The Debatable Land #20: Bodies Are Not Inherently Male or Female And Other Untrue Modern Stories
The trans argument is a necessary one because it is, in the end, a matter of truth and lies.
The Trans Argument is, I am afraid, an important one
One of the consolations of writing about Scottish politics is that doing so inures you to unhinged criticism. When you endure years of being called a “Quisling” or a “House Jock” and much else besides you swiftly discover the limits of vituperative criticism. Even the Kippers and the Corbynistas - groups lacking hinges themselves - cannot beat the Cybernats. Their faith-based beliefs brook no rational argument and, in this respect at least, they offer a salutary demonstration of how a crowd persuades itself that plainly ludicrous beliefs may never be questioned.
So all of that was splendid training for writing about trans issues.
Sometimes people erroneously suggest it is “brave” to do so. There is a view that this argument is so “toxic” only courageous - or perhaps foolhardy - people would dare take part in it. In my experience it is only men who say this and, well, this seems modestly revealing too. Women feel and understand this debate rather differently. And, of course, men who write about it are chiefly standing upon the shoulders of the many women who drew attention to this subject long before it was fashionable or an obviously vital argument. If there really is “bravery” here, it is the women writers and campaigners who deserve the medals and not just because women who dare to question the trans-rights movement’s shibboleths may count upon receiving far greater - and much nastier - criticism than men who make precisely the same points. This too seems quietly revealing.
Still, I understand why many people do not wish to write about this subject. The fact I find it interesting - and, actually, important - does not require other people to think it interesting or important. We all have our preferred issues and that’s fine. Plenty of people think this only a minor one and while I disagree with that it is at least a view worthy of respect in a democratic society. But what is, I think, less excusable is the view that one should opt out from taking a view on the gender wars because, gosh, it’s so very difficult and, in any case, “both sides” have much to answer for.
Because “both sides” do not have much to answer for.
Only one side peddles the most obviously arrant nonsense. Only one side asks that we rethink and recategorise all our views on sex and gender. Only one side takes a “no debate” line of intolerance. Only one side gets a kick out of threatening violence - often sexual violence - in the most lurid terms. Only one side traduces - libels, in fact - its opponents as advocates of, god help us, “genocide”.
It might all be laughable if it weren’t concurrently so serious. One thing that I have learnt over the years is to take people and what they say seriously. It is safer and wiser to presume that people do actually mean what they say. So, listen up.
A couple of years ago the Oxford historian of feminism Selina Todd was the subject of intense protest at a conference on, um, feminism. Her views on sex and gender were - presumably still are - utterly conventional and this was reason enough for her to be “de-platformed”. A sign of the times, for sure, but again it was instructive to listen to what some of her accusers were saying. According to one activist, “feminism is a methodology that we can use to make demands for our freedom” and “woman is an umbrella term under which we can gather to make those demands”. Womanhood is nothing more - or less - than “a strategy for those of us on the underside of capital and other death-making machines” and “has no meaning to me absent of that function”.
That is not all. “Sex and the body are not the final frontier for me. My imagination is bigger than that. My liberated future includes us all. It is not beholden to a rigid sex binary” because “trans liberation is central to our collective liberation, especially for anyone interested in abolishing gender and its violent consequences.”
Now you may object this was merely one young person indulging a young person’s inalienable right to spout the most dreadful nonsense. But in this instance this guff is wholly typical of its mind-bending genre and, actually, more honest that quite a lot of it. Womanhood, you will note, “has no meaning” absent a wholly spurious assertion of what it is supposed to be.
I think it is reasonable for women - and men too, actually, for this is not just a woman’s issue even if it is often considered, and thus relegated to, such - to object to this just as I think it reasonable for look askance at this explanation of the “paradox of trans feminism” from the Berkeley professor Grace Lavery:
There is something about being treated like shit by shit men that feels like affirmation itself, like a cry of delight from the deepest cavern of my breast. He does not see me as a boy, and everyone here can see what is happening! For those of us whose pre-transition lives also entailed our being excluded from male society because of the inadequacy of our approximations or travesties of maleness (among which I mostly count myself), to be the victim of honest, undisguised sexism possesses an exhilarating vitality, as well as a kind of moral clarity.
Well, maybe. Lavery, though, is interesting even if sometimes unintentionally so. And there is at least some self-knowledge. For, according to Lavery:
“I’m not delusional; being the object of French male sexism isn’t the same as passing for une femme. Nobody really thinks I am French; people only think I am une femme in a sort of abstract sense.”
Quite so. Reflecting on her memoir - entitled, sweet Jesus, Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis - Lavery has noted that she was thinking about “pastiche as a kind of trans mode” and again, well, we can agree on that even if it is the sort of quiet thing people are not supposed to say out loud. From there it really is but a short hop to thinking, as Lavery does, that “woman” is a “political term” not a biological one.
Of her own story, she has said, “Transition has felt so much like a change of genre — moving from one genre to another genre — and so I wanted to write about that” and, again, this is a more honest observation than Lavery may even realise herself. For an identity may be deeply, passionately, irrevocably, felt and still sometimes be a kind of pose. To be true to herself, Lavery must be a performer and this is fine so long as we remember that it is, in fact, only a performance. If this makes her a woman, it is one of a very particular - and unrepresentative - kind. (It may also make her a very particular, and perhaps unrepresentative, trans woman too.)
Where Lavery is impeccably mainstream, however, is in her conviction that she can - indeed has - changed sex. That this is a biological impossibility - this is a neutral statement of mere fact - is a merely trivial detail of no great consequence. This rot - for what else can one call such delusions? - is now a mainstream view.
