What Makes A Woman?

Harvey Jeni
May 16, 2018 · 6 min read

A day last month I saw a movement in microcosm: an ideology play itself out over one miniature time frame. It was a snapshot so clear and illustrative, that for a moment I forgot about the lights shining in my face, or the next thing I had to say. Any weight of responsibility and tight feel in the sternum gave way to a nail hit sharply on the head.

The hour or so leading up to this moment has been well documented. On the evening of April 19th a meeting was being held at the Jam Jar in Bristol to discuss proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, the erosion of sex based exemptions enshrined in the Equality Act, and the potential impact of these on women and girls. There would be four main speakers along with some time afterwards devoted to comments from the floor and questions to the panel.

In order for this meeting to take place, however, women had first to run a gauntlet of protestors, who stood blocking the entrance to the venue with banners, and who occupied the stairwell leading up to the meeting room. For a brief time trapped on this stairwell with masked protestors both in front and behind me, I found myself in fear of my physical safety. Unsettling images of my children having to deal with the news that someone had hurt me — and hurt me deliberately — because I wanted to talk about how women and girls stood to lose their sex based protections, came unbidden and unwelcome.

I thought about those rights fought for by women over centuries as a young man in front of me, pink scarf tied tight to his nose and mouth, used his chest and arms to prevent me moving forwards. The atmosphere was febrile; tense and unsure. The stairs were steep. I thought about the mother of this son: what being a woman had meant for her. And then out of the danger and close intimidation, a disembodied voice rose plummy from the back and broke the spell. It wished to remind me — and remind me without so much as a hint of self consciousness — that misgendering was “violence.” Consider the scene: had it been less concerning, I might have laughed out loud.

As it was, a sense of absurdity and disbelief followed me finally into the venue and onto the platform; saw me into the chair, take hold of the mic, and address the room. It was a room filled with women and men of many different viewpoints: those questioning the current narratives around gender are in no way a homogenous group, and still more are undecided and unsure. But at the back of the room, sure as anything, perched camera ready and cross legged on a stool, was a famous person I recognised.

Munroe Bergdorf, a model and transactivist, had arrived in the midst of the preceding chaos, complete with film crew, and was now attempting for the second time, hand waving in the air, to disrupt proceedings by shouting over a speaker. In response, a reminder — a repetition of that which had previously been stated: that all opinions were welcome, but that before we could question what they had to say, speakers first needed to be heard without interruption.

And so here begins the argument.

There can be no civil discourse with those known to be critical of trans ideology because the existence of trans people is not up for debate. This is now a well worn line, the second half of which is, of course, perfectly accurate. The existence of trans people is not up for debate. After all, it is not possible to debate a non-existent person. No one has ever felt threatened by an empty changing room, and women are not being beaten in their sporting events by nobody. Such passionate feeling could never come about over thin air. Human beings that identify as trans exist, just as I and you exist. The questioning of a belief that male people are female people simply because they claim so, does not constitute a denial of anyones existence. Neither is it a denial of their entitlement to exactly the same human rights as everyone else. There is no human right to use spaces reserved for those born female if you are biologically male, however, and what women are asking for is a debate around potential changes to the law, and the aggressive attempts to reshape social norms, that will affect their actual rights and status as a protected group based on biological sex.

But if to speak of the sexed difference between trans women as natally male and women as natally female — and how we might uphold existing equality law that specifically allows for, and recognises as necessary, a space for this difference — is framed as denying someone’s entire existence, then in one fell swoop, any mention of rights as they pertain at all to female people becomes unspeakable. Which is exactly the point. Disingenuous hyperbole around denying the existence of trans people is specifically designed to shut down dialogue, in much the same way as accusations of fascism, and threats of violence.

Why is this debate being so summarily rejected though? If these changes to the law and social norms are so necessary for the greater good, and yet being met with such resistance, then why would advocates not want to discuss; not want to persuade? If information was available that could sway even the most sceptical, then do we believe this would be being held back on the high principle of refusing to debate the validity of ones subjective identity? Or is it more likely that this information would be being waved triumphantly under the collective nose and presented as an end to any arguments once and for all?

I am not an unreasonable woman. Present me with evidence that proves incontrovertibly that male people are female people just because they believe themselves to be, and I will change my mind. I will — just as if presented with incontrovertible evidence of a creationist God — fall to my knees and become a true believer. Until then, I retain my right not to believe it, to say that it isn’t true, and that I should not be obliged to pretend it is.

A fair and sensible debate around the realities of sex and gender is not being rejected on the basis of principle, but on the knowledge that it is neither winnable nor affordable. Male people are not female people just because they say they are: this is commonly understood by the large majority, and so therefore debate must be rejected, both in order to avoid egg on the face, but also to prevent the large majority becoming more aware of changes being forced by the back door and joining the resistance.

If we are able to look beyond these emotive accusations of existence denial, charges of bigotry and fascism, and threats of violence and suicide, we are left only with the preposterous claim that — again — biologically male human beings are female human beings because they say so. Indefensible and without proof, this position can only be held up by ensuring it is untouchable. Allowance for any close examination sees it all fall to bits.

None of which would matter if these ideas were kept only to the personal and private sphere. People, after all, are allowed to believe whatever they like. We have long agreed that all vulnerable groups are entitled to live in a society that does not discriminate against, or mistreat them. The issue arises in the demand that all others be forced to change their beliefs, their language, their laws, and understanding of the world, based on a belief system they do not share and that has no basis in reality. If we are going to make such massive changes to our laws and social norms that over half the population must give up already established and long fought for rights, these should be made only on the basis of testable, measurable, and quantifiable truth.

And so back to the meeting. With the last speaker finished and the crowd shuffling and eager to have their say, I scanned the room for raised hands; for Bergdorf’s raised hand. Now was the chance for those that wanted to speak, that wanted to challenge ideas they’d heard, that wanted — not to disrupt — but to honestly join the discussion. Peer to peer, with full right of reply, the floor was open to anyone to tell the truth as they saw it.

But Bergdorf had already left the building.

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