By Diana Granados
This contribution is based on the presentation given at the 11-12 April 2023 workshop on Mapping and resisting the gender phantasm in Latin America: Geographies of ‘anti-gender’ movements’, part of the AHRC-LSE project on Transnational ‘Anti-Gender’ Movements and Resistance: Narratives and Interventions. Two of the speakers have made their presentations available in a blog format in both English and Spanish, and one speaker in English and Portuguese. We are sharing them here as a collaborative effort between Engenderings and Sexuality Policy Watch.
The aim of this piece is to share some reflections from a feminist activist and critical academic perspective on the presence of so-called essentialist and trans-exclusionary feminist discourses in Latin America. The ideas developed here are based on observations of events and political dynamics promoted by self-defined ‘radical’ or ‘gender-critical’ feminisms across the region, but with a particular emphasis in Colombia.
What do we know about anti-gender/trans-exclusionary and/or essentialist feminisms?
The ideas of essentialist feminisms have been incubating and gaining weight in Latin American feminisms for at least 10 years. In this context, it is important to identify the links between these feminist currents and the revival of the long-term project of the Right which has been examined by scholars such as Sonia Corrêa, Wendy Brown and Rita Segato. In this sense, it is crucial not to lose sight of the convergences between the ultra-conservative values and meanings that the extreme Right mobilize and contest regarding sexuality and gender, and the disdain and questioning of trans rights advocated by trans-exclusionary feminists.
However, the debates provoked by so-called ‘North American radical feminism’ since the 1970s are not ignored in this decade. The disputes around the position of that current, according to which biological sex would be at the centre of female oppression and, related to this, the unresolved debates in certain feminisms about pornography and the controversy around regulated sex work vs. the elimination of prostitution, are but a few examples. While these disputes have always been fierce, it is important to mention that many of the radical feminists of those times never have been trans-exclusionary.
By looking at the field from that shorter temporality, on the one hand, it must be acknowledged without hesitation that the separatist position of some Latin American lesbofeminist sectors have led to the expulsion of trans women from feminist spaces, such as the Regional Feminist Encounters (EFLACs). However, these positions have often been retracted by lesbian feminists when they have come into contact with antiracist and decolonial critiques. Ochy Curiel, for instance, has analyzed this shift, noting that many lesbofeminists have begun to ‘broaden’ their conception of feminism to recognize its multiple subjects.
The tensions surrounding the ‘subjects’ of feminism have nevertheless continued, as showcased by many recent controversies. Notably, J.K. Rowling’s positions on this matter, which have been circulating on regional social networks since 2018, have explicitly questioned the rights of trans people. Meanwhile, in 2019, the Women’s Declaration International (WDI) was launched to call for the defence of women’s human rights based on (biological) sex. Fierce debates on trans and gender identity laws in Spain, Scotland and Australia have contributed even further to these exclusionary agendas, and led to their eventual uptake across Latin America. Their echoes are now very palpable in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Costa Rica and Chile, even if their further development into hurricanes remains to be seen.
Across the Latin American context, it is important to distinguish between the anti-trans positions expressed by generally conservative state authorities, including parliamentarians or ministers, and the ideological opposition to gender identity rights elaborated within social mobilisations. As Sonia Corrêa explains: we must differentiate between deliberate government policies that have anti-gender, anti-abortion, anti-same sex marriage and anti-trans rights agendas, from mobilisations that take place in the sphere of citizenship which, in the case we examine in this article, unlike the former, derive specifically from exclusionary feminist positions.
In what follows, I attempt to characterise the effects of some of the narratives and forms of articulation of contemporary trans-exclusionary feminisms, while clarifying that the intensity of these exclusionary discourses does not operate homogenously across Latin America. For those who read in Spanish, a translated version is also available here.
Photography by Nana Soares
Academic and historical narratives of feminisms and their contestations.
The forum “Necessary Clarifications on the categories of Sex and Gender” which took place in the first semester of 2022 at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) was symbolic of the growing legitimacy of trans-exclusionary discourses in the political fabric of regional feminisms. And, like all symbolic events, it was not without material implications, in this case related to the credibility and institutional power of the academic feminists who participated. The event sparked rejection from transfeminist and queer collectives, forcing UNAM to make a statement reaffirming its commitment to the rights of trans people. But the forum’s general character, as well as the essentialist and exclusionary interventions it provided a space for, have revealed a power mechanism that is now operating within academic spaces as framed by recent campaigns against trans rights.
The forum aimed to dispute the stories that feminism tells about its history and struggles by reconstructing historical narratives, especially those which explain female oppression as exclusively anchored to biological sex and the reproduction of the species. Such a narrative completely ignores those struggles and theoretical perspectives which advocate for a more expansive definition of the subject of feminism and, especially those critical contributions long-promoted by Black, Central American, Chicanas, community-based feminists, and, of course, transfeminisms, which take issue with the definition of the “universal woman”.
It is therefore urgent to identify and examine more closely the academic field which today shares these views, not least because many of the young feminists grouped in ‘radical’ or ‘gender-critical’ collectives reiterate the arguments expressed by these academic voices. For example, gender critical feminist collectives often misrepresent Simone de Beauvoir’s position as representative of their exclusionary views, claiming that she spoke of “sex” and not gender. Furthermore, even when these collectives make a critique of the androcentric nature of knowledge production and the world, they do not relate this critique with a broader intersectional lens and politics, i.e. anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, anti-racist and anti-ableist.
