Gender Confessions and Postmodern Auto Da-Fé

By Julian Vigo

Transgender politics today function very similarly to auto da-fé where the subject must not only have something to confess, she is obligated to have an identity (religion) as imposed upon her by the current gender orthodoxy. The Draconian tactics used to silence valid critiques of gender identity through the veritable postmodern auto da-fé of our time should make any sentient being – woman and man alike – extremely concerned.

Over the past year, one might think that transgender persons were 51% of the population given the enormous media concentration lent to this subject. The focus on identity over the material reality of the body is at an unprecedented high with organisations which instruct people how to be a better “trans ally” and publications which, on a regular basis, admonish women for discussing their bodies by asking them to cease referring to the female body because it is “triggering”. That one speaks of the actuality of salary disparity between men and women in the UK or the rates of sexual violence perpetrated against women often sparks vituperative backlash from the radical right of MRAs (men’s rights advocates). Yet, in recent years there is an even more conservative group of individuals who have lashed out at women and self-declared feminists specifically: transgender rights activists. And their weight in mainstream politics is not negligible nor is it, I believe, coincidental to the waning rights of women to access abortion services in the United States or to the rise in domestic abuse that many women suffer in the UK to include a murder of two women a week in England and Wales at the hands of a current or former partner. While women in some prisons struggle to obtain basic hygiene products, in others women are sent fifty miles away so that they can give “makeovers” to male transgender prisoners, because you know, putting makeup on ourselves is endemic to the hollowed out female condition.

And here is where things get dicy for the identitarians of today, for it simply does not matter if a female identifies as non-binary, gender queer, as a transgender man, or an otherkin – the reality is that the female body is the sole reason why women need access to safe abortions, to proper medical care for pregnancy, and to safe spaces in shelters and prisons. Issues of personal safety are specific to women’s bodies and are highly politicised because of the somatic differences in male and female bodies, because what happens to her body is terms of violence, rape, and reproduction mirrors the social structures of gender which are extremely and uniquely political. That pay decreases when women take over jobs which men formerly dominated, that girls in the UK are experiencing record-high levels of sexual harassment and aggression, that femicide – to include sex-specific abortion – is committed at alarming rates around the planet, that unemployed men tend to spend their time either watching TV or returning to school while unemployed women tend to clean the house and take care of others, or that hackers can receive more jail time than rapists are all social facts which speak to the reality of how sex discrimination functions.

Sadly, the UK Green Party has taken to referring to women as “non-males” in order to appease those whose identity politics seeks to steamroll the very reality of the physical, sexed body. And dare you question that males cannot possibly experience menstruation, not only will you be labelled a “transphobe”, but you will be linked to products which simulate the verboten female menses “proving” that males menstruate. On the American front, the healthcare provider, Planned Parenthood, in response to pressure from the trans lobby, has removed the specificity of pregnancy and menstruation as something women experience. Now “pregnant person” replaces “pregnant woman” and the term “menstruator” is used instead of “woman” in order to “include” transgender men and non-binary persons. The problem here is glaring since how we see ourselves does not define the reality of our oppression, nor the reality of the body. Females get pregnant regardless of how they identify. Were that not the case, women would simply identify their way out of pregnancy, pay inequality, and rape. Reality, however, does not function that way and logomachy cannot change social and physical facts.

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In recent years there is an even more conservative group of individuals who have lashed out at women and self-declared feminists specifically: transgender rights activists.

Increasingly in social media and public policy the genuflection to transgender politics has become the litmus test for liberal authenticity where each person can engage in virtue signalling about the latest transgender “outing”. This process of embracing gender over sex comes at the price of women’s rights, the ability of women to name their bodies, to have their own spaces, to speak up freely, and to state, “A penis is not female”, a sentiment which is now considered transphobic. Today when women express their thoughts on social media about such issues, the word TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) is cast her way regardless of her political alliances or the fact that a biological truism is simply not exclusive (no more than claiming that Pluto is not a planet necessarily inhibits other categorical inclusions of Pluto). Even lesbians who do not wish to have sexual relations with transgender women and vegan feminists are being called out as transphobes because they recognise male and female as biological categories of sex. We have been here before, folks. Or rather, Galileo has.

