Something of a personal history with the concept
1I first heard the term “discourse community” early in 1986, fairly soon after I had moved to the United States; it was used in a talk at the University of Michigan given by Lillian Bridwell-Bowles. I cannot remember much of the talk at today’s distance, but I do remember how I immediately recognized that the concept of discourse community was precisely the concept I had been looking for since it would provide socio-rhetorical context for my ongoing exploration of (mainly) academic genres. By the time Genre Analysis was eventually published in 1990, discourse community (DC) had become a member of a trio of interlocking concepts, the other two being genre and language-learning task (Swales 1990; Flowerdew 2015). For most of the next few years, I did not pay much attention to the concept, but I did keep mentioning to my doctoral students that the strange configuration of units in the small building where I had my office would make a splendid dissertation research site. This was because the North University Building (now demolished) had the university’s Computer Center on the first floor, the university’s Herbarium (its large collection of dried plants) on the second floor, while above it was the English Language Institute (ELI), divided into a teaching section and a testing section, and missioned to provide courses and services for international students on the large Ann Arbor campus. However, I was unable to persuade any of the students to take it on, so around 1995 I decided I would do the study myself. The basic idea was to see whether we had three different coherent and cohering discourse communities, each on its own floor in the same building. The book appeared in 1998 with the title of Other Floors, Other Voices: A Textography of a Small University Building (Swales 1998). I described the study as a “textography” to indicate that it was something more than a discourse analysis but something less than a full-blown ethnography.
2One of the many things that I did learn in the investigative process was that university clocks move at different speeds in different parts of a university. The clock goes very slowly in the Herbarium. If a botanist wants to borrow some specimens from Michigan, he or she needs to agree to keep them for at least two years, and may actually keep them for decades. The reference books that the systematic botanists employ for keying out the plants they are studying have a shelf-life for decades. One major project, to describe all the plants of western Mexico, began in 1946 and was still continuing up to a few years ago. In the ELI, the shelf-life of its products, typically textbooks and tests, runs some 5–10 years or so before they are revised or replaced. While in the Computer Center, the shelf-life of computer manuals, etc., is often just a matter of months before an update appears or some patch is incorporated. Another discovery was that the botanists utilized a very different set of scholarly genres from those to which I had become accustomed; they were, in increasing order of importance or status, a “treatment” (a description of a selected group of plants), a “flora” (the description of all the plants in some region), and a “monograph” (a study of all the plants in one family, wherever they are found). Toward the end of the volume, I concluded that the denizens of the Herbarium formed a very distinct discourse community, while the ELI had many of the elements of a DC, even though there was a rather different ethos in the teaching and testing divisions (over such matters as to what “counts” as a publication), which remained a source of strain. On the other hand, in the Computer Center, the part-time employment of ever-changing streams of short-stay students meant that any sense of community, a sense that “we are all more or less on the same page”, never really developed.
3From then on, my thoughts about discourse communities lay largely dormant until in 2013 I was asked to give a talk at a well-known university in North Carolina. The professor who invited me suggested I speak about “the concept of discourse community”, which I agreed to do. So I started to look around in order to bring myself up to date. My first surprise was that the old material in Genre Analysis seemed to be very much alive and well. The Wikipedia entry, for example, opens with this two-sentence paragraph:
A discourse community is a group of people who share a set of discourses, understood as basic values and assumptions, and ways of communicating about their goals. Linguist John Swales defined discourse communities as “groups that have goals and purposes, and use communication to achieve their goals.”1
4Further, in the middle of this first page, we find:
Swales presents six defining characteristics:
A discourse community:
1) has a broadly agreed set of common public goals;
2) has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members;
3) uses its participatory mechanisms to provide information and feedback;
4) utilizes and possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims;
5) In addition to owning genres, it has acquired some specific lexis;
6) has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.2
5If one scrolls down the Google entries for discourse community, it seems about a quarter consists of extracts from published or presented work, such as Beaufort (1998), Borg (2003), and Johns (1997). Another quarter consists of entries from encyclopedia-type websites such as Researchomatic and the NCTEbriefs. Most of the rest are either posts from instructors expounding the concept for their composition students, or blogs from those students, summarizing and applying the six criteria to their own experiences. One surprising aspect of these posts and blogs was that there were very few criticisms of or objections to the six criteria, one of the very few coming from a student named Jordan Rosa: “Questions I still have: Are these the only characteristics of a discourse community, or are there more? How many more?” Good for you, Jordan!
6I soon discovered that the main reason for this flurry of activity in using the six old criteria derived from an extensive DC extract from Genre Analysis in Wardle and Downs’ highly successful composition textbook Writing about writing: A college reader (Wardle & Downs 2011). Here is a PowerPoint slide from one of the more interesting instructor uptakes by Heather Wayne, at that time a teaching assistant in English at the University of Central Florida. (I have added some explanatory notes in parentheses):
Using the 6 criteria, are these discourse communities?
1) A soccer team
2) A sorority/fraternity
3) UCF (University of Central Florida)
4) Publix employees (Publix is a supermarket chain in southeastern USA)
5) The Hong Kong Study Circle (a postal history group examined in Genre Analysis)
6) Republican voters
7) College Democrats at UCF
8) Composition scholars
9) Occupants of Nike dorms (a student resident hall)
10) Our class3
7Not unexpectedly, I have been in somewhat of two minds about all this attention to the six defining criteria for a discourse community. (And I notice in passing that Wikipedia uses the present tense (“Swales presents”) for something written twenty-five years ago.). On the one hand, there has been a sense of (doubtless vainglorious) gratification that something I had dreamed up in the late 1980s was still alive and well, while, on the other, there has been a feeling of dismay at the inertia—at the unthinking acceptance of something that was written before most of today’s undergraduates were born and at a time before globalization, before all of those advances in computers and computer-based communications, and particularly before the emergence of social media.
