Monthly Archives: May 2016

Sarah Ditum – not “gender critical” enough

Sarah Ditum’s article in the New Statesman this week is very clever. I’m not going to link to it – New Statesman knows well enough that publishing Ditum’s ongoing campaign against my community will always attract a lot of traffic to its site – drawn by the inevitable controversy that follows.

This is business, make no mistake, and if the trans community gets hurt and make a fuss, well that will be good for business too.

Sadly, folks don’t read enough articles written by actual trans people to see through the holes in Ditum’s arguments, and this latest article in particular reads to the ignorant as being very comprehensive, reasonable and balanced. So, for those who have already read it and been taken in, here’s what’s wrong with it. For those who have not read it – don’t bother, it adds nothing new whatsoever to the feminist conversation and is in fact a warmed-over version of some very past their sell-by-date ideas.

I’m going to take us through the over-long article point by point to expose its manipulations and distortions, so apologies if this is also a long response.

1. The header image

The header image shows a pair of false eyelashes nestled in a makeup box. This is a trope – it signals the “falseness” of trans identities by boiling them down to how we adorn ourselves. It sets the tone subtly to undermine the “realness” of us.

2. The subtitle

“In the US and UK, politicians want to enshrine respect for “gender identity” into law. The only problem? There is no scientific consensus on what gender is.”

Right in the subtitle of the piece is the heart of what this article is about. There is a “problem” with enshrining respect for gender identity in law (i.e. giving trans people civil rights), because science has not explained gender identity yet.

In the same way, I suppose we can’t enshrine respect for gay people because science hasn’t fully explained them either.

We cannot respect what we don’t understand. Let that sink in for a moment.

3. The threat

” Alex Drummond, who is male and identifies as female without having had any surgical or hormonal treatment – and with a full beard”

Alex Drummond is a woman with a beard. Harnaam Kaur is also a woman with a beard. One is cis, one is trans. But Ditum wants us to be afraid of Alex. Ditum calls Alex “male” knowing full well the baggage that goes with that word is so much more than biological. She is effectively gendering Alex. Misgendering her, in fact.

Why can’t Alex just live her life in a way that makes her healthy and comfortable? Why can’t she just be accepted as herself? Ditum will show us how dangerous this all is, and in doing so will take us back to a very regressive place, where as long as trans women have all the surgery and make every effort to “pass” in conventional terms, they will be somewhat tolerated, but trans liberation must not be allowed.

4. What explains us?

Ditum lays out four possibilities for what makes gender identity.

a) Gender is hardwired in the brain.

The idea she cites as favoured and acceptable. She makes it clear that this is essentialist (I agree, and so do most trans people I know) and not popular with feminists (quite right). She infers it is popular with trans people – not so.

Ditum then goes on to imply there are only 3 other options (also not true):

b) A sexual fetish, ie. autogynephilia

This is where her earlier (disputed) assertion that there are more trans women than men comes in handy – we can just ignore how trans men don’t fit this theory, can’t we? Oh, and we can ignore all the research that debunks the theory, too (I particularly like this one that shows cis women have identical experiences).

c) Faulty thinking due to autism.

Ditum exploits the fact that there is a higher incidence of autism in the trans population to suggest that autistic people “latch onto” gender identity due to feeling different. As an autistic person myself, this disableism is very unsettling. The idea that autistic people cannot know themselves as well as neurotypical people has no basis in reality.

Interestingly, the link between autism and sexuality has been explored in the past in similarly problematic ways, but now it is no longer acceptable to speculate about whether gay men are gay due to faulty wiring (Alan Turing, anyone?), we have moved on to scrutinise and undermine trans identities instead.

d) A response to trauma

Another nasty contrivance. Kids that grow up different are far more easy to marginalise and therefore to bully and abuse. So of course the levels of trauma in our communities are higher, as within the LGB community.

Yes, they used to say being a lesbian was caused by abuse too.

Apparently there are no other ways to frame our existence. We’ll see about that later.

5. Trans children must be stopped

Ditum goes on to stick up for “poor” Ken Zucker, saying he “was attacked for not conforming to the current trans political line, and ultimately forced from his job”.

Zucker, if you are not aware, is a proponent of reparative therapy for both LGB and trans children. Zucker increasingly shifted the focus of his work away from gay kids and towards trans kids due to “political” changes. Imagine if Ditum was writing now about that political shift – away from it being ok to try and “cure” gay people.

