Whose Gender Is It Anyway?
Caitlin Logan in the latest of our series on gender, feminism and the GRA. See previous here: Jennie Kermode on ‘Gender Recognition – it’s not what you think‘and Indy Leya on Gender, the GRA and Women’s Rights.
Since the Scottish Government launched its public consultation on the Gender Recognition Act, and similar changes have been discussed at the UK level, the media has taken a new and passionate interest in the subject of gender identity, and brought it to the attention of many people who probably gave it little thought before now.
In some ways, this has the potential to bring about a very positive and worthwhile conversation, and raise awareness of the experiences of a marginalised minority. But as trans rights and equality progress further into the mainstream agenda, so too does some of the harshest and most disconcerting backlash against it.
I might be disinclined to be that person sharing yet another opinion about trans people despite not actually being trans myself, but given the focus of much of the debate on the issue, I figure I have something worth saying on at least three counts.
I’m a feminist, I’m a lesbian and, as I’ve mentioned, I’m not trans. Based on some of what you’ll read on the subject, you’ll learn that this is the magical trifecta which secures my place as the arch nemesis of all trans people. Consider me the Deathly Hallows of gender identity: only she who possesses all shall three shall destroy Lord Transalot.
Except in this narrative, I’m the one being presented as under threat. With that in mind, I feel some sense of duty to unpick some of the assertions being made about the supposed conflict between feminist gender theory and trans identity, and indeed the apparent danger which trans people pose to me as a woman and a lesbian.
Let’s get critical, gender critical!
Feminist opposition to the recognition of trans women as women, or trans men as men, or non-binary people as non-binary for that matter, tends to hinge on the belief that the notion of being ‘transgender’ reinforces the concept of gender as something tangible and definable.
For feminists who have spent their lives making the case that gender is socially and culturally constructed – that any character traits, behaviours, abilities, or sense of identity associated with ‘men’ or with ‘women’ beyond purely physical differences between the male and female sex are the result of how we’ve been socialised – you can understand how this throws up questions which merit some careful thought.
For some, the claim that “trans women are women” holds about as much meaning as “Brexit means Brexit”. Because, after all, what is a woman? I’m no stranger to this question and I understand its importance – I just don’t think that trans people are the enemy of our efforts to find the answer. Not least because the question leads me to believe that if we can ask what a woman is, it makes little sense to say with certainty what a woman is not. Does your head hurt yet?
All feminists share the view that any form of perceived hierarchy based on sex or gender is at odds with attempts to achieve equality – that is, any natural, rather than socially enforced hierarchy. Coupled with this is the now common understanding that the assertion of inherent differences between men and women, males or females, is bound to reproduce these imagined hierarchies. Of course, feminists differ in the extent to which they see difference as inherently linked to inequality, but the general notion of the need to challenge stereotypes and roles associated with gender is a fairly universal position within feminism.
This leads me to a major gripe I have with much of the framing of this ‘debate’ within feminism: those who see trans identity as irreparably conflicting with feminist ideology frequently describe themselves as “gender critical”, and characterise those of us who recognise trans people within their identified gender as having given up the cause and thrown a party for the idea of innate gender differences instead.
I’m here to tell you that this is not so. I, and many other trans inclusive feminists, spend much of our own lives examining and challenging the gender stereotypes and socialisation which shape our realities and place limits on our horizons from birth, and which pervade our media and our cultural and political institutions in a way which leaves no mistaking that women are still viewed as unequal in our society. So, yes, I am gender critical, but no, I do not think this precludes accepting the experience of trans people.
We are living in a material world…
It is now widely accepted in the medical profession that there are a small percentage of people who experience dysphoria around their body and the gendered assumptions associated with that. All of the social and cultural interpretations of gender which lie on top of this, and which most people continue to reinforce in some way or other – whether they realise it or not – are something we all need to work together to unpack and change over time, but the responsibility for that can’t be left at the doors of trans people.
It seems strange to me even on a statistical level that anyone would imagine that trans people, by asking to be recognised as a particular gender, will be the undoing of all progress, past, present and future, towards a gender equal world, but this seems to be the thrust of much of the feminist-based opposition.
Some will argue that, if a person considered to be male at birth identifies as female and wears a dress, high heels, and styles their Chihuahua in a pink jumper, they are surely reinforcing stereotypes of what it is to be a woman. But we all know Legally Blonde was one of the best feminist films ever made.
