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.

Crossing the great gender divide

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.

Comments (29)

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  1. cath says:

    “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”

    There is no gender on a birth certificate. Nor on a passport. It’s sex.

    There seems to me an inherent confusion in the whole “gender re-assignment” debate, when we’re using the word gender but actually talking about sex. To me, these are two different things, but we’re not debating what the difference is, or what’s really being asked of people here.

    1. Melanie says:

      But if we’re being picky, she didn’t say “gender”: she said “gender marker”.
      On a birth certificate, the gender marker is in the column labelled “Sex”, but it doesn’t actually state the sex of the child other than by implication: it says “Boy”or “Girl”, rather than “Male” or “Female”!

      Mine says “Boy”. But the gender marker on my passport says “Sex/Sexe: F”. The number on my driving licence is in the female format, my NHS records say “Female”, my bank statements are addressed to Ms., and my DBS certificate says “Gender: Female”.

      I have jumped through all the legal and medical hoops required to get a gender recognition certificate under the existing rules, and I expect to receive it within the next few days.

      So the changes won’t affect me, personally, all.

      They won’t affect the vast majority of other people, either. When did you, personally, last need to see someone else’s birth certificate, and what difference did it make to your life?

      The only difference the changes might make is that they will make it slightly easier and less expensive for trans people to bring their birth certificate in line with the rest of their documentation, and with the everyday reality of their lives as they live them.

      Gender Recognition Certificate are really not the big issue that many people are making them out to be.

      Far, far more important are the discrimination and abuse to which trans people are subjected, and the fear of trans people that is blighting the lives of many non-trans people (especially women) . Those fears are completely groundless, but they are being deliberately whipped up by a relatively small number of very privileged and vociferous anti-trans activists.

    2. Melanie says:

      PS Cath, I think you are quite right, sex and gender are two different things as we experience them in real life. That is why some of us benefit from medical or surgical intervention to get our sex and gender to match more closely.

      But this debate is about an administrative procedure — the processes involved in issuing gender recognition certificates. Nothing more. In almost all our legislation, there is no distinction between sex and gender — probably because for centuries past, it was thought possible to identify someone’s sex with absolute certainty by the simplest of possible tests. So for administrative purposes, the distinction between the two is irrelevant:

  2. Jennie Kermode says:

    There’s just one thing I’d like to add to this thoughtful piece, and that’s that gender presentation is not the same as gender identity. That is, there are a lot of trans women out there who wear trousers, drink lager and like football; there are a lot of trans men who wear pink and like cupcakes. Trans people don’t buy into gender stereotypes any more than others do, though historically they have often pretended to in order to meet doctors’ expectations of what femininity and masculinity mean, so as to get access to treatment. The stereotype of a trans woman flouncing around in a frilly dress and giggling is just that – a stereotype – and one that recalls those associated with gay men in less enlightened times (though yesterday’s piece by Richard Littlejohn suggests we’re not clear of the homophobic Dark Ages yet).

    1. Caitlin Logan says:

      Thanks for clarifying this Jennie, I totally agree and didn’t mean to suggest trans people actually fit those stereotypes any more often than anyone else does!

    2. Leya says:

      This is a distinction without difference though. In order to state that trans women are women you are upholding gender stereotypes in that ideological statement. Indeed the idea that trans women don’t have to perform the feminine gender in order to be considered women is rooted in bio essentialism – which is to say that they are women because they are innately the feminine gender (there’s no ‘woman’ gender) due to ‘lady brain’.

      But there is not only no such thing as a gendered brain, there isn’t even such a thing as brain sex. The male and female brains are not inherently distinct enough in any consistent way to be considered distinct brains – this is what the science tells us. And anyway we know that whatever differences there are, they don’t constitute gender, because gender is a social system, and as such gender roles and norms change throughout time and place; our gender roles/stereotypes are clearly not essential to who we are, the only stable condition of gender is that it’s a system under which the female people are subjugated by and for the benefit of the male people. So to talk about gender as innate in any remotely meaningful way, would be to talk about women as inherently subordinate to men. This idea is of course nonsense, and that is the point. Brain scans have told us there’s no such thing as brain sex, but the irrelevance of this to the gender debate has always been self-evident. No matter what brain you have, it says nothing about femininity/masculinity – i.e. gender.

