Last month, a 42-year-old English accountant who goes by the pseudonym Helen Highwater wrote a blog post disputing the idea that trans women are women.* Helen is trans herself; in the last few years, she says, she has taken all the steps the U.K.’s National Health Service requires before it authorizes gender reassignment surgery, which she plans to have in 2016. Yet she has come to reject the idea that she is truly female or that she ever will be. Though “trans women are women” has become a trans rights rallying cry, Highwater writes, it primes trans women for failure, disappointment, and cognitive dissonance. She calls it a “vicious lie.”
“It’s a lie that sets us up to be triggered every time we are called he, or ‘guys’ or somebody dares to suggest that we have male biology,” she writes. “Even a cursory glance from a stranger can cut to our very core. The very foundations of our self-worth are fragile.”
From the perspective of the contemporary trans rights movement, this is close to blasphemy. Most progressives now take it for granted that gender is a matter of identity, not biology, and that refusing to recognize a person’s gender identity is an outrageous offense. Highwater herself long believed that: “I came from a point—and I think most of us do—of really, really low self-worth and deep shame about who and what we are,” she tells me. “And when people started telling me that trans women are women, you’ve always been a woman, you have a woman’s brain in a man’s body and all this kind of stuff—it’s a lifeline. It’s something you can hold on to. It really helps you to come to terms with things and move beyond that shame.”
This year, however, Highwater joined Twitter, where she began to follow the furious battles between trans rights activists and those feminists derisively known as TERFs, or trans exclusionary radical feminists. The radical feminists—who, to be clear, don’t represent all feminists who think of themselves as radical—fundamentally disagree with trans activists on what being a woman means. To the mainstream trans rights movement, womanhood (or manhood) is a matter of self-perception; to radical feminists, it’s a material condition. Radical feminists believe women are a subordinate social class, oppressed due to their biology, and that there’s nothing innate about femininity. They think you can’t have a woman’s brain in a man’s body because there’s no such thing as a “woman’s brain.” As the British feminist writer Julie Bindel—a bete noire of many trans activists—put it, “Feminists want to rid the world of gender rules and regulations, so how is it possible to support a theory which has at its centre the notion that there is something essential and biological about the way boys and girls behave?”
At first, Highwater felt incensed by these radical feminists. But she also wanted to understand them, and so she began to engage with them online. She discovered “people who had a pretty good grasp of gender as an artificial social construct—the expectations of what females are supposed to be, the expectations of what males are supposed to be, and how much of that is socialized,” she says. “What I started to find is that the women I was talking to actually made so much more sense than the trans people I was talking to.”
Earlier this year, Highwater attended a talk by Bindel about radical feminists who have been banned from public speaking due to accusations of transphobia. There she met one of the organizers, the provocative trans writer Miranda Yardley, who likewise rejects the ethos of the contemporary trans movement. Transitioning, Yardley tells me, improved her life immeasurably. It eliminated the gender dysphoria—the strong desire “to be treated as the other gender or to be rid of one’s sex characteristics,” in the words of the DSM-5—that once plagued her. But it didn’t, she says, make her female. “I’m male, I own it,” she tells me. Soon, Yardley and Highwater began dating. “We identify as a gay male couple,” Yardley says. “We don’t identify as lesbians.”
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Every communal movement has its apostates: people who reject the ideas associated with their identities. There are ultra-orthodox Jews who burn the Israeli flag, black people who oppose affirmative action, women—lots of women, actually—who are hostile to feminism. Yardley and Highwater are part of such a dissenting faction of trans people, one that’s often described as “gender-critical.”
To be gender-critical is to doubt the belief, which its critics call “genderism,” that gender is some sort of irreducible essence, wholly distinct from biological sex or socialization. Gender-critical trans women have different theories about why they were driven to transition, but in general, they don’t think they were actually women all along. (There appear to be few if any gender critical trans men, though there are gender-critical lesbians who once identified as male before reassuming a female identity.)
Gender-critical trans women are a uniquely despised group: They experience the discrimination all trans people are subject to as well as the loathing of the trans rights movement and its allies. “I am more afraid of my community harming me than I am of society harming me,” says Corinna Cohn, a 40-year-old libertarian from Indianapolis. In 2012, Cohn founded one of the first gender-critical trans blogs, but she shut it down last year when the online harassment became too overwhelming; she is still afraid to be publicly connected to it. (Before agreeing to use her real name in this piece, Cohn warned the human resources manager at her company that she might hear from people trying to have her fired.)
