This is a difficult post to write, but it’s been on my mind for a while. No one is obliged to comment, or to educate me if I’m wrong (which no doubt I will be), but comments are, as ever, welcome, to continue the discussion. I’ll start with some conditions – please read them first and try to bear them in mind if what I’m saying causes some rage. Edit: some very constructive comments have happened, so thanks to everyone who’s pitched in and been civil with it. I’ve also added some stuff to the end of the post.
- Transphobia is real. Hundreds of people are killed and abused every year because society says we must obviously present as male-men and female-women and some people disagree so much, fear and hate so much, that they think murder or assault is justified. It is not. Obviously.
- People within oppressed groups are justifiably angry, and it’s not their job to educate ignorant people. But the ignorant people who want to learn are not enemies. It can be difficult to judge, and it shouldn’t be their job, but piling on people you’ve decided are worthy of vitriol isn’t necessarily constructive.
– Discussions of sex and gender can become heated, and while scientific-sounding ideas have been used as a justification of hatred in the past, acknowledging the reality of biological sex is not in itself transphobic. That, as a human being, a woman, a scientist, a “liberal” sort of person, is my view. I know people disagree. Please bear with me.
Edit: I think this could be tl;dr summed up as: sex, like gender and sexuality, may well be appropriately considered as a spectrum. However, the existence of spectrum does not negate the existence of its extremes; if we’re thinking greyscale, then white and black are still a part of that. Not more important, but maybe more frequent. Simpler, perhaps, and more widely represented throughout the world (not just in people). Language, however, does not name all the shades of grey, but we seem more capable of understanding and describing black and white.
I believe this is the root of the problem. Many languages are based on the male/female sex binary. While English does not gender* all or most words like some languages do, we can still find it hard to accommodate some concepts because we don’t have the linguistic tools to do so. Given language is an integral part of our lives and predominant means of communication, it’s not surprising that trying to discuss emotive, personal subjects that our language does not even yet adequately describe is fraught with difficulty.
* Gender here being the linguistic term for words that have male/female properties (in reality or only in the language), not the gender expression of people.
It is now more widely accepted that gender is a spectrum; adult human beings are not all just men or women, but individuals often have and show qualities of both (or neither). But, just because there is a spectrum, and we don’t have language to adequately describe it, doesn’t mean that the concept of male and female sexes isn’t a real mammalian biology phenomenon. It is. It’s what the majority of the reproducing animal world does. M+F —> offspring**. That’s not a revolutionary idea, and it’s not false.
People not fitting neatly into the “norms” (a word I don’t like because abnormal has clear negative connotations; defaults? Standards? Typicality? Something like that) of sex and/or gender doesn’t mean they’re not still people who deserve respect and rights like everyone else. People having to alter their reproductive organs or being any kind of trans* doesn’t (shouldn’t) change the fact they’re still people. I’ve written a bit about LGBT+ labels before, it’s a fun tangent.
People have the right to identify as they wish. We have a need to categorise, to define and describe – indeed that’s what science (biology in particular) really does. But here we’ve moved out of biology and into more of a social arena – the two are quite different. While people might be conflating sex and gender all over the place, they’re also conflating biological concepts with human cultural concepts, and I think that’s another hindrance to progress.
The problem is, as I said, that transphobia is real, because we are very much stuck in the sex/gender binary (in language and culture), and discrimination happens because people fear what they do not understand. That shouldn’t be the case, and surely the way to address it is education. But if we actually cannot even talk about it because our language doesn’t accommodate the ideas and people only ever get frustrated – how can we achieve that?
A similar problem
A lot of the anger feels similar to the problem feminism has with its predominant “whiteness” and the justified anger from women of colour (WoC) whose voices are slowly being heard more widely. I would not presume to speak for them and I do believe it’s our responsibility to listen and learn, and not to demand teaching. People sometimes overcompensate and cause even more offence, and make themselves sound like idiots. It can be frustrating when you’re shot down when you think you’re doing A Good Job and it’s important to ask where your own anger comes from – is it because they’re wrong, or maybe you could do better?
Undoubtedly trans* voices need to be more widely heard (when I wrote about Juliet Jacques’ SitP talk, I did so because I found it enlightening, as something I was – and still am – hugely ignorant about, and I hoped more people could learn from it – you can read about her own experiences here). But a lot of the vitriol online is coming from “allies”, whose motives I would question given their tactics. I don’t think everyone they leap on is wrong and I don’t think the conversation is moving forward. Perhaps that’s because of where I’m standing, I don’t know. But I’d like to see an end, or at least a significant curtailing, to the name-calling that seems far more knee-jerk than considered, and far more off-target than useful. In addition, the language problem is perhaps unique to the trans* debate. It can of course also be offensive when other people are discussing you – if you haven’t seen Panti Bliss’ speech on homophobia yet, do take a few minutes.
Sex is a biological concept. Gender is a cultural construction, a social idea, a form of expression – to which everyone has the right. Both are spectra, both have “exceptions to the rules”. But the exceptions to the biological rules of sex do not invalidate them; its definitions apply to all mammals and many other species. A problem has arisen where stating this seems to lead to attacks (but here’s a very reasonable reply), where the person saying it is branded transphobic and other things – is that necessary, fair, helpful, or true?
