Tag Archives: Nature/ Nurture

Trans, autistic and celebrating difference

There’s a lot said about the co-occurrence of transness and autism, but I am struggling to find an article that does not slip into unhelpful speculation about how autism might “cause” transness. The latest article I read is good for the most part, but still falls in to speculation about cause along with other tropes and inaccuracies, particularly about non-binary people, that I found unhelpful.

I wanted to write a little about my own personal journey to embracing the simple fact that a lot of people are both trans and autistic, including me.

Human variances often co-occur

Let’s start by laying out a simple fact. We know, from research, that there are a whole bunch of divergent traits that cluster together in the population – non-heterosexuality, left-handedness, genius, synaesthesia, certain tissue disorders such as EDS, gender variance, certain physical appearances, dyslexia, adhd, sensitivity, autism, etc.

So, “different” people tend to be different in lots of ways.  Break some of the above “things” down a bit more, and we see that they are in fact clusters of other traits that come together, like Seurat’s dots, to make a certain kind of picture – and that actually, when you start looking at these individual traits, you discover that no two geniuses, and no two autistic people, have quite the same formula of traits, even though the overall effects can have something in common. Genius isn’t a “thing” and neither is autism, nor transness – these are all many threads of experience woven together to create overall effects that are broadly similar but often diverge in the detail.

Which differences do we see as “pathological”?

How we respond to these traits is interesting in itself. A hundred years ago, left-handedness was seen as unacceptable. In my (left-handed) grandmother’s time, children were forced to write with their right hand. In my (also left-handed) mother’s time, left-handedness was still disapproved of, but reluctantly allowed. Now, I hope, prejudice against left-handed people has all but vanished, though the vestiges of it remain in language in words like sinister.

Suppose the stigma was still around today, in our society that loves to pin things down with “hard answers”. Would the co-occurrence of left-handedness and autism start people down a track of “maybe autistic people just don’t feel able to conform the way neurotypicals do, and that’s why they write with their left hands”. Would the inevitable bullying that any person who is different gets, and the resultant anxiety and stress, lead people to see left-handedness as a symptom of mental health problems or abuse, rather than understanding stigma and bullying due to being different as the cause of any mental health problems or abusive treatment?

Society decides which traits are a “problem” and which are an asset. Nobody is going to diagnose somebody with “genius disorder” and raise funding for a cure. Thus Alan Turing was celebrated for his genius, treated (relatively) neutrally for his left-handedness, isolated for his (probable) autism, and driven to suicide as a result of horrific criminal and medical interventions for being gay.

Nature or nurture?

I’m guessing most people, looking at the list above, will have some traits they prefer to think of as more “biological” and some which they would prefer to think of as less so, but we are all, as Cordelia Fine says, the result of a ““sheer exhilarating tangle of a continuous interaction among genes, brain and environment.”

What matters, is that trans people are more likely to be autistic, and autistic people are more likely to be trans. Not why this happens, unless you want to see human variation as disease, and look to cure it. This non-affirmative, pathology approach is what leads to tragedy, as in the case of trans and autistic Kayden Clarke. If both/all aspects of Kayden’s identity had been affirmed and accepted, he might still be here.

Besides, what dullness and lack of creativity would ensue if some humans did not exist outside the boxes the world expects, and thus teach people to expand their horizons and frontiers? If we try to iron out differences society sees as problematic, what other treasures might be erased in the process?

As somebody who instinctively picked up a lot of male socialisation, but fumbled with female socialisation, I reject the idea that my gender identity is caused by my autism in a “you are poor at reading social cues, therefore you didn’t learn how to be a girl” way. If I was so bad at picking up cues, how did I take to male-socialised behaviours like a duck to water?

Then there’s “your thinking is rigid – you’ve decided because you liked boy things you must be a boy”. I hear this a lot – that the autistic mind is deluded, unable to cope with nuance. But my autistic mind is just a fountain of nuance – I am open to so many possibilities, so sensitive to detail that yes, I can get overwhelmed and lost, and it has taken me a half a lifetime and a lot of therapy to find my own edges amid a sea of information and cultural story about gender.

