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Essay/
Gender & Sexuality

Illustration by Gerda Wegener (1886-1940) for the newspaper The Sourire (1925) Paris, France. Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

Transgender: a dialogue

The conversation about trans identities has been riven by bitter divisions. Two philosophers offer radically different perspectives

Sophie-Grace Chappell & Holly Lawford-Smith

Illustration by Gerda Wegener (1886-1940) for the newspaper The Sourire (1925) Paris, France. Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

Sophie-Grace Chappell

is professor of philosophy at the Open University in the UK. Her latest book (under the name Timothy Chappell) is Knowing What to Do: Imagination, Virtue, and Platonism in Ethics (2014).

Holly Lawford-Smith

is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Melbourne. Her book Not in Their Name: Are Citizens Culpable for Their States' Actions? is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

7,700 words

Edited by Sally Davies

Syndicate this Essay

​​​​​​​​Sophie-Grace Chappell 

Twenty-five years ago, the very term ‘trans woman’ was unknown to most people. Me included, and I am one. Then the internet was born, and suddenly everyone and their pet stick-insect had an authoritative view about trans women.

Usually a negative view. From what you hear, trans women are every kind of nasty. Left-wing and Right-wing critics are equally quick to insinuate, or just come out and say, that in their eyes we’re either gross or ridiculous or both. Thereafter they hate us for opposite reasons. To both we’re sinister propagandists and fifth columnists. But to the Right, that’s because we’re a vector of anti-family, child-confusing, cultural-Marxist gender ideology. To the Left, it’s because we’re spokesmen (sic) for the gender norms of the patriarchy, walking billboards promoting gender stereotypes, reinforcing the pre-fashioned cage of femininity.

On both Left and Right, trans women are also claimed to be a sexual threat. Yet being transgender isn’t directly about sexuality at all. It’s not a sexual orientation; it’s a gender identity. But the sexualising misunderstanding is distressingly pervasive and astoundingly impervious to factual evidence. On the Left, trans women are alleged to be a sexual threat to women. (I don’t want to obsess about terminology – but please: other women.) On the Right, the supposed sexual threat that trans women present is, for crying out loud, to small children. ‘Conservative’ commentators often start with the absurd claim that telling schoolchildren about transgender identity is ‘child abuse’, then swivel into insinuations of paedophilia. Above all, we’re impostors, a cheat, a ‘travesty’ (deconstruct that), a parody of womanhood, a pretend: a pretend sister to feminists, a pretend hot date to regular guys. I expect it’s this alleged deceptiveness of trans women, along with our sexualisation, that explains why so many people in so many states of America apparently think it’s OK to chase us out of women’s toilets at gunpoint, or beat us up or rape us if they see us at the drive-in.

The basis of the so-called ‘restroom controversy’ is that trans women should be banned from the Ladies’ because they might present as female to facilitate assault, or pervy voyeurism, or both. Statistically, the ‘trans threat’ is almost completely hypothetical – unlike the very real threat of male restroom violence against all women, trans included. Anyway, how is this ban supposed to be enforced? Not all trans women are obviously trans women. So you can’t just ban people who look ‘like men dressed as women’. You won’t catch all the trans women that way; also, you will catch some women who aren’t trans. I have plenty of cis friends who sometimes get mistaken for men. (The term cis refers to people whose gender identity corresponds to the one they were identified as possessing at birth.) What then? Strip-searches outside every public toilet? But some of us have had surgery, so that wouldn’t do either. DNA tests? No, I give up, you’ll have to tell me: what is being proposed, if not a lynch-mob?

I was recently in the Ladies’ at Edinburgh Airport. There was a notice outside that said: ‘Be aware that male and female cleaners service both facilities.’ Inside, there were stickers on the walls that said: ‘Why is there a man in here?’ The stickers were not targeting the male cleaners. They were targeting me. But if it’s ‘men’ that are the problem, why not the cleaners? Call me old-fashioned, but I think public toilets should be safe spaces for anyone. Safe spaces for natal women only is a perfectly legitimate aim, too. If people want that, let them have it. But we can surely have it without harassing and humiliating people who just need a wee.

The restroom or bathroom issue is an increasingly dangerous focus for a divisive alarmism that tells all of us to retreat into our safe spaces – whether that’s the family-values ghetto, or the gender-critical feminist ghetto, or indeed the transgender ghetto. In this flight to safe spaces, our society is in danger of losing its common spaces, the places where we meet on terms of mutual trust and respect and equality, to learn to understand and accept all our diversity. A society that has lost its common spaces is no longer a society at all; it’s a jungle of warring tribes. That’s exactly the aim of the neo-fascists who call themselves the alt-Right: divide and rule. We need to fight the neo-fascists, not each other. Feminists and trans women are allies. We are all working alike for human liberation, so we need to understand each other more and suspect each other less.

