The Hazards of Writing About Gender Online

Protest sign
Every social change movement needs allies.

Photo by a katz/Shutterstock.com

When I first began writing professionally about the LGBTQ community, I chose not to write about transgender people, their rights, and their struggle, because I was afraid that if I put one foot wrong, I’d be unable to recover my reputation as a writer. Gradually, as I learned more about the trans community and the issues they find important, I eased up on this self-imposed restriction, and while one of my pieces, about cisgender privilege, generated some minor heat, I’ve also written articles describing the spectrum of genderqueer identities, explaining the ways in which legalized same-sex marriage has affected trans people in the state where I live, and exploring the differences between being transgender and “transracial.” I consider myself both an ally and a participant in the struggle for trans equality, and I continue to look for ways to be a better, stronger, and more solid advocate for transgender rights. Even so, when I look at Ophelia Benson’s situation, I can’t stop myself from imagining that it might have been me trying to get out from under the perception that I am an enemy to trans people.

Ophelia Benson, for those who aren’t aware of her work, is a prominent feminist skeptic, a prolific blogger, a co-author of three books, and a columnist for Free Inquiry and the Freethinker.* She’s also at the center of a very bitter argument, which ignited after commenters on her blog and some of her colleagues in the blogging network she was part of came to believe that she holds transphobic views and may oppose the rights and dignity of trans people more strongly than any of her public comments would indicate. The full argument is a complicated, bloggy mess, conducted in dueling blog posts and comments on Free Thought Blogs, a blogging hub Benson belonged to until recently.

The dispute began with a post of Benson’s that criticized the way oppressive female beauty standards were being reinforced in the analysis of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover. It was compounded by another post that voiced agreement with parts of Elinor Burkett’s controversial (and I would say transphobic) New York Times op-ed, and then compounded quite a few more times as tempers frayed, feelings were hurt, and the blogging community at Free Thought melted down. Benson, who is 67, has struggled with both the language and the substance of how we talk about gender at a moment when trans issues have become so central to gender discussions of all sorts. This isn’t really surprising for a woman whose views were initially formed in the absence of such debates, and she seems at times to be scrambling to catch up. Her detractors, however, believe that Benson’s writing betrays an emerging pattern of hostility to trans people, particularly trans women, and that it is their duty to speak out against her.

Benson is a combative, prickly sort of writer (or as she puts it, “forthright”), but when I spoke to her on Monday about the trouble she’s landed herself in, there was nothing callous or mean-spirited in her remarks about the trans community. When, for instance, I asked if she considers herself an ally of trans people, she told me:

One reason I wasn’t really vocal about [being a trans ally] before was because I knew it could be a third rail. I’d have liked to have been more of a supporter, but I was afraid that if I mentioned it at all, then something would go wrong. It’s not really my field, not something I’d been reading about, not really my subject.

“I do absolutely consider myself an ally,” she reiterated later in our conversation. “That means being aware of what it means to be trans, it means taking [trans people] at their word when they talk about their experience, and it means standing up for them if you hear someone attack them.”

These statements make it hard to see Benson as an enemy of trans people or trans rights—in fact, it’s probably fairer to call her an ally, albeit a complicated one. Complicated allies, and complications in being a good ally, are hardly unique to the transgender rights movement. Every social justice movement has something of a love/hate relationship with its allies.

In Benson’s case, the complication is that her perspective was informed by a particular strain of feminism, one where gender is seen as a socially constructed mechanism whose primary function is to oppress women. Reconciling this view of gender with sex or gender changes, or with the idea that some people experience a strong sense of their own gender that may be innate or formed in very early childhood, can be a pretty tall order. Intellectual fashions change, and the radicalism of yesterday can become the retrograde conservatism of today with breathtaking speed.

Complicating matters even further, Benson, like many others in her school of feminism, has a very fraught relationship to being female. She describes herself as “gender nonconforming” and has said that she doesn’t really “feel like” a woman or identify with being a woman outside of feminism. Femaleness is something she and others in her camp see as having been imposed on them unwillingly. These are complicated feelings—and angry ones—and women who experience femaleness in this way could use a chance to talk through their experience of their own gender and how it might relate to that of transgender or genderqueer people. It’s unfortunate and troubling if the rules of engagement for trans-friendly discourse are so inviolable that they end up stifling the ability of some people to express their personal relationship to their own gender.

These are tricky needles to thread. It’s impossible to nail down the exact spot where productive dialogue stops and hurtful speech begins, so arguing about which exact word or phrase or sentence crosses the line is pointless. Anyone who wishes to be an ally of a marginalized group must necessarily give up some of their cherished right to self-expression, recognizing that some thoughts, even valuable ones, may not be worth expressing in a particular way if that would needlessly cause pain to others. Although it’s often derided as the dreaded “political correctness,” a willingness to speak carefully and weigh the consequences of a poorly worded thought is important for those of us who grew up in a racist, sexist, or (in this case) transphobic cultural environment. After all, our thinking and expression has been forever warped by those forces of intolerance, and those attitudes have a nasty way of popping up in our speech when they’re not wanted. On the other hand, it’s impossible to learn or grow if one isn’t allowed to take missteps. There has to be some leeway for allies to make their mistakes, however annoying those mistakes may be.

*Correction, Aug. 14, 2015: This post originally misstated the publications for which Ophelia Benson is a columnist. She no longer writes for the Philosophers Magazine.