Notes for my talk to A Woman’s Place UK, Brighton, 16th July 2018.
I’m an academic at the University of Sussex. I’m in the Philosophy Department.
One of the areas in Philosophy is political philosophy: arguing about what’s right and wrong about social and political arrangements, including the laws. Having opinions, but also supporting those opinions with reasoned arguments.
In the last few months I’ve decided to do some public political philosophy. I’ve started writing about problems with the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, and about their interaction with the Equalities Act.
I’ve posted a series of essays on the open platform Medium, which can be searched for by searching my name plus ‘Medium’, or by going to my pinned tweet on my twitter feed. I’ve also written a couple of things for The Economist, also pinned.
In my writing, I’m clear that I completely support the rights of trans people to live their lives, free from violence, discrimination, and hatred.
I’m also keen to distinguish between trans activists and trans people.
By ‘trans activists’ I mean: organisations like Stonewall, Gendered Intelligence, and so on: socially prominent, politically powerful, and rich. They have a simplified core political message. They aggressively push the mantra ‘trans women are women’, by which they apparently mean ‘literally women, in every possible sense’, and they promote self-ID. It is important to note that not all trans people agree with these organisations, or think they speak for them.
One focus in my writing is on possible conflicts of interests between two groups, in an already sexist society:
· on the one hand, biological females, as a category of people
· on the other, self-identifying trans women.
Conflicts of interest between groups happen, where giving one group something would take something important away from the other group. They’re a standard feature of social and political life: (For another familiar example, religious groups within a society might have conflicts of interests with secular groups).
Trans activists would have you believe that there are no important consequences, or conflicts of interests, for biological females, if self-identifying trans women are accepted as literal women in all possible contexts. And I disagree.
I think that there are some permissions, protections, and resources, which, if given to self-identifying trans women, take something away from biological females; and — because of sexism — they in fact take away something which is ALREADY is short supply.
So for instance:
- Take female safety from sexual violence (which is already in short supply); If same-sex spaces for females, where they undress or sleep, are effectively reduced or even removed, then this potentially reduces the safety of biological females, who need those spaces for protection of their safety and privacy.
- Or take political representation for females (again, in short supply already): If all-women shortlists for MPs are opened up to self-identifying trans women, as they have been in the case of the Labour Party, then this reduces the already limited opportunities for political representation of females.
The same sorts of points could be made about female sport, or female representation in the media.
If resources in a given area are already in short supply, due to a sexist society, then opening up the opportunities to trans women makes them even scarcer.
If trans women are literally women, not just legally but in every other way — and even more so, if self-identifying trans women are literally women — then this does nothing less than force society into a complete re-understanding of the category of women; and this has all sorts of material effects for biological females, which need serious analysis.
Ok, so that’s the sort of thing I’m writing about. But what I mostly want to talk about here tonight, is a problem which partly explains why the things I’ve just described are not getting properly discussed.
And that’s the relative silence of academics in Universities, who wish to be critical of the narratives put forward by trans activists.
To give you a sense of how this silencing happens, I’ll briefly tell you about the responses I’ve had to my work: bearing in mind I only started writing 10 weeks ago. These responses have taken a couple of forms.
One form is aggressive, angry public responses from fellow academics; for instance:
It’s said I’m causing harm and even violence to trans people by my writing — despite my constantly reaffirming the right of all trans people to be free of violence and discrimination.
I’m told I’m trying to ‘whip up a moral panic’ about trans women — despite my repeatedly saying that I am NOT saying they are a particularly dangerous group; I’m just saying they are biologically male, and males exhibit patterns of violence towards females.
I’m told I’m ‘debating the existence of trans people’; I am not. I’m discussing a proposed change to the law to make getting a gender recognition certificate easier. I’m not suggesting we get rid of existing law completely.
I’m criticised for not being ‘kind’ or ‘inclusive’ (of course, these are gendered stereotypes, and people aim them at me because they assume I’m a good female who will feel bad for not being seen as kind).
I’m told I’m ‘playing intellectual games’ with people’s lives. (Believe me, I’m not the kind of person who would face all of this for some fun game. I’m not a psychopath! I’m doing it because I believe it profoundly matters).
Ok, so that’s the sort of thing I’ve been getting. Now, criticism of each other’s positions is absolutely standard for philosophers. But these response aren’t like normal academic criticism. It’s mostly about my character or my motivations; there isn’t any real engagement with substantive points, about the conflicts of interests I’m talking about.
More recently, there have also been public protests about me, for instance: on the Student Union website; on my campus; and in the local press.
Now, in all of this, I think there are some common aims:
1) to make me feel ashamed.
2) to socially isolate me from other potential supporters.
The ultimate aim is, of course, to get me to stop talking.
In other words, generalising from my own case, social shaming seems to me one of the most powerful weapons used to silence academics generally who try to critically contribute to this issue.
In particular, I think this sort of response is deliberately aimed at females, like me, because it’s assumed we have been socialised in a way which makes us particularly prone to feeling shame. People who want to get females to stop talking, will use shaming as a weapon, to achieve that. I see men saying things like me, but not getting anything like the same response.
In any case, I’m pleased to say it hasn’t worked — I feel no shame whatsoever in anything I have written. I believe what I have written is right and important. And I am absolutely convinced I should have the right to say it without personal attack and harassment.
However, I do want to ask: what are the material consequences of this sort of environment for academics, more generally? Well, one consequence is that academics only feel comfortable talking privately, or sometimes anonymously. If they talk about it on the internet, sometimes they will use pseudonyms. But more often, they say nothing public at all. Since I started all this, I’ve literally lost count of the emails I’ve had from sympathetic academics who don’t feel able to say what they think out loud.