As transgender politics has radically shifted from the medical horizon of the body (gender dysphoria) to what is today a burgeoning social movement, we have witnessed the conterminous embrace of callout culture, no-platforming, and bullying tactics almost entirely directed at women. There is no attempt to understand the competing rights between the self-declarations of “gender identity” and the rights of privacy and safety for females. At the heart of the transgender narrative is the fabricated discourse of gender binarism where none existed before, such that fictions of “assigned gender at birth” abound and biology is considered a fiction. Yet history shows us that no man is uniquely masculine, no woman is uniquely feminine (nor are masculinity and femininity universal concepts). And anyone who points out that humans are sexually dimorphic or that the contemporary erasure of women linguistically and socially is accompanied by the overwhelming eclipse of women’s rights, the response ranges anywhere from shrill to violent. Certainly, the only individuals allowed to speak out on women’s rights today are those who embrace trans woman as a “better” or more authentic woman than females, those who wish to take cues on being a woman from a teenage boy, or those who are males identifying as women.

Presently, we are witnessing a sort of negative dialectic of the medieval auto da-fé of 15th century Spain where after arriving in a city, the Inquisitor would issue and then read an Edict of Grace (El Edicto de Gracia) following the Sunday Mass. It was then the town’s inhabitants would be asked to denounce a blasphemer, a method which proved to be inefficient since false information was regularly supplied as a means of killing one’s enemy. Those who confessed during the grace period (typically thirty to forty days) were offered the possibility of reconciliation with the Church. This edict functioned to encourage compliance in a theatre of public confession which, when not obtained voluntarily during the grace period, was coerced during the trial wherein torture was often utilised as a means of procuring the desired profession.

After the trial, the proclamation of guilt was read publicly, usually a month in advance to give enough time for preparations for the auto da-fé. Comprising of a long public procession, a mass, an oath of obedience to the Inquisition, and a sermon, the auto da-fé was preceded by the reading of the sentences, the public theatre portion of justice which forced observers into its scope. The ceremony of public penitence began with a procession of prisoners whose garments bore elaborate visual symbols called sanbenito, similar to a scapular, usually yellow or black decorated with symbols specific to the acts of treason of the accused. Unaware of the outcome of their trial, the condemned – usually a Jew, Muslim, or Protestant – was placed in the town square where the reading of their sentences was executed by the secular authorities.

To refuse identity politics is to be a TERF, the twenty-first century version of “heretic.”

The purpose of this sentence, however, was not only to discipline the convicted, but this forum of auto da-fé served as a space of penitence for the public since they formed part of this process of reconciliation to an imposed truth. By virtue of the original accusation, the assumption is that the accused was already guilty. Little did the truth matter. After all, who really cared if an individual was actually guilty of heresy when the end result was a social catharsis of torture and confession, ushering forth a theatre where one accused might possibly turn on another, all the while torture squeezed out many false confessions of fidelity and those who wished to maintain power secured their place. And when the accused did confess on the rack, his body broken, this ensured the subject’s strangulation before being burned. The body of the accused became the means and the conterminous proof of her guilt through the spectacle of her torture which cemented her penitence (albeit involuntary). Any screams, tears, or blood were merely interpreted as more proof, a sign that she was guilty all along.

Through auto da-fé, the subject was summarily whipped, tortured, and/or burned at the stake, where the body acts as its own testament – that in dying, the subject was not only paying for her sins, but through her suffering, the act of enduring torture and discipline, this spectacle served as the proof that she was truly guilty. And this spectacle further served to remind the spectators who witnessed the torture and confessions what could easily happen to them should they speak reason to power. It is important to remember that the practice of auto da-fé in the 15th and 16th centuries replaced the earlier forms of Inquisition which remained strictly under Papal control. The inquisition in Spain from the late 15th century, specifically responded to Queen Isabella’s and King Ferdinand’s concerns that Jews, Muslims and Protestants were threatening the region’s Catholic orthodoxy. Thus a new truth was imposed, the new enemy recognised, and the people followed in suit as this practice would persist until the 19th century.

