The original article is here.
Any nuance in the trans debate is being lost in the culture wars
For as long as I’ve known her, I’ve thought Joan McAlpine’s feminist credentials unimpeachable. It had never occurred to me that McAlpine, an SNP MSP for the South of Scotland, might also be a “transphobe”. That is, someone who hates or is afraid of transsexuals or other “non-binary” people whose gender identity exists on a spectrum that’s often nuanced or resistant to easy classification.
McAlpine has become the most prominent politician in Scotland to wonder if the government’s plans to change the way in which gender is classified here are either wise or appropriate. For this alleged heresy she has been subjected to an astonishing level of vituperation, much of it savagely personal. She is not alone; many of Britain’s brightest feminist writers — people including Helen Lewis, Caroline Criado-Perez and others — have been similarly traduced.
The government formally supports moving to a system whereby individuals can make their own determination, in a legal sense, of their gender identity. Self-ID is one answer to a genuine problem: how can the state make life easier for trans people whose lives are already difficult enough? Those difficulties should not be underestimated either; trans people are often victims of discrimination, far too likely to be the victims of physical abuse, and disconcertingly liable to endure significant mental health problems. They are a vulnerable minority.
So the mooted changes are well-intentioned. At present, the legal recognition of gender reassignment requires medical certification and takes years. Self-ID, already accepted as a working proposition by groups such as Rape Crisis Scotland, was designed to simplify matters. In broad terms, if you felt like a woman — or a man, though trans men have been a smaller part of this conversation — that would be enough to be a woman.
In one sense this merely accepts reality: most trans people in the UK do not go through the complex, cumbersome, years-long process of receiving a Gender Recognition Certificate. Nor do you need such a document to change your name, your passport, or your driving licence to better reflect your real identity. But, in an attempt to make life simpler and better for trans people, new problems have arisen.
Hang on a minute, responded some feminists. Trans women may indeed be women but being a woman must — at some essential level — be about more than making a declaration of identity. More than one thing may be true at a time. A man can become a woman in a legal sense — a sense, I repeat, that deserves to be respected — but no amount of hormonal or surgical treatment can make a man a woman in the biological sense experienced by women born female. Certain obvious aspects of the female experience remain beyond reach and saying so is not “transphobic” but, rather, a recognition of reality. Transwomen are women but they are not always women in precisely, exactly, the same way other women are. I don’t believe there is anything disreputable about that or prejudiced about noting it.
At the heart of the dispute is, I think, the suspicion held by many feminists that not all transwomen are really women. Some of them, they think, are really men who present themselves as women but have no intention of actually transitioning. At its bluntest, it comes down to this: if you have a penis and a beard, you’re not a woman and no amount of pressure or name-calling will persuade these feminists this is not the case.
And there is certainly plenty of pressure and name-calling. So-called terfs — trans-exclusionary radical feminists — are routinely placed in the pillories of social media. These “trash” feminists need to be “taken out” or “made afraid” and it is not hard to find people who say terfs are “as bad as the Nazis”. It’s not that these women do not have access to platforms; on the contrary they do and that’s why said platforms should be denied them, often at the behest of, frankly, men who claim to know more about feminism than, to take but one of many examples, people such as Germaine Greer.
This goes beyond questions of what happens if men-who-declare-as-women are allowed into women’s refuges or women’s prisons or permitted to take part in women’s sports (though these are issues of some interest and importance too) but, more specifically, it is a philosophical question: if anyone can be a woman, is there anything specific about being female? Perhaps there is, which is why, extraordinarily, in some circles and circumstances women are now being referred to as “menstruators”, the better to distinguish them from other non-menstruating women.
Some of the women concerned by these changes note that it seems revealing that, as a general rule, it is “femaleness” that is expected to bear the burden of an enhanced, broadened, definition. Why not expand our sense of what “maleness” encompasses instead? This seems a good, though unanswered, question.
And then there is the question of children. Gender non-conforming children exist. Of course they do and anyone who knows one will also know this is a subject that demands near-infinite sensitivity. But in most cases these children are significantly more likely to be gay than trans. And while some children are evidently uncomfortable from an early age with their assigned gender, it is not obvious to me that referring children as young as two or three — to specialist gender clinics such as the Tavistock in London is an appropriate thing to do. Yet this happens; rarely, perhaps, but it happens and I’m not sure we should be comfortable about that.
Paradoxically, too, sometimes all this actually perpetuates gender stereotypes. So a young boy who likes to play with dolls or dress in pink skirts is actually — whether he knows it or not — expressing his desire to be a woman. Sometimes, though, a boy in pink is just a boy in pink.
That gets lost in the culture wars, however, in which all sides behave as though you are either with us or against us. When that happens, something important is lost. Namely the ability to see people — men, women, and all types of men and women — as just that: people.