But about this scary dangerous ‘transgender ideology’ that I’m supposed, by both Left and Right, to spray all around me like a droplet infection. There is some irony in this accusation. Far from having an ideology, most of us trans women have little or no idea how to put our experience into words, especially when we’re young and frightened and ashamed and secretive and think we’re the only ones in the entire world. Most of us have much more idea of how we want to live than of why.

I don’t have a good theory of what it is to be a trans woman; I just am one. (Do cis people have a good theory of what it is to be cis?) Still less am I busy spreading a theory, or foisting it on innocent schoolkids or vulnerable women. Children who are transgender usually find that out for themselves, without any help at all from adults. I certainly found out on my own, even though it seemed like the whole of society was set up to stop me finding out. But this is what adults can and should do for transgender kids, indeed for all kids: allow them to find out what they are for themselves. Not indoctrination, but supportive noninterference.

Too many people talk as if transgender is one thing. But it’s not, it’s a whole range of distinctions

I myself grew up in the 1960s and ’70s and got the exact opposite: non-supportive interference. With the best of intentions, those who looked after me when I was a child, both at home and at school, did everything they could to make sure that I didn’t even recognise what I was, and that there should be no mirror out there in social reality that could show me. Their map of human possibilities didn’t even have transgender on it: as I said, I didn’t even know the word ‘transgender’ until about 2000. The nearest the map had was the options of being like Gloria, the mincing nancy-boy in the BBC TV sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-81); or a brittle, glitzy drag-queen like Danny La Rue; or an elderly off-duty panto-dame from working-class Manchester with saggy boobs and villainous piles, like Les Dawson’s Cissie and Ada. The message was crystal-clear: to be a boy who wants to be a girl is contemptible and ridiculous. If you keep a normal sense of shame, it is a furtive bedroom-mirror fetish; if you are as shameless as a porn-star, it is an end-of-the-pier act. Either way, it’s not a liveable life.

So it’s hardly surprising that I didn’t grow up with any tidy theory of transgender. In my case, anyway, I don’t have a tidy theory of anything. In all my philosophical writing, what I do try to do is to expose abstract overgeneralisations to the untidy complexity of actual human experience. It’s particularly worth doing with transgender lives and identities. Too many people talk as if transgender is one thing. But it’s not, it’s a whole range of distinctions. These, for instance:

Journey: you can be a trans woman in that you (ostensibly) start off in the male gender and end up in the female gender. You can also be a trans woman in that you (ostensibly) start off in the male sex and end up in the female sex. Or again, you can be a trans woman in that you make both changes. (Roughly, I use these words as follows: gender = psychology and sociology; sex = anatomy.)

Wants: some transgender people just want to change their (ostensible) gender. Some of them just want to change sex. Some of them want to change gender as a means to changing sex. Some of them want to change sex as a means to changing gender. (This is beginning to sound like a Eurythmics song.)

Scope: trans women differ about how far they want to go in changing their ostensible gender and/or sex. Some go in for surgery, others don’t. Some insist on hormones, others won’t. Some can live with not ‘passing’, others can’t. Some still stop short of going public at all – even in today’s relatively liberal climate. (Presumably this is what most trans women did in previous societies, as they still do in many parts of the world today.) Along this range, trans women blur into other categories, such as gender-fluid.

Intensity: trans women differ about how badly they want any particular change, and how much they are prepared to sacrifice to achieve it. Here too there is a spectrum from trans women to other categories.

Assurance: ‘a trans woman’ can mean someone whose sense of herself is very clearly that she is a woman, despite her ostensible starting point in the male sex and gender. But ‘a trans woman’ can also be – and often is – someone whose sense of herself is a bitter conflict between what she wants to be and what she feels she is. And here again there is a spectrum of cases.

‘Sure, I stand your ideas of femininity on their head. But maybe they look better the wrong way up’ 

One thing that we can learn from these distinctions is that being a transwoman needn’t involve reinforcing gender norms or stereotypes. That’s the charge against trans women that many gender-critical feminists make. But you might be a trans woman whose journey is all about your sex, and not in the least about your gender. What you want is to live in the female sex. Whether or not you live in the female gender is just irrelevant to you. Maybe you are a gender abolitionist yourself.

Or again, you might be a trans woman whose journey is about her gender as well as her sex, but whose way of living in the female sex and gender doesn’t reinforce gender norms, but rather subverts them. A trans woman who is like this might wear the Right’s insult that she is ‘a parody of womanhood’ as a badge of honour. ‘Sure,’ she might retort, ‘I stand your ideas of femininity on their head. But maybe they look better the wrong way up.’ She might point out, too, how different gender norms look, and how sharply reversed is their political valence, when they are not enforced on people, but freely adopted.