Equally, others will say that if someone who was presented with pink balloons at birth goes on to identify as a man and wears a suit to work, they are rejecting the possibility of being a woman in a suit – and who doesn’t want to see more of those?
The problem I have with this argument is that I highly doubt whether the people raising these questions have similarly interrogated every woman they’ve ever met in a dress, and every man they’ve ever met in a suit. Why should it be that trans people are expected to defy gender norms at every turn lest they be seen as traitors to the struggle for equality, while the rest of us are allowed to make hypothetical statements about stereotypes while abiding by many of them in our own lives?
If we want to take this to the extreme, we could say (as some historically have) that straight women hold back the feminist cause by indulging in relationships with men. One lesbian feminist theorist, Monique Wittig, thought that the category of “women” would be broken down entirely without heterosexual relationships: “lesbians are not women”, she said, because lesbians do not experience the inequality she saw as inherent to the relationships between men and women. The reality is so much more complicated – because gender, inequality and society are so much more complicated.
Ultimately, a deep ideological interrogation of any of our lives and identities yields imperfect answers. Is it not possible to accept that we are all living in a system which ascribes particular traits and expectations based on gender, that we are all struggling to varying degrees to accept or challenge these in our own ways, in our own lives, and that this is something we could have a really valuable conversation about if we didn’t paint entire groups of people as ‘the problem’? I think it is possible, and I think it’s necessary.
While I don’t think that individuals should be forced to defend their own gender presentation on ideological grounds, I also think it’s possible to see trans people – by their very existence – as affirming the need to ask the questions with which feminists have so long preoccupied themselves.
If gender is not fixed to sex, if gender can mean entirely different things to different people, and if people can be free to live their lives and express themselves unhindered by expectations linked to biological sex, have we not cracked open the door which feminists have been battering away at since the dawn of feminism?
Consider also the concept of ‘non-binary’ gender – the legal recognition of which is being proposed in the Scottish Government consultation. It has been suggested that by acknowledging that some people can be non-binary, this serves to strengthen the idea that everyone else happily identifies themselves with the categories of men and women, thereby removing the need for critical thinking about these concepts.
The French feminist theorist Christine Delphy (what a ledge) explained very well the view that the notion of two, diametrically opposed genders (in other words, the gender binary) produces inequality in itself. She argued that to view the relationship of men to women as dichotomous was to view it as hierarchical.
“While I don’t think that individuals should be forced to defend their own gender presentation on ideological grounds, I also think it’s possible to see trans people – by their very existence – as affirming the need to ask the questions with which feminists have so long preoccupied themselves.”
For me, it seems that recognising that we need not be limited by two genders can only help to disrupt this hierarchy. The possibility that our country could soon allow people to legally state that they are not a man or a woman, and that people could make their own choice to declare themselves as one gender or neither, seems a clear step towards breaking down the presumption of fixed gender categories.
If one of the key arguments against gender equality throughout history has been that the biological differences between males and females give rise to all of the social trends we might describe as “inequality”, then surely an understanding that we can separate “sex” from social meaning entirely can only help the case against the oppression of women.
My essentialism is better than your essentialism
In arguing against the acceptance of gender self-identification, it seems to me that some feminists are falling into a trap of reinforcing the very ideas they would ordinarily oppose. In order to assert the difference between trans women and other women, some rely on essentialist views of physical sex as defining ‘women’, and of predetermining their experiences as women.
My old pal Christine Delphy also warned against the assumption that sex ‘causes’ gender, without an interrogation of what sex itself actually means. Delphy suggested that the social signification we attach to biological sex was just that – social. She said there was no reason why sex as a category should have more significance than other natural differences between people, and that failing to address this point was to implicitly accept that there was a natural binary to begin with.
I would venture to say that historically, yes, physical differences between men and women may have given rise to some of the social norms which have continued through to the present day – but it is those norms, those gender roles, which now place limits on women, not their biology. After all, don’t feminists argue that, while women might give birth and take maternity leave, or have to take other time off to care for a child, the biological reality of giving birth should not be taken as an ‘explanation’ for economic inequality, or indeed, inequality in the burden of labour in caring for children?
Maybe I can only speak for myself, but *raises hand*, I do – I argue that. You know what else I argue? I argue that while there are issues linked to biology which clearly affect women on a greater scale than men which need to be addressed – for example, restrictions on reproductive rights, I also believe that those restrictions are in place because women are socially unequal to men. They are not a given of their physiology, and if they were, trying to remove them would surely be a lost cause.
