This week’s Sunday Review section of the New York Times has as its headline article an opinion piece by feminist academic and film director Dr. Elinor Burkett, entitled “What Makes a Woman?” The tagline summarizing the post is “There is a collision course between feminists and transgender activists.” This of course frames trans activists as antifeminists, making it clear at once that this piece is a manifesto of trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, ideology. It’s written with a sympathetic tone, and Burkett positions herself as someone who wants to support trans people. She claims she just can’t because we are seeking to undo the hard work she and other feminists of her generation have done.
(One way you can tell that Burkett is a TERF is that she calls the term TERF a “trans insult.” In fact, the term was coined by radical feminists who are not transphobic, to distinguish themselves from bigots. But TERFs inevitably claim that the term is a trans slur and that they should be referred to simply as “feminists.”)
Burkett’s piece is the second-most emailed NY Times article at the moment I’m writing this, and the comments section shows it’s struck a huge chord with transphobes. Since so many people are talking about the piece, and since it’s such a painful read for trans friends of mine, as it was for me, I’m going to present a take-down of her arguments here, as a sort of public service. If you know people who are talking about or citing this article, you can just link them here rather than having to wade through and counter the key points yourself.
First off, let me show you the official headshot of Dr. Burkett that appears on film festival programs. As you can see, she is wearing lipstick, has dyed her hair red, and is wearing a floral top. She clearly presents herself in a feminine manner to the media. But her “What Makes a Woman?” piece starts and finishes by critiquing Caitlyn Jenner for being presented in a glamorous feminine fashion in Vanity Fair.
Burkett decries Caitlyn Jenner’s wearing of “a cleavage-boosting corset” and “thick mascara,” although such things are typical for those pictured in Vanity Fair. Burkett particularly focuses on Jenner’s statement that a reason she wanted to gender transition was that so that she would be able “to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off.” Burkett concludes the piece by scolding, “I want that for Bruce, now Caitlyn, too. But I also want her to remember: Nail polish does not a woman make.”
Let’s look at several of the key problems with this framing. First, there’s the ridiculous assertion that Caitlyn Jenner believes in some way that wearing nail polish makes a person female, or is something only a woman can do. Were that the case, gender transitions to female would be extremely inexpensive, and thousands of unsuspecting dudes in bands would now find themselves women. . . Very few people over the age of four believe that putting on nailpolish literally defines a person as female, and portraying Caitlyn Jenner as actually believing this insults her by presenting her as having an infantile understanding of gender.
Looking beyond that obvious point, the tactic Burkett takes in this opinion piece is to critique Caitlyn Jenner as a means of critiquing all trans people. This presumes that all trans people are alike, so that what Caitlyn Jenner does and thinks represents what all trans people do and think. By this logic, all cis women think and act like Kim Kardashian–something we can presume Burkett does not believe. But Burkett ignores the fact that many trans people have spoken about how Jenner’s experience is not at all like theirs. She does not acknowledge, for example, that trans people have expressed concern that the way Caitlyn Jenner is presented in Vanity Fair perpetuates the idea that to be “successful” in a gender transition, a trans person must want and get a ton of plastic surgery to make them look just like a cis person, and must appear conventionally feminine or masculine.
Not only is Caitlyn Jenner not representative of all trans people, her experience is representative of vanishingly few. Rare is the person who has the kind of money to be able to access such medical and aesthetic transition services. Jenner also enjoys privilege as a white woman. She’s a Republican. She has a binary gender identity where many trans individuals do not. And she is conventionally feminine in her post-transition gender presentation. Many binary trans women and men are tomboys or feminine men. But by presenting some interview quotes and fashion photos of Caitlyn Jenner as representing us all, Burkett frames all binary gender transitioners as walking gender stereotypes.
Another thing you may have noticed that Burkett does in her concluding scold is to refer to Jenner as “Bruce, now Caitlyn.” While better than refusing to acknowledge Jenner’s transition at all, throughout the piece, Burkett makes sure to refer to Caitlyn as Bruce, Mr. Jenner and “he” as often as possible. The phrasing, “Bruce, now Caitlyn” also puts Jenner’s deadname first, centering it while giving lip service to acknowledging her as Caitlyn. To use a trans person’s former name and to use the wrong pronoun when speaking of a trans person’s past are classic tactics used to belie our gender identities and presentations. It’s cruel, it’s rude, and it’s against the NY Times’ own style guide, but Burkett is allowed to get away with it.