So a trans woman might think that gender norms are not necessarily oppressive, and she might see ways of living in and with and through them that are not support for the patriarchy, but expressions of freedom, and celebrations of what it is to be – in your own way – female. In other words, she might think that gender is not a cage, but a script. And this is my own view.

What is a script? It is a motif, a pattern, a theme, a meme, a programme, a way of acting or being or feeling, a role. Scripts appear in, and they shape and direct, our actions; so they’re psychological realities. And they appear in, and they shape and direct, our interactions; so they’re sociological realities.

Take a trivial example: there is in our society – and therefore in the minds and manners of all normally socialised members of our society – a script about how to behave when introduced to someone. You smile, you make eye-contact, you say: ‘Hello, pleased to meet you, I’m Sophie-Grace’ (at least, you do if that’s your name), and you watch the other person’s body language to see whether they want to shake hands with you. (Some people will, some people won’t; context makes a difference too.)

There are larger-scale scripts too, what we might also call roles: fatherhood and friendship, for example. We have a complicated nexus of expectations about what it is to be a friend or a father. Because big, long-term scripts can contain small, short-term scripts as proper parts, some of these expectations extend over the whole of a person’s life, and some of them are very, or relatively, trivial and small-scale. A father is supposed always to ‘be there’ for his children, from the moment (and indeed before) they’re born, to the moment he dies (and indeed after). In that respect, the script of fatherhood is as big as scripts get. But it has (relatively) small-scale components too, which are themselves also scripts – like reading school reports, giving out pocket money and impulsive banknotes, exchanging Christmas presents, cuddling, and providing a free taxi service. Likewise with friendship. Being someone’s friend means being interested in her, wanting to hang out with her, being willing to help her when she needs it, and so on: in cases of deep friendship, for the whole of our lives. But there are small scripts that friends follow too, like buying each other drinks, hugging when they meet instead of shaking hands, keeping up banter on social media, remembering each other’s birthdays, and so on.

Scripts, then, undeniably generate norms. Concepts such as FATHER and FRIEND are, as the philosopher Bernard Williams would say, thick concepts: concepts in which factual and ethical description come inseparably together. There are relevant practices, in Alasdair MacIntyre’s sense; that is, shared, rule-governed enterprises of invention, discovery and practice-specific excellence, attended by relevant virtues (and vices). And, like the virtues and practices that correlate with them, scripts are socially constructed, socially conditioned and historically modulated. Scripts are also, of course, things that are performed. So gender is indeed, as they say, performed – as too are fatherhood and friendship, and introduction and birthday-celebration.

Ethical life is not really imaginable without scripts; not, at any rate, without any scripts. What would ethical life look like, if our social milieu gave us no guidelines or clues or cues about how to act, behave or be in all the various particular situations in which we find ourselves? Such a life sounds a bit like the radical freedom of the existentialist individual. Existentialism makes every kind of practice, disposition, convention, role or script a standing threat to our freedom. But we cannot breathe in a vacuum, and we cannot be agents in a world without scripts. Sure, too much adherence to scripts leads to conventionality in the bad sense – facticité, being trapped or caged in the scripts that society imposes on you. But too little adherence to scripts is bad as well. It leads to social Dada, the practical unintelligibility that comes from acting, whether or not deliberately, in ways that make no sense relative to the already-existing social repertoire.

Are gender scripts so bad we should just abolish them? I don’t think so

And anyway, we can change our scripts. It is central to virtue to be creative in the way we use, inhabit and indeed extend the scripts we have inherited. I can and do riff off the patterns, motifs and themes that relevant scripts suggest to me in concrete individual situations.

‘Riff’ is a musical term, and that metaphor seems appropriate. A musician finds herself composing or performing at the leading edge of a long and rich musical tradition. Good performance and good composition necessarily involve her in using the resources of this history, in taking up the cues and the prompts that it implicitly gives her. Musical creativity means putting this tradition to new uses: at their best, uses that are both surprising, and also intelligible in the terms of that tradition (perhaps immediately intelligible, or perhaps intelligible only after a good deal of reflection). At best, our use of scripts in ethical life is closely analogous to this sort of musical creativity.

However, clearly there are some entire scripts that we ought simply to reject as part of our social-ethical repertoire. Slave-owner and slave, Mafia extortionist and Mafia ‘protectee’, hostage-taker and hostage, are scripts in the sense I’ve outlined. But no one ought to follow scripts of these kinds. Such scripts will be cages – not simply because they are scripts, but because of the particular scripts they are. Such scripts should certainly be abolished. Are gender scripts like that, too – so bad we should just abolish them? I don’t think so.

