Trans drama Butterfly is rejection and sexism dressed up as social justice TV

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The final part of ITV drama Butterfly airs tomorrow evening, marking not so much the conclusion of a TV show but the climax of a social justice event, at least if you believe the show’s makers and the largely rapturous notices. Starring Anna Friel as the mother of Max, an 11-year-old who’s born male but identifies as a girl, and broadcast in the last weeks of the government consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act, it’s clearly been conceived as an intervention on the side of the angels. Or rather Mermaids: Susie Green, CEO of the charity for families of trans children, was a consultant on the programme.

Max’s story closely tracks that of Green’s child Jackie. Like Jackie, who preferred the Little Mermaid to Action Man, Max struggles to play the part of the “real boy”, choosing pink skirts rather than jeans and dancing rather than football (something dad responds to with violence, leading to him having been kicked out of the family home at the start of the series). And like Green, who took Jackie to America for surgery at 16, Max’s mother turns to the US private system when the NHS gender identity development service (here represented by the fictional “Ferrybank clinic”) refuses to prescribe Max puberty blockers immediately.

What Friel’s Brookside kiss did for lesbians, Butterfly’s makers imply, Butterfly will do for trans rights. And as a Sunday night mainstream drama, it really is an incredible opportunity to take trans politics into the nation’s living rooms. The trans debate is often as arcane as it is furious, conducted in jargon-heavy blog posts, and bitter clashes between feminists who want to discuss the legal and social consequences of gender identity doctrine, and activists who want to stop them (by violence if necessary). Butterfly, though, is storytelling. It’s emotionally appealing. It’s accessible. It’s simple. In fact, it’s very simple indeed, which is why it’s quite boring, and also why it’s dangerous.

That’s a strong word to use of a primetime drama, but consider what Butterfly is telling its audience. It offers a starkly segregated version of childhood: boys do active, sporty things and girls are decorative and pretty. Max’s parents first of all try to “fix” him into having the appropriate interests – his dad with corporal punishment, his mum by treating the “girly” things as a shameful secret to be kept to the bedroom – and, when that fails, they solve the problem instead by recategorising him as a girl. The possibility that Max, like 60-90% of children with gender dysphoria, might simply turn out to be a boy who likes pink, isn’t given house room here.

Then there’s that jaunt to America for treatment. In the show, it’s a high-stakes decision for Max’s mother to make, but one that we’re never supposed to doubt is in Max’s best interests. The Ferrybank, with their advocacy of “watchful waiting” rather than filling out a shopping list of prescriptions, act as the story’s primary antagonists. After all, viewers have already been told unequivocally that Max really is “a girl in a boy’s body”. In the context of the show, any resistance to that isn’t sensible clinical caution, it’s just cruel. The lesson for distressed children and their anxious parents watching the show is: don’t trust the experts who won’t give you what you want.

In the real world, though, things aren’t so easy to call. Gender dysphoria has complex, multiple causes, and in children that usually involves the family dynamic. NHS clinicians, trying to address these delicate cases, increasingly find that anything they want to explore has been pre-empted by the pressure on parents to “affirm gender”: parents have often socially transitioned their child long before they reach the consulting room. Sometimes, parents have even started the medical course privately, via clinicians such as Helen Webberley – convicted this month of running an unregistered clinic, but still linked to by the Mermaids website.

The argument for rushing to treatment, as put forward by Mermaids and repeated by Max’s mum in Butterfly, is “better a happy daughter than a dead son”. In other words, children with gender identity issues are supposedly so prone to suicide that the only option is to stall puberty immediately, starting cross-sex hormones as early as possible. (This maximises the child’s chances of eventually passing as the chosen sex; it also costs them their adult fertility and sexual function.) In the first episode of Butterfly, Max follows this script by making a graphically portrayed suicide attempt.

But the script is false. The startling figures offered by Mermaids for suicidality in trans children are taken from self-selecting surveys that don’t control for comorbidity of mental health conditions. The NHS gender identity development service reports that less than 1% of its patients have attempted suicide; meanwhile, Swedish research has found that transitioning doesn’t remove trans people higher risk for suicide. In other words, the Mermaids version overstates the risk and then demands a cure that doesn’t work.

This isn’t just inaccurate. It’s damaging. In Max’s story, a child questioning their gender will see that suicide gets results: not just medical treatment, but ultimately the reconciliation of Max’s parents (the final scene of the last episode sees Max getting the longed-for blocker injection as his parents hold hands in the foreground, everything as it should be in the straightest of all possible worlds, the violent man back in the family fold). This presentation of suicide goes directly against the Samaritans guidelines for preventing the spread of suicide. Reckless politicising of self-harm is what endangers young people’s lives, not delaying irreversible medical treatments.

