Close reading: Hinsliff on gender

It’s been three weeks since my last blog post. (I’m sorry if that’s inconvenienced anyone who’s come to rely on at least one post a week from me!) Although I have plenty of blog-posts-in-waiting, I haven’t had a lot of time to do any writing recently, in part because it’s school exam season here in Scotland and I’ve been trying to help my son out with his revision. He has two exams behind him now, and the next one is English (Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaluation) – a.k.a. ‘close reading’, or what was called ‘comprehension’ in my school days.

Gaby Hinsliff article on laptop screen
Close reading

Having read an article on gender in yesterday’s Guardian, I thought it might be interesting to do a bit of close reading of my own. (I did suggest to my son that he could help write this post as part of his exam revision, but he declined!) Gaby Hinsliff is a journalist that I haven’t had reason to block on Twitter yet (!), and I’d like to think I won’t have to do so, but I always feel some trepidation when another columnist dips their toe into the murky waters of the trans ‘debate’. Anyway, here goes.

Inadvertent dog whistles

I’ve talked about inflammatory dog-whistle language before. And Hinsliff does use some of the phraseology that I mentioned in that earlier post. However, I’m not sure whether this is a deliberate attempt on her part to pander to the sensibilities of anti-trans groups or simply a case of her uncritically absorbing their language.

  • activist – Trans people are constantly painted as activists by the media, whether we are politically active or not. Hinsliff uses the word ten times in her article, mostly to refer to trans people, the only exceptions being Nicola Williams (of Fairplay for Women) and Germaine Greer (included as part of a panel of activists).
  • born femaleborn a girl – I personally prefer the phrase assigned female at birth (we’re talking about crude observation of genitals here). At least Hinsliff didn’t talk about people being ‘born women’ or about ‘natal women’. (Whether or not people are actually born with a gender – and whether or not a person’s gender is fixed for life – is irrelevant here.)
  • female-bodiedmale-bodied – This binary language lumps everyone into one of two body types (whatever those might be), ignoring the great diversity of actual human bodies. It also plays into the outdated and seldom claimed ‘born in the wrong body’ narrative for trans people.
  • non-trans – I can understand Hinsliff shying away from using cis for a general audience, some of whom who may not be aware of the word. But it’s surely an opportunity to educate, and I wonder whether she simply felt some of her readers would be offended by being labelled as something other than ‘normal’.
  • terf – This acronym is still usually capitalised in my experience, though I’ve nothing against Guardian style breaking new ground in that regard. What is problematic is that Hinsliff claims it is ‘a derogatory term for women questioning trans rights’, whereas it was a neutral term coined by a radical feminist to distinguish between mainstream radical feminism and the trans-exclusionary variety. The word has, however, undergone a process of pejoration and is indeed often used carelessly, especially in social media, to refer negatively to any and all anti-trans voices, feminist or not, women or men. (I haven’t yet come across any non-binary TERFs.)
  • woman – Hinsliff unfortunately (and probably unconsciously) vacillates between an inclusive use of woman and a use that essentially means ‘cis woman’. Once again, that little word cis would have been useful. (If you don’t believe that trans women are women, then cis is of course redundant, but if you are at least entertaining both possibilities, it seems wise to be explicit.)

Cast of characters

There’s quite a cast of characters in Hinsliff’s article. In order of appearance (crowd extras omitted for brevity):