We all know how commercialised, weapons-grade and – let’s face it – anti-woman society’s popular representations of the feminine-gender script tend to be. The only thing wrong with most feminist campaigning against, for example, body-shaming advertisements is simply that they ought to have made more noise. And it is not only women who suffer from the bad effects of popular representations of their gender script. Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity (1995), for example, is a brilliant depiction of how masculinity can be a cage, and how difficult it can be for any ordinary bloke to break out. Let no one think that, just because I say that I don’t think gender scripts are necessarily bad, I in any way want to give the slightest shred of comfort to these representations of gender.

But it’s one thing to say: ‘After the revolution, we won’t have X-es at all.’ It’s quite another to say: ‘After the revolution, X-es will be completely different.’ Both can be revolutionary positions. Myself, I’m entirely happy with the idea that we ought to end up a very long way indeed from our starting point about gender scripts. What I don’t want to say – not without a lot more thought about the detail of the question – is that gender scripts of any kind whatsoever are bound to be irredeemably bad, and that we can know without further reflection that we should get rid of them. I am entirely happy to be a gender revisionist; I already am a gender revisionist. But I don’t think I am a gender abolitionist. I don’t want to destroy gender scripts altogether. I just want to rewrite them radically. And I think being a trans woman gives me a distinctive perspective on how to do that.

Holly Lawford-Smith

One thing that Sophie-Grace says in her essay really resonated with me: ‘Feminists and trans women are allies.’ In particular, she says that ‘we need to understand each other more and suspect each other less’. I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, in my experience, when trans people and those who are activists for their cause say things such as ‘feminists and trans women need to be allies’, what they really seem to mean is ‘feminists need to be allies to trans women’.

But this cuts both ways. Trans women need to be allies to feminists, and to lesbian and gay people. When trans people dismiss – rather than answer – women’s concerns about safe spaces, they’re not being feminist allies. When trans people attempt to reframe lesbian and gay people’s sexualities as ‘transphobic’ (because I’d argue that lesbian and gay sexual preferences depend on a person’s sex, rather than their gender identity), they’re not being lesbian and gay allies.

Let me say a bit more about where I’m coming from. As a gender-critical feminist, I make a distinction between sex and gender. Sex, in my view, is a cluster of biological properties (primary sex-characteristics being external and internal genitalia, gonads, chromosomes, hormones); gender is the set of social norms applied to sex (the ways that male and female people are expected to be). Gender is binary and hierarchical: there are two sets of norms, the set attaching to ‘man’ and the set attaching to ‘woman’; and the norms attaching to ‘woman’ subordinate and oppress female people relative to male people. For example, it’s a gendered expectation that female people (or ‘women’) are kind and compassionate.

We shouldn’t advance the interests of one such group by setting back the interests of another

Gender-critical feminists work for the liberation of female people via the abolition of gender. Although there is reasonable disagreement about the best route to abolition, it’s generally agreed that the retention of particular terms is important. It’s female people who are involuntarily subject to these oppressive and subordinating norms, so it is important to be able to refer to that class with terms such as ‘female’ (and perhaps ‘woman’), or to subgroups that are involuntarily subject to complex and compounding norms within that class, with terms such as ‘lesbian’. Such terms are useful for solidarity, self-understanding and the ability to organise politically in the pursuit of common interests.

Female people, of course, are not the only oppressed social group. There are multiple axes of oppression (race, class, gender) and of disadvantage (sexuality, gender identity, disability) and these can intersect in complicated ways. Gender-critical feminists need not claim that gender is the fundamental axis of oppression in order to be justified in caring about it. So we can agree that women, gay and lesbian people, and trans people, are all oppressed or disadvantaged groups – and also maintain that we shouldn’t advance the interests of one such group by setting back the interests of another. The sooner that conflicts of interest between these groups are acknowledged, the sooner we can figure out how to resolve them.

I outline what I identify as two key tensions: one between trans people and lesbian and gay people, and the other between trans women and female people. The second relates to the proposed legal shift in the UK and New Zealand towards a regime of legal self-identification for sex, while the first does not.

Lesbian sexuality. Many lesbian, gay and bisexual people understand their sexuality to relate to the sex, not the gender (or gender identity), of their prospective partners. That is to say, lesbians are same-sex attracted females, and gay men are same-sex attracted males, and bisexuals are attracted to both females and males. These are minority identities that stand in contrast to the dominant heterosexuality of our societies. (I’m writing from Australia, but this is true everywhere.)