Moving on, the next thing Burkett does is to present trans people as having as a core ideology the belief that we are born with binary male or female sexed brains. Burkett frames us as having the goal of convincing society that brain sex requires people to act in a gender stereotyped manner–for example, that being born with a female brain makes a person bad at science and math, good at nurturing, and into frilly dresses.
Now, it is true that Caitlyn Jenner makes sense of her identity as a woman by saying, as Burkett quotes, “My brain is much more female than it is male.” There are many binary trans people who use this sort of language to try to explain what it feels like to have a gender identity that doesn’t match one’s assigned sex. But please note that the reason trans people do this so often is because cis people constantly demand that we explain how we know we are trans, and where our trans identities come from.
Thirty years ago, when I was in college, straight people were always asking gay men and lesbians how they were sure they were “homosexual,” and what made them gay. Back then, lots of LGB people were very interested in brain studies that claimed to show that gay men had brain characteristics similar to those of women, while lesbians had brain areas that were similar to those of men. Today, that just sounds silly, and scientific exploration of the idea that lesbians think like men and that gay men have girl brains has largely petered out, because people no longer demand to know what biological factor could possibly explain sexual orientation. With the depathologization of same-sex attraction, the search for some biological basis to explain it has faded away.
But when it comes to gender identity, many cis people still refuse to accept a person’s self-report of how they feel. They demand that we “prove” our gender identities, and explain our “compulsion” to gender transition. There are scientists studying this question by examining brains, and so some trans people turn to this idea when asked to justify themselves.
What Burkett does not acknowledge is that there are many trans people, myself included, who are quite critical of the idea that there is some simple brain center that determines gender identity. There are many, like myself, who discuss how so much of the neurological research into “brain sex” has been deeply flawed, and used to bolster misogyny. What we argue is that gender identity is a deeply complex matter, that gender varies over time and between cultures, and that while you will find minor sex differences in specific parts of people’s brains, the brain is a plastic organ that is shaped by our lived experiences.
What the differences found in the brains of deceased men and women show is that we die with slightly different brains, not that we are born with our gender identities stamped in some simple way on our hypothalamus or some other brain center. The fact that trans women’s brains resemble those of cis women’s reveals shared identity and experiences, but the factors being studied as differing between women and men are tiny. “Brain sex” is a complex and subtle thing–not some matter of pink brain centers that are obsessed with makeup and blue ones that refuse to ask for directions. In any case, neurologists’ understandings of sexed brains are still very limited and contested, and ordinary people can’t be expected to parse their scientific articles.
What we urge is that cis society stop requiring that we somehow prove that our gender identities have some biological basis, and just respect our self-report of what our gender identities are.
So later in the piece, when Burkett goes on to report on the work of feminist neurologists who say that sex differences in the brain develop over a lifetime of experiences, she is actually arguing the exact same thing that many trans activists argue. But Burkett is oblivious to this fact, because she has stereotyped all trans people. She presents us as all as believing men and women are both with vastly different brains, that we were born with female brains in male bodies (or vice versa), and that this requires us to act as hyperfeminine trans women (or hypermasculine trans men).
I suppose Burkett must believe that nonbinary trans people believe they were born with androgynous brains. But she doesn’t say anything about this–probably because she sees androgyny as a morally good counter to gender stereotypes, so has no motivation to bring up the topic here.
Hormones and Emotions
OK, next. Burkett takes a moment to sneer at Chelsea Manning, saying she “hopped on Ms. Jenner’s gender train on Twitter, gushing, ‘I am so much more aware of my emotions, much more sensitive emotionally (and physically)’.” I do find it ironic when a feminist seeks to discredit another woman by accusing her of “gushing” overemotionally. . .
Chelsea Manning recently started hormone therapy, after much struggle with the military. Apparently Elinor Burkett believes that hormones produce no effects, or only affect physical things like breast or beard growth, so that to say hormones influence one’s experience of emotions is an antifeminist delusion. This is just silly, because you don’t have to be trans gender to see that sex steroids influence emotions. Tons of cis women are familiar with the emotional lability of PMS. Sure, this fact has been used by misogynists to frame women as too moody to take seriously, and this is ludicrous. But you can put your fingers in your ears and go “La-la-la” all you want to when people report that they cry less easily after having their ovaries removed, or cry more easily now that they are taking estrogen and progesterone to gender transition–it doesn’t make the fact that this happens go away.
