I’ve tried to keep out of the debate on transgender self-identification. It doesn’t seem to matter what you say on the subject, you’re guaranteed to piss someone off. So it is with considerable trepidation that I publish this piece.
Much of the heat in the current debate centres around a dispute between some trans activists and some feminists about whether transwomen should be allowed in women only spaces. This has become an issue because the Scottish Government is proposing to make changes to the law to allow what is called self-identification.
At the moment, if a person wishes to change gender legally, they have to satisfy a medical panel that they have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, have undergone gender reassignment procedures, and are successfully living as their chosen gender. Self-identification would replace that with a statutory legal declaration of gender. This is because not all trans people want to surgically alter their sex organs (sometimes because they wish to retain the option of having children), and because some trans people don’t feel that they belong to either traditional gender. More importantly it’s because they believe that the right to define one’s own identity is a fundamental human right.
Self-identification has already been introduced in Ireland, Portugal, Malta, Belgium, Norway, and Denmark and several other countries, where it has not provoked any great problems, however there are many people who have grave concerns about introducing it in Scotland. It is very much a live issue, and it dominates social media where the debate is especially bad tempered, and that’s in a medium which was never noted for being good tempered in the first place.
There is a much wider argument here, but essentially the aspect of it which is generating so much bad feeling is an argument about what it means to be a woman. I might be gay, but I’m a cisgender man who has always been quite content with his gender identity. As a cisgender man, as a cisgender gay man, it’s not my place to leap in with solutions to that particular question. My life experience offers me no special insight. It’s not my rights which are affected. It’s not my place to dictate answers. That would be the height of cisgender male privilege. My proper place is to listen with respect and to learn from those who are directly affected by this debate, and that’s what I’ve tried to do and will continue to do.
What I do know is that as a gay man, I fought during the early part of my life for the right to define myself, and not to be defined by the stereotypes and prejudices of others. So I have immense empathy for the struggles of transgender people who likewise are fighting for the right to be able to define themselves. It seems to me that the right to define one’s own social identity is a basic human right and it should not be conditional on having to prove one’s case to a panel of doctors who may or may not be sympathetic. It would be hypocritical of me to assert my own right to define my own identity, but to deny that same right to others.
However I also see women, many of whom are lesbian, who have struggled and fought for women-only spaces, spaces in which women can be safe from the prejudice and violence inflicted upon women by men. Their perception is that those safe spaces are threatened by individuals with male bodies who only need to declare that they are women in order to be admitted into places where men have no business being.
So I am torn and upset to see two groups of people I always regarded as my allies fighting one another in what has become a bitter and bad-tempered dispute.
There is a distinction to be made between gender and sex. Sex is biology. There are certain intersex conditions, such as chromosomal disorders, or individuals born with ambiguous genitalia, but these cases do not contradict the basic truth that a mammal’s biological sex is determined by its chromosomes and that mammalian chromosomal inheritance determines important aspects of body shape and form as well as genitalia and reproductive role. Humans are mammals, and like other mammals our biology relies upon two reproductive sexes, female and male.
In most mammals, if you inherit two X chromosomes you are of one sex, the one we traditionally call female. If you have an X chromosome and a Y chromosome, you have a different biological sex, the one we traditionally call male. Pathologies aside, biological sex is a binary. It is quantum, in the sense that it exists in one state or another. Strictly from a biological point of view, a developmentally and physiologically normal mammal cannot be a little bit female and a little bit male. You have to be one or the other.
(Interestingly, other kinds of animal do it differently. Some insects only have an X chromosome, and are female if they inherit two X chromosomes and male if they inherit only one. Birds, some fish, and some other insects and some reptiles, have a W and a Z chromosome. Birds with two Z chromosomes are male, birds with a W and a Z are female. In this respect they are the opposite of mammals, in that it’s individuals who have two of the same sex chromosomes who are male, whereas in mammals having two identical sex chromosomes makes you female.
Crocodiles, turtles, and some other kinds of fish don’t have sex determining chromosomes at all. The sex of crocodiles is determined by the temperature of the eggs in the nest. Warmer or cooler temperatures make more of the eggs produce female hatchlings. Intermediate temperatures produce males.
For some fish, like clownfish, changing sex is the norm. A school of clownfish consists of a group of males and a dominant female. When the female dies, the most dominant male changes biological sex and becomes female. This would have made Finding Nemo a completely different movie. In some other fish species, like wrasses, the sex change is from female to male.)
Gender is different from biological sex. Gender is the cultural superstructure which humans impose upon biological sex. Gender is the set of social expectations and social identities which human cultures require persons belonging to a particular biological sex to adhere to. Animals have biological sex, but they don’t have gender and cultural expectations of gender norms. Animals act according to their instincts.