25 years later—a changed world
8The basic idea of a rhetorical discourse community arose in contrast to the longer-standing sociolinguistic concept of speech community. The latter was premised on a homogeneous assemblage of people who share place, background, language variety and who largely share social, religious, and cultural values. Such communities tend to be small and isolated, such as those existing in mountain villages, or on small islands, or in desert oases. In some contrast, the former is a largely heterogeneous, socio-rhetorical assemblage of people who broadly share occupational or recreational experiences, goals, and interests. Thus, members of a DC may have different first languages, different religions, and belong to diverse ethnicities. Examples might include members of GERAS or of TESOL, all those who work in an animal clinic, or those who are members of a local choir.
9However, it is unclear whether, in this era of cell-phones, family dispersion, a fluid and uncertain job market for the young, the rise of international trade, and the decline of local crafts and industries, traditional speech communities continue to exist in meaningful numbers. In addition, discourse communities both influence and are influenced by the larger communities within which they are situated. In consequence, when a university becomes established in a town, the presence of this constellation of discourse communities influences the wider urban environment; as a result, the urban environment provides services that are helpful to the university, such as cheap student housing, cheap restaurants, museums, and more bookshops, which in turn further consolidates our sense of a university town like Cambridge, Heidelberg, or Uppsala. And the same shaping forces create other kinds of town: religious ones like Lourdes, Assisi, or Mecca; sporting towns like Le Mans, St. Andrews, or Saratoga; or government towns like Washington, Ottawa, or Canberra. In other words, both concepts have developed fuzzier boundaries as the world has changed.
10A second set of problems is that the concept of discourse community as originally conceived was overly static. While this perhaps did not matter so much in 1990, in today’s more unsettled and uncertain world, it looms larger as a problem; in particular, the concept did not firmly or directly address how people either join or leave DCs. For this, it is helpful to turn to Lave and Wenger’s “Community of practice” concept (Lave & Wenger 1991), in which they explain the processes of entry, apprenticeship, membership, seniority, and exit through retirement, death, translocation, etc. A third problematic area is that both the discourse community concept and that of communities of practice tend to view their objects of study through an overly idealistic lens, especially in terms of assumptions about shared beliefs, values, motives, and allegiances among its members (Harris 1989). For instance, when we visit a department in the university that is new to us, our immediate impression is typically one of a homogeneous and sedate disciplinary world with wide agreements about such matters as methodology and epistemology. However, the more we get to know it, the more it seems to be fragmented and compartmentalized, and perhaps even fractious and adversative (Tannen 1998). To an outsider, a linguistics department, for instance, might seem to represent a collectivity of folks with a like-minded interest in language. However, to an insider, there are clear differences between a phonetician and a phonologist, or between those who pursue the relationship between language and mind, and those who pursue the relationship between language and society. Sometimes, of course, difference leads to fracture. As in a number of universities, the biology department at Michigan has split into two, one dealing with micro- and molecular biology and the other dealing with ecology and evolution. As a senior biologist said to me at the time of the split, “We biologists are either skin-in or skin-out”. Finally, like many in major U.S. universities, I used to have a split appointment: 50% of effort in the Department of Linguistics and 50% in the English Language Institute. I suspect I was always a little too practical and pragmatic for my mostly theoretical linguistics colleagues, while a little too research-minded for my fellow EAP instructors in the ELI.
Three types of discourse community in academia
11The term discourse community is now more than thirty years old since it was apparently first coined by Martin Nystrand, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Nystrand 1982). Since then, it has been widely used and discussed (sometimes critically) by scholars in applied language studies as a way of recognizing that communications largely operate within conventions and expectations established by communities of various kinds. As this interest in the concept has proliferated, we have come to see that these communities are, in fact, differentiated by various factors, such as how localized they are, what origins they have had, and what types of activity are central to their existence. So, it is the main purpose of this section to offer a categorization of different types of discourse community; if you will, to draw an outline map of the discourse community territory.
Local discourse communities
12There are essentially three sub-types of these: residential, vocational, and occupational, but only the last of these really applies to the university context. These are groupings of people who all work at the same place (as in a factory or a university department), or at the same occupation in the same area (all the bakers in a town). These DCs have acquired many abbreviations and acronyms as well as some special words and phrases that are needed in order to get their jobs done more quickly and more efficiently—terminologies that are not used, nor even often understood, by the general public. For example, when I worked in Aston University, one of the main eating places on campus was the Vauxhall Dining Centre. So, when we had visitors, if I were not careful, I would say some form of “Let’s go to the VD Centre for lunch”. When I saw consternation on their faces, I would hurriedly have to explain that I was not suggesting eating at the clinic for venereal diseases!
13I am, of course, familiar with my local discourse community in Michigan’s ELI. I know when the building is unlocked and how to gain access when it is locked, where the toilets are, and who to ask for technical help. I know which codes to use for the photocopier, and where to find certain office supplies, and so on. However, when I travel to another university for a conference, I do not know any of these things and, unless the signage is excellent, I will probably soon get lost. Lower-level university staff typically belong to just their local departmental discourse community, while mid-level staff may belong in addition to the communities of, for instance, departmental budget officers, who get together for regular meetings and discussions. High-level administrators probably belong to some professional association and travel to that association’s national convention. Members of these DCs also have acquired expectations and conventions of behavior that orchestrate their working days. One further consequence is that implicit value systems emerge which determine what is seen as good and less good work. Further, members of these DCs may get together socially outside of work, which further reinforces the community. Often, in these communities, there are apprentice arrangements (such as probationary periods) whereby new members are scrutinized as they attempt to acculturate into accepted occupational behaviors.