Recently, there’s been an attempt by parts of the trans movement to reframe some lesbian, gay and bisexual identities as ‘transphobic’, on the grounds that they exclude trans people of the opposite sex. For example, lesbians who refuse to date trans women (in particular, trans women who have penises), gay men who refuse to date trans men (in particular, trans men who have vulvas), and bisexuals who refuse to date trans people (perhaps because they prefer congruence between sex and gender identity in their partners) stand accused of transphobia.

A recent study on the exclusion of trans people from dating found that only 12 per cent of respondents were willing to consider dating trans people (the study had 958 participants, 951 of whom were cis). Only 1.8 per cent of straight women and 3.3 per cent of straight men said that they’d date a trans person. Lesbian and gay people were a little more willing, with 11.5 per cent of gay men and 29 per cent of lesbians being willing to date a trans person. The most willing group was bisexual, queer and nonbinary people, 52 per cent of whom were willing to date a trans person.

Despite the fact that straight people were the most unwilling, and gay men much less willing than lesbians, the social pile-on has been focused on lesbians. Lesbians and many of their feminist allies see this as a flagrant – and sadly typical – form of disrespect for women’s sexual boundaries. It is especially unfair, given the historical invisibility of lesbians within the LGBTQI+ movement, and the wider context of women’s boundaries, sexual and otherwise, being disrespected under patriarchy.

The dating study was also revealing of the extent to which sexuality tracks sex rather than gender: 50 per cent of the straight women and 28 per cent of the gay men who were willing to date a trans person said they’d date a trans woman (someone whom, as a gender-critical feminist, and along with many other people in society at large, I class as a male person); 50 percent of the straight men and 69 per cent of the lesbians who were willing to date a trans person said they’d date a trans man (whom I class as a female person). The fact that lesbians are mostly unwilling to date trans women is often interpreted by trans women and their allies as evidence of transphobia, a failure to really accept the claim that ‘trans women are women’. But a better explanation is available: lesbianism is a not a political position, it’s a sexuality.

Of course, sexual and romantic preferences are not formed in a vacuum, and we can all be asked to reflect on the extent to which our preferences have been socially and historically shaped. Trans people are far from the only social group discriminated against in dating. But if you listen to gay and lesbian people, you’ll see that it’s rare for them to conceive of their sexuality as a choice, let alone an unreflective choice. Lesbians don’t exclude males because they’ve failed to reflect critically on society’s feeding them negative stereotypes about males! On the contrary, society relentlessly feeds them positive stereotypes about males, which they have to actively fight against in order to claim their own sexualities.

Many lesbians, and indeed many feminists more generally, resist the idea that they have a gender identity

What we might want to say to gay and lesbian people about the way they exclude people with disabilities, or people from a different racial group, is very different from what we might want to say to them about the exclusion of trans people of the opposite sex. To put the point weakly, everyone is trans-exclusionary when it comes to dating, so lesbians do not deserve special attention; to put it more strongly, straight people are trans-exclusionary while lesbian and gay people are not, so lesbians do not deserve any attention at all. Putting social pressure on lesbians to include males has to stop. Trans people can be allies to lesbian and gay people by refusing to perpetuate this kind of homophobia, and by calling it out when they see it.

The website of the UK LGBT charity Stonewall defines ‘lesbian’ in a trans-inclusive way, referring to ‘a woman who has an emotional, romantic and/or sexual orientation towards women’. A 2017 guide released by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy says that: ‘The words “lesbian” and “gay” refer to a monosexual attraction to the “same” gender.’ (Note that this definition conflates sex and gender, because monosexual attraction is female-female or male-male, while same-gender attraction might be male-female.) Inclusivity sounds like a good thing, and indeed some trans women who date women do identify as lesbians.

But if ‘lesbian’ means same-sex attracted female then it does not mean same-gender-identity attracted woman (where ‘woman’ here is used trans-inclusively). These two definitions are mutually exclusive, from a gender-critical feminist perspective, because we claim that trans women are males. In the past, sex and gender went hand in hand: women were female and men were male. Transgender identities decouple the two, asserting that women can be male and men can be female. If the first definition of ‘lesbian’ is correct, then trans women are not lesbians. If the second definition is correct, then all the cis lesbians who don’t take themselves to have a gender identity are not lesbians. Many lesbians, and indeed many feminists more generally, resist the idea that they have a gender identity. We say we’re simply female people who are subject to certain annoying and constraining expectations in a gendered society.