      The only way to say there is such a thing as feeling/thinking/living like a woman is to reduce a woman to a bunch of gender stereotypes; whether that is rooted in the idea of gender as performance, or as an essential feeling based on innate gender/lady brain. People are of course free to argue that lady brain is real, and this is increasingly what is happening, but this is not only not backed up by science, but nor is it rational considering what we understand regarding gender. And it should be very clear why women fight this idea, since it is the very idea underpinning our oppression and all we go through at the hands of males.

  3. Willie says:

    It’s articles like this that make folks realise what drivel some folk spout.

    Obsessive victim status diatribe on behalf of a very few with an axe to grind is how this article comes across. It does nothing to engender support for the fight against discrimation – and yes discrimination is real and comes in all manner of shapes and sizes – be it race, colour, religion, ageism or indeed anti women or anti trans.

    The poor victimised me, is at the absolute core of this piece and it’s selfish. High time that instead of wallowing in perceived victim status that such folks maybe thought about others such as for example, children being brought up in households in fuel and food poverty.

    Or would it only be the girls, or the trans girls in such households who get discriminated against.

    1. Caitlin Logan says:

      Given that I’m talking about something which doesn’t affect me, it’s hardly me using my “victim status”. I’m responding to a debate which has been happening due to a proposed legal change – that’s a reality. I quite agree that people living in poverty is an issue we should better spend our time on and let people make these decisions about their own lives without a fuss. Hardly anything to get so upset about.

    2. Melanie says:

      You seem to think that there is a finite stock of “equality” in the world!
      How does a minor administrative change that might improve life for one tiny minority detract from efforts to improve life for any others?
      I find it particularly telling that one of the most high-profile and vociferous trans-exclusionary “feminists” has repeatedly refused to speak out against FGM.
      Perhaps, if they devoted less of their attention to spreading anti-trans propaganda, she (and they) might be able to campaign on issues that really do affect the lives of women less fortunate than themselves

  4. SleepingDog says:

    One concern which I have heard and is perhaps not addressed here is that since representation of a class (whether in a cultural artefact, as an elected official, a member of a consultation group or decision-making body etc) is unequal in society, there could be cases where well-meaning legal reforms on behalf of one protected personal characteristic infringes upon another protected characteristic.

    To use an extreme but historical example, in Shakespeare’s time (as far as I know) female roles on stage were performed by male actors. Women were excluded from representing women. Times change, but it may well be that there are still significant imbalances in the cultural representation of women in, say, the UK. I’m sure there is research; it is also possible to analyse data for example from the Internet Movie database, such as is available.

    To use a more current example, which I believe is going to be protected by proposed legislation anyway and therefore possibly not a concern, where women are represented in sport there may be a concern that trans women could be over-represented in certain teams or events.

    However, if there is a proposal that removes the distinction between women and trans women, and men and trans men, for public monitoring of equality outcomes or quotas, there is a possibility that in certain key areas over-representation of some groups and under-representation of others could occur without checks and balances.

    I should say that while I find cultural representation of our social make-up to be currently problematic, there are areas of much greater concern like gender-biased agism (under-representation of older women; the frequent old males romantically paired with young females trope). I also think that cosmetic procedures including surgery are also evident in unhealthy predominance. Ditto digital appearance enhancement.

    My point is, beyond the individualistic scope treated in the article, largely about addressing concerns of structural or cultural positions of influence where someone is seen as a representative of a social subgroup.

    1. Caitlin Logan says:

      Hi SleepingDog. I think this is part of the confusion around what these legal changes will actually mean, which I didn’t address in this article as some of them have been addressed elsewhere including Jennie Kermode’s piece on here. Currently equalities monitoring is done on the basis of how people record their own gender, so people don’t need to have legally changed their gender to do that. So, if this were to be a problem, it would already be a problem and not one impacted by the changes to the Gender Recognition Act which relates solely to changing birth certificates.