Focal discourse communities
14Focal communities are the opposite in many ways of local ones. They are typically associations of some kind that reach across a region, a nation, and internationally. They may be informal groupings or more formal ones with rules, elections and paid memberships. One informal group that I belong to is Southeast Michigan Birders, and this is part of an email message I received recently:
At about 3 p.m. yesterday three owls flew over Wisner Hwy. As they flew closer to the road they swooped lower and disappeared into the woods. Because of the open fields and time of day I suspected SEO, but thought probably not because I have never associated SEO with an affinity for landing in woods.
15I suspect that I may be the only person reading this journal who would know that SEO is the standard U.S. acronym for Short-eared Owl. Indeed, many types of discourse communities develop shorthand expressions, such as abbreviations and acronyms, to aid speed of communication. Members of such groups can be of different nationalities, ages, and occupations, and can differ quite considerably in their economic circumstances and educational backgrounds. They come together because of a focus on their hobby or recreational preference. Today, these kinds of DC are much aided by modern conveniences such as email and the cell phone. In some cases, they may produce a newsletter or have some other kind of publication that is distributed among the members.
16The other major kind of focal discourse community is professional rather than recreational. In many professions, there has emerged over the years a national association that is designed to bind the members together and advance the profession in terms of protecting its rights and using its specialized expertise to lobby against what it views as ill-considered policies and in favor of those that it believes to be more soundly based. GERAS and BAAL (the British Association of Applied Linguists) would be typical examples. Many of these associations have a national conference, whereby individuals from far-flung places gather together to learn of latest developments, review the latest products in exhibition areas, and listen to luminaries in their field. These days, they typically have very active websites, wherein members can receive updates and express their opinions and preferences. If they are academically inclined, these associations often also support one or more journals for their members, such as ASp or TESOL Quarterly.
“Folocal” discourse communities
17The third and final main type of discourse community has characteristics of both local and focal DCs, which is why I have coined the fused term “folocal” as a neologistic amalgam of the “local” and “focal”. These are hybrid communities whose members have a double—and sometimes split—allegiance, as they are confronted by internal and external challenges and pressures. Consider the situation of the local branch of your bank, or a car dealership in your area. The people who work in such places have both their own ways of going about their tasks, and their own conventionalized ways of talking about those tasks and with their customers. However, they also are in contact and receive instructions from regional or national offices that in part determine how they carry out their duties. In effect, they are subjected to both centripetal and centrifugal forces.
18Perhaps a clearer instance is that of a university department in a research-active university. Members of such departments are members of both a local DC and a focal one. They understand how things operate in their own institution as they go about their teaching and administrative activities. Unlike outsiders, they know when rooms and buildings are locked, and where and to whom to make an application for some small amount of money. But they are also specialized scholars whose closest colleagues are likely to be elsewhere, perhaps even in other countries, and whose activities involve presenting at conferences in other places and publishing in distant journals. As is well known, there often emerges a conflict between the local demands on their time and the focal demands on that time—a conflict that is presumably becoming exacerbated as more and more higher education institutions are pressuring their faculty to publish in recognized international journals (Bennett 2014). These, then, are some of the typical competing pressures of belonging to a “folocal” discourse community.
Discourse community and identity
19Many people are occasional members of more than one discourse community. In my own case, I am a member of the institute where I have had an office for the last thirty years, but also I am active in the wider world of English for Academic Purposes by, for instance, serving on a number of editorial boards. My current hobbies are bird-watching and butterfly-watching, and I belong to various associations that support these similar but not identical activities. In the past, I was a member of a focal DC that brought together a very disparate group of people who were interested in the postal history of Hong Kong, about a hundred philatelists from some twenty countries. Our student services secretary is a dedicated “Whovian” (i.e., a fan of the Dr Who TV program), and last year he flew to London to attend the Dr Who 50th Anniversary Celebration. As we move from one DC to another, our verbal and social behavior adapts to the new environment, but I do not believe that this necessarily implies that we adopt new identities, or that we are somehow merely an aggregation of different personae. (Unless, of course, we are spies or under-cover agents.) My beliefs about this were brilliantly exemplified (and with an astonishing economy of words, including but a single opening verb) by Alexander Pope:
See the same man, in vigour, in the gout;
Alone, in company; in place, or out;
Early at business, and at hazard late;
Mad at a fox-chase, wise at a debate;
Drunk at a borough, civil at a ball,
Friendly at Hackney, faithless at Whitehall.
Epistle 1: To Cobham, 1734 (Williams 1969: 162–163)
20As Pope avers, it is “the same man” (or woman), healthy or ill, employed or not, at work or gambling, wild at sport or sensible in discussion, drunk at an election, good-mannered at a dance, reliable and amiable in the East End of London, but not to be trusted at the seat of the central government.
Reconsidering DC criteria
21Given the foregoing—ossified criteria for DCs, problems with the concept, and three contrasting types of discourse community—it is certainly time to re-imagine the concept itself, first by reflecting on the original six criteria and then more generally. In each case, I will give the Wikipedia summaries followed by updates.
