Recently, literary magazine The Antioch Review published an article by Dan Harris called “The Sacred Androgen: The Transgender Debate”. This article is deeply transphobic - this post is my response.
The first “wtf” moment of Harris’ article is when he begins right away referring to trans people as “TGs”. This is objectifying, dehumanizing, othering, and basically makes us sound like a weird class of alien people, setting up the article for its ultimate transphobic motif. Is it really so hard to just say “trans people”?
Oh but he starts the article saying trans people still have our humanity and by citing some of the awful shit that happens to trans people like ok Mr. Harris you must not be transphobic if you’re acknowledging that society continues to fuck trans people over. This will protect you from any response that labels you a transphobe, right?
Ok so after that quick aside, Harris launches into some deeply problematic stuff. He says that trans people are “entangling” us with our pleas for proper pronouns. He calls this plea “Byzantine” and “patronising” and a “snare”. Yes, my desire to not be called “he” or “sir” is so complex and patronizing. I’m sorry our desires to not be misgendered are so inconvenient for cis people like yourself, you must really spend so much of your time agonizing over how badly trans people treat you Mr. Harris because we ask you to use our pronouns. How many trans people have you met Mr. Harris? How many times have you actually had to think about pronoun usage? Does this really pose a problem in your life? Compare that to how troubling it is for a trans person to be routinely misgendered - it literally feels like a knife in the gut. And yet my desire to not be knifed in the gut is “Byzantine”.
Next, Harris says it’s “insulting” to use the “pejorative” term “cisgender”. He defines it as “those of us who accept, however unenthusiastically, our birth gender”. But this is wrong. It’s not about enthusiasm or comfort or anything like that, nor is it about “accepting your birth gender”. It literally means “non trans”. Mr Harris, are you a trans person? If not, then you’re cis. It’s not an insult. It’s a description. It’s not meant to define your entirety as a person, you are surely more than just a mere Not Trans Person. I mean, it’s in the Oxford English DIctionary. It’s used by academics. It’s completely neutral. The only reason it feels like an insult is because it’s not a term you would choose to describe yourself because you don’t identify as “not trans”. But tough luck.
According to Harris trans people shouldn’t be upset that cis people are “curious” about our bodies. But the fact that Harris can’t see the problem with this curiosity just hammers home the Cis Blinders that Harris has on. Of course he can’t see the problem because Harris has never been reduced to just his genitals, or been gawked at like a freakshow, or have had a horrible time dating because of people rudely asking about his private parts. You know who else is curious? Kids are curious about why someone has a scar on their face but guess what? We teach them to be polite and not bring it up unless the context is right. Why can’t Mr Harris learn that simple lesson when it comes to people’s genitals?
Furthermore, Harris complains that trans people “ridicule” the blunders cis people make when dealing with trans people. Really? You’re gonna give us shit for critiquing y’all for fucking up? Like, would you say black folks are “ridiculing” white folks for their racism or merely pointing out all the ways white people have been fucking up?
Harris’ prime example of trans people run amok? Janet Mock correcting a talk show host for saying she was “born a boy”. Oh how horrible, Mr. Harris! A trans woman trying to create some space for linguistic nuance in order to correct systematic cis-sexist assumptions about the nature of gender identity - yup - wow, how horrible of Ms. Mock for attempting to educate folks about the best language use possible.
Mr Harris is upset that trans people are attempting to “dictate the terms of the debate” with our bullying. Um, I’m sorry Mr Harris that our attempts at controlling our own narrative are so irksome to you. Yes, because it’s not like disability activists are doing the same thing. Or anti-racism activists are doing the same thing. Marginalized people have always sought to defines the terms of their own debate because if we don’t do it for ourselves then the non-marginalized folks will do it for us, and we all know how great they are at doing that. Mr Harris is upset because cis people are “thinkers” too and their opinion is just as valid as trans folks. Except it’s really not. Just like a black person is better positioned to point out racism, a trans person is better poised to point out transphobia.
Wow, Harris just keeps the transphobe train running full steam. He writes: “the whole phenomenon of switching one’s gender is a mass delusion”. Oh boy. Here we go.
Harris’ first argument for trans being a delusion is that Society apparently disapproves of plastic surgery. Which is news to me. But anyway, the argument is that Society makes fun of celebrities who have too much plastic surgery. And Harris’ tries to make the analogy that gender surgery is simply akin to plastic surgery, the bad kind, the “superficial, cosmetic” kind.
But wait - has Harris thought this through? A better analogy for trans surgery is corrective plastic surgery such as a person without a nose receiving plastic surgery to make their face look more normal or surgery to correct a cleft pallate. Sure, it’s just about “appearances” but when your appearance is so deeply tied into your psychological well-being because you’re tired of being stared at in public like a freak it’s no longer “merely cosmetic”. Look, trans people sometimes kill themselves because their anguish with their bodies is so great. That is nothing like a celebrity getting a fifth nose job.
