This article first appeared on Role Reboot and has been republished with permission.
In the grand scheme of Women Having Opinions About Things In Public, I have it really easy.
The tireless harassment, often escalating into abuse and even threats, that many women (especially but not exclusively Black women and other women of color) deal with online, is enormously well-documented. The worst that’s ever happened to me is an exhausting days-long barrage of messages on all my social media profiles calling me every misogynistic or homophobic insult under the sun. It comes in waves; there are days—and I know this is unimaginable to many women writers—when nobody trolls me at all.
Most of the people who have sought me out to denigrate my character (rather than criticize my work, which is an entirely different kind of exchange) are right-wingers, anti-feminists, conservatives, anti-queer ideologues, or just open and unabashed misogynists. But because I believe transgender people exist and deserve safety and dignity, I also have more experience than I’d like being harassed (again, distinct from criticized) by people who describe themselves as feminists.
I’m still learning how to respond to trans hatred from ostensible feminists, though I’m well aware that the vitriol they direct my way is infinitesimal compared to what trans people have to contend with. It’s disorienting to encounter someone who claims to share your goal of liberation, but espouses reactionary hatred for your most deeply held ideals. But if anything, I’ve spent more time being harangued by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) than by men.
In the course of masochistically rereading my hate mail and fuming at the sheer purposeless douchebaggery humanity, I’ve noticed something unsettling. It crystallized when I saw a TERF of my unfortunate acquaintance gleefully share an article praising her disavowal of trans women — written by an ultra-conservative blogger who once instigated the most sustained and focused online harassment I’ve ever been subject to. I’m not sure which appalled me more: that a staunch misogynist saw a lesbian feminist as his ally, or that she embraced his approval. When I looked closer, though, I realized that it made perfect sense.
Aside from some slight differences in vocabulary, the way anti-feminists and trans-exclusive feminists attack and try to drown out the voices of those they disagree with are shockingly similar.
Both anti-feminists and anti-trans feminists often refer to women and DFAB (designated female at birth) individuals as “females.” I’ve always hated that, for reasons laid out in some detail by Kara Brown here. It feels clinical and objectifying, suggesting that you see a person with a uterus for their reproductive capacity first and their humanity second. That alone isn’t enough to make me loathe someone, but as soon as somebody refers to me as a “female” I’m bracing for them to say some obnoxious shit. I am seldom disappointed.
But it’s not worth arguing with anti-feminists or TERFs about it, because both respond with absolute rage when anyone suggests making minor linguistic alterations. Trans-exclusive feminists habitually derail arguments into tirades about freedom of speech if, for example, you remind them that “transgender” is an adjective, not a noun. And, of course, misogynists live their lives in a constant state of being oppressed by people who don’t like being called sluts and bitches. The way it’s expressed is slightly different, but fundamentally these are both groups who believe they get to decide what terminology is acceptable to use for other people, and if it hurts or offends you, that’s one thousand percent your problem. Neither listens when people describe the way language works to erase, silence, or perpetuate their marginalization, and so both use language carelessly at best, and deliberately harm with it at worst.
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This connects to the way that both misogynists and transmisogynists pride themselves on “not getting emotional,” intentionally prodding sore spots until the object of their focus loses their temper, then using that display of anger or sorrow to discredit their argument. I’ve been told more times than I could count by both men who think feminism is gross and women who think trans people are gross that they would take me more seriously if I weren’t so angry. This tactic is a proud descendent of centuries of pathologization of women’s emotions, and it’s particularly incongruous to hear it come from people who claim to be defenders of women.
I think all the cosmetic similarities between misogynistic trolls and “feminism isn’t for you” trolls belies a fundamental overlap in their worldview.
They want to control women. Misogynists believe they are better than women, and should be in charge; “gender-critical” feminists believe they know what’s best for women, and should be in charge. Both respond with disbelief quickly escalating to rage when confronted with women who don’t fit their paradigm, and both, despite their disparate professed stances on misogyny, are quick to resort to sexist tactics to silence women who oppose them. Both consider themselves the sole arbiters of who is and is not a “real woman.”
Some people might take this to mean that there are “extremists on both sides,” with the real truth lying somewhere in the middle. But the fact is that trans-exclusionary feminists and misogynists are, despite some trivial differences, basically on the same side. It’s the side that claims there are right and wrong ways to be a woman, and it’s the side I want to be as far away from as possible.