All the reputable psychological organisations condemn reparative therapy for gay and trans kids, and Zucker was a lone proponent, ultimately fired by an independent investigation.

The man was a renegade, so why is Ditum not citing other research by people who work with trans kids, for balance? The article pretends to be comprehensive and even handed, but look at just a small sample of what’s missing.

Ditum later rehashes a tired old myth when it comes to trans children. Using the very scientific method of watching a TV documentary and listening to an anecdote, she concludes that trans children think they are trans because they like things associated with the opposite sex. She perpetuates the myth of desistance and misleadingly cites:

“studies suggesting 80 per cent of gender non-conforming  children go on to live in their original gender as adults”

Yes, this figure is true, but that’s because trans and gender non-conforming are not the same thing. Read this article to understand how this statistic is misused over and over again. There is also a better study that shows that gender identity in trans kids is equally as consistent as for cis kids. Not to mention (oh ok, I will) the other important recent study that demonstrates extremely positive outcomes for trans kids that receive treatment.

It is frustrating how much good work has been done to clear up these myths and yet how often they get trotted out to trap the unwary people who haven’t done the reading.

Has Ditum not done her reading? Or is she deliberately suppressing one side of the story – I will leave you to decide. Given the size of her platform, can anyone see the danger for trans people if she has not been fully ethical, balanced and diligent in her research?

A transgender child’s identification with another gender goes far beyond mere gender expression, and is extremely persistent. Often kids and parents talk about expressions and choices as some of the clues they had along the way, but obviously you cannot encompass years of gender dysphoria into a soundbite or even a documentary. And having seen the BBC documentary mentioned, Ditum is also guilty of having cherry picked the one line out of an hour’s programme that fits her own biased narrative.

6. Ergo we don’t exist

“arguably non-existent gender identity”

“In the absence of compelling evidence for brainsex”

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – we are still exploring the complexity of gender and biology. It is interesting that the lack of fully established evidence for brainsex spurs Ditum to fall back on possibilities that have even less evidence, including the entirely debunked theory that it is a paraphilia (autogynephilia, see above).

Like Ditum, I believe gender identity may well be multi-determined, and I am fiercely in the middle of the nature/nurture debate, as are most reputable scholars – it’s likely to be both. I do however see there are hints of a mosaic of brain and hormonal differences that, as Daphna Joel has discovered, are by no means binary. These findings back the notion of sex-similarity far more than sex-difference. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the entirely debunked theories of Simon Baron-Cohen and others, it is possible that there is biology at work here, as well as, of course, gender socialisation.

Ditum also cites “a response to homophobia” as one possible cause of being trans. As a person who identified as a lesbian for a decade as a response to transphobia and my reluctance to come out as trans, my challenge to Ditum is this – show me the evidence that there is more stigma attached to being gay than trans in this country and I will believe you. Show me a single study that prompted you to throw that one in the mix. Or are you just falling back on the tired old trope that trans women are “confused gay men”? Yes, there is an interrelationship between gender identity and sexuality, but they are not the same. Neither are they in competition with each other.

I lived a prosperous life as a lesbian and have suffered a massive loss of privilege and circumstance in coming out as trans. I came out not because it was advantageous but because my lesbian identity was a half-truth and not a full expression of who I am, and I could not continue to manage living in that half-truth.

8. Trans is a narrow option

“as the doctrine of gender identity draws tighter, options become ever narrower”

Again, where is the evidence of this? My experience of the trans community is that the more freedom to explore ourselves and be accepted we have, the more diverse narratives spring up, the more options become open to us and the more the walls between us break down. Where 20 years ago trans people were expected to live heteronormative lives, now many of us are out and challenging many of society’s preconceptions around gender.

My trans circle is fiercely feminist, distinctly radical, and demonstrates a range of possibilities from assigned female “trans dykes” who use she/her but challenge what it is to be a woman, to non-binary people who manage to live outside of gender entirely. People who ease their dysphoria through medicine and people who don’t. And yes, people who know themselves to be women but don’t go through a medical process, who face huge challenges because of that. It’s funny how the nonconforming trans people like Alex Drummond are held up as the threat, and at one and the same time it is our community that is supposedly narrowing the options. Meanwhile, ultra conservative trans people like Caitlyn Jenner falsely dominate the public’s idea of what it is to be trans.