  • Woman’s Place UK – a transphobic organisation masquerading as a group representing the concerns of (cis) women about the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act [with link to their website]
  • Tara Wolf – a trans woman recently found guilty of assaulting Maria Maclachlan [with link to article in the Times by transphobe Lucy Bannerman]
  • Maria Maclachlan – a prominent anti-trans activist who was upbraided by the judge for misgendering Tara Wolf during court proceedings
  • a woman who is ‘usually the protestor’ and was surprised to find herself on the receiving end of protests when attending a Woman’s Place UK meeting in Oxford
  • Philipa Harvey – a teacher and co-founder of Woman’s Place UK [with link to her Twitter page]
  • Clara Barker – a scientist and trans woman, who was involved in a recent discussion alongside actor Rebecca Root on Victoria Derbyshire, with anti-trans campaigners Sarah Ditum and Nicola Williams as opposition
  • Nicola Williams – founder of Fair Play for Women
  • Fair Play for Women – an extreme transphobic organisation masquerading as … well, not really anything else [with link to their website]
  • Sophie Walker – leader of the Women’s Equality Party
  • Women’s Equality Party – a progressive political party with some problematic anti-trans fringe elements [with link to their website]
  • Mumsnet – a transphobic organisation masquerading as a parenting website (to be fair, I believe it still serves that purpose as well)
  • Stonewall UK – a national LGBT rights organisation
  • a woman who attended the Oxford meeting and was concerned about her daughter ‘potentially sharing a tent on Guide camps with trans girls who might still have penises’
  • a woman at the same meeting who was ‘unable to get straight answers about sleeping arrangements on a volunteer project her daughter wants to join’
  • Maria Miller – a Conservative MP, former Minister for Women and Equalities and chair of the UK government’s Women and Equalities Select Committee, who initiated reform of the Gender Recognition Act
  • Christopher Hambrook – a Canadian cis man and serial sex offender
  • Justine Greening – a Conservative MP and former Minister for Women and Equalities, who continued Maria Miller’s work on reform of the GRA
  • Jess Philips – a Labour MP and former worker with Women’s Aid
  • Women’s Aid – an organisation working to end domestic abuse against women and children
  • Paul Twocock – director of campaigns, policy and research at Stonewall UK
  • Stephanie Davies-Arai – spokesperson and founder of Transgender Trend
  • Transgender Trend – a transphobic organisation masquerading as a provider of unbiased school resources on trans issues [with link to their website]
  • The Tavistock clinic – a London-based gender clinic for children (but by no means ‘the only NHS gender-identity clinic’) [with empty link]
  • Debbie Hayton – a teacher and trans woman who (according to the article) in an ideal world would rather present as a ‘feminine man’ yet wants the legal protections of a medically certified transgender diagnosis and is therefore against self-identification of gender
  • Munroe Bergdorf – a model and trans woman, who appeared this week on the panel of Channel 4’s Genderquake debate
  • Germaine Greer – an Australian feminist and cis woman, who also appeared on the Genderquake panel

(Perhaps I shouldn’t draw too much from the link to Lucy Bannerman’s Times article on Tara Wolf’s conviction. It may simply have been the most convenient report of the case. Other news links are to the Guardian itself, the BBC, the Toronto Sun and Drapers.)

Just looking at that list, what strikes me in particular is that of the 18 individuals mentioned, only four are trans – and none of them are trans men or non-binary people. Two of the four trans women are people that I suspect most of the trans community would not wish to be associated with – one because of her criminal conviction, and the other because of her fringe view of what it means to be trans and her frequent dismissals of other people who aren’t sufficiently like her. Only one of the remaining two trans women is quoted in Hinsliff’s article.

Four of the eight organisations in the list have a moderate to extreme anti-trans agenda, and web links are given for three of these. The remaining four organisations are neutral or broadly supportive of trans people, though only one has a working web link (and that is the political party with a problematic fringe element).

So on the face of it, the range of people and organisations mentioned in the article does appear to be somewhat skewed. In particular, it doesn’t seem as though trans people have been allowed to speak for themselves. This is rather typical of the UK media: the cis majority love to talk about trans people, but don’t actually want to hear from us.

But what does the article actually say?

Despite the people who were interviewed and mentioned in the article, there is more balance here than meets the eye (though I’d rather the anti-trans organisations hadn’t been given such prominence, especially in terms of click-throughs to their odious propaganda).

Hinsliff opens by painting a picture of conflict, using the example of the Oxford meeting of Woman’s Place UK and the pro-trans student protestors at that meeting (and also mentioning some less pleasant clashes between anti-trans and pro-trans activists). It’s true that there is conflict, and to a large extent this has been amplified, if not manufactured, by the UK mass media. But it’s not a conflict between two sides with more or less equally valid stances. On the one side are trans people, who have in recent years been able to be more open about who they are thanks to some progressive but long overdue legislation. On the other side is a strange coalition of gender-critical feminists, religious fundamentalists, far-right extremists (as Hinsliff acknowledges) and assorted trouble-makers, many of whom would rather trans people didn’t exist. But we do.

The paragraph on the formation of Woman’s Place UK is one of the more worrying parts of the article, in that it seems to go along with the group’s ‘concerns’ fairly uncritically: concerns about ‘women and girls sharing single-sex spaces … with male-bodied people’, and about the risks of ‘predatory non-trans men’ abusing such spaces (risks which won’t change as a result of any GRA reform); not wanting to be forced to entertain the idea of women who don’t have vaginas; and not wanting to be accused of transphobia. These (except the last two!) are ill-founded concerns if the experiences of other countries that have adopted self-identification of gender are anything to go by. And Hinsliff does later discuss the non-event that self-identification has been so far in Portugal, Ireland, Malta, Belgium, Norway and Denmark.

Clara Barker, the trans scientist who was recently thrust into the limelight as a television newbie on the Victoria Derbyshire show, is sympathetically represented by Hinsliff. And Fairplay for Women is at least neutrally characterised as a ‘gender-critical pressure group’. (A writer for the Times would, I’m sure, have tried to put a more positive spin on this group’s status.)

