From a place of fear: responding to Leya

Bronze of Phyllis riding Aristotle as a horse
Subversion of the Aristotelian chain of being (source: Metropolitan Museum of Art; public domain)

In Bella Caledonia’s promised six-part series on ‘the debate around trans issues, identity, feminism and solidarity aimed at building understanding and in a spirit of open dialogue’, three articles have appeared so far. The first, by Jennie Kermode, debunks some of the prevailing myths surrounding the Scottish government’s GRA reform proposals. The most recent is cis lesbian feminist Caitlin Logan’s perspective, and despite possessing this ‘magical trifecta’ of attributes (!), she is also positive about GRA reform.

The second article, by Leya, came across to me as less positive, and expressed a number of concerns about self-identification. In Gender, the GRA and women’s rights, I was at first dismayed to see a series of familiar anti-trans tropes, and I said as much on Twitter. I discovered that Leya’s Twitter account was automatically blocked for me by @TERFblocker, which only served to make me more suspicious of her motives.

(Just for the avoidance of doubt, I’m wary of the overuse of the term ‘TERF’ – meaning trans-exclusionary radical feminist – for people who in many cases are probably not radical feminists or even feminists of any stripe. Correctly applied, it is – or at least was – a perfectly good descriptive term, and not, as some have claimed, a trans-invented slur: it was actually coined by cis feminists. However, it is often used a little too freely on social media and I now try to avoid it. @TERFblocker, despite the unfortunate name, simply blocks Twitter accounts believed to be associated with transphobic abuse. I choose to use it, even if there are a few false positives, because Twitter can be ugly enough without my right to exist being questioned every day.)

[Update (19 March 2018): @TERFblocker started behaving badly recently and has suddenly ceased to exist, although the accounts that were erroneously blocked by it will still be blocked until I spot them and unblock them. I am now very wary of unaccountable blocklists.]

Another Twitter user, Laura Vivanco, gave me pause for thought, though, when she commented that Leya’s article seemed to her to be coming from a place of fear, in particular fear of rape. In the light of that, I thought it would be worth revisiting it and responding a little more carefully and, I hope, sensitively to what she has to say.

Trans women, ‘females’ and ‘genderism’

In her opening paragraph, Leya writes that much of the debate around GRA reform has ‘ignored what these proposals potentially mean for women and girls’. I said I’d try to be sensitive (and I will try!), but I confess my hackles are already raised at this point.

Since I consider myself to be a woman (and I’m not deluded in this: others, including medical professionals, agree), the proposals are obviously directly relevant to me (as they are to other women and girls who are trans). Also, even if for a moment I were to accept definitions of ‘women’, ‘girls’ and ‘females’ (sic) as excluding people who were rightly or wrongly assigned male at birth, I don’t believe the government’s recommendations do anything to infringe upon their existing rights (and I fully agree that Leya would have justifiable concerns if those rights were being affected).

Leya also brings up ‘the ideological conflict between genderism and feminism’. ‘Genderism’ is a new term to me. I looked it up in five dictionaries (OED, Chambers, Collins, American Heritage and Merriam–Webster) – to no avail. Of course, the language surrounding gender identity is evolving pretty fast (these dictionaries didn’t have entries for ‘trans’ or ‘cis’ until fairly recently) and I was fortunately able to find a definition on Wikipedia:

Genderism, or gender binarism, is the social system or cultural belief that gender is a binary: that is, that there are, or should be, only two genders – masculine and feminine – with the aspects of one’s gender inherently linked to one’s genetic sex, or sex assigned at birth.

According to this definition, I’m certainly not an adherent of genderism, since I respect and fully support those who self-identify as non-binary or as having no gender, and I don’t have a biologically naive view of sex as strictly binary either, let alone one rigidly tied to gender, however we construe that. Of course, Wikipedia is no authority, but its definition does seem to chime with that used in one of the cited sources, ‘Untangling “gender diversity”, by Liz Airton (in Diversity and multiculturalism: a reader, edited by Shirley R. Steinberg). The Wikipedia article is, however, contested, and one editor commented on the Talk page (in 2014): ‘I’ve seen “genderist” used by trans exclusionary radical feminists to describe people who are not gender abolitionists.’ Perhaps this is the sense of ‘genderism’ that Leya has in mind?

Patriarchy, power and privilege

Aristotle’s chain of being, in which the philosopher tried to place everything that there is in a grand hierarchical scheme, positioned men strictly above women – and there, to a large extent, men have remained ever since. As Leya notes, patriarchy has historically given women the role of child bearing and rearing, in subordination to their husbands. She writes that even today ‘women still suffer subjugation due to our sexed bodies’, that there is still a (self-reinforcing) power imbalance between men and women, and that women still suffer violence at the hands of men and are ‘dehumanised and objectified … due to being biologically female’.

I agree with all of this, except that at the level of individual interactions (rather than of patriarchal society as a whole), I think sex (or being ‘biologically female’) has somewhat less to do with it than Leya contends. We are all conditioned to pick up on gender stereotypes (hair, clothing etc.) as well as secondary sexual characteristics such as body shape and voice, and it is, I think, these that inform our day-to-day interactions with others – if we allow them to.

