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Death Of A Slogan
Why 'Trans Women Are Women' Created More Problems Than It Solved
Hello Ruffians. Welcome to those of you who have just joined (I know that many of you got here via a generous mention in another newsletter). This week’s post is about British politics and the gender issue. For those of you from overseas, fear not, I will explain everything you need to know. Next week’s will be about something completely different.
“Ideology functions