Hinsliff’s description of the Gender Recognition Act, and the proposed reforms, is pretty accurate, unlike a lot of sensationalist reporting which seems to miss the mark entirely. However, the possibility (as in Ireland) of trans women potentially being jailed in male prisons does not preclude ‘trans women being treated in all circumstances as if they had been born female’. In the UK – certainly, in Scotland – I understand that trans women prisoners (like cis women prisoners) are typically placed in women’s prisons, but that any woman (cis or trans) who might be considered a sufficient risk to others could be sent to a men’s prison.

After raising the not-terribly-relevant issue of a Canadian man who posed as a woman to commit sex offences, Hinsliff sensibly quotes Labour MP Jess Phillips in talking about how access to women’s refuges is actually managed (as opposed to the way certain bigots like to imagine it is handled). Hinsliff is also right to point out the void that has been left by the lack of proper public consultation in England and Wales (whereas the Scottish Government proceeded with their own period of public consultation, which concluded a couple of months ago). Yet away from the shouting match, trans-inclusivity carries on being quietly adopted by groups such as Women’s Aid.

Although no trans men are quoted or mentioned by name in the article, their existence as a group is addressed, and Hinsliff does note that they ‘have flown largely beneath the radar of this debate’. Perhaps because they (like non-binary people) are an inconvenience for transmisogynists? Once again, the anti-trans campaigners (this time, Transgender Trend) have their point of view presented first, but this is balanced (to some extent) by Clara Barker, again, pointing out that there is absolutely no question of children being rushed into transitioning (as the transing-of-lesbians lobby would have us believe).

Non-binary people are also mentioned, in passing, as Hinsliff comes to a discussion of Channel 4’s ill-conceived Genderquake ‘debate’, which was shown earlier this week (and could easily have been the subject of a blog post, if I’d been able to stomach it). Here Hinsliff reveals that she really isn’t quite on the ball with gender-identity issues.

First, she describes non-binary people as those ‘identifying with neither gender’. This (‘neither’) suggests that there are only two genders, and that non-binary people don’t have a gender. Not true. Most non-binary people, I think, say that their gender falls somewhere on a spectrum, between the traditional binary extremes of male and female. (And some don’t have a gender: they are agender.) Second, she says that there is a gender spectrum, ‘ranging from non-binary to trans, to gay, to a dizzying number of other possibilities’. Hang on a moment! Trans is not a gender, but a characterisation of having a gender other than that assigned at birth. Gay certainly isn’t a gender, but a sexuality: there is a difference! A dizzying number of possibilities? Maybe. (People are wonderfully diverse.)

After a brief trip to the toilet (only because groups like Woman’s Place UK are obsessed), Hinsliff concludes on an optimistic note. Compared with other articles in the mainstream media, this is actually quite well-researched and, who knows, might actually contain just enough gentle criticism of anti-trans standpoints to lure people in who might otherwise have been swayed by the extremists. But it does contain some glaring inaccuracies and really should have been written by a trans journalist; we don’t need more people writing about us as though we are incapable of speaking for ourselves.

A concluding message to Gaby Hinsliff

You aren’t going on my Twitter block list at the moment. I think that your article is a reasonable attempt to portray some of the ‘debate’ (or rather mud-slinging) that has been going on recently in the UK around trans rights issues, and I appreciate your optimism that there may be common ground to be found between (currently trans-exclusionary) radical feminists and trans people. But I’d just like to leave you with a video from Evelyn on how to be an ally, assuming you’d like to be one. (This also happened to pop up in my Twitter feed yesterday.)

3 thoughts on “Close reading: Hinsliff on gender”

  1. Great analysis! I really enjoyed reading this post.

    I really haven’t had the stomach to watch Genderquake. It would rile me far too much.

    It incenses me that those who are marginalised so rarely get an opportunity to represent themselves and have their voices projected and heard.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You have more forbearance than me. I did put Gaby Hinsliff on my block list, along with anyone who promoted her piece as excellent, fair, balanced, etc. (Not all that many because I probably had most of them blocked already.) And there’s another piece in today’s Guardian, basically a prop piece for the transphobic opinions of Stephanie Davies-Arai. I’d block the author of that as well, except that she doesn’t seem to be on Twitter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t come across any unpleasantness on Twitter yet from Gaby Hinsliff or her promoters – perhaps I have been luckier than you. My block list must be pretty huge by now, but every so often I just feel I want to give someone the benefit of the doubt.

      I’ve just read the piece by Kim Thomas, and agree that I’d probably block her too if she were on Twitter.

      Like

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