Just in case you missed it, I’ve been doing a spot of guest writing for The Queerness, and I wanted to share two of these pieces with my blog readers
Just in case you missed it, I’ve been doing a spot of guest writing for The Queerness, and I wanted to share two of these pieces with my blog readers
CN: discusses top surgery and associated body parts in some detail (with post-surgery photo), also trigger warning for references of child sexual abuse, trigger warning for anyone with emetophobia
Today was the big reveal, my post-op appointment 10 days after chest reconstruction surgery with Mr Kneeshaw at Castle Hill Hospital, near Hull. This has been such an emotional ride, and I feel the need to share some of the highs and lows. When I made the choice to have surgery, it felt more like a necessary evil than something I longed for, so I was completely unprepared for the joy I would feel when it finally happened.
I was never one of those people that hated their breasts. I was happy with one aspect of them for many years – being an inconsequential AA cup size meant nobody had ever ogled them, catcalled me because of them or even really noticed them. Then I got fat, and they grew (a little), and for a while I enjoyed the fleeting sensation of being womanly.
I was always at odds with my gender, wanting to be a woman or at least feeling I ought to work at being a woman, and finding it impossible to achieve in a way that felt authentic. This despite enormous effort on my part to feminise my voice, my clothes, my behaviour, my walk. So for a while, having (still fairly inconsequential) boobs felt like an accomplishment, but soon enough, they began to feel like an anachronism, a lie.
But even after starting to take testosterone, it took me a long while to consider having my chest surgically reconstructed. At first, I bound them with commercial chest binders, but these caused me pain, (curse my fibromyalgia), and were difficult for me to get into and out of. I could at this point wax lyrical about how little we talk about the health risks of chest binding. Eventually I passed my binders on (please consider sending your cast-offs to Morf) and I made my own binder, a much looser garment created from an old bra, with a flat panel sewn in at the front in place of the cups.
After the surgery, I had a ritual burning ceremony for this by now exceedingly manky piece of kit. It made me wonder about the (somewhat apocryphal) bra burners of the 1960s, and whether any of them were actually suffering from dysphoria.
Would I have felt more comfortable with my breasts if they had not been constantly associated with social gender labels like “ladies”, “she” and “ma’am”? Would I have felt my gender dysphoria more keenly had I not suffered from such extreme dissociation for much of my life that it’s hard for me to connect to my body at all? It’s impossible to say, because what we go through makes us who we are. But I had a lot to untangle to get here.
How abuse stopped me hearing my dysphoria
I have spent a lot of time lately diligently reflecting on the journey my breasts and I have taken together.
At times, I was grateful to my breasts, because when they grew, the abuse I suffered throughout my childhood stopped. I don’t want to get into the head of my abuser, but he left my two sisters alone, and treated me in many ways like a boy, so I have little sense that the abuse I suffered was specific to my birth anatomy rather than my gender presentation.
It’s hard to mention abuse in conjunction with being trans, but here’s the reality – AFAB or AMAB regardless, around 50% of us are sexually abused as children, a figure that’s much higher than for cis women. A potential reason for this is because as non-conforming children we are less valued, looked after, believed, and socially supported. Easier to isolate and prey upon.
Because of the negative way society thinks about trans people, it’s easy to internalise “did abuse make me trans?” and ignore the reality, that abuse can interfere with the clarity with which we understand our trans selves.
If anything, abuse blocked the intensity of feeling I had towards my body, and pushed me towards thinking of myself as a woman, which was far from a natural inclination. I also thought of myself as a woman because society equates sexual abuse with femaleness and erases the high levels of abuse in minority populations such as trans, queer, racially oppressed and disabled.
When I went through recovery, there were no books for sexual abuse survivors who weren’t women. It was as if being a woman was the only kind of oppression in existence. This forced me to think about my gender in a particular way that was ultimately unhelpful. I was urged to learn to “love my body” by an old-fashioned and puritanical feminist rhetoric that disallowed the possibility of making your body more comfortable to live in. I worked through the abuse, but in the process got tangled into some very simplistic messages about gender, that delayed me fully acknowledging my transness.