When Donald Trump is launching draconian measures against trans people, it seems obvious that the humane and liberal response must be the opposite of whatever he’s doing. But that’s to make the mistake of thinking we can only choose between two kinds of sexism: the patriarchy of the pussy-grabber, or the misogyny of “girls have pink brains”. Butterfly wants to be seen as a model of tolerance, but its lesson is actually a brutal one. As one gender identity specialist who watched the programme points out, Max is told persistently, insistently and consistently by his parents that he’s “wrong” as a boy. “This is not acceptance,” she says. “In fact, this is rejection.” Under the lipstick smile, Butterfly is a charter for something very regressive, and very cruel: the credo that children who can’t perform the “correct” sex stereotypes must change their bodies, or die.

Independent | I’m not surprised that the BBC chastised Jenni Murray over her transgender comments – this is what institutional sexism looks like

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Impartiality is the necessary fiction that allows the BBC to exist. A public service broadcaster that didn’t attempt to hold its head above bias would be untenable, and this is why the BBC’s editorial guidelines make it clear that news and current affairs presenters are not to publish their personal views on “controversial subjects”.

But what do you do when the controversy comes for you? When, however much you’d rather not be the object of dispute, you become the frontier in an ideological war? When what you are – and how you name yourself – slips from neutral to contentious, without you doing anything?

Jenni Murray has presented the BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour for 30 years, and she’s been a woman for even longer than that. At the weekend, the Sunday Times published an article by her titled “Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman’”. Under that headline, Murray criticised some claims of trans activism (and she was careful to say she was talking about the extreme of the debate): that anyone who identifies as a woman has “always been a woman” no matter the age at which they transition, and that references to the female body should be censored in the interests of inclusion.

Read the full post at the Independent

New Statesman | Why gender became the ultimate forum for self-expression

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In November, the British high-street bank Metro announced that it was expanding its gender and title options. Customers could now register as “non-binary” rather than male or female, and as “Mx” rather than Miss, Ms, Mrs or Mr. In some ways, this development parallels the rise of Ms in the 1970s, which was popularised by feminists who wanted a title that didn’t identify women by their marital status. In practice, Ms marks women by their political affiliation instead (if you’re talking to a Ms, you’re probably talking to a feminist) but, even so, its first intention was to conceal rather than reveal information.

Mx does something different. To declare yourself a Mx is to disclose something about yourself: that your identity is outside what has become known as “the gender binary”, and you are neither man nor woman but something either in between or entirely other. This is a statement about who you are, and it comes with an implicit understanding that not being able to make that statement – or not having it recognised – is damaging. As the father of one gender-non-binary teenager told BuzzFeed UK: “When . . . you don’t identify as male or female and you only see those two boxes, then you don’t see yourself there . . . You are absent. That must hurt, and that’s what makes me angry.”

Read the full article in the New Statesman

First published New Statesman, 17-23 February 2017, as part of the New Times feature

 

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

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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)

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

New Statesman | Are we trying too hard to be liberal about gender?

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When I was four, my role model was a small cartoon mongrel dog with a formidable talent for swordsmanship. Or swordswomanship, because I was convinced that Dogtanian (of Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds) was a girl. My reasoning went like this: I am the most important person in the world and a girl, therefore the most important person in my favourite cartoon must also be a girl. And many happy games of Muskehounds were played by me, in my dungarees, oblivious to the unlikelihood of a children’s cartoon having a female lead in the first place, let alone giving that female lead the lovely Juliette as a romantic interest.

Eventually I realised my mistake, decided it was unfair that women never got to be action heroes, and grew up to be a feminist with the Alien films on Blu-ray. But it could all have gone another way. On Radio 4’s iPM this week, the mother of a 10-year-old called Leo explained that one of the reasons she knew her female child must be either a boy or non-binary was that Leo’s fictional idols were always male: Peter Pan, Iron Man, Wolverine.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

The Spectator | How should gender be defined in Olympic sports?

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There were no women athletes in the first modern Olympic games. The next time around, in the 1900 Paris games, out of 997 athletes there were 22 women, who competed in just five acceptably ladylike sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism and golf. Over a century later, the introduction of women’s boxing meant that the 2012 Olympics were the first to feature women competing in all sports. But that moment of parity has been followed almost immediately by a drastic challenge to the very definition of women’s sport, as the International Olympic Committee brought out new rules last November on the inclusion of trans athletes.

Read the full article at the Spectator

Notes from a non-cis woman

If cis means not-trans, then I am cis. I have been told repeatedly that cis is a label that belongs on me, and assured by those applying it that it’s not an insult – even while in many cases its use has clearly implied that, as a cis woman, I have certain privileges that preclude me from being listened to on certain issues. What are those privileges? Julia Serano defines the state of being cis as the condition of enjoying agreement between one’s physical sex and “subconscious sex”:

I suppose that when a person feels right in the sex they were born into, they are never forced to locate or question their subconscious sex, to differentiate it from their physical sex. In other words, their subconscious sex exists, but is hidden from view. They have a blind spot.

