Fourteen years ago, in an opinion column in The Guardian provocatively entitled ‘Gender Benders, Beware’, lesbian feminist activist Julie Bindel wrote that:
“I don’t have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man.”
I vaguely remember reading this at the time, slightly bemused both at the piece and then at the subsequent outraged public reaction to it. Fast forward to a few months ago, and I’ve just published some blog pieces which, though not reaching Bindelesque proportions, have proved moderately controversial in my discipline, academic philosophy. As I discuss and defend my views on social media, and watch others discuss them, the name of Julie Bindel comes up repeatedly, as an example of company which, it is presumed, I absolutely don’t want to keep. A well-established male philosopher intones repeatedly about Bindel’s ‘offensive, transphobic’ comments in the past. Another describes her to me as a ‘loopy extremist’, and ‘potty’. I go back to find the article online and rather disbelievingly check whether it’s the same one I vaguely remember. It is.
Now, to attempt to mitigate against such perceptions, which perhaps you share, I could tell you about Bindel’s frankly stunning track record of effective activism, working on behalf of natal women and girls world-wide with an energy and bravery which borders on heroic. I could tell you that the context of her Guardian piece was partly a discussion of an attempt by trans woman Kimberley Nixon to sue Vancouver Rape Relief for not allowing her to work with traumatised natal women fleeing male sexual violence: a case which rumbled on for another three years before Nixon lost, costing the shelter thousands of dollars to defend against. I could point out that the idiom of the piece was clearly intended to be comic, colourful, and frank, and was pretty funny in several places; for instance:
“When I were a lass, new to feminism and lesbianism, I was among the brigade who would sit in the women’s disco wearing vegetarian shoes and staring in disbelief at the butch/femme couples, mainly because they were having a better time than me”.
I could tell you that even so, she later apologised ‘unreservedly’ for writing the article. I could point out that many of the things she says in the piece are prescient, and over time have only got more troubling: worries about how trans ideology often essentialises wholly sexist gender stereotypes about masculine and feminine behaviour; about the development of a culture apparently in favour of cutting off parts of healthy bodies if one is ‘unhappy with the constraints of .. gender’; and about the harmful implied message sent by this culture to butch lesbians and camp gay men. And I could also easily manifest the anger I felt, as I read these online comments from middle-class heterosexual males, typing smugly and contemptuously about one moment fourteen years ago in the life of a working-class lesbian, who has devoted most of the rest of that life to addressing issues such as child grooming, sex trafficking, prostitution, and cross-border surrogacy; doing activism in the field, and not just from the armchair.
But to cite these facts as exculpatory of Bindel would suggest that an ordinary woman who had said roughly the same thing as her– that is, that trans women aren’t, in fact, women — and yet who was not already a heroic feminist defender of natal women, or who wasn’t partly talking about an odiously selfish individual such as Nixon, would be at fault. I deny this too. That is, I reject the near-pathological zeal with which trans activists, ‘trans allies’, and ‘woke blokes’ generally, seek to monitor and control natal women’s language in this domain: not just with respect to discussing whether trans women are actually women, but also in uses of particular names and pronouns, and gender attributions.
The statement “transwomen are women” has become a kind of mantra for so-called progressives. To understand what it is meant by it, we need to distinguish the use of that phrase, in those mouths, from two other contexts. One of those involves a claim about the law. Since 2004, those in the UK with a Gender Recognition Certificate are counted as having had their gender ‘reassigned’. This is not, and was never intended to be, any pronouncement on a biological fact. It is in fact impossible for a child or adult to biologically change sex. (I’m prepared to offer arguments for this, if needed, but most readers will, I hope, accept it as true). Nor was this law supposed to pronounce definitively on the question of whether a trans woman with a GRC ‘really is’ a woman. The Gender Recognition Act was at most intended to allow for a legal status — that of ‘gender reassignment’ — for the purposes of access to certain protections under the law.
A second version of the claim “trans women are women” is uttered for therapeutic reasons. One basis for self-identifying as a trans person is the condition of gender dysphoria. It is assumed by many medical practitioners that, on diagnosis of this condition, treating a person ‘as if’ belonging to their self-identified gender is helpful to their well-being; whereas confronting them with their ‘birth-assigned’ gender, or the biological facts of their sex, is not. We might easily interpret this as a kind of benevolent role-playing or method-acting, extending from the medical practitioner out into the wider community: act as if a trans woman is a woman, in most social contexts. But this is completely compatible with denying that trans women really are women, in a more committed sense.
