The Issue with Meghan Murphy’s Gender Class Analysis
Late last week, while I was sharing Thanksgiving with my two best friends, Feminist Current editor Meghan Murphy published a piece criticizing UK-based trans journalist Shon Faye for not understanding gender-based oppression. However, within her analysis of gender class both in this piece and elsewhere, Murphy presents a reductionist ideology that’s devoid of nuance.
Faye expresses in her Guardian piece that the basis for female oppression lays in their reproductive abilities, a fact that few trans feminists would dispute. In her piece, Murphy responds by detailing how that oppression affects women. “Indeed, women’s oppression under patriarchy began as a means for men to control women’s reproductive capability. As such, females, from birth, are forced into a gendered hierarchy that treats them as subordinate.” Again this is true, no dispute at all from me. It’s where she goes next that lost me.
Over the course of covering the trans news beat, I have read most of Murphy’s work. It’s important to understand all sides and experiences when good journalism is your goal. I have seen Murphy profess that she’s critical of gender itself. She’s claimed that gender identity is a construct and that women can’t identify their way out of sex based oppression and she reinforces that claim again in the Faye piece. “While Faye may well experience different treatment as a gender non-conforming male — even sexual harassment or discrimination — it is not true that the root of that treatment is the same, or that [her] needs are the same as women’s, as [she] claims.” Her statement erases the very real female experiences that trans women have in life.
Murphy claims trans women’s oppression comes solely from merely being gender nonconforming, nothing like a “real” woman would experience. However, studies of the trans community continuously show worse outcomes for trans feminine people than for trans masculine people. If trans women start ahead in everything in life, how are they most likely to end up unemployed and homeless? If trans women‘s oppression is simply a result of gender nonconformity, how come their salaries drop after transition while trans men see their incomes rise on average? If there’s no gendered dynamic at play here, you’d think trans femmes and trans mascs would be punished equally for their gender nonconformity. And yet we aren’t, and it’s because trans women are women and are treated as such by society at large while those on the trans masculine side tend to end up with better life outcomes overall.
In her next paragraph, Murphy goes on to make assumptions about Faye’s life and the lives of all trans women. “Faye has only been living as a self-defined transwoman [sic]for two years, meaning that for 27 years, [she] was socialized as a male, and offered all the power and privilege men are under patriarchy. [She] has no idea what it feels like to fear pregnancy, to be talked down to or over, to be discriminated against in the workplace, to live in fear of rape or abuse in private and in public, from the time [she] was a child.” Based on my own life experience and those of other trans women, these assumptions just don’t add up and the problem lies in the way that Murphy analyses sex instead of gender as a class.
It’s true that as a trans woman, I’ve never had to fear pregnancy, let me state that up front. I have no fear of ever getting pregnant from a sexual or rape scenario. Instead I live in fear of death. If a rapist chooses me as a target and discovers my penis in the act, death is the most likely outcome. A woman who can’t reproduce is (wrongfully) deemed worthless in a sexist patriarchy, and if we don’t even have the right hole for men to fuck, we might as well be a garbage truck on fire. There are even built in legal defenses like the trans panic defense to cover the resulting male violence which comes from such a discovery.
Beyond the here and now, her claim that trans women don’t fear rape from childhood on is insulting to me. When I was 5 or 6 years old a boy my age threatened to stop playing with me if I didn’t put his penis in my mouth. During the act, he told me “You’re obviously a girl, you deserve this.” When we were discovered, I was the one who was punished for “enticing” him. My socialization began early.
When I was in 4th grade one of my bullies broke into my bathroom stall and physically assaulted me. He held me down and told me that if he ever caught me in the bathroom again, that he would “rape me like a bitch”. My gendered socialization taught me first and foremost that showing any femininity results in violence and rape. It’s sadly an incredibly universal experience for trans women.
Our childhoods are often filled with violence. People make disgusted faces or make snide comments the second we display even a hint of girlishness. Pretending that we are “offered all the power and privilege men are under patriarchy” is a lie intended to erase the very ways in which patriarchy violently coerces us away from womanhood. If women and girls were not treated as lesser beings in the first place, there would be no need for such violence to coerce trans women into masculinity essentially from birth.
Less than a year into my own transition, I was raped by a date. When I sought treatment the next day at my local Planned Parenthood, they urged me to go to the local hospital for a rape kit, I couldn’t afford one. When I inquired about finding a support group for survivors, there wasn’t one in the immediate local area that explicitly welcomed trans women. Murphy has argued previously that these types of spaces must be divided by sex and that the presence of trans women would be triggering to women who have suffered male violence. Except this simply creates a hierarchy based on appearance, only the pretty and feminine women can be trusted not to be a creepy danger. This was the same argument used to exclude lesbians from female spaces during the Lavender Scare. This is the world that Murphy’s ideology creates, a world where some scared and traumatized women have nowhere to go simply because other women don’t want us around.
Murphy and her gender critical friends would have you ignore that trans women are under just as much risk as any other woman under patriarchy and that we need to organize separately from cisgender women, but why? If we both desperately need to end the patriarchy that has so harmed us for our entire lives, why does there need to be a split? At the end of the day, Murphy wants her transmisogyny accommodated and to hell with anyone else.
Murphy’s ideology upholds the patriarchal oppression of all women by placing women’s value solely in their ability to reproduce. Why do you think religious conservatives and the most misogynistic men on the planet react so violently to the womanhood of trans women? It’s because without a biological basis to women’s oppression, there is no reason to privilege a male birth assignment. Trans women are a very real threat to the ideological foundations of patriarchy. Murphy’s sex-based analysis wants you to ignore the ways in which gender influences sex-based oppression, butthere’s a complicated interaction between the two, of which trans people are uniquely aware.
Imagine all the invective and energy and anger the two sides throw at each other being put into real work to end the patriarchy and the domination that masculine cisgender men have had over both of us since birth. It shouldn’t take a trans woman with a platform prostrating her trauma for the world to see to make this happen. We can work together on so many things that we both want to do if we can look past ideology and see our similarities as clearly as Murphy wants you to see our flesh-deep differences. Let’s get to work, there are things to do.