For some unknown reason, which could probably only be described as masochism, I am trying to offer a shortish guide to the current gender war/culture war/battle between trans activists and “transphobes”, or however we want to term these things.
This is a subject that in many ways I never want to talk about again but have read and thought a lot about, so in a way I just want to share that. It will inevitably be biased. As I am currently under attack again from a man with a million followers but limited intellect, I do keep getting drawn back into these arguments though I hope to ignore “the wasp at the picnic” in future.
What I must emphasise is that all through the past years I have continued to have and appreciate the conversation I have with trans people, many of whom do not want this conflict either.
My goal: to protect women’s spaces, language and privacy as well as make sure that trans people get better and quicker access to healthcare and are never subject to discrimination. This may be overly idealistic. Yet it can only ever be achieved through dialogue, and not screaming into the void of Twitter.
Here goes. This will be as flawed and as inadequate as its writer. Take what you want from it, discard what you don’t like.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY SEX?
Sex refers to a set of biological attributes in humans and animals. It is primarily associated with physical and physiological features including chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels and function, and reproductive/sexual anatomy. As a species we are dimorphic. Dimorphic species produce morphologically distinct types of gametes. A female produces a large one called an ovum and a male produces a smaller one called a sperm.
We can argue about what other sexual differences there are and indeed scientists do. Is there such a thing as a female brain or a male brain? It is almost impossible when using neuroimaging, for instance, to determine what is nature and what is nurture, what is learned and what pre-exists before sexed roles are applied.
Sex is a biological reality then, an immutable fact. This does not mean that we cannot change aspects of our biology or that one group should oppress another. I am open to the argument that people can do all kinds of things to make them feel that they have changed sex and feel happier in themselves, but for me that does not change the fundamental facts of biology.
When we dig up skeletons we tend to know if they are male or female. There are those who do and will argue that the female skeleton did not exist before the Enlightenment. Professor Sally Hines tweeted this in 2019. This is the sort of the thing being taught in colleges and I actually feel we may need a new enlightenment.
See Kathleen Stock’s excellent book Material Girls for a good breakdown of these definitions.
IS SEX A SPECTRUM? WHAT ABOUT INTERSEX PEOPLE?
Firstly, the very tiny numbers of intersex people should not be brought into any argument about trans issues. It is an entirely different situation and very difficult for anyone born like this. When people talk about sex as a continuum, they are really talking about gender and blurring these two things – more later – there will always be more masculine- and more feminine-appearing people but this is the result of the stereotypes we function with.
Always at some point, some bright spark will point to hermaphrodite fish or some species that does change sex.
No one ever talks about my favourite species: banana slugs. “In the mating of banana slugs, the penis is inserted into the body of the partner. The penis may become trapped, perhaps because of the action of a special muscle, in which case the penis is gnawed off by either the partner or the owner. No replacement penis grows, but the apophallated slug can mate as a female.”
One day maybe we can all be slugs but until then we are sexed beings, in every cell of our bodies. Half of us are able to have babies and half are not.
WHAT IS GENDER?
This is the big question and where many arguments now occur because these words – gender and sex – often get used interchangeably. Gender clearly means different things to different people so inevitably I am going to simplify.
De Beauvoir articulated the difference between sex and gender: “the fundamental source of women's oppression is its [femininity's] historical and social construction as the quintessential Other.”
Women are defined in relation to men and seen as lacking; gender roles flow from this. I would argue that, globally, gender roles are very linked to women’s ability to reproduce.
If gender is produced via socialisation, i.e. a construct, many feminists have wanted it changed or destroyed. Gender is the way in which woman are oppressed. Any woman who is non-gender-conforming – and there have been many of us through history – challenges the patriarchal binary. The idea that this is new is historically untrue.
Gender-critical women are what we claim to be: critical of gender. The argument some of us have with certain trans activists is that they cling on to and reinforce many aspects of gender stereotypes that we jettisoned long ago.
