BBC One – The Big Questions | Should we have the right to decide our own gender?

tbq

On Sunday morning, I took part in BBC One’s ethics debate show The Big Questions, where the topics were treatment of asylum seekers, child poverty and (the section I was booked for) the right to gender self-determination. There are a few interesting moments to pull out:

  • At about 00:22:00, transwoman Rachel Hoskins gives a personal account of dysphoria, including “the real visceral thrill” of “putting [my sister’s undies] on” at four years old.
  • At about 00:30:00, I give a brief account of the gender-as-class-system position and why that’s not compatible with the principle of gender self-determination.
  • At about 00:38:30, a transwoman tells a story about being challenged on toilet access: “I said, ‘This is the way I’m dressed, I didn’t want to go into the gents and scare anybody in there.’”
  • There didn’t appear to be any contributions from transmen.
  • At 00:46:00 you can see gender in action as Nicky Campbell invites me to contribute to the debate and the man next to me (Ben Harris-Quinney) talks over me.

Watch the show on iPlayer (gender segment starts at about 00:20:00)

Independent | No, it doesn’t make you a bigot if you want to be called a pregnant ‘woman’ rather than ‘person’

pregnant-woman

I’m reading the British Medical Association’s guidance on inclusive language, subsection “pregnancy and maternity”. “Gender inequality is reflected in traditional ideas about the roles of women and men,” it says, and I nod firmly. “It is common to assume a woman will have children, look after them and take a break from paid work or work part-time to accommodate the family…such assumptions and stereotypes can and often do have the effect of seriously disadvantaging women,” it says, and my nodding steps up to a vigorous pace.

All solid, sensible and anti-sexist stuff. And then I get to this: “A large majority of people that have been pregnant or have given birth identify as women. We can include intersex men and transmen who may get pregnant by saying ‘pregnant people’ instead of ‘expectant mothers’.”

Pregnant people. Pregnant. People. As though acknowledging a connection between femaleness and pregnancy was as crass and false as saying “little girls like pink” or “men make better leaders”.

Read the full post at the Independent

New Statesman | Transgender Kids: why doctors are right to be cautious about childhood transition

gettyimages-493102860

This piece was published yesterday, before the broadcast of the documentary. You can now watch it in full on iPlayer.

The BBC Two documentary Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? won’t be broadcast until 9pm this evening, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of people from forming very firm opinions about it. There has been the inevitable petition, and yesterday, the Guardian published a critical article stating that “the transgender community is ‘very scared and very worried’” by a programme that no one interviewed had, as yet, seen. The focus of that concern is a Canadian doctor called Ken Zucker, who, according to his critics, is a discredited proponent of “conversion therapy” who has prevented trans children from obtaining appropriate treatment and was fired for gross misconduct.

But in his decades-long career, Zucker supported hundred of children and adolescents with gender identity disorder (GID), some of whom went on to live happily in their birth sex and some of whom eventually had sex reassignment surgery (SRS). The allegations against him stem from an external review commissioned by his employer, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto (CAMH) – a review which was withdrawn from CAMH’s website after investigations showed that many claims were unsubstantiated and one key charge was demonstrably false. As the journalist Jesse Singal wrote: “it’s hard not to come to an uncomfortable, politically incorrect conclusion: Zucker’s defenders are right. This was a show trial.”

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Humanist | The Sex Lives of English Women by Wendy Jones

sex lives of english women.jpg

In the early 20th century, the mechanical peep-show was invented so voyeurs could enjoy the thrill of seeing women in their unwitting naked candour. Of course, the peep-shows were a lie: the pictures were staged, there was no real privacy to invade. But the promise that women can be revealed as they “really are” has always been an exciting one. Wendy Jones starts her book with a version of the peep-show promise that also places The Sex Lives of English Women firmly in the context of feminism: “This book is not about how to be a woman; it’s about how women are,” she writes, presumably angling a dig in the direction of Caitlin Moran’s blockbuster polemic How To Be a Woman.

What we are about to see, it is implied, is raw womanhood. Jones presents us with 24 pseudonymous interviews representing the gamut of the English female, aged from 19 to 94. There are women from Buddhist, Muslim and Catholic backgrounds; black, white and Asian women; lesbians, straight women and somewhere-in-between women. Each one occupies her own chapter, written up as a monologue so it appears that we have unmediated access to her inner self. Like the peep-show photographer who keeps all evidence of himself outside the frame, Jones effaces herself. We are never told what questions she asked in order to elicit these answers.