1. A DC has a broadly agreed set of goals
22A DC has a potentially discoverable set of goals. These may be publicly and explicitly formulated (as in “mission” or “vision” statements); they may be generally or partially recognized by its members; they may be broadly consensual; or they may be separate but contiguous (as when older and younger members have different ideas about the best future direction of the DC, or when there is a clash between academic researchers and practitioners, as in the just-holding-together American Psychological Association). This expansion then is designed to recognize that a DC is not necessarily utopian in flavor; it also acknowledges that DCs can flourish in darker worlds, such as those represented by Al-Q’aida, price-fixing cabals, or industry pressure groups.
2. A DC has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members
23Fine, but we now need to emphasize the roles of new digital channels, such as emails, blogs, tweets, etc., and we also need to stress that without any means of intercommunication of any kind, there is no real community. Subscribers to LeMonde may share certain characteristics, but they do not form a discourse community.
3. A DC uses its participatory mechanisms to provide information and feedback
24This third criterion was always sadly incomplete. A DC uses its participatory mechanisms to manage the operations of the DC and to promote (usually) recruitment, change, growth, and development, and to orchestrate (rarely) retrenchment and demise. In other words, these mechanisms are used to initiate actions and activities, rather than simply providing information. For instance, the employer and employees in a small shop may get together to discuss relocating; a London club may vote to admit women; or a university department, in a series of faculty meetings, may decide to drop a degree option because of low enrollment.
4. A DC utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims
25The use of “possesses” is rather strange as it soon becomes clear that there are not enough genres in the world for them to be “possessed” by individual DCs. A DC utilizes an evolving selection of genres in the furtherance of its sets of goals and as a means of instantiating its participatory mechanisms. These sets of genres are often particularized, as the genres are performed, re-performed, and refined, but they are rarely owned (i.e., uniquely the property of a particular DC). For instance, most university departments have regular staff meetings, but these evolve differently, with emerging differences about speaking and voting roles, about ancillary genres, such as agendas and minutes, and about allowable topics and interventions.
5. In addition to owning genres, it has acquired some specific lexis
26A DC has acquired and continues to refine DC-specific terminology. Classically, this consists of abbreviations and shorthands of all kinds, not including various kinds of codes. For example, hospitals in the U.S. have a rich menu of codes that the staff employ, especially in emergencies, partly for efficiency and partly to keep information from patients and the general public. So, “code 236 on floor six” might indicate a heart attack on that floor. In the older ELI, when we still had a placement test, we might have said among ourselves of a new international student, “She looks like a 73 across the board”. More widely, at the University of Michigan and indeed elsewhere, unofficial labels are common. Our football stadium is often referred to as “The Big House”; the central administration building is known as “the Mondrian cube” because of its architecture; and the Shapiro Library more often than not goes by its discarded old name “the UGLI” (the old name being “The Undergraduate Library”). Further, disciplinary terminology can be sui generis: recall that the classic genre set for systematic botany consists of treatment, flora, and monograph.
6. A DC has a threshold of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise
27A DC has an explicit or implicit hierarchy and/or structure which, inter alia, manages the processes of entry into and advancement within the discourse community. The stress here on managing DC affairs reduces the somewhat static impression that the 1990 formulation produces.
28We can now add two new criteria.
7. A DC develops a sense of “silential relations” (Becker 1995)
29A DC develops a sense of “silential relations” (Becker 1995), whereby there is a sense of things that do not need to be said or to be spelt out in detail in either words or writing. Bridge players invariably say “four clubs” rather than “I bid four clubs”. Or consider the case of discoveries in the world of nature. If the discovery is of a large mammal, it will make the front pages of the world’s major newspapers. If it is of a bird, it will merit an article, including pictures or perhaps a video, in a specialized journal (Gross 1990). But suppose we have a new plant; here is a typical write-up:
Bunchosia itacarensis W R Anderson, sp. nov.–Type: Brazil. Bahia: Mun. Itacaré, 3 km S of Itacaré, forest at edge of ocean, Dec fl, Mori et al. 13081 (Holotype: MICH! CEPEC, NY, not seen).
30We only know that this is a discovery because of the laconic abbreviated Latin phrase sp. nov.; also note the interesting short hand convention in “MICH!” The exclamation mark indicates that the author has actually examined the University of Michigan specimen.
8. A DC develops horizons of expectation
31A DC develops horizons of expectation, defined rhythms of activity, a sense of its history, and value systems for what is good and less good work. Consider again the concept of the university clocks moving at different speeds that was discussed in the opening section. Or reflect on how DCs evolve rotas and rosters. Thus, in the ELI, every other Friday, somebody is responsible for clearing out the communal fridge; every so often, the administrative staff carry out a stock-taking; there is a fire-drill once a year, as well as a Christmas party; the first staff meeting of the year includes the director’s review of the previous year, and so on.
32Generally speaking, and with some flexibility, all eight criteria can usually be applied to all three types of community.
So, where do we stand?