That I must be socially labelled and legally categorised according to the shape of my genitals is a rigidity I cannot live with. To me, it’s an idea that becomes increasingly bizarre and arbitrary the more times I think about it. If my autism helps me more easily defy these arbitrary rules, why then it is an asset.

Conformity vs divergence

I think in our increasingly individualistic society, it’s important to understand that human beings have evolved to cooperate with one another, and that this is generally a positive thing about humans. But I like to think of human difference as an important balance to our tendency to conform. Cooperation can put a person on the moon, but people are also too good at going along with things that are not in the best interests of anyone – this is how we can end up voting for fascists, or arbitrarily colour coding our children.

We need to both go along with each other, but also put our feet down and say no. It’s a delicate balance between our immense capacity to work together for the greater good and our equally immense capacity to form a mindless mob that can be led into all kinds of nastiness.

People who smell colours, kick the ball with a different foot, experience gender differently, and focus in on all kinds of human experience in a drastically different way to the norm, are able to offer up different possibilities, remind us our experience is not monolithic, introduce the element of uncertainty that we require to balance progress that can take us to the moon but also over cliffs.

Combating the shame

The process of coming to terms with being both autistic and trans has led me to at times fall into a pit of shame. “Why can’t I just be like everyone else, why do I have to make it awkward for people?” is a constant theme, as I find myself presenting a challenge for everyone I meet that makes our interactions at times not fun for anyone. I feel shame that I can’t perform woman, or small talk, or gratitude for being allowed to exist, but instead speak my mind, tell people how I really feel, and who I really am.

In the worst moments, I consider it would be better for everyone if I did not exist – the road would be smoother. But the road to where? Where is the human race going, that it cannot take people like me with it? Where is the LG community heading, that it hasn’t got room on the bus for people who don’t conform to an assimilationist idea of monogamous, neurotypical, gender conforming respectability?

I feel like an inconvenience, but maybe I am the grit that forms the pearl. Maybe I am the grey cloud that waters the dry earth.  Maybe people like me are meant to be here and have our value and our place.

Maybe we could be celebrated, instead of being constantly, relentlessly pushed aside.

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:


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.

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.


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.

Sex is gender

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:

  • Gender essentialists say: Men and women are fundamentally different because biology.
  • [some] Radical feminists say: Men and women are fundamentally different because socialisation.*
  • Science says: Biology and environment interact in such complex ways that each of us is unique, and you can’t really generalise.

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.

not biology

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.







When it’s well documented, then I’ll believe it’s real

Rachel Dolezal has opened up a big old can of worms. Trans people are suddenly finding themselves caught in some rather transphobic crossfire, as people compare what she has done with what, say, Caitlyn Jenner has done.

I’m white, and therefore not well qualified to speak about race. My understanding of the word “transracial” is that it is a legitimate term, applicable to, for example, black children born or adopted into white families. So we can’t say “it isn’t a thing” but we can say it’s a questionable word to apply to Dolezal.

I don’t want to speculate as to what is going on for Dolezal, I don’t feel it’s my position to judge her but to follow the lead of the black community and accept their feelings about her. Her deceptions don’t sit well with me, but I cannot judge her situation because I am not connected to it. Were I involved in an organisation where something like this happened, I would be deeply concerned, and I would be consulting my black friends as to how to deal with her.

But I want to write about the comparisons being made to the trans community, because a lot has been said about it not being the same thing, but I think something has been missed as to why it isn’t the same thing.

Because the truth is, if Caitlyn Jenner was the first assigned-male person ever to show up claiming to be a woman, the world would rightly be suspicious. If there had not been a history, as long as the history of the human race, and across multiple cultures, of individuals who have similar experiences in relation to their gender, then cautious scepticism would be a fair response.

Maybe, scepticism would even be reasonable in the case of the first half dozen or so cases we encounter, maybe even the first hundred, but there comes a point where people have to adjust their world view and accept that something is a real thing. We are way past the point of this with trans people.

Transgender people exist – there are millions of us. We even have an inkling of how trans people exist, and an understanding that our hormones play a part in what turns out to be the very complex dance of gender. Our hormones influence our gender identity, and gender identity (for all the inadequacies of this term) is a real thing in and of itself, separate from both the socially constructed nature of gender and the biological facts of reproduction and chromosomes.