An observant person might suggest that cis people keep narrowing our options, while we keep trying to widen them so that we can live more healthily and congruently.

9. Cis people know better

“The fact of suffering is not evidence that the sufferer has unimpeachable insight into the source of that suffering”

A clever one, this. Yes, it’s true in a way, but it’s also deeply patronising. As a person-centred counsellor I have learned time and again that my client, whoever they are, is the expert on their own life. What is certainly not true is that Ditum can claim any real ability to shed light on this discussion.

10. It’s dangerous to give us rights

Finally, after an awful lot of going round the houses, we reach the real point of the article.

Ditum is very clearly arguing against trans people having civil rights, citing harm to “women” (read cis women) as the reason.

So, Ditum has cast trans acceptance as conflicting with both the gay community and the cis women’s community. A classic capitalist tactic to divide the groups that could be working together. She could almost be working for a neoliberal elite, so helpful is she being to them. At least, her career is probably doing very well because her message is so helpful in preserving the status quo.

So what do we know? We know, in fact, that the people who are most at risk of sexual, physical and domestic violence are trans women, and we know that there has never been any real problem accommodating them. I have experience of working in trans inclusive women’s services and it was never an issue.

What Ditum ignores is the position a trans woman has within women’s spaces. She will be scrutinised and suspected and watched. She does not hold the power in that space. How exactly is she to be a danger to others?

Ditum also plays on a fear that it is in patriarchy’s interests to perpetuate: women must keep themselves apart to be safe. Never mind that this excludes women’s voices in society, as I discuss in this blog post. Men want women to be afraid of them. They use the threat of rape and violence to enforce that fear, to convince women segregation is in their best interests. Fear of trans women is just another way of establishing that status quo.

Meanwhile, gender non-conforming cis women and lesbians are sharing with trans women the often violent consequences of this fear, as they always have.

Let’s be clear, there is absolutely no evidence that trans rights will have any detrimental effect on women’s rights. The changes in trans rights and acceptance that have happened so far over the last 40 years have not created problems for women. The problems people like Ditum feared have not come to pass. In fact, the experience of trans women and the violence, sexualisation and objectification they experience has highlighted the fact of misogyny and added a useful perspective to the feminist conversation. Transfeminism is exciting and vibrant and has earned its place within mainstream feminism.

11. Trans people are criminals

So, one Swedish study from a long time ago that has been much critiqued suggested that trans women (and trans men, as it happens) are incarcerated more than an average population of women.

It also says that trans people are more suicidal than the average population, no surprise there given how we are treated. This is often misrepresented, as in this article, to suggest we are more suicidal post-transition than pre-transition, something that has again been thoroughly debunked.

I could point out, as others have, that the study is old, has not been replicated, and was a very small sample. But actually, in the case of the criminality statistics, I really don’t need to.

Instead, imagine if Ditum was quoting the incidence of incarceration of other minority women compared to the norm for all women – say, lesbians, mentally ill women, women of colour, women living in poverty, women who have experienced trauma. Now let her continue to say those incarceration rates are due to something inherent in that population, rather than the fact that we know marginalised minority populations have higher offending rates for complex sociological reasons.

Ditum then says that prisoners might pretend to be trans to get more favourable housing. Well, yes initially they might, but when they see the hoops they have to jump through they will probably think again. Nobody is suggesting that there will be instant prison transfers on an inmate’s say-so, meaning of course that the prisoner will have to live as a woman for some time in a men’s prison, and experience the full force of misogyny that trans women experience.

All incarcerations are risk assessed, as are hostel placements and refuge placements. The reality is, sometimes cis women are too dangerous to house in a women’s prison, hostel or refuge, and special accommodations have to be made. We don’t need a special rule that affects an entire minority group, because we already have rules in place to deal with violent, dangerous, and sex offending cis women.

Ditum fails to mention Vicky Thomson, who killed herself when she was put in a men’s prison despite having lived as a woman for years. Or Tara Hudson, who was also imprisoned and sexually harassed in a men’s prison despite having transitioned long ago. Or Mary, who was raped 2000 times in a men’s prison. She fails to highlight the women who really are at risk in all this, as if trans women’s lives don’t actually matter in the same way. She also fails to highlight that those women are likely to be in danger in women’s prisons too, if we continue to stigmatise and doubt their existence.