We don’t generally know the sex of others; few of us are even fully aware of our own! Indeed, sex (as a biological characteristic, rather than a legal marker arbitrarily assigned on the basis of genital appearance at birth) is a multi-faceted and complex beast: there are our external genitalia, our reproductive organs, our chromosomes, our hormones and so on, not to mention Julia Serano’s notion of ‘subconscious sex’. None of these are neatly binary, and they can all be at odds with one another in various ways. The idea that there are two biological sexes is itself a social construct.

Divided by language?

Leya asserts that biological essentialism – the notion that the (two) sexes have predetermined gender roles – is the tool underpinning patriarchal subjugation of women. Here, again, I agree with Leya (except that those two sexes are themselves a social construct). I also agree with her that it is ‘profoundly regressive’ and ‘a false ideology’.

What is problematic – and I think this may be central to the difficulty some feminists have in coming to terms with trans identities – is the use of the word ‘gender’ here, with ‘femininity’ rather than ‘womanhood’ as a potential value of this attribute. That Leya has this understanding of gender as referring exclusively to socially constructed roles is emphasised by how she views trans people:

Nonetheless the idea persists, and along with it a fairly new iteration of genderism that says that while gender is innate, sometimes there is a ‘mis-match’ between our gender and our sex, and those for whom this is the case are considered transgender. For the rest of us, the idea is that our gender ‘matches’ our sex, i.e. that we essentially are our social roles, and this is what they say it is to be ‘cisgender’.

Language is messier than I’d sometimes like it to be. I mentioned earlier that Julia Serano (who is very precise in her use of language) coined the term ‘subconscious sex’. She uses this, I think, where many people might loosely say ‘gender’ or ‘gender identity’, not in the sense of a socially constructed role but in the sense of a mental component of the cluster of factors we call ‘sex’.

When I say that I’m trans because my gender is not the gender I was assigned at birth, I am not saying that my gender role is different from the one I would prefer. I don’t subscribe to an archaic notion of innate gender roles any more than Leya does. No, I’m saying that the gender/sex I was assigned at birth doesn’t correspond to my subconscious sex. That’s where the mismatch lies. Subconscious sex probably isn’t something that cis people are necessarily aware of: if every component of your sex that you’re aware of fits into a more or less female (or male) box, you’re likely to just think of that as your sex.

Incidentally, ‘cis’ (‘cisgender’) is a term that some (typically trans-antagonistic) feminists have rejected. Until I read Leya’s article, I don’t think I’d really appreciated where those feminists were coming from when they said they resented being labelled in that way. It seemed to me to be a harmless and relatively neutral antonym for ‘trans’ (‘transgender’). But if they think being trans just means being uncomfortable in a societal role that is predetermined by our genitalia, I can well understand their hostility to both labels. However, trans people are not just people who reject societal expectations of their sex. Indeed, they may or may not do so.

Gender-non-conformity should be applauded, but it shouldn’t be expected of anyone, trans or cis – any more than gender-conformity ought to be expected. (Non-binary people probably have to be gender-non-conformist, not because that’s what being non-binary is, but simply because their gender, i.e. subconscious sex, doesn’t correspond to either of the traditional gender roles.)

Abolition of sex/gender may be rather difficult to accomplish. It’s probably as Sisyphean a task as abolishing race. But at least race isn’t recorded on birth certificates or identity documents (in EU countries, anyway – I was shocked to discover while writing this post that US birth certificates do record parental race). So should sex/gender (which is just as much of a problematic and divisive social construct as race) really be recorded there either?

Gender assignment and reassignment

This is really all about that legal marker that our patriarchal society currently uses to pigeonhole each of us into one of two categories at birth. I was assigned male at birth. That doesn’t mean they got it right.

As Leya says in her article, the 2004 Act (the GRA) refers to ‘gender reassignment’, which is a protected characteristic under the terms of the Equality Act 2010. However, it is not true that ‘gender reassignment’ (a term I don’t particularly care for) begins with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. In fact, it is already the case that anyone who declares their intention to permanently change their legal gender has a reassigned gender. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission puts it on their page about gender reassignment discrimination:

To be protected from gender reassignment discrimination, you do not need to have undergone any specific treatment or surgery to change from your birth sex to your preferred gender. This is because changing your physiological or other gender attributes is a personal process rather than a medical one. You can be at any stage in the transition process – from proposing to reassign your gender, to undergoing a process to reassign your gender, or having completed it.

However, for the purposes of changing legal gender (specifically, getting the change recorded on birth and/or marriage certificates), it is indeed the case that two independent medical reports are required, along with evidence of having lived for at least two years in your ‘acquired gender’ (whatever that might mean – it’s up to an anonymous panel to arbitrate). The proposed reforms are in part about removing some of this bureaucracy and intrusiveness. There is also a proposal to allow non-binary people to have their gender (or subconscious sex) recorded more accurately.