Cohn estimates that there are about 20 gender-critical trans bloggers, though their Internet presences tend to wax and wane; some who were active just a few months ago have pulled back, while others have just begun. Among the most prominent are Snowflake Especial and Gender Minefield, as well as Gender Apostates, a group blog run by both trans and cisgender women. Like many other trans people, the trans writers behind these blogs have experienced a searing conflict between their physiognomy and their self-conceptions. Like the broader trans rights movement, they believe in fighting violence and discrimination against trans people. But they reject the idea that biological sex is mutable, though sex organs obviously are. They see a difference between living as a woman and being one. Perhaps most of all, they object to the strain of online trans activism that seeks to erase sex distinctions through language alone—for example, by designating the penis a female organ, or by removing the word “woman” from reproductive rights activism.
“It is empirically unreasonable to expect that someone who has been socialized male, has undergone a male puberty, is in all sense of the word anatomically male, can simply say, ‘I’m now a woman,’ and have the world recalibrate all of its autonomic algorithms about sex and gender and say, ‘Yes, you’re a woman,’ ” says Aoife Assumpta Hart, a 41-year-old trans woman with a Ph.D. in gender and psychoanalysis who blogs at Gender Apostates. “Reality doesn’t work that way.”
This can seem threatening and exclusionary to trans rights activists, who largely believe that it’s never legitimate to question someone else’s gender. Trans people have fought for decades against those who call them dangerous or deluded. The belief that trans women are men disguised in women’s clothing was behind the recent repeal of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance; Christian conservatives rallied voters by stoking fears about men in women’s bathrooms. “It is incumbent upon us, to create a more loving and compassionate world, to accept the fact that people know themselves, and that they are not here to hurt other people’s feelings, or to get away with something, or to perpetrate some sort of fraud,” says Jennifer Finney Boylan, the best-selling author, trans rights advocate, and co-chair of GLAAD’s board of directors. “So if someone says to you that they are male or female, and you don’t believe it, I would say the first thing you might want to do is ask yourself why you don’t believe it.”
Highwater, for one, struggles to reconcile her convictions about gender with her desire not to hurt other trans women. “What I think a lot of trans people hear, if you suggest that trans women aren’t women, is, ‘Stop kidding yourself, you’re just a man, go back to living as a man,’ ” Highwater says. “That’s not what this means. The fact that I hold these views doesn't mean that I think that trans women aren’t valid. It doesn’t mean that I don’t think they don’t have a right to live their lives the way they live their lives.”
So what does it mean? “I lived 40 years trying to live as a bloke,” Highwater says. “I’ve not experienced the things women have experienced. I’ve not been brought up that way. So why on earth would I want to claim that I’m a woman as much as any other woman? To me, it no longer makes any sense. What seems to be a much more honest approach is: ‘I am an adult human male who has suffered with a level of sex dysphoria for whatever reason for decades, and have now got to the point where I’ve had to make a social transition.’ ”
Gender-critical trans people tend to talk about transition as a complex, imperfect salve for an intolerable unhappiness. “I’m speaking as someone who was traumatized by decades of an insoluble war within my own brain between thinking I was one thing and physically being another,” Hart says. She began her transition in 2011, after a failed suicide attempt; she tried to hang herself from a shower rail that, thankfully, broke. “It was at that point that all of my defense mechanisms, all of the excuses I’d been making, evaporated,” she says. She admitted to herself that she was trans and soon received an official diagnosis of gender identity disorder from a doctor whom she credits for saving her life. On July 7, a day Hart now considers her birthday, she began taking hormones. She had gender reassignment surgery earlier this year; because she’s Canadian, it was paid for through her national health insurance.
After Hart’s transition, her family disowned her. She says she left her job as an adjunct professor at a university in British Columbia after facing “sneering, scowling, and condescension” from superiors and colleagues. Nevertheless, Hart says, “I’m more profoundly happy than I’ve ever been in my life. I thank God every day for the treatment I have received.”
