Monday, 4 December 2017

Are trans women, women?

In the wake of the UK government's announcement that they are considering plans to make the process of legally changing gender easier, there has been an increasingly polarised and fevered debate about what this would mean for the rights of both transgender and cisgender (non-trans) people, particularly cis women. The debate seems to have polarised around two positions. On the one-hand that of trans rights activists and on the other that of radical feminists. On both sides of the debate there seems to be a lot of fear and, as the debate has progressed and the two sides have become entrenched, hate to the point where the discussion now seems completely intractable and the two sides irreconcilable.

I have recently been drawn into this debate because although not a trans rights activist, I am a political activist and I started publicly transitioning around three months ago. I spent a whole day with a friend and comrade at a recent conference and we had, I thought, a pleasant day discussing politics, art, music and family. Then just a couple of days later she posted on Facebook and Twitter asking if a trans woman should be accepted as a woman if "they" say “I’m a woman because I say so”. This is a perfectly reasonable question to ask (albeit an extremely insulting way to ask it) and she continued, "Trans people should rightly have 100% the same human rights as anyone else but I am seeing an erosion of women’s rights and issues such as access to women-only spaces being thrown out in our eagerness to be inclusive and fair. Is it possible for us to debate this with respect and love for each other or is the topic still too polarised?" Again, a reasonable concern and a good spirit to set out with.

With that I read on and despite social media being notorious for bringing out the worst in people, there was a pretty reasonable debate. Next day, however, she posted again saying, "Well, my suspicions were confirmed. There was no discussion to be had that didn’t end in me being called TERF and trans-hating blah blah fucking blah." I read the entire discussion and no-one called her a TERF (this stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. Some people describe this as a simple description, others as a slur. I do not intend to take a side in this debate besides to say that I prefer the phrase trans-critical feminist). This is pretty unworthy. She also added "I’ve decided from now on that I’m a trans woman. I want access to all their services". This is not only insulting, it is ludicrous. What services does she think exist for trans people that she can't currently access? Anyone would be forgiven for thinking she was going out of her way to cause offence so she could be abused, allowing her to play the victim. When no-one did, she played it anyway. Is this what feminism has become? An appeal to victim-hood?

I not only feel deeply personally hurt by this but it makes me feel increasingly depressed that the small window in which trans people seemed to have had to be taken seriously is now firmly closing. I cannot understand why someone would prefer to post on a social media platform rather than chat in person or have an organised real-world discussion if they genuinely care about having a debate. Social media always brings out the worst in people and I will not engage with it on that level. Nevertheless I will to attempt to address all of the issues that were raised in the debate, and more besides, by way of a contribution to that debate. Although clearly not impartial, as neither a trans rights activist nor a trans critical feminist (but a socialist) I hope I can engage with the issues fairly, taking them on merit and leave much of the associated baggage at the door. As a trans woman and as the debate focused on trans women, I will necessarily focus on trans women but many of the issues, though not all, will relate to trans men too.

Introduction: what is transgender?
Trans is an umbrella term that may include transgender people, transvestites or cross-dressers, or people who are non-binary, gender non-conforming, gender-queer or gender fluid (we will return to this later). It can also be used as a short-hand for transgender. Transgender is not an umbrella term and transgender people are not cross-dressers, drag queens or drag kings. Drag queens are men, typically gay men, who dress like women for the purpose of entertainment. Drag kings are women, typically lesbians, who dress like men for the same reasons. Transsexual is a largely outdated older term that originated in the medical and psychological communities. It is now only used by people who have permanently transitioned (changed their bodies through medical interventions, including but not limited to hormones and/or surgeries). Transgender people suffer from gender dysphoria which involves a conflict between a person's physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify. This often causes the individual great distress with their body (particularly during puberty) and can lead to depression, anxiety and suicide. Transgender people may or may not seek medical help including hormone therapy and/or surgeries. Cisgender is a term referring to someone who feels their gender to be the same as that which they were assigned at birth. Gender identity should not be confused with sexual orientation and transgender people can be heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. For more information, see here.

The transgender community: some context
In October 2017 Candace Towns, a transgender woman, was found shot dead in Georgia in America near where she was living. Initially the media misgendered and misnamed Towns until friends and family corrected them. According to the Human Rights Campaign, "Towns is the 25th known transgender person killed in the U.S. this year. Sixty-four percent of the victims have been killed in the South, which among the four U.S. census regions has the fewest states that currently provide non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in education, employment, hate crimes, housing and public accommodations".

Twenty-one of the twenty-five US transgender murder victims so far this year, have been women of colour. Structural racism and transphobia intertwine, leading to the state and bigoted individuals oppressing and sometimes killing transgender people. The US transgender community suffers from disproportionately high rates of violence and little or no protections in law. In Texas, for example, hate crime laws do not cover gender identity. Three transgender people (Gwynevere River Song, Kenne McFadden, and Stephanie Montez) have been killed in Texas just this year. "Earlier this year, the Texas legislature considered SB 6, an anti-transgender bill that would have overturned non-discrimination ordinances in several major Texas cities, and would have forced state agencies, municipalities, public schools and public universities to discriminate against transgender people," say the Human Rights Campaign. In other parts of the world it is far worse.

In the UK, a report by Stonewall carried out this year shows that two in five trans people (41 per cent) have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the last 12 months and one in six LGB (lesbian, gay and bisexual) people, who aren’t trans (16 per cent), have experienced a hate crime or incident due to their sexual orientation in the same period.

