Culture Friday – Feminists take on transgender activists

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday the 19th of June, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. As most of you probably know by now, earlier this week the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act must now apply to gay and transgender individuals. 

Religious and legal scholars are already forecasting the immediate impact this decision is likely to have on religious liberty, women’s rights, education, and, really, just about every facet of American public life.

BASHAM: Even LGBT activists are admitting this was an unexpected decision. But maybe no one should have been surprised. At least no one who was paying attention to what happened to J.K. Rowling last week. 

Arguably the most popular author in the world, Rowling, who is a feminist, received fierce backlash when she tweeted, “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.”

When the media then attacked her as transphobic and the stars of the Harry Potter films publicly shamed her, Rowling did something unusual. She didn’t back down. 

Instead, she released a long essay in which she wrote, “I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it.”

It’s Culture Friday and we now welcome Katie McCoy. Katie is assistant professor of theology and women’s studies at Southwestern Seminary. 

Professor McCoy, good morning!

KATIE MCCOY, GUEST: Good morning, Megan and Myrna. So great to be with you both.

BASHAM: You know we’ve often discussed here how LGBT rights are on a collision course with religious liberty. But we haven’t spent as much time on how it interacts with feminism.

And we know that the feminist movement isn’t monolithic. There are a lot of subgroups within it. So to start with, can you give us a quick overview of them and which one Rowling might be in?

MCCOY: You’re exactly right. Feminism isn’t monolithic. In fact, in the 100+ year history of American feminism, it’s taken many forms. The earliest days of feminism focused specifically on legal issues that women had to try to correct.

Fast forward to second wave feminism, as it’s called, in the 1960s and 70s and it moved from legal issues to more self-actualization issues. There were still legal fights, mainly the ERA, abortion, but most of the issues pertaining to women’s equality, women’s empowerment, had to do with a woman separating her identity from men and especially from men’s expectations.

Where transgenderism and feminism intersect in an interesting way is that feminism itself tries to liberate women from being defined by male expectations or gender roles, societal stereotypes, by virtue of the fact that they were born female, not that they act in a feminine way, but that they’re born female.

So now as we’ve collided with the transgender movement, we have two different sort of tributaries that have come off. One says LGBTQIA movement is in harmony with feminism. It is the next step in the quest for gender equality. The other group says that transgender women, meaning biological men who are sensing within themselves that they are female, that those cannot actually be women. Those people cannot actually be women because to be a woman means to participate in a collective experience of political oppression by virtue of the fact that you are female, not that you act feminine, but that you are female.

BROWN: Now, within those groups, I think the classic image of 1970s feminism is the one that most of us probably have. Bra burning, rejecting other traditional trappings of femininity. 

How does that group, in particular, come into conflict with the transgender movement?

MCCOY: Precisely. So, the classic Second Wave Feminism that we think of—Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and these historical women of feminism—what they were arguing essentially is that gender expectations are social constructs. Meaning that they are expectations imposed upon women. And what feminism came along in the second wave and said that these expectations should not hinder, limit, and define a woman. That she can present herself to the world however she chooses. 

What’s interesting with how this intersects with transgenderism, however, is that a transgender person, a biological male, who believes himself to be a female, expresses that inner sense of female through how he acts, how he behaves, how he chooses to carry himself, what he wears, his hair, his body language. And he comports himself or expresses himself in a characteristically feminine way.

With feminism, however, classic feminism, this is almost a contradiction, if feminists are being honest with themselves, because what they want to say is that these expressions are not supposed to define a woman. These expressions are to be entirely separate from her biology, from her sex. So, the way that traditional feminism is insisting that these behaviors are to be not defining a woman, that we should liberate women from these expectations of behaviors, the transgender community says that it is precisely this pattern of gender expression that indicates their transgenderism.

BROWN: In a YouTube video that we’re going to link to in the transcript so listeners can go deeper with this subject if they’d like, you pointed out that if biological men can identify with women as a political class, then you can no longer have ideological feminism at all. 

Can you talk about that a little more? And also, does that logic now apply to all women, feminist or not, in light of the court’s decision? How can the Civil Rights Act protect women if men also qualify as women?

MCCOY: Well, the recent court ruling just is something that we’re kind of having to sift through the implications of it. You mentioned that with feminism the political class of women is compromised. And so, one of the ironies of the transgender movement is that now not even a woman’s identity belongs to women. There is no sphere literally and metaphorically to which a man is not able to come into. So, now, men can come into women’s bathrooms, but then on a much grander scale, men can come into women’s identities.

But what it shows is that whether it’s feminism or transgenderism, you see just how quickly awry everything becomes once you have a society in which people are defining themselves. They are defining what it means to be human, what it means to be male, what it means to be female, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, what it means to have a marriage. And so all of these things that God created when humanity attempts to define it ourselves, it just doesn’t take very long before we have quite a convoluted mess.

Now, you mentioned the court ruling. In the majority opinion, Justice Gorsuch said it’s impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or being transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex. What’s sort of a head-scratcher for me when I read that is I went, wait a second, that’s exactly what transgenderism is. It separates gender from sex. So, the definition of transgenderism actually contradicts the very defense and majority opinion that this Supreme Court justice gave to defend how he was applying the Civil Rights Act to transgender persons. It’s all quite convoluted, but it also shows how arbitrary this is and how anytime you move into trying to apply these things to laws, it just becomes activism. At some point it becomes activism. And that’s what we had with the Supreme Court ruling.

BROWN: When I hear you explaining this, Professor McCoy, the only conclusion I can reach is that while I may not share Rowling’s worldview, her logic does seem consistent.

And I have to wonder if her critics have such intellectual integrity. It feels like actress Emma Watson, for example, who played the character of Hermione Granger is just latching onto fashionable opinion and calling it principle.

What’s your personal assessment of the debate?

MCCOY: Well, J.K. Rowling’s logic is entirely consistent. If you take away the fact that women are an oppressed political class, then you don’t need feminism. So what’s the whole point of the movement at all if women themselves are not considered a political class that need to be liberated from the authority structures of society. The transgender movement isn’t really just about gender. When you boil it down, it is a way of knowledge and relating to the world. It’s a worldview and specifically if we’re going to put it in philosophical terms, it’s an epistemology, it’s a way to know something and to arrive at knowledge in the world. So, if a trans person says that despite my ideology, I believe that I am a different gender than that which corresponds to my physical body, he’s making a statement about what he knows to be true and that sense of what he knows to be true comes from his inner sense of himself or herself. And so it really is a way of knowing, of understanding the world, of understanding the self.

What we’re seeing with this outpouring of support for the trans community is—I forget who coined the term—but “safetyism.” Anything that would disrupt or contradict what someone has said about themselves is inherently not just wrong but a violation of someone’s personhood. And there’s kind of nowhere to go with that, Megan. There’s kind of nowhere to go in the argument with it. So some of what we’re observing, in fact, really what we’re observing in the whole Twitter debate is it’s a conflict of philosophy, of worldviews, and of sources of knowledge. How do we arrive at truth and what do we know to be true? And does it at all correspond to objective empirical, physical reality?

BASHAM: Well, Katie McCoy is assistant professor of theology in women’s studies at Southwestern Seminary. 

Professor McCoy, thanks again for being here!

MCCOY: Thank you. Always great to talk with you all.

(Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP, File) In this Nov. 13, 2018 file photo, author J.K. Rowling poses for photographers upon her arrival at the premiere of the film ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’, in London. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Culture Friday – Feminists take on transgender activists

  1. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for this explanation! I have been trying to organize my own thoughts on this issue and this explained so much and gave me words I need to have an intellectual discussion on transgender vs feminism.

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