We have, as yet, no evidence that there is an equivalent phenomenon to this in terms of race. I am open minded, and if one is discovered, I will accept it as a real thing when the evidence is in. But there is no reason to assume that just because a particular phenomenon occurs in relation to gender, which is mediated by hormones as well as social construction, that it would therefore occur in relation to race, which arises from a very different set of historical and social conditions.

For instance, there is not a point, after conception, when an embryo has a chance to be born either black or white, depending on the hormonal journey it takes in the womb. There isn’t a hormone I can take that will switch on some biological coding to make me black, in the same way I can take testosterone and masculinise my body.

They are different things, and that’s all there is to it. And it doesn’t seem that Dolezal is claiming they are the same, but rather claiming a right to “choose” her race. This is where analogies with trans folk really get me steamed up – trans people do not “chose” their gender, the only choice, if choice it is, is how to negotiate their gender in a cissexist world.

The salient discussion is about how we experience gender as something over and above the historical and constructed, and more than just in connection with our reproductive systems. I’m not at all sure that race is experienced in the same way, or that there is evidence of a phenomenon related to race that fully matches what some call gender identity.

Meanwhile, this debate is distracting us all from the issues of racism that matter – the police profiling of trans women of colour, and their frighteningly high presence in statistics for victims of violence and murder; the extraordinary double standards applied in the reporting of crimes committed by and against black people and white people, horribly evidenced by the last week’s US and UK news; and the ongoing, casual white supremacy that every one of us white folks supports, often unconsciously, every day of our lives, just by being so easily distracted from what the real issues are regarding race.

Because making an issue that is entirely about race and racism all about trans issues also gets us off the hook from exploring our racism. It’s a neat distraction, but look how easily when racism comes up we skip off into something else entirely.

10 steps towards a new, radical transfeminism

Not all trans people are feminists, just as not all women are feminists. Trans people, much like everyone else, have a wide variety of beliefs about gender, ranging from radically feminist to deeply conservative. The theories we use should rightly be discussed, questioned and put through a rigorous feminist critique.

But what is not in error is the underlying fact of our experience and existence: we are real. This means that equally, feminists are ethically obliged to take the genuine nature of, and oppression of, trans people into account in their theories.

The win-win result of this act of mutual respect – of trans people wholeheartedly supporting feminism, and feminists wholeheartedly supporting trans people, is better, more developed, more nuanced thinking about gender and sex, and smarter activism.

And it really is not that difficult to do. Here are a few suggested ways forward for those of us who are more radically inclined.

[image: a person with a beard, wearing a dress, carrying a sign that says "fuck gender roles"]

1. Let go of simplistic, clumsy either/or theories about nature/nurture

Hopefully, we are all now way beyond a child’s colouring-in picture of the gender argument; the idea that “if gender is not 100% socially constructed, then it must be 100% biological” (or vice versa) lags behind the important trend within the scientific community to favour neuroconstructivism – the idea that nature and nurture interact with each other in complex and at times unpredictable ways; “nature v nurture” arguments are fundamentally out of date.

2. Understand that assigning sex is an aspect of gender oppression

It is absurd to believe that picking a baby up, looking at its genitalia, and then assigning it a legal and social status, and a set of pronouns to be used for life, is a biological process. When we say “sex” is socially constructed this is what we mean; the process of sex assignment is a human-made process not a biological one – we made up the words man and woman and sex, we invented birth certificates, we manufactured the need for signs on toilet doors – none of these things is biological.

Many believe this artificial, dividing, classification system was designed to manufacture a subservient class (women) and that it oppresses trans and intersex people in the process. In other words, sex assignment is an aspect of gender oppression.

3. Acknowledge we are not “opposites”

Men and women are not fundamentally different from one another – they do not have essentially different abilities and traits. Gender differences, including traits such as male violence and female passivity, are largely if not entirely socially constructed. Most importantly, social conditioning around gender is not uniform – we cannot predict the behavioural/sociological outcomes for any individual human, despite society’s efforts to condition us.