Very few trans people currently apply for legal recognition of their gender. Many (probably most) trans people who meet the criteria stipulated by the GRA don’t bother. Some don’t want to submit themselves to the scrutiny of a faceless panel, who get to adjudicate on whether their gender is what they already know it to be. Some object on the grounds that application for a GRC means that they are recorded on a central register of trans people – with all the potential for abuse that that entails. Others simply don’t see why they should go to the trouble and expense of applying when nobody ever needs to see their birth certificate anyway.

Self-identification and equality

Trans men and women (though unfortunately not non-binary people) can already self-identify our genders to the NHS and other agencies. We do need a letter from a medical professional (stating that they believe we are determined to live in our ‘acquired gender’) to obtain a passport or driving licence, but we don’t need to apply for a GRC. If the number of people with a GRC were to ‘massively increase’ under self-identification, that would just mean that being trans is normalised a little more and that the (possibly) 1% of trans people in the population would be able to participate in society in their true gender. Fear of female underrepresentation is misplaced, I feel: (a) trans women are women (not men living in a female gender role), so have every right to be represented as such, and (b) the numbers are so small as to have relatively little impact anyway (unless you are a conspiracy theorist).

As for gender equality legislation being meaningless unless it is based on observation of infant genitalia, I think that’s going a little far. After all, as I’ve said already we don’t record race on our birth certificates. Yet we have somewhat meaningful racial equality legislation. Equal opportunities monitoring is entirely based on self-identification.

As for access to sex-specific facilities, I can understand Leya’s concerns, but I believe existing legislation covers this. Toilets (not really an issue here in the UK, but a big deal in parts of the US recently) have never been legally limited to use by one sex/gender, despite signage. It’s just a social convention. (Without explicitly gender-neutral toilets, though, non-binary people are certainly discriminated against.) And there are public decency and order laws that would cover any abuse of public toilet facilities. And just as for toilets, everything from changing rooms to women’s refuges currently relies (quite successfully) on self-identification: nowhere (that I’m aware of) are people asked to show a birth certificate as proof of gender to gain entry. So reforms to the GRA cannot have any impact on these issues. (Here it sounds as though Leya is not so much concerned with the suggested changes as with the 2004 Act itself, which I suspect she might like to see repealed.)

Male violence and rape

The final few paragraphs of Leya’s discussion of the Gender Recognition Act deal with male violence and rape, and rereading those paragraphs, I can empathise with her undoubtedly strong feelings in this regard. However, I am concerned about the way she all too readily paints trans women as potential sexual predators (which is unfortunately a common theme in our collective demonisation) and ignores the needs of trans men and non-binary people.

Leya writes that ‘most trans women remain fully male bodied, capable of rape, and those with a GRC are allowed to move to women’s prisons, including those who are convicted of rape’. I presume by ‘fully male bodied’ (a rather offensive way to describe a trans woman) she simply means ‘having a penis’ (hence ‘capable of rape’, according to the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009). Most trans women may well have a penis, but not all do. (Also some trans men do, though most probably don’t.) Trans people with penises are probably among the least likely groups of people with penises to commit sexual assault (which is also committed by cis women, though again rarely). Second, as I understand it, the presence or absence of a GRC has only a marginal bearing on where a trans prisoner ends up: if any woman (trans or cis) is considered a risk to other prisoners, they can be transferred to a male prison.

As for the factoid that ‘“about half” of transgender prisoners – most of whom are biological males – are sex offenders’, that appears to have been a bit of egregious misinformation spread by the rabidly transphobic Times in articles by Andrew Gilligan in November and December 2017. A hint at the facts behind the factoid is offered by Owl Fisher’s article in the Independent.

Incidentally, trans women are not immune to being victims of male violence and rape – far from it. And I suspect we are liable to fear these things as much as cis women do. I’m certainly not (and never have been) comfortable walking through quiet neighbourhoods at night, for instance, for just that reason. Indeed – getting rather more personal than I intended to in this post – if I were to have genital reconstruction surgery, I’m not sure whether I would need a full vaginoplasty, given that I’m currently not interested in penetrative sex, or if a simpler, more ‘cosmetic’ labiaplasty/vulvoplasty would suffice; however, fear of being raped and subsequently murdered because I’m discovered not to have a vagina is definitely a factor in my thinking about this (however irrational that may seem).

Of course, I don’t want to diminish the far stronger fear and post-traumatic stress that must be felt by anyone who has actually suffered sexual assault. My abstract fears are, I’m quite sure, nothing compared to that.

Update (the next day)

Before posting this, I gave Leya the benefit of the doubt by unblocking her on Twitter (as I hadn’t actually interacted with her in any way beforehand). I tagged her in a tweet about this post so she would have the opportunity to engage in some of that ‘open dialogue’ we were hoping for. She hasn’t responded (yet), but I did have a chance to look at her Twitter account. Her bio makes her agenda clear (she’s more or less a self-proclaimed TERF – in the neutral sense of the term). Her Twitter feed, though, both in her own tweets and in the kinds of things she retweets, shows that she is, I’m afraid to say, a particularly nasty person (and I don’t say that lightly about anyone). I am sorry that Bella Caledonia saw fit to publish her article. Needless to say, she is blocked again.