So: because most are not speaking out, I’m now going to list some academic areas where proper discussion, analysis, and observation seem currently lacking, and which has a serious impact on the state of public discussion of sex and gender.
First up: Law.
From legal scholars, we need, among other things, some public discussion of the ambiguous interaction of the Equalities act with the Gender Recognition Act. But more basically, we need public clarification of the fact that the law cannot change biology. You can, of course, legally change your sex with a Gender Recognition Certificate, but this was never intended by law-makers to make any pronouncement on biology, or, for that matter, on the nature of womanhood either.. As I understand it, it is what is known as a ‘legal fiction’ and that’s a technical term: i.e. it was intended, by that law, that trans women be treated as their preferred gender for certain defined legal purposes. But that is completely different from the new mantra that ‘trans women are women’ in all possible contexts.
Next: The academic area of medicine and biology.
Some people now apparently believe that trans women can be biologically female, because they take hormones. In fact, being biologically female involves having XX chromosomes, and some or all of a set of primary sex characteristics. There are complications with people who are born intersex, but that is of no relevance to the person who is born a biological male and then who later starts taking hormones. If academics don’t start saying this more loudly, the public will get more and more confused. We will lose a powerful explanation of the sex-based oppression of females; we will also lose the capacity to talk about female health and reproduction, and much else besides. I saw something on social media the other day that said that trans women could get periods. And it had over 1000 likes.
Next up: History.
Trans activists are prone to revising historical narratives, to make trans gender people central to them, despite the fact that arguably, the public concept only emerged properly in the 1990s. This year, for instance, I must have seen hundreds of times, the claim that a ‘trans woman’, Marsha P Johnson ‘started’ the Stonewall Riot in 1969 in New York. (The Stonewall riot was instrumental in catalysing activism around gay rights). But this claim about Marsha Johnson looks factually inaccurate in two ways:
a) she, by her own admission, got there after the riot had started; in fact it was started by a butch lesbian, Stormé Delaverie, though she’s rarely mentioned.
And equally importantly:
b) Marsha referred to herself as a drag queen and a gay man.
I would have thought historians who cared about truth should be getting on to that.
Turning now to Psychology:
In discussion of same-sex spaces, statistics about trans women’s lives are often used as a catalyst to politically motivate the idea that trans women should have access to female-only spaces. For instance, statistics about the rates of violence against trans people, hate crime, attempts at suicide, and so on.
Most of the statistics cited come from phone polls, or internet surveys, commissioned by organisations like Stonewall. The results are then interpreted in press releases by Stonewall, and those press releases are used uncritically to inform media reports, and even by members of the government in deciding policy. I would like to see some proper academic scrutiny of these statistics, and ideally, some academic studies that are not paid for by charities with a vested interest (in the same way that risk of bias is discussed openly with respect to trials of drugs funded by pharmaceutical companies). We need to know about trans lives, just as we need to know about female lives, and we need academics to do the observation and analysis.
I’ll finish with my own area, Philosophy. Philosophy trades in conceptual distinctions and clarifications. It would be of enormous help to the public conversation if Philosophers could speak more freely, from all perspectives, and not just one. Here are just some examples.
Philosophy can help us understand a distinction between i) a human right and ii) a way of realising that right. It is not a human right of a trans woman to enter a space set up to protect females. It’s a human right of trans women to be free of violence. The claim about female-only spaces is a proposed solution to realising the right to be free of violence, but it’s not the only way.
Philosophy can also help us understand the difference between what is called i) ‘deliberately misgendering’ a trans person, in an insulting way, and ii) talking about biological and political reality for females. There has to be a context in which we can permissibly talk about females, as such, without it being an insult. If we don’t have language to describe the differences between females and trans women, then we can’t name our own bodies or experiences or oppression.
Philosophy can also help us examine what a ‘lesbian’ is. Can the category of lesbians include a pre-operative male trans woman with a penis, who exclusively fancies females? Trans activists say yes; many lesbians, including myself, say no — not because we are being unkind, but because we need a category for homosexual orientation between females (same-sex attraction). It does political and conceptual work. If we got rid of it, we would just have to reinvent it again.
So that’s just some of the academic questions that need tackling, in this debate.
Why should academics with expertise speak out in these areas? I can think of three reasons, and I’ll finish with those.
The first is, rather boringly, that facts matter, and should matter to academics above all. The truth matters. If most of the academics who have expertise in this debate are silenced, or self-silencing, then we get a one-sided narrative, and moreover, we also get wild, inaccurate, confused claims and theories, because hardly anyone is there to correct them. This is already hurting females, and will possibly end up even hurting trans people. Many trans people are very alarmed at the way the dominant discourse is going. They fear it will end in a backlash for them.
The second reason academics need to speak up is that we need to set an example. Many younger people today — not just students, but kids and teens — are online. And many are living in a climate of suffocation, and even fear about what they can say, and what they cannot, with respect to political and ethical issues. They have views of their own, and think for themselves, but feel stifled, they feel frightened of saying the wrong thing; they are even more susceptible to social shaming than adults. Herding and groupthink is developing. If academics don’t try their best to show the world what measured, nuanced discussion of sex and gender can look like, and how to deal calmly with disagreement, then we are failing those young people.
The final reason academics need to speak out is that this climate of fear is — and I don’t exaggerate — allowing fascistic tendencies to develop in Society. The reception of A Woman’s Place so far — the harassment of venues and ticket sites which host them, the bomb threat, the threats on social media, the sometimes violent protests (and indeed, the hacking of my email today!) — should not be happening in a free and democratic society. Females coming together to discuss the law and how it affects them are being frightened off. Academics are supposed to be a key part of civil society, in a supposedly democratic country, and quite frankly — they need to woman up.