      I would suggest that the numbers of people who are trans are small enough that it’s not likely to have a statistical impact on data but that it’s also possible that data on who records themselves as trans could be disaggregated from total figures, and this could have benefits for trans people as well in terms of recording equalities outcomes, etc.

      As for the sports issue, this is a bit different as sports bodies actually are legally allowed to set their own requirements for participation and can do this based on factors like hormone levels. Think: what happened with Caster Semenya when it was suggested she was secretly a man, and the tests she had to go through revealed she was intersex and had never known.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Caitlin, yes, I do find some of the issues particularly around who-speaks-for-who (you touch on this in your article) quite confusing. I believe that recording tends to change behaviour, and this may well have positive effects like you say.

        The point I was trying to make about the issues of two-fold representation (in both culture and in politics) may be clarified by giving an example.

        One example of contentious cultural representation would be the theme of constructed, sometimes literally built women (or men).

        This concept appears in mythology (Pygmalion sculpted, Blodeuwedd made from flowers), and commonly in science fiction such as Metropolis (robot as resurrected woman attempt), Weird Science (nerd wish fulfilment), Stepford Wives (women replaced by robotic replicas), The Machine (robot with women brain scan), Ex Machina (female sex robot/Turing test device) and so forth. There are subgenres of anime/manga concerned largely with female cyborgs too.

        Although some of the recent movies appear on the surface to be about creating artificial intelligence, the subtext often seems to be about creating a woman, almost invariably by a man, and if any of these creations was deliberately or negligently unattractive, I must have missed it. These stories bear little resemblance to authentic AI-exploring stories like Asimov’s positronic robots.

        There is a reductionist, occasionally kit-built aspect, yet imbued with Creator fantasies, that seems likely to offend those with a more developed view of personhood, who consider lived experience (even consciousness) to be important. Bella Caledonia’s Editor has recently remarked on female sex robots, which follow a similar concept.

        Men have been created too, but while the made man in Mary Shelley’s epoch-ushering novel Frankenstein was deemed unintentionally ugly by its creator who used the finest parts available, it was depicted as unprettily botched on film. Typically, constructed men seem to be golem-like. As the old nursery rhyme has it:

        sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of;
        frogs and snails and puppy dogs tails, that’s what little boys are made of.

        The problems/challenges of this construction and design concept include: inversions of nature (man creates women through technology, when in nature women gives birth to man); the notion of continual upgrades; the comparison against a template of the design ideal; that idea that people have flaws that should be fixed to meet that template; the hubris behind the creation of a perfect human; and so on. Design creates an intentional hierarchy (including obsolescence) that evolution does not.

        Perhaps some of the largest signers-up have hitherto included women who now have the capacity to co-create idealized versions (or monstrous caricatures) of themselves, under social or partner pressure, or in the spirit of competition, aesthetic drive, economic necessity or other reason. Men are building themselves too. If freedom of expression is the demand of an individual, is the right to beauty the demand of ego?

        Personal bodily transformation is not necessarily egotistical. The volunteers in Frederick Pohl’s novel Man Plus sacrifice much of their human bodies and are neutered in their surgical transformation into beings who can live without external life support on the surface of Mars in a programme that might be needed for human survival.

        The understanding that this concept might be important to trans issues was conveyed by an article mentioning positive appreciation for the movie Ex Machina by someone who apparently strongly identified with the robot assuming female form.

        My point after all this is to ask whether criticisms of the concept that women (or men) can be built/designed/constructed rather than grow and develop through biological, experiential and social means (labelled naturally) intended primarily to counter male fantasy reductionism is also going to be seen as critical of (or an attack on) some trans people/supporter views that medical procedures can similarly create/recast/construct a woman. I think this could be one of the tricky gender-critical areas covered by the article, and covers representation of an identifiable subset of society by creators of cultural artefacts, as well as individuals or groups politically representing (speaking for) that subset in criticism of that cultural representation.