A narrow view of violence
Our study of contemporary variants of trans-exclusionary feminism in Colombia shows that their emergence and expansion is strongly associated to the intensification of debates and struggles against gender violence, especially sexual violence, in university settings, following the growing breadth and legitimacy of the “Ni una menos” movement (Not one less). Undoubtedly, gender violence exists, it is brutal, it has been made invisible, and today it has a prominent place in feminist struggles. However, it is important not to forget or underestimate the ways in which gender-based violence affects women differently based on their age, social position, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, among other categories. Moreover, we must not lose sight of the fact that this violence is intensified by the effects of extractivist capitalism, armed conflict, criminal networks and the drug trafficking economy.
If we look at the narratives of feminist collectives that define themselves as radical, we can see that the systemic nature of such violence is generally limited, and it is argued that women and girls suffer and have suffered excessive violence due to having a vagina. Violence is explained as an oppression exclusively based on “biological” sex, and these collectives present themselves as the only adequate alternative to address this violence. In their writing, gender critical feminist collectives historicise the sexual origins of violence and identify its causes, as well as making political denunciations and accompanying legal and litigation processes. In this sense, they increasingly seek to influence public gender policies to challenge and or prevent the recognition of the rights of trans women and trans-masculine people, arguing that such recognition would threaten (cis) women and their rights. Their proposed solutions to the issue of gender-based violence thus converge with the hyper-punitivist views of conservatism and the far right. For example, the WDI has spoken out against the alleged “danger of trans women being held in women’s prisons” and “men pretending to be women just so that the laws will benefit them” (Volcánicas, 2022).
Feminism cannot be burdened with “other” struggles
Another narrative repeated by trans-exclusionary feminisms in Colombia is that feminism cannot shoulder the struggles of others. At the same time, they construct narratives according to which trans women are not women or that trans men are frustrated lesbians. In these narratives, there is no such thing as transfeminism, only “trans-activisms”. From this, they conclude that trans people should carry out their struggles separate from feminism, as their presence is deemed unfair for feminism, whose outlook focuses exclusively on (cis) women,.
The experience of trans people, whether women, men, or non-binary, is traversed by intersecting and mutually reinforcing oppressions. But essentialist feminisms fail to recognise these intersecting oppressions of gender, class and race. Not infrequently, their positions reflect biases that can only be described as colonial. Indeed, in countries like Colombia, Black, peasant or Indigenous women are hardly ever present in their activist ranks. Moreover, essentialist feminist narratives often define trans men as traitors. And their reactions to new terminologies such as pregnant and/or menstruating people or, even more so, to proposals for sanitary pad dispensaries in men’s toilets are very strong. Underlying these positions, as María José Plata Flores analyses in an article in 2020, is a complicated political-conceptual confusion between masculinity and patriarchy.
Some cracks in the wall: What can we do?
The disputes with essentialist feminist positions are political and epistemological, but they also unfold in the spaces of social movements and, in several countries, are rapidly intensifying. It is therefore urgent to develop and consolidate arguments that contest their premises. It is crucial, for example, to recover and strengthen analytical frameworks on gender-based violence that recognise its effects on women, trans and non-binary people in all their diversity, allowing us to better measure the prevalence and effects of this violence.
There is also an urgent need to deepen spaces for analysis and reflection with feminist, transfeminist and trans researchers. In particular, we need to bring to our debates the epistemological critiques of biological science developed by feminist authors that allow us to challenge the ‘immovable’ arguments of essentialist feminisms on the supposed immutability of the sexual difference between men and women. Illustrations of these theoretical contributions are the ideas long developed by Anne Fausto-Sterling, but also the book by Argentinean biologist Lu Ciccia on how science invented sex.
Finally, it is necessary to open conversations about the dehumanising effects of the essentialist and transphobic positions of these feminist currents. To use the words of Shiobban Guerrero: “(…) if our struggles are emancipatory ethical struggles, we cannot dehumanise someone in the defence of our political subject, because that cancels us out ethically and politically”.
 This forum was attended by renowned feminist academics who are leading trans-exclusionary voices in the Spanish-speaking world: Marcela Lagarde, Amelia Valcárcel, and Alda Facio, among others.
 They are also the product of the reflections constructed in the Fondo Lunaria’s (2023) research study Welcome freedom. Refuting essentialist positions. An approach to trans-exclusionary feminism in Colombia, elaborated by Yinna Ortiz, Diana Lucía Rentería, Morgan Londoño Marin, Elena Rey-Maquieira Palmer, Amapola Suárez and Diana Granados.
 Ortiz Ordoñez, Y., Rentería Cruz, D. L., Suárez Bernal, A., Londoño Marín, Granados Soler, D. & Rey-Maquieira Palmer, E. (2023). Lesbian feminist militancy and “radicality”: Trajectories, tensions and current reflections. In Welcome freedom. Refuting essentialist positions. An approach to trans-exclusionary feminism in Colombia. Bogotá: Fondo Lunaria.