According to people like Judith Butler, gender is but a performance. She is following on from much post-structuralist thought that says we only ever exist in and through discourse/language.
Such thinking became fashionable and morphed into queer studies. The issue here is that this is a totally “disembodied” theory that bears little relation to lived experience. Is a foetal scan “a performance”? Are babies randomly assigned sex at birth and therefore have to perform a gender they feel is wrong?
The great sadness for me is that much queer theory came out of an entirely embodied experience: that of death. We lost a generation of mostly gay men to Aids. Feminists such as myself and gay men were in solidarity in demanding that none of us be stigmatised for our sexual choices.
WHAT IS NON-BINARY?
Sorry, I really can’t help you here because I have never read any definition of non-binary that does not apply to me or everyone I know. Everyone has some stereotypical masculine aspects and some stereotypical feminine ones. Some give expression to them more than others.
For me this term simply reinforces an oppressive societal code that I reject.
This is the big one. John Money said “gender identity is the private experience of the gender role, and gender role is the public manifestation of gender identity”.
He believed it formed during the first thirty months of life. He did some very dubious stuff as a doctor but there you are.
Gender identity now overrides biological sex as somehow the bigger truth, or these two words are used interchangeably. The American Psychological Association, for example, defines “gender identity” as “a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else.”
Something else? A hedgehog? No idea.
Yet this is the crux of the matter: a metaphysical belief trumps biological realty and to say that is now seen as bigoted. Trans activists sometimes make scientific claims about gender identity saying that it is like sex used to be thought of: now immutable.
However if Gender ID is self-created, how one feels, why do others have to accept this? You may have a faith I don’t have but that does not mean I should not respect you, nor does it mean I have to believe the same things as you.
For instance, I am an atheist but I have religious friends. I don’t believe in an essential gendered self or that the only way to be “authentically” yourself is through altering your body. My view is that we contain multitudes and this whole ideology is conservative and an ontological step that takes us backwards. (See my discussion with Dr Jane Clare Jones in the latest issue of The Radical Notion).
The true self that must be actualised is a very atomised and capitalist and consumerist vision of the self so it is hardly surprising that it should now come to the fore. What is shocking is that conservative dogma should be paraded by the so-called left as radical.
This is really not to say that trans people do not exist or do not go through enormous distress in their quest to somehow match their inner and outer selves. Personally, I gave up such an attempt long ago.
WHAT IS GENDER DYSPHORIA?
According to the NHS, who clearly have accepted this notion of gender identity, “Gender dysphoria is a term that describes a sense of unease that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity.”
This of course is painful and may cause harm, and anyone suffering should be able to seek help, but there are pitifully long waiting lists. Therapists need to explore what else is causing distress rather than use the current gender affirmative model which may lead to medicalisation. We don’t, for instance, agree with anorexics that they are fat, we try to understand what else is going on.
I don’t doubt transition is for some people the right thing. For others it can be “transing away the gay” which is why many gay people are now questioning some gender ideology. The huge uptick in girls wanting to transition has made huge alarm bells ring. In Sweden they were so concerned that they have adopted a more “wait and see” approach and sure enough, fewer puberty blockers were given out and many female clients went on to become happily lesbian.
All sides would surely agree that more research is needed into the long-term effects of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones. We now have evidence from those for whom transition has proved to be a disappointment – detransitioners – and those for whom it worked but still argue that this is not something kids should ever rush into. Buck Angel, for instance, a trans man, is interesting on this https://www.queermajority.com/illustration/bucks-story
Not all trans people agree and there is certainly not enough research done on transmen as so much emphasis has been put on transwomen.
Oh and as for the oft quoted statistic that 48% of trans youth have tried to commit suicide, this is based on a study of 27 people. Basically we all need much more information.
WHAT IS RAPID ONSET DYSPHORIA?
This a weird one. Professor Lisa Littman of Brown University School of Public health made up this term after surveying parents whose teenage children suddenly had symptoms of gender dysphoria.