Harris also alludes to Michael Jackson making himself white (which I won’t get into how wrong Harris is about Jackson’s reasons for undergoing those treatments) and says that one is “self-mutilation” but the other is justified. I recently did a post on why trans-race is not the same as trans-gender so I won’t get into it. But needless to say Harris’ essential problem here is that because he is cis he can’t imagine a motive for wanting facial feminization surgery that isn’t shallow. Like he just can’t imagine what it’s like to have gender dysphoria. He just can’t imagine the mental anguish having a prominent brow-bone causes some trans women or the pain and anguish of trans men having to bind their chests. If he can’t see the essential humanity and justness of performing surgeries to alleviate such suffering, then he is the deluded one.
Furthermore, he tries to make an analogy with celebrity-plastic surgery with trans people taking hormones. The disanalogy is so obvious that I won’t belabor the point but clearly Harris is grasping at straws. Like Harris just can’t imagine the difference between body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria. And furthermore, his whole premise is that society looks down on plastic surgery so we should also look down on trans surgery. But the premise is false. Plastic surgery is widely accepted as normal and healthy. A 50 year old woman getting a face lift is perfectly normal not a pariah. A woman getting breast implants is not universally scorned by society. Harris is confusing the disdain we have for people getting excessive plastic surgery with the acceptance we have with people getting appropriate plastic surgery to simply make themselves more happy in their bodies.
In a nutshell, Harris is reviving the old radical feminist trope about body modification being immoral. I won’t belabor the point because all we need to do is point to the value of autonomy in American society to realize that actually bodily autonomy and body modification is perfectly acceptable to Americans. So say that we must accept our bodies as they are at birth is deeply conservative and not at all in line with an ethical system that says it’s ok for us to autonomously modify our bodies so long as we are not hurting other people.
Harris’s brings up “evidence” that some trans women get breasts implants that are apparently too large for Harris to approve of. Did Harris do his research on trans women from watching porn? How many trans women does he know? The number of trans women who don’t want super large breast implants vastly outweighs the number of trans women that do, yet Harris doesn’t highlight that because it doesn’t fit into his narrative of trans women just being superficial caricatures of femininity, a transphobic TERF trope that goes all the way back to Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire. But in order to debunk this trope all it takes is...wait for it...actually getting to know the diversity of the trans community and how many trans women don’t want to be caricatures of femininity and many trans women have butch gender expressions, just like cis women. But no, Harris only chooses to engage with a stereotype because that’s what he’s learned from watching cis-media or from his own personal experiences.
And notice also how this attack is only against trans women. Where is the critique of trans men hitting the gym in order to beef up and attain a superhero body? Yeah, that’s not problematic yet trans women wanting a bigger butt is somehow so deeply problematic. Once again Harris cherry-picks his anecdotes to reinforce stereotypes about the contrived and over-zealous femininity of trans women, which belies the truth and also conveniently ignores trans men.
Harris seems to pick up his “knowledge” of the True Trans Experience by watching exploitative TV journalism such as the tv show Botched. Watching TV is so much easier than actually going out and interviewing hundreds of trans women in order to form a representative sample of such a diverse community. Where else does Harris get his knowledge of what trans women are really like? Craigslist. Cuz yeah. Seriously. He cites Craigslist. But any trans women who’ve been on craigslist know that the types of trans people on Craigslist are not representative of the general community since like most trans people are smart enough to realize that Craigslist is creepy.
Harris is basically just regurgitating classic TERF ideology: the idea that if only society was more liberal about gender expression then trans people wouldn’t feel the need to transition and take hormones/get surgery. Harris assumes that if only men were allowed to wear dresses then trans people wouldn’t exist. This is incredibly naive and has been debunked by trans scholars time and time again. Even if some trans folks do transition because of wanted freedoms in gender expression, the vast majority of trans folks have issues with their bodies not their clothing. And besides, suppose a trans women wanted to transition simply because they want the freedom to have long hair, wear women’s clothing, makeup, etc. Do you know how weird it would be to essentially pass as a woman yet for everyone including yourself to think of you as a man? Like it or not we just don’t live in a society where men can pass as women yet function in society as a man. If you pass as a woman then it makes perfect sense why you’d want to switch pronouns and legally change your name. It’d also make perfect sense why you would want hair removal and hormones because if you are wearing women’s clothing and you still look like a man then your chances of being violently attacked or harassed go way up. But all that is besides the point because most trans people don’t transition because of gender expression - it’s usually about our bodies and the clothing is secondary.
Harris pushes for “androgyny” as the ideal state of human gender expression, somehow insinuating that this is what True Feminism advocates for. But clearly Harris knows nothing about the power of women and men and non-binary folks to reclaim the power of femininity as a genuine mode of authentic self-expression.