According to the Galop Hate Crime Report 2016, some 79 percent of trans people have experienced a hate crime. Of those 32 percent had experienced a violent hate crime (compared to 25 percent of all LGBT people); 16 percent had suffered sexual violence (9 percent of all LGBT). Various studies have shown that up to 41 percent of trans people have attempted suicide, compared to a figure in the general population of less than 1 percent. Trans people are also overrepresented in the prison system.

So this is the context in which this debate is happening. Anyone that claims to want to challenge oppression needs to first appreciate the awful reality of transphobia. Anyone that wants to support trans rights must start from the position of supporting actions that might help make life easier for trans people.

Should a trans woman be accepted as a woman if she says she is
In a word, 'yes'. I said that I have been publicly transitioning for around three months and this is true, but I have been transgender all my life, some forty-odd years. No trans person wakes up one day and decides they fancy being a different gender and the implication that people are doing this, on a whim, is incredibly insulting to those people who have often suffered deeply for many years and plays into a dangerous media narrative that the increased visibility of trans people is due to it having become 'trendy'. The reason for increasing visibility is far more likely to be down to increased recognition and thus rights for trans people and an increasing acceptance and curiosity among sections of the media and the population in general.

There is a parallel here with rape survivors. A tiny minority of rape accusations turn out to be false, yet a vast number of rapes go unreported because of a perception, usually correct, that the victim will be blamed, not believed or made to feel ashamed. So we must always start by believing survivors when they come forward until and if we have evidence to the contrary. I would argue we should take the same approach with people who say they are trans: start by believing them, until and if there is any evidence to the contrary. This is because a tiny minority of trans people, if any, falsely claim to be transgender and by not believing them we risk making them feel guilty, false or that they should feel shame. As a result, people will not want to 'come out', making them far more likely to experience depression and making suicide far more likely too.

Thought experiment
So what is a trans person that has transitioned later in life likely to been through? Well, indulge me for a minute in this thought experiment. If you are a woman and you are asked to imagine what it is like to be a trans woman, you might imagine a man you know and wonder what it would be like if he 'suddenly' decided he wanted to be a woman. It doesn't make any sense does it? You can't understand what mechanism would make that happen can you?

Instead, imagine a woman you know, it might be your sister, best friend, mother, daughter (or imagine yourself). Imagine she had been born with a male body. Just imagine how awful that would feel. Imagine the confusion growing up with the wrong body, being shunned by other girls and having to deal with boys that you do not understand, have no affinity with and most of whom you really don't like. Imagine being told your whole life that you are not a girl, cannot play with other girls or with girls' toys or wear girls' clothes and that if you do, there is something wrong with you. Imagine having to check and modify your behaviour all the time for years and years, effectively impersonating a boy or a man, learning how to 'pass' as a man but just not feeling like other men. Imagine the constant depression that would result from that and, in an age when it was not always easy to get access to information as it is in this internet age, imagine not knowing why you feel as you do, thinking you must be the only person in the world that feels like this, or that you are mentally ill, or that you are some sort of freak of nature. Imagine wanting to die or wishing you had never been born in the first place. Imagine being bullied day after day after day because you 'run like a girl' or 'talk like a girl, or 'throw like a girl'. Imagine crying your self to sleep a lot. Imagine the only way you can cope is to go to bed hoping against hope that you might wake up a girl. Imagine the only way you can get through each day is by going to bed and fantasising every night that you could run away from home, get surgery and come back, unrecognisable, as a girl.

If you are a man, do the opposite to imagine what it must be like to be a trans man (at least I assume so; not being one I don't know).

What does it mean to be a woman?
Clearly it is important to draw a distinction between sex and gender. Put simply (as it all too often is) sex in humans refers to which grouping one falls into for the primary purpose of reproduction. According to Wikipedia those in the male grouping typically carry XY chromosomes, whereas females typically carry XX chromosomes. The gametes produced by an organism are determined by its sex: males produce male gametes (spermatozoa, or sperm) while females produce female gametes (ova, or egg cells). Related secondary sexual characteristics include beard growth in males and breasts in females. This seems pretty straight forward, right? But is it?

Firstly, the vast majority of us never have our chromosomes tested. Unless someone has Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome or some other chromosomal disorder it is very unlikely they will know what chromosomes they have. Scientists now believe it is far more likely than was previously thought for someone to have chromosomes that are different from what one might expect. Some people are born with one chromosome, some have three chromosomes (where they are designated male but typically "as teens...develop breast tissue and also have weaker bones, and a lower energy level than other males") or have three chromosomes but are designated female and yet others have four chromosomes. So it is not so clear cut to claim being a woman is an indisputable matter of chromosomes.

Secondly, it is too simplistic to talk about primary sex characteristics. Intersex people are born "with any of several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals that, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, "do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies". Such variations may involve genital ambiguity, and combinations of chromosomal genotype and sexual phenotype other than XY-male and XX-female." Moreover, it is possible to change many of the outward sex characteristics through gender affirmation surgery.

Thirdly, secondary sex characteristics can be very misleading. This is important because, as we have seen, most people do not know what chromosomes they have and most people do not know what primary sex characteristics someone has by looking at them unless they are naked. Let's be honest, how many naked people or sets of genitals do most people see in a day? Not many. So secondary sex characteristics are what most people use to determine someone's sex. Here we have a problem. Many men have breast-like tissue (in common parlance 'moobs' or man-boobs) and these can sometimes be bigger than some women's breasts. Many women grow hairs on their chin, unless they pluck them or have conditions that make them especially hairy, like poly-cystic ovary syndrome, whilst some men are relatively hairless. Again, through hormone therapy, surgery or electrolysis, these characteristics can be altered.

