Against Lisa Millbank on Separatism and Men

[note to Lisa Millbank, who might or might not get a notification that I’ve linked to her blog on this post: linking to your blog is not intended as interaction; if you find this post, please note that I am transmasculine/male and therefore you probably don’t want to interact with me]

[Also, I sincerely hope that you are not harmed by this post, and if you object to my links I will take them down; this is not intended to harm you and I hope that you are all right]

While I do not have an extensive knowledge of lesbian separatist cultures, I have read some blogs, such as The Radical Transfeminist and the associated Tumblr, which appear adjacent to the concept.

When I first encountered the Radical Transfeminist blog, I found it extremely interesting and indeed insightful. I retain this opinion today, but I also believe that, after reading further into Millbank’s blog and opinions, political separatism from men is a harmful practice based on incorrect assumptions about the nature of power.

From her FAQ here:

Q: I’m a trans/cis man.

A: My time and energy is not for you. Please don’t bother me.

When I first read this several years ago, this made me profoundly sad on behalf of men. (I didn’t think I was bigender yet.)

But I figured that this was completely fair as a policy, right? She’s a feminist and she gets to determine how to use her own time. Men don’t deserve her time.

And now I’m reading back and I realize that, no, this is legitimately really upsetting and I was completely valid in my offense.

To be absolutely clear, as a personal policy, trying to avoid men is fine. “I don’t feel comfortable talking to men due to past trauma” or “I just don’t want to talk to men and I don’t find it very fun” is a fine sentiment, and it’s fine to enforce this boundary by saying things like “Please don’t talk to me or interact with me if you’re a man or male-aligned. This is a personal preference.”

However, even as a personal policy, it could be stated more kindly. Millbank writes, “Please don’t bother me”, as if a man talking to her ought to know that it’s bothersome or was trying to bother her. In the heat of the moment, someone might say something like this; I expect someone’s FAQ answer to be kinder.

So please let me be clear: I am fine with people not wanting to interact with men and I am pleased if they state this neutrally in their FAQs.

But this is clearly not a personal statement, as least in the sense that it’s acknowledged as a preference and not an act of resistance, etc. It’s a political statement; it’s on her political blog, and stated in a political way.

Insofar as personal actions are political actions, they can be critiqued.

So what reasons does Millbank have for not wanting to spend her time on men? A cursory search of her Tumblr reveals that she practices separatism. A search for “separatist” on her wordpress doesn’t give any information – other than a few quotes from lesbian separatists in different contexts -. So let’s look at the available information and try to figure out why she might think that men don’t deserve her time, effort, etc., in the political sense.

  • Her time is better spent helping women (etc.) because they are the primary victims of oppression.

This reason might be inferred from Millbank’s initial statement that her “time and energy” are not for men, e.g. that they are better used somewhere else, for someone else.

I disagree with this reason.

For one, this rather seems like assuming the hypothesis. The hypothesis is that women are the primary victims of oppression. However, this doesn’t take into account male perspectives on violence, patriarchy, and kyriarchy in general; what of war, what of homicide rates, what of the rate of men in prison? What of the way that misandry affects people of all genders across various intersections? What of the way that misandry harms men?

Secondly, intersectionality theory as well as holistic intersectionality contradict Millbank’s perspective. As a class, men might not be as oppressed as women. Each individual man and each individual woman who might address Millbank is likely to be affected by various different factors.

While Millbank does appear to be genuine in her devotion to intersectionality, the fact that her division line is between men and women, rather than between cis or trans, or abled and disabled, etc., makes me wonder if she has fully questioned the implications of her lesbian separatist source material.

After all, male/female is not necessarily the most important axis of oppression; it certainly shouldn’t be given especial attention above all the others. The female separatist perspective assumes a solidarity between women, rather than between e.g. black people or between neurodivergent people. The mere framing of “primary victims of oppression” claims that female/male is the most significant axis of oppression.

It’s important to listen to men’s perspectives for the same reason that it’s important to listen to e.g. white women’s perspectives: while they may be coming from a place of privilege (in the case of men, in relation to women; in the case of white women, in relation to black people), they still possess information vital to a complete theory of gender relations.

It is commendable to focus your activism on one area, but if she wants to focus on e.g. trans women as a class, then why doesn’t she also exclude cis women? Why doesn’t she exclude non-queer women?

The obvious reason to include various types of women in your feminism, even if you want to focus on a a specific type, is because you all share a common interest: that of advancing your lot as women. Additionally, they can all lend insight on their experiences that allows for a more holistic and inclusive vision of patriarchy.

The same reasons apply to e.g. including trans men and gender nonconforming men in your transfeminism; trans men and trans women have obvious interests in common and it is useful to form coalitions for political benefit, as do gnc cis men. Trans men and gender nonconforming cis men have different perspectives on gender than do trans women.

  • Men are extremely dangerous and will hurt women if they can.

