A Trans-exclusionary Thealogy of Suffering (Part 1)

by Ciaran Hunter (he/him)

The discussion of Trans rights, and especially of the right to self-determination, is becoming ever more visible as it becomes more vicious. A sense of panic and alarm radiates, not just from trans individuals whose lives and rights are being put on the line; but from the very people who are clamouring for the repression or regulation of trans lives. Some of these moral panics we have encountered before. Wrapped up in overtly religious dogma, masquerading as politicking over ‘family values’, or even skulking around the fringes of the medical profession. All these tools of the far-right have been on display for decades, if not centuries when one comes into contact with marginalised peoples. However, within the usual cacophony of absurd solipsism and whataboutery, there has arisen a particularly loud note of transphobia of an altogether different kind. Not necessarily different in the tools that are used, (biological essentialism, the trope of the child as a victim, the protection of women, the enforcement of capitalist constructions as ‘natural’) but in the intent and rationale behind it all. These arguments that come from the trans-exclusionary radical feminist movement have a rather different feel to them. They are so much more than the usual attempt to deny something unusual, unsettling, or disruptive that we have seen in so many struggles for civil rights. Instead, you’d almost be forgiven for thinking that this is so much less about Trans folk’s existence, and more about an existential search for the “true” womanhood.


The core of the TERF ideological position is that cisgender women are the only women and that trans women are deluded men with mental health problems at best or dangerous and predatory men dead-set on harming women at worst. Trans men and Non-binary people who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) are simply women who have been brainwashed into believing something impossible, or traitors to their sex if they are ever really given a thought at all. Womanhood itself is, they say, under a direct assault. But a curious alliance is forming with so-called radical feminists on the one hand, and far-right policymakers on the other. Radical feminists are supposed to be championing the liberation of women from enforced births, underemployment, sexism, the threat of violence, and the myriad ways in which misogyny is made manifest in the world. And yet, they are allying with so-called Pro-Life, traditional family values, homophobic, frequently racist groups dominated by white men who only a few years ago would have been fighting the “radical feminist” agenda with gusto. How can, then, groups dedicated to the protection of women jump so readily into bed with groups dedicated to the maintenance of oppression?

Perhaps, because the TERF argument is not really about protecting women, but rather about protecting Woman. Woman as an analytic, political, social identity. The ideal towards which they strive, and from which they derive their sense of self. In essence, this is a defence of the ‘true’ womanhood. And this truth seems to lie in the experience of suffering. Every argument about what a woman is that have ever been rolled out rest upon some form of suffering, but not just any kind of suffering. No, to be a true woman, one must suffer in specific ways. Your suffering must be both inbuilt and constant. Inbuilt in the form of period pain, childbirth, and menopause. Constant in the form of a patriarchal society that threatens and controls your every thought and movement from the moment a little F is marked on your birth certificate. Such suffering is incontrovertibly true, cis women will experience almost all of these forms of suffering, and some of them will not be experienced by those assigned male at birth.


This is also not really an argument about biological essentialism, despite its appearance to the contrary. A TERF would not say that women are supposed to get pregnant and give birth, nor that the female body is designed to be weaker or at risk of violence. Rather, the Woman is predisposed to the potential of suffering as a result of their anatomy. One need not give birth in order to be a woman, but one does need to have the potential to suffer through birth. I think this is the important division between TERFs and biological essentialists. The actual biology is secondary to the TERF argument, it’s the suffering that matters. Simply look at the equivalence of biological suffering and societal suffering. The threat of rape, sexual violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, infant feminicide, and every example of the harrowing and deadly effects of misogyny on women are just as important as the suffering inflicted via a cis woman’s anatomy.

Now, I do not in any way deny that the world we live in is unsafe for women. It is a stain on this, and every other, point in time that women face such disproportionate rates of physical violence. This pain, this suffering, is as close to universal as anything truly could be considered to be. There may, somewhere among the 3.9 billion women on earth be some blessed soul who has never experienced the slightest twinge during her period, who never feared the intentions of a man, who never faced a single extra hurdle in her working and romantic life. I doubt it. The fact is every woman will, has, or is experiencing something of this suffering at some point. And it is against this suffering that we see this development of a kind of Thealogy, where the Woman is defined by, and as, Suffering.

Now bear with me, I do not mean that TERF theorists, activists and supporters are engaging in overtly religious activities. Only that, through the above arguments, we see a clear development of an idealised form of being through the suffering of Woman. And it makes quite a bit of sense once we consider how so many religious movements are concerned with suffering itself. Even more so, the TERF reactions are mostly a Western phenomenon, and therefore do owe quite a bit to normatively Christian cultural conceptions. The Passion of Christ, that moment of divine suffering and unknowable ecstasy, cemented Jesus as both the ideal towards which Christians should work and as the ultimate incarnation of the Human. Christians were exhorted to live Christ-like lives, and moreover that the suffering and death of this being left them in a sort of debt.


The TERF line on who is a woman is, apart from being self-referential, similarly reliant on an almost divine and slightly unknowable conception. In this case not a specific historical figure, but a myriad of historical and contemporary figures that merge and flow into one another. Once the contexts of each individual woman are sloughed off, the core of their experiences are left behind, and this core is one of Suffering. They suffered so that we may live, they fought so that we may thrive. Women are known by their suffering, a specific form of suffering that is universally experienced. Some are closer to this divinity, some are further. If we look through this lens a lot of contradictions unravel themselves, a lot of tensions are eased. Most importantly, however, it exposes the crux of this issue. A conception of Suffering so tightly bound to one’s identity that to release it is to release one’s very self. In the next post we will explore this idea a little further, and perhaps even explore how this Thealogy of Suffering might reinforce that which it seeks to undo.


About the Author:

Ciaran is a graduate of religion (BA Hons) and Gender Studies (PGDip) wit a particular interest in, and focus on, ideas of embodiment in queer theory, particularly how non-binary gender identities can illustrate our relationship to gender itself. He is also extremely interested in ‘Third’ Gender identities from majority world cultures, Queer themes in mythology and contemporary religions, and any opportunity to critique heterocisnormative assumptions. Forever striving in vain to find a book that collates Queer Myths into a single reference source.


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