GENDER IS NOT AN IDENTITY, IT IS A TOOL OF PATRIARCHY: A FEMINIST VIEW OF GENDER-IDENTITY POLITICS
AUGUST 15, 2016
HUMAN BEINGS ARE ALL JUST FINE
Men are fine, women are fine. Every body is fine, every body is perfect. If we believe this, then any sense of dissociation or negative feelings about our bodies must be distress, whether caused by trauma, abuse, societal pressure, injury, illness, sexism, racism or disableism.
Biologically humans come in two sexes i.e. we are sexually dimorphic. A small number of people are born intersex, which does not negate the reality of two sexes, but rather confirms it. You can’t be a combination of two things if the two things don’t exist. Traditionally intersex people have had their bodies surgically altered at birth to conform to one or another sex, but there is now a movement of intersex people who challenge the validity of this. If all bodies are fine why force this conformity on babies who are unable to consent? Why surgically alter perfect bodies, as all bodies are?
FEMINIST THINKING ON OPPRESSION
Feminist thought, as developed through consciousness-raising, writing and activism, offers an analysis of sex and gender which sees gender as a system of expectations, compulsions and hierarchy imposed on males and females. It asserts that patriarchal society has created a hierarchical system of oppression between the sexes, whereby males as a class have power over females as a class. This oppressive hierarchy intersects with all others i.e. racism, disableism, classism, homophobia etc to create complex, interwoven hierarchies which have different consequences for different groups. Individuals in an oppressor group can of course be hurt and distressed, including as a result of their role in the hierarchy. Feminism concentrates on the importance of our biological sex because when we start to look at how sexism operates we observe through our experience that biology is the excuse for the oppression of women and a major and crucial site of that oppression. So we are oppressed, discriminated against, controlled and mistreated in this society, not because of how we identify, but through the reproductive system of our bodies, through sexual abuse and rape (and the threat of it), through prostitution, pornography, child-bearing and all aspects of our fertility. For thousands of years, men have controlled women – economically, socially, sexually, emotionally and physically – through our bodies and our fertility.
This thinking does not mean we allow biology to define us. On the contrary feminism asserts that any female can do or be anything, that the fact of our femaleness should never be a limiting factor, that we should be without limits and that anything which does limit, control, discriminate against or hurt us as women is wrong. But we cannot simply identify our way out of oppression and denying the reality of our biological makeup prevents us from being able to name, confront and organise against what is done to us through our bodies.
FEMINIST THINKING ON GENDER
Gender is a set of societally-imposed, socially-constructed norms which are the structure through which all males and females are boxed in, but which, in particular, are the building blocks of the hierarchy between males and females. From a very early age, almost birth, these gender expectations are imposed through the clothes we wear, the toys we play with, the colours that are considered appropriate, the behaviour that is expected of us, the attitudes expressed towards us. They may vary from culture to culture and throughout history but their purpose is the same, to mould us into roles in society according to our biological sex. These gender boxes are detrimental to males, especially to the extent that they rigidly prohibit expression of feelings of sadness, grief or fear, suppressing crying and shaking as being weak and feminine. They mould our boys into a state of separation from their emotions which is deeply harmful to themselves and society. But in many more ways the limitations imposed on girls through gender are the basis for the sexism and misogyny which blights women’s lives.
Gender is what feminism has critiqued for decades, so the recent concept of gender identity as something to be chosen and celebrated is a strange one for feminists. The categories of non-binary, genderfluid, agender and a myriad of other identities seem to be expressions of dissatisfaction with “being a woman” or “being a man” in this society. Quite right too! Nobody wants to be limited by their biology, by what society imposes on us based on our biology, by socially-constructed gender roles. But to deny reality by trying to identify out of being male or female, not only won’t work, as humans can’t actually change sex, but also unwittingly reinforces those gender roles. It’s like holding our hands up and saying “You win, a woman can’t be powerful in this society, a man can’t be gentle and caring, and as I want to be those things I’m clearly not a woman/man.” No, no, no! Let’s not swallow patriarchy’s lies, let’s keep asserting that the objective definition of us as a female or a male based on biological reality will never define our personality, our attitudes, our abilities, our desires, our behaviour, our place in the world.
It is also very dangerous to deny our biology. Humans can’t actually change sex. We can take hormones, and embark on surgical alterations to our bodies. These can change our appearance, voice, body hair, breasts, genitals, but we will always be biologically what we were born as, and have health needs based on that e.g. only men get prostate cancer, symptoms of heart disease are different for women.