Read the full review at New Humanist

We can’t have a women’s movement if we don’t call ourselves women

gender-revolution-ngm-covers-transparent.adapt.885.1.png

When National Geographic magazine put together the newsstand cover (above right) for its January 2017 “Gender Revolution” special edition, it left something out. The cover is a group shot designed to show the range of genders now available in the heralded revolution, a cluster of seven people each annotated with an identity: “intersex non-binary”, “transgender female”, “transgender female” (a second one), “bi-gender”, “transgender male”, “androgynous”, and “male”. What’s missing? As feminists noted once the cover was circulated – but as National Geographic either didn’t notice, or didn’t consider notable – there’s no “female” here.

There are females, of course (at a guess, I would say three of the models are natal females and three natal males), but “female” is not counted as a gender identity. Female is written out. Inside the magazine, you’ll find features which reveal that, actually, femaleness is a highly pertinent characteristic: you can read about the poverty and violence inflicted on girls in developing nations, the pressures of bullying and body-shaming on girls in America, and how the two-tiered market in children’s toys might be harming girls through pinkification. Being female is a matter of life and death, but, per the cover, “female” is not a label under which people may gather.

Here I suppose I should concede National Geographic’s good intentions. National Geographic did not, I assume, deliberately set out to produce an issue showing that female people are exploited and abused for being female, while also announcing that “female” does not exist. Nor is National Geographic doing anything particularly new or shocking by deleting women as a class: reproductive rights organisations now talk about “pregnant people” rather than women in order to be “inclusive”, and even references to vaginas can be damned as transphobic. But if it the express motivation of this cover had been to tauntingly depoliticise everything the inside pages have to tell about the place of women and girls in the world, the patriarchy would give it a 10/10 for threat neutralisation.

It’s often claimed that “the binary” is in and of itself a patriarchal tool, and the role of feminists should be to “disrupt the binary”, as if even to recognise the existence of sexual biology in humans is to give warrant to sex-based oppression. What this cover shows is that male dominance has nothing to fear at all from the splintering of “gender” into multifarious “gender identities”. On the cover, the “male” is simply and unrevealingly dressed. He stands with his whole body facing the camera. Other models dip their heads beguilingly, or pose in three-quarter profile with a becomingly flexed leg; there are flashes of midriff and clearly defined breasts; the “transgender male” (a natal female adolescent) wears a dandyish bow-tie. But “male” has unadorned authority. “Male” exists in simple relief against the contrasting background of all these other types. He is the one, and the rest are all “other”.

One of the most marked qualities of the “gender revolution” has been that, where transsexuality was predominantly about males transitioning to live as women (with transmen making up a very small proportion of transitioners), the more recent framing of transgender has involved a huge surge in female adolescents presenting for treatment. As Rosamund Urwin of the Evening Standard wrote in a report from May on the Tavistock gender identity clinic: “Last year, almost twice as many natal females (929) were referred to the centre as natal males (490) and yet, until six years ago, natal males used to be the majority.”

How can we explain this reversal? In a way, maybe the surprise is that there haven’t always been more females than males making the flit from their culturally sanctioned gender. “Woman” is a role marked by inferiority and destined for service. As the editorial in the January issue of National Geographic points out, being female means being subject to abuses on a global scale. It means child marriage, bleeding in a hut at the edge of your village during your period, being taunted with smartphone porn by boys in school, being paid less than men, doing more housework, being told you talk too much, talk wrong, that you’re either unfuckable or only there to be fucked.

In the circumstances, wanting out of the class “woman” is eminently rational. And being a woman is only going to get rougher in Trump’s America. Michelle Goldberg is correct in her bleak, eloquent Slate column when she writes that Trump’s presidency means the backlash is on. Abortion rights, protections against sexual discrimination, action against sexual violence – these things will be the first to go. Even if you don’t “feel female”, you will be exposed by being female. A label is no defense against male violence. You can disown your body, but your body is too valuable a commodity to be left alone. It can make babies. It can make dinners, mop floors. It can make a man orgasm. You are a resource to be colonised, and simply stating that you are not one by refusing the title “woman” will never function as a “keep out” sign.

To survive, to resist, we need to organise. To organise, we need to acknowledge what we hold in common. Throughout feminism’s waves and wanings, that’s been the basis of every success: identifying the oppressions imposed on us as women, and working together as women against them. Our female bodies are the battleground, and we can’t escape that even if we deny it by claiming some variant identity such as “non-binary” or “bi-gender”. We need a women’s movement. Even those of us who think we don’t need it, will need it. And for that, we need to call ourselves – our female selves – women, without compromise or qualification.

 

The Observer | Themes of 2016: the battle to decide one’s own identity

3600

This is one of five pieces by different writers commissioned by the Observer to cover the big issues of 2016: you can also read Carole Cadwalladr on tech disruptionRyan Avent on how technology puts millions of jobs in jeopardyIan Buruma on the rise of autocrats, and (in print only at the moment) Michael Sandel on what progressive parties need to reckon with to retain relevance.

