“The only negative reaction that I’ve seen (to the first report of sessions on ‘Transgender Equality’) has been by individuals purporting to be feminists.” – Maria Miller, Conservative MP for Basingstoke and chair of the Women’s Equality Committee.
On 14 January, the Women and Equalities Committee issued the ‘Transgender Equality’ First Report of Session. While the report boldly asserts that ‘fairness and equality are basic British values’ and boasts that ‘Britain has been among the countries going furthest in recognising gay, lesbian and bisexual rights,’ it opines the country is ‘still failing this test in respect of trans people’. The report makes a number of recommendations, the most fundamental of which is for Britain to move away from the medicalised approach of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act which ‘pathologises trans identities’, towards a system based on the principle of ‘gender self-declaration’. The ‘protected characteristics’ of the Equality Act 2010 would replace the terms ‘gender reassignment’ and ‘transsexual’, which the report says are ‘outdated and misleading’, with ‘gender identity’; essentially, it will become against the law to discriminate against someone on the basis of ‘gender identity’, as much as it is now on the basis of sex or race.
It is this recommendation above any other that led to the negative reaction that Maria Miller received from feminists.
To understand why anyone would object to protecting ‘gender identity’ in this way, we first need to understand what ‘gender identity’ means. The words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are often used interchangeably, which obscures the real meanings of these words, and it is between these two a distinction needs to be drawn.
When we are born, our biological sex is determined by observation of our primary sex characteristics. We are recognized as being male or female based upon our future reproductive capacity: females will, barring accident or illness, produce ova and be capable of incubating fetuses and breastfeeding infants; males will, barring accident or illness, produce sperm. Thus, sex is both objective and concrete. (Whilst we shouldn’t ignore intersex conditions, there are relatively few intersex individuals and those individuals shouldn’t be used to obfuscate the fact that every human who has ever lived has developed inside a female body, from a female egg fertilized by a male sperm).
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Simone de Beauvoir, ‘The Second Sex’
Gender is a set of socially-imposed rules to which males and females are expected to conform. These rules specify, in specific cultural contexts, how we wear our hair and our clothes. However, these specifications are mere signifiers, gender itself is the underlying division of human personality traits by sex – dominant traits to males, submissive traits to females. This division is meant to keep women dependent upon men. and thus maintain men’s access to women’s bodies and their labour.
This is what the quote by de Beauvoir means: the socially constructed idea of a woman is as a product of her gendered socialisation, not her innate abilities or ambitions. Men’s desire to control female bodies is the root of men’s oppression of women, and gender is the social system that patriarchy uses to satisfy that desire.
What does ‘gender identity’ mean? The NHS website defines this as ‘the gender that a person “identifies” with or feels themselves to be’ and this echoes in common usage. Further ‘some people may have the anatomy of a man, but identify themselves as a woman, while others may not feel they are definitively male or female’, which reflect the usage of the terms ‘transgender’ and ‘non-binary’ respectively . Gender identity is defined in terms of ‘feelings’ or ‘personal identity’, these are subjective personality traits.
What this means is that although we now seem to have moved on from the expectation that, for everyone, sex determines personality, instead of reaching the natural conclusion that sex does not determine personality, we are supposed to accept that for most people, sex determines personality, while for a select few personality determines sex.
“Any woman who has ever told a man to fuck off is nonbinary” – Cathy Brennan, lesbian activist.
The proposed movement towards a system based on a self-declaration of gender identity is a fundamental shift in the definition of the words “men” and “women.” In effect, what is a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is redefined and is no longer be based on objective reality. Instead we define men and women based upon sexist stereotypes. Of course, nobody identifies as a one-dimensional stereotype and the report acknowledges this, but not in the way one would expect. Instead it recommends ‘a coherent overall approach to the emerging issue of the position of non-binary and non-gendered people’. What exactly does this mean?
To be ‘non-binary’ is to have a gender identity that is neither exclusively masculine or feminine. This is fraught with problems; being identity-based, it lacks any objective method of identification. Does anybody, anywhere, conform entirely with stereotypical masculine or feminine traits? No, of course not – we all have our own specific and eccentric lives, interests and preferences. The concept of non-binary as a group with objectively identifiable characteristics is itself incoherent because, by any definition, everybody is non-binary.
Perhaps the real problem is that men don’t want to admit that masculinity is itself a sexist stereotype, rather than a birthright to dehumanise and dominate those deemed feminine.
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” – George Orwell (attributed, but disputed).
Even if ‘woman’ is redefined in the way the report suggests, female people will still be subjected to male violence, rape, reproductive control, child marriage, female genital mutilation and et cetera. Nobody can identify their way out of biology, yet women will be robbed of the language to describe the social reality inscribed upon their female biology. The concept of single-sex services, facilities and organisations will disappear, as access to these spaces will now be based on gender identity. Without sex-based protection, women will no longer have the right to define their own boundaries, yet the very reasons they may wish to do so are obviously not going to disappear.
“There is no ‘transgender debate’ just as there is no ‘gay debate’ or ‘black debate’ or ‘woman debate’. You support trans rights or you don’t.” – Paris Lees, transgender activist.
The fight for gay rights and black civil rights do not require anyone to call heterosexual people gay or white people black. To equate these movements with a movement that demands we call male people “women” is insulting to those movements.
Acknowledging these are complex and sensitive issues, it seems the committee just did not get to grips with the many competing needs that exist between female human beings and male human beings who claim identities as transwomen. This would hardly be surprising, given that much of the oral evidence heard by the committee represented a single point of view.
Much of the real-world discussion around transgender matters is one-sided. Scientific and medical evidence is sidelined in favour of ideology. Transgender activists refuse to even define what it means to be transgender. Debate is shut down with authoritarian rhetoric such as ‘trans women are women’ and ‘we will not discuss our right to exist’. The right to exist and the right to redefine language are not the same; surely women have a say in the debate over what the word “woman” means? More to the point, surely we could have a debate over what the word “man” means?
This report represents a missed opportunity to effect real social change by addressing the real issues transgender people face, and change the attitudes and behaviours that negatively discriminate against, hurt and endanger us. Equating trans women with women does nothing to address the problems shared by both groups: violence and discrimination perpetrated by men in power upon those they deem not-men. Focusing on the rights of individuals to express their own identity while ignoring the structures that exist within our society which allow negative discrimination against women and transgender people alike serves only one group: men.
These proposals are in essence the reinforcement of politically conservative ideas under the disguise of socially progressive modernisation. It represents incredibly clever neoliberal politicising, reducing what it means to be a woman to a collection of limiting stereotypes, and failing entirely to interrogate the limiting stereotypes of manhood. This clever report represents antiquated and reactionary conservatism disguised in the emperor’s new clothes of fairness and equality.