I realise now, I freed my body from the abuse I experienced as a child, but handed it over to the control of a particularly toxic kind of feminism (other, wonderful, intersectional feminisms are available). Suddenly my body was owned by, and politicised by, a clumsy kind of second wave feminism. And amidst all the other liberations, surgery has also cut me free of that trap.
Getting my body back
In the last year, as testosterone slowly made me happier with some parts of myself, I allowed myself to connect to my breasts and was shocked to discover the strength of feeling I had about them. I had thought the intense body dysphoria of other trans guys was altogether alien to me. Instead, I discovered it had been carefully and thoroughly suppressed. And as I let go, it was like discovering some hidden programme running in the background that’s hogging all your processing power – dysphoria is a truly disabling mental state, and when you unearth it, the relief and overwhelm is indescribable.
As surgery neared, I began to feel my fear of the anaesthetic’s impact on my fibromyalgia (and thanks to fibro pals especially womandrogyne, I took this warning card with me for the anaesthetist, which seems to have helped a whole lot). But there was another, growing feeling – excitement. Unambiguous, uncomplicated pleasure at the thought that I own my body and can shape it to be more comfortable for me to live in. My guilt, perpetuated by the mini-TERF that lives in my head, began to slip away. Perhaps, after all, a procedure that would allow me to connect to my body more and love and take care of myself and be happy is not so drastic. Not a mutilation, but an alteration, a sending to the menders of something that simply didn’t fit right no matter how hard I wriggled around in it.
The double incision procedure that I had is relatively simple. Two curved incisions, removal of tissue, nipple re-sizing and re-placing. You’re usually left with scars and loss of nipple sensation with this procedure. It’s an overnight stay. Under Dr Kneeshaw, you come home from the hospital with two drains concealed in fabric bags that the hospital lends you. I was given two very flowery bags, and a kind nurse offered to swap them for something more “manly”. Of course, I declined, but with gratitude for her sensitivity. For bigger folks the procedure’s technically trickier, sometimes revisions are needed.
I see a lot of overjoyed faces beaming through anaesthetic haze when my friends go through this. I wasn’t expecting to be one of them. But there I was, post-anaesthetic, lying in bed with a huge grin on my face. Even the projectile vomiting a couple of hours later didn’t completely wipe the smile away.
Pure joy. I thought it was perhaps some drug-induced high, but it hasn’t left me. A weight off my chest, indeed.
Transition hasn’t been easy for me. However much my story overlaps with that of trans men, it doesn’t quite compare and that has left me out on a non-binary limb. I don’t get the same civil rights as my partner. I’ve experienced job discrimination, and astonishingly bad behaviour from some members of the lesbian and gay communities. Testosterone has taken its sweet time to make changes and I’ve felt in limbo. I fell into a pretty bad pit of depression and got well and truly stuck there. And I was afraid that surgery and too much time to myself during recovery would only make things worse.
I simply had not anticipated the possibility of being happy about my new chest. But here it is, in all its rawness, freshly revealed; and it does make me feel incredibly happy – so happy that I’m sharing a picture of a bit of my body, not something I am used to doing.
It is curious the way I can connect to my body now in a way I never could, and this gives me hope for being able to care for myself better in the future, and potentially make health gains because of this. I feel not the slightest regret. Surgery was the necessary price of my wellbeing, and I’m confident that what I give back to the world can be greater now I no longer struggle under the burden of dysphoria.
I am unbelievably grateful to the NHS. It took time for me to realise I could not do without this op, that it was as necessary as any other procedure available in our increasingly beleaguered healthcare system. The nurses and doctors at Castle Hill are amazing. Mr Kneeshaw* is one of the kindest and most down to earth surgeons I’ve ever met; his results are good, and he’s not huffy about doing revisions if needed.
This procedure is life-changing and potentially life-saving, and I am simply overjoyed and full of gratitude.
PS – after the post-op, Robin and I treated ourselves to vegan rocky road brownies from Blondes in Cottingham – life really couldn’t get any better than this!*
*nobody is paying me for these endorsements
From what I’ve seen, the Anarchist Federation are generally pretty right on, including when it comes to trans inclusion, but sometimes people get things drastically wrong and then you get a sticker like this, which is kinda hate speech:
I turned up at a meeting recently and saw a pile of these in a space I generally feel safe. A space that signed up to the Safer Space Guidelines our local trans community drew up. Seeing this really threw me, especially amongst other stickers I could totally get behind. It reminded me of how far we still have to go.