  5. Leya says:

    Some comments on this for any readers here, to clarify a few points as it appears to directly address my piece and the gender debate is incredibly important:

    Gender critical feminism is gender abolitionist feminism. It’s not a term denoting being a bit critical of gender in some ways, it’s a term denoting what has long been the feminist theory regarding gender as a social construct & the tool of female oppression, and that the only way to dismantle patriarchy is to abolish gender. Indeed it’s central to radical feminism that it’s impossible to liberate women without abolishing gender. Liberal (conservative) feminism takes a different view, one of individualism which essentially acquiesces to male supremacy, and instead looks for equality in a couple of areas for women, and focuses on feminism as ‘women feeling empowered’, rather than addressing the subjugation of women as a class. As such, many radical feminists like myself view liberal feminism more as a backlash than a form of feminism.

    And gender critical feminists don’t ask what a woman is, we are clear that a woman is an adult female (really, most people are). We are clear that to say that a woman is anything other than simply a bio female is to employ gender stereotypes to define what a woman is. Indeed whether it’s about performing feminine gender stereotypes or the idea that lady brain exists (it doesn’t, I go into this above in my response to Jennie) there is no way to say a woman is a designation of anything other than the female sex, without saying that the feminine gender constitutes womanhood. And as I say the notion of innate gender, i.e. that we are innately the feminine gender, is biological essentialism.

    I think I need to quote the definition of this term here, so that it’s clear what bio essentialism means: “The belief that ‘human nature’, an individual’s personality, or some specific quality (such as…masculinity, femininity) is an innate and natural ‘essence’ (rather than a product of circumstances, upbringing, and culture)”. Bio essentialism – the idea that gender is innate – underpins the subjugation of female people. Asserting that gender is *not* innate is *not* another form of essentialism, and hopefully this quote makes that clear. When we say a woman is simply a bio female, we are saying there is nothing essential to being a woman other than our biological sex (so when biology is just biology, it’s not essentialism); we are saying that our personality – who we are – is not innately dictated by, or limited by, our sex.

    It’s also important to note that women and girls don’t choose to abide by the stereotypes coercively imposed on us (!); firstly you cannot tell how much or little someone conforms just by looking at them, reducing all this to appearance is to take an extremely superficial view on gender. And women are coercively socialised into the feminine gender – this is done *to us* to subjugate us – and this is something males do not experience. The idea women can be held responsible for this is not feminism.
    And no-one paints trans people as the problem. Gender identity theory and trans ideology are genderist ideologies and thus these *ideologies* are very much the problem, and they’re a problem for trans people as much as for all the rest of us, and indeed there are trans people who are gender critical, and who thus completely eschew these ideologies. Kristina Harrison for eg; one of the most intelligent voices out there on gender, identifies as a trans woman and is clear that this is the not the same as being a woman, and argues against the conflation of sex with gender and further, defines trans identity as a response to constrictive gender norms, gender norms that have to be abolished. Kristina is the embodiment of the fact that trans identity does not need trans ideology. Let’s not dehumanise trans people by pretending they all have the same views. They don’t. An attack on trans ideology is not an attack on trans people.

    It’s also important to note that gender is not personality, but a social system. On the level of personality, in terms of how we individually relate to femininity and masculinity, we’re all obviously non-binary to a degree, and there would be as many gender identities as individuals. But again gender is neither innate nor a binary, it is a social hierarchy, and how we relate to femininity and masculinity is just our personality. And acknowledging gender as a social hierarchy isn’t saying that we are the genders imposed on us, it’s an acknowledgement of how gender functions to subjugate one group of people based on sex. Pretending this isn’t the case, and that our personality is what gender really is, only serves to ignore this social hierarchy, it doesn’t challenge it. How could it. My non binary personality like everyone else’s has no bearing on how I am and have been socialised, because I have been socialised by the feminine gender due to my sex, and this is something I cannot identify out of. To suggest personality has a bearing on gender is to assert that women are responsible for our lot, and if we’d just change our personality we’d be fine, which is clearly nonsense. So if our personality doesn’t affect our gender socialisation, then clearly gender identity – which is just a statement of personality – can’t either.