And one thing that I really, definitely argue, is that women face higher rates of sexual violence, harassment and objectification than men, not because of their chromosomes, their mammary glands or the fact that they are just so obviously better looking, or because of men’s chromosomes, their penises, or their inherent predatory nature, but because men are socialised to believe that this behaviour is okay.
What this means for trans women is that, while they may not share some common features which come with the female biological sex, they are perfectly capable of experiencing the same sexist attitudes, discrimination and violence as other women. If someone is perceived as a woman, they will be treated as a woman, and more often than not, no genital screening or birth certificate check takes place before this happens.
It seems now that there are some feminists who want to separate women from the significance of their sex up to a point, but are intent on holding on to it when it’s a means of excluding others. I’m unconvinced this approach will help any of us in the long run.
Aside from this, consider that many trans people experience verbal or physical abuse specifically because they are trans. If trans people are victimised for failing to conform to the gender norms expected of them, shouldn’t this be of direct concern to anyone who describes themselves as “gender critical”? (You’ll probably have gathered by now: the answer to the rhetorical question is always yes.)
Whatever way you look at it, the patriarchy is clearly screwing us all over, so splitting hairs over who gets to identify in what way seems a poor use of anyone’s time and energy.
But… what about the lesbians?
Never have I felt so cared for as a lesbian as I have in some of the debate around trans rights – apparently some people are really, really worried about what it might mean for me, my existence and my relationship choices if someone is allowed to self-identify as a woman.
Far too commonly for my liking, what I can only describe as the myth of a threat to lesbians from trans women has been repeated. The idea being that women are no longer allowed to define themselves as being exclusively attracted to people with ‘female sex characteristics’, and that women who do define in this way are subject to violence or threats of violence by trans women.
Of course I would not deny anyone’s experience if this has happened to them, but I see no evidence whatsoever that this is happening with anything like the frequency that some would suggest. I have seen people disagree (online) over whether it’s necessary for people to make a point of stating that they would never-over-their-dead-body have sex with a trans woman, and I would tend to agree that it is not.
Nobody, under any circumstances, for any reason, should feel pressured in any way to have sex or so much as hold hands with someone else if they don’t actively wish to do so. That’s a given. But, I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to suggest that when communicating with or about a person or group to whom a sense of being recognised as a particular gender is clearly so important, it need not infringe on anyone’s right to withhold consent to simply withhold any obviously hurtful remarks about your view or assumptions about that person’s body.
I am addressing these points because I’m aware that people will have read these arguments who are not aware of the wider context, but make no mistake: I find the propagation of this apparent conflict to be highly disingenuous.
A conflict does exist, but it’s not between every woman who calls themselves a lesbian and trans women (if you’re not allowed to use the word ‘lesbian’ anymore, as some have suggested, I definitely never got the memo); it’s between trans women and a small but vocal group of people who write diatribes against trans women and anyone who supports them on a near daily basis and use ‘lesbianism’ and ‘feminism’ as an excuse. Believe me, these people exist, and they seem to think that trans women are the single greatest threat to other women.
This is not to say that you won’t be able to find examples of trans people saying and doing things wrong – that would be remarkable. But, just as I don’t care for people using labels I identify with as synonymous for the exclusion and vilification of others, I don’t think it’s appropriate to hold up instances of individuals’ bad behaviour as proof that an entire demographic should be denied the rights they are asking for.
This has always been and forever will be the cornerstone of those who want to halt progress. Don’t fall for it.
Be excellent to each other
When met with intellectual arguments, I feel that an intellectual response is merited. But, if you’re unconvinced by any of this, I will just leave you with one thought: if identifying as a woman, or as a man, or as non-binary, is so important to a person that the alternative is unbearable, that their life feels unliveable, is it not a mark of a good and kind society to allow that person to live their life in the way that feels best for them?
I really feel like we are at the most inclusive and unifying point in feminist history – I’m an optimist – and I hope that we as a country might send the message that we collectively wish to lean towards that impulse, and not towards one of exclusion or division.
The Scottish Government consultation on the changes to the Gender Recognition Act closes on 1 March. If you think allowing people to choose to change the gender marker on their birth certificate (which can also be changed back, by the way) is a reasonable idea, I’d ask you to respond and make that known.