Some people push back on this argument by saying that the burden of proof should be on anyone who wants to exclude, which would put the burden on the first definition. Others, like me, think that history matters, and that the term still protects a minority identity. ‘Lesbian’ meant same-sex attracted female back when ‘female’ was synonymous with ‘woman’. Radical lesbian feminism made a major contribution to women’s rights. As bell hooks says in Feminism Is for Everybody (2000):

without radical lesbian input feminist theory and practice would never have dared to push against the boundaries of heterosexism to create spaces where women, all women, irrespective of their sexual identity and/or preference, could and can be as free as they want to be. This legacy should be continually acknowledged and cherished.

Yet this legacy is not cherished when trans activists erase Stormé DeLarverie, the lesbian who started the Stonewall riots, and claim that Marsha P Johnson, a trans woman, started them instead. This legacy is not cherished when Anne Lister, often referred to as Britain’s first ‘modern lesbian’, is commemorated with a plaque that refers to her as ‘gender-nonconforming’. This legacy is not cherished when trans activists attempt to appropriate the term ‘lesbian’ because it suits their political purposes. If, for trans people, it isn’t acceptable to label sexualities on the basis of sex-based attraction – since that would arguably make a trans woman who dates only trans women a gay male – we need to come up with new terms.

Gendering female people. Sophie-Grace ends her essay by suggesting that ‘gender is not a cage but a script’. She says that scripts are suggestions, starting points for creativity, and challenges to our ingenuity and imagination. They can be riffed-off, edited and revised. Gender roles ‘are not necessarily oppressive’, but can be occupied as ‘expressions of freedom and celebration of what it is to be – in your own way – female’. This is a view of gender that sees a problem not in the fact that there are gender roles, but in the fact that these roles are treated as constraints rather than springboards for improvisation. There’s obviously room for debate about what a feminist utopia might look like, whether it could have gender roles in it, or whether they’d be abolished altogether.

But it’s worth noting that in the real world gender is manifestly not a mere suggestion. Women are still imprisoned by the cage of gendered expectations of womanhood and femininity. Women and girls are denied an education, married off at a young age, treated as property, trafficked, forced into prostitution or pornography, raped, killed by intimate partners, subject to domestic violence, assaulted in public spaces, relentlessly sexually objectified, secretly filmed, not paid for their domestic labour, paid less for their non-domestic labour, underrepresented in a range of employment areas and at the top of most fields, not assessed as credible when they testify, not represented as full persons in film and television, victimised by bad science to justify their political and economic marginalisation, subject to a myriad range of policing moves when they fail to act in ways that serve men’s needs… and the list goes on. This is life around the world for female people under patriarchy. Telling these people that gender is a script would be about as useful as a handmaid in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) telling her captors that she identifies as a man.

In this actual world, where gender is a cage, some women are worried about the proposed legal reforms that would make sex a matter of self-identification. They have a range of reasons for being concerned. One is the question of how to maintain female-only spaces: things such as shelters, crisis centres, support groups, prisons, changing rooms, bathrooms. Because women have a well-founded fear of male violence, they have an interest in maintaining sex-segregated spaces. Because women are a politically oppressed class, they have an interest in maintaining spaces for solidarity and shared experience with other women. Because women’s specific physiology has historically been ignored in medical research, and this has had far-reaching political implications, they have an interest in retaining the ability to talk about their bodies.

These interests are threatened by a legal shift to self-identification. This would change the social norms around who must be accepted as being female, and therefore who has a claim to inclusion within those spaces. Some women are saying that they don’t want males in these spaces, regardless of whether those males identify as women. It is worth emphasising that their concern is with those males who aren’t currently included but who would be, under a shift to self-identification. These are people who will have at least some history of male socialisation – which is a matter of how others treat you, and so not something a person can simply reject, even if they have had dysphoria. They might end up performing male-pattern violence or male-pattern sexual offences against women. (Such people might not ‘really’ be trans women, of course – but if the determining characteristic of a trans woman is self-identification, then there’s no way to look behind this claim; moreover, there’s good reason for women to be worried about their inability to tell the difference, and to be unwilling on some occasions to take a person’s word for it.)

It is unhelpful to dismiss women’s concerns by saying that there are male cleaners in female bathrooms; their employers know who they are and so can hold them accountable. It is also unhelpful to say that keeping males out would mean strip-searching people outside of public toilets; obviously it wouldn’t – this is a debate about what the norms are and should be, and it will ultimately be up to individuals to respect them. Trans women can be allies to female people by acknowledging women’s legitimate concern with male violence (a concern which trans women share), and by compromising with solutions such as ‘third spaces’ (mixed-sex spaces built in addition to female-only spaces).