    Sex is very much the axis of oppression and equality for women, which is obvious not only when we look at the causes but at the result – i.e. where males are as a class in our society vs where females are as a class. The idea that the axis is actually on femininity simply has no basis in reality (and also functions to blame women, yet again, rather than the actual cause of our place in society) and we should be clear this is what it means to say that the axis of gender inequality is womanhood when ‘womanhood’ is defined as other than simply the female sex; i.e. ‘woman’ is not a gender, femininity and masculinity is gender.
    Additionally, while some trans people do ‘pass’ as they say, and may as a result encounter treatment accorded to them because they are taken for a female person, this is not the same as experiencing structural sexism; it is not being experienced as a female for being female and this is an important distinction within any class analysis. For eg, a white person mistaken for a Latino in the US could experience forms of racial abuse but they are not actually the victim of racism, and in fact it’d be racist to suggest they were. Structural inequality is not about individual experience, it’s about an axis of oppression. And again, the axis of female oppression isn’t femininity, it’s sex – and we are oppressed *by* the feminine gender, which is oppressive and imposed on us due to our sex; there is no comparison here with trans women; this is about structures, not attitudes. And any analysis that views oppression as based on one’s individual experience is not a collectivist analysis, and functions to undermine all forms of such analysis, not just re gender.

    And it’s no myth that being exclusively same sex attracted is no longer supported by LGBT orgs and Trans orgs. I directly spoke with Stonewall Scotland and asked if they would give their support to exclusively same sex attracted women and they *refused*. The Scottish Trans Alliance would not even respond when asked. And anyone who takes the time to search online will see the abuse lesbian women are on the receiving end of just for being lesbians. So please see and ask for yourself, it is happening. Lesbian women are saying they do not find male bodied people as viable sex partners, and they are saying this because they are being told they should find male bodies attractive, and should be ‘educated’ if they don’t, and usually called bigots. This is sexual coercion, and it’s both homophobic and misogynistic. As a bisexual woman I know the difference between my sexuality and that of my lesbian and straight female friends and I am horrified to see what lesbians are going through, and the fact straight men are not being harassed like this again just speaks to the misogyny inherent in what’s going on here.

    And remember, women have a right to privacy, dignity and safety around male bodies. It’s male bodies that are a threat to women, however they identify, and the fact that this is a (substantial) minority of males doesn’t mean that there’s any less of an imperative to address this. Why would it? And upholding the equality of women and girls by ensuring our participation, welfare and safety is not and nor will it ever be a barrier to any kind of real progress. In fact when you see demands that women and girls lose our rights, you can be sure those are demands for the precise opposite of progress.

    Trans people already have their human rights, and the same rights as all other protected groups. Women don’t even have misogyny as a hate crime, so they already have more rights as a protected group than females do. And trans people deserve equality, and to have all they need to address discrimination etc. And trans women like Kristina Harrison are very vocal about how to work towards trans equality, while being very clear that this does not depend on erasing the distinctions between sex and gender, or indeed on impacting the equality of women and girls. No-one is suggesting trans people can’t live as they wish or have their equality, in fact this is where everyone agrees. But again, ‘equal’ is not ‘identical’; no-one has the right to erase what is unique to another group of people (an oppressed group no less) and this is never necessary for anyone to live their life. Progress is, and always will be, rooted in *addressing* distinctions between different groups in society from an egalitarian standpoint, not ignoring them.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Leya, when you say: “women are coercively socialised into the feminine gender” and “the idea women can be held responsible for this is not feminism”, are you saying that radical feminists (if that is a term for a single ideological viewpoint) do *not* believe that *some* women are implicated in coercing other women into gender roles/stereotypes? I found that quite a surprising statement, if I understood it correctly.

      1. Leya says:

        The coercive imposition of gender, which for women serves to subjugate us, is not something women have power over as a class by the very fact we are subjugated by and for the benefit of the male class. Patriarchy is a system whereby women are subjugated in order to uphold male power, and I do not think it is feminist to ignore where the power is in relation to patriarchy and gender, and indeed where it isn’t. That’s really what i was getting at. Whatever an individual woman may do in her life due to her socialisation, she does not have the power here, i.e. we are not responsible for male supremacy and we don’t benefit from it. This doesn’t mean that women can’t challenge our socialisation, obviously we can. It also doesn’t mean that we can’t challenge each other to do so, again we can. But it does mean that however little or much we do, we are not responsible for a social system that oppresses us, because again, we don’t have that power. I hope that clarifies my point 😀

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Leya, thanks for your explanation. I broadly accept the existence and description of patriarchy as an often/typically oppressive feature of societies around the world. However, some philosophies describe one ethical choice being to accept responsibility for your own living response to your environment (not, of course, for the things you cannot change). If women who are conscious of the oppressive nature of patriarchy choose to collaborate, use or extend it, then presumably they become part of the system of oppression (not unlike people termed “class traitors”).

