If gender is a spectrum, surely being trans is too The Times 03.03.20

The original article is here.

Last summer the Scottish government announced a delay to its reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, governing the transition process from one gender to another, because of the controversy caused by plans for gender “self-identification”. A consultation was announced that will end in two weeks’ time.

But has it really been a consultation at all? In January Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament it was important to “allow a proper debate”, the better to “convince those who have concerns about the issue that there is not a tension and inevitable conflict between women’s rights and trans rights”. That sounds less like a consultation than like a means by which a preordained outcome can be reached. But by referring to “women’s rights and trans rights” Ms Sturgeon conceded that they were not necessarily the same and that as a consequence some conflict may, on occasion, be inevitable.

If anything the issue has become more fraught, not less, as more attention has been paid to it. In the last few days the Scottish Poetry Library has become embroiled in a trans-related no-platforming controversy; the Glasgow Women’s Library cancelled a booking made by women who take a “gender-critical” view of the argument and in Oxford the distinguished feminist historian Selina Todd was prevented from speaking at a conference on, well, feminism because of her “problematic” views on trans issues.

But if gender exists on a spectrum, being trans does so too. At one end there is the person who has undergone surgery and received a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) and at the other there is a man with a beard and a penis who has no intention of having surgery but demands you call him a woman. I do not believe it is “transphobic” to suggest that these are different people with very different experiences. It is possible to respect their choices while appreciating their distinguishing features.

Neither is it transphobic to observe that some of the language used in this debate is absurd. People are not “assigned” a sex at birth; their sex is recognised and recorded. But then to call this a “debate” is itself perhaps a misnomer; much of the time most of the energy seems to be devoted to ensuring that no discussion can be had at all.

So we should be grateful to some of those protesting against Professor Todd’s appearance at the Oxford conference for actually telling us what they believe. According to one of them (observing the exhortation to #BeKind, I won’t name them) “feminism is a methodology that we can use to make demands for our freedom” and “woman is an umbrella term under which we can gather to make those demands”. As such, being a woman is merely “a strategy for those of us on the underside of capital and other death-making machines” and “has no meaning to me absent of that function”.

That is not all. “Sex and the body are not the final frontier for me. My imagination is bigger than that. My liberated future includes us all. It is not beholden to a rigid sex binary” because “trans liberation is central to our collective liberation, especially for anyone interested in abolishing gender and its violent consequences.” I do not wish to be unkind, but this is loopy to the tonsils.

If “woman” is merely an “umbrella term” there can be nothing particular or essential about being a woman. It is a term stripped of all meaning. I think it is reasonable for women to object to that and to worry that this cancellation might have unpleasant consequences. These go beyond questions of biological males being incarcerated in women’s prisons or taking part in women’s sporting events and cuts deep into how many women see themselves and experience their lives. If anyone can be a woman, just by saying so, is there anything distinctive about womanhood? That is not a small question.

None of which diminishes the difficulties many trans or otherwise non-binary people endure. It is not, I suspect, an easy life. Discrimination is widespread; mockery and prejudice even more so. The world is not so very interested in understanding trans people and cares little about accommodating them. No wonder, perhaps, that many are prone to mental health problems. Two thirds of trans people say they have avoided being open about their identity for fear of other people’s negative reactions.

So modifications to the Gender Recognition Act that might make life easier for trans people are well-intentioned. At present, getting a GRC takes at least two years and requires medical certification. That may explain why fewer than 400 certificates are issued each year and why many people who identify as trans do not go through the process.

But if we can agree that many trans people need more support and a kinder society, perhaps we might also agree there is something grotesque about referring children who have not even started primary school to specialist gender clinics? Neither statement should be controversial and yet, somehow, both seem to have become so.

The Scottish government appears determined to press ahead with self-ID regardless. Extending the consultation, even a sham one, again risks looking weak and there is, I suspect, a desire to move on before next year’s Holyrood elections. As a purely political matter, as opposed to a policy question, and given the depth of feeling evident on this issue, this may prove optimistic. You might even think it brave.