People asked me what was up and I could not articulate it, afraid that without a shared understanding of the issues, I would come across as an apologist for misogyny. I’m writing this to try and make the issues clear.
First of all, though as a pacifist I’m not fond of the image, it isn’t that I find problematic. Women having violent revenge fantasies about overpowering men in the context of male oppression are just that – fantasies. The image is symbolic, I get that. If the text had said “smash patriarchy” I would be fine. Even though I know some whiny person who doesn’t understand about structural inequality will come along and talk about “misandry” or “reverse sexism”, I’m not about to censor or tone police women’s anger. It’s just a picture showing the depths of women’s justifiable rage.
But the text calls for people to “abolish gender” and that’s the hate-speechy bit. Because let’s be clear, gender is many, many things and only one of those is an axis of oppression.
Gender is Two-spirit people, Bakla, Hijiras, and the many hundreds of ways cultures all over the world explore and express the complexity of gender, in defiance of binary, colonialist narratives. Abolishing Two-spirit people isn’t ending oppression, it is oppression. And it’s colonisation, as Lola Phoenix explains here*.
Gender is also butches, femmes, demigirls, genderqueer & genderfluid folk, trans men, trans women, non-binary people, people who are agender, bigender, pangender, transgender. . .
In other words, there is a rich diversity of how people enact and experience gender across the globe and to abolish it would be to abolish us.
This is a particularly violent threat in the context of most gender abolitionists’ insistence on maintaining the legal and social categories “men and women”, which if you haven’t read my previous blogs, is still gender but gender abolitionists don’t always see it as such.
So, to recap, “abolish gender”, one tenet of second wave radical feminism, seeks to abolish diverse cultural identities and communities while remaining silent on sex assignment. Sex assignment is a non-consensual process. In it children are forced, without their permission and with physical violence in the case of many intersex children, into a legal and social category, according to the shape of their genitalia. These categories are not neutral, they are classed – one oppresses the other. This process of sex assignment gives birth to the existence of gender as class.
Abolish gender as a class structure by all means, although the only way I can see to do that is to abolish sex assignment. But there is a huge difference between ending a non-consensual practice committed against children and forcing adults to end their own cultural, consensual and autonomous practices around gender.
I do not want to be abolished. Yes, I wish I had not been assigned female at birth. Yes, I understand that assignment has massively altered my experience of gender. Yes, I understand that both my female assignment and my male socialisation have been subject to the influence of gender inequality. But I do not believe that there is anything remotely wrong with being transgender and I believe even in a utopia aspects of gender would still manifest, even if differently than in this dystopic world.
Yes, I want to smash patriarchy, but please don’t smash me in the process.
To explore this subject in greater depth, I have set up a workshop in Nottingham on 20th August
*ETA: This is a nice accessible piece on the subject, but there’s much more out there. The workshop seeks to collate the words of POC, which are not always given platforms. A good place to start if you’re up for a longer read is decolonizing trans/gender 101 by b. binaohan
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many people try to draw a clear distinction between sex and gender, and feel this is a helpful thing to do. This blog will attempt to explain why, for most everyday purposes, the distinction is unhelpful, and not just in relation to trans people.
Let’s start with the basics. The working definitions suggest that sex is biological and gender is socially constructed. So far, so straightforward. One is nature, one is nurture.
Except, as I explained in a previous blog, we are now living in the age of epigenetics and neuroconstructivism, which in laymans terms means that for some time now scientists have rejected the idea that you can separate nature and nurture from each other. We now realise the two things interact and combine to create the people we are. This is uniquely true for humans; the reason we take so long to “grow up” compared to other animals is what also makes us especially adaptable to our environment. Our brains develop as much after birth as before, “downloading” the environmental conditions around us in early life. But how we develop is also dictated by brain formation that happens in the womb and is mediated by hormones.