This point of view might be inferred from this post here, reblogged without disagreement, which states:

man roulette is a game where there are fucking THOUSANDS of chambers and a few – a very very few – of them hold closeted trans women. the rest are men, though, and if you pull the trigger and get “man” you are well and truly fucked

It is certainly true that men tend to abuse transfeminine/female people disproportionately, and it is good to be cautious.

However, a blanket ban on men – including online interaction! – is extremely overzealous. The majority of men don’t kill or abuse people. I think this is a fairly uncontroversial position to take. There exist many good, interesting men, all of whom are not inherent threats to activism and who may be valuable allies.

In addition – and this post was clearly put forth as a theory of gender relations, so it is valid ground for critique -, the concept of men as inherently murderous (unless they are actually secretly trans) Others men as a hyperagentified threat to women, which is not acceptable gender theory.

It’s unfortunately kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy; the fact that this boundary of not-interacting-with-men has been set means that all of the men who you encounter are boundary-violating jackasses, because the boundary-respecting men have all decided to respect your boundaries and are not interacting with you.

The framing of this perspective sets people up to think that all women are actually totally safe and trustworthy, while in actuality it is important to remain aware that anyone might be an abuser.

If you accidentally become close friends with a man, then you have lent your support and friendship to a man, who has in turn lent his support and friendship to you. This is great! It is mutually profitable. Maybe it is not optimal, since he’s not a woman, but it is very far from “fucked”.

Why Should Millbank Care?

Millbank’s deliberate shutting-out of the experiences and perspectives of men and male-aligned people as well as afabs has had numerous reverberations, most notably on the axis of transness. It promotes ideas which erase and injure nonbinary people of varous asabs due to its basing in separatism.

Thereby it hinders the establishment of broad coalitions based on axes other than gender, such as the LGBTQ coalition or a broader trans coalition focused around trans solidarity. See for example this post and this post, which characterize afab trans people as illegitimate, and which are both easily findable after a few minutes of scrolling on her Tumblr.

Regarding the first post:

A lot of trans men choose to identify as non-binary or genderqueer or something of that nature so that they can maintain access to queer women’s spaces (and queer women’s bodies, especially lesbian bodies) while still freely accessing as much male privilege as they can elsewhere.

They know they will always be viewed by larger society as “lesser men”, so many of them would prefer to simply be the only men who have consistent access to women’s spaces, which we should all recognize as a longstanding straight male predation fantasy (being the only male infiltrating a female space – which is something that cafab men actively do).

While I am absolutely sympathetic to the problem of cis lesbian and trans afab desexualization of and exclusion of trans women, this is a remarkably invalidating argument to make.

For one, the author specifically points out “trans men” who “choose to identify as nonbinary or genderqueer or something of that nature”. She never considers that these “trans men” might actually in fact be nonbinary or genderqueer. She never considers that afab trans people might have a valid reason – e.g. rampant cissexism – to present as male outside of lesbian spaces.

She also relies on transphobic narratives of deception and infiltration, but this time arrayed against trans men rather than trans women.

That post continues on in the same vein:

This is why some trans women view all trans men and cafab trans masc folks as part of the same class (since most cafab trans non-binary people seem to either be trans men dodging accountability for maleness, or cis women with a lot of internalized transmisogyny and misogyny who are trying to appropriate trans identity while distancing themselves from womanhood, making both groups people who are simply trying to use identity to obscure their position in relation to gendered power structures), with a great many trans mascs functioning and interacting with women in a way that is indistinguishable from men in general, simply more insidious.

There is nothing about maleness that ought to be held to accountability inherently, since there is nothing wrong with being male.

Secondly, notice how this post promotes the transphobic narrative that trans men are “cis women with a lot of internalized misogyny”. It quickly and eagerly jumps on the transphobic bandwagon of people who “use identity to obscure their position in relation to gendered power structures”.  Notice also how it makes mention of afabs trying to “appropriate” trans identity.

This is offensive in the extreme.

Finally, the post makes inaccurate assumptions about transmasculine/male positionality within kyriarchy:

We’re both seen in many ways as embodying aspects of both male and female, but rather than cis people seeing both of us as simply “in between,” trans men and cafab trans people in general tend to be seen as somehow possessing the better qualities of men and women, while trans women are seen as abominations embodying the worst of both genders. 

I absolutely don’t deny that transmisogyny is real, and that trans women are often treated more harshly than trans men for complicated reasons.

But I take umbrage at the writer’s portrayal of society’s “general” view of trans men and afabs as “possessing the better qualities of men and women”. That may be true in lesbian spaces, but it is not true in general society. Trans men and afab trans people have been assaulted and invalidated for our genders, and I do not appreciate the flippant erasure of these experiences.

While Millbank did not write this post, she reblogged without critical comment and added appreciation. This reveals a structural flaw in her feminism. While afab trans people might have valuable clarifications, Millbank has cut herself off from our voices and our experiences. She has neglected men’s rights to the point that she promotes and upholds misgendering and transphobia- which I am sure that she would be horrified at!

But she likely won’t ever realize differently, because her time is not for trans men.

