How Michelle Goldberg got it wrong when writing about the “Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism”

I was pleasantly surprised to read that the New Yorker would be running a piece about transgender activism. Because trans activism has been growing in stature and exposure in the last few years, mainstream media has taken on the topic. Time magazine recently published an article with trans activist/actress Laverne Cox on the cover (the first trans person to be featured on the cover), and this milestone feels like a turning point of sorts. The New Yorker, long believed to be the text book for well-educated liberal readers, ran an article by Michelle Goldberg, “The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism,” which detailed the well-publicized gulf that exists between radical feminists and trans activists. The issue is not an easy one to unravel, but I was optimistic going into the article, but unfortunately, Goldberg’s article ultimately disappoints for many of the same reasons that other trans-related reports fail: there was an imbalance in the voices represented.

Firstly, I don’t presume to know Goldberg and frankly don’t think her personal attitudes or beliefs towards trans women matter. Judging from the article, though, the writing itself betrays a bias against trans activists – not trans women, but activists. Throughout the article, the rhetoric has painted radical feminists as bullied underdogs, victims of the mean-spirited trans activists and their allies. Instances are given when rad fems tried to use public spaces for their workshops, talks, or events, and have been refused after pressure from trans activists. Instead of framing these instances in what they are: activists using their right to freedom of speech, Goldberg’s writing depicts these women as beleaguered voices perennially being silenced. She also includes instances when personal attacks and violence are used against rad fems.

I’m not going to dispute that trans activists and their allies don’t cross lines into personal attacks and violence – after all, the Internet is a free for all when it comes to asshats who like to use its armor of anonymity to harass others. But what I would like to point out is that Goldberg conveniently leaves out that rad fems give just as well as they get – and it’s interesting that Goldberg doesn’t write about that – nor does she characterize misgendering as a form of bullying.

Another issue with the article is just how seemingly complex and open the writing is for rad fems. Goldberg humanizes these women – which is fine, because we’re not trying to paint cartoon villains here – but trans activists don’t get the same treatment.  And the inclusion of an ex-trans activists is a clever way to cause doubt about trans rights as well as the growing acceptance of trans children. Because an instance was used of a British trans teen who regretted her transition and Goldberg quoted the doomsday prophesies of activists who decry transitioning treatment for children and adolescents, the readers – who initially may be sympathetic – could come away with darker views of trans activism. And again, that’s not necessarily wrong if that what’s Goldberg was going for – but it would’ve been great if she have lip service to the scare mongers that she also highlighted the successful transitioning of children to counter this quote: “(Author Sheila Jeffrey) is especially alarmed by doctors in Europe, Australia, and the United States who treat transgender children with puberty-delaying drugs, which prevent them from developing unwanted secondary sex characteristics and can result in sterilization.”

The base of the problem is that the New Yorker will be able to pass this off as fair coverage because it’s the New Yorker. If something from the Fox News ran a piece on trans issues, any pro-trans viewers (or those who were still unsure of their position) would be on “red alert” because of the source. As Julia Serano wrote, “your mainstream readers (most of whom have little-to-no prior knowledge about radical feminism or transgender activism) will most likely not see through the article’s journalistic-ish veneer, and will assume that it represents an ‘objective’ and ‘unbiased’ presentation of the situation.”

Another point I’d like to add – and this is a personal one – is I have an ongoing issue with debating human rights as if they were up to debate. The longer we construct these disputes as debates: two sides, both equally valid, the longer it’ll take for our society to lurch forward when it comes to trans rights. Goldberg characterized the trans rights movement as this ascendant force, gaining momentum and incredible power as we speak. And I can see where she gets this: Cox seems to be everywhere – she’s replaced Betty White as our new It Girl. But the harsh reality is that for ever Laverne Cox or Janet Mock there are hundreds of trans folks who experience violence, discrimination, humiliation, and oppression every day. Despite Cox’s recent Emmy nomination for her work on Orange Is the New Black, trans women – especially trans women of color – are still disproportionately targeted as victims of rape, assault, murder, and hate crimes. That should be the overriding discussion when discussing trans women and the hostility they face

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Filed under commentary, Television, Writing

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