33It would seem that we can set up operable criteria for looking at groups in order to examine whether those groups qualify for DC status. On the other hand, actually defining discourse communities, or sub-types of them, has proved rather intractable; twenty years ago Bazerman observed that “most definitions of discourse community get ragged around the edges rapidly” (Bazerman 1994: 128), and today that situation has not greatly changed. And yet, it remains seductive, as Paul Prior explains:
Why does DC theory have such strange features: instant adoptability, resilience in the face of critique, resistance to calls for theoretical specification, the protean character of its fundamental assumptions as it migrates across theoretical and empirical traditions? (Prior 2003: 1)
34It is doubtful, then, in present formulations that the concept is a robust social construct. A historian might argue that it does not account for economic and political forces; a sociologist might say that it fails to acknowledge the effects of broader social structures; an educationist might claim that it downplays acquisitional trajectories, as well as the roles of individual agency; and an anthropologist could argue that it ignores powerful aspects of cultural history. But I would counter-argue that this probably does not matter as long as our focus is on rhetorical principles of organization, on discoursal expectations, on significative linguistic tokens, and on intriguing textual extracts. Such attention on these more surface features provides insight into what at first sight might seem standard, ordinary and predictable. On this topic, I will give the last word to James Porter, whose important book is unfortunately little known outside the United States:
The term “discourse community” is useful for describing a space that was unacknowledged before because we did not have a term for it. The term realigns the traditional unities—writer, audience, text—into a new configuration. What was before largely scene, unnoticed background, becomes foreground. (Porter 1992: 84)
35It is precisely this foregrounding realignment that makes the DC concept useful for languages for specific and academic purposes, and for EAP and other practitioners as they work to give students the oracy and literacy skills to survive and flourish in their diverse educational environments.
On May 24th, a few dozen people gathered in a conference room at the Central Library, a century-old Georgian Revival building in downtown Portland, Oregon, for an event called Radfems Respond. The conference had been convened by a group that wanted to defend two positions that have made radical feminism anathema to much of the left. First, the organizers hoped to refute charges that the desire to ban prostitution implies hostility toward prostitutes. Then they were going to try to explain why, at a time when transgender rights are ascendant, radical feminists insist on regarding transgender women as men, who should not be allowed to use women’s facilities, such as public rest rooms, or to participate in events organized exclusively for women.
The dispute began more than forty years ago, at the height of the second-wave feminist movement. In one early skirmish, in 1973, the West Coast Lesbian Conference, in Los Angeles, furiously split over a scheduled performance by the folksinger Beth Elliott, who is what was then called a transsexual. Robin Morgan, the keynote speaker, said:
I will not call a male “she”; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman”; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.
Such views are shared by few feminists now, but they still have a foothold among some self-described radical feminists, who have found themselves in an acrimonious battle with trans people and their allies. 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.” They believe that if women think and act differently from men it’s because society forces them to, requiring them to be sexually attractive, nurturing, and deferential. In the words of Lierre Keith, a speaker at Radfems Respond, femininity is “ritualized submission.”
In this view, gender is less an identity than a caste position. Anyone born a man retains male privilege in society; even if he chooses to live as a woman—and accept a correspondingly subordinate social position—the fact that he has a choice means that he can never understand what being a woman is really like. By extension, when trans women demand to be accepted as women they are simply exercising another form of male entitlement. All this enrages trans women and their allies, who point to the discrimination that trans people endure; although radical feminism is far from achieving all its goals, women have won far more formal equality than trans people have. In most states, it’s legal to fire someone for being transgender, and transgender people can’t serve in the military. A recent survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found overwhelming levels of anti-trans violence and persecution. Forty-one per cent of respondents said that they had attempted suicide.
Yet, at the same time, the trans-rights movement is growing in power and cachet: a recent Time cover featuring the actress Laverne Cox was headlined “THE TRANSGENDER TIPPING POINT.” The very word “transgender,” which first came into wide use in the nineteen-nineties, encompasses far more people than the term “transsexual” did. It includes not just the small number of people who seek gender-reassignment surgery—according to frequently cited estimates, about one in thirty thousand men and one in a hundred thousand women—but also those who take hormones, or who simply identify with the opposite gender, or, in some cases, with both or with neither. (According to the National Center survey, most trans women have taken female hormones, but only about a quarter of them have had genital surgery.) The elasticity of the term “transgender” has forced a rethinking of what sex and gender mean; at least in progressive circles, what’s determinative isn’t people’s chromosomes or their genitals or the way that they were brought up but how they see themselves.
Having rejected this supposition, radical feminists now find themselves in a position that few would have imagined when the conflict began: shunned as reactionaries on the wrong side of a sexual-rights issue. It is, to them, a baffling political inversion.
Radfems Respond was originally to have taken place across town from the library, at a Quaker meeting house, but trans activists had launched a petition on Change.org demanding that the event be cancelled. They said that, in hosting it, the Quakers would alienate trans people and “be complicit in the violence against them.” The Quakers, citing concerns in their community, revoked the agreement.
It wasn’t the first time that such an event had lost a scheduled venue. The Radfem 2012 conference was to be held in London, at Conway Hall, which bills itself as “a hub for free speech and independent thought.” But trans activists objected both to Radfem’s women-only policy—which was widely understood to exclude trans women—and to the participation of Sheila Jeffreys, a professor of political science at the University of Melbourne. Jeffreys was scheduled to speak on prostitution, but she is a longtime critic of the transgender movement, and Conway Hall officials decided that they could not allow speakers who “conflict with our ethos, principles, and culture.” Ultimately, the event was held at a still secret location; organizers escorted delegates to it from a nearby meeting place. Radfem 2013 also had to switch locations, as did a gathering in Toronto last year, called Radfems Rise Up.
In response, thirty-seven radical feminists, including major figures from the second wave, such as Ti-Grace Atkinson, Kathie Sarachild, and Michele Wallace, signed a statement titled “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Criticism of ‘Gender,’ ” which described their “alarm” at “threats and attacks, some of them physical, on individuals and organizations daring to challenge the currently fashionable concept of gender.” With all this in mind, the Radfems Respond organizers had arranged the library space as a backup, but then a post on Portland Indymedia announced:
We questioned the library administration about allowing a hate group who promotes discrimination and their response is that they cannot kick them out because of freedom of speech. So we also exercise our right to free speech in public space this Saturday to drive the TERFS and Radfems out of OUR library and OUR Portland!
