What Happened To Our Movement?
Essay №1 on The Gender Troubles
Trans women are women are women are women are women are women……
My name is Connor Kelly. I’m a gay man from Derry. And aye, I’d probably be called “gender non-conforming.” (A term I quite like). I’ve been involved with LGBT politics for some years and in left wing politics including the anti-war and environmental campaigns more broadly in Ireland, and to a lesser extent in England. I was involved with People Before Profit in Ireland but I would like to stress that in this essay I do not speak for PBPA (which I haven’t been actively involved with for some years) or any other organisation — I speak for myself and myself alone. Others can (and should) have their own discussions about this and form their own positions. I’m also a musician and writer — and have performed at numerous Prides, Queer and LGBT events — I’ve been a “go-to gay musician” — if you like — for some years now. The personalised confessional essay style is not one that I particularly like — but given my deep personal investment in this debate and the LGBT movement I have chosen that format (perhaps lazily) as the most useful style for the arguments I want to make.
I’m very apprehensive about writing this — which may come as a shock to those who know me for my outrage inducing performances — but the nature of the discussion around this particular debate (when it has been allowed to be conducted) has been poisonous. Yes, poisonous is the word for it. It is poisoning ours — the LGBT — movement.
I was frightened that if I wrote something outlining my thoughts on the matter I would be denounced. So, I was scared for myself, my reputation (whatever that is!). What a cowardly silence I have been huddled in! All the more cowardly as I have seen many women being denounced for writing and saying things I broadly agree with over the last years while I mostly kept my mouth shut. More importantly though, I have been apprehensive to write on this because I don’t want to hurt peoples feelings. I don’t want to hurt the feelings of trans people I know, who I would consider friends and comrades, who I have fought with on many a campaign shoulder to shoulder.
But this situation is shite. It’s toxic. It’s getting worse by the day. It has to change. Lets talk.
“Trans women are women”
This statement, I think, is the epicentre of this debate. It is where it usually begins and ends — often circularly. So I will start here. And this is where I will undoubtedly hurt someone’s feelings — I’m sorry.
I don’t believe trans women are women, and I never have. I don’t believe it because it isn’t true. Neither do I believe trans men are men. It doesn’t matter how many times you ask me to repeat after you — I’m not gonna believe it. Sorry.
I will treat trans women as if they are women and trans men as if they are men and in every respect behave as if they were the sex they declare themselves to be even if I do not believe they really are. I also respect the right of people to not do this. This is because I think no one should be compelled to say something they don’t believe in (and that very few people really believe in). This sounds paradoxical I know, but, things are confusing these days.
So, you see the dilemma in speaking out about this? In stating that I do not believe, for many trans people (and perhaps many who are not trans), engaging with me from now on may be seen as a fundamentally dishonest exercise. Some might view me as a fundamentally dishonest person. In a way, they would be right. Why would you engage with someone who does not believe you are who you say you are or what you say you are? I see it as more of a “white lie” — a lie told, or in this case acted, in order to make someone’s life easier, to make them feel welcome, secure, safe, loved and accepted. But it is a white lie that blackens upon the declaration of itself. In short, for the purposes of making trans people’s lives easier, we have come to the conclusion that the truth cannot be told.
So why have I said this, why publicly, and why now? Why make the lie, my lie, visible? Why risk hurting people, people you respect and have affection for?
The thing is, I think everyone has been (white) lying the same as me. I have yet to meet (though they may well exist) one non-trans person who when specifically asked the question will not privately disclose that no, they don’t believe that trans women are really women, and certainly wouldn’t consider them female. Same for trans men. The people I associate with are not Christian fundamentalists or right wing homophobes — they are mostly leftist and artistic types. Many are gay or lesbian. The type that turn up for demonstrations. The type that help out with pride. The type that have our backs. Very few of them would say this publicly though — some have said they would be frightened to do so. A great many are confused and upset by the censorious tenor and direction of this debate and the movement more generally.
So have I now “universalised” the lie? Am I just saying “everyone actually thinks the way I do.” Maybe I’ve been hanging round with the wrong people? I don’t think so. Perhaps there are non-trans people who really believe that one can change body and soul from male to female or from female to male. I’ve yet to meet them. And if I did they would not convince me because it is not possible. It may be possible in the future. Who knows? But right now it is not possible. It cannot be done. If you are disturbed by this really existing state of affairs and want to blame someone, blame your God if you have one, blame evolution if it makes you feel better — blame reality itself (God knows I denounce reality regularly!) but don’t blame women who have the gall to say it.
