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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

NSPCC Dare to Debate | Is society letting down transgender children?

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Update, 13 October 2016 – Following the withdrawal of Kellie Maloney and protests from trans campaigners, the NSPCC has cancelled the event. According to the statement they have issued: “the trans community have raised concerns and told us that they don’t support the NSPCC hosting this discussion”. In other words, they don’t actually “dare to debate” if there is a risk that the conversation might challenge the current conventions around transgender children.

Original post continues below…

On 25 October, I’m taking part in a event for the NSPCC’s Dare to Debate series, attempting to answer the question: is society letting down transgender children? As soon as they approached me, I knew I wanted to participate. Over the last few years, I’ve dedicated a considerable proportion of my writing to gender, and in the process I’ve changed my own position substantially.

Transgender rights have been described as the “next civil rights frontier”, but within the feelgood narrative, a lot of assumptions have been left unchallenged. Is gender an inherent quality that every human possesses, or a sex-class system that we’re socialised into? Is it possible to identify a child as trans without relying on sexist stereotypes? How does the prioritising of gender identity over physical sex affect women and girls? Are trans-identified youths harmed by the way issues such as suicide are reported? All these are left woefully unscrutinised in the current orthodoxy about gender, and any opportunity to explore them is very welcome.

The other speaker will be Kellie Maloney, the boxing promoter formerly known as Frank who transitioned in 2014. Maloney’s past includes the expression of homophobic sentiments (now repudiated), and a 2005 attack on Tracey Maloney when the two were married (Maloney has attributed this in part to the strain of living with a suppressed gender identity). My participation implies no endorsement of these acts. Gendered violence, and its effects on children, is something I expect to discuss at the event. I trust the NSPCC to facilitate a full and open discussion, and am delighted to volunteer my time for this debate.

The audience will be by invitation, but I will update this post if there are plans to stream it or release a recording.

Read more about the NSPCC and support its work