Humans also act according to instinct, probably more often than we as a species would be comfortable acknowledging. However what is characteristic of humanity is that we refract our instincts through cultural expectations and we are self-aware. We can, and do, divert, subvert, alter, and suppress our instincts according to cultural expectations. To do so is quintessentially human. It’s what distinguishes us from other animals. Our self awareness means that we are conscious of our biological sex and the cultural and societal expectations which are imposed upon it in a way that animals are not.
Unlike biological sex, as a cultural construct gender is not necessarily binary. There are cultures which recognise more than two genders. Some Native American cultures recognise two spirit people, who are traditionally neither solely male nor solely female, but are believed to embody both genders. Gender can, and does, exist along a spectrum. If we accept that gender is a spectrum, that means it becomes a legitimate question to ask at which point on the gender spectrum does a person become welcome in a women-only space. I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question.
Some feminists argue that misogyny and the oppression of women is based upon women’s biology. Men oppress women not solely because of gender roles and culture, but because of the basic facts of biology. You could say that, in Marxist terms, men are seeking to control the means of (re)production. A woman always knows that her child is her own. A man has to take someone else’s word for it. The male insecurity created by mammalian reproduction is the basic motor underlying the patriarchy in societies all over the globe. It’s what has driven men to dominate and control women. Male violence against women, rape, intimidation, aggression towards women, is a serious problem in all human societies and cultures.
It is true that transgender procedures cannot alter a person’s chromosomal makeup. A person born with an X chromosome and a Y chromosome will retain them in the nucleus of every cell of their body throughout their life, irrespective of any surgeries, hormonal treatments, or behavioural changes that they make. It is also true that a person who was assigned male gender at birth and socialised as a male will continue to possess the advantages of male socialisation even after she has transitioned and lives as a woman. Males are socialised to be more aggressive and assertive, more physical, and more demanding. Habits formed in early childhood tend to persist throughout one’s life.
That said, gender dysphoria is very real and profoundly distressing to those who are affected by it. Gender dysphoria is the persistent belief that a person’s body does not match their gender self-image. In the early 1990s, I worked for a community organisation in London, and met a client who was so distressed and upset by their male body that they had attempted to amputate their own penis. Clearly, a person is not driven to such a painful, potentially lethal, and mutilating step unless the alternative of continuing to live in the wrong body and wrong gender role is even worse.
People who live with gender dysphoria can find relief with transgender surgeries and procedures. These procedures bring their body into alignment with their self-image, and allow them to live as the gender they have always believed themselves to be. Compassion dictates that we have a moral obligation to support them to do so and to respect their choices.
Not all trans people feel the need to undergo medical procedures however. Trans surgeries are excruciatingly painful, invasive, and can have serious complications. No one should be forced to submit to medical procedures which permanently alter the body if they do not want to. Neither is it appropriate for others to question their motives for not undergoing them. People have a right to keep such intensely personal decisions private.
As well as the mental torture of gender dysphoria, which can lead to suicide and self-harm, transgender people also have to live with appalling discrimination. Being a gay male in a working class community in the West of Scotland in the 1970s was a walk in the park compared to what trans people have to deal with. Transgender people are subject to violence, to discrimination in the workplace, and to societal rejection. And just like the violence that women are subjected to, that violence is most commonly at the hands of men.
As a species whose defining characteristics are self-awareness, culture, and the capacity for self-reflection, there is a very good argument to be made that amongst humans, a person’s self-perception (particularly if it is a persistent and lasting perception that first appeared in early childhood) is far more important than biological sex in determining gender identity. In that crucial sense, transwomen are women, transmen are men.
Obviously, we are dealing here with two groups of people who have been marginalised. Transgender people and women both suffer discrimination, prejudice, and the effects of male violence. That’s one reason why the current debate is so heated and – at times – bad tempered. Those involved in it and directly affected by it feel strongly that it’s not just their rights which are at stake, it’s also their personal safety and very sense of self.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, I am not going to pretend that I have any answers. Nor do I think that it’s appropriate for a cisgender male to offer any. However I would plead that we all treat one another with the compassion and respect with which we would like to be treated ourselves.
It does no one any favours to denounce women who have concerns about male bodied individuals who self-identify as women entering women only spaces and to call women who are raising their concerns in a polite and respectful manner “wankers”. It does no one any favours to insist on using male pronouns to refer to transwomen. Irrespective of what you believe a person’s gender to be “really”, it’s just out and out rude and disrespectful and guaranteed to close down meaningful conversation.
Existential questions of identity, of self, and of gender are not going to find answers when we are all screaming at one another, slagging each other off as misogynists or transphobes, or being so entrenched in our own positions that we are unable or unwilling to seek common ground. We all need to respect one another, to honour each other’s experiences, and to learn from one another. That’s the only way that we ever as a society have any chance of reaching an understanding that satisfies everyone’s concerns.
For my own part, I recognise that I still have a great deal to learn, and if this article has angered anyone it can only be because I still have much learning to do. I’m going to continue to listen and to learn, respectfully.
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