Hilary Clinton and the TERF Trap

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Hillary Clinton, ever the consummate politician, has always followed the prevailing political winds when it comes to LGBTQ rights. She came out in support of gay marriage when it became politically expedient, instead of a perceived liability. And she first began regularly and publicly speaking in support of trans rights during her 2016 presidential campaign, a shift which can be attributed to the success of advocates and activists in the past decade to force the Democratic Party to embrace, at the very least, the language of trans rights.

This is, for politicians like Clinton who are cautious by nature, exactly how politics works—her support for various issues is less driven by her inherent beliefs than reflecting back what has become the political norm. Which is why her recent comments on trans rights, and more specifically, trans women, during an interview with the prominent U.K. newspaper the Sunday Times, held as part of her and her daughter Chelsea Clinton’s press tour for The Book of Gutsy Women, are both odd and extremely telling.

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The Sunday Times and its sister paper the Times are known for their transphobic coverage as well as for creating a hostile working environment for trans employees, and the interview reads as if Decca Aitkenhead is deliberately goading them. Aitkenhead brought up the topic by asking the two “if someone with a beard and a penis can ever be a woman.” The phrasing of this question, which parrots common transphobic and fear-mongering rhetoric of phantom hirsute men “just pretending” to be women, comes off as a transparent attempt to bait the pair. Chelsea responded with an unequivocal “yes.” Hillary, however, took the question as an opportunity to muse about how the issue is one which she is “just learning about”—her tweets about trans rights (beginning in 2015) and her support for a State Department rule change allowing trans people to change their gender on their passports with a doctor’s note in 2010, notwithstanding.

“Errr,” Hillary said, according to Aitkenhead’s account. “I’m just learning about this. It’s a very big generational discussion, because this is not something I grew up with or ever saw.” She added, “It’s going to take a lot more time and effort to understand what it means to be defining yourself differently.”

Aitkenhead then, again per her own account, followed up that question with a couple of very leading statements: that “a lot of British feminists of Hillary’s generation” (read: TERFs) “have a problem with the idea that a lesbian who doesn’t want to sleep with someone who has a penis is transphobic,” and that these “British feminists” are “uncomfortable with people who are physically male” being in single-gender spaces such as women’s shelters.

While Chelsea used this line of questioning to respond, again unequivocally, with her support for trans rights, deftly pivoting to a discussion of “support[ing] children being able to play on the sports teams that match their own gender identity,” her mother apparently agreed with Aitkenhead, though with what exactly is somewhat unclear, given the lack of direct questions. “I would say that, absolutely,” Hillary replied. “Absolutely. Yes.” She then mused on how (some) women have a difficult time accepting trans women’s gender identity. “I think you’ve got to be sensitive to how difficult this is,” she said to Aitkenhead. “There are women who’d say [to a trans woman], ‘You know what, you’ve never had the kind of life experiences that I’ve had. So I respect who you are, but don’t tell me you’re the same as me.’ I hear that conversation all the time.”

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Much of the response to this interview has pointed to Hillary’s remarks as proof that she is a TERF, which is not quite right, unless the term TERF has come to encompass any woman who holds casually transphobic views. (One could, and should, argue that it should not be so “difficult,” as she put it, to support and affirm people’s self-determination.)

How generously should one read Clinton’s interview with the Sunday Times? At best, Clinton is attempting to make an argument that times have changed, and that some people are struggling to evolve, but we should be thankful that they’re trying. But Clinton, by painting the effort to understand and accept trans people, and trans women in particular, as an almost heroic one, is revealing her own biases. It’s a belief that skirts this close to TERF logic, before scooting away from the edge.

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She has skirted a similarly uncomfortable line before when talking about trans people, as she did during a recent interview on The View, where Clinton shared the “gutsiest” decision she’s ever made—staying married to Bill Clinton. She then pivoted to sharing other examples of gutsy decisions, which included, in her mind, marrying someone of a different faith or race, as well as parents accepting their trans children:

Sometimes when your child has an issue—I had a friend who, a few years ago, called up and said, “I don’t know who to talk to about this, but my little girl wants to be a boy. What do I do?”

Several of us—we didn’t know what to do, we’d never had a friend who faced that before—and several of us kind of read everything, talked to people, and gave her advice. And it was really gutsy of her to say, “Okay, I’m going to respect the feelings of my child, as hard as it is for me to understand this.”

So, I think when the question was asked personally—everyone faces a moment of decision. And you have to reach deep down inside and decide what’s right for you to do. Hopefully it’s reached with love and understanding, but it’s gutsy.

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Painting a parent accepting their trans child as a “gutsy” decision, rather than the bare minimum a parent should do to support and love their child, is one that centers the wrong person’s experience, as is focusing on how “difficult” it is for some women (women, I assume, like her) to accept trans women. Here, the good people, the “gutsy” ones, are the people who are trying so hard to understand; trans women and children, I guess, are just an afterthought.

It’s a rare, and illuminating, moment of honesty. And what it reveals isn’t pretty.

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