It seems from this section of her screed that Burkett believes any discussion of embodiment in relation to gender is evil sexism. Saying “I cry more easily with high levels of estrogen and progesterone in my body” is equivalent to saying, “A woman can never be president because her hormones make her too irrational.” Burkett frames Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning as representatives of all trans people, and as what they are saying as evil. They are voicing “hoary stereotypes” that have been “used to repress women for centuries.” And worse, they are convincing progressives that this is a good thing, undoing all the hard work of feminism.
Trans Women as Sexist Men
Next, Burkett comes out with a truly vile and nasty paragraph, which I will replicate here so we can unpack it:
“People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women. . . shouldn’t get to define us. That’s something men have been doing for much too long. And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman.”
Notice what Burkett is doing here. Trans women are called first “people who haven’t lived their whole lives as women,” and then flat out “men.” Trans women are “men” who are trampling on the rights of “women,” and “women” of course here means cis women. “Transgender people” are in this paragraph all trans women. And by asserting their dignity as trans people, trans women are proving themselves to be really men in that they are seeking to control (cis) women.
Now what, exactly, are trans women trying to force cis women to do? Burkett states that trans activists are not just asking for equal treatment as are “African-Americans, Chicanos, gays and women”–instead they are “insulting” (cis) women by “demanding that women reconceptionalize ourselves.” Apparently Burkett believes that trans women not only assert, but demand all women agree, that gendered behavior is not socially constructed at all but is inborn and fixed. Gender roles are eternal and innate, and thus biology compels that all girls love playing dress-up, and all boys love sports!
This is ridiculous on so many levels it’s hard to list them all. First off, since we have to think about gender a lot in order to figure out our own identities, most trans people I have encountered know a whole lot more about what social construction means and how it operates than do most cis people I encounter. The chances of a random trans person–be they a man, woman, nonbinary or agender–being a feminist is also much higher than that of a random cis person being wiling to call themself a feminist.
I know hundreds of trans people. Of the binary trans women I know, some–a minority–have the narrative of having been very feminine children who constantly wanted to play dress-up and house. But exactly zero of those individuals would say “real girls must only want to play with dolls and not chemistry sets.”
Compared to the cis people I know, my trans acquaintances are much more likely to admire and support gender-transgressive children and adults, whether the gender-transgressive individuals are cis or trans. (And studies show this is true of trans people generally, not just my personal friends.)
I have no idea where Burkett gets her bizarre idea that trans women demand hyperfemininity of cis women. (Except I do–it’s a common slander perpetuated by TERFs.)
Gender Socialization and Brain Sex Revisited
Burkett underlines her positioning of trans women as men by repeating the old TERF saw that gender is determined by socialization, not identity. Burkett claims that Caitlyn Jenner and nameless other trans women have not experienced sexism in their lives as Burkett has, and that therefore “their female identity is not my female identity.” This implies a trans woman doesn’t know what a “real” female identity is, while Burkett does.
Burkett either doesn’t understand what gender identity is, or pretends not to. There is immense diversity of experience among people who identify as women, by age and race/ethnicity and sexual orientation and a wide variety of other factors. But this doesn’t mean some categories of women have a less truly female gender identity than others. For example, Burkett says that part of what creates a female identity is being relatively poorly paid at one’s job. Now, since white women earn more than African American, Latina or Native American women in America, does this mean that as a white woman, Burkett has a less real female identity than do women of color?
I don’t imagine this parallel has occurred to her.
Anyway, what Burkett says is that trans women live with male privilege: male earnings, male freedom from fear of sexual assault, the male privilege of being treated as a subject and not a sex object. And, she says, this socialization shapes their brains. So in fact, trans women must have male brains, not female ones.
I’m struck by the illogic of framing trans women as “having a male brain” while simultaneously claiming that saying there’s such a thing as brain sex is a sexist act being perpetuated by trans activists. But beyond that, there are two fallacies here. The first is that Burkett ignores how we are active participants in our own socialization. In fact, socializing messages are received quite differently by different people. And a person who identifies as a girl or woman will attend to socializing messages about girls and women.
