Last week, writer and self-described feminist labor organizer Natasha Vargas-Cooper stirred up the left with a critique in the American Conservative about trans rights. It’s a surprising outlet for someone who is ostensibly a leftist, particularly at a time when women’s organizing is leading the way against a radical-right president. Then again, the meeting point of conservatives and so-called feminists has always been trans exclusion, and trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) have been around since the 1970s, when they first politically weaponized the issue of transgender bathroom use. Sound familiar?
It’s long perplexed me that one of the most conservative ideologies in feminism decided to call itself “radical feminism,” and it’s more perplexing still to see it again, this time cloaked in the guise of leftism. Though it poses as feminist, claiming to be protecting the concept of womanhood from invading forces, it’s truly an ideology of hate and exclusion: TERFs (and, evidently, Vargas-Cooper) hate trans women so much they’re willing to ally with conservatives who go against everything they’re supposed to believe in. Just last Thursday, a few such women appeared on a panel at the evangelical, hard-right Heritage Foundation to blast transgender people being allowed to use appropriate bathrooms. Its title: “Biology Isn’t Bigotry: Why Sex Matters in the Age of Gender Identity.” The introduction cast the feminist participants as stateless victims of the pro-trans left.
Feminism, and the progressive movement as a whole, has indeed left them behind, embracing the concept of gender fluidity and the language of the transgender movement. Vargas-Cooper, at 33, is young enough to know just how unwelcome her argument is. So she minces it, claiming she has no problem with what she calls the “realistic” goals of the trans movement: practical accommodations like gender markers on ID cards or insurance-subsidized hormone therapy (although she also terms these “selfish pursuits” that don’t help other women enough for her tastes). No, her issue is with its “rhetorical” goals — its ideology, specifically the belief that biology and gender identity can be two different things. Vargas-Cooper is fine with trans people assimilating to either side of the gender binary. She just doesn’t want to accept their ideas of who gets to be a woman.
Like her TERF foremothers, Vargas-Cooper is deeply invested in biological essentialism — the idea that one’s body at birth irrevocably dictates one’s gender. This reasoning justifies the exclusion of trans women: If you’re not subjected from birth to a specific set of “womanly” experiences (usually, graphic descriptions of menstruation and childbirth; TERFs, for some reason, love romanticizing feminine pain), then you can’t possibly be a woman.
It’s true that many people designated female at birth are largely disenfranchised by a society that at best ignores and at worst reviles things like menstruation, pregnancy, birth, and childcare. Advocating for legislation and direct action that supports people around these experiences is a good thing. But it’s possible to hold these two truths while also understanding that “woman,” as a gender identity, may be influenced by these experiences while not being entirely defined by them. After all, the experience of being a woman involves much more than bleeding — or so I would hope, being a cis woman myself who enjoys a rich and exciting life outside of menstruation and contraception.
Because Vargas-Cooper thinks all trans women care about is approximating these physical experiences through medical or cosmetic intervention — completely erasing the experiences of nonbinary people, as well as trans people who don’t uphold the gender binary — she identifies the transgender movement as a “personal pursuit” and an “individualistic,” “therapeutic” one. From there, she critiques a perceived “soft” liberal ideology that focuses too much on “therapy, identity, and symbols,” and which she sees the trans liberation movement as being a part of. It’s that “realistic vs. rhetorical” false equivalency again.
So, it turns out, what Vargas-Cooper really has an issue with is the liberal tendency to prioritize ideology. She’s not actually all that interested in the relevance of trans rights; she’s just exploiting and attacking them to lodge her critique. It’s concerning to see a young labor organizer falling into this conservative trap of using trans issues as a wedge within the progressive movement, especially with such vitriol. It’s especially appalling that she does so in the name of not only feminist liberation, but the leftist, labor-oriented project as a whole.
If Vargas-Cooper (and other TERFs) truly cares about political action, she ought to be concerned with the material realities of those she seeks to defend. The labor movement cannot be an exclusive one; workers’ rights must be rights for all workers. Cis women are indeed discriminated against and treated unfairly at work. But so are trans women (and trans men, and gender-nonconforming people, who seem not to exist in Vargas-Cooper’s world), and to a greater extent.
Trans people are often discriminated against when applying for jobs or housing, employed at lower rates, and forced into survival sex work, which can place them in a state of economic as well as physical precarity. Vargas-Cooper ignores all this, and the astonishingly high rates of hate violence that trans people face as a result: Twenty-three trans or gender-nonconforming people were murdered in hate crimes last year, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (where I work) — likely a low estimate, thanks not only to underreporting but also the misgendering of victims.
If we ignore the actual goals of trans liberation, and join Vargas-Cooper in framing it as a “personal” decision based around bodily autonomy, we ignore that the struggles of trans liberation are bound to the struggles of the labor and feminist movements. And in reality, trans women are often on the front lines of organizing across multiple movements, from ending mass incarceration to employment campaigns to justice for sex workers. Trans women from Marsha P. Johnson to Monica Jones have fought for not only their own rights, but for the rights of queer people and, yes, cis women, knowing that our liberations are intertwined.
If we are invested in movement-building, we can’t exclude those who are marginalized. It’s possible to take action around biology-based, historically feminist issues like abortion access or maternal leave while not denying the humanity of trans and gender-nonconforming people, who often rally around these issues, too. It’s possible to work within a feminism that has room for all, that can use multiple tactics for politically advantageous outcomes. If we’re ever to reach true equality, we must defend those most marginalized among us, even as we also work to defend our own rights. The question is not “Who gets to be a woman?” but “Who gets to be human?”
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of trans hate crime victims NCAVP reported in 2016. The number is 23, not 24.