How low should we set the bar for discussions about gender and trans issues? Maybe it’s enough that they happen at all, since there’s so much resistance to them taking place. When Channel 4 planned a debate as part of its Genderquake season of programmes on identity, it was under the strictest conditions of secrecy: the location wasn’t published and panellists (I was one, along with Germaine Greer, Caitlyn Jenner, trans activist Munroe Bergdorf and others) were asked to keep the list of contributors under wraps until the producers released it the day before the show.
That’s because whenever discussions about gender identity are attempted, they tend to get sabotaged before they can even begin. Venues are pressured into cancelling events. Women who take part in discussions that take a critical view on prospective changes to the Gender Recognition Act risk physical attack. And trans people willing to debate these issues are often ostracised by their own communities, deemed to be collaborating with their oppressors.
In these conditions, for Channel 4 to get the debate on air at all counts as an achievement. It took careful negotiation, a lot of cloak and dagger and multiple stand-in panellists to insure against dropouts. But what actually went out on air was a woeful missed opportunity. Conversation never took hold. Despite an impressively broad spread of participants (two trans women, three feminists of various stripes, a trans man and a genderqueer drag king), talk time was dominated by the two trans women. The trans man and drag king – two perspectives rarely given attention in gender discussions – hardly got to talk at all.
By the end of the hour, a fractious studio audience had resorted to heckling, with comments such as “you’re a man” shouted at Munroe from the floor. For those who thought the debate should never have happened – the trans activists who considered it to be denying their right to exist – this was a vindication. For feminists, it proved our voices always come last on this issue. All parties have plentiful reason for frustration, but the most significant one isn’t any specific shortcoming of this particular event. It’s that Britain urgently needs to have this discussion. At the moment, we can’t.
changing the protected characteristic from “gender reassignment” (not sex) to “gender identity”
In 2016, the women and equalities committee published its trans inquiry report. It recommended changing the protected characteristic from “gender reassignment” (not sex) to “gender identity”. More than two years later, there’s been no legislative progress, meaning both women and trans people have been left in limbo about how their conflicting rights will be resolved. Yet at the same time, there’s been a rapid informal adoption of gender identity as the defining marker for accessing women-only services and spaces.
From Labour’s all-women shortlists to the Guides to workplace mentoring schemes, things designed for women (or girls) are now open to self-identified women. A small shift in semantics, but a significant one. For women, it means their sex is increasingly cast as a matter of feeling, not fact – no minor thing when your sex is the one that takes the brunt of pregnancy, maternity discrimination, unpaid domestic labour, sexual harassment and rape. Areas established as female-only have become in effect “gender-neutral”, while gender at large stubbornly refuses to be neutralised.
For some trans women, particularly those who transitioned before the current consensus on gender identity, this new environment isn’t a triumph – it’s a threat. Having gone through sex reassignment and empathised with the experiences of being female in a sexist society, they understand that removing all limits and safeguards on the legal definition of sex creates a loophole for violent men. And that leaves trans women as vulnerable as it does all women: if the problem is male violence, then trans people have every bit as much interest as all women do in keeping bad-faith claims from gaining legal force.
Then there are the questions that can’t be answered as long as debate is considered to be violence. Why was there a 20-fold increase in children referred to NHS gender identity services between 2010 and 2017 and why has that rise been driven by female adolescents identifying as boys or non-binary? As many lesbians observed, there seems no place for butches: young women who don’t identify with the faff and submission of femininity now often tend not to identify as women at all.
Underneath the celebration of the “genderquake” are hard problems and grievous losses. Is it a triumph for liberalism to suggest to boyish girls they might be male and girlish boys that their true self is female? How can we counter sexism if institutions no longer “see sex”? Only through debates such as the one Channel 4 attempted can such questions begin to be answered; the next attempt needs to be better.
QotD: “As co-editors of Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body, we were surprised by Rachel Pain’s review. It contains a significant inaccuracy as well as misleading statements”
As co-editors of Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body, we were surprised by Rachel Pain’s review (Books, 15 March). It contains a significant inaccuracy as well as misleading statements.