Regarding the second post, here is a copy-paste of the relevant comments:

I wanna see someone write something about the gross proliferation of ‘afab nb femme’
Cuz it is gross and u can’t claim to be a lesbian while also rejecting womanhood

It’s always worth mentioning Leslie Feinberg was transmisogynist but otherwise everything her is fantastic- especially the addition about afab NB femme.

Wasn’t Leslie Feinberg like….not cis? As in, didn’t use she/her pronouns? And a massive fuck you to @spacedyke because you don’t get to have any say on my afab, nonbinary femme identity.

not cis people who are afab can be transmisogynists. you’re providing an excellent example here of afab nb transmisogyny

So in the above sequence, we see, again, blatant transphobia and transmisandry. “Afab nb femme” is denounced as “gross”, without respect for any personal factors that might cause a trans person to identify as femme – such as, say, being genderqueer or genderfluid, or being partially female some of the time.

There is also no analysis of what femme means and has meant to different people throughout history. The concept of gendered appropriation has been and continues to be used against trans people, and I contest the idea that femme belongs to anyone in particular. Serano’s statement on appropriation here is highly relevant.

There is also no awareness of what Feinberg has meant not only to the lesbian community, but also to the transmasculine community. Feinberg used male pronouns in trans spaces, and female ones in non-trans spaces, because he believed that in non-trans spaces female pronouns accentuated his butch identity. Stone Butch Blues is and has been regarded as something for lesbians, butches, transmasculines, and an immensely wide variety of people. It is incredibly disrespectful to claim his legacy for one group and one group only.

It is also disrespectful to police people’s identities, particularly the words they use for their genders.

This is coming from transfeminists, and it is deeply disappointing. This is true all the more because it is the kind of horizontal conflict that Lorde and the other feminists did not want to see. Trans people are turning against each other instead of uniting in solidarity against oppressive power structures.

Separatism is Still Not Nonbinary-Friendly

The separatists’ error here is also in their treatment of nonbinaries of different asabs. — That is, afab nonbinaries are routinely held up as examples of male privilege and misgendered as male appropriators, whereas amab nonbinaries are lumped into “women” for the purpose of separatism, as in this post.

Amab nonbinaries who do not identify as women are not, in fact, women, any more than afab nonbinaries who do not identify as women are, and it is incoherent to accept nonbinaries of one asab over nonbinaries of another. You might even say that it’s transphobic.

Someone might argue that the purpose of separatism is not to separate men from women, but instead to connect amab trans people, but then the contact with cis women is unjustifiable.

Meanwhile, the entire framework erases polygender nonbinaries who identify with both maleness and femaleness. I can either be misgendered by talking with Millbank, or I can be misgendered by being refused an audience with Millbank.

The male and female parts of my identity are not separable. (This is because of something mysterious called “intersectionality”.) Millbank’s framework requires setting up a binary of male against female, or rather female against male; it upholds rather then explodes oppositional sexism and the old radfem overemphasis on male-female relations over other axes of oppression.

Moreover, what of amab nonbinaries who retain a connection to maleness? Are they excluded if they still identify with and as men sometimes or partially? What degree of maleness and what degree of femaleness are acceptable? — And are polygender amabs held to a different standard than polygender afabs? Why is this so?

Understand this: asab doesn’t and shouldn’t be used to divide nonbinaries for the purpose of gender-identity-based separatism. It undermines our solidarity and denies our genders, treating amab nonbinary genders as somehow fundamentally different from afab nonbinary genders. You are undermining nonbinary solidarity and working against nonbinary coalition-building.

Dividing nonbinaries by asab in an absolutist separatist way makes an implicit statement about the importance of asab as an axis of oppression, ignoring and working against the very real ways in which nonbinary trans people of all asabs can come together and support each other, and the commonalities of oppression which nonbinaries of different asabs face.

It is useful to have amab nonbinary spaces and afab nonbinary spaces, separate from each other, but it is not politically or intellectually coherent to place afab nonbinaries with “men” and amab nonbinaries with “women” for the purpose of separatism as Millbank appears to practice it.

The Separatist Framework Disadvantages Detransitioners and Closeted Trans Men

Separatism appears to advance the idea the women and female-aligned people ought to have sisterhood together and to rely on each other for support, while also cutting off other connections to e.g. men and male-aligned people.

This creates an immense amount of coercive power. What happens when someone wants to become a man? They lose their entire support system, and are never able to talk to anyone they used to know ever again, and they are now the violent and threatening Other of maleness, which must be constantly feared, denounced, and made to answer for patriarchy.

So much for questioning their gender in a safe space.

If Millbank (&c) had adopted a more holistic feminism – one in which men’s perspectives were valuable and male/female was not in practice treated as the most significant axis of kyriarchal oppression – then they would have successfully avoided these transphobic and transmisandrist statements, or at least they would have been able to remedy them. But she and her fellow transfeminists did not, and they have reaped the foul rewards.

I hope that Millbank reads this. But I doubt she will.

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