What does this mean? It means that if you find differences between men’s and women’s brains that doesn’t prove we were “born that way”, but equally it means that sociological factors can influence our very biology.
Knowing this, you can understand why many thinkers are pushing to raise children in a more gender neutral way, especially in the first 7 years of life when their brains are developing. And you can also begin to understand the second wave feminist assertion that after all, biology is destiny, and due to our differing socialisation, men and women are fundamentally different.
Except we’re not. Because scientists like Daphna Joel are discovering that our hormones influence our responses to the environment we are born into in unique ways, leading to brains that are an unpredicatable mosaic of typically-male and typically-female characteristics. Which is what probably accounts for the fact that, even in our heavily gendered society, children still emerge in a rainbow of gender non-conforming ways.
This complex interrelationship between biology and socialisation may account for the natural diversity of gender experience. Rather than just two kinds of people we have a rich variety in how people experience gender – girly girls (both cis and trans), butch women (both cis and trans), agender and androgynous people, femme men (both cis and trans) and manly men (both cis and trans), to crudely cite a few examples from a myriad of possibilities.
So, to recap what we’ve learned so far:
But all this is gender, surely, and sex is something else, something we can be much more certain of. Sex is what’s between our legs.
Now at this point, a lot of trans activists, myself included, like to point out how the existence of intersex people complicates the picture when it comes to sex, and how their erasure, often through surgery, is evidence of how we have socially constructed our ideas of sex.
But although I think it is important for trans people to highlight the experiences of intersex people, we do not need to co-opt their struggle to help our own cause. Why? because the registering of “sex” on a birth certificate, even in a world where all chromosomes and genitals were genuinely dyadic without exception, could never be described as a biological process. And therefore legal sex, as recorded on birth certificates and enshrined in pronouns and bathroom doors and “Mr and Mrs” and a million other social forms, is in fact gender, and not sex at all.
In other words, if gender is what we socially construct around biological sex, then all the legal and social paraphernalia has to be gender and not sex. In fact, even the words man and woman, with all their layers of social meaning, must be understood to be socially constructed. Which is why, in a nutshell, you can only record your gender on a form, and not your sex. Because the act of putting it on a form makes it gender, i.e. makes it a social process and gives it social (and legal) significance.
What this means is that we can use the word sex in an unambiguous way for plants, and maybe even animals, but when it comes to human beings our understanding of sex is so cluttered with legal and social understandings that it is inevitably gendered.
What this also means is that you can never abolish gender [ETA- even if you wanted to – I don’t and here’s why] whilst retaining the legal construction and segregation of what we disingenuously call “biological sex”.
And this is why many trans people prefer to be labelled transgender rather than transsexual, because our transitions are a social process related to the consequences of having been legally assigned a gender. For some of us, there is also a physical, medical process that goes alongside this. But we do not want our identities to be medicalised. We do not want to be understood as people solely in terms of how our bodies have been configured or medically changed. We defy the assignment of gender that was given to us at birth, and the social consequences of that assignment.
As a feminist, I believe the recording of gender as a legal status is at the heart of all gender injustice, and should be abolished. Sadly, feminism has been manipulated into believing that gender segregation is “for your own good“. While our nation is ruled by an elite of men who are the product of segregated education, some feminists still argue that women benefit from segregated education. Men use violence and fear and microaggressions to reinforce the “benefit” to women of separatism, and many feminists fall for this. Trans people are casualties in this process, but I argue it benefits only a minority of gender normative men, to the detriment of the rest of us.
Abolishing sex assignment is the only radical answer, but in the mean time let’s not pretend any more that this socially constructed process has anything to do with biology.
*eta – this deliberately mischievous assertion slipped through my editing process. of course radfems worth their salt believe nothing of the sort, but some fringe elements do still believe men’s socialisation creates irreconcilable differences.
Everyone of course has the right to define themself how they like. All labels are invented, equivocal, imperfect, subjective.
But I’d like to encourage those out there who identify as non-binary and “not trans” to reflect on what this might mean.
It’s a tricky territory to negotiate. There is currently a backlash against non-binary, both inside and outside the trans community. In a month that saw the two most prominent UK non-binary and trans people, CN Lester and Jack Monroe, being pitted against the worst of trans-antagonistic feminism on the national news, I have been experiencing an equivalent attack from within the community, from a minority of trans men and women.