Then, apparently thinking it will clinch her argument, Ditum cites a case of a trans inmate having sex with other inmates. Not rape, let’s be clear, but sex. Because apparently sex doesn’t happen in prisons when there are no trans women around. It takes the presence of a penis and testicles (yes, of course Ditum has to mention these) for sex to happen. And note the wording – the trans woman had sex with the other inmates, no possibility that, excited by the appearance of a penis in their midst, they might have been the ones “having sex with” her. Because cis women are always passive?

Don’t let all this essentialism slide – who people are and in what way they can move through society is being brought entirely down to the shape of their genitals. Note how, in all her discourse, Ditum is actually pushing trans women back towards a medicalised model where they will have to have “full surgery” to be tolerated. She is pushing us away from people being able to live as Alex Drummond lives.

11. Trans feminists aren’t proper feminists

“Julia Serano, who insists on a definition of feminism that contains no reference to patriarchy”

Ditum grossly misrepresents Serano’s work. I would recommend reading Whipping Girl and Excluded, but here’s a blog about this, where, funnily enough, Serano mentions the reality of patriarchy, as she often does:

“In Excluded, I describe these “gender systems” – whether it be patriarchy, the gender binary, and so on – as being models that provide a fairly decent approximation of how sexism and marginalization function in our culture. However, like all models, they are necessarily incomplete, and there will always be instances where they do not accurately describe the world.”

Why would Ditum be so dismissive of the nuanced and thought-provoking (although not always perfect) work of a noted transfeminist? Isn’t this a balanced article that’s supposed to be looking at all sides of the issue?

12. Save us from this false ideology!

“There is a real danger that an unproven theory of innate gender identity is now directing treatments”

Again, where is the evidence? Treatments are outcomes-based, not theory based – doctors try to alleviate suffering, and continue doing what works best until a better solution is found. Despite quoting again that one discredited Swedish study, we know treatment outcomes for trans people are really positive.

The answer to the philosophical question of “who are we, really, when you get right down to it?” is not necessary to know that gender reassignment works for those who want it, saves lives, and saves the NHS a fortune in mental health services that will never resolve the issue.

Whoever we are deep down, being allowed the freedom to live in a way that resolves our sense of incongruence is good for us. And actually, what’s good for the individual is generally good for the people around that individual too. Allowing trans people to be happy and healthy is a win-win.

Also note Ditum mentions that one Swedish study and fails to mention the many many more recent ones – so much for balance. There’s a handful of papers on my professional web page to get you started. Hey, that one old, unreplicated study has done an awful lot of heavy lifting for gender critical feminists, it must be tired by now.

Conclusion: Not critical enough

Despite the length of the article, I think I’ve demonstrated Ditum’s cherry picking of information prevents this from being a genuinely critical look at the full story.

But for me, the biggest issue here is the way Ditum’s argument reinforces gender.

Gender is a social construct, this is rightly a tenet of feminist belief. Gender is the word we use for everything man-made about the differences between men and women. I use “man-made”advisedly, because nobody here is arguing that patriarchy is not a real thing. As I have argued before, though, this inevitably means sex as a man-made social class and legal status is actually a part of gender.

Cue my favourite training slide:

not biology

So, in trying to reinforce the legal segregation of gender, upon which all social construction of gender is built, Ditum is in fact propping up the very thing she claims to want to dismantle. She has argued (on BBC Newsnight, earlier in the year) that sex needs to be legally recorded for women’s protection.

Let’s put that to the test in the usual way: “In order to ensure you as a gay citizen are protected, we need to legally record your status as a homosexual on all your documentation.”

No way that could go wrong, is there?

So, here is a possibility Ditum never discussed. Women and men are not that fundamentally different, although there are all sorts of complex nuances to our neurological, chromosomal, hormonal, and social experiences that create variety in how we are embodied and how we experience and interact with the culture around us.

That culture is oppressive in a number of ways – it favours heterosexuality, masculinity, men, and the idea of oppositional sex, as Serano terms it (as well as whiteness, able-bodiedness, neurotypicality, etc).

Gender segregation, in the form of legal and social sex (really gender) assignment at birth, is one way in which the culture is oppressive. This legal and social process oppresses gay people, women and trans people. Trans people are fighting to exist comfortably within this oppressive system, but many of us are also fighting to change it.

Ditum, let’s be clear, is fighting to preserve it.