I am quite happy to sit in a bar, party, play, work, have tea, dance, joke, campaign with male and female people presenting, dressing, and identifying as whatever the hell they like — in fact in such company I feel more happy and comfortable than in all “straight spaces.” Gender non-conforming people of one stripe or another make up half of my pals. I’m one of them. But if we believe that gender dysphoria exists — as I’m sure most trans people would agree — and if we agree that it should be treated and taken seriously — as I’m sure most people would also agree — part of that treatment as it is currently accepted, involves the social acceptance of the person as the sex they identify as. I will treat X as a woman because it makes her feel much better than treating X as a man even though I know X was born male, remains male etc. So far so good.
Now, this may be sore on a lot of people but the way I see it is essentially this: the social acceptance and welcoming of transgender (or some people prefer to be referred to as transexual) people as the sex they present as (or identify as or with) is an extension of their treatment — a social extension, if you like — a social element of their treatment. It is supposed to make lives easier. In some ways it is a testament to society’s goodwill that most people do this — even though a lot of transphobia, homophobia and misogyny (often overlapping) still exist.
(In the North of Ireland, for example, where I am from, it is rampant, open and the “great and the good” are quite comfortable spouting their hate whenever and wherever they please. Women cannot have abortions in NI. Gay men and lesbians cannot marry.)
In case anyone misunderstands my use of the word treatment here, I mean that if it was commonly understood that affirming a person’s identity was very damaging to the individual, could lead to serious mental distress etc, then surely we would not be encouraging society to affirm peoples identities. But since it is (presently) understood (under social conditions that we live under today) that affirming identity can lead to people living easier happier lives it has been encouraged and campaigned for. So in this sense, it acts as a sort of treatment for a particular kind of distress.
However, the affirmation in itself does not make it true. This is why I am distinguishing it as a kind of treatment — now mostly seen as social etiquette or taboo. This should not mean that everyone should be required by law, or compelled through their speech to participate in it (for in the end, it is not true). Nor should it mean that under no circumstances should anyone ever break this taboo. There are circumstances where it may be appropriate to do so. There are debates — particularly around women’s legal sex based rights and more broadly around gender and identity, currently happening, where not to break this taboo means that discussion cannot move forward at all, and instead ends up in circular and pointless squabbling about a whole set of claims based on a single, false premise. How can we talk about sex based rights if a section of society who may feel they are one sex but are actually the other insist in automatically being included in the sex category (women / females) in question, if we do not start from the position that there are two groups — women and transwomen. One is of the female sex, the other male. This is the way it is. The discussion cannot move forward in this instance without breaking the taboo.
(Note on “medical” terminology: I know there are a lot of (contested) calls to de-medicalise being transgender so talk of “treatment” may sound harsh, even archaic — though quite how this can be done while simultaneously campaigning for more and faster medical intervention (on demand) I don’t know. This is just one of an entire series of inconsistencies and paradoxes thrown up in this discussion. I’ve seen the same person make the argument for de-medicalisation and practically in the next breath argue for hormones and blockers on demand. Similarly it is common to see someone say that gender identity is innate, or even hardwired (for lack of a better word) go on to insist that anyone who thinks of gender as anything other than a social construct is a bigot. Go figure.)
Don’t get me wrong, I think acceptance is a good thing. However, I also know sex exists. I know sexual orientation exists (which is perhaps why a very effeminate looking male presenting as female can on occasion really get me going but I’ve yet to meet a natal woman I could fall for). So that’s why I think this is so damn sore — because people (most people I think, actually) want their friends and family and comrades to be happy, and so pretend that they are the sex they say they are while knowing that they are in fact the opposite sex. I know how this sounds, and I feel awful writing some of these words because it feels like a deliberate and disruptive interruption of a potentially very positive social etiquette. Who wants to make people feel bad? But I believe we have gotten to a point where the pretence has grown out of all proportion and rationality to the problem that it is designed to “fix” and is actually becoming damaging. Damaging to gays and lesbians, damaging to trans people, damaging to women and extremely damaging to open discussion and freedom of discussion on issues of gender and sexual orientation. And if this social treatment or social etiquette is so fragile that it cannot withstand even the slightest form of criticism — nay, even the utterance of universal truths (like “sex exists” — this one I was actually once denounced for), then perhaps we need to rethink how we are doing this.
So no, I have not universalised the lie — we have all universalised the lie. Out of the best intentions perhaps, and out of the staunchest solidarity even, we have made a white lie — intended to make people’s lives easier — into a societal taboo that has in itself thrown up a whole raft of seemingly insoluble problems. A taboo that when broken — particularly when broken by women — invites the most callous and extraordinary denunciation and repercussions. This was clearly (if recent developments hadn’t already convinced you of this) the wrong way to go, the wrong course for the LGBT movement to take.