I’ve linked to Gia’s post above, and another situation I’ve experienced was the Soho Skeptics Trans* Panel (which Gia helped to organise, with the help of Bethany Black and Adrian Dalton – you can listen here). The room was full of people, many of whom were likely ignorant of any trans* issues at all, and no doubt they learned things there. But people on the internet decided it was wrong because they disagreed with some definitions and didn’t like that Julie Bindel was there, even though the panel itself got on fine. Bethany even quit Twitter for a while because of the abuse she received after the event.
Discussing the basic facts of biology is not transphobia. It isn’t hateful to say maleness and femaleness are things, that XY sex determination operates in human animals. It isn’t hate speech to say that the XX sex chromosome configuration in people tends to create female biology, and women who can reproduce through conception, pregnancy and birth. Or that XY sex chromosomes, under ‘normal’ (that again) conditions, create testes that make sperm and these can fertilise eggs; inside or outside of a uterus, now we have that technology (and indeed can create offspring without the use of male sex cells at all; but these are technological feats more than biological ones). The existence of the ‘outgroups’, the atypical, doesn’t nullify any of this; exceptions don’t destroy rules.
Just as we typically have 2 arms, 2 legs, a heart with 4 chambers and 20 digits. A human who has atypical biological features is still a human. That is a cultural issue; that we recognise the rights of all. To state that someone with Down’s Syndrome has an extra chromosome is a biological truth, not hate speech. Just as to state a MtoF transgender woman who has XY sex chromosomes is “genetically male”. Although it should be irrelevant in everyday life. The fact that it is not, that some people base thoughts and actions of hate on it, is why education is important.
People discussing trans* issues who want to understand are not doing so to cause harm. People laying into them for having conversations about this stuff, trying to understand, trying to work out better ways of using our imperfect language, of accommodating the needs of people of all sexes/genders – because some needs are specific to some people. One of the very few things I agree with RadFems on is that “women born female/women” will have different experiences from someone who has become a woman later in life [Edit: please see comment with valid point that I’ve phrased this wrongly] and hasn’t always experienced femaleness and the social effects. Culture dictates, experience shows. Arguing that is futile and helps no one.
To say women’s oppression is rooted in female reproductive function is (clearly!) not to say that only those who reproduce experience it. What it does mean is that oppression of those believed to be female has its origins in a fear of, and need to control, female biology.
It’s frustrating because people arrive instantaneously with online hate-flamethrowers – and again I understand why they’re angry because there are transphobic people all over the place (a good place to start is deleting “tranny” from your vocabulary, which I’ve heard from too many who should know better. See the link for more.) – shutting down potentially helpful dialogues. Like the Soho panel. As I said at the start, it’s not other people’s responsibility to teach us – we need to listen too, but if you can’t even start a conversation without people viciously trying to silence you straight away, how can we expect to get anywhere at all?
More biology and culture
The species of animals living on Earth are typically composed of two sexes; male and female. Males and females together produce young. In human society, however, there are layers of culture on top of our basic biology and instincts, we have laws and rights and these do (or should) extend to every individual. We have choices, and we are as a whole and as individuals more than a basic desire to procreate. Discrimination, persecution, oppression and exclusion based on any physical characteristic or life choice (where others are unharmed) is unacceptable and any “social justice movement” seeks to address this.
** There are many exceptions to the male/female sex binary – it can be far more complicated than the simple dichotomy we tend to see and learn about from the get-go, for example things that asexually reproduce like bacteria, plants, fungi and aphids, but even then there are often further complications to that basic idea; hermaphrodites (animals with both sexes’ reproductive organs, usually invertebrates); gynandromorphs (animals with generally male and female physical characteristics, e.g. male on one half and female on another) and so on.
The major exception to binary sex that’s relevant to humans is of course intersex. But the issues that intersex people face are fundamentally different, as explained well in this short link. And the very real existence of intersex people (and other animals) does not mean that maleness and femaleness are not real. The issue with being assigned one sex or the other, the insistence on putting children in one of two boxes, is different from not personally identifying in gender terms with the sex of your own body. There are discussions around the usefulness of the “cis” and trans terms that I don’t think I can get into here.
Of course, women who do not choose to reproduce are no less women than those who do (though we childfree people have to battle with this a lot; with the inappropriate and intrusive questions, with the dictation of your own plans and future decisions by others, with the questioning of your purpose and morality, of being labelled selfish…) and women who cannot reproduce ever in their lives or following surgery/other treatments are also no less women than those who can.
So gender certainly is not dictated by our physical bodies – any trans man or trans woman is the gender they live as, defined by them, not their bodies. But sex is also somewhat independent; surgical alteration of the body does not change one’s chromosomes. Cloning an adult trans man who was female at birth would create a female child (HT @flayman for that point). Whatever comes after that is irrelevant – from the biological viewpoint (again separate from the cultural one), that child will develop a female body as her XX-containing genome dictates. She may or may not become a woman. Questioning the concept of male and female because gender, and our language that describes it, is imperfect – and because some believe gender is a matter of brain differences, again I’m not going there – is an argument built on shaky foundations and a refusal to acknowledge genetics and developmental biology.