When we are born we are described as male or female based on objective observation of genitalia, not as is becoming fashionable to say “assigned female or male at birth”. What is assigned to us is societal roles based on our sex, and this is what is problematic. So transitioning, however far a person might take it, cannot transform someone into the opposite sex. One can only “live as” the opposite sex i.e. socially transition and alter one’s appearance. Many of us, especially in the LGB community and the women’s movement, have for years been respectful of an individual’s choice to do this, by calling them by the name and pronoun they request; and basic human rights dictate that no-one should be discriminated against on the basis of this choice, be it in employment, housing, access to services etc. Nor should any trans person be abused or assaulted. Any such discrimination or abuse is quite rightly called “transphobia”.
“MALE TO TRANS” FOLK
Male To Trans people (MTTs) have been raised as male i.e. a member of the group accorded power and privilege over females. They have been conditioned to assume the privileges of that group, and indeed have benefitted from those privileges. They will inevitably carry patterns of behaviour and entitlement associated with that group. This is true however hurt or distressed they have felt. So to assert that they are actually women, members of the oppressed group, and furthermore, despite being male-bodied and raised male, always have been female; to claim membership of the oppressed group, thus changing the definition of that group (i.e. female objectively defined by biological sex) is an extreme form of sexism and particularly galling for women themselves. The assertion that “transwomen are women” is an ideology with no basis in fact, which is not believed or adhered to by many MTTs. Adopting it is not the only way to support trans people, and in fact is quite unsupportive to the individuals struggling to find a way to live happily in their male bodies. The reason it has no basis in fact is that, apart from biological sex, what is the definition of female? Is it a feeling? Is it an identity? Is it a brain separate from a body? Those of us born, raised and living as women in this society might quite understandably say such definitions are an insult to our lives and experiences, to the 85,000 women known to be raped every year in England and Wales, to the 35% of women worldwide who experience male violence. Any attempt to define female other than by biology inevitably resorts to gender stereotypes, so all references by this ideology to “being female” or “feeling like a woman” are based on such socially-constructed ideas as wanting to wear feminine clothing, play with dolls, wear makeup, do “girly” things, and crucially not do “boy” things. Strangely it rarely manifests itself in a desire to do the housework or receive 14% less pay than they did as a man. It is portrayed as a rejection of gender roles, but is actually an adoption of the stereotypes associated with the opposite sex, thus reinforcing those stereotypes as belong only to one sex, and thus a deeply traditional, regressive and misogynist stance. Sorry guys you don’t get to break out of your restrictive gender box by jumping into ours and redefining us in the process! Nor do you have to. Men can be anything, wear anything, do anything, feel anything. Women are not defining or limiting you, only the concept of gender is.
THE BACKLASH AGAINST FEMINISM…
Feminism’s critique and challenge to gender roles had a large measure of success in the 70s and 80s, to everyone’s benefit. Early Learning Centres promoted the de-gendering of toys, girls could wear dungarees and climb trees, boys could prepare themselves for fatherhood by playing with dolls, books progressed from “Janet and John” to stories with strong female characters. The backlash against feminism was deliberately fostered by a capitalist system which preferred to sell twice as many goods to parents, and with that backlash gender roles became tighter than ever. Society bought into the whole princess trope for girls, with sexualised clothing for younger and younger girls, while boys were pushed back into macho superhero roles and expected once again to be tough and never show emotion. This was a deliberate reversal of many of the gains made by the women’s liberation movement, and detrimental to all of us.
…AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
It is no coincidence that the recent massive increase and interest in transitioning, particularly amongst young people, has occurred at a time when the tightening of gender roles has become tyrannical, and young people quite rightly want to break out of these boxes. The feminist analysis of power relations has over the years been traduced to the need for “gender equality”, as if arbitrary and unexplained discrimination is the problem rather than a consciously nurtured power system. The absence of an analysis that gender roles and hierarchy are the problem has led to the perception that if we don’t like society’s rules and roles then there is something wrong with us and we must change ourselves; that “gender” is the reality not biological sex; that we must redefine ourselves, not as the sex that we are but as either the opposite sex or as a new “gender identity”. The feminist view that gender is an illusion, a societally-imposed set of rules which keep males and females in their place and assert the primacy of males over females is one that many young people have been prevented from hearing, by a society which has an interest in preserving the status quo. It seems it is still revolutionary to say “Women and girls can be anything, boys and men can be anything! There is nothing wrong with you if you do not conform, it is society which is at fault!” It has now become more urgent than ever to declaim this loud and clear, because our girls are being tossed and turned in the storms of gender identity and coming to some worrying and downright dangerous conclusions.