(TERF 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. “It’s aggrieved entitlement,” Lierre Keith told me. “They are so angry that we will not see them as women.” Keith is a writer and an activist who runs a small permaculture farm in Northern California. She is forty-nine, with cropped pewter hair and a uniform of black T-shirts and jeans. Three years ago, she co-founded the ecofeminist group Deep Green Resistance, which has some two hundred members and links the oppression of women to the pillaging of the planet.
D.G.R. is defiantly militant, refusing to condemn the use of violence in the service of goals it considers just. In radical circles, though, what makes the group truly controversial is its stance on gender. As members see it, a person born with male privilege can no more shed it through surgery than a white person can claim an African-American identity simply by darkening his or her skin. Before D.G.R. held its first conference, in 2011, in Wisconsin, the group informed a person in the process of a male-to-female transition that she couldn’t stay in the women’s quarters. “We said, That’s fine if you want to come, but, no, you’re not going to have access to the women’s sleeping spaces and the women’s bathrooms,” Keith told me.
Last February, Keith was to be a keynote speaker at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, but the student government voted to condemn her, and more than a thousand people signed a petition demanding that the address be cancelled. Amid threats of violence, six policemen escorted Keith to the lectern, though, in the end, the protest proved peaceful: some audience members walked out and held a rally, leaving her to speak to a half-empty room.
Keith had an easier time at Radfems Respond, where she spoke on the differences between radicalism and liberalism. Two gender-bending punk kids who looked as if they might be there to protest left during the long opening session, on prostitution. A men’s-rights activist showed up—he later posted mocking clips from a video that he had secretly made—but said nothing during the sessions. Several trans women arrived and sat at the back, but, in fact, they were there to express solidarity, having decided that the attacks on radical feminists were both out of control and misguided. One of them, a thin, forty-year-old blonde from the Bay Area, 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.
Despite that surprising show of support, most of the speakers felt embattled. Heath Atom Russell gave the closing talk. A stocky woman, with curly turquoise hair and a bluish stubble shadow on her cheeks, she wore a T-shirt that read “I Survived Testosterone Poisoning.” At twenty-five, she is a “detransitioner,” a person who once identified as transgender but no longer does. (Expert estimates of the number of transitioners who abandon their new gender range from fewer than one per cent to as many as five per cent.)
Russell, a lesbian who grew up in a conservative Baptist family in Southern California, began transitioning to male as a student at Humboldt State University, and was embraced by gender-rights groups on campus. She started taking hormones and changed her name. Then, in her senior year, she discovered “Unpacking Queer Politics” (2003), by Sheila Jeffreys, which critiques female-to-male transsexualism as capitulation to misogyny.
At first, the book infuriated Russell, but she couldn’t let go of the questions that it raised about her own identity. She had been having heart palpitations, which made her uneasy about the hormones she was taking. Nor did she ever fully believe herself to be male. At one point during her transition, she hooked up with a middle-aged trans woman. Russell knew that she was supposed to think of herself as a man with a woman, but, she said, “It didn’t feel right, and I was scared.” Eventually, she proclaimed herself a woman again, and a radical feminist, though it meant being ostracized by many of her friends. She is now engaged to a woman; someone keyed the word “dyke” on her fiancée’s car.
Russell appears in Sheila Jeffreys’s new book, “Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism.” Jeffreys, who is sixty-six, has short silver hair and a weathered face. She has taught at the University of Melbourne for twenty-three years, but she grew up in London, and has been described as the Andrea Dworkin of the U.K. She has written nine previous books, all of which focus on the sexual subjugation of women, whether through rape, incest, pornography, prostitution, or Western beauty norms. Like Dworkin, she is viewed as a heroine by a cadre of like-minded admirers and as a zealot by others. In 2005, in an admiring feature in the Guardian, Julie Bindel wrote, “Jeffreys sees sexuality as the basis of the oppression of women by men, in much the same way as Marx saw capitalism as the scourge of the working class. This unwavering belief has made her many enemies. Postmodern theorist Judith Halberstam once said, ‘If Sheila Jeffreys did not exist, Camille Paglia would have had to invent her.’ ”
In eight brisk chapters (half of them written with Jeffreys’s former Ph.D. student Lorene Gottschalk), “Gender Hurts” offers Jeffreys’s first full-length treatment of transgenderism. Ordinarily, Jeffreys told me, she would launch the publication of a new book with an event at the university, but this time campus security warned against it. She has also taken her name off her office door. She gave a talk in London this month, but it was invitation-only.
In the book, Jeffreys calls detransitioners like Russell “survivors,” and cites them as evidence that transgenderism isn’t immutable and thus doesn’t warrant radical medical intervention. (She considers gender-reassignment surgery a form of mutilation.) “The phenomenon of regret undermines the idea that there exists a particular kind of person who is genuinely and essentially transgender and can be identified accurately by psychiatrists,” she writes. “It is radically destabilising to the transgender project.” She cites as further evidence the case of Bradley Cooper, who, in 2011, at the age of seventeen, became Britain’s youngest gender-reassignment patient, then publicly regretted his transition the next year and returned to living as a boy. Jeffreys is especially alarmed by doctors in Europe, Australia, and the United States who treat transgender children with puberty-delaying drugs, which prevent them from developing unwanted secondary sex characteristics and can result in sterilization.
