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Conflating LGBTQIA+ with Trans: TERF Island and Transphobia at UK Universities

In case you’re not aware, trans-positive academics and related nerds have dubbed the UK ‘TERF Island’ because of our notoriously transphobic academia. TERF island translates to trans-exclusionary radical feminist island, but I prefer to call TERFs FARTs (feminism-appropriating radical transphobes), and therefore we are FART Island. Much preferred.

For sure, there’s a ridiculous amount of stuff to complain about when speaking about transphobia at UK Universities. So we won’t get into all of it, but we love complaining. (See Complaint! by Sara Ahmed)


Also, you can read more here about how Leeds University have knowingly been stomping on trans rights for years.

 

One issue I’d like to highlight is that University staff are often able to elect the title of trans ally (or more widely, LGBTQIA+ ally) purely by themselves. I’m putting this forth as both an example for just how little Universities care about the safety of their staff/students, and also as an actual point about how LGBTQIA+ struggles are consistently lumped together: to the detriment of, well, everyone I suppose.

It is important that we as a society do not conflate areas of marginalisation. This extends not just to ‘trans vs. queer/lgbtqia+’, but I’ll go on.


The struggles of these people, of all of those in the ‘alphabet mafia’, require individual response and care. For example, the historical issues of trans* people regard proving the validity of their gender – where, for gay men, this issue has been proving the validity of their sexuality.


Medieval trans icon Eleanor Rykener didn’t fight for the right to be able to live as a gay man, she fought for the right to live as a woman.


When we conflate these two struggles, we either equate sexuality to gender or gender to sexuality – when in fact, they are completely different things. The difference being, in a word, that a person is not assigned their gender based on their sexual attractions. This is of course infinitely more complicated, but we can save that for another time.


Importantly, students and staff should not be forced to reconcile with each other on whose struggle is most important. Time and individual dedication must be given to understand and tackle the issues of individual groups: just as a therapist practices individual cases, therapists do not work for crowds, yelling for all to hear, “so tell me about your day… and how did that make you feel?” And yet Universities seem to think that they might solve everyone’s problems by allowing one person (or a group of individuals) to care for the problems of thousands of students and staff under their systems. Of course, this raises a question. Why do Universities think this is possible? Do they? Are Universities lying when they say they’re doing their best to look after their marginalised students?


It’s safe to say that gender normative queer/LGBQA+ individuals do not face the same struggles as trans students. It’s also safe to say that trans students do not face the same struggles as intersex students. But on the first equation, you might have noticed how LGBTQIA+ struggles are often lumped together – as if, e.g., gay people had more in common with trans issues than straight people. I propose to you, dear reader, that this is yet another example of the conflation between gender and sexuality.

 

We can find ourselves a long trans-historical thread leading back to the great-great-great grandfather of ‘gender as performance’. You might have read Judith Butler writing on this, about how ‘gender is a series of acts that we inflict upon the world’, in an effort to reproduce how we want to be perceived – for example, if you wash clothes every weekend, you’re a woman, because you perform feminine acts (sort of a joke, but not really).


Figure 1: Marvels of the East, University of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 614, fol. 50v (12th century CE)
Fig. 2: The Hereford Map, or Mappa Mundi – ca. 1300, 12th century CE, reads: “A people of both sexes, unnatural in many ways.” https://sims2.digitalmappa.org/36

In all seriousness, the idea that we ‘perform’ our gender is not a new idea. For example, Pliny the Elder (1st Century) wrote that ‘hermaphrodites’ are able to ‘perform’ the labour of both men and women, because they’ve been cut in half and sewn back together by God (another joke, but seriously they thought ‘hermaphrodites’ (intersex people, transgender people) were half and half, like a tub of Neapolitan ice cream but God ate all the strawberry).


Predictably, this attribution of ‘performativity’ also extended to ‘sexual labour’. The idea that you must perform your duty with your genitalia, go forth and multiply. You might be able to see where this leads: that you are born with a specific purpose, a specific job to perform with the ‘tools’ that you have, and this dictates your gender and your ‘proper’ sexuality. And hence, we have constructed the conflation of gender and sexuality - or a form of it, at least.


The contemporary prevalence of these ancient ideas reflects in the fact that our Universities refuse to properly democratise and diversify their management.


It's like we still believe in the four humours as fact...


Stay tuned for an essay on Medieval depictions of gender, coming soon.





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