Given the salvation she found in transitioning and the discrimination she faced afterward, Hart’s impatience with the mainstream trans rights movement might seem strange. To understand it, it’s necessary to understand how the meaning of the word transgender has expanded in recent years. There was a time when transitioning necessarily implied hormones and surgery, with doctors deciding who would be allowed access to them. The Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, the first official protocols for the treatment of what were then called transsexuals, were published in 1979; they required people who wanted surgery to first live in their new gender for at least a year and to produce two letters from medical professionals. Those wishing to transition also couldn't be heterosexual according to their birth sex; anatomical males who were attracted to women—and who therefore would become lesbians—were ineligible.
The new generation of trans activists utterly rejects this model. To them, being trans is fully a matter of self-definition. Surgery is far from required; according to the Human Rights Campaign, only 33 percent of trans people have it. Indeed, one needn’t adopt any sort of physical markers in order to transition. BuzzFeed recently ran a laudatory article, “This Trans Woman Kept Her Beard and Couldn’t Be Happier,” about Alex Drummond, a trans woman who transitioned without hormones, surgery, or removing her facial hair. “What I want to do is to widen the bandwidth of gender, to make it more possible for more people to come out as a transgender, to live authentic lives,” Drummond told BuzzFeed.
To a degree, Hart thinks the broadened definition is a good thing. “I don’t support Harry Benjamin saying you must be a heterosexual feminine-presenting woman in order to be truly trans,” she says. But as she and other gender-critical trans women see it, the reaction has gone too far, turning the words man and woman into floating signifiers that designate nothing but states of mind, and erecting a new set of taboos to enforce their ideology. As Hart puts it: “You can’t identify your way out of your body. Genderism is a myth that suggests that’s possible.”
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Boylan insists that the trans rights movement is nowhere near as doctrinaire as gender-critical writers claim it is. “The transgender community, as well as the community of people who define themselves as feminists, is comprised of many, many different voices, and the strength of the movement is in the diversity, and quite frankly the contentiousness and disagreement,” says Boylan, who transitioned 15 years ago. “I don’t see that there’s any sort of single consensus on what it means to be male or female either within the transgender movement or out of it.”
Nevertheless, gender-critical trans women clearly feel like they’re struggling against an ideological tide. A 28-year-old trans woman in Ohio with a gender-critical Tumblr—she asked me not to name it, lest it draw unwelcome attention to her—says she sees parallels between contemporary trans activism and her Christian fundamentalist upbringing. “It’s just this sense that there are certain things that are unquestionable, and you can’t even talk about them,” she says. “I guess a lot of belief systems have things that operate in that way, but there are just so many for trans activism and for fundamentalist Christians.”
Cohn says that before she took down her public social media accounts, she received messages from trans people who told her they agreed with some of what she said, but were afraid to admit it publicly, lest they be disowned by the trans community. “I want our group to be seen by the larger community and not hated for not believing in that central premise that trans women are women,” she says.
Like Highwater, Cohn thinks that premise sets trans people up for failure. “I think it’s very damaging,” she says. “The women we see in our lives—that’s the standard we’re trying to match. And that’s not possible. There’s always going to be dissonance, because we’re not women.”
The mainstream trans rights movement’s answer to this feeling of dissonance is to expand the boundaries of what woman means. “You can be whatever kind of woman you want to be,” Boylan says. “But what I don’t want is to take anything away from someone else, and I don’t want anyone else to take anything away from me. If your thing is saying that a transgender woman who has been through transition is not a real woman but some other kind of woman with an asterisk, then you are taking my womanhood away from me. I’m fine with people living their truth as they see it. But don’t ask other people to see me as something less than as I see myself.”
Gender-critical trans women such as Cohn, however, can’t live their version of truth and affirm Boylan’s at the same time. That means they are likely to remain perpetual misfits in both the trans community and the world at large. Ultimately, Cohn says, that’s not such a terrible place to be.
“For trans women who are questioning the doctrine that trans women are women, period, and they still don’t feel like they have self-acceptance, I want them to know that there are people like me out there who have pushed past that dogmatic phrase, and have grown because of it,” Cohn says. “There’s still space for us to become more complete and happy individuals, and part of that is complete self-acceptance for who we are.”
*Correction, Dec. 9, 2015: This article originally misstated Helen Highwater’s last name.