Post-script- added 20/5/16

Given how hastily I wrote this, in just one afternoon, I am overwhelmed by the messages of support it has had. The only response I had from Ditum herself is as follows:

ditum

A friend pointed out this is a fine example of “dead cat politics“.

Of course that is not what I am saying! I am saying, however, that gender segregated toilets are not a feminist invention, and not necessarily in the interests of feminism, but that reaction to fear of men and rape, legitimate as that is, can sometimes lead to decisions to back gender-enshrining legislation that isn’t ultimately in women’s interests.

So, some folks then brought up the risk to women from lack of appropriate sanitation facilities in India and Africa. White women appropriating the experiences of women of colour to further their own agenda? Surely not. So let’s get this clear:

We do not have to have gender segregation enshrined in law to make safe provisions for diverse people in diverse situations. There are times, of course, when people are getting naked and need appropriate privacy, and it’s important to provide them with that. Women’s safety and children’s safety are absolutely important. This safety and privacy is generally achieved by providing a door with a lock on it, along with other reasonable security measures like safe external access. I think you’ll find most UK toilets and most new changing facilities afford this safety and privacy, and women everywhere have a right to demand this. Desegregated does not mean not risk assessed.

If facilities are not safe for everyone to use, we should probably stop letting our boy children use toilets. And women should probably start worrying about the 64,000 registered women sex offenders who are permitted to use all these facilities.

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Gender Segregation – For your own good?

I am reposting this from April 8 because it isn’t showing up in the sidebar.

TW for discussion of violence and abuse, including sexual abuse

A long time ago, I was vulnerably housed, living in a hostel in a city down South. Next door to me lived a couple, a really tall older man and a young adult man who had dwarfism. I’m going to call the smaller guy Paul, although his real name has disappeared from my head. I’ll never forget his story, though.

People have always told me their life stories – I guess I have that kind of face. Paul’s was pretty tragic – a childhood of terrible neglect and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. It was hard to hear – the worst thing I’d ever heard at the time, which given  the things I’d heard and experienced is saying a lot.

Paul’s companion was his “saviour” – someone who showed him love he had never known, but it soon became clear that this older man had a temper and was violent – sometimes I was called into the aftermath of blood, bruises, tears and apologies. They clearly loved each other, but I could see that what Paul had now was only good compared to the horror of his past – he was still being abused, and he was terribly vulnerable.

A journey towards separatism

Forward fast a few years and I’d pretty much become a lesbian separatist – I’d come out the other side of therapy for my own abuse from cis men, and I’d figured out the safest kind of world is a world without men in it, at least for me (okay, I admit that later I learned women weren’t as safe to be with as I’d hoped, but that’s another story for another time). Back then I worked for women-only domestic violence services, and I firmly believed they need to stay women-only (note: for me, that always included trans women).

But then the UK funding climate changed and the service I worked for started to work with men, amid resistance from myself and other workers.

[Image: a crying woman cowers in front of a man's clenched fist]

But that work with male survivors changed me. It turns out there are other Pauls in the world, that male/female is not the only axis of oppression that exists. I discovered that sometimes women really do abuse vulnerable men, that as well as being a man, someone can be queer or elderly or young or disabled or little or a person of colour or economically vulnerable. And most importantly, I discovered that despite the power imbalance, women and men are not fundamentally different and our experiences of abuse and trauma are not fundamentally different. I discovered gender as a continuum, and human experience as a continuum, and began to free myself from the simplistic, convenient, and binary models I had clung to.

Back then, we would say “yeah, but men should set up their own services, women shouldn’t have to look after men, it isn’t their job”, and that works so well as an argument when I think of this group of people “men” with the attached picture I have of someone able and white and well-muscled. But it sounds callous, if I’m honest, when I think of someone like Paul. Really? Not the job of an able, middle class professional being paid by taxpayers money to care about a vulnerable, homeless abuse survivor with dwarfism? That sounds a little different, doesn’t it?

I’m not suggesting that Paul didn’t have male privilege, far from it. I am simply suggesting male privilege is not the only privilege there is, and that he lacked many others.

At the same time, I felt uneasy – a service with “women” in the title helping men was a bit like Cadbury’s making gravy. The whole thing needed a bit of a rethink. Because “domestic violence” had become synonymous with women, and heterosexual women at that, it had coalesced around one particular form of oppression – sexism. Ageism, ableism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, classism and poverty (etc) were not getting a look-in or being treated as equally serious oppressions.

