Why is it transgender people cannot understand that biological sex is biological sex? That is pretty obvious isn't it? Or...?
The recent J. K. Rowling is a transphobic TERF debate has in many ways clarified what the anti-trans arguments boil down to.
Rowling gave her support to Maya Forstater, who – among other things – has argued that “I think that male people are not women. I don’t think being a woman/female is a matter of identity or womanly feelings. It is biology.”
Forstater's statement echoes a lot of similar arguments about trans people denying the reality of biological sex. How can sex be "socially constructed", when everyone can see that little boys have penises, and little girls have vaginas?
These common sense statements are seductive, partly because they seem so intuitively true and partly because many trans activist have found it hard to communicate their concerns in simple to understand ways.
Here comes a simple and common sense explanation for why Forstater's argument is wrong.
Words about motherhood
To put the whole discussion into perspective, I am going to use somewhat different, but related example, namely the concept of motherhood.
I am sure we all can agree that a good definition of "a mother" is a person who has given birth to a child. This truth actually applies to most mammals. The biological definition of "mother" therefore implies that the person in question is female, and she has a fully functioning uterus and fertile eggs.
But note that this is the biological definition of mother. It does not reflect the way we think of motherhood in a social and cultural setting.
I grew up with a friend whose biological mother had died giving birth to him. Her sister, who happened to be infertile and had no kids, adopted him. She and her husband raised him as their own. As far as he was concerned, she was his mother and her husband was his father, and that was the way the rest of us also saw it.
In other words, there is a cultural and social definition of motherhood that is different from the biological one. We could probably say that a mother is a woman who who raises a particular kid and loves them and cares for them. The term "mother" is defined by the interaction between the woman and the child. She sees the kid as her child, and the kid sees the woman as their mother.
Moreover, the social role of being a mother also includes other members of the family and the community. They will also see this woman as the mother of this kid.
The identities defined, "mother" and "child", transcends biology. Indeed, we have even more concepts of motherhood, like in stepmothers, mothers who give put up their child for adoption, surrogate mothers, donor mothers, foster mothers, families with two mothers and so on and so forth. *)
|When mothers were real mothers.|
This does not mean that the biological definition is wrong, per se. It simply means that as far as human interaction is concerned, it is of limited use.
A medical doctor may make use of the biological definition, a zoologist may also do so, but for a teacher, a priest, a psychologist or a politician it is rarely useful.
The circular logic of the anti-trans argument
What Rowling and Forstater are saying is not what they pretend to be saying, namely that "biological sex is biological sex" (which is – when you think of it – just a statement with no meaningful new information – it is not an argument). What they are saying is that "cultural and social gender is nothing more than biological sex."
So their understanding of what defines a man in any context, biological or social, is that he has a penis. But here's the thing: Right wing fundamentalists and trans-exclusionary radical feminists do not behave in accordance with this "truism". Far from it!
|The strict policing of bathrooms is one way of enforcing the|
gender binary (Photo: breaking the walls)
They do not go up to every person they meet and ask them to pull down their trousers or skirts so that they can see their genitals.
They do not ask everyone they do not know for a DNA-test so that they know how to treat that person, as a man or a woman.
In fact, they all accept the immediate impression of what gender that person is, based on body shape, clothing and gender expressions – as do most people.
Because in social interactions gender is not defined by genitalia, but by the way we appear, behave and present ourselves.
Women in women's bathrooms
This is why I with great confidence can say that all the women who fear the presence of trans women in women's restrooms, have shared public bath rooms with trans women over and over again. Nothing bad has happened.
And that is precisely why they fear trans women so much. Their whole world view requires a clear and unambiguous definition of sex/gender, and the very existence of transgender and gender dysphoric intersex people proves that their idea of a strict sex binary is wrong.
The problem for transphobes is not that trans women threaten the safety of cis women in bathrooms. The problem is that they pose no threat at all. Indeed, trans women often face the same kind of sexual harassment as cis women does. They face the same threats, which accentuates what they have in common, and not what makes them different.
|The good old days, when men were men and women used|
a lot of hair spray. (Thunderball 1965)
Why trans people cannot exist in a binary world
Remember that as far as the gender fundamentalists go, left wing or right wing, trans people should not exist. I mean this in a factual, and not moral, sense. They literally should not exist.
According to the right wing extremists, trans people are evolutionary unfit, and the evolutionary process should therefore have rooted out all genes and traits that makes transgender identities possible. These traits should have been killed off it the brutal fight between fit straight men who do battle over the right to have sex with beautiful women.
According to the religious extremists, God made us man or woman, and since God makes no mistakes, trans people cannot exist. Nor can gay and lesbian people for that matter. They may blame the Devil of course, but by doing so they risk giving the dark side part in creation, which is something they do not want.
Many trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) will tell you that they do not really believe that the presence of a penis causes a man to feel like a man. Instead they will argue that in a Patriarchy ruled by men, men are raised to feel and behave like men.
So the presence of a penis causes this person to be identified as a man by others, which again causes that person to feel like a man. That is why men are men, and women are women, and why the two never will understand each other.
This is a slightly more sophisticated variant of the "biological sex is biological sex" argument, but it does not change the fact that some "men" raised as "men" do not feel as "men". If biological sex plus socialization equals gender destiny, they should not exist.
The TERFs may dismiss female to male trans men as deluded lesbian women who want access to male power and privilege. This is of course a very arrogant way of disregarding the experience of people who they think of as women, but given the TERF world view it makes sense.