Transgender politics today function very similarly to auto da-fé where the subject must not only have something to confess, she is obligated to have an identity (religion) as imposed upon her by the current gender orthodoxy. To refuse identity politics is to be a TERF, the twenty-first century version of “heretic.” When gender critics protest the label of “cis” (the assumption that gender is innate to the rest of us) they are labelled a TERF. When feminists point out that transgender identity presumes that there are normative ways of being a man or a woman and that our task should be to challenge society while fighting against normativity for both men and women, they are called “biological essentialists”. When women point out that feminism is not about telling men who like wearing pink to change their body to match that of a female, but instead that feminism is about liberating the social praxis of gender where everyone is free to dress how they wish, they too are called bigots. Whenever anyone points out that transgender ideology endorses some very archaic notions of women whereby there is a clear assumption that a woman is only socially and politically valued in terms of her fuckability or her desire to vacuum at a whim, the response is often to deflect the problems away from the reality of sex inequality. And this discussion about sex inequality is being derailed by the ruby-slipper-clicking transgender ideology which presumes that one can only find the “authentic self” through posturing, imitation of a sexist ideal, and even possibly through hormones and surgery. What feminists have been saying for well over a century is that the revolution of gender needs to occur by men taking up equal chores in the home to include childrearing and joining the fight for economic equality and social inclusion of women. Social revolution will never occur by men reaching for the lip gloss.

The public confession procured through social media shaming of those who refuse to get on board with the transgendering of children in recent months is also daunting. Many leftist men and women find it troubling that young children are instructed that if they do or do not want to wear a dress this is indicative that something is “wrong” with their body. Parents eager to pose for the cameras as the “progressive parent” actively inform and mould their child’s vocabulary with words imbued by adult complexities such that Leo, covered by Radio 4 in September, identified as a transgender boy just last year, but recently, having heard of the concept of “non-binary” Leo has decided to come out as such with daily pressure by the mother to fix an identity. Leo speaks of feeling pressured by the focus on gender as the mother compares Leo’s transgender identity with her other child who is now a vegetarian. The BBC did not bother to involve medical ethicists or psychologists who actually have much to say against the transitioning of children. What is important here is that the parents and BBC audiences can feel progressive together.

The reality of the body is obfuscated by the burgeoning discourse of gender identity while rolling back women’s rights several decades.

Today the masses support this public and highly mediatised politics of the individual in search of his authentic self. The public confession of the willing, docile subject is also part of the public spectacle, this “outing” of one’s “personal truth” of gender. Such confessions serve as a perverse exhortation of the subject’s inner spiritual life (the spirit is now replaced by “gender identity”) and just like the onlookers of the auto da-fé years before, today the public serves as that body which participates in the outing, the confession of the subject to reveal that one is really not what their body reveals, but instead a combination of nouns and adjectives. And should one dare critique the religious zealotry of such a movement, more accusations abound, primarily towards females who are brandished “bigots”, “TERF”s, and even accused of committing “murder” with words. Where one was asked to see an invisible god during the Middle Ages, today the subject is asked not to note sexual difference.

Gender as religion is upon us. The reality of the body is obfuscated by the burgeoning discourse of gender identity while rolling back women’s rights several decades. Males who “identify as females” are now telling women that they are privileged while women and girls are forced to shower and change clothes in front of males who identify as non-binary or transgender. The current regime of callout culture, online aggression, no-platforming, and privilege-shaming by males towards females in addition to the discursive positioning of women as oppressors of men are all part of a new chapter in men’s rights activism.

All this should make any sentient being – woman and man alike – extremely concerned about the Draconian tactics used to silence valid critiques of gender identity through the veritable postmodern auto da-fé of our time.


Featured image: Trans March 2014 World Pride in Toronto Photo courtesy: Corbin Smith


About the Author

Julian Vigo, PhD, is a public scholar, filmmaker, artist, permaculturalist, and human rights consultant. A specialist in contemporary ethnography, cultural studies, cinema, postcolonial theory, and media and gender studies, she has taught at universities across the world and writes for writes for Truthout, CounterPunch, HK01, a-n, and n.paradoxa. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). For other articles written by Julian Vigo see: Medium, Endoplasm, and OneWorld. Julian Vigo’s portal is and she can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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