Perhaps this is because women’s organising does benefit from potentially having the weight of half the world’s population behind it. Women are not a minority, and maybe that’s an advantage they have over other oppressed groups. It’s helped them be the only oppressed group that’s consistently able to create publicly funded separate spaces.

Some time later still, I went to work for a mixed gender sexual abuse survivors service, and some of my feminist friends were angry with me – they did not believe there was such thing as a genuine male abuse survivor, they honestly thought that men could only be perpetrators. I was shocked, but I also understood – in a world where separatism had created a bubble in which we never heard about male survivors, it was easy to disbelieve their existence. What we saw more often was male perpetrators manipulating and abusing by playing the victim, a common story.

But by now my eyes had been painfully opened – male survivors do exist, male survivors of abuse by women exist. Even though the power structure between men and women is very unequal, on an individual level there are variations, and other power structures at play. For example, boys under 7 sexually assaulted by female relatives and then labelled as “seducers” based on their maleness have their child/adult power inequality erased.

My own history and the work I did was raising complex questions about gender, trauma and abuse that I needed to explore. I went and did an MA with a particular focus on gender and trauma. That journey led to me coming out as a non-binary transgender person, but it also opened my eyes to the many layers in the stories we tell ourselves about violence against women.

“For your own good”

Gender segregation – in domestic violence services, prisons, toilets, and other women only spaces is supposedly for women’s own good. We have to keep women and men separate because it’s thought impossible to expect the same standard of non-violence from men as from women. This constant threat of violence and micro-aggressions is part of what keeps women oppressed, even to the point where feminists argue for single-sex education so girls can “do better” despite the fact our country is ruled by an ex-boys’ school elite. Gender segregation keeps women out of power and yet it’s still seen to be in their interests.

When I wrote my dissertation, I came across evidence that feminist domestic violence services, in the US at least, were being controlled by an external, ultra-conservative agenda – the message to services, in summary, appeared to be “if you want funding for your shelters, then you must present and perpetuate the ‘women as powerless victims’ narrative” – any hint that women’s position in society is negotiable, changeable, evolving and conditional is erased to create a fixed condition of women as a static underclass. The reality, that some women are strong, violent, unassailable, powerful, has ironically become as unpalatable to the people defending these vital services as it has to the conservatives, and so we feminists working for an end to domestic violence found ourselves shoring up the very thing we wanted to dismantle. In order to support women in the world the way it is, we have given the way the world is an increasing solidity and sense of permanence.

All those years I spent in women’s spaces, I fought for their preservation. Even whilst knowing in my heart that gender isn’t a binary. Whilst knowing that I carried the male gaze and male socialisation into those spaces. That I identified as woman in some ways and man in others. That I myself was capable of both victimhood and violence (I was prone to physically lashing out as a youngster, something that’s hard for me to own up to).

It’s hard not to end up with more questions than answers when trying to think of ways forward. I will continue to stick up for women’s spaces, whilst hoping we evolve away from them. I hope that segregated spaces were a necessary part of the journey, but not where we’re going to end up. I want a world not of assimilation, of “not seeing gender” but of inclusion and anti-oppression, where there is an awareness of inequality and people’s vulnerability, and an empathy for difference in all spaces. This becomes increasingly necessary as we realise that many of the smaller minority groups will never have the resources or traction to create their own safe spaces. And as Audre Lorde famously said, we do not live single-issue lives, so our separation into neat, easy to delineate categories is more problematic than at first appears.

[image: photo of Audre Lorde speaking, with qotation overlaid "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not lead single-issue lives"]

More than anything, though, I would love to see an end to the way we construct and reinforce toxic masculinity. I fear that in this neoliberal world, it may be in some people’s interests to maintain male violence and its function of domination, control and security. It is not mindless – it serves a purpose in keeping our country economically strong and our race in a superior position. Subverting that role in whatever way we can, and that includes breaking down the myths that separate us, is tough, complicated but important work.

How Gender is like The Hogwarts Sorting Hat

When I was a young kid, I went to kind of a posh school. Later, when I read Harry Potter, I got this flash of recognition when I saw how the kids were sorted into different “houses”. Because that’s how it was at my school. Well, none of us were magical, and nobody was evil, but there really were differences between the kids from different houses.