          From your description, I suppose that men are also socially conditioned under patriarchy. Do they individually have the power to change it? If not, are they still responsible? I imagine that there are some men who are oppressed under patriarchal systems, which may also vary in their hierarchies of age, wealth, social stratification and so forth.

          Sorry to fixate upon a such a small part of your original comment, but this idea struck a somewhat depressing note to me in wondering who does have the power to change society, especially if there seems to be an unbridgeable divide preventing collaborative struggle. I guess I’m slightly more optimistic about potential for change.

          1. Leya says:

            Women can’t be responsible for our own subjugation because we don’t have that power. All we can do is fight it, which of course in many ways comes at great risk, because the non-conformity of women to the feminine gender can lead to the most brutal punishment. But those who don’t are not responsible for the system, they don’t have privilege they are refusing/failing to dismantle.

            But re males; men have to do what they can to dismantle their privilege/supremacy; make space for women, elevate women, challenge sexism and misogyny etc. Males need to challenge gender socialisation, and one of the most powerful ways to do this incidentally is challenging the idea that to be a man means to be masculine, or that if you are feminine this means you can’t be a man etc. We need to move towards challenging the notion that our biology determines anything beyond our biology; if we do this, we will gradually end the socialisation into gender roles, and gendering what are just human traits etc.

  6. Paul Codd says:

    “Men’s inherent predatory nature”??? I’m assuming that was a tongue in cheek statement? There’s no clue that it was. Please clarify.

    1. Caitlin Logan says:

      Hi Paul, sorry, the clue was meant to be where I also said “because women are so obviously better looking” – I was pointing out exactly that this is not the case, these are stereotypes and not based on a natural reality, and trends of behaviour are due to socialisation. I think that violence against women is due to men’s nature is both self defeatist, excusing the behaviour and clearly insulting to most men.

  7. Frank says:

    I fully support trans-rights and understand the distinction between gender and sex but it strikes me that some of the authors are stuck in a very outdated nature versus nurture debate, almost to the point where biology is reduced to mere body parts and where anyone who argues for a view of ‘sex’ (and gender) shaped by evolutionary theory, neuroscience, behavioural genetics and cognitive psychology is dismissed as a ‘biological essentialist’. And yet the opposite of a biological essentialist is the equally absurd ‘cultural essentialist’ or ‘cultural determinist’, namely someone who holds an extreme sociological belief that we are blank slates upon which society writes its narrative. Anyone who has ever read basic texts on cognitive psychology (or even had children) knows this to be absurd. Surely we need a more nuanced position and one in which our stances are shaped by evidence and engagement with developments in science as opposed to ideology?

    1. Melanie says:

      “Surely we need a more nuanced position and one in which our stances are shaped by evidence and engagement with developments in science as opposed to ideology?”
      Hear! Hear!
      Too often the anti-trans propagandists pay lip-service to science by a quick reference to “science” at GCSE level, while ignoring the more detailed and up-to-date knowledge and expertise of highly-qualified researchers, specialist clinicians, and professional bodies.

    2. Leya says:

      Hi Frank, I think it is very important to note that challenging biological essentialism is *not* to challenge that there are sex differences in humans – which there clearly is – and when feminists like myself are saying that gender is not innate, this is not a negation of such differences, it’s rather a statement that these differences due not constitute gender (in case of interest, I recommend the work of Cordelia Fine in this whole area, whose recent work on gender – Testosterone Rex – won the Royal Society Science
      book of the year last year. It’s fascinating.)

