I was scrolling through my Facebook feed one average day recently, when all of a sudden I was confronted with a post condemning the recent passage of a bill protecting the rights of transgender youth. The same bill all my other friends, primarily queer and trans, were celebrating.
The post was by someone I went to graduate school with… for gender studies. I double-checked. I triple-checked. I quadruple-checked. Was this really what she was saying? Was there something I was missing? What the heck was going on?
This was someone I’d considered a friend. We bonded at conferences over the absurd abuses of academia and the trials and tribulations of toxic relationships. In all our interactions she was genuine, kind, and down-to-earth. The type of person I always connect with and which is rare to find in the hyper-competitive, ego-driven world of desperate, fragile Ph.D students. We didn’t talk all the time, but every so often we’d see each other at the annual conference in our field before I made my career change last year.
And now? Now she was posting against the rights of trans children. I looked through the comment thread quickly amassing under her post. I spotted at least a handful of “friends” who were clearly trans-exclusionary radical “feminists” (TERFs). The ones who imagine themselves on a crusade of righteousness as they protect “real” (read: cis) women and girls from the supposed dangers of “men” (trans women) in their midst. These TERF friends acted as a pack, liking each other’s comments disparaging trans women, cruelly reacting with laughing emojis at the valid concerns, alarm, and growing anger posed by me and others. It was like they had inducted her into the world of virulent anti-trans paranoia from out of nowhere, and she had bought right in, hook, line, and sinker.
There’s a term for when this happens in right-wing extremist movements, when supposedly ordinary (white) people become indoctrinated with bigoted lies and distorted research to justify oppressing large swaths of the population. It’s called getting redpilled, after the plot in The Matrix where Keanu Reeves is given a choice between a blue and red pill, the red pill opening his eyes to the previously-unfathomable dystopian reality he’s been living in. I think we need a similar term to describe how self-identified feminists, who see themselves as fighting for justice and liberation for oppressed people, end up espousing an ideology of anti-trans hatred.
Because you see, my friend was certainly pinkpilled.
Some will think my comparisons between redpilling and this phenomenon I call pinkpilling are unfair. People who loudly proclaim getting redpilled are often misogynist “men’s rights’ activists”, and neo-Nazis, and other flavors of white supremacists. How could cis women obsessed with the genitals of strangers and purporting to care about “the children” be linked to something so violently sinister?
I’ll tell you.
The comparison is justified when TERFs routinely dox trans women on the internet, harassing, stalking, and posting their personal information in an effort to “out” them as trans, as well as forwarding this information to employers.
The comparison is justified when TERFs contribute to the poor mental health of trans women by aggressively lambasting them as no different from cis male sexual predators in waiting, channelling their energy into kicking another marginalized group when they’re down rather than fighting the actual cis male sexual predators they’re convinced trans women secretly are.
The comparison is justified when TERFs make trans women and girls into a convenient scapegoat for all their projected trauma and anger about living in rape culture.
And not only do TERFs threaten and bully trans women; they do it to cis women as well. I myself was threatened with legal action by a well-known TERF after publishing an academic journal article about trans women’s rights and the history of trans-exclusionary “feminism”. As we saw in the London Pride 2018 parade, TERFs are feeling increasingly emboldened to dehumanize trans women based on their own insecurities, anxieties, and wounds.
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This is why we can’t stay silent about the menacing of trans women and girls. For as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously declared, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
I spoke up to the person I’d considered my friend. I tried to reason with her from my position as another cis woman (and holder of a Ph.D in gender studies) who also cared about rape culture. I tried to avoid making her shut down while also wanting her to take accountability, especially as someone pursuing a gender studies doctorate. She parotted the TERF arguments about how she didn’t want her daughter to be in danger by having to change clothes in front of “boys” in a locker room. Besides correcting her misgendering, I told her I didn’t think anyone should have to change around anyone else, and if that was a fight she wanted to take on as a feminist in favor of girls’ autonomy over their bodies, I’d be right there fighting with her.
Our debate became circular, as it did with others. She was convinced that her daughters were in danger of being harmed by “boys”. She rejected how others of us conceptualized sex and gender based on academic research but also on our lived experiences, either in our friendships and relationships with trans people or through being trans people. I asked her and her new pinkpilling friends if they actually knew any trans women, knowing that even if they did, they could tokenize the trans people they’d met the same way Sarah Palin can be a raging homophobe while claiming she “has gay friends”. But I couldn’t help but think, out of naivety or well-developed empathy or both, how unimaginable it would be for them to engage in these wholecloth character assassinations if they could see the pain in a trans loved one’s eyes.
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The friend didn’t come around. And I told her, painfully yet without regret, that our friendship wouldn’t be able to survive if this was really how she thought about trans people. Perhaps it really is too late for her to wake up from this strange cult of anti-trans obsession and bigotry; only time will tell. But my hope is that for all her Facebook friends lurking on the comment thread, perhaps less sure of where they stood, the reasoning of those of us who stood up for trans-inclusionary feminism made an imprint on their minds and souls.
None of us can escape the sacred duty of telling the truth with compassion yet surety, even in the face of being uncomfortable — even in the face of losing friendships. I mourn losing the connection I’d shared with my friend before she got pinkpilled. But I will never mourn standing up for my trans sisters.
[Featured Image: A person standing behind a wall. The camera sees the left half of their face. Source: pexels.com]