Women We Read This Week

Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “The Transgender Crucible” in Rolling Stone

At one point in the story of CeCe MacDonald, a trans woman who was charged with murder after defending herself from a violent attack, her defense lawyer tells Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely that his task was to inform the jury about the habitual violence trans women face. “We’d have to be educating the jury about what it meant to be transgender,” he told her. “That would be difficult. Most wouldn’t even know what that meant.”

In a way, this story serves that same purpose. By telling MacDonald’s story, from a childhood of bullying to her teen years of prostitution and drugs, and finally to a hard-fought stability that was destroyed by a late-night assault, Erdely lays out the breathtaking scope of oppression, violence and marginalization that, for trans women, has become almost routine. I expect that for many readers, it will be eye-opening. It’s wonderful to see a high-profile publication like Rolling Stone taking on that task of education, and Erdely does so thoughtfully and eloquently.


May Jeong’s “Heart-Achingly Young in a Heartbreaking Place” in The New Quarterly

When The New Quarterly asked May Jeong to write about the dangers incurred by female reporters in a war zone, she hesitated. “In part, I wasn’t sure how I felt about foreigners highlighting the dangers of their situation— when you have a foreign passport, and the option to leave, then staying becomes an intellectual exercise.”

I’ve been thinking about this recently, as I just came back from the eastern Congo, where I was working with a group of journalists with the invaluable help of some incredibly skilled fixers. There were a few times our desire for a story came up against not our own safety but our fixers’: when we leave, they stay. We needed to the think about the resulting consequences of our work. The situations are very different – much of eastern Congo is not a war zone, and we were practicing parachute journalism, not living in the place – but in both cases, it’s a choice for the reporter to be there. We possess a freedom that makes such a choice – and the option to leave – possible. “…whatever injustices I may face in Afghanistan, pale—pale—in comparison to the daily suffering of Afghans, for whom quitting is not an option,” Jeong writes.

But Jeong is honest about the frustrations of living in Afghanistan: “People assume it is pollution or violence that must get to me the most, but in truth, it’s the patriarchy.” Without drama, she discusses the prevalence of death in her “little band of foreigners in Afghanistan” and the fear that pervades the entire overseas reporting community there. I appreciated the measured honesty, the bald statements of fear coupled with the recognition that it’s a luxury to choose the way we live. At the same time, Jeong honors the work of overseas reporters who have given their lives doing what they love. This piece, for all its qualifiers, is ultimately a thoughtful and moving tribute to the freedom and joys of doing such work. It is not a complaint, but a celebration.

You see life as more than a succession of transactions. There is the ineluctable thrill of being in a country where the story is still unfolding, and for a moment, you even catch a glimpse of how tenuous our foothold in this world can be. In places where matters of life and death play out on the streets daily, you are freed from the tyranny of small talk. You no longer have to spend another evening discussing condo prices.


Michelle Goldberg’s “What Is a Woman? The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism” in The New Yorker

Goldberg traces a dispute that began in 1973 when Robin Morgan declared, “I will not call a male ‘she’…” While most of the feminist movement has come to embrace the participation of trans women, radical feminists believe that the privilege of being born male places trans women and their experiences in a different situation. Goldberg explains, “Trans women say that they are women because they feel female—that, as some put it, they have women’s brains in men’s bodies. Radical feminists reject the notion of a ‘female brain.’”

The battle between these two parties has gotten pretty ugly online. My favorite discovery in this article was the term “TERF,” which, as the author explains,

stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” The term can be useful for making a distinction with radical feminists who do not share the same position, but those at whom it is directed consider it a slur. Abusive posts proliferated on Twitter and, especially, Tumblr. One read, “/kill/terfs 2K14.” Another suggested, “how about ‘slowly and horrendously murder terfs in saw-like torture machines and contraptions’ 2K14.” A young blogger holding a knife posted a selfie with the caption “Fetch me a terf.” Such threats have become so common that radical-feminist Web sites have taken to cataloguing them.

In the end, one trans woman “who blogs under the name Snowflake Especial, noted that all the violence against trans women that she’s aware of was committed by men. ‘Why aren’t we dealing with them?’ she asked.” That is the question that I kept asking myself.



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