      I’m gonna be super lazy and copy something from another comment I made, which I hope at least better explains where women like me are coming from; The male and female brains are not inherently distinct enough in any consistent way to be considered distinct brains – this is what the science tells us. And anyway we know that whatever differences there are, they don’t constitute gender, because gender is a social system, and as such gender roles and norms change throughout time and place; our gender roles/stereotypes are clearly not essential to who we are, the only stable condition of gender is that it’s a system under which the female people are subjugated by and for the benefit of the male people. So to talk about gender as innate in any remotely meaningful way, would be to talk about women as inherently subordinate to men. This idea is of course nonsense, and that is the point. Brain scans have told us there’s no such thing as brain sex, but the irrelevance of this to the gender debate has always been self-evident. No matter what brain you have, it says nothing about femininity/masculinity – i.e. gender.

      In other words, our sex differences don’t amount to ‘lady brain’.

      1. Frank says:

        Thanks for responding Leya and I will definitely have a look at the book you mentioned. A couple of points I would take issue with concern the brain and the term ‘innate’. For me, gender is to some extent innate and certain characteristics are inherited as opposed to learned. The psychologist Jonathon Haidt gives the best description on innateness I have come across; according to Haidt:

        ‘Our brains to some extent are pre-wired…the brain is like a book…nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises…’built in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means organised in advanced of experience’.

        Meanwhile, the proposition that there is no ‘inherently distinct’ difference between male and female brains is problematic to say the least and a cursory glance of the literature will tell you that the scientific community is divided or still learning on this issue. One of the problems I have with these debates is that people draw upon the literature selectively and do not acknowledge the limitations of their own arguments. For me, if we accept your position that there is nothing ‘inherently distinct’ we find ourselves inevitably back in ‘blank slate’ territory and trapped in the social constructivist arguments of nineteenth century sociology which reified society.

        Finally, you argue that to talk of ‘gender as innate’ leads to the view that ‘women are inherently subordinate to men’. I just don’t get this at all; to argue that we come into the world with a pre-wired brain does not mean that we have to believe that women are in-subordinate to men. Do you not think that there is a danger of viewing the science through the prism of ideology?

        1. Leya says:

          You are conflating sex with gender. Firstly my point re brains was that there’s no such thing as ‘brain sex’ in that there are not *consistent enough* ‘hard wiring’ differences for there to be *two distinct brains*, i.e. a male and a female brain; there is far too much overlap for our brains to be considered distinct. And as I say this is very much where the science is.

          But also we already know that whatever our brain differences, these do not constitute gender anyway, because everything about gender – i.e. the masculine and feminine gender roles – is about upholding the subordination of women and the dominance of men.

          You have to separate what are biological traits, from gender. There is *nothing about our biology that justifies women being subordinate to men*, and that is what gender is all about. You won’t find any radical feminist saying there aren’t sex differences between males and females. What we are pointing out is that whatever these are, they do not justify our social roles, because our social roles are not who we are, they are a social system, they oppress women and uphold male supremacy. Gender is just our social roles and stereotypes. Gender is not the story of the real differences between men and women, it’s the story that has been socially constructed around the real sex differences between men and women.

  8. Crubag says:

    “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.”

    Isn’t it the other way around? Feminists (of the de Beauvoir vintage, at least) are arguing that the biological reality of being a woman/female, specifically the reproductive role, lies at the root of much of the subjugation of women through the centuries?

    And to replace sex with gender, an elective, associative identify, risks obscuring the reality of what women/females experience?

    If I’ve read the article correctly, it seems to be arguing that by replacing sex with gender, and recognising that gender is a spectrum of opinions, identities and presentations, that the male/female inequalities will be dissolved.

    But won’t they simply be obscured? (In theory at least, possibly statistically it will make less difference.)

    1. Leya says:

      Yup, you’re spot on…and therein lies the danger of thinking that what is essentially our personality can impact our gender socialisation; as you say this thinking does nothing to address our oppression, only obscures it, and prevents us from addressing it. No matter how we ourselves relate to masculinity and femininity and how we understand this within ourselves, we are still socialised based on our sex, which for women means being oppressed due to our sex. Any feminist gender analysis really has to say *how* patriarchy is dismantled. The idea that there’s a special subset of people who aren’t the gender imposed on them (but the rest of us are, which is nonsense, for eg women are not the feminine gender, and it’s totally sexist and misogynistic to suggest we are) does nothing but entrench this socialisation and uphold patriarchy.

