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Why Does John Stoltenberg Call Andrea Dworkin a Trans Ally?

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This blog exists to challenge white heterosexual male supremacy as an institutionalized ideology and a systematized set of practices which are misogynistic, heterosexist, racist, genocidal, and ecocidal.

This photo of Andrea Dworkin and John Stoltenberg was found here.

In recognition of the fifteenth anniversary of the passing of the great Andrea Dworkin, her life partner, John Stoltenberg, recently wrote a piece published online at the Boston Review. You may read it here: “Andrea Dworkin Was a Trans Ally.”

I fully appreciate and understand where John is coming from; I share his concern about any ideology that aims to generate bigotry or replicate social supremacy. Like John, I believe Andrea would have passionately opposed any effort to put forth discourse promulgated with bigotry and supremacy as its desired outcome. With that established, I’ll proceed.

I find the title as well as the content of his new article problematic. As I see it, the title does something Andrea would not want done: to be placed in the center of a political, polemical battle she did not choose to substantively engaged with. So part of my objection is him placing her into a more contemporary struggle without her explicit and publicly written approval.

I also object to John rewriting her activist history, a history in which he applies current terms to past realities. John knows better than anyone that she never once wrote about transgender people. She wrote about transsexuality once and never again. By any measure, being an ally requires far more than that; it requires diligently, publicly supporting the causes that matter most to trans people. I am calling on John to carefully state where she stood and to not misappropriate something she wrote about when her own theory work was problematic, including to her.(1)

John makes an assumption that ‘transsexual’ and ‘transgender’ are synonymous terms. Many of us under the Queer umbrella know that to be false, including those of us most critical of queer politics. For example, there are radical feminist transsexual-identified, woman-identified activists and writers who do not identify as transgender for political reasons. The ‘trans’ moniker, that appears in the title of John’s article, in fact, is often used in or by primarily GBTIQA communities as an umbrella term that includes many people, among whom some are transsexual. It may also includes folks who are gender fluid, gender non-conforming, and non-binary. Sometimes ‘trans*‘ is synonymous with ‘queer.’ If he doesn’t know this, he should, before trying to identify Andrea as a trans ally. He, as a gay or queer man, is also not positioned to make the claim. Trans people are.

The title also obfuscates the focus of the piece. I don’t see his article as about whether Andrea was a trans ally or not. It is about ideas and values: hers, his, and his interpretation of terms some radical feminists sometimes use. His article blurs and obliterates meanings, especially Andrea’s. And far more seriously, the piece itself obfuscates what terms Andrea’s public work required to be accurate and effective. In each of these ways he dishonors her.

John identifies usage of the phrase ‘real woman’ as a moral affront to what Andrea worked for and valued. At the same time, he neglects to highlight a concern, a nightmare, abundantly evident in life under patriarchy that, I believe, every radical feminist holds central in theory and action, including Dworkin: Womanhood is not chosen; it is enforced. It has a body; the body is female. She graphically described the violence against her, her bodya female one. She described what is done to millions of girls and women, every one female. Noticing this connection (and how does one not?), does not render Dworkin, or anyone else enduring and bearing witness to the same atrocities, a ‘sex essentialist’ or a ‘gender supremacist.’ Why doesn’t John emphasize her awareness of this reality: an awareness that is absolutely central to all her work? It, quite precisely, is what she addressed in dozens of speeches and articles, and in all of her books. I saw her speak several times, I’ve read her books. This is what I heard:

It is against the female body that male supremacy most egregiously and systematically expresses itself in order to maintain men’s dominance and male supremacy, as natural, God-given, eternal, and inevitable. It is against the female body that patriarchal force is unleashed: brutal, sadistic, bone crushing, and murderous. It is against the female body that intercourse as violence and violation occurs most normally. Through all of her work, Andrea addresses this explicitly: the violence is against the woman’s breasts, her uterus, her vagina. Patriarchy makes men’s treatment of womenfor Andrea, for radical feminism, the human beings with a female formintimately oppressive. Her words explicate this point far better than anyone else’s. Will John show her the honor of repeating them in his writing?

The woman’s material reality is determined by a sexual characteristic, a capacity for reproduction. The man takes a body that is not his, claims it, sows his so-called seed, reaps a harvest—he colonializes a female body, robs it of its natural resources, controls it, uses it, depletes it as he wishes, denies it freedom and self-determination so that he can continue to plunder it… (Letters from a War Zone, p. 118)

There are dirty names for every female part of her body and for every way of touching her. (Intercourse, p. 214)

A lot of the fac­ulty preyed on the nearly all-female student body… (Life and Death, p. 25)

I didn’t want to write the female suicide’s poem; nor did I want to write another male-inspired lyric cele­brating the sewer. I wanted to resist male dominance for myself and to change the outcome for other women. I did not want to open my legs again, this time in prose. (Life and Death, p. 28)

What is stunning and outrageous to me is that stating this is controversial to anyone who says they are radical and feminist, or pro-feminist. I think John and many radical feminists and anyone who is familiar with her know this: Andrea valued naming the problem as she saw it, in her very carefully chosen terms. She hated her words being taken out context. She hated words being put in her mouth. She also didn’t mince words. And being oblique was anathema to her.

I have disturbingly discovered over the last decade and a half, that a prerequisite, a mandatory one, to operate acceptably in liberal queer spaces, academic and otherwise, means silencing Andrea Dworkin specifically, and radical feminists more generally. Those are places I have increasingly avoided due to my disdain for the ruling ideologies and anti-feminist behavior; speaking those very passages will not be tolerated in many settings influenced by the anti-radical suppositions proliferating liberal queer and gender theory. As Women’s Studies shifted to Gender Studies, Andrea’s voice and other radical feminist voices have been banished, rendered grounds for dismissal and even illegal. The brave radical feminists who refuse not to name the reality they and Andrea experienced are losing their reputations, their careers, their safety, and their voices. Alarmingly, radical feminists and their allies are being doxed, deplatformed, threatened, and terrorised for making the connections Andrea valued, unapologetically.

Not all of Andrea’s work about sex is intolerable to, or censored by, liberal trans and queer spokespeople, educators, and activists. There is one passage that is allowed to be shared openly without fear; it is the one resurrected by John in his latest article and in others published after her death. It is from one section of one chapter from one book, 1974′s Woman Hating. In several articles, John quotes a lengthy passage from it: section four, “Androgyny,” chapter 9, “Androgyny, Fucking, and Community.” Part of that section, just before the one he cites, is this:

Transsexuality can be defined as one particular formation of our general multisexuality which is un­able to achieve its natural development because of ex­tremely adverse social conditions. (Woman Hating, p. 186)

One formation; there are others. John doesn’t go there. Following the passage about transsexuality, she goes on to discuss transvestism.

Transvestism is costuming which violates gender imperatives. Transvestism is generally a sexually charged act: the visible, public violation of sex role is erotic, exciting, dangerous. It is a kind of erotic civil disobedience, and that is precisely its value. Costuming is part of the strategy and process of role destruction. We see, for instance, that as women reject the female role, they adopt “male” clothing. As sex roles dissolve, the particular erotic content of transvestism dissolves.

And bestiality: “Bestiality is an erotic reality, one which clearly places people in nature, not above it. The relationship between people and other animals, when nonpredatory, is always erotic since its substance is nonverbal communication and touch.” (p. 188)
And incest: “The incest taboo does the worst work of the culture: it teaches us the mechanisms of repressing and internal­izing erotic feeling—it forces us to develop those mechanisms in the first place.” (p. 189)

In that 1974 book, she wrote uncritically about each of these cultural practices or manifestations of a society founded and dependent on male dominance. Immediately following, in the Conclusion, she adds

We must refuse to submit to those institutions which are by defi­nition sexist—marriage, the nuclear family, religions built on the myth of feminine evil. We must refuse to submit to the fears engendered by sexual taboos. (p. 192)

Here, Dworkin theorises on ground she later leaves. In her last seven solo books, she never again speaks of the core or peripheral problem in such terms. She bids a griefless good-bye to a peripheral focus on static and fictive sex roles, talk of multisexuality, and the loosening of sexual taboos as liberatory. After Woman Hating, bestiality and incest are never spoken of uncritically. Transsexuality never again appears in her work, save for two mentions in the Dworkin-MacKinnon antipornography ordinance, which are also muted when John speaks of her work: “The use of men, children or transsexuals in the place of women” and “Any man, child, or transsexual who alleges injury by pornography in the way women are injured by it may also complain.”(2)

It is clear that Andrea and Catharine, in this radical legal mechanism, did not equate being a transsexual with being a woman or a man. Women, for the purposes of their ordinance, are unto themselves as a social-political being. I’ve heard no objection from John about them promoting sex or gender essentialism.

From Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) to Heartbreak (2002), she never again mentions the terms John readily highlights as signifiers of the problem. She never again posits Androgyny as a solution. Rather, she develops and expands upon other portions of Woman Hating: about misogyny and how male supremacy wages war, organised, controlled, and regulated by men (only ever with male bodies) against women (only ever with female bodies). Male supremacy is accomplished most especially through sexual violence, as John notes. But it is John, not Andrea, who, since 1980, has continued to find professional and personal value in such terms. He is sometimes clear about this but in his latest article it gets confusing. With or without intention, he makes it seem as if “multisexuality” and “fictive roles” are her main concerns, the concepts that drive her later work including her activism.