Some women are born without eggs or through illness are forced to have breasts or womb removed. Do they cease to be women? If we use the ability to bear children in our definition of a woman, then we rule out many infertile and menopausal women plus young girls.

Having said all of this, the vast majority of human beings are biologically male or female and stating that does not discount those who are not. Gender cannot be reduced to biology; it is formed socially and its meaning is therefore social too. Gender can be defined as "the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)." Gender identity refers to a person's internal, deeply held sense of their gender. For transgender people, their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. External manifestations of gender, expressed through a person's name, pronouns, clothing, haircut, behaviour, voice, and/or body characteristics are referred to as gender expression. Society identifies these cues as masculine and feminine, although what is considered masculine or feminine changes over time and varies by culture. Typically, transgender people seek to align their gender expression with their gender identity, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth. Feminists, such as Shelia Jeffreys argue that gender is a social construct and a tool of the patriarchy and should be abolished altogether. She even argues that trans identity is problematic in itself because it is rooted in the concept of gender, which shouldn’t even exist. We will come back to the question of whether gender should or even could be abolished later.

How can someone 'feel' female? How do trans women 'know' they are women?
This was one of the questions that came up in the debate and I've been asked it before. Despite thinking about gender almost every day for the last forty years, I still find this difficult to answer. The nature versus nurture argument is relevant here. Are our ideas, personalities and traits formed by our genetic make-up inherited from our parents or are they determined by environmental factors, such as the place, time and class in which we are brought up. I believe the answer must be both and moreover there is a dialectical relationship between the two. That is to say, genetic traits probably go some way to determine the environmental factors and vice versa. One of the most important factors in our upbringing is clearly our parents. But are our parents' child-rearing styles and skills determined by physical or social factors? Again the answer is clearly both, but which one predominates? I used to believe social factors were far more important than genetic ones. However, having spent an awfully large part of the last forty years thinking about gender, I believe genetic factors must also be very important.

Unfortunately, science has very little to offer us by way of explanation as to what causes someone to become transgender. Despite numerous studies having been undertaken over the last twenty years or so, they are often sporadic, with small samples and with statistically inconclusive results. Nevertheless, scientists believe the causes are both biological (giving a predisposition) and environmental. There is evidence to suggest that transgender women's brains are more like cis women's brains than cis men's. The evidence suggests this may be due to a lack of male hormones (or androgen) being present in the womb or poor sensitivity to them. By contrast trans men may have excess exposure to prenatal androgens, resulting in masculinisation of the genitalia. If this proves to be true it destroys the idea that trans women are 'biologically male' and trans men 'biologically female', as hormones are part of human biology.

Because there is so little firm evidence to explain what causes people to become transgender, it is ultimately necessary to rely on trans people's lived experience. This concept should be familiar to many feminists. In 1969, Carol Hanisch wrote an essay entitled 'The Personal Is Political'. This refers to the theory that most, if not all, of the personal problems women experience in their lives are not their fault, but are the result of systematic oppression. This then leads on to the idea that women are not to blame for their situation and overcoming these problems is not a personal, individual struggle but is only possible through collective, political struggle. In 1970, Robin Morgan talked about the importance of writing 'Herstory', or history from a feminist perspective, arguing that women were largely written out of traditional histories. Since then feminism has favoured documenting women's experiences, often through the use of oral histories.

However, or even if, they define what it means to be a man or a woman, what transgender people tell us over and over again is that they had a strong inner sense of the gender they identified with not matching the gender they were assigned at, or expected to be from, birth. This can happen at a very young age, say three or four years old (which just happens to be the age at which we become aware of gender), in teenage years (when going through the 'wrong' puberty can be incredibly traumatic) or sometimes not until middle-age. In the latter case, however, it is usually not that the individual was unaware of the mismatch but that it took them that long to work out what that mismatch was. The power of social conditioning and specifically social conformity is such that it is sometimes very difficult to understand feelings and behaviours that other people in society are not experiencing or displaying.

'Female' boxes and 'male' boxes?
What we are talking about here are not simple caricatures or stereotypes. Women are often considered to be passive, submissive, weak and nurturing whilst men are supposed to be active, dominant, strong and aggressive. Whilst this can be true of some people there are clearly cis women and men who do not fit these stereotypes and yet they do not feel themselves to be transgender. I sometimes wonder if there are a whole complicated set of characteristics which we collectively define as male or female. If we put all the 'male' characteristics in one box and all the 'female' characteristics in another box then we can see to what extent people have received or developed their characteristics from one or other of the boxes. I would argue that no-one, trans or cis, gets all of their characteristics from one box. Most people probably get them predominantly from one box but even the 'girly girl' and the 'rugby lad' get one or two from the other box. This doesn't cause them much of a problem though. The 'girly girl' can suppress her one or two 'male qualities' and likewise the 'rugby lad' his female ones, or not as they wish. Much the same is no doubt true for trans people, the only difference being that they get most of their characteristics from the box opposite to the gender they were assigned at birth. With this conception, the reason for the burning need of the transgender person to identify as the other gender becomes obvious. Some people, in my view, have a much more evenly-balanced selection from each box. These people might define as non-binary (neither male nor female or both) or gender fluid (sometimes male and sometimes female). We will return to this later.

