Original article here
Marina Terragni corrects me straight away: ‘I am not a historic feminist, I am simply a feminist’. For some time, before the DDL Zan (a bill presented by Italian deputy Alessandro Zan) matter became current in Italy, Terragni – writer and philosophy lecturer on contract – has been dealing with one of the most controversial issues in the western feminist world, gender identity: a concept that has divided feminists in two, those who believe that the category of woman should be rethought and extended to include people who are not born biologically female (such as trans women) and those, instead, who think that one cannot be a woman regardless of their bodies so one cannot simply deny biological reality.
“Even in Spain,’ says Terragni, ‘a bill is being discussed whereby anyone can self-declare their gender identity, i.e. say they are male or female, regardless of their birth sex. In Italy, there is not even a real discussion on the issue. The subject has been surreptitiously introduced into a bill, that of Mr Zan, which aims to combat violence against homosexuals and transsexuals, about which nobody has any objections, of course; while there is much to object and to be said about gender identity, not least that I am not a gender, but I am a woman. Why can’t we talk about this freely in Italy?”.
The concept of gender identity was coined in the 1990s by the American philosopher Judith Butler in her essay Gender Troubles, in which she argued not only that gender is constructed by the social norm, but that there is no biological sex pre-existing to gender, i.e. that even sex (male, female) is a social construction. The dispute might seem academic were it not for the fact that, especially in America, support for these theories is at the root of a cultural war that has resulted in slander, dismissal and marginalisation. “The news”, says Terragni, “is that intolerance is also taking root in Italy”.
Three weeks ago, the American writer Rebecca Solnit refused to be interviewed by Marina Terragni at the Mantua Literature Festival: “She demanded to read the questions I wanted to ask her beforehand and, considering them transphobic, she vetoed me”.
Were they provocative questions?
They were good questions, and almost all about America today.
I think this is the first time something like this has happened in Italy.
No, you are wrong.
Had it happened before?
It happened that, because of some of the ideas I have, people wanted to ban me from University. Now I can finally say it.
Are you kidding? When did it happen? Where did it happen?
During this academic year I was scheduled to teach a course in Philosophy and Ethics of Communication in a master’s programme at the IUAV University of Venice, a completely different subject from feminist issues. Yet, a fortnight before I was due to start teaching, Maria Luisa Frisa, who runs the degree course, called me to ask me to resign from the post because, she said, ‘Certain ideas of yours are unwelcome to me and to the students’.
What about her?
I told her that she could forget it, and that if she wanted to kick me out of the university she would have to assume her responsibility for it by rescinding the contract unilaterally with a letter explaining exactly which one of my ideas were incompatible with teaching and why.
She didn’t do that, I imagine.
No, but, on the other hand, now that my course is over, I have written a letter to the Rector of the University in which I recount the events that took place. We’ll see what happens next. In the meanwhile, for the first time, I’m talking about it.
But in America you lose your job because of these things: you’re not asked to leave.
Can you realise the pressure you’re under? I don’t live off the university job, I have other sources of income. Yet, how can you withstand the pressure if you only have that? It’s obvious: to protect yourself, you will adapt to the ideas that are deemed socially acceptable. Do you realise that this is a path leading to conformism? I assure you that, even in Italy, there are professors who do not say what they really think for fear of being targeted. This was not a problem of mine: it’s a problem of freedom of teaching and thinking.
I think that if they had taken you out, they would not have got away with it.
Well of course: I would have put it in the newspapers.
And I also think that the newspapers would have defended you.
And it is a good thing that, in Italy and in Europe, we are still scandalised by gags. I think that this is the point: in response to the menace coming from the other side of the West, Europe must become the continent of free thought, the home of free speech, I consider this its historic task.
Why, in your opinion, have you been accused of transphobia?
Because it is a trick that works well in disqualifying criticism. You say transphobic and suddenly an argument becomes the result of irrational and uncontainable fear.
Me, transphobic? What do they know? In the 1980s, when the only ones who cared about trans people were those few militant radicals, I fought, along with Pina Bonanno, to force the Italian state to accept the change of sex. This is how in 1982 the law “Legge 14 Aprile 1982, n. 164.” came about, which allowed Pina to be called Pina instead of Giuseppe, the name she had at birth.
What has changed today?