The sooner we understand each other, the sooner we can engage over the substance of the conflict of interests

Being a good ally depends crucially on understanding the interests of the group that one is an ally of. I have been constantly disappointed in the mischaracterisation of the gender-critical position since I ‘came out’ on that side. We are regularly accused of bigotry, transphobia and hatred, of denying trans people’s existence, of violence, of being in cahoots with the alt-Right. I have lost friends and alienated colleagues. None of this is a reasonable or proportionate response to women speaking out in defence of their terms (such as ‘lesbian’ and ‘woman’), and their spaces (such as female-only refuges).

However, it would be hypocritical of me to accuse the other side of ignoring or failing to understand the concerns of gender-critical feminists while simultaneously failing to understand the concerns of trans people. So let me articulate what I take those concerns to be. Trans women want to be socially accepted as women, and trans men want to be socially accepted as men. This is not just a matter of basic rights; it’s a matter of being afforded the same treatment that would be afforded to cis people of the same gender. Trans people want their sexual identities respected. Trans people want to use the bathrooms (and other sex-segregated services) of the sex typically associated with their gender. (That is to say, trans women want to use female bathrooms, and trans men want to use male bathrooms.) If trans people are unlucky enough to be sent to prison, they want to be imprisoned with others of their gender. Trans women feel particularly strongly about inclusion in female-only spaces. Partly this is because they have an understandable fear of male violence in male spaces; partly this is because they take there to be no socially salient differences between themselves and cis people of the same gender that would warrant their not being included.

Most of all, trans people just want to live their lives as their chosen genders without being hassled, ridiculed, discriminated against and subject to constant attention. They find it demeaning and exhausting to have to defend themselves against the often ridiculous misunderstandings that society has about them. They feel especially betrayed by Left-wing women and fellow members of the LGBTQI+ alliance that there is resistance to their full social inclusion in some quarters, because this is expected from Right-wing people but Left-wing people should know better. In particular, they are angry with gender-critical feminists (though marginalised people have good reasons to be angry, so the sentiment, if not the target, is understandable). This is partly because they understand it to be a central tenet of gender-critical feminist thought to maintain that ‘trans women are men’, and see this strand of thought as politically influential and therefore one cause of their social mistreatment by others.

If I’ve gotten this wrong, then I am the pet stick-insect in Sophie-Grace’s example, and I stand happy to be corrected. If I haven’t, then I politely request the same courtesy from the other side. The sooner we understand each other, the sooner we can start engaging over the actual substance of the conflict of interests. The sooner we start engaging over the substance of these conflicts, the sooner we can make political progress together. From my point of view, coming up with a new term for same-gender-identity-attracted people, agreeing that we need terms to refer exclusively to the female people who are involuntarily subject to subordinating gender norms, and agitating for the provision of third spaces alongside female-only spaces, would be a good place to start.

Dialogue

Sophie-Grace: Thanks, Holly. I have four comments on your response. First comment. You are asking for support from trans women to (other) feminists. OK, here’s some support: I think saying that lesbians who won’t date trans women are transphobic is utterly ridiculous. Whisper it very quietly, but people (I think) have the right to their basic preferences. Someone might want to date only ginger-haired people. Or a gentleman might prefer blondes. Such things could be ideological, of course. But as described, there’s no point calling that prejudice. It’s simply brute preference, like preferring raspberry jam to marmalade. Whisper it even more quietly, but I even think this about race. I think someone who isn’t sexually attracted to people of race X (whatever X is) could be a racist, but doesn’t have to be. It might be racism, or related to being raised in a racist society, but it could also be another appearance-related preference. It’s difficult to say, but I think it’s true: saying someone is automatically racist because they have a racially inflected sexual preference is just silly. (Perhaps I should add: provided it is appearance-related. If you find out that someone who looks like he’s race X is actually race Y, and you change your view of his attractiveness on the basis of that info and despite his race-X-type appearance, then you probably are racist.) Likewise with trans women. And trans men. And with everyone, actually.

Holly: I’m glad we agree about this. I do think that there are interesting questions to ask about things ‘upstream’ from preferences. Maybe if there was more diverse representation on television, we would all find a wider array of people attractive, and want to date them. But I don’t think there are obligations that bear directly on anyone’s sexual preferences. I think I agree with you on the appearance point. If I were to fall in love with a transsexual woman, and later find out that she had been born male and that alone made me want to not be with her, that seems like good evidence of transphobia on my part. But I think there’s a world of difference between that, and lesbians not wanting to date people of the same gender but the opposite sex.