There are no behavioural traits that belong exclusively to men and are not found in women, or vice versa, whether socially indoctrinated or biologically innate. Human beings simply cannot be sifted neatly into two clear, non-overlapping categories based on any gender-related difference.

4. Affirm we are not our reproductive systems

Owning a particular reproductive system has a material affect on our lives, this needs to be acknowledged. But of course even here there is variation – intersex people explode the idea of a binary, but also fertility, potency, hormone levels and other attributes connected to reproduction will vary from person to person and also change through our lives.

Even if there was a binary, (and there isn’t), our reproductive differences are not substantial enough to warrant segregation. Assigning a legal/social status to someone based on their (assumed) reproductive capabilities is as arbitrary as assigning a status based on skin, hair or eye colour. And it is oppressive.

Our physical bodies may influence us, but they do not, or at least should not, define our identity.

5. Understand gender segregation is a tool of the patriarchy

Segregation is a manipulation founded in a patriarchal agenda – separating women from men “for their own good” serves to reinforce male dominance by making women afraid of men and less able or inclined to participate in mixed spaces. Male violence towards women is the engine that drives this segregation.

Separate spaces are an important temporary refuge in the world as it is, but their existence does nothing to help change things, and they may even reinforce the status quo. Such is the dilemma of people trying to find respite from oppression, but also wanting to end the oppression. Sometimes there are trade-offs between our current safety and our future ideals. There are no easy solutions.

6. Accept the radical challenge of risking our comfort zones to bring about change

The ultimate challenge for us as feminists is to end the vast inequality and false segregation between women and men and come to a place where we are understood as similar and equal and human. At the same time by necessity we have to speak up about our current differences in circumstance.

This is a somewhat paradoxical position that leads to a lot of conflict in terms of where we place the emphasis in our individual activism. It takes courage to build the bridges that will in the end unite us and erase the false divisions, but the fear-focussed, safety-focussed activism many of us retreat into is an understandable response to the levels of cis male violence and hierarchical oppression.

7. Challenge the bias towards masculinity

Equality needs to be won by acknowledging the boundary between the sexes is permeable in both directions. This means we have to learn to value those things we have relegated to the class “feminine” and not see maleness as neutral, or default, or privilege behaviours traditionally seen as masculine like strength, drive and invulnerability.

8. Break the foundations of gender oppression, not just the facade

The gender class system was based on reproductive biology but many other human traits and dichotomies have been projected onto a manufactured gender divide – e.g. dominance/submission, reason/emotion, strength/weakness, power/vulnerability, hard/soft, predator/prey. This is a natural consequence of falsely polarising human experiences, and similar processes happen when we polarise in other ways. It would be impossible to abolish “gender” as a social construct without abolishing the process of sex assignment that acts as a foundation to gender, with its false polarisation.

9. Recognise the colonialist roots of our gender discussions

A problem with the notion of gender abolition is that it would be colonialist to further abolish or erase non-western cultural experiences of gender such as Two-spirit and Hijras, which have already experienced erasure from colonialism. Abolishing sex assignment, however, would mean ending something that is imposed on vulnerable individuals (children) without their consent. Abolishing sex assignment at birth would not prevent people from freely choosing a sexed or gendered identity for themselves, but it would materially undermine those polarising assumptions of difference.

10. Allow all people bodily autonomy and the freedom to not be legally segregated against their wishes

Trans identities are valid with or without medical treatment, our identities should not be medicalised but we should be entitled to medical treatment if we require it. Such treatment should neither legitimise nor deligitimise us.

How we legally classify human beings is a human-fabricated choice and one that can be altered as we learn more about ourselves. If someone insists that we must choose to continue ignoring trans and intersex people when we classify people in this constructed language of sex difference, they are acting oppressively towards a minority for whom the created system simply does not work.


At the heart of these steps is the abolition of assigning people to a segregated sex class without their consent. Could the abolition of sex assignment and sex segregation lead to the equality and liberation of all women, trans people and intersex people? Almost certainly. However, it would be naive to think we can achieve this easily. In the mean time, any attempts to subvert or alter that classifying system and demonstrate its weakness and permeability are of course acts of feminism as well as acts of individual survival.

Understanding gender socialisation a little better

Gender is socially constructed – I guess anyone wanting to read a blog with “feminist” in the title is probably going to agree to some extent with that statement. But what exactly does that mean?