Are trans women that transition later in life 'socialised male'?
We have talked about nature versus nurture. We have identified possible reasons why transgender people might be biologically or hormonally a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. What about the arguments that trans women have been socialised to be male, have been treated as male and been expected to behave male for so long that they cannot get round that and 'become' female. Clearly socialisation is a factor in what determines ones behaviour and clearly trans women passing, or trying to pass, as men have had different experiences growing up than natal or cis women.

Firstly, I would argue that most trans women reject and resist that socialisation. The fact that a trans woman 'comes out' in later life and decides to live an authentic life as a woman is testament to the fact that the desire to identify as female is so strong, and the denial of it often makes it even stronger until the person can deny it or refuse to act on it no longer even if they have been socialised to accept their assigned gender, that it overcomes that socialisation. Indeed it may be that being treated as a male and expected to do male things is what exacerbates the conditions of gender dysphoria. In my personal experience there were certain female ways of behaving that I exhibited as soon as I stopped myself from not exhibiting them, as soon as I stopped forcing myself to 'act like a man'. There were others that developed over a short period of time as I relaxed into the new way of being. But I accept there may be some that will take a lot longer for me to rediscover. I believe that middle-aged transgender women that are just starting to transition have some things in common with teenage girls. Although in many ways their life experience will make them like middle-aged women, there will be some experiences that happen only to women, that they have not previously experienced. So being at the receiving end of sexual harassment, or sexist attitudes in the workplace for example, will be new to them. This simply means that there are ways in which the transitioning trans woman might be perceived as naive, but arguably this learning process would take place much more quickly than with a cis woman as there are other ways in which the trans woman is mature.

Secondly, it can be argued that all women are socialised differently. Does a working class woman have much in common with an aristocratic woman? Is a Cornish woman socialised in the same way as an Inuit woman? Clearly not. Does a working class woman have more in common with a working class man or the Queen? So I think this issue is of relatively minimal significance, and those differences in socialisation would reduce over time as the trans woman begins to suffer all the same injustices as cis women.

Why are trans women stereotypically female or hyper-feminine?
This is a slur that is sometimes asked of trans women by radical feminists. Firstly, I do not accept the assumption as true. There are many trans women that look elegant and modest and are very aware of women's oppression. However, it is true that some trans women wear very short skirts or lots of make-up. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, someone assigned male at birth but who felt themselves to be a girl, but a tomboy girl, would possibly feel their gender dysphoria less deeply and might be able to live happily as a man. Secondly, trans women that transition in middle-age have never been twelve year-old girls. Young girls typically experiment with extremely feminine styles until they find their own style. A middle-aged transitioning trans woman has not had that option. Thirdly, more than anything else trans women want to 'pass' as a woman and be accepted for who they are. If they have an active social life, they may even need to pass in order to stay safe from transphobic men. Therefore, it is understandable that trans women may adopt overtly feminine styles to cover up the fact that they may have 'male' features such as narrow hips and strong jawlines. In any case, if feminists write off trans women who dress in ways that pander to women's oppression, are they not also writing off cis women that do the same? How, then can they claim, as they so often do in this debate, to be representing all women?

Another question that comes up in these debates is why these questions always relate more to trans women and far less often to trans men. It is posited by some feminists that it is another example of 'men' acting with 'entitlement'. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, feminists perceive the rights of trans women to be contradictory with their own rights. Men, by contrast are not oppressed in society and thus do not have a (serious) movement for men's rights. They tend not to consider a trans man as taking away their own rights, so are far less interested in this debate. Secondly, trans women are less accepted in society than trans women because of the way transphobia sometimes operates. Psychologists have studied the question of why it is often seen as less acceptable for boys to dress and act like girls than it is for young girls to be tomboys.

Kristina Jayne Harrison writes "The evidence suggests many adults felt it was normal and understandable that young, healthy, active girls might want to engage in more adventurous and exciting ‘boys play’ and even dress like their playmates and often till puberty. By contrast adults often expressed incredulity and fear when even young boys were wanting to engage in play associated with girls or to wear girls' clothes. There was often a lack of adult understanding compounded by a fear that it was abnormal for a healthy boy. Some of this is probably of a homophobic nature. The psychologists postulated that it was due to the relative status in society of men and women, boys and girls. Due to the subconscious, semiconscious and sometimes fully conscious devaluing of women, the view that their stereotypical traits and interests and generally their work as adults is generally less glamorous and of lower social status and an awareness to one extent or another that their lives are burdened with more onerous and dreary tasks the psychologists postulated that many adults couldn’t understand why a perfectly healthy (and implicitly higher status boy) would want to imitate girls (implicitly or explicitly held to be of lower status but ‘could understand’ why especially younger girls would want to be doing more exciting things and aping higher status boys." So it is the perceived lower status of women that causes 'boys acting as girls' to be less acceptable than 'girls acting as boys'.

Won't somebody think of the children?
Some children know very strongly and certainly that they need to transition at the age of three or four. Some people are understandably concerned that very young children are being given powerful drugs and irreversible surgery which they may later regret. This is absolutely not the case.

Going through the 'wrong' puberty is incredibly damaging to a trans person's mental health. Instead, children who believe themselves to be trans are given totally reversible hormone blockers so they do not a have a puberty. This then buys them time to consider if they are transgender or not. If the child changes their mind, they can stop taking them and have the puberty they would have had anyway (just a year or two late) and then continue with their life. If, when they are old enough, they decide to go ahead, then they can be prescribed hormones such as Estrogen or Testosterone. Even further down the line, there is the option of gender affirmation surgery (also known as sex reassignment surgery.)