A whole new literature has grown up around the white lie. Myriad supposed genders and identities materialise on a regular basis, all with their own treatments, etiquettes, taboos. A whole generation of young people are nonplussed as to the differences between sex and gender, baffled as to to what sexual orientation and “gender identity” are — many seem to believe wholeheartedly that one can be a woman one day and a man the next and something else the next day and that everyone must go along with this or they are bigoted meatheads, fascists or “TERFs.” We now find ourselves at a point where refusing to say “trans women are women” invites denunciation. Where women — and it is almost universally women, a lot of them lesbians (our sisters in arms!) — are compelled to repeat the lie lest they be cast from the movement (think of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a few years ago), universally denounced and in some instances no-platformed (a tactic that until recently was reserved only for outright fascists).
In making a new social taboo against saying something that is true we have gone down a rabbit hole into a land of mental and linguistic gymnastics where everyone knows the truth but no one dare say it. Madder than hatters we problematise uncontroversial statements like “Lesbian = female homosexual.” Where, in large luminous letters projected onto the side of a building, “Repeat after us: Trans women are women” is seen, somehow, as a great effort for the LGBT movement and celebrated in the pink press rather than the creepy, outrageously dogmatic stunt that it clearly is. I have heard people calling all of this Orwellian and I know where they are coming from. But it is too absurd for the sparse rigidity of Orwell. This stuff would be more at home in a Kafka novel.
Women Don’t Have Penises
The event which really prompted me to write this is one which could have come straight out of The Trial. This week, some women (called “TERFs” by the press) put up stickers on Crosby beach in Merseyside, not far from me. They were apparently from a group called Liverpool ReSisters — I know next to nothing about this organisation other than they are gender critical. The stickers were little cock-and-bollox shaped things (the kind young-fellas draw on walls everywhere) with “women don’t have penises” written on them. That’s all. That’s it. “Women don’t have penises.” They stuck them on the groin area of a few Anthony Gormley statues on the beach, on a pole, photographed them, and put them on Twitter.
Now, these women were clearly attempting a stunt — call it petty if you like, call it infantile if you must — and it is clear who their target audience was: other gender critical women and LGBT people — that is — people who have an investment in this debate. The stunt was designed to get a rise out of people. And it did just that. Mayor Joe Anderson (the corrupted and odious porcine git that he is) took to twitter to denounce the women saying:
“I am not aware of the group, we will remove stickers and work with the Police to identify those responsible. Remember though, Liverpool takes #PRIDE in its diversity and history of fighting for equality for all, we love all our Trans residents and all our LGBT community.”
Of course, this was the response that Liverpool ReSisters imagined (and perhaps wanted to expose) and it was the one they got. Perhaps they weren’t expecting the “work with the police to identify those responsible,” though. I certainly wasn’t. (Merseyside cops apparently later confirmed they would be treating this as a potential hate crime. They can have my address if they would like to speak to me about this essay!)
That placing a sticker which in any other context would produce a shrug or a childishly amused giggle, a sticker that states a fact — one widely believed by the 7 billion people on the planet, 99.999% of whom came out of women without penises — should be met with such threats, (from the mayor and police force of a major city no less!) and denunciations is more than a little discombobulating. Its unsettling. It’s creepy. It’s out-fucking-rageous. Incidents like this happen week in — week out. Women denounced, slandered and dragged through the muck for the utterance of what would have been (until very recently) totally uncontroversial statements. Maybe some of them, these ReSisters out there are awful folk who really hate trans people. Maybe — I don’t know them. But I seriously doubt it. Even if they were the most self assured bigot Britain has to offer, does “women don’t have penises” actually constitute hate speech now? Really? Are we that far gone? What next — woman is hate speech?
Many of the people I have seen branded as “TERF” are anything but transphobic, homophobic or any other kind of phobic. (I apologise to any claustrophobic identified radical feminists out there.) Most, so far as I can tell, aren’t even radical feminists in the traditional sense. Many are also lesbians so I have more than a passing interest in what they have to say (being part of the first letter of the LGBT movement and having had my back for my entire youth — often more so than gay men). Half of them seem only to have become interested in the discussion after being denounced — often for an innocuous comment. In fact that’s really only when I even knew there was a debate — after I scandalously (and apparently carelessly) insisted that sex does indeed exist assuming it was common knowledge that sex exists and it was fine to say so.
Lets call this what it is. This is bullshit. Cultist bullshit. This is censorship. This is a witch hunt (TERF hunt?) and I’m sorry, but if this incident alone does not convince you that “we need to talk” about the direction the LGBT movement is heading in, then you’ve opened your mind so much your brain has fallen out.