“FEMALE TO TRANS” FOLK
The biggest increase in referrals to “Gender Identity” clinics recently is amongst girls and young women. Our attention has been taken up by MTTs who, by virtue of the male patterns of entitlement and centring themselves that they have been brought up with, have captured all the media attention. Women have been busy dealing with encroachment on our hard-won spaces of woman-centred practice e.g. rape crisis centres, women’s refuges, feminist organisations and lesbian spaces, trying to negotiate solutions which are inclusive but allow women-born women the right to meet and organise together. But while our backs were turned, our gender-non-conforming girls have been being encouraged to think that they must be male. This is occurring on social media sites such as Reddit and Tumblr through an ideology which says that if you’re not feminine, or not comfortable with being feminine, then you’re not female. Many girls approaching puberty in our currently highly-sexualised society are concerned, fearful, unhappy with and rejecting of what they see being expected of them as their bodies change. This must come as no surprise. Being surrounded by a generation of boys raised on internet porn and confronted by hyper-sexualised images of females, presents an intimidating, if not downright abusive, climate for adolescent girls. Little wonder that girls are rejecting the role of sexual availability, and with it their own developing bodies which seem to be a magnet for anything from “low-level” objectification to outright sexual abuse. Rape culture is alive and well, and girls navigating the rapids of adolescence have every reason to reject becoming a woman. There is currently very little room for manoeuvre, or ability to opt out of objectification, as a woman in this society.
What is extremely worrying is that a girl presenting to a gender identity clinic as potentially “trans”, often as a result of a social media culture which has encouraged her to think that’s what she may be, is increasingly being “affirmed” in that rigid position, which almost inevitably leads to social transition. Girls are then binding their breasts, resulting in restricted lungs and breathing problems. Girls are having mastectomies. Girls are taking puberty-blocking hormones, leading on to testosterone (which is not generally approved for females) frequently resulting in permanent sterilisation. Permanent sterilisation, facilitated by adults in responsible roles. Not to mention future genital surgery. Surely such a route should be absolutely a last resort when all other therapeutic support has been exhausted. Adult society is comprehensively failing our young gender-non-conforming girls. We should be congratulating them on refusing to perform feminine gender roles, assuring them that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with them and their bodies, and placing the blame squarely on a misogynist culture. How has it come to be the progressive position to encourage mutilation of girls’ bodies when life as a female has become unbearable for them? Why are we not in uproar about this? Young people will always experiment with styles, behaviours, definitions and identities. And they won’t appreciate the adult world butting in on their culture. But we are not just talking about a goth phase here. Adults, including parents and professionals of all kinds, have a duty of care to our young people, and the consequences of transition for girls are simply too drastic and long-lasting to abandon them to this ideology.
LESBIAN CONVERSION & PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY
What is also clear is that many of these girls if left alone would certainly grow up to be lesbians. This we know from the accounts of detransitioning women, as well as lesbians who know that they would have been seen as trans if the current climate was around when they were young. It has been shown in repeated studies that a lesbian identity in girls is often not commonly formed until late teens or early twenties. What this means is that many girls who would grow up to be self-identifying lesbians are being “groomed” through social media, trans ideology and well-meaning but misguided professional services into believing they are “trans” rather than simply girls who refuse to be sexually available to males or perform their expected role as young females. There are cases of young people being advised on trans forums to tell their parents they are suicidal in order to access the treatment they want. What kind of perverse society offers mothers the choice of mastectomy or suicide for their beloved daughters? These girls and their parents are not served by professional services which have bought into a system of thought which says we must affirm a young person’s identity at all costs and to do otherwise is “transphobic”. We have a responsibility to offer an alternative feminist perspective on their distress as young women. We would not “affirm” an anorexic’s view of themselves as fat, or a self-harming youngster’s “right” to damage their body. We would look at the underlying causes, and always, always take seriously our duty of care. The same must be done in cases of potential “trans” young people. There are also more and more attempts to normalise, to ever younger and younger children, the concept that it is possible to change one’s sex, always with reference to gender stereotypes. Books aimed at 3-5 year olds are presenting the regressive falsehood that if you want to wear a bow in your hair and do feminine things then you must of course be a girl and if your desire is to reject femininity, the colour pink and frilly dresses i.e. be an active, dynamic girl, you must be a boy. How did we come to this? And how could it possibly be considered feminist?