Julia Serano, Whipping Girl, p. 87

There is no substantial definition of the “subconscious sex” concept in Whipping Girl, and it’s one about which I’m dubious. The exemplary work of Cordelia Fine has made it clear that there are no definitive differences between male and female brains, and unless “subconscious sex” refers to a sense of proprioception configured to the genitals of the sex one isn’t, I struggle to see what it can be if not gender essentialism. (This is a criticism of Serano’s reasoning, not a rejection of trans people, obviously: people have the right to live as they are happy without constructing a biological or psychological narrative to convince me or anyone else that nature approves.)

But if I don’t acknowledge a “subconscious sex”, I do recognise the experience of feeling alienated from my gender. I have a clear and specific recollection of being about nine or ten, walking on my primary school playing field, wrestling with some unremembered slight or indignity, and thinking: “I don’t want to be a girl.” That thought never developed into the corollary which is often described in trans narratives – not wanting to be a girl did not become wanting to be a boy – but I felt the pinched and narrow nature of femininity encroaching on me, and I wanted to resist it.

Options for resistance were not many. Reading Owen Jones on gay men’s prejudices against camp reminded me of my own young fascination with camp, or more specifically with Kenneth Williams and the Carry On films. With the curious decisiveness of junior insight, I knew that Barbara Windsor and Hattie Jacques were not roles I could bear to live in; I knew that the gruff roguishness of a Sid James was off-limits; but the self-conscious phoniness of camp was a sort of femininity that I could do while holding off the trap of physical femaleness.

A lot of my early efforts at doing femininity were, basically, camp. I cleaved to the tacky and the preposterous, fake snakeskin trainers and PVC minis, lots of eyeliner and ridiculous high shiny wedges, Barbie dolls and Pierre et Gilles pictures ripped from magazines. Not all of the time but enough of the time to be notable, I felt like the only way to negotiate the rules of femininity imposed on me was to do so as a kind of travesty. That the thing being parodied was my own sex didn’t seem too high a price for the power of doing the parodying.

I didn’t have a blind spot about gender. I had a sore spot. The body that I was developing horrified and distressed me. I worried about my tits and pubes failing to arrive promptly, then I worried about the exposing conspicuousness of their having arrived. I desperately wanted the confirmation of normality that my period would bring, then I felt ashamed of the bloody mess and the internal churning. I got stretch marks on my thighs and bum and breasts, and it never occurred to me that a stretch-marked body could be other than repulsive. I felt decisively fat, and I did things intended to atone for that perceived fatness that were both unpleasant and unhealthy. I shaved my legs with a savagery that left me scarred on shins and ankles.

I hated my body and I wanted it to be different. My absolutely normal, functional, female body was a failure in the terms of femininity – and I think that, as Glosswitch writes, most women know this self-loathing as part of the normal business of being a woman. We are asked to fulfil impossible aesthetic requirements in order to become women, while the full expanse of our humanity – as friends, as workers, as political beings, as lovers – is insistently abrogated.

I have never felt that happy consistency between my female body, the self I know myself to be, and the gender I am recognised as and judged by my ability to perform – the agreement of parts which Serano describes as “cis”. I am not cis. I am not trans. I am trying to live as a woman in a patriarchal world, and frankly that sucks enough on its own without being told the female body my culture punishes me for is a privilege in itself.

We need to talk about gender

When, exactly, is it OK to talk about gender? Obviously we talk gender all the time, speaking in its tongue, following its script; but when are we allowed to talk about it? A friend decided to tackle a Waterstones manager recently about the fact that every single colouring book in the shop was a gendered one: My First Feminine Mystique Colouring Book for Girls, The Boys’ Colouring Book for Self-Determining Humans, that sort of thing, identify the side you belong to and stay inside the lines.

Don’t you think you’ve got a responsibility to offer more than this to children, asked my friend. Not at all, countered the manager: this is just how boys and girls are. And it ended with the manager accusing my friend of being “on a crusade to change basic biology” – as if a preference for pictures of princesses or cars were a secondary sexual characteristic, like hair distribution or vocal range.

Of course, this is nonsense: children do not just happen to grow up conforming to the social expectations that go with the kind of body they have. They are taught, insistently, with a mix of cajoling, denial, example and punishment that can be more or less explicit but is always ongoing. (In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine describes the efforts of two married researchers to bring up their children without gender stereotypes: even finding a bedtime story became a nightmare of Tippex and careful corrections.)

Any system so embedded must serve a purpose, and there’s a clear hierarchy: man over woman, boy over girl. This isn’t a valuation error whereby femininity has been inadvertently priced lower than masculinity, and we can’t rectify it with a market adjustment that declares “man” and “woman” equal but distinct categories: it’s how gender is supposed to work, a patriarchal innovation that trains boys in activity and girls in passivity to keep the breeding stock in line.