While “radical” feminists on Twitter told Jack and CN that they looked like girls and that their scarves precluded them from being taken seriously . . .
. . . some trans men and women on Facebook were fighting hard for language that continued to medicalise trans existence, or to base our validity firmly in the realm of appearance and presentation. Fighting for terms like “gender confirmation surgery” with its suggestion that we need to alter ourselves to fully affirm our identity. Fighting for the right to have their gender assumed by strangers after transition, ignoring how much that erases those who don’t or won’t or can’t have medical treatment or ever “pass”.
If I hear one more passing trans guy tell me he needs strangers to assume he’s a man because he’s “worked so hard to get there” I’m going to get really cranky. I understand the pain of being constantly misgendered and can imagine the relief when that ends, but it only ends for a lucky few, and that’s a privilege. To insist on that privilege being reinforced, to the detriment of those who can’t experience it, throws an awful lot of people under the bus – boyish looking lesbians, non-binary people, trans people who can’t access healthcare, trans people who simply don’t pass, and people whose presentation does not match their identity.
Because we are not just what we look like, or what’s in our pants, and the sooner we stop making assumptions about other people’s genders, the better the world will be.
And this is where “not trans” non-binary people feed into this narrative, because often “not trans” is put forward to mean “not having any medical interventions” and in creating those definitions, it medicalises trans identities. It’s fine for people to self-identify however they want, but care is needed not to redefine someone else’s identity inaccurately in the process. There is also, among a small minority of “not trans” non-binary people, an air of being superior in the way they are dealing with their gender incongruence – as if all our experiences are the same and should lead to the same “correct” conclusion.
Being transgender is not a medical condition. Being transgender can come with physical incongruence or dysphoria that even in a socially perfect world would be alleviated by medical treatment, but that’s not how it is for all trans people – many trans people love their bodies.
Being transgender can also come with social incongruence or dysphoria that can be helped with medical treatment in this imperfect world, where so much of our social assignment is related to the configuration of our bodies. Ideally, we will change the world to enable trans people to need less medical treatment, but we will never get rid of the need completely.
To be clear, changing the world means things like not assuming somebody’s gender based on the way they look, not invalidating somebody’s gender based on what they wear, how their voice sounds, what their physical attributes are or what’s in their pants. Yes, this means using gender neutral language until someone tells you their gender.
Because there is absolutely no way of knowing someone’s gender other than asking them or them telling you.
This also means not medicalising gender. Doing away with terms like “gender confirmation surgery” that give extra validation to those who have had medical treatment. Not waiting until someone “passes” or until they’ve had surgery to start using the right pronouns for them. Not suddenly starting to misgender someone because you find out they haven’t had lower surgery. No more gross “hot dog or bun?” punchlines à la Zoolander 2.
For non-binary people, it means not conflating “trans” with medical treatment, or using the “not-trans” identifier to distance yourself from people who have transitioned in more obvious and visible ways, as if those people are somehow a different species. We are all negotiating the complicated path of gender incongruence, and there is no neat dividing line between us. Transition can take on many forms, and “trans” encompasses many stories. It is an umbrella term, and all people who experience gender incongruence belong under it. If you don’t want the shelter, that’s cool, but if you are shunning this umbrella because you want to distance yourself from the people under it, then we need to talk.
I cannot label someone as trans who does not want to be labelled as such. [eta- Many other cultures have other, better language for what I call trans, and this is not about wanting to impose my label on those cultures, or on anyone who doesn’t want it, such as intersex people who have their own language to describe their experiences]. However, I personally see identifying as trans if you are non-binary in *any* way an act of solidarity, not an act of appropriation.
[eta- In other words, nobody non-binary should feel “not permitted” to claim the label, and I’d prefer those who do not want the label not to redefine trans in order to make the label look like it doesn’t apply to them].
Can we move away from the idea that trans is a tiny, marginalised and fenced off community and see that aspects of trans stories affect many lives? Surely that is a good thing, making gender a less rigid, sure and certain proposition.