rather than reflexively embracing the dominant culture’s preference for technological and medicalized “solutions.” Whatever one’s view, it’s hard to see how those concerns are the product of bigotry or lacking in compassion.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with my analysis of the transgender movement or my position on public policy. But I think it’s disingenuous of those who disagree to dodge the debate by claiming to be more compassionate, just as it’s intellectually dishonest to try to undermine discussion with terms such as TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) and politically cowardly to try to silence radical feminists.

I’m not naïvely asking “can’t we all just get along?” I am eager to hear from people who disagree with my position with substantive arguments. I am just tired of being told that asking legitimate questions about a complex phenomenon such as transgenderism — questions that many progressive people ponder privately but are afraid to ask in the current political climate — makes radical feminists mean-spirited and lacking empathy.