And more, this sort of witch hunting (which often has a strong misogynistic streak to it — it is almost always women being denounced) should not be supported by anyone who calls themselves left-wing. First off, women have a right to say what they want. Second, women have a right to organise around and discuss issues that they believe will affect their legal rights — even if these women are in the minority (which is up for debate). I believe that on point of principle. Even if you disagree with a lot of what some of them have to say (and believe me I do disagree with a lot of Radical Feminist theory) surely it should be a principle on the left to support women in speaking and organising when it concerns their rights — or at the very least to condemn those that would shut them down and shut them up? Or is it now a point of principle on the left to keep schtum about the shutting down of feminist meetings with intimidation and threats?! Disappear down that rabbit hole if you like but you won’t find any socialists worthy of the name down there.
Women, feminists, who, like I — and maybe like you too — do not believe that trans women are women, or that trans men are men, (or even less, who haven’t really made their minds up and would like to talk about it) are being denounced left, right and centre, (now threatened by politicians and the police), prevented from holding meetings to talk about their rights, no platformed, sent hate mail etc. Essentially, all they have done is broken a taboo. By telling the truth.
I will not now get too deep into the reasons why women are now speaking up about this, and the perceived potential clashes of rights between natal women and trans women, the new proposals for self identification and changes to the Gender Recognition Act, single sex spaces for women etc. Or of the large rise in rates of gender dysphoria presenting young women to the NHS and what this all means. I’ve gone on long enough. That’s for another essay, and besides, many women and many trans women have already written and spoken far more eloquently and extensively on that than I ever could. Listen to them. Think about this stuff. Use your bloody noggin, and don’t be bullied into saying things you don’t believe.
Recent events — including here in my own city of Liverpool — have convinced me thoroughly that we made a wrong turn some way back and we need to try and fix this before we end up in a totally censorious and unhealthy environment. Let’s stop pretending it’s as simple as “trans women are women.” Let’s stop pretending it’s simple at all. It isn’t. This is difficult and it needs free and open discussion within the LGBT movement, and public discourse more generally. I understand why people are nervous about that — echoes of the homophobic so called “public discourses” of the past — but mark my words, if we do not work this out now, in a few short years our movement will be fucked. You can feel it already. Finally, lefties, stop telling feminists to shut up — it really isn’t a good look.
Since I’ve gone on about what I don’t believe — here’s what I do believe. I believe that everyone should have the right to present to society as they choose, wear whatever the hell they goddam like, call themselves whatever the hell they goddam like and that everyone should have the right to the medical care they need free of charge from the NHS. I believe gender non-conforming people have been oppressed by society for far too long — and in large parts of the world are still at risk of death simply for being gender non-conforming — gay, lesbian, or trans or just suspected of being one of these. I believe we still need to fight — and I believe it would be better if we all fought together. I will be marching this weekend in Manchester with my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and my trans brothers and sisters — together. We can celebrate how far we’ve come, sure, but we’ve a long way to go yet.
I am very sorry — I really am — to anyone who was upset or offended by this essay, women, trans women, trans men all (except Joe Anderson — fuckim!). It took me a long time to come to terms with writing it and I take full responsibility for the part I have personally played in “how we got here,” and my own “white lying” which has probably done more harm than good. This is not coming from a place of hatred, but of solidarity and what I see as the urgent need for clarity and understanding in this discussion — not least for the legacy we leave the next generation of LGBT youngsters. I want to make it clear that although I don’t believe one can change sex, I fully support my trans brothers and sisters to live with dignity and respect free from oppression and discrimination and will continue to campaign for your rights. Live as women, live as men. Live how you like. I respect that. But I will not submit to dogma, unyielding demands for belief, bullying or censorship and I will not stand by any longer as some woman are bullied or censored or compelled into speaking a dogma they do not believe.
Yours, in solidarity,
Your Gender Non-conforming pal,
NOTE: If you are considering a crude denunciation, perhaps think twice before calling me TERF. I am not a Radical Feminist. I’m a man, and as far as I know, this automatically disqualifies me from most radical feminist organisations — even as I see radical feminism as (broadly) “on the same side” as I am on. I don’t agree, philosophically and politically with a lot of radical feminism. I am a socialist, a Marxist — one with a particular interest in freedom of expression, perhaps because I’m also an artist. If you want a description of my politics here is one that might be useful. A good friend once said: “Connor, you’re a socialist in your head, but an anarchist in your heart.”
I no longer use social media, so attempts to contact me on The Platforms is useless. I am happy to discuss criticism of the arguments I make in this piece. Since I have not used Medium before, I’m not sure how best to do this. If someone wanted to write a reply to this piece, perhaps use the comments section below, or email the address I use for this account — but I will only be engaging very sporadically. I will be happy in future to write a “reply to my critics” essay, though I stress I will not respond to threatening or clearly abusive replies. Nevertheless (if I can work out how it works) I would like to leave the comments section TOTALLY OPEN even to the nasty stuff — if things are removed from there it will not be by me.