I’m going to put my child development head on, and draw from my learning as a children’s counsellor, to help bust through some of the false assumptions that arise about “social construction”.

The most important thing to know about children’s social learning can be exemplified by how to teach a child to say “thank you”. It turns out that one of the best ways to teach them is to say thank you to them, and in front of them, as much as possible. Telling children to say it without modelling it to them, turns out to be a really poor way of teaching them. In other words, children learn best by watching what others do, not by being informed what they should do.

How is this relevant to gender? Because likewise, children learn how to “do” gender via their social interactions, not by being told. So, as many trans people will attest, telling a female-identifying child who was assigned male at birth how to perform her gender, will have less effect on her than you might think – she may be told to “man up” by the people around her, but meanwhile, she is watching the women and girls around her, and as someone who identifies with that gender, she will be influenced by them as much if not more than she will by direct messages about how she should behave.

Trans girls often want to wear pink and purple, for example, because society is modelling to them an image of pink and purple girlhood.

what if I told you

This is why it is important not to make an essentialism out of gender construction. When we argue there is something fundamental and essential in itself about having been raised a boy or girl, we are suggesting that gender socialisation is universal and uniform. This would lead to an absurd conclusion: in a society that treats women as inferior, if childhood socialisation is absolute, strictly follows our (assumed) chromosomes, and is irreversible, then women can never overcome their social programming.

This is nonsense, of course. Our socialisation is varied and changeable, not fundamental. If this were not true, all people would be walking stereotypes of their assigned gender.

As feminists we might be drawn to a compromise position where female socialisation is partial and can be overcome, but male socialisation is insurmountable. But that would simply be bad science.

Trans children also have a very different socialisation experience from cis children because they are often gender non-conforming. Their vulnerability and social exclusion as a result of this is evidenced by the fact a higher proportion of trans children are sexually abused than the already alarming percentage of cis girls. Socially marginalised kids are vulnerable to being targeted by bullies and predators; a trans girl’s childhood is therefore unlikely to be one of typical cis male privilege.

The inequality and misogyny in our society also ensures that assigned male children who are are attuned to women’s social cues rather than men’s will be punished far more severely than “tomboys”. Trans girls and feminine non-binary people often face transmisogynistic violence because of this.

Most trans women I know accept that at times they have benefited from male privilege pre-transition for passing as male, but equally a person with black African heritage and pale skin can pass as white and benefit from white privilege, but this does not make them white. The psychological experience of that person and the impact of the racism that they see in the world will be entirely different than for a white person. We can’t equate one civil rights issue with another, but there is a comparison to be made here with trans women, who experience themselves as women and are bombarded with misogynistic messages they internalise, just like other women.

Why do trans people perceive ourselves the way we do? We don’t know for sure. We suspect it is a hormonal effect, but we have no conclusive proof yet of how or why we exist. But we do exist. That there have been people wanting to live as a gender different from their assigned sex throughout history and across many cultures is a fact we cannot deny. How we understand ourselves is ever-evolving.

Let us settle this – trans people do not experience a socialisation process that is normative for their assigned sex, and very often trans people have a considerable amount of socialisation patterns in common with the opposite sex to the one they were assigned. Because these socialisation patterns bed in very early in our lives, while our brains are still forming, they are very much a part of who we are as people.

Where we get stuck, of course, is that nobody is a walking stereotype, and trans people, just like everyone else, will have a blend of gendered characteristics. Sometimes, it is easy to say that the behaviours that match their assigned sex are more “essential” and those of their identified sex more “performed” but this erases the fact that all people are performing gender, and we are all constantly renegotiating our relationship with the rules of gender handed to us by society. We cannot hold trans people to a higher account than we hold the rest of humanity.

We all need to be constantly questioning and examining our relationship with gender, and the assumptions we make. Trans people are as capable as anyone else of both confounding and perpetuating gender stereotypes. Changing the way we “do” gender is about how we challenge the ideas we advertise and model to all children – we do not need to put trans kids under any special scrutiny as they will simply reflect norms in gender socialisation that all other kids of their identified sex will be experiencing.