FEELINGS & REALITY
We hear repeatedly from people defining themselves as trans, that they feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body, or vice versa. Women know that their reality is not a feeling that any man can lay claim to, but we need to acknowledge that this feeling is real. It is perfectly valid to assert that you have feelings of unhappiness or dissociation from your body, generally called body dysmorphia. (Gender dysphoria is a more contested term. If gender is a social construction and not innate, as feminism asserts, then to be unhappy with your gender is simply human and thus we are all actually or potentially gender dysphoric, which rather makes a nonsense of the term.) However to frame this distress as “feeling like a woman” begs a number of questions. How can one know what the opposite sex feels like? Is being a woman or a man more a feeling than a biological reality? Besides, feelings are not a good guide to action. Anything which expresses itself as feeling bad about oneself, especially if it becomes so unbearable that one feels unable to live in the body one has, is surely something a person needs therapeutic help with. Feelings need discharging through our natural healing processes of crying, shaking, etc and work with a good therapist will achieve this. Deep feelings need deep discharge. We all know how very much better we can feel after a good, long cry. Of course wise therapeutic help is very often not available, certainly not of sufficient length and quality to deal with deep-seated distress, and we know from detransitioners and others that body dysmorphia often has its roots in physical or sexual abuse, or other traumatic life experiences, with the gender component of the distress layered on top. In this way feelings of needing to change sex are portrayed as the answer by a society which cannot abide, and actively punishes, gender non-conformity. When individuals who experience body dysmorphia to such an extent that they present at a gender identity clinic are not offered comprehensive therapeutic support to uncover the reasons for their distress and help them recover from their pain, but are rather “affirmed” in their self-diagnosis, then society is abdicating its responsiblity and they are being let down.
As with many other situations in society, the absence of wise, consistent and appropriate therapeutic help, means that people often have to find alternative means of managing their pain. This frequently manifests itself in taking drugs. From a coffee every morning to wake ourselves up, through tablets to help us sleep, to alcohol or illegal drugs to numb our feelings, to medication for mental distress, drugs can can make us feel better, and in an imperfect society, are a solution most of us take part in to a greater or lesser degree. Hormonal drugs are no different, so a person taking hormones to imitate the attributes of the opposite sex may well “feel better”. This is no surprise, but is no more proof that they were really a “man in a woman’s body” than that an anorexic really is fat. Feelings, though real, are not reality.
Let us be clear, lesbians, gay men and women in general, particularly feminists, have been the most vocal, consistent and practical allies to trans people for decades. We know what it is to be abused, to be discriminated against simply because of who you are, to be an outsider in a rigid society. Women, lesbians and gay men are the natural allies of trans people. So what has changed? Why is there conflict between feminists and the trans community? Why is Germaine Greer, one of the founding mothers of feminism, vilified in trans circles? Why have bathrooms become the site of such vexation? Why are radical feminists such as Julie Bindel, a lesbian and campaigner for years against violence against women, no-platformed in universities, a tactic originally used against fascism? No progressive person wants to be transphobic, and many individuals and organisations have recently been seduced or coerced into adopting one particular ideology i.e. that there is such a thing as “gender identity” entirely separate from one’s biological sex, that being a man or a woman is a feeling unrelated to biology, and that the only way to be supportive to trans people, and indeed to avoid being seen as transphobic, is to adopt this ideology. It must be said loud and clear, this is not true. Trans people are many and varied and do not all agree with this way of thinking. Many MTTs and FTTs still see themselves as the sex they were born as. Many only partly transition, sometimes only socially, and change their identities over time. Many decide they have made a mistake or that transitioning has not solved the unhappiness they sought to banish, and many of these people detransition. Trans ideology would insist we accept absolutely that a MTT person is a woman. This not only conveniently absolves them of any responsibility for the maleness they grew up with and benefitted from, but also begs the question: are they no longer female if they detransition? At what point does a detransitioning MTT become a man again? Detransitioners are an inconvenience to the essentialist notion of an innate gender identity which trumps biology. Unfortunately for gender ideology, they refuse to go away and, the more transitioning we see, the more they will be part of the landscape of our world.
Supporting trans people’s right to freedom from discrimination and abuse does not have to mean agreeing to an ideology which has been shown to be backward, misogynistic and against the liberation of all humans from gender stereotypes. It is not transphobic to be scientific about biology, or to disagree that a biological male is actually a female just because he says he is. In fact it absolutely belittles real and damaging transphobia, to insist on this one view. It results, for example, in the farcical but ultimately dangerous actions of the NHS sending out reminder notices of cervical smears to MTTs who have no cervix and not sending them to FTTs who do have a cervix. Clearly ideologies, when insisted on to create policy and practice, have consequences, and this ideology has negative consequences for trans people themselves. We must bear this in mind when examining any proposed legislation or policies on trans issues.