The "men" who want to be women, however, are impossible to understand within this framework. Who would anyone want to relinquish the power of being a man to become a female victim? The TERF map of the world does not allow for such needs, which forces the TERFs to define those assigned male who say they are women as mentally ill or sexually perverted. Which is a pretty misogynistic way of looking at womanhood, when you think about it.
The existence of trans people falsifies the strict binary
Again: According to the world views of anti-trans people – pseudo-Darwinism, divine perfection or social conditioning – trans people cannot exist and should not exist.
|Some think that for something to be real, they have to|
see it. Well, trans people are real.
Yet there they are, both transgender and misgendered intersex people, people who for various reasons experience a deep disconnect between their assigned and felt gender.
Their very existence proves that the idea that gender identity is caused by their genitalia or their X and Y chromosomes cannot be right. Experienced gender cannot be reduced to biological sex.
There are most likely many reasons for why trans people are trans, including genetic, hormonal, cultural, social and psychological factors, but in this context that does not matter. What matters is that their experience of wrongness, dissonance, mismatch is real. Very real.
And given the way transphobic people treat trans people – the harassment, the invalidation and the social exclusion – arguing that trans people chose to be trans because it is "fashionable" is ridiculous. There are simply too many of them, with too diverse backgrounds for this to be true.
Moreover, transgender people have been around for millennia and in a wide variety of cultures. They are not the invention of capitalism, communism, satanic cults, aliens or trans trenders.
|"Throw ball like a girl." For real! Photo Hruan.|
Gender is not the same as sex
Note that the reason people started using the grammatical term "gender" to describe the cultural, social and cultural aspects of how we see ourselves and others, was that people saw that the experienced and/or expressed gender could deviate from the biological sex.
Since then the term gender has also been used to discuss the cultural and social aspects of gender in general. Again it is an observable fact that gender cannot be reduced to biological sex. We have tons of psychiatric, psychological, anthropological, sociological, linguistic and historic research to support this understanding of sex and gender.
As soon as you allow for the same flexibility when it comes to the terms "man" and "woman as we do with "mother" and "father", it is easy to see that culturally speaking, there is nothing in nature that stops us from accepting trans people for who they are.
Why are transphobes in denial?
So why won't the transphobes accept trans people? The main reason is that their whole world view, and their understanding of their own role in society, depend on it.
For religious fundamentalists – Christian, Muslim, Hindu – the gender binary and the traditional, gender roles are required to uphold the power of men over women, and insiders over outsiders.
To right wing extremists, the idea of the hypermasculine male warrior and bread winner requires strict gender roles, where women are reduced to caretakers and baby factories.
As far as the trans-exclusionary radical feminists go, they need a world view were all men are perpetrators and all women are victims. They do not, as most modern feminists do, understand that there are no winners in the Patriarchy. Both men and women are forced into the straight jacket of gender stereotypes, where they have to live lives that are not fully their own.
The TERFs also seem to ignore the amazing diversity of both female and male lives. A woman who has grown up in the countryside of Ghana does not have the same life forming experience as white upper class women in Britain. As soon as you grasp that diversity, it isn't hard to include the unique experiences of trans women into the world of women.
This is why the sentence "gender is the same as biological sex" is never used by people who do not have a clear anti-trans (and even anti-gay) agenda. They want to bring us back to a time when the English language had only one term to discuss both biological sex and gender, because by controlling language in this way, they can insult and invalidate trans people while at the same time sounding reasonable. But they are not reasonable.
What about the spectrum?
Some of you have probably noticed that I have not said a word about nonbinary identities or the concept of a gender spectrum so far. This is not because I do not think they are important. I have simply tried to make my argument as straightforward and simple to understand as possible.
|Gender identity, gender expression, masculinity and femininity,|
sexual orientation and human bodies are all
best understood as parts of spectrums.
Illustration: Thot Adan.
The reason fundamentalists hate the idea of a gender spectrum (often referred to as "gender ideology" by them) is that it provides us with such a good picture of the real world.
Anyone who are able to put aside the stereotypes for one moment will see that men and women are not copies of some kind of perfect, divine, patterns or clichés. Most women are not Barbies, or perfect housewives or compassionate mothers. Most men are not muscular soldiers, brilliant professors or whatever it is a specific cultures sees as the eternal masculine.
Indeed, both men and women, vary along all relevant gender axes:
- Masculinity vs. femininity (regardless of how you define these terms)
- Interests (Knitting used to be a male occupation)
- Abilities (Feminist reforms have made it absolutely clear that women can be as good as men in any occupation, and vice versa)
- Gender expressions (Roman men would not be seen dead in trousers)
- Body shapes (to the extent that women may appear "mannish" and men "womanish")
- Genitals (and that goes beyon the existence of intersex people born with ambiguous genitalia.)
- Sexual orientation (which definitely does not follow the man+woman archetype.)
- Gender identity (i.e. your sense of self gender wise)
Power, that's why. This is all about the power to control others. The good news is that language can also be used as a tool for liberation.
*) See Georg Lakoff's book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things for a more through discussion of the linguistic meaning of the word mother.
- Has J.K. Rowling been misunderstood or is she really transphobic?
- How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans
- Radical Feminists and Conservative Christians Team Up Against Transgender People
- The real complexity of sex and gender
- Misogynists, Reactionaries and Anti-Feminists
- Lesbian TERFs are using the exact same tactics against trans people as homophobes used against gay men and women
Take also a look at the fascinating discussion that gave birth to this article over at CDL: