Why gender essentialism is a white supremacist ideology

The recent counter-protest in Melbourne against UK transphobe Posie Parker sent shockwaves through both international and local media after white supremacists were seen saluting on the steps of parliament house.  Despite some poor attempts by organiser Angie Jones to distance herself from the fascist protestors, and the claims of some attendants they were only cosplaying as Nazis, rather than a genuine political threat, many of the transphobes in attendance were seen to embrace the white supremacists both during and after the event.

The fascist group was led by Thomas Sewell, a right-wing agitator well-known to police for planning for a race war as a preparation for a neo-Nazi takeover of Australia, in a scenario reminiscent of the plot of pseudonymously self-published 1978 novel The Turner Diaries by North American white supremacist William Luther Pierce. The book, which has inspired multiple contemporary right-wing memes as well as actual terrorist attacks, describes a fascist takeover of the United States and ends in global thermonuclear war. This is an outcome that the author sees as preferable to continued multi-cultural existence as it briefly makes room for an all-white ethno state in North America.

The idea that these neo-Nazis are just ‘cosplayers’, rather than the local version of an international and decades-long attempt by numerous lone wolves and paramilitary groups to seize control of multiple countries, is too dangerous to seriously contemplate. The better question might be: why do so many anti-trans rights activists, who often see themselves as left-wing or self-describe as feminists, tolerate or downplay the presence of Nazis in their circles? And, just as importantly, why do neo-Nazis show up to support them?

The connection between fascism and the ‘sex-based‘ gender essentialism that transphobes espouse is more direct and clear than one might expect. While Parker continues to claim that she doesn’t ‘research the people she appears with’, a classic example of weaponized incompetence, her racism and tolerance for white supremacy are well-documented—even to the extent that some transphobes have started distancing themselves from her, while others cling onto her even harder in response to what they claim is left-wing misrepresentation aimed at suppressing a powerful voice for ‘women’s rights issues’. These they conflate endlessly with the myriad of social and political implications of the false and ahistorical belief that trans women are actually men.

While it’s true to some extent that, as Danielle Moreau has shown, views of ‘traditional femininity’ and the binary model of sex that it presupposes are part of early feminist theory, the contemporary movement is defined by fighting for the rights of many other different types of women whose views have been historically suppressed. This includes not just trans and non-binary women (like myself) but also poor women, Black women, disabled women, fat women and sex workers, as well as every other type of women who could possibly exist.

Those who have chosen to fight against this evolution of the movement often style themselves as ‘feminists’ who oppose the rights of some of these women: anti-sex work feminists (SWERFS) and gender critical feminists (TERFS) being the two most visible examples of this phenomenon in discourse about women’s rights today.

Collaboration between these (often white, but not always) ‘feminists’ and openly fascist organisations is not unprecedented, as in the case of some of the women who had fought for the suffrage in Britain. These alliances are often born from ignorance, but just as often they arise out of convenience, as both groups can share common interests and goals by virtue of their joint allegiance to the cultural construction of whiteness, whose assumptions have been used to justify imperialism, social privilege, and outright white supremacy.

Yes, fascists are also virulent misogynists—but their misogyny can be overlooked or downplayed if the benefits of temporarily doing so seem great enough for self-styled ‘progressives’ willing to compartmentalise their views in the face of a common foe.

For transphobes, the enemy is ‘gender ideology’. This has given rise to a conspiracist narrative about the rise of the trans rights movement and the increased visibility of trans people more generally, analogous to the conservative bugbear of ‘cultural Marxism’. According to the narrative, trans people (but trans women especially) are ‘pedophile groomers’ and ‘fetishists‘, instead of simply people who have realised they were assigned the wrong gender at birth. The argument intentionally misrepresents what modern science says about both gender and affirming care, casting doubt and suspicion on not just on adult transgender people, but also on children expressing the belief that they might be transgender, and using it to unilaterally limit or deny them care.

This conspiracist view of gender is extremely dangerous, not just because it ultimately proposes the elimination of transgender people, but also because its mix of paranoia and hypervisibility exposes individual transgender people to an increased risk of harassment, rape, assault, domestic violence or even murder.

Transphobia cannot be separated from fascism because it relies on white supremacist principles to function. There are two genders, male and female, each serving a singular biological purpose: the continuation of the race. Anything outside of that binary logic is broken or degenerate. And while not all transphobes might agree that this race must be white, it’s generally white beauty standards that transphobes choose to call upon when trying to determine what a woman is.

The rules prohibiting high levels of testosterone in sports are still more likely to eject black cis women than anybody else, while the assumption that ‘real women’ will always be shorter, smaller, and less hirsute than ‘women who actually men’ leads to the unfair and unnecessary scrutiny of (usually queer, non-white and/or disabled) women’s bodies, sometimes to the point of even the most slightly gender non-conforming cis women being attacked.

This worldview also denies the possibility of different cultural groups having different definitions of what male and female gender roles can be. Some transphobes respond to this charge by proposing a ‘third space’ to accommodate more ‘sexually ambiguous’ people, so long as they’re prepared, as members of a socially-maligned group in an intentionally transphobic society, to congregate where they can easily be identified and possibly assaulted.

In a world that ran off of the fear and ignorance facilitated by these false beliefs, it would be trivial to force any individual transphobe with an objection to racism, ableism, or the slow erosion of her rights into compliance. The neo-Nazis know that, even if the transphobes don’t.

It’s ludicrous to call trans exclusion a feminist or woman’s rights issue when only a small minority of women self-identifying as feminists believe that trans inclusion is a problem. All neo-Nazis, meanwhile, are united in their transphobic views. We can’t let transphobes get away with calling bigotry towards trans women a position that all women quietly share.

What they’re asking for is not a ‘voice for women’ anyway. If it was, they wouldn’t be so hostile towards even cis women who disagreed with them. Anti-trans rights activism is a platform for suppression of most women for the benefit of a small and privileged minority of cis women, (and some opportunistic men,) which should be seen as the hate movement that it actually is, not a subject for polite or ‘rational’ debate.

The truth is that to pretend that trans women are men is not rational—it’s a dehumanising falsehood driven by the fear and ignorance of some cisgender people. If we want to end the threat of rising fascism in Australia and elsewhere, banning the symbols of fascism will never be enough. We need to ban eliminationist ideologies that help sustain it, too.

Maddison Stoff

Maddison Stoff is a writer, critic and independent musician from Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter: @thedescenters.

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  1. How do you account for the fact that the transphobic right in Sydney appears significantly not ‘white’? Christian Lives Matter, for one.
    Given that transphobia exists in many parts of the world today (yes, some societies pre-colonisation had multiple genders), how can it be labelled white supremacist?
    This to me appears to be conflating American racial politics with something else entirely.

    1. I’m not really qualified to speak of the cultural links between “Christian Lives Matter” and the traditional neo-nazi movement, and it would probably be a decent subject for someone to investigate in a follow-up essay. However, I allude to the most likely reason in: “but their misogyny can be overlooked or downplayed if the benefits of temporarily doing so seem great enough for self-styled ‘progressives’ willing to compartmentalise their views in the face of a common foe” ie. it’s a conditional alliance. Complicating matters further, Christian imperialism/colonialism is known to be the source of much transphobia and homophobia in the world that’s justified by non-Christian religions in the world today, especially in the middle east. There are some good books by Muslim feminists that talk about this, but again: it isn’t personally my area of expertise. I’ll mention also that these sort of alliances are not uncommon in either a historic or a contemporary sense. They’re not a good idea for the oppressed people joining them, of course, but I allude to that a little in the essay too.

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