In 2016, body politics went definitively mainstream. Transgender people, having previously been objects of niche curiosity and prurience at best from most of the media, became the subject of mid-morning current affairs debates, in-depth documentaries and sympathetic profiles. What does it mean to be trans? How should society change to give trans people necessary rights and protections?

These questions received urgent discussion, while other issues were more implied than addressed: how much is anyone able to control their own body, both in terms of what they choose to do with it and how it is perceived by other people? That problem of rights and responsibilities, and the tension between the individual and society, simmered away not only in the context of gender but also when it came to many other matters of sex and sexuality.

Read the full column at the Observer

Progress | Scapegoating feminists is never the answer

Emily Brothers, former Labour parliamentary candidate for Sutton and Cheam, writes that Labour needs ‘trans respect not transphobia’. It is a shame that she makes this call using language that is, at best, dismissive of the feminist movement and at worst taps into profound misogyny. The move towards greater public acceptance and institutional recognition for trans people has been one of the fastest-moving developments in equalities, but it is not a development without conflicts.

Read the full post at Progress

Little Atoms | The conservative Christians who see trans people as heretics

the-new-normal-twitter-card

There are no protests outside the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, London, when I arrive. There have been no petitions, and no angry pleas for the venue to cancel the event I’ve come to see: a two-day conference called “The New Normal: Tackling Sexuality and Gender Confusion Amongst Children and Young People”, put on by conservative campaign group Christian Concern. The quiet is unsettling. Any discussion of transgenderism that goes beyond the affirmative now tends to attract extreme hostility.

In Canada, a doctor has been fired and his clinic shut down under pressure from trans activists. Feminists who hold that sex is more politically relevant than gender identity are accused of causing violence against trans people. The organisation Radfem Collective, which has been attacked as trans exclusionary for its women-only attendance policy, now doesn’t reveal the location of its conferences until the day before the event – sensibly, given that pressure from protesters over another women-only event in 2012 led to the venue pulling out and the event being cancelled.

The New Normal outstrips any of these targets. It features, among other things, an “ex-gay” counsellor who claims he can guide his clients out of “unwanted same-sex feelings”; a former Ukip parliamentary candidate who claims that homosexuality is connected to pedophilia and bestiality; and two speakers who describe themselves as “COGs” (short for “children of gays”), and claim that same-sex parenting is a violation of children’s rights. Christian Concern itself is currently providing legal support for a mother and father who could lose custody having refused to acknowledge their trans child’s gender.

Read the full article at Little Atoms

New Statesman | What’s missing from the transgender debate? Any discussion of male violence

gettyimages-530272158

One of those things that supposedly never happens, happened. Luke Mallaband was convicted of six voyeurism offences after a female student at the University of East Anglia found his phone hidden in the university library’s gender-neutral toilets. The probation report described him as “high risk of posing serious harm to females”.

That creepy men would abuse mixed-sex intimate spaces in order to breach women’s privacy seems, perhaps, a predictable outcome; but it’s not something that the UEA students’ union took into account when it recommended installing more gender-neutral toilets.

“It’s about extending safe spaces to everyone regardless of gender. Once you’re in a cubicle, what does it matter who’s in the cubicle next door?” said LGBT+ officer Richard Laverick at the time. “All issues surrounding toilets and safety would occur regardless of the existence of gender neutral toilets,” said a blithe 2015 report into facilities on the UEA campus. But who you share a space with makes a considerable difference to how safe it is – especially for groups of people liable to become victims of male violence, which means women and transwomen in particular.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman | How society is failing transgender children

gettyimages-84142059

In August this year, several UK councils issued guidance to schools on accommodating female pupils who wear binders. A binder is a constricting undergarment for the upper body: what it binds are the breasts, pressing them down to a flatness that the wearer feels is appropriate to their self-perception as masculine or gender-neutral. According to Cornwall Council, the binder is “very important to [the wearer’s] psychological wellbeing.” But binders have unwelcome physical side-effects too, including “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting.” Lancashire Council’s advice urges teachers to “monitor [wearers] carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

When the NSPCC invited me to participate in a discussion on the subject “is society letting down transgender children?” (part of its Dare to Debate series), those guidelines were one of the first things I thought of. They’re written in accordance with the overriding principle of gender identity politics, which is that affirmation is all. Any bodily harms incurred count for little compared to the trauma believed to be inflicted by a “mismatch” between appearance and identity. It’s a doctrine that insists we’ve moved beyond the tyranny of physical sex and social pressure, and into a realm of pure selfhood where all must be able to live in accordance with their own inherent being.

Read the full post at the New Statesman