Was this to do with social media, fashion or indeed a form of social contagion? The theory was criticised by just about everyone and surely if it occurs, it is still a symptom of distress. As ever, I would argue we need much more money poured into resources for mental health care for teenagers.
WHY ALL THIS NOW?
Why are we even talking about it? Gender ideology has moved into the public consciousness incredibly quickly through lobby groups such as Stonewall and Mermaids, and what is referred to as institutional capture. They have been incredibly successful. Everyone wants to be seen as progressive and are therefore inculcated into the only correct way of talking about these issues. 850 organisations have signed up to Stonewall’s creed.
Women who question, never mind object to this, are silenced, fired or ostracised or called TERFS (trans exclusionary radical feminists, a term invented in 2008). To suggest there is ever a conflict between trans rights and women’s right is now some way considered transphobic.
This is utter nonsense. Yet the tactic of Stonewall, of “no debate”, has indeed been effective.
The issue really centres around Self-ID. Can someone ID as a woman (and it nearly always is a man IDing as a woman) with no surgery and no hormones? Is womanhood a feeling in someone’s head which natal women must bow down to? Many trans people do not, by the way, claim they have actually changed sex, and remain empathetic to the needs of women to have single sex spaces.
It is only really extreme trans activists and their allies, often young men, who do not disguise their misogyny, who refuse ever to see that women’s rights need some protection.
I certainly think there should be a much cheaper and quicker way to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate, that the whole process should involve far less medicalisation and that as the 2010 Equality Act which protects trans people against discrimination must be enforced. Some campaigners want the Gender Recognition process to start at 16 not 18.
So when people say they want trans rights, it is important to understand what rights they already have and what rights they are now demanding. What is the right they really want that they don’t have? If it is Self-ID, there is conflict for sure.
WHAT HAPPENS IN OTHER COUNTRIES?
Again ,a lot of ill-researched gobbledegook is written on this. Everyone in every county loves third sex people and never had a problem till white people came along and ruined it. There is also a rewriting of history where every one from Radclyffe Hall or Stormé de Larverie are redrawn as trans, and lesbians get written out of the picture.
It is true that that there are many cultures who have a category for effeminate males: the fa’afafine of Samoa, the muxes in indigenous Zapotec culture, the hirja of India. To call these people trans is to also look with a colonial gaze and while such people are accepted they rarely occupy high status in their own societies.
In Iran, after Thailand the place where the second highest number of surgical transitions (M to F) occur, as with Turkey and Pakistan, this is do with the fact that being trans is for many the only way to be gay, and the punishment for homosexuality can be execution.
In places where Gender self-ID has been introduced, such as Ireland and Canada, there are issues around prisons and rape shelters, with the introduction of violent sex offenders who identity as women being put in the female estate.
In essence though, so much of the current ideology comes from America and has been embraced there by the progressive left. It is important to understand the differences between the US and here, as Helen Joyce points out in her excellent book Trans. The idea of discovering oneself is essential to the American dream and it is an individual exercise, not one that comes about through collective action. American history is littered with segregation and discrimination, especially around race, and the Democrats therefore are keen to embrace anything that looks inclusive.
Yet in terms of women’s rights we have maternity leave, legal abortion and free universal healthcare … American feminists have work to do.
WHY PICK ON THE MOST MARGINALISED GROUP?
Again, in this country this is a myth. On average one trans person a year was murdered in in the last 10 years; this is terrible but that’s opposed to the three women a week during the pandemic. Which is simply somehow accepted.
The higher murder rates for trans people are in places like Brazil and are harrowing. Reported hate crimes against trans people have gone up and we should all be concerned about that.
Trans people are marginalised – and so are addicts and homeless people and domestic abuse survivors. Why so much focus on this?
ISN’T THIS THE SAME AS THE STRUGGLE FOR GAY RIGHTS?