Onto trans kids. Harris claims that more and more parents are pushing their kids to transition when they show the “slightest hint” of gender nonconformity. WTF? What planet does Harris live on? Where oh where are there parents eager for their kids to transition? Like that just isn’t a reality. Most parents would do anything OTHER than encourage their kid to transition. Harris is just plain wrong on this front and perpetuates a dangerous talking point about trans kids: that there would be less trans kids if we simply let kids explore their gender expression. But the truth is that most parents who “let” their kid transition are doing it because they see the extreme anguish their kid would be if they didn’t allow them to transition. Harris is under the false delusion that parents are “badgering” their kids to transition when in fact it’s the opposite: it’s the kids doing the badgering and the parents reluctantly going along.
Harris claims, absurdly, that children begin hormone therapy as young as four. That’s so wildly inaccurate that I have no reason to trust anything else Harris says on the matter. Most trans kids go on puberty blockers in their teens before they start hormone therapy.
Harris talks about the problems of the “trapped in the wrong body” metaphor without any appreciation of how modern trans discourse is moving away from that metaphor with most trans folks I know saying how it’s wrong to use that metaphor to apply to all trans folks because many don’t feel that’s an appropriate metaphor. But because Harris gets all his knowledge of trans folks from cis-media he doesn’t appreciate the nuances of discourse within the trans community.
Harris gets all philosophical critiquing the mind-body problem with respect to the metaphor without appreciating how trans folks often relied on this metaphor because (1) explaining dysphoria to cis people is difficult and (2) it became an acceptable way to get past gatekeeping nonsense in order to get access to HRT/surgery. It become a cliche even within the trans community because we needed a way to pass the hurdles of gatekeeping therapists and doctors and that metaphor is one the professionals would accept.
Harris waxes philosophical like a stoner in college about how trans people are really just creating another problem. He asks, naively, “Why is one gender better than the other?” IT JUST IS! That’s the nature of dysphoria. But Harris’ Cis Blinders prevent him from understanding or empathizing with gender dysphoric individuals. He writes: “In being true to themselves, aren’t they being false to their own bodies?” Um, it’s the other way around. Their body is FALSE. The body is the problem. The body is what is causing the pain and the anguish. Harris can’t understand that because his own body seems so normal and obvious why it would be wrong for HIM to reject his male body.
Harris tries to argue that gender transition is pointless because “An attempted suicide rate of a staggering 41 percent suggests that many TGs experience profound disillusion over the fact that their problems were not resolved during their transition”. But Harris simply hasn’t done his research. If he did any attempt at research beyond watching reality tv or surfing Craigslist he would have discovered that gender transition especially medical transition is correlated with lower rates of suicide below the 41% number and furthermore, the research shows that most suicidal ideation and depression stems from transphobia not being trans itself. The research shows clearly that when trans people have safe supportive loving environments to transition in, their mental health is roughly the same as the cisgender population. Harris writes “If TGs initiated this journey to find mental health, there is no evidence whatsoever that they achieve it”. How the FUCK did this pass peer review? “No evidence whatsoever” means that Harris couldn’t spend ten minutes on google scholar looking this shit up. There is plenty of evidence, Mr Harris, but you just don’t know about it because you are a poor excuse for a scholar.
God I just can’t go on. There is so much BS is the Harris article I’m afraid it would take dozens of more pages to deconstruct everything problematic in the article. And this is just a mere blog post, not a scholarly engagement. But I hope my counter-review reveals the essential problem with Harris and his deeply transphobic hit piece: it’s based on stereotypes and a lack of knowledge about the diversity of the trans community. Almost everyone likes to think that, oh, I met a trans woman last week, or, oh, I watched a documentary on TV last week, so therefore I can talk confidently about “TGs”. But once again the article was a hit piece on trans women. No mention of trans men at all, of course. TERFs somehow don’t realize that trans men exist in equal numbers to trans women. And no mention of non-binary folks. It’s a common tactic of TERFs to focus merely on trans women as the “problem” with transgenderism, so much so that many call TERFs TWEFs, standing for Trans woman exclusionary feminist, because so many radical feminists only seem to have problems with trans women, but say nothing about the parallel of trans men or non-binary folks.
This is an old strategy. There is absolutely NOTHING new in Harris’ article. He just simply rehashes the same tired talking points from Raymond’s 1979 The Transsexual Empire. The only thing new in the Harris piece is the pop culture from which Harris derives his stereotypes of trans people. I mean, seriously, he uses his experience in AOL chatrooms to speak authoritatively about the Nature of trans women, ignoring the true diversity of the trans community.
The Antioch should be ashamed of itself for publishing such a poorly researched and ultimately hateful article. But as Julia Serano predicted, the trans backlash against this article is going to be chalked up to “extreme trans activists” bullying academics and stifling academic free speech. But we are just trying to take control of our own narrative, to fight back against the stereotypes and accusations of “mass delusion”. Harris claims to be “supportive” of the right for trans people to transition but ultimately his article is just another attempt by cis people to discourage transition, something cis people have been doing since forever.