Sophie-Grace: Here’s my second comment. I think there are a number of things that typically annoy trans women about being told that they’re a threat to (other) women. One is the lack of anything like a statistical basis for the claim; almost without exception, it just isn’t something that happens. A second is that the argument runs via the claim that ‘trans women are males’; in most cases, I can see what is meant by this claim, but it does feel a bit in-your-face to a lot of trans women. And thirdly, there seems to be something like profiling going on here. If it’s offensive to say: ‘X is black, so X is a threat to us whites’, why isn’t it equally offensive to say: ‘X is male, so X is a threat to us women’? Suppose both claims have good statistical backup. Someone might still be reasonably offended by both, I think. They might say: ‘Well, why not focus on the subgroups of those groups that are the actual threat, rather than tarring the entire group with the same brush?’

Holly: I’ve had a friend make this objection before, and a ferocious argument followed! I think it’s a good objection: statistical discrimination is obviously wrong in the case of racial profiling, so why isn’t it wrong across the board? Here are two initial thoughts about this. One, it might matter that the discrimination in the case of racial profiling goes from a dominant group (white) to an oppressed group (black), and further reinforces all sorts of existing social disadvantage. There might also be epistemic problems with the reliability of the data, given that white people control the institutions. This just isn’t true in the case of male violence against women. In this case, an oppressed group ‘profiles’ a dominant group, and the group that is profiled controls the institutions (which is why male violence against women is under-prosecuted, in particular sexual violence such as rape). Two, note that this is an argument against all sex-segregation, from which the inclusion of trans women merely follows. That seems like a lot to give up.

Sophie-Grace: OK, thanks. Here’s my third comment. It’s also on ‘trans women are males’. That might be true of some trans women, but I think it’s clearly untrue of trans women who have had gender-reassignment surgery. They’re females, not males; that was the point of the surgery. Or so I think. Do you disagree?

We have a test-case for gender self-identification in Ireland, it hasn’t caused any problems at all there

Holly: I take this to be a question about whether people can change sex. There are various possible accounts one can give of the female-sex class. One might argue for a necessary condition, such as having XX chromosomes (either ignoring outlier cases, or giving a more complex disjunction to accommodate them); one might give a property-cluster view, say, taking the cluster of female primary sex-characteristics and looking at whether someone had a majority of them; one might offer an account in terms of function, say, that females are the class of humans with the capacity, all being well, to bear young. Unfortunately, none of these accounts are going to say that male people who have sex reassignment surgery are female. (The property-cluster view gets the closest, but it draws asymmetric conclusions between trans men and trans women, and its positive conclusions depend on reading primary sex-characteristics as merely aesthetic, rather than functional.)

On the related question of whether people can change gender, that depends on whether sex has a necessary connection to gender, or whether the two can be fully decoupled. And there’s a further related question: even if they can be fully decoupled, do the terms ‘female’ and ‘woman’ track sex and gender respectively, or are they both sex terms, and we need something new for gender or gender identity alone? (Some think ‘femininity’ does this job.) I’m more or less convinced by now that ‘female’ and ‘woman’ are both sex terms, and that a useful concept of gender would acknowledge that norms of femininity are applied to female people (when many, if not most, would rather they were not). This is importantly different from ‘gender identity’, where a person might feel that the norms apply to them, or wish that they did. Probably we need terms to pick out all of these different things. The fact that the two ‘sides’ of this debate cannot fix their terms is causing a lot of confusion!

Sophie-Grace: Fourth and final comment. We hear very doomy-gloomy predictions about the consequences of legalising self-identification for gender in the UK. But we have a test-case for self-ID since 2015 right next door, in Ireland. I don’t see that self-ID has caused any problems at all there. Tiny numbers of Irish people – so far, fewer than 300 if I remember correctly – have actually availed themselves of the new legal opportunity to self-ID, and so far as I know there has been no resulting upsurge in violence against women at all. Doesn’t that suggest that it’s not actually going to be such a big deal in the UK?

Holly: I think that’s a good point. There are actually several countries where self-ID is legal, Denmark and Malta included. It’s fairly new in some of them. The worry about male violence might in time be alleviated by how things go in these countries; the worry about male socialisation in female political spaces would not be.

Sophie-Grace: Thanks, Holly. Those are really interesting and useful responses. If this doesn’t sound too self-congratulatory, I think we’ve demonstrated between us that it is possible to debate this issue frankly and even bluntly, and without agreeing on everything – and still get somewhere. So thank you!

Holly: I really appreciate your sticking with me on this. I can’t tell you how frustrating it’s been to have people turn their backs and refuse to talk about it, which just means I have a million questions and need to work 20 times harder to find out what the responses would be. So thanks very much for that.

Sophie Grace Chappell

is professor of philosophy at the Open University in the UK. Her latest book (under the name Timothy Chappell) is Knowing What to Do: Imagination, Virtue, and Platonism in Ethics (2014).

Holly Lawford-Smith

is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Melbourne. Her book Not in Their Name: Are Citizens Culpable for Their States' Actions? is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

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