Only last week, a representative from Stonewall, arguably the biggest and most influential trans lobby group in Britain, told a court that, look, everyone now knows that “Bodies are not inherently male or female. They are just their bodies”. Not only that but “It’s a matter of biological reality that sex changes over a person’s life cycle”.
I mean, really. People who believe the world is flat really should not object to other people pointing out that they believe the world is flat. But here again we see reality - dispassionate reality - turned on its head. (The theory, I think, is that post-menopausal women are no longer women in the way they were and have therefore in some strange fashion changed sex. Cobblers, obviously.)
Thus we now inhabit a twilit world in which it is simultaneously transphobic - an assertion often made but rarely proved - to think sex and gender identity different things and transphobic to consider them interchangeable ideas. Either way, rationalism must lose.
Lacking imagination, I cannot see how manifestly untrue claims advance the rights of trans people at all save to the extent that if these arguments become sufficiently attritional other people will eventually tire of them and opt for the comforts of a quieter, less exhausting, life. But then I do not see how inviting women - it is almost always women - to “suck my chick dick” puts you on the “right side of history” either.
If all this were confined to Stonewall and other activists it might be troubling but not necessarily a matter of public concern. Alas, this is not so. Earlier this year counsel for the Scottish government said, in court, that “Sex at birth is no longer considered immutable” and while it is indeed the case that some people do not consider sex immutable this does not alter the reality that it is. Nevertheless, we may here see the Scottish government - which intends to proceed with its plans to allow people to make it easier for people to self-identify as they wish - captured by fashionable idiocy.
Those Scottish government plans are ostensibly about making trans lives easier. Almost no-one, least of all so-called gender critical feminists, wishes to make them harder. Nevertheless, Nicola Sturgeon’s question-begging assertion there is no clash between trans and women’s rights does not in fact make that clash disappear. This is not, in fact, about bathrooms (for trans people have been using their preferred cubicles for years without often occasioning too much fuss) but rather about elemental questions of being. If anyone may be a woman, what is a woman?
Even so, most of the time live-and-let-live is both the easiest and the best basis upon which to proceed. Most people will acknowledge your choice of pronouns and most of the time there need be no great conflict between trans people’s need to express themselves as they really feel themselves to be and anyone else. To that extent, people are just people.
But, once again, trans people are not really the main event when it comes to same-sex spaces. The question of opening women’s sport to biological males is an issue of obvious fairness and the matter of what to do about prisons a question of obvious safety. In each of these arenas the fear is less of trans people than of men taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by a laxer, more easily achievable, definition of what it is to be trans.
The first thing to be said is that this does not suggest transwomen are likely to be sex offenders. Most transwomen - like most other people, obviously - are not likely to be criminals at all. Nevertheless, there are only two possible explanations for these figures: either criminal transwomen are much more likely to commit crimes of a sexual nature than natal women or non-trans biological men. Alternatively, something else is happening here and some men are affirming a trans status that is, at best, dubious. (It should be noted that these figures do not include prisoners with a Gender Recognition Certificate; they are therefore based on a prisoner’s own identification and affirmation of that identity.)
Since the best-available study - from Sweden - suggests transmen and transwomen offend at broadly the same rate as other members of their natal sex - ie, that transwomen have a male pattern of crime and transmen a female one - it logically follows that the best explanation for why so many transwomen in prison are sex offenders is that not all of these people are truly trans. From which it might then be inferred that loosening requirements for obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate (as proposed in Scotland) expand the definition of trans in ways which may not always be helpful to trans people who have obtained a GRC under the existing, more onerous, regime.
I don’t pretend this is an easy problem to solve but it is much worse to pretend there is no issue here at all. (I strongly suspect blanket rules about where to house particular types of prisoner are likely to be less helpful than a case-by-case consideration of what is most appropriate for a given individual prisoner.)
Ignoring these difficulties - which is what activists and Scottish policy-makers wish to do - does not make them disappear. Indeed, it most likely makes them worse.
Much of this debate is not really a debate at all but, rather, two groups of people talking past one another. Trans people’s rights are important - and no-one sensible, or decent, would wish to make their lives harder - and they should, must, be afforded the requisite measure of dignity.
We should recognise this, however, without feeling any need to submit to fantastical reinterpretations of plainly observable biological reality. Truth is real, no matter how often it is reinterpreted beyond breaking point. This is not “transphobic” unless the term’s meaning is redefined to encompass disinterested observations of reality.
The mania for doing precisely that, however, speaks to a quasi-religious zeal on the part of some activists labouring under the misapprehension truth can be remade merely by wishful thinking and affirmation. People are entitled to tell themselves lies but they have no right to demand other people believe them.
In the end, that is the real argument here: between those who accept reality and recognise its complexity and those who wish it wished away. Since this latter group now includes a remarkable number of politicians, it seems like it should be something worth paying attention to.
Ed West on Scouse exceptionalism. [The Wrong Side of History]
Ian Birrell on what McDonald’s leaving Russia portends. (I am not entirely ashamed that visiting the Red Square Golden Arches was a highlight of a school trip to Russia in 1991. Probably not quite as good as the Bolshoi but not at all bad.) [Unherd]
Stuart McGurk on the first, tragicomic, predictably dreadful, year of GB News. [New Statesman]
Why the Ukrainian army still uses a 100 year old machine gun. [The Economist]
The South Bank Show does Billy Connolly.
That’s all for today. See you here again soon, I hope. As ever, thanks for reading and special thanks to those of you who support this newsletter with a paid subscription.
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