I remember an incident from many years ago that took place as I stood in line at a fish market. I stopped by the fish market to buy some fish, sole if I remember, for my supper. As I stood in the line, an older woman walked up and tried to cut into the line. She said to the woman standing behind me that she had left the line to quickly pick up an item she forgot–that she intended to take her place back in the queue. The woman turned to me, the one who wanted to cut into the line and said, “tell her.” I said nothing as I stood there quietly, waiting to pay for the sole. I thought to myself, “leave me out of this–the dispute is between you and the other woman.” What made recall this memory is the growing controversy over transgender rights. A recent development in the debate is the emergence of a movement and groups of activists called the LGB Alliance. The LGB Alliance is a response to the ascendency of the transgender rights movement. The LGB Alliance, purportedly, is an initiative of gay, lesbian and bisexual rights activists who want to separate the movement from the transgender rights movement. I welcomed this development–the gay rights movement breaking off from the transgender movement as transgenderism has nothing to do with being gay. However, it quickly dawned on me that just as the transgender movement has nothing to do with being gay, neither does the LGB Alliance concern itself with the interests of gay men.
In short, the dispute between the LGB Alliance and the transgender rights activists is simply a part of an internecine quarrel between rival factions in the broader ideological domain of feminism. The earliest manifestation of the dispute between feminists over transgender rights that I remember took place in Canada, starting in 1990. Kimberly Nixon, a man who underwent sex reassignment surgery, began life as a transgender woman. In 1995, Nixon sought to attend a training group offered by the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter. Nixon was turned away because Nixon “did not share the same life experiences as women born and raised as girls and into womanhood.” (Vancouver Rape Relief) In response, Nixon filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Commission. Nixon’s case was heard by the BC Human Rights Tribunal on December 11, 2000 – February 23, 2001. In the intervening years between the receipt of Nixon’s complaint and the hearing before the human rights tribunal, feminists discussed the issue starting from the premise: what is the definition of a woman–and can a man become a woman. In 1999, Michele Landsberg, a columnist with the Toronto Star, articulated the position of the Vancouver Rape Relief collective in stating the following:
WHAT MAKES a woman? If a man cuts off his penis, pumps himself full of hormones, gets silicone breasts and electrolysis, and stuffs his feet into high heels, is he/she a woman? […]
Being female is a complicated mixture of physiology, cultural conditioning and lived experience – or even, as one academic thesis would have it, “a political category created through oppression.” Out of politeness, I’d be willing to call that surgically altered person a woman and use the feminine pronoun. But a part of me will always feel outraged that “woman” could be defined as an outward set of physical characteristics – lack of penis, fake breasts – along with an ultra-sexist “female impersonator” style of clothing and gesture. (Rape crisis centre in B.C. endures assault)
The BC Human Rights Tribunal handed ruled against Vancouver Rape Relief in January 2002. The tribunal concluded in short, that “Vancouver Rape Relief had not proved that life experience as a girl and woman was a necessary pre-requisite to be a peer counsellor to raped and battered women and ordered the payment of $7,500 to Kimberly Nixon for hurt feelings.” (Vancouver Rape Relief) The ruling was sent to the BC Supreme Court for a judicial review in 2003. The BC Supreme Court overturned the verdict handed down by the BC Human Rights Tribunal. The court concluded that “Vancouver Rape Relief had not discriminated against Kimberly Nixon and the group does have the right to freedom of association to organize as women only.” (Vancouver Rape Relief) Nixon appealed the court’s ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the appeal in 2007. Thus, Vancouver Rape Relief, represented by the traditional or gender-critical feminists, as they call themselves in the present, won the first round in the battle with transgender-inclusive feminists over “what makes a woman” and the right to organize as a “women-only” space.
Kimberly Nixon lost the battle with the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter in the fight over admission to the women’s group–but retained the support of the intersectional or gender-inclusive feminists. Nixon has no regrets. As Nixon’s lawyer, Barbara Findley stated in 2018:
It was absolutely worth it because of the impact this case [has had] on feminism and women’s groups in Canada. We have been able to serve as a catalyst for the women’s movement. Almost all of the women’s centres in Canada are now trans-inclusive. So Kimberly has changed the world for trans women. I think Kimberly is a hero, having pursued this case with dignity and single-minded determination-though she had to endure the glare of media attention and the derision of women’s groups in doing so. (as cited in WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre)
The gender-critical feminists who supported the Vancouver Rape Relief Women’s Shelter won their battle with Kimberly Nixon and the transgender-inclusive feminists because Canadian law at the time did not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or gender expression. Since then, the BC Human Rights Code added gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination. The fight for the inclusion of trans women continued unabated. In 2019, the Vancouver City Council decided to cut off funding to the Vancouver Rape Relief Women’s Shelter because of its gender-critical stand. The decision to cut off city funding to the Vancouver Rape Relief Women’s Shelter came following lobbying by local transgender activists. Morgane Oger, a transgender woman and the VP of the BC NDP, led the initiative. Oger convinced the Vancouver City Council to defund the Vancouver Rape Relief Women’s Shelter because of its “history of discrimination against transgender women on the basis of their gender identity or gender expression.” (As cited in the Feminist Current)
Before the Vancouver City Council decision to cut off funding to Vancouver Rape Relief Women’s Shelter, transgender activism was advanced by changes in Canadian law enacted by the self-identified feminist Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau. Bill C-16 An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, added gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. Bill C-16 was passed into law by the Parliament of Canada in 2016. Gender-critical feminists opposed the passage of Bill C-16 into law. Following the passage of Bill C-16 into law, gender-critical feminists launched a campaign for its repeal. On November 18, 2019, gender-critical feminists published the Canadian Women’s Declaration, An Appeal to Repeal Bill C-16.
As I noted in the opening paragraph, the emergence of the LGB Alliance is a recent development in the controversy surrounding the transgender rights movement. I found elements of the LGB Alliance on Facebook. I joined a couple of these groups on Facebook as I have long advocated for the separation of the transgender rights movement from the gay rights movement. I thought the LGB Alliance would be on board with this initiative. What I found, however, is that lesbian gender-critical feminists dominate the LGB Alliance groups I joined on Facebook. Before long, I realized that the majority of lesbians in the LGB Alliance owe their allegiance to the gender-critical feminist groups they support (such as the plurality of Canadian women’s groups united in their opposition to Bill C-16)–to the exclusion of gay men’s issues. In effect, the lesbians in the LGB Alliance turned to the gay men in the group and demanded that they “tell them”–the gender-inclusive feminists that transgender women are not women. That transgender women have no business invading women’s spaces.
Certainly, lesbian gender-critical feminists are free to take part in feminist causes–that is their prerogative. There may well be individual gay men who will support them in their efforts–but this does not mean that gay men as a demographic are necessarily on board. I do not think that feminist causes have any bearing on the gay rights movement. It is enough for me as a gay man to think about and write on issues that concern gay men. Granted, my involvement with the LGB Alliance is limited. It could be that there are LGB Alliance groups that include gay rights issues. My impression to date, however, is that this is not the case. I will maintain my membership in the LGB Alliance groups on Facebook as I want to see how the dispute between the competing factions in feminism over the transgender rights movement plays out. All the while, I will quietly continue my advocacy on behalf of gay men’s rights.
Posted by Geoffrey