Drake kids always won at sports. Head girls always came from Raleigh. Drake and Raleigh competed for the most house points and the most prizes.

220px-Sir_Richard_Grenville_from_NPG

Sir Richard Grenville, C16 sailor and possible contender?

And then there was my house – Grenville. To this day I have no idea who “Grenville” was, but even at age 8 I had heard of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh and knew I had been shortchanged. Grenvilles were not the important ones. Grenvilles didn’t sing the solo first verse of Once in Royal David City at the annual carol concert. Grenvilles didn’t win prizes. Grenvilles were never good at sports. Grenvilles were frequently nerds, but never in a shiningly clever way.

I never really gave this much thought until Harry Potter came along. Only when I saw that Sorting Hat did it sink in. What sorting process assigned us to our houses on the first day of school, age five? How did they know we were going to be Raleigh types, Drake types, or those inferior Grenville types?

Of course, my school had no mystical sorting hat. The somewhat unnerving conclusion, then, was that being randomly assigned as a Grenville, a Raleigh or a Drake had some influence over our school successes, possibly over our very characters. Just a name, and yet it became so much more. It became an identity. It moulded us. There was a Raleigh culture, a Drake culture, a Grenville culture, that subtly shaped who we became.

The persistence of culture

Culture is a hard thing to understand. We like to think if we’re not in control of it ourselves, that someone at least is. I want to believe, since I was one of the poorer kids in my school that we Grenvilles were assigned from the poorer families – that it was oppression at work, and that’s why we never shone.

Except I’m pretty sure Jessica in the class below me was a Grenville and she came to school in a Daimler.

So maybe it really was random, how these cultures came to be.

A senior fireman once explained to me how individual firehouse cultures emerge across a city:

“There’s one where everyone’s always falling out, they just can’t work together. Another where they’re so committed, they all volunteer, work with local youth. Another where nobody washes up and the posters on the wall are all torn and scruffy and nobody seems to care about anything.”

He had been in the job more than 20 years. Some of the firehouses he knew had none of the same people in them that had been there when he started. Every single person had changed, but the culture remained the same. Culture can be unplanned, unpremeditated, but still difficult to shake free of.

The culture of gender

When we’re born, we have genitals, and you really cannot get away from that fact. There are things we call penises, and things we call vaginas, and there are intersex genitals that take a bit more working out and alas, are often unnecessarily operated on because we feel so very strongly that we need to turn these basic little biological differences into the ultimate version of the Hogwarts Sorting Hat.

sorting hat

We will look at your genitals, and place you in a house for life. There can be only two houses, so we’ll cut you if you don’t quite fit. And upon entry into these houses, you will be inducted into a pre-loaded culture that is somewhat random but nevertheless inexorably self-perpetuating. Oh, and structurally oppressive towards one of the two houses, let’s not forget that.

This is why trans folk are resistant to the term “biological sex” because biological sex is the sorting hat, or at least what the sorting hat pretends to be – in fact, that process of naming and allocating and segregating for life is more about gender than it is about sex – it’s a social construction, of course it is. We can’t deny our genitals, but just as race and eye colour and religion don’t find their way onto legal documents (heaven forbid), so our genital configuration takes on another layer of meaning through the process of becoming a legal entity. It goes from an attribute to an identity. So our sex takes on an importance beyond mere biology, and sex becomes a term more loaded than it deserves.

The counter-culture of trans people

If culture is self-perpetuating, gender variant folks could be mother nature’s safety valve, an essential ingredient to help us adapt, innovate and change course.

Because you see, when the gender sorting hat gets placed on our head, what it says out loud is different from what’s whispered in our ear.

sorting hat 2.png

Imagine if the Sorting Hat told the room you were Slytherin, but whispered “you’re really Ravenclaw, but don’t tell anyone”. The Slytherin attributes just wouldn’t stick in the same way, you would find stuff about yourself that better matched the Ravenclaw mould – in thinking of yourself as Ravenclaw, you would become more Ravenclaw.

Growing up with an instinct that tells you you’ve been assigned to the wrong house, or indeed that this whole Sorting Hat business is entirely dubious, gives a different perspective, helps shake gender out of its habitual grooves. I do believe nature sows the seeds of transness in its infinite variation.  We have our cultures too, and create our own “houses”, but our variations are beautiful and important, helping the world understand that the two-house system is flawed and inaccurate and permeable.