No, because the move from sexual orientation to gender ID can actually produce big problems for gay people. If there is no such thing as sex, there is no same-sex attraction.
Trans rights are the first civil rights movement that ask others to give something up – in this case women and often gay people. This is why groups like the LGB Alliance have formed.
WHAT DO WOMEN HAVE TO GIVE UP?
Our right to name out own experience and even use the word women. We are reduced to cervix havers and menstruators. The right to single sex spaces. The right to organise politically. Men are not asked to change a thing. Funny that!
The Labour party has joined in this madness by calling Woman’s Place a hate group. This is desperate bandwagon jumping as nearly all the women who are unhappy with Self-ID are left, often lesbian and trade unionists.
It is hard not to see the takeover of the male misogynist left as yet another nail in the coffin for the prospect of ever having a labour government. It is noticeable when high-profile women like Rosie Duffield or JK Rowling speak about their experience of domestic abuse, for instance, they are dismissed. Women’s experience of male violence is of no import to trans activists.
Women who do speak up, like me, are subject to horrendous threats yet surely our common enemy is violent men?
ISN’T THIS ALL GENERATIONAL, AND MIDDLE-AGED WOMEN SHOULD JUST GO AWAY AND DIE?
Yes and no. This ideology is now fashionable and is taught in universities. I wish critical thinking still was. As the idea of collective change fractures, of course the idea that individual expression is in itself radical takes hold. This is also a form of politics that requires very little actual work or activism.
The oft-cited poll that shows that most women support trans rights and most of us are fairly liberal breaks down when more specific questions are asked; e.g. the majority of transwomen retain male genitalia so is it OK to be in changing rooms with girls, and so on. Many are not on board with that because of basic safe-guarding issues.
Some of what I read shows a simple dumbing-down of standards and what is accepted as postgraduate musing would not be worthy of a GCSE. Academics on the whole are fearful of their jobs and they just want their students to like them.
DO ALL FEMINISTS AGREE?
Of course not, Feminism has never been one thing and there have always been disagreements. Andrea Dworkin was accepting of trans people though she always portrayed as a man hater. As I have said before I have never met a feminist transphobe but I have met plenty of women keen to preserve our rights.
I recommend reading Julia Serrano and Kate Bornstein and many of the trans pioneers. Look at some cissy porn. Read Pat Califa, Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, Torrey Peters. Whatever floats your boat.
IS THIS ALL HYSTERIA?
I sometimes wonder. We used to have alien abductions. Freud had lots of fainting and paralysed women. Recovered memory syndrome existed for a while as did Satanic child abuse. Ideologies drift in and out of fashion. This one will stick around for a while and day-to-day do we not have to sort out a space for trans people sports, prison and refuges ? Will this be a third space? I don’t know.
WHERE DO WE GO NEXT?
As I have made clear, I don’t believe in an essential gendered soul but I am happy to use your pronouns. In return respect me and stop yelling TERF.
I am happy to work, and indeed have worked, with anyone who wants to end male violence.
We agree surely about bodily autonomy. You must have the right to change your body if that is what you want, just as women must have reproductive rights.
The common enemy, the killers of women and trans people, are men, not feminists. Can we agree on that?
The imposition of language onto women who have not been consulted is not a tactic that seems to be working; can we agree to disagree?
The constant and deranged accusation that those who do not go along with gender ideology are somehow allied to the far right must be withdrawn. Simply respect us and our histories and we can respect yours.
It cannot possibly be easy being trans in the current climate, I completely acknowledge that.
Covid has made the situation even worse for those on all waiting lists and I am happy to work with anyone pushing for this to change.
I am not sure anyone can actually change sex but “you do you” honies.
We are all of women born. In the end none of us are entirely “self-made”, however we may feel. All the huge problems in the world need us to work together. Our identities are small in the big scheme of things. If you think women like me are the enemy of trans people really, I feel sorry for you.
There are much bigger and scarier enemies out there.
Let’s fight them.
Illustrations by Ruby Cydney
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