In recent years, gender has become an explosive subject. How gender is defined has grown to be as complex as it is divisive. Much like the infamous sex wars of the 1980s, it has split the feminist movement. Nowadays gender has the entire political left in a state of flux. Once, it was simple: sex was biological, gender socially constructed. In physical terms we were either male-bodied or female-bodied and the rest, in the immortal words of RuPaul, was drag — down to socialisation. Now, the very mention of biology can be slammed as essentialism, with hundreds of years’ worth of scientific research written off as a TERF “myth.”
For the uninitiated in gender politics, TERF stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. If you have ever used biology to highlight the material differences between a male and female body then it’s highly probable that you’re a TERF too. The phrase “trans-exclusionary” raises two questions: what is meant by trans, and excluded from what?
Traditionally a person with gender dysphoria — when the gender an individual identifies with internally does not match their physical sex — would have been classed as transgender, seeking medical intervention in order to transition (e.g. female-to-male). The last decade has seen a dramatic increase in the number of referrals to gender identity clinics and yet, of the 650,000 gender incongruent people in Britain, a mere 30,000 are estimated to have made any physical transition. As Sarah Ditum wrote in the New Statesman, when considering those undertaking medical transition “the trans population of the UK makes up just 0.2 percent of the whole.”
Government research such as Maria Miller’s Transgender Equality Inquiry does not sufficiently take into account the unforeseen consequences of further enshrining gender identity in law — particularly, the negative implications for women and girls.
As queer politics would have it, a male-bodied person identifying as female is entitled to access women’s bathrooms, women’s changing rooms, and even women’s shelters — spaces created to protect women from male violence — on the grounds that to do otherwise would be exclusionary. Women raising objection, concerned about their personal safety, are framed as bigots by the progressive left. And, somehow, it is always women’s spaces that become controversial in these discussions — I am yet to witness a fraction of the same furor generated by transmen wishing to access male spaces or services.
The needs of the countless women accessing sex-segregated spaces become secondary to the needs of the few through queer politics – under 1% of the general population are trans. It is obvious that there are competing interests involved in this discussion. Yet acknowledging any divergence between the needs of natal women and transwomen is interpreted as a sign of bigotry, irrefutable proof of TERF beliefs. A culture of fear now dictates how we talk about gender. Replace “TERF” with the word witch, and you will see that this discourse has regressed into a modern day witch hunt.
There is a great deal of elaborate reasoning as to why transwomen have brains that “feel female”, which is lauded as progressive science, yet simply stating that the penis is a male organ is strictly prohibited if you are to be the right sort of feminist, included in the right sorts of liberal circles. For decades, feminists have been challenging the idea that there is an inherently female pattern of behaviour – such arguments were crucial to women gaining the vote, taking an active role in the public sphere. Is falling back on the essentialism of “lady brain” really so forward thinking? Is shouting down the women we disagree with so progressive?
Discourse surrounding gender is misrepresented as debating “trans people’s existence”, a misleading approach: gender carries implications for us all, whether we identify with our physical sex or not. It is relevant to everyone. Therefore, all perspectives must be shared without fear or intimidation for this conflict to be resolved.