The second fallacy comes from framing all trans women as being like Caitlyn Jenner: as living for many decades being perceived by others as masculine men, and as having started their transitions very recently. In fact, trans women who have been perceived as feminine boys or men will have dealt with lifetimes of bullying, harassment, and unequal treatment at school and work because of their femininity. And whatever her past experience, once a trans girl or woman comes out, she gets to experience all the (uniformly negative) social things Burkett lists as female socializing experiences at levels typically much higher than those faced by cis women. Getting stared at by men. Fearing sexual and physical violence. Job discrimination. And socialization doesn’t end in young adulthood–all of us are always having our behavior shaped by the socializing messages we receive from those around us.
What Burkett would say about the socialization experience of binary trans individuals who come out as children in supportive families and are treated as their identified sex from a young age I do not know, because she doesn’t address them. In her NY Times piece, all trans women are Caitlyn Jenner.
Is a Woman Defined by a Uterus?
Another topic which Burkett treats with eye-popping logical inconsistencies is the issue of whether a woman is defined as a person with a vagina, uterus and ovaries. On the one hand, Burkett asserts that trans people who say they were “born in the wrong body” are offensively “reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas.” In fact, many trans people critique understandings of us as “born in the wrong body.” I am one of many who has written about how it’s not my body but society that is the problem.
And Burkett is part of that social problem, because while she sometimes asserts biology is irrelevant, she also states that trans women can never understand what it means to truly be women because they have never “woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before.” Suddenly, in a scenario where it can be used to discredit trans women, having a uterus and ovaries becomes definitional to being a “real woman.” This implies that cis women who were never fertile are not real women, and is offensive and absurd.
In fact, most trans people argue that bodies do not determine if we are really women or men. It’s gender identity that is determinative for us, not genitals or reproductive organs. A cis woman who has a hysterectomy or mastectomy does not become unwomaned by the surgery. A trans man does not need genital reconstruction to deserve to be respected as a man. And a nonbinary person is not “really” a woman or a man because they were born with a vagina or a penis.
Can We Speak Differently About Genitals?
Eventually, Burkett gets around to talking about trans people other than binary trans women. It’s two-thirds of the way into this diatribe that centers transmisogyny, but in the end, those under the trans umbrella who are not trans women finally get called out as oppressors as well. The reason? We don’t want to equate women with vaginas.
One of the things that makes life difficult for trans people today is the way that so many people, organizations and institutions treat genitals as synonymous with gender. Most trans people in the U.S. have not had genital reconstructive surgery, and many of us have no interest in it. Many of us are uncomfortable talking about our genitals with others (and really, so are most cis people, even though the stakes for them are lower). Often, we use terms other than vagina or penis or clitoris to name our genitalia in private discussions with partners or friends, because those terms are so loaded with gender expectations by our society.
Burkett mocks the use of alternative genital and reproductive terms in her piece as “politically correct” nonsense.
But what gets Burkett all riled up is that there are people who were assigned female at birth–genderqueer, agender, and transmasculine–who are trying to raise consciousness about more trans-inclusive ways to talk about anatomy and gender in pro-choice organizations. Not everyone seeking an abortion identifies as a woman, and the difficulties of seeking to terminate a pregnancy are compounded for such people by constant misgendering, and ignorance of the very idea of using alternate terms to describe anatomy. To Burkett, an effort to raise consciousness about these individuals’ experience and shift the language employed constitutes some kind of war on women and attack on feminist leaders that will endanger reproductive freedom.
Burkett is apparently in love with the word “vagina” and using it as a synecdoche for “woman.” She is indignant that many trans people of all sorts have gotten tired of the play The Vagina Monologues, performed annually at colleges and women’s centers all over the country since the late 1990s. Yes, trans people critique performances that equate vaginas with womanhood–but not because we are antifeminist, as Burkett frames us. It is because we too are feminists, and we expect more of our feminist cis siblings.
When trans activists critiqued the choice to call a feminist event “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas,” the goal was not, as Burkett believes, to turn back the clock on feminist progress. It was to urge feminism forward toward greater inclusiveness.
Do Trans People Oppose Women’s Institutions?
Another source of panic for Burkett is the idea that trans people are doing damage to institutions such as women’s colleges. She notes that there are students at some women’s colleges who do not identify as women, and that that some individuals at women’s colleges use the term “siblinghood” as an alternative to “sisterhood” to acknowledge them. And she reports that there are some trans male students who ask their professors to stop using the pronoun “she” to refer to a generic, abstract student at the college.