Until very recently, people transitioned later in life because it took someone that long to work out what they are. With increased visibility and the ability to google (not available in the twentieth century), children and young people work out much more quickly who and what they are. I firmly believe, children should be given the option to avoid puberty and decide, when old enough, whether to transition or continue with the puberty they would have had. We have a duty to children identifying as transgender and we should explore all the different options, but it is far more likely that someone desperately needing to transition comes up against medical practitioners refusing treatment than the other way around. Drugs are not just being handed out to anyone that wants them.

Some people claim there are many 'non-trans young people who are being mis-diagnosed and having irreversible treatments they later regret'. The truth is the exact opposite of this. A tiny fraction (well under 0.5%) of people that transition go on to detransition and those that do do it for different reasons. Sometimes articles in the papers that discuss people detransitioning mask the fact that what they actually wanted to do was pause their transition before continuing with it. GP referral to first assessment is supposed to be 18 weeks. The wait at most gender identity clinics is currently 18 months and at one it is 30 months. Anecdotally, waiting lists are continuing to get longer. Someone referred today will be lucky to be seen inside two years. This is extremely harrowing for the individuals concerned. It really is not the case that it is too easy to transition before someone has had the time to think about it. The number of people that regret transitioning really is a tiny fraction of the total but it only takes one or two to sell their story to the Daily Mail for it to seem like it is at epidemic proportions.

What are the sources of women's oppression and do they apply to trans women?
Gender is not simply biology, it is created socially. But neither is gender simply a lifestyle choice. People do not choose to be transgender. Some feminists argue that the basis of women's oppression lies in their bodies and in the fact that women give birth. However, it is not quite that simple. Human biology has not changed over the last 200,000 years and yet women have only been an oppressed group for the past 10,000 years. Many ancient societies were nor patriarchal at all, they were matriarchal societies, and even when they were they were not oppressive. Women’s oppression is rooted in the organisation of class societies, including capitalist society, which rely upon property rights requiring monogamy and patrilineal inheritance. What all these societies have in common, other than producing economic classes, is a reliance upon the unpaid labour of women in the home raising the next generation of workers.

So this explains women's subordinate role in society and sexism exists to reinforce this subordination. Everything from a woman walking past a building site getting wolf-whistled at, to being looked over for promotion in the workplace or being paid less than a man for the same work, to being sexually harassed, attacked, raped or even killed, stems from this subordinate position in society. A trans woman that 'passes' as a woman will experience all the same expectations and sexist attitudes that cis women do. A trans woman that has not yet transitioned or does not 'pass' will instead be subjected to transphobia and will, as we have seen, face the threat of hate crimes, sexual violence and murder.

What would the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act mean for trans and cis people?
The UK government has announced it plans to consult on changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) of 2004 in order to make it easier for trans people to have their gender recognised by law, through self-declaration. The GRA was a relatively progressive piece of legislation when it was passed in 2004, because it allowed trans people to have their desired gender officially recognised without them having to have gone through gender affirmation surgery. This is important, because some trans people will want surgery, while for others transitioning might mean changing one’s name and pronouns, and/or taking hormones. However, the act has huge limitations. In order to be granted a Gender Recognition Certificate a trans person must present their case to the Gender Recognition Panel, a judicial body which legally determines what gender an individual is. The person seeking to change their officially recognised gender must be diagnosed with 'gender dysphoria' (that their biological sex and gender identity don’t match); to have lived as their desired gender for at least two years; and to intend to live with their new gender for the rest of their lives. This two-year wait has led to trans women who have not yet had their gender officially recognised being convicted of a crime and placed in a men’s prison; and facing serious and sometimes deadly assault, rape and harassment as a result. On a broader scale it means difficulties accessing services or simply being recognised as your desired gender until you have jumped through the various hoops.

The proposed changes to the GRA to be discussed this autumn would bring it in line with legislation already passed in Denmark and Ireland, whereby those seeking a Gender Recognition Certificate will not have to be diagnosed or convince a panel, but will be able to self-declare their gender. As Sally Campbell writes, "Let’s get this in perspective: the proposed change to the GRA won’t end transphobia — laws don’t do that. Such changes in the law generally reflect a struggle from below. But it will remove some of the stress, time and emotional turmoil currently faced by trans people who wish to have their identity formally and socially recognised in the only way the state allows. For this reason it should be supported."

This discussion recently took on new life after Kiri Tunks, vice president of the National Union of Teachers wrote in the Morning Star newspaper strongly opposing the changes to the GRA, claiming they would render the term “woman” meaningless, threaten “safe spaces” and would dangerously undermine the difference between biological sex and gender. These are familiar arguments, usually put by radical feminists, portraying trans rights as a threat to women’s rights, or even their safety. At NUT conference earlier this year, the delegates overwhelmingly backed the notion of self-identification of gender but some radical feminists and others on the left and in the trade union movement do not see it this way. Some radical feminists even argue the new law would allow child rapists and murderers to say they are women so they can go to a women’s prison and that this would make women unsafe. "This is disingenuous", says Campbell, "clearly a violent prisoner who might attack others should not be put in a position to do so. That applies whether trans or not, male or female. The underlying implication that a women’s prison is a “safe space”, by the way, is rather strange. The most galling aspect of this hypothetical argument, though, is that it ignores the fact that trans women who have actually been placed in men’s prisons have faced real violence."