Lesbians are women who are sexually attracted to women. This would have been an uncontentious statement until recently. Now we have a situation where the very definition of “women” is contested and being redefined. If “woman” no longer means an adult human female, if being a “woman” can be simply a feeling, if a person born and raised male and often still with an intact male body can define themselves as a woman, then society and lesbians in particular are faced with a dilemma. If transwomen are an oppressed minority of women then, logically, a lesbian who says she would not consider a relationship with a person with male genitals could be labelled transphobic. It is barely believable to any rational-thinking person, but this is actually happening. It is called the “cotton ceiling” and used to criticise and abuse lesbians. Lesbians are being told that they are transphobic for being who they are, lovers of women. This is not only ridiculous but it is deeply anti-lesbian and the LGBT communities and indeed all who consider themselves opponents of homophobia need to call it out. It also shows where logic based on a false premise can lead.
It is important that all people, including children, are able to use a public toilet or changing room in safety. This has traditionally been achieved by segregation on the basis of biological sex, on the presumption that the main safety issue is men’s violence towards and abuse of women and girls, although this has begged the question of heterosexual men’s violence against gay men, who have never been served, practically or legally, with facilities safe from homophobic abuse. Clearly any person who has physically transitioned or is in the process of doing so deserves the same safety from male violence. However, to insist that women and girls must forego their own safety by including male-bodied people in female-only spaces, simply on the basis of self-declaration, is wrong and dangerous. Many FTTs are understandably ambivalent about insisting on using male facilities and in fact often prefer to still use females’. So the issue is not identity. The problem is male violence and the issue is safety. We need to name the problem in order to come up with practical solutions that ensure safety for everyone, without one group’s rights overriding another’s. This is surely not beyond the wit of humanity.
LIES, DAMN LIES, STATISTICS AND EVERYTHING ELSE
Many who adopt different gender identities are enjoying the freedom to define themselves at last; there is an element of playfulness and subversion about being part of this trend which is fun and seductive. Fair enough. We are all free to call ourselves whatever we want, we can change our minds, we can have fun subverting society’s expectations. But it matters whether identity or biology is the measure of a woman or a man. It matters in society’s gathering of statistics. If anyone can identify as a woman how can we gather information about the position of women in society e.g. with regard to rates of pay, health, crime or violence. If people’s identities, which are myriad and frequently change from one year to the next, are the definitions by which we gather statistics, then social policies based on those statistics will be useless. It matters with regard to prisons, where a trans identity can result in a violent male offender being housed with vulnerable and powerless women. It matters in sports, where women are now expected to compete with biological males whose testosterone levels are allowed to be higher than the women-born women’s. It matters when we attempt to redress centuries of discrimination of women by adopting quotas in public life, politics and organisations; if anyone can identify as a woman then women-born women will once again be on the losing side. Everyone is free to identify however they like, but once we elevate this personal preference and expression of personality to the same status as biological sex we undo in one fell swoop all the gains women have made and still need to make in our male-dominated society.
DEBATE & SILENCE
Debate and discussion have consistently been shown to be an essential prerequisite for progressive change in society. There are currently opposing views and conflicts of interests around the issues of sexism, women’s rights, gender identity and trans rights. In progressive movements, we must always strive to keep thinking, to be open to debate and to listen to each other, in order to end oppression and mistreatment of all groups of people. It is therefore worrying to observe the silencing of feminists who have challenged a trans ideology which insists its analysis is the truth and the only way to support trans people. Feminists are being no-platformed in universities; women are been verbally abused and threatened on social media; the acronym TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) is used as an insult, a threat and a misogynist slur against women; lesbians are regularly threatened with rape and branded transphobic. This is no way to conduct a liberation movement and no way to win allies for a cause. To insist that decades of feminist thought is transphobic and to close down dissent is counterproductive and insulting. Feminists believe that the limiting consequences of gender roles and hierarchy are what oppress all women and hurt all men. This includes people who at times might identify as trans, genderfluid, non-binary, genderqueer etc. We are all fed up with society’s limiting of our humanity due to our biological sex. To end this and free ourselves, we must be open to respectful debate around this issue or we will never progress. Any silencing only benefits a misogynist, homophobic and patriarchal society, and we will all be the losers. Let us instead win this struggle for freedom from gender’s stultifying grip!