      This is why ignoring sex will have to change.

  9. Meerder says:

    Hello Caitlin!

    I am so very glad I found a link to this article that you’ve written.
    You point out the shortcomings of TERFs and make connections that I haven’t made yet, so I am thankful for this learning opportunity.
    May I quote parts of your article for feminist discourse in the future?

    All the best,
    Meerder

  10. leavergirl says:

    It is a thoughtful article, and yet I still think that it makes no sense. Men who present like women, no matter what they do, will not turn into women, no matter how many procedures they undergo, no matter which papers they acquire. It’s biologically delusional, IMO. Even so, I am against discriminating against such individuals.

    What bothers me is this: when some white folks practice, for example, Indian ceremonies, put on Indian dress etc (I am talking Amerindians here) it’s called cultural appropriation. But when men do it regarding women, it’s promoted by the same political orientation that decries the former.

  11. Steve Arnott says:

    It appears to me that any attempt to characterise the human condition and to legislate to improve that does not take account of ‘biological essentialism’ is doomed to tie itself in potentially damaging knots of contradiction.

    The assertion that gender is nothing to with sex, that male and female brains do not have differences (note here difference implies only that -‘difference’ – and does not imply inferiority or any percieved justification for difference in legal status) and that biology doesn’t matter are all propositions that seem to carry currency within a large section of the left community and non-science acedemia. But they would be regarded as fringe at best by the biology or neurosciences community.

    I am broadly supportive of the attempt to bring tran or non-binary equality legislation into step with equality legislation in general through the GRA, provided the legislation is clearly drafted in its final form in such a way that does not allow for frivolous and free speech denying legal challenges from trans people against those who do not accept their view of the world, or gender, and beg to differ on philosophical or scientific grounds.

    This should be unproblematic – as a society we should be able to differentiate between ‘hate’ speech and legtimate robust debate. For instance, if I write and promulgate a critique of the dogma of transubstantion and propitiation in the Catholic Church I may be taken up on the question but I should never be prosecuted for it, on the other hand if I stand up on a table in a pub in Glasgow and start singing about being ‘up to my knees in fenian blood’ I should be prosecuted under the criminal law. If we can adopt the same approach to question of gender and trans rights, then I think I think we should be able to legislate responsibly on the issue.

    We can adopt an approach of gender self recognition within reasonable limits provided we understand we are doing so within a humane and logical approach to supporting the equality rights of trans people, without it being seen to impact upon objective scientific judgement or biology. We can see this as a separation of humane and civil convenience, just as we can acknowledge the right of freedom of religious expression without acknowledging that many of the ontological claims of religion are in any objective sense, true, or ‘privileging’ one religious or philosophical view over another in society. We can see it as being within reasonable paarmeters of what people are entitled to believe and express about themselves, and have some legal protection to do so, without that infringing upon the right of free speech of others to demur.

    But what we really need to tackle within left discourse is the utterly spurious and ascientific claim that all things are purely socially constructed and that biology and innate structures play no role whatsoever.

    Scientifically, both absolute biological determinism and blank slate social constructivism are as dead as the dodo. The evidence just doesn’t support EITHER worldview.

    The reality of the human person is that she/he/other is both socially constructed and biologically constructed and that there is a dialectical interaction throughout life with both.

    Neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, and his co-workers, for me, have given the most comprehensive description of this so far in the topobiological Theory of Neuronal Group Selection, which explains that the plasticicty of the human brain is an evolutionary adaptation that allows us to interact succesfully with novel environments – and therefore to be socially consructed – but that that plasticity is itself governed by the more innate deeper neurochemical structures of the brain. In other words, in so far as we are ‘socially constructed’ that social construction is bounded within a certain biological or species context. Or, as Marx instinctively understood – and wrote – we have both social being and species being.

    I would urge those on the left still clinging to the notion that everything is socially constructed to read this stuff – or even just watch David Eagleman’s brilliant BBC 4 series The Brain, which outlines much of the same stuff in a more general and introductory way.

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