Yet across her ouevre, gender is described by Andrea only in the context of a system of dominance under male supremacy, based on female subordination. Her discussions of gender, sometimes synonymous with sex, are in terms of a hierarchy, not a binary: there is no call for an expansive multiplicity of gender forms, roles, or names. The system of gender she unmasks is not discussed as political ‘difference.’ Andrea advocated no academic discourse, no activist program, no political campaign, that centered on the creation of more sexual or gendered categories. She didn’t organise around the existence of being or becoming transgender, pansexual, poly, fluid, or agender. She never articulated a hierarchy in which natal women oppress trans women. She held no position on what is now termed queer rights beyond speaking passionately about lesbianism, theorising the relationship between homophobia and anti-Semitism, and making connections between anti-lesbian/anti-gay acts and the imperatives of male supremacy.

You cannot read Dworkin and come away denying that in her worldview, and in her experience, male means man, men are male; female means woman, women are female. She didn’t shy away from saying so in academic or social circles. She didn’t indulge theorists and patriarchal apologists who value sexual diversity more than women’s liberation, who think splintering gender is a form of freedom. Her refusal to be silent on this matter was not an expression of being ‘transphobic.’ Female women were, to her, actual (real) women: “women,” unmodified by any prefix.

I wish John would stop stating that the one passage in one chapter in her first feminist book, and an epistemic statement about sexual truth in her second, Our Blood (1976), are the writings that epitomise her positions and illustrate her radicalism. From the introduction to Woman Hating:

This book is an action, a political action where revolu­tion is the goal. It has no other purpose. It is not cerebral wisdom, or academic horseshit, or ideas carved in granite or destined for immortality. It is part of a process and its context is change.

What John has done, systematically, is reify two or three of her ideas appearing on a few pages of her early works. He has carved both their meaning and significance into granite. What he has simultaneously done is marginalise or invisibilise the quotes of hers above that inextricably fuse female bodies to girls and women’s lives. With intent or not, John doing so promotes and statuses his own work, making it seem like it is an outgrowth of what was central to hers. I wish he would own the substantial differences in their language and objectives, their strategies and tactics. Even if there was initial overlap, their political paths diverged. As we may see.

What follows is some of John’s work. I believe this is where his passion isin discussions about gender like this:

Think of a color wheel. And don’t think of one with colors segmented by lines like a pinwheel; think of one where the colors blend and blur into one another as they do in the infinitely circular rainbow that is the visible spectrum:
                        Figure 1: Color spectrum wheel

I submit that for any individual, what we think of as sex and gender is actually more like a point somewhere on a color wheel (rather than a point somewhere on a linear continuum with two ends, each of which supposedly represents two poles of a binary).

That work is not hers. Her voice, in the quotes I cite and thousands like them, is being silenced by him as he finds his way and his voice in queer and trans spaces.

I maintain she never took a public position one way or the other in such battles because of the time in which she wrote, and, to whatever extent she was aware of it, because she saw no radical value or revolutionary use for academic queer and trans theory. Including Woman Hating, there’s simply no evidence of her being a trans ally. I say that without satisfaction or derision. If she spoke about it, I’d quote it in this post. I’m stating a fact. (As a point of comparison: If, thirty years ago, an out heterosexual man wrote affirmatively about the lesbian, bi, and gay community and had done nothing since to support LGBTQ+ challenges to, and survival within, an outrageously heterosexist society, would he be considered an ally? I hope we’d all conclude the answer is no.)

As evidenced above, there is plenty of writing by Andrea Dworkin in which what happens to the female body to produce girls and women is described without going near sex or gender essentialism. I wish John Stoltenberg would unsilence her on these matters. What peopletrans, queer, and otherwisecan do to be an ally of Andrea is defend her work, represent it fairly and accurately, and above all else, fight to end white and male supremacy in all of its manifestations, in theory and in practice.

In conclusion, I believe Andrea’s views are best expressed in her own work on her own terms. Not that they can’t be discussed and debated. Not that we can’t wonder what position she’d take on any given issue. I can’t count how many times I wondered: What Would Dworkin Do? Unfortunately, since she died, she’s had people who identify in many ways, embracing many different ideologies, metaphorically tugging on each arm, trying to make a case that she stood on one side or the other of trans politics. I am asking John to do what I think he knows in his heart she would want: to be removed from those battlegrounds. She fought enough when she lived. Let her rest in peace.

1. See some discussion of this on the Andrea Dworkin Wikipedia page, in the Woman Hating section. Also see it unexcerpted in Without Apology: Andrea Dworkin’s Art and Politics (1998), page 139, Note 1.
2. Massachusetts ordinance (1992)

“An activist and writer at the blog, A Radical Profeminist”.


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