For people in the secular-o-sphere, you would have to be living under a rock not to have seen the massive implosion surrounding Ophelia Benson’s gender politics that’s been going on for the past week and a half. Heather McNamara, Heina Dadabhoy, and Jason Thibeault (among many others, I’m sure) have all provided great analyses.
I would be remiss not to mention that long before these events, Alex Gabriel wrote with nuance about Ophelia’s dogwhistle remarks, and this piece sets important background for what has been transpiring. I’m adding a brief commentary of my own, as some people are still expressing a ton of confusion over what went wrong here. Granted, if the great writers I just linked can’t convince you of the problems at hand, I’m sure I also can’t, but as a person who pays a lot of attention to how people express themselves, and what they say or don’t say, I feel compelled to weigh in.
It all began with this post about Free Pride Glasgow banning drag.
Now, I’m the kind of person who encourages nuance and complexity. I think there are many ways of approaching drag and the conversation on drag. Writers as diverse as Judith Butler and Matt Baume have written on the subversive potential of drag. There have also been discussions of the misogyny and transmisogyny in drag performances and the insensitivity of some drag performers to trans women (and this discussion is far from over). My point here is that this discussion has been had, but it’s also ongoing and I think there is plenty of room for legitimate contributions.
As a matter of fact, five days after its announcement that drag was banned, Free Pride Glasgow has changed its policy back to welcoming drag, as Ophelia’s original link now shows if you click it. So, yeah, that tells me a conversation is being had and has been had and the community has been and is working through these kinds of topics, and it’s not exactly the kind of Orwellian scenario Ophelia’s original post suggests. As to the post itself:
Sometimes it will disappoint some people within the community? Why? Do some people within the community want an unsafe space?
Or maybe it’s that “a safe space” isn’t exactly the right thing to hope to create, or at least not exclusively. For a lot of people “a safe space” is one that has only straight people in it, after all. Gay pride has always been rowdy and raunchy and Dionysian, proudly so – that’s always been part of the point. I’m not sure wanting to create “a safe space” is compatible with that.
Um…so no more playing around with gender, now it’s either trans or cis?
Is that really a good idea?
So there you go then. The answer is yes: no more playing around with gender. No more mocking it, no more teasing it, no more parodying it.
Is that really a good idea?”
These are not contributions to any sort of discussion. These are not even analyses. These are sarcastic rhetorical questions (and leading ones; the conclusion she wishes people to draw is obvious). And, considering the topic is rather sensitive, it’s remarkably tone deaf to plunge ahead without even addressing (or showing any awareness of, possibly because she doesn’t have awareness of?) the legitimate concerns of trans women towards certain drag performers, including this remarkable piece by Zinnia Jones on Ophelia’s own blogging network.
Here’s why I, and a lot of other people, see this entire damn post (and everything that ensued from it) as bad faith: as the thread goes on, it looks more and more as though not only is she not interested in really discussing drag, but her original post which sort of seems to be defending drag is really a veiled annoyance that the feelings of trans women are being prioritized on this issue. Really? In the context of a space dedicated to different iterations of queer identities, you’re bothered about that?
This is not a legitimate conversation. This is, if I’m being extremely charitable, a lot of foot stamping “I was here first!” gatekeeping politics, which are always revolting. And if I’m not being charitable, it’s just bigotry and transmisogyny and giving a space for bigots like commenter Liz to add TERFy remarks without any challenge.
And as for this follow up, what exactly is the meaningful difference between the ontological and the political definitions of womanhood in this scenario? While there is likely a worthwhile conversation to be had about political identities (and I’ve asked myself plenty of philosophical questions about how we categorize our political identity movements; I even think the queer umbrella potentially condenses so many disparate identities that I wonder how politically useful it is — so, again, I’m not exactly averse to such questions), this evades that the very reason Ms. Benson was asked about how she sees trans women was because her remarks repeatedly insinuated that — however she views trans women — she feels priority should be placed on cis women who were criticizing drag first (?)** and she pretty much says as much.
Hand-wringing about semantics and dragging out the conversation of political movements is to deliberately ignore that she was asked about her views because she was heavily implying that trans women need to “know their place” in subordination to prior (cis) feminist critique. Like I said, that is at the very least (and at my most charitable) revolting gatekeeping whiny bullshit.
If there’s one thing I get impatient with, it’s people who deliberately move goal posts and act completely tone deaf and then drag in topics which are kind-of-irrelevant-in-this-exact-moment like so many shiny objects to distract from the nasty implications they let drop in their spaces. It’s treated as bad faith because it is bad faith. People should not have to explicate your perspective as though reading a text full of vague symbolism (although it is, in fact, not too difficult to do so).
**Addendum: What the hell does here first/did [thing] first have to do with the price of shit? We don’t argue we should prioritize Aristotle’s perspective on Greece’s economic crisis over those of currently-living Greeks. I bite my thumb at this second-wave “[cis] women criticized [whatever] first” bullshit — if it’s even true, which it may not be, since categories are continually shifting, as is our understanding of them.