That people now claim the unilateral right to proclaim themselves a woman or a man, beyond any surgical, pharmacological or even administrative process. I self-declare and self-identify in my sexual identity and I demand that the community recognise it, without a peep.
And what is the problem?
The problem is that this undermines the symbolic dimension of the human being. The masculine and the feminine concern the whole of human civilisation, not just the individual. For this reason, self-certification is not enough, but instead, we need a process that takes into account the rights of the individual and those of the community.
But why can’t the human symbolic also be discussed?
Because the masculine and feminine are rooted in bodies. This is not a matter of fantasy. The sexual binary – male, female – is an incontrovertible fact. No theory can subvert this fact.
Are you saying that biology matters more than culture?
I am saying that every time the reality of the body has been denied in history, women have paid dearly for it. Carla Lonzi wrote, “Let’s Spit on Hegel” (1970), to challenge the idealism with which patriarchy has subjugated women. Now here we go again: in a new and different way. To proclaim oneself a woman is claimed to be enough to be one. Can you see what is happening? There is a strong desire to erase women, their bodies and their difference.
What’s the point of that?
Sigmund Freud spent his whole life trying to solve the female enigma and imagined that women felt envy for men’s bodies, so-called penis envy, a feeling that no woman I have ever met has ever felt in her life.
But what about it?
And instead, if there is envy, it is the envy that men feel for the reproductive power of women.
Does woman equal mother?
I didn’t say that.
Then what do you mean?
I will tell you with a definition by Luisa Muraro.
A woman is a human being who can be a mother. I underline can, not must. This is the power that men envy women: the power to generate, a power that no technique, however miraculous, has yet succeeded in giving to a man.
You know very well that there are those who would dispute this view.
Of course, there have been women who have transitioned into men and then given birth, but it is not the man who has given birth, it is their female body, their sex that has remained intact despite the change. It seems difficult to deny this.
Who wants to deny women, in your opinion?
The new language of inclusion, for example. The Lancet, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, instead of ‘women’ it wrote ‘bodies with vaginas’. In other words, it has wiped out more than half the world’s population in order not to discriminate against a small minority of people.
Are you also against political correctness?
Forget about political correctness: have you ever read ‘bodies with prostates’?
No, not yet.
That explains what the erasure of women is.
Judith Butler, on the other hand, says let’s extend the category of women to include trans women.
Shall we talk about facts?
Let’s talk about facts.
For all my time as a militant in Italian feminism – and I am talking about a few decades now – I will have seen only one trans woman who asked to attend our meetings. Naturally, she was accepted. So I gather that the others are not very interested in feminism.
What does feminism mean to you?
It is a fight against all stereotypes: starting with those narratives according to which the female has to play with dolls and the male with football. Today, however, I observe a worrisome trend in the opposite direction: the surgical adaptation to the stereotype. You are male and you like dolls? Around you someone will wonder if you were not born in the wrong body. Not least because, in some cases (it has to be said too), it is easier to accept the supposed natural ‘mistake’ than homosexuality.
Aren’t you making it too easy?
Do you know how many mothers call me in tears because they don’t know what to do with their sons, or rather daughters? Eight out of ten transitions today are of girls.
How do you explain this?
By the fact that the world has changed a lot, but being a woman continues to be very difficult.
It seems to me that there is a subtext in your speech.
What is it?
That males are afraid of women.
In your opinion, what do they fear precisely?
I once did a little survey of my male friends. I asked them, “What does manhood mean to you?” The answer I found to be the most accurate was: “Control”.
Because men are terrified of female freedom. They experience it as a threat to your existence. In the Islamic world, for example, they evoke a catastrophic pre-Mohammedan era in which women had no restraints, walked around naked in the streets, had sex freely: it’s representative of what can happen if you don’t keep women in control: the destruction of civilisation.
Us men, however, are not all Taliban.
But even in the fantasies of you western males, there is the nightmare of the sexually voracious, uncontainable, uncontrollable woman, a nightmare rooted also in the fact that the woman can repeat the sexual act several times, while the man cannot.
Does this bring us closer to the Taliban?
The root of control anxiety is the same, for a Taliban and for a Western male. What changes is the gradation of this anxiety: violent for a Taliban, supervised for a European male like you.
Ah well, that relieves me.
Or, at least, I hope so.
Translated by Angela Tacchini