It’s a pro-choice truism that abortion would never be controversial if men got pregnant. This is snappy but sadly nonsensical, because it’s not prejudice against women that makes our reproductive rights so fraught – it’s our femaleness, and a male desire to secure paternity and property against female bodies. Patriarchal gender norms are no more natural or inevitable that motorway networks or out-of-town shopping centres. We’ve invented this system, and we can invent another; but in order to change anything, we have to acknowledge the need to change by seeing ourselves as we are. And increasingly, the language that would let us do that is being silenced.

When the Child Commissioner’s report into “child on child abuse” was published last year, there was much justified distress at the acts of sexual violence and coercion described. But as Sian Norris points out, what this summary of the report didn’t tell readers was that the children being assaulted are overwhelmingly girls, and the children doing the assaulting are even more overwhelmingly boysThe same goes for murder:  Karen Ingala Smith has been campaigning since the beginning of 2012 for the killings of women by men to be recorded in official Home Office statistics.

Currently, the Home Office records and publishes data on the sex of victims of homicide and their relationship to their killer. What it doesn’t do is publish information on the sex of the murderers – and this conceals the fact that the people who kill women are overwhelmingly men. We know, with a kind of dull acceptance of horror, that two women a week are killed by their partner or ex-partner, but what we don’t identify is the way that masculine contempt for women and desire to control women is practised with fatal results.

In the same way that the pretence of “not seeing race” allows racism to flourish unexamined, a refusal to acknowledge gender creates a warm pocket in which misogyny can multiply. The leaked Amnesty consultation document on prostitution is a good example of this. This document is explicitly designed to avoid any discussion of gendered power – the introduction informs the reader that the term “sex worker” has been chosen and is “intended to be gender neutral”. But the sex industry is not gender neutral: those who are hired for sex are overwhelmingly women, those doing the hiring are even more overwhelmingly men, and this in a world where (according to the World Bank) women own just 1% of all wealth. [Update 10 February 2014: see this comment for better quality measures of women’s access to capital and power.]

Amnesty may counter that this is an attempt to establish a universal principle rather than a gendered analysis, but what good is a universal principle when the difference of sex is at the very centre of the transaction? The material fact of the body and the social fact of gender both persist, however much one would like to cleanse them from the analysis. And some people would like to cleanse them very much. Disastrously, there are even efforts to purge gender from the language of reproductive rights under the guise of making services more accessible to trans people.

The US organisations Planned Parenthood and NARAL and the UK campaign Education for Choice have all recently given support to a petition calling on reproductive rights organisations to be “pro-trans pro-choice”. But there are few specifics on what a pro-trans pro-choice position would look like in practice, and where one has been attempted, the results create a vertiginous disconnect between the politics of reproduction and the bodies these operate on.

For example, the New York Abortion Access Fund’s values statement, now meticulously drafted to include people of all genders who may need the Fund’s support, opens with a strikingly clumsy piece of phrasing: “The New York Abortion Access Fund believes that every person should be able to determine their own reproductive destiny…” The unintended implications of this formulation are frankly dangerous to abortion rights.

Curtly, every “person” does not have the right to control their reproductive destiny: the men who impregnate women, for example, do not get to be the ultimate arbiters of whether that pregnancy is carried to term. And so one of the key insights of feminism is lost in a swamp of good intentions.

One might think that strictly biological language could offer an escape from such ambiguities, but apparently not: a Texas fundraiser called A Night of a Thousand Vaginas was criticised for its use of the V word by some trans activists, who claimed that it was alienating to trans men. Yet simultaneously in the UK, anti-FGM campaigner Nimko Ali receives vicious abuse accusing her of propagating a “cunt-obsessed culture” because of her work protecting girls from genital mutilation. A woman who claims the right to name and control her female body is still an insurrectionist, and our rebellion is not so advanced that we can afford to surrender any gains.

For those whose sex is misaligned with their sense of their own gender, I have sympathy and sisterhood. Trans women are no threat to feminism, they suffer the sexism that hurts every woman, and they have their share in this fight. But to fight sexism, we must understand that gender is a system of policing female bodies: transgender individuals bravely defy patriarchy’s absurd limitations (and often at the personal cost of horrendous stigma), but they cannot undo patriarchy simply by the force of their own exceptionalism.

We need to talk about what “man” and “woman” mean, and scrutinise the imperfect but profound association between those categories and the male and female humans they respectively act on. Feminism can never be gender neutral, because it is the corrective to a world with a manifest gender bias – albeit a bias that we would rather not acknowledge, even when women are killed by men, even when girls are raped by boys, even when women trade access to their bodies for money while men have the disposable income to pay for an orgasm.  We need to talk about gender.