Pain positions the chapters as belonging to feminist studies and as representative of a conflict between two “types” of feminist commentator – the virtuous, sophisticated feminist who stands up for the marginalised and the oppressed, and the unreconstructed trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, a category to which we are relegated. To the uninitiated, TERF has become the epithet of choice to dismiss any female person who dares to critique the theory and practice of transgendering children.
In locating the book in feminist ideas and politics, Pain deflects from the substantive content of the book. Its focus is not feminism but rather transgender studies. Pain dismisses our authority to comment on transgenderism because we are “white and middle class”. If the voices of white, middle-class academics are illegitimate, this also excludes Pain. She charges us with: not realising that trans children experience binary gender norms as tyrannical; not addressing queer theory; and not understanding that young people’s identities actively queer normative gender categories. She advances queer theory as beyond critique, cordons off transgender identity as immune from cultural context and, by implication, elevates the unassailability of her own alleged intellectual authority.
Pain’s charges are not true. Chapters 9 and 11 explore in depth the queer perspectives of young people. In chapter 5, co-editor Heather Brunskell-Evans, a sociologist of sex and gender, addresses the historical, epistemological and political underpinnings of queer theory.
In chapter 12, co-editor Michele Moore, psychologist and professor of inclusive education by background, compares the social model with the medical one, while Stephanie Davies-Arai, in chapter 2 and elsewhere, suggests alternative resources for schools that are more gender-freeing and do not lead to medicalisation.
In conclusion, the contributors do not ignore queer perspectives: we put queer orthodoxy under an analytical spotlight. Our purpose is ethical. None of us ignores the deeply felt experiences of trans-identifying children. We disagree that queer theory is a liberatory prism through which to view children and gender; we provide alternative frameworks for practice.
Pain’s approach exemplifies the trend in academia to proffer ad hominem comments rather than reasoned argumentation whenever contrary views about transgendering children are expressed. By shining a light on the way that slurs such as “TERF” are used to shut down scrutiny of queer perspectives, the book is exceeding the scope of its original aim.
QotD: “Once upon a time there was the naive belief that legalized prostitution would improve life for prostitutes, eliminate prostitution in areas where it remained illegal and remove organized crime from the business”
“Once upon a time,” wrote Carolyn Maloney (2007:xiii) founder and Co-Chair of the U.S. Congressional Human Trafficking Caucus, “there was the naive belief that legalized prostitution would improve life for prostitutes, eliminate prostitution in areas where it remained illegal and remove organized crime from the business. … Like all fairy tales, this turns out to be sheer fantasy.”
There is now a large body of evidence regarding the effects of legal and decriminalized prostitution. Some of that has been described in the foregoing paragraphs. Nonetheless several of the authors of these four articles quote inaccurate theories about legal prostitution’s relation to trafficking. Segrave for example, expresses the belief that legalization of prostitution will “combat trafficking” (p 5⁎) and Limoncelli (p 3⁎) suggests that the linkage between legal prostitution and trafficking might not in actuality exist.
Evidence supports the theory that legal prostitution is associated with increased trafficking. Traffickers and pimps can easily operate with impunity when prostitution is legal. A Nevada legal pimp told me in 2005 that a Russian trafficker offered to purchase his brothel. Wherever prostitution is legalized, trafficking to sex industry marketplaces in that region increases (for example to strip clubs, massage brothels, escort agencies, pornography stores, and bars). After prostitution was legalized in Germany and the Netherlands, the numbers of trafficked women increased dramatically. Today, 80% of all women in German and Dutch prostitution are trafficked.
Segrave cites Australia as a trafficking destination country. This is probably a consequence of the country’s legal prostitution which in effect functions as a legal welcome to pimps and traffickers (Sullivan, 2007). Supporting evidence also comes from Sweden. When men who buy sex are criminalized (this might be the opposite of legalization) then trafficking significantly decreases (Ekberg, 2004:1199).