A major problem I see is choice and beliefs around how that works. If we can choose our gender (can’t see why not) can we not also choose our sexuality? Again some radfems would say no, and even that bisexuality isn’t a real thing. I don’t entertain that argument. Perhaps it’s partly genetic (most things are) – but is that important? Maybe, like sex and gender, it is also a spectrum – not just of preference, but of choice. Some choose, some do not and cannot. Some change over time. The bottom line is we are all people and must be treated as such. The hurdle to overcome is fear of difference; and not difference in a negative sense, but in the sense we all differ in many ways from each other, and that is not a bad thing.
Because the groups of people who do not fit into the categories we are comfortable with – both biologically and socially – are relatively small (not insignificant), others traditionally have taken advantage and because of their fear have caused them pain, which is wrong and something that many activists, Gia included, try to address if they can. That doesn’t mean we’ll never be wrong just because our intentions are good, far from it. But perhaps we could reassess who or what the enemy really is.
This piece on fear is excellent. It says what I want to say:
A feminism whose primary aim is validating these fears – one that supports and thrives on them – is no feminism at all. It is, at best, a diversion, a support group. At worst it reinforces the oppressions it claims to challenge. It denies any possibility of change, presenting self-definition as a substitute to challenging oppression at all.
I am tortured by the fear of being a terrible person but not of being called one. There are worse things than name-calling. Most of us know what these things are. They’re what feminism should be there to challenge.
So if you want to call people transphobic because you think they’ve misstepped in their handling of our imperfect language in an imperfect culture, which we are all hoping to make better, for everyone, then you can do that. It might be abusive, though. And it really doesn’t help.
Edit 20/02/14: I didn’t elaborate much on the background before this post (most of which I’ve not been involved in), or the other aspects of sex that aren’t genetic. If that’s something you want to read about, go here – a good post that explains why (again, quite justifiably) a lot of people are angry about this stuff. It’s life, and human lives are complex, and – again – the oppressive culture that affects many people is very real but can easily be ignored by those of us who are not directly affected. Further insight to be found at TransHollywood.
The comments below are important, too. I did not wish to chime in on this to be “splaining” and condescending to those for whom it is all very old stuff; like a man telling feminists what to do. It’s come across like that, however, and that’s a failing on my part. What I meant to do was ask why this particular issue is so hard to discuss compared to some other things, and my personal conclusion is that it is partly down to the limits of our language. I think the complexity of human sex and gender is inadequately covered by our current vocabulary, understanding, and ability to express these ideas and lived experiences. An interesting article on the effects of language on our thoughts and behaviours has come out, showing that specific gender references in language can cause us to identify in certain ways at certain times, compared to speakers of other languages.
My main point is that, while I absolutely acknowledge that these restrictive ideas and the words themselves can be and are used to oppress (which I do not condone), it is surely not the case that any use of them is, in and of itself, oppressive. We have to have language to communicate. Scientific language specifically is by definition reductive; words are used and created to describe ideas and discoveries. We cannot at every point explain the fine details, the exceptions, the contexts, of every single word we use – if we did that, we’d be like Ents, and we’d never get anything done.
Alex’s article makes the fair point that perhaps the scientific language could, therefore, change – if circumstances require. It is after all up to science (and scientists) to accept new findings and alter conclusions accordingly. I think the sex/gender issue is peculiar to human mammals – even if other species exhibit similar exceptions to a simple male/female “dyad”, the cultural issues of gender expression, of oppression in society, would appear not to exist. This was a point I tried to make in saying we could distinguish between biology and culture. Obviously science does not stand apart from culture entirely, it is part of it – one affects the other. But it is still the case that procreation is what life on this planet does in order to continue being life, and mammalian animals do that, primarily, with two sexes. Humans are of course more complex, we live and we love and we die – the sex bit (both the act and the state of being) is rather more complicated than it is for our animal cousins.
I hope these extra words clarify some things, along with the extended discussion below. Edit even more: I’m really not Lewis’ biggest fan by any means but enjoyed this on intersectionality “uses and abuses”, *and* the comments. And I can say I’m not a fan without turning into a bully, remaining willing to listen.
- “The categories were made for men, not men for the categories” The winning it’s-about-language argument. Meandering, interesting and convincing – it’s about definitions and helping people. Slatestarcodex.com
- Nature News: Sex Redefined. “The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that.”
- Trans rights versus free speech? – Peter Tatchell on 2015’s feminism/trans/no-platforming tumult
- What Is a Woman? The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism. Comprehensive and mostly neutral potted history of clashes on this topic during the last few decades
- Whether or not Laverne Cox is a woman is not a question of biology, it’s a question of language – Tom Chivers @ Telegraph (comment pain)
- Sexism, Transphobia and Arguments from Biology – Skepchick