Throughout the book, Jeffreys insists on using male pronouns to refer to trans women and female ones to refer to trans men. “Use by men of feminine pronouns conceals the masculine privilege bestowed upon them by virtue of having been placed in and brought up in the male sex caste,” she writes. To her critics, the book becomes particularly hateful when she tries to account for the reality of trans people. Explaining female-to-male transition is fairly easy for her (and for other radical feminists): women seek to become men in order to raise their status in a sexist system. Heath Atom Russell, for example, is quoted as attributing her former desire to become a man to the absence of a “proud woman loving culture.”
But, if that’s true, why would men demote themselves to womanhood? For reasons of sexual fetishism, Jeffreys says. She substantiates her argument with the highly controversial theories of Ray Blanchard, a retired professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, and the related work of J. Michael Bailey, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. Contrary to widespread belief, Blanchard says, the majority of trans women in the West start off not as effeminate gay men but as straight or bisexual men, and they are initially motivated by erotic compulsion rather than by any conceived female identity. “The core is, it’s really exciting for guys to imagine themselves with female breasts, or female breasts and a vulva,” he told me. To describe the syndrome, Blanchard coined the term “autogynephilia,” meaning sexual arousal at the thought of oneself as female.
Blanchard is far from a radical feminist. He believes that gender-reassignment surgery can relieve psychological suffering; he has even counselled people who undergo it. He also accepts the commonly held view that male brains differ from female brains in ways that affect behavior. Nevertheless, Jeffreys believes that the work of Blanchard and Bailey shows that when trans women ask to be accepted as women they’re seeking to have an erotic fixation indulged.
The last time a feminist of any standing published an attack on transgenderism as caustic as “Gender Hurts” was in 1979, when Janice Raymond produced “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male.” Raymond was a lesbian ex-nun who became a doctoral student of the radical-feminist theologian Mary Daly, at Boston College. Inspired by the women’s-health movement, Raymond framed much of “The Transsexual Empire” as a critique of a patriarchal medical and psychiatric establishment. Still, the book was frequently febrile, particularly with regard to lesbian trans women. “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves,” Raymond wrote. “However, the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women’s sexuality and spirit.”
It’s a measure of how much perceptions have changed in the past thirty-five years that “The Transsexual Empire” received a respectful, even admiring hearing in the mainstream media, unlike “Gender Hurts,” which has been largely ignored there. Reviewing “The Transsexual Empire” in the Times, the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz called it “flawless.” Raymond, he wrote, “has rightly seized on transsexualism as an emblem of modern society’s unremitting—though increasingly concealed—antifeminism.”
One of the women Raymond wrote about was Sandy Stone, a performance artist and academic who this fall will teach digital arts and new media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. When Raymond’s book was published, Stone was a recording engineer at Olivia Records, a women’s-music collective in Los Angeles. In the late sixties, after graduating from college, and while still living as a man, she had bluffed her way into a job at New York’s famed Record Plant recording studio, where she worked with Jimi Hendrix and the Velvet Underground. (For a time, she slept in the studio basement, on a pile of Hendrix’s capes.) She moved to the West Coast and transitioned in 1974. Olivia approached her soon afterward; experienced female recording engineers were hard to find.
Stone became a member of the collective the next year and moved into a communal house that it rented, where she was the only trans woman among a dozen or so other lesbians. According to “The Transsexual Empire,” her presence was a major source of controversy in lesbian-feminist circles, but Stone insists that it was Raymond who created the dissension. “When the book came out, we were deluged with hate mail,” Stone says. “Up to that point, we were pretty much happy campers, making our music and doing our political work.”
Stone received death threats, but ultimately it was the threat of a boycott that drove her out of the collective. She eventually earned a doctorate in philosophy at Santa Cruz. In 1987, Stone wrote an essay, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” which is widely seen as the founding text of transgender studies. It’s still taught around the world; a second French edition is about to be published, and Stone has received a request to allow a Catalan translation.
The last time that Janice Raymond wrote on transgender issues was in 1994, for a new introduction to “The Transsexual Empire.” Since then, she has focussed on sex trafficking, and last August a Norwegian government agency invited her to Oslo to speak on a panel about prostitution legislation. When she arrived, however, an official informed her that she had been disinvited; a letter to the editor of a major Norwegian newspaper had accused her of transphobia. Raymond says that similar things have “happened much more frequently within the last couple of years.”
The most dramatic change in the perception of transgenderism can be seen in academia. Particularly at liberal-arts colleges, students are now routinely asked which gender pronoun they would prefer to be addressed by: choices might include “ze,” “ou,” “hir,” “they,” or even “it.” A decade ago, no university offered a student health plan that covered gender-reassignment surgery. Today, dozens do, including Harvard, Brown, Duke, Yale, Stanford, and the schools in the University of California system.
There are young transgender-critical radical feminists, like Heath Atom Russell and Rachel Ivey, aged twenty-four, who was one of the organizers of Radfems Respond, but they are the first to admit that they’re a minority. “If I were to say in a typical women’s-studies class today, ‘Female people are oppressed on the basis of reproduction,’ I would get called out,” Ivey says. Other students, she adds, would ask, “What about women who are male?”
That might be an exaggeration, but only a slight one. The members of the board of the New York Abortion Access Fund, an all-volunteer group that helps to pay for abortions for those who can’t afford them, are mostly young women; Alison Turkos, the group’s co-chair, is twenty-six. In May, they voted unanimously to stop using the word “women” when talking about people who get pregnant, so as not to exclude trans men. “We recognize that people who identify as men can become pregnant and seek abortions,” the group’s new Statement of Values says.