Should trans women be allowed to use women's toilets and other 'safe spaces'?
It's not possible to have a discussion about transgender issues without eventually being asked about toilets. It is clearly understandable for a woman who has suffered sexual violence to not want to share a toilet with someone with a penis, whether they identify as male or female. Firstly, toilets are not really a 'shared space' as there are, after all, separate cubicles. But leaving that aside and assuming this it is problematic for some women, what is the alternative? As it stands currently, where most public toilets are gender binary, the only alternative would be to demand that trans women use toilets for men. This would be incredibly humiliating for any trans woman and would put her in an extremely vulnerable position where she would potentially be subjected to transphobic abuse both verbal and physical. The solution must lie in either gender-neutral toilets or separate toilets for men, women, trans women and trans men. Clearly it would be impossible to demand all public toilets adopt this system overnight but it should be possible to change the law to ensure a system everyone is happy with.

Some women go further and argue that trans women should not be allowed to use women’s toilets because they might not really be trans at all and might be pretending in order to rape women. The trouble with this view is that it relies on a belief that there are cis men now waiting outside women's toilets thinking “I’d love to rape that woman in the women’s toilet but I’d better not because I’m not allowed in there”. It also relies on us believing that rapists are going to walk around in women's clothes so they can rape women in public toilets. Surely if a man is going to rape a woman he will do it and it is far more likely to be in a dark alley than a public toilet. To me this argument just isn't credible.

Women's refuges and rape crisis centres are another 'safe space' cited by women as being under threat from trans women. Firstly, it is important to remember that it is men that attack women, not trans women. Secondly, trans women are also likely to be victims of violence and rape at the hands of men. Now again, I can understand the argument that an abused woman does not want to see someone with a penis. But how likely is it that a trans woman would be undressed in public? If we accept that just knowing (or assuming) a trans woman has a penis is enough to make a cis woman feel vulnerable, this makes some sense, but in all honesty, how likely is it that someone who has themselves just been the victim of rape would then rape someone else? Some people have argued that trans women should have their own spaces. I would have no objection in principle. In practice, however, there is no way the funding would exist to support separate facilities when funding has already been cut for these services. Finally, some women argue that women would not feel safe in a place where there are trans women because they have been socialised to be male and are thus more likely to be aggressive or violent. We have already discussed socialisation and I think it is very unlikely that a trans women would be any more likely to be violent than any other woman. In any case, anyone acting in this way would be removed.

Are trans women threatening to 'erase women'?
This is another accusation thrown at trans women. Another question that you never hear asked is could it be that cis feminists are threatening to erase trans women? Do cis women have the right to define, validate, determine or even discuss the experiences of trans women? It is not the job of the state, the trade unions or the women’s movement, to tell trans people what we are. A key demand of the women’s movement has been a woman’s right to autonomy over her body; surely this should apply just as much to trans people’s right to self-identify? The trade union and labour movements should take up trans rights as a central part of its liberation campaigning. Trans-critical feminists should not be no-platformed, but their ideas must be debated and challenged.  Also, there seems to be a parallel between the idea that trans women being accepted as women changes the definition of 'womanhood' and the idea that accepting gay marriage as marriage changes the definition of marriage.

Perhaps the worst and most insidious part of this debate is the impact it has had on my mental health. One contributor to the debate continually parodied her idea of a trans person by saying "this debate is literally killing me" complete with 'crying with laughter' emojis. She and others found this highly amusing. As a result of reading these views, I have lost much of the confidence I initially had when I 'came out'. The vast majority of people that I met or had contact with had literally no problem at all with my being a trans woman. This gave me the confidence I needed to continue to transition. This confidence has now been badly shaken to the point where I cannot walk down the street without feeling extremely fearful. This small, but very vocal (despite claiming they are the ones that have been silenced) minority have had a disproportionately large impact on my view of how trans people are perceived by wider society. It reminds me of being a child and being told I cannot play with the other girls because I am not a girl. These women are very reminiscent of playground bullies. I think I will be alright but I can imagine other trans people reading these views, especially if they are 'still in the closet', deciding to stay there (as I did for about sixteen years) until attitudes change (which they may not among this section of society for quite some time). This will undoubtedly affect their mental health and could well lead to someone taking their own life. As we saw earlier, 41 percent of trans people have attempted suicide, compared to a figure in the general population of less than 1 percent. So it is not far-fetched to suggest that their words, ideas and attitudes, their refusal to use the correct pronouns and even their correct names could well lead to a trans person taking their own life. I can't see anything amusing about this at all.

One contributor to the debate ludicrously suggested that her friend could not access Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) because doctors were prioritising treatment for trans people. Cutbacks in the health service are having a massively detrimental impact on the gender identity clinics (GICs). GICs have a statutory requirement to give patients their first assessment no more than eighteen weeks after referral by a GP. Currently the official waiting time at most of the GICs is eighteen months. At one it is thirty months (two and a half years). There are only seven GICs in the country. The GIC closest to where I live, the Devon Parnership Trust, has recently considered refusing to accept new referrals. According to one local news site, "in September 2016, it had 580 people on its waiting list. The wait then was 12 months for a first appointment, followed by an additional wait of between six to nine months to be given a medical diagnosis by one of the clinic's four doctors."

Moreover, these official waiting times refer to how low ago people being treated now have waited. Anecdotally, it is expected that someone referred today will wait two years or more for a first assessment, meaning they may have to wait three years for a medical diagnosis. This is absolutely harrowing for someone who may have already waited many years before seeking appropriate medical care. The idea that trans people and menopausal women are fighting amongst each other over who is more deserving of care will be music to the ears of government ministers that want to set one group against another whilst cutting services for both groups. This is just one reason why trans and cis people need to come together and campaign together for better funded services for both groups.
Does gender operate on a spectrum?