Somehow, though, in recent years, a respectful concern for the well-being of trans people has supposedly morphed into a literal claim about category membership: trans women really are women. That is: trans women belong unambiguously in the category of women; the concept of woman literally applies to them. For most trans activists, this is supposed to be true whether the trans woman is a post-operative transsexual, or a trans woman on hormones, or whether she belongs to the significant proportion of trans women who are neither. She ‘is’ a woman, whether she transitioned in her teens, or in middle-age; whether thirty years ago, or yesterday. Moreover, for many trans activists, not only are trans women literally women, but if they have children, they can be mothers. If they have female partners, they can be lesbians. They can be victims of misogyny. And so on. One by one, the familiar words women have used to describe themselves tumble like a chain of dominoes.
Such claims are usually unargued-for. They are presented more as self-evident truths; the outcome of revelation, perhaps, or as some article of faith which it would be downright evil to try to deny or complicate. As this description suggests, agreement with such claims is ruthlessly socially enforced by trans activists. Not only are you not supposed to refer to or imply, in front of a trans person, any fact about their natally-bestowed gender or biological sex; you aren’t suppose to mention these, even in their absence. To do otherwise is sometimes called a form of ‘violence’. Even on a massive UK discussion forum like Mumsnet, in a thread about trans people written by gender-critical feminists and directed towards fellow gender-critical feminists, you aren’t supposed to mention it. Even on a Whatsapp group chat involving natal women working at the BBC, you aren’t supposed to mention it. It doesn’t matter if your subject matter is Labour party all-woman shortlists, what to do about children who think they are trans, medical discussions, biology teaching, or presumably, your own relatives; you are never, ever, ever supposed to describe trans women as men or male, ‘deadname’, ‘misgender’, or use the ‘wrong’ pronouns out loud. Even trans women themselves aren’t supposed to do these things: see the bullying treatment that trans women in the UK such as Miranda Yardley, Kristina Harrison, and Debbie Hayton get, when they deny that they themselves are ‘really’ women, and seek a different narrative.
This is in itself quite striking, as for other false claims about category membership, people are normally socially permitted to assert them. Take the claims: “Elton John is straight”. “Marvin Gaye is white”. Those claims are obviously false, but there was, presumably, no inward gasp of horror as you just read them. Now contrast with: “Caitlyn Jenner is a man”; “Lily Madigan is biologically male; he is a man”. Even though I mention these as exemplary sentences, rather than assert them myself, I assume that at least some readers think I just wrote something awful. Moreover, this is presumably not just the feeling that I showed a lack of respect for the addressee’s wishes; for if I tell you that the composer of the song ‘Rocket Man’ is Reginald Dwight, presumably you don’t think I just committed ‘violence’ against Elton John by ‘deadnaming’ him.
Writing down those phrases about Jenner and Madigan just now, but without quotation marks, would be enough to have me banned from Twitter. Articles have been removed from Medium for less. This is not, despite what opponents have sometimes suggested, because such statements are obviously morally equivalent to denying the personhood or humanity of those who are racially different to oneself. (Again, I’m happy to offer arguments for this — it won’t take long — but I leave it aside for the moment, on the assumption that most readers aren’t so sophomoric). Nor is it reasonable to think that hearing such statements will generally cause trans people to have thoughts of suicide, as is sometimes dramatically suggested by Owen Jones, in a way that means we should never utter them.
A better explanation seems to involve the thought that, should a speaker X publically refer to a trans person Y by their natally-bestowed name or pronouns, even out of the earshot of Y, Y might later find out about it; or at least, some other trans person might find out about it, and by extrapolation to their own case, be caused to experience a distressing episode of dysphoria. Equally, presumably, it is worried that if a trans woman overhears a general claim such as “trans women are men/ males”, she will be caused great distress; perhaps too, a trans man might be caused great distress, again by extrapolating to his own case.
However, this reasoning clearly has limits. If gender critical feminists are talking to each other on a discussion thread clearly advertised for the purpose, or in a Whatsapp group, then it just seems too demanding to require they talk a certain way, just in case a trans woman or trans man reads or ‘hears’ them. The trans woman in question would almost certainly have to be specially looking. Quite often trans activists will describe misgendering along the lines of going up to a trans person and screaming ‘you’re a man!’ in their face (always ‘screaming’, of course). Obviously this isn’t what is happening in the contexts just mentioned: this is natal women talking to other natal women, about matters of great importance to them, as such, and with no reasonable expectation that they will be accidentally ‘overheard’.