The thing is, the focus of most trans advocacy has been on convincing women’s colleges to admit trans women, which is as it should be. Most trans people are fine with the idea of there being women’s spaces and institutions, so long as they don’t exclude trans women. And many of us have in fact written critically of trans male students who decide to continue to attend a women’s college after coming out, and then want the colleges to center their experiences as men. That’s male privilege–not young trans women daring to assert that they should have a right to be considered for admission by woman’s colleges.
Who Owns Feminism?
The last segment of Burkett’s diatribe before she concludes by recapping her dissing of Caitlyn Jenner is both infuriating and smarmy. In it, she discusses who is moving feminism forward, and whether trans people should be welcomed to that project. The smarmy answer is, in her words, that “we’ll happily, lovingly welcome them to the fight” if “they” do the right thing. The feminist “we” is cis gender, and the “they” seeking admission are trans people.
In this section of her piece, Burkett writes as if trans people didn’t exist until a couple of years ago, and up until then, all the good work of seeking gender equality has been done by cis women. She goes on for a while about the revolutionary nature of the amazing work people she describes as “women like me” have done in advancing equity and freedom. She describes this as including “smashing binary views of male and female well before most Americans had ever heard the word ‘transgender’ or used the word ‘binary’ as an adjective.”
Apparently it has not occurred to Burkett that many trans people have been involved in feminist advocacy for much of their lives. That some of those who have been fighting gender stereotypes as long as she has did so because they had or have nonbinary identities. That some did so fighting side by side with cis women in organizations like NOW, and that others fought from the margins, because they were excluded from mainstream women’s organizations, either because of their gender presentation/gender identity/sex assigned at birth, or because those organizations excluded them for other reasons, such as their race. In fact, a multitude of young and old people with all sorts of identities other than cis gender are involved in gender activism and scholarship at this very moment, without noticing that they do not carry Burkett’s seal of approval.
Burkett doesn’t even acknowledge that among the people fighting gender stereotypes, there have been, and still are, cis men.
In any case, Burkett posits that cis women own feminism, and they have the right and the power to decide whether to admit trans people.
What most underlies Burkett’s stance in my mind is cissexism: the belief that cis people’s gender identities are authentic and real while trans people’s are questionable, coupled with the belief that cis people have the right to sit in judgment over trans people’s gender expressions, and decide whether to acknowledge a trans person’s gender identity. Burkett has positioned herself as having the right to decide who is acknowledged as a woman, or as a feminist, or as having a “real” gender identity.
Fortunately, Burkett and her fellow TERFs do not in fact get to own feminism or to set the rules for gender authenticity. All of us are collectively involved in these projects, and the number of us coming out under the trans umbrella is rapidly expanding. The number of young cis people who are trans allies has been expanding in the same way.
Burkett and her ilk can make our lives more painful and difficult, but they can’t make us disappear.
What Does Burkett Want?
The really ironic thing is that trans advocates share a good deal of what Elinor Burkett at least claims that she wants. And that is that we agree that confining people to gender stereotypes is bad, that gender roles are socially constructed and change over time, and that we can and should work to change things about contemporary gender norms because they disadvantage women, cis and trans. As I’ve noted, the percentage of trans people who agree with this is higher than the percentage of cis people who do.
The other thing Burkett says she wants from trans people, before she and her cis compatriots admit us to the club, is that we affirm this statement: “So long as humans produce X and Y chromosomes that lead to the development of penises and vaginas, almost all of us will be ‘assigned’ [binary sexes] at birth.” This one a lot of people might just shrug at, but that I reject.
I am intersex by birth. It’s vital to me that we stop naturalizing the idea that sex is a binary, when it is a spectrum. It’s important that we acknowledge the medical violence done to thousands of intersex children every year, in an attempt to make our sex variant bodies conform to this ideology. And it’s high time we stopped putting imposed gender markers on birth certificates, as we’ve stopped having doctors chose a race marker for birth certificates. Burkett wants us to acknowledge the social construction and cultural variability of gender, but denies that sex is socially constructed and culturally variable. This betrays an ignorance not just of intersex experience, but of the fact that many world societies have divided the sex spectrum into three or more sexes, and that the binary sex system we see as natural is in fact ideological, only one system among many.
It seems to me that what Burkett really wants is to stop the progress in social acceptance trans people have been winning, at least in more progressive social circles, by framing trans people–especially trans women–as regressive and antifeminist. I don’t know what motivates her to want to do this any more than I understand what motivates any sort of bigotry. Usually there’s some combination of personal insecurity and a fear that one is losing social power.