Is gender binary?
Radical feminist activist and writer Ti-Grace Atkinson articulated in her 1969 foundational piece 'Radical Feminism', "The first dichotomous division of [mankind] is said to have been on the grounds of sex: male and female… it was because half the human race bears the burden of the reproductive process and because man, the ‘rational’ animal, had the wit to take advantage of that, that the childbearers, or the 'beasts of burden,' were corralled into a political class: equivocating the biologically contingent burden into a political (or necessary) penalty, thereby modifying these individuals’ definition from the human to the functional, or animal." As we have seen, not only is it very simplistic to argue women's oppression is derived solely from biological differences, it is also overly simplistic to maintain that gender works as a binary choice, just male or female and nothing else.

The GRA also only allows for two genders and every individual must be identified as one or the other, so there is no provision for those who identify as non-binary or intersex. For thousands of years gender has been policed in all kinds of ways including execution as a punishment for cross-dressing in parts of medieval Europe. Socialists argue the "rigid concept of the bourgeois family with its hierarchy of man, woman and children and no deviation was imposed in Britain in the nineteenth century by a ruling class which sought obedient, healthy and educated workers and wasn’t prepared to pay for the work when they could get women to do it in the home for free. Women were expected to be docile, caring, indoorsy and emotional, while men were to be strong, outgoing, breadwinners. The public morality which accompanied this family form also outlawed homosexuals and various other “deviants” who didn’t fit the gender prescription. So, far from being antagonistic, trans and women’s oppression are rooted in the same social relations — ones that we all need to challenge. Overcoming damaging gender expectations, winning better access to healthcare and services, gaining autonomy over our bodies, and so on, will benefit all of us."

Increasingly, young people are saying they do not fit into an oppressive binary gender choice and are attempting to live free of this expectation. Increasingly, gender is being seen as a spectrum, rather than limited to just two options. "A child may have a Non-binary gender identity, meaning they do not identify strictly as a boy or a girl – they could identify as both, or neither, or as another gender entirely. Agender people do not identify with any gender. For individuals who fit fairly neatly into expected gender roles and expression, there may be little cause to think about, or question, their gender, or how gender is created, communicated, and reinforced in our lives. However, children who express gender in ways that are perceived to be outside of these social norms often have a very different experience... Pressures to conform at home, mistreatment by peers in school, and condemnation by the broader society are just some of the difficulties facing a child whose expression does not fall into line with the binary gender system... Norms around gender expression change across societies and over time... Even the seemingly intractable notion that “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” is relatively new. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, pink was associated with boys’ clothing and blue with girls’ clothing." Some people want to reclaim the word 'queer' to mean anyone that is not straight and cis. Others describe themselves as 'questioning', i.e. not straight/cis but not sure what they are yet.

Other theorists such as Rebecca Reilly-Cooper say that gender is not a spectrum and creating the concept of non-binary is simply creating a new binary between those who are and are not non-binary. Reilly-Cooper suggests that if gender is really a spectrum, then technically everyone is non-binary, as everyone is somewhere on that spectrum. She argues that these new ideas will eventually lead to a position where there are as many genders as there are people. Personally, I have no problem with this. However she concludes from this, "The solution is to abolish gender altogether. We do not need gender. We would be better off without it. Gender as a hierarchy with two positions operates to naturalise and perpetuate the subordination of female people to male people, and constrains the development of individuals of both sexes. Reconceiving of gender as an identity spectrum represents no improvement." There are two problems here. First, is gender necessarily oppressive? Has it always been used to subordinate women to men?  We will return to this idea shortly. Secondly, why deny people's right to express their gender as they see fit in order to have getting rid of gender as a long term goal? Are the two mutually exclusive? To reject gender diversity now on the basis that our aim is to abolish gender in the future is like rejecting the fight for higher wages on the basis that we want to abolish the wages system. It is utterly abstract and damaging to the movement and to individuals.

In many ways being transgender is more understandable to people and thus more acceptable in society than being non-binary. The concept of the feminine man or the masculine woman or worse still the androgynous person is more scary and unacceptable to many people than that of the transgender woman or man. The transgender people we see may be those with the more extreme forms of gender dysphoria or gender deviance. It may be the case that as we move to a society that is more accepting of the concept of being non-binary, some transgender people will not feel the need to transition so deeply but will be able to express themselves through non-binary gender expression.