In any case: even if one can foresee that trans people will overhear when one denies that trans women are women — is that a compelling reason not to say what one thinks? It rather depends on what is at stake. It was part of the original argument of my blog pieces that rather a lot is currently at stake in the UK with respect to this matter. There are several conflicts of interest that arise between trans women, as a category, and women, as a category, competing for the same spaces and resources. Trans activists seem to think that natal women should accede to all their demands. In that context, I think natal women should be allowed to speak freely in a critical way about the underpinnings of trans activist views. If natal women conclude after consideration that trans women aren’t women, they should be able to say so, whether or not they’re ultimately right.
Partly too, though, I think that the moral horror which unconsciously accompanies ‘misgendering’ in particular is, perversely, an artefact of sexist normative stereotypes for natal women and men. We tend to frame statements like “Caitlyn Jenner is a man/ male” in terms of insults launched at ‘butch’ or ‘manly’ natal women. The combination of a woman’s name and the epithet ‘man’ or ‘male’ sounds insulting, automatically. Compare: “Kathleen Stock is a man”. Were you to hear someone else saying this, perhaps you would empathically imagine me hearing the same thing and finding it distressing or embarrassing; you might assume that as a woman, I must aspire to the norm of a feminised appearance, and must suffer if I miss the mark. But — of course — to say e.g. that “Caitlyn Jenner is a man” isn’t an insult, in many contexts in which it is uttered. It is, in the mouths of many, a descriptive fact, not a slur or insult. Indeed, arguably it could only be an insult in the way just indicated, if in fact the speaker already assumed that Caitlyn Jenner was a woman. And this is, precisely, not assumed by those that tend to say it.
What else might underly the reaction to Bindel, in particular? I’m sure that part of it is to do with another sexist assumption: that women cannot be bawdy, frank, or colourful in their language; they must be sober, measured, cautious, responsible, kind. At this point we might as well also revisit Germaine Greer’s statement from the Victoria Derbyshire show in 2015:
“Just because you lop off your penis and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a fucking woman .. I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat but that won’t turn me into a fucking cocker spaniel.”
This is a vividly Rabelaisian way of making the basic claim — which I have argued that natal women should be freely permitted to make, whether or not it is true — that trans women aren’t women. It caused an enormous fuss at the time, and is still regularly cited, along with other such statements, as evidence of Greer’s ‘transphobia’. Yet in her brilliant and funny seminal work of feminism The Female Eunuch, published in 1970, it is clear from Greer’s discussion of April Ashley that she held the same position then as she does now. Greer expresses herself frankly about many things, and always has. See also, for instance, this brutal passage, also from The Female Eunuch, about female students in Universities:
“Their energy is all expended on conforming with disciplinary and other requirements, not in gratifying their own curiosity about the subject that they are studying, and so most of it is misdirected into meaningless assiduity. This phenomenon is still very common among female students, who are forming a large proportion of the arts intake at universities, and dominating the teaching profession as a result. The process is clearly one of diminishing returns: the servile induce servility to teach the servile, in a realm where the unknown ought to be continually assailed with all the human faculties; education cannot be, and has never been a matter of obedience”. (p.75)
Now, you very possibly disagree with this, and so do I. And the style may not be to your taste. You might prefer your lady writers hedged, scholarly, sympathetic, and so on. Myself, I find it refreshing, like a bucket of cold salt water has been chucked over me after days of humid air. That is of course, compatible with saying that I disagree with a lot of what Greer says: as I have a mind of my own, this is hardly surprising. But whether Greer is to your taste or not, it is simply obvious that we don’t police colourful derogatory male speech in anything like the same way, whether the males in question are talking about natal women/ females, or even trans people.
The constant harping of progressive men on supposedly salutary examples like Bindel and Greer sends a message to natal women. Don’t say what you think. Don’t express an opinion on what women are; leave it to trans women to decide that. Don’t be assured. Don’t be bold. Don’t be whimsical or linguistically playful. Don’t try to be funny. Watch your mouth. Given the typical circumstances of female socialisation, natal women are already highly susceptible to such messages, and to feeling shame as a result. So here’s a task for any progressive males reading. Next time a natal woman expresses herself in a way you find unattractive, unseemly, unkind, or downright rude about trans people, then, assuming they aren’t “screaming it in a trans person’s face”: why not shut the fuck up and keep it to yourself.
* See here.