A Change.org petition asks NARAL and Planned Parenthood to adopt similarly gender-inclusive language. It specifically criticizes the hashtag #StandWithTexasWomen, which ricocheted around Twitter during State Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster against an anti-abortion bill in her state, and the phrase “Trust Women,” which was the slogan of George Tiller, the doctor and abortion provider who was murdered in Wichita in 2009.
To some younger activists, it seems obvious that anyone who objects to such changes is simply clinging to the privilege inherent in being cisgender, a word popularized in the nineteen-nineties to mean any person who is not transgender. Alison Turkos has heard complaints that the new language obscures the fact that cisgender women overwhelmingly bear the brunt of the current political attacks on reproductive rights. She replies, “It may not feel comfortable, but it’s important to create a space for more people who are often denied space and visibility.”
Older feminists who have not yet adopted this way of thinking can find themselves experiencing ideological whiplash. Sara St. Martin Lynne, a forty-year-old filmmaker and video producer from Oakland, told me, “When you come from a liberation, leftist background, you want to be on the right side of history,” and the debate “kind of puts you through your paces.” Last year, she was asked to resign from the board of Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, a nonprofit that “empowers girls through music,” because of her involvement with the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which bills itself as an event for “womyn-born womyn” only.
Michfest, as it’s called, takes place every August, on six hundred and fifty acres of land in the woods east of Lake Michigan. Lisa Vogel founded it in 1976, when she was a nineteen-year-old Central Michigan University student, and she still runs it. The music, Vogel says, is only part of what makes Michfest important. Each year, several thousand women set up camp there and find themselves, for a week, living in a matriarchy. Meals are cooked in kitchen tents and eaten communally. There are workshops and classes. Some women don extravagant costumes; others wear nothing at all. There is free child care and a team to assist disabled women who ordinarily cannot go camping. Vogel describes the governing ethos as “How would a town look if we actually got to decide what was important?”
She told me, “There’s something that I experience on the land when I walk at night without a flashlight in the woods and recognize that for that moment I feel completely safe. And there’s nowhere else I can do that.” She continued, “If, tomorrow, we said everyone is welcome, I’m sure it would still be a really cool event, but that piece that allows women to let down their guard and feel that really deep sense of personal liberation would be different, and that’s what we’re about.”
To transgender activists, Vogel’s stance is laden with offensive assumptions: that trans women are different in an essential way from other women, and that they’re dangerous. “The trope of trans women” constituting “a threat to women’s spaces has been tossed around forever,” Julia Serano told me. To her, it’s akin to straight people refusing to share a locker room with gays or lesbians. Serano, forty-six, is a biologist by training who now spends most of her time writing and speaking on transgender issues and feminism; last year, she lectured at schools including Brown, Stanford, Smith, and Cornell. (Sheila Jeffreys attacks her in “Gender Hurts,” using autobiographical details from Serano’s first book, “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” (2007), to paint her as an autogynephile who seeks to “reinvent ‘feminism’ to fit his erotic interests.”)
In the summer of 2003, Serano joined about a hundred people at Camp Trans, a protest camp near the Michfest site, which has run intermittently since 1994. Serano said that relations with Michfest attendees were often unexpectedly cordial. A few years ago, though, Vogel says, some protesters committed acts of vandalism—stealing electrical cables, cutting water pipes, keying cars in the parking lot, and spray-painting a six-foot penis, and the words “Real Women Have Dicks,” on the side of the main kitchen tent.
Since then, as with the case of Olivia Records, the demonstrations have been supplanted by a boycott campaign. Last year, the Indigo Girls, longtime regulars at Michfest, announced that they wouldn’t appear again until the event became trans-inclusive. This year, the scheduled headliners, Hunter Valentine, pulled out for the same reason. Performers who do appear face protests and boycotts of their own; the funk singer Shelley Nicole says that her band, blaKbüshe, was dropped from a show in Brooklyn because it is playing at Michfest next month.
Before Sara St. Martin Lynne was asked to leave the Bay Area Girls Rock Camp board, she hadn’t identified closely with radical feminism. Yet, as the campaign against Michfest—and against radical feminism as a whole—has grown, she’s come to feel strongly about keeping the event “womyn-born-womyn.” She said, “This moment where we’re losing the ability to say the word ‘woman’ or to acknowledge the fact that being born female has lived consequences and meaning is kind of intense to me.”
One of the trans women who showed up at the Radfems Respond conference, a thirty-five-year-old software engineer from California, with a tiny nose stud and long brown hair, agrees. She understands why trans women are hurt by their exclusion from Michfest and other female-only events and facilities, saying, “It’s not really wanting to invade space. It’s a deep-seated wanting to belong.” But, she adds, “if you’re identifying with women, shouldn’t you be empathizing with women?”
Sandy Stone shares this view—up to a point. Of the radical feminists’ position, she says, “It’s my personal belief, from speaking to some of these people at length, that it comes from having been subject to serious trauma at the hands of some man, or multiple men.” She adds, “You have to respect that. That’s their experience of the world.” But the pain of radical feminists, she insists, can’t trump trans rights. “If it were a perfect world, we would find ways to reach out and find ways of mutual healing,” she says. But, as it is, “I am going to have to say, It’s your place to stay out of spaces where transgender male-to-female people go. It’s not our job to avoid you.” ♦