Is gender inherently oppressive? Should we abolish gender? Can we?
Gender roles, including transgender roles have existed in civilisations throughout history from pre-history to modern times. What form it takes is determined by the society that exists at the time.
"Prior to western contact, some American Native tribes had third-gender roles, but details were only recorded after the arrival of Europeans. Roles included "berdache" (a derogatory term for people assigned male at birth who assumed a traditionally feminine role) and "passing women" (people assigned female at birth who took on a traditionally masculine role). The term "berdache" is not a Native American word; rather it was of European origin and covered a range of third-gender people in different tribes."
"In ancient Assyria, there were homosexual and transgender cult prostitutes, who took part in public processions, singing, dancing, wearing costumes, sometimes wearing women's clothes and carrying female symbols, even at times performing the act of giving birth."
"In ancient India, Hijra are a caste of third-gender, or transgender group who live a feminine role. Hijra may be born male or intersex, and some may have been born female. Hijras have a recorded history in the Indian subcontinent from antiquity onwards as suggested by the Kama Sutra period."
"In Persia, poets such as Sa'di, Hafiz, and Jami wrote poems replete with homoerotic allusions, including sex with transgender young women or males enacting transgender roles exemplified by the köçeks and the bacchás, and Sufi spiritual practices."
"In Ancient Greece and Phrygia, and later in the Roman Republic, the Goddess Cybele was worshiped by a cult of people who castrated themselves, and thereafter took female dress and referred to themselves as female."
Transgender history does not begin with class society. It, and indeed the history of gender in general, predates class society. There were male and female roles in hunter gatherer communities, including in matriarchal societies. In these cases, there was no evidence of exploitative class relations and women's oppression. Studies even suggest the existence of transgender people in hunter gatherer communities 'provided an evolutionary advantage to the societies in which they belonged'. It is important to make clear that gender is not a special creation of capitalism or even class society. Overthrowing capitalism and ridding ourselves of the 'muck of ages' will not rid societies of gender and therefore transgender as categories in the way it will rid societies of class. Gender differences will no longer be used as tools of oppression but they will still exist. 

This debate is very polarised between trans-critical radical feminists and trans rights activists. Not being either I have tried to find a way through many of the issues raised in these debates. It seems to me that the premise that trans women are not 'biologically' female is not as clear cut as it may at first seem. Biology is not entirely binary and gender much less so. The causes of people being transgender may themselves prove to be biological in nature. In any case, our definitions of 'man' and 'woman' may change as we learn more about the complexity of human psychology.

It seems to me that it should be possible to co-operate with the women's, labour, and socialist movements to demand rights for cis women as well as trans men and women. That said, I think there is no need to deny trans people the right to be addressed by the names and pronouns they wish to be addressed by. It hurts no-one to call a trans woman 'she' or a trans man 'he' and a refusal to do so seems to me to be the place where it crosses the line into transphobia.

In the short term, however, I think it may be necessary for the women's movement to better understand the needs of trans people until society is fully ready to accept these changing ideas and more funding for services can be established. Otherwise, trans people's (and trans women in particular) safety will be seriously compromised.

In the long-term, I think we need to move away from the oppressive demands of society to put people into one of just two boxes. We need to open the boxes and allow people to express their gender however they see fit, in myriad ways. This may ease the gender dysphoria experienced by many trans people and the need for some people to transition may then be reduced.

I do not see a contradiction here. I see no reason why we could not forge a united movement campaigning for better (and better funded) services for transgender people now, whilst simultaneously campaigning to lessen oppressive gender constraints; that defends women's rights without denying rights to trans people. In order to forge this unity, feminists could help by taking trans people's experiences more seriously and trans rights activists could help by not no-platforming trans-critical feminists. "An injury to one is an injury to all and a step forward for one oppressed group can feed everyone’s struggle. This has been demonstrated in Ireland where a similar gender recognition act was passed allowing self-identification in 2015. There have been no recorded instances of women being unsafe as a result of the change. Far from doing damage to the women’s movement, the last two years have been a period of growth for the abortion rights campaign and 2015 also saw the referendum in which Irish people voted for equal marriage. The confidence to reject bigotry on all fronts was mutually reinforcing. There is no evidence that trans rights will damage women; there is every evidence that a lack of trans rights does damage trans people."


  1. Although she unfriended me ages ago I agree with your comments as I read the posts on my partners FB and it was discussed. I hav.nt read your blog in depth yet but am in agreement with what I have read.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Please feel free to comment again when you have had time to read it all.

  2. Kate, this reads like a thesis. I only got half way but want to read it all when I have more time. I got very tearful in places and angry that people think it ok to be horrible and judgemental. Often this is through fear of a threat to their own ingrained beliefs that have been part of their upbringing usually attached to some kind of religion. I felt sad when you talked of a small window firmly closing. From my perspective, I feel the window is closing on bigots and the next generation are already embracing people for who they are and the warmth and openness of heart. I have pity for the offspring of bigots as they will increasingly find that they are the minority and will be mocked for their spouting of hate and uninformed opinions xx

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Sharon. Yes it is as long as my undergraduate thesis! I'm sorry if it upset you. Yes, I think 'fear' is the key word here; there is much of it on all sides. I hope you are right about the window. I just fear what had seemed a more positive time has led to a backlash, but longer-term I'm sure you are right. My children are so incredibly understanding, I have so much faith in the current and next generation of young people :) Thanks again for your support x

  3. Don’t apologise for upsetting me. I was moved by how trans people are made to feel throughput their lives and this must stop. I firmly believe that more people are in support than destructive. You look so fantastic at the moment and I don’t just mean what you wear or the way you wear your hair, I can see a person who has been set free from their cage but you need to hold your head up more and be bloody proud!!! Xx

    1. This might be the nicest thing anyone has said to me. Thank you so much x

  4. Thanks, Kate. It's slowly getting better in the Uk, but we all need to keep on nibbling away at the fears and preconceptions. I have several Trans friends- not overtly 'feminised'- they are of a subculture that's not generally bothered with nail polish and show collections and stuff. The difference I feel in them is that when we talk personally, it's much more like talking to a woman than to a man. The approach to communication is different, the level of open-ness is different, the personal slant on the feelings is different. This may be one of the true, innate male/female gender differences, and to me confirms the true and innate nature of the Trans person. Welcome to open womanhood. It's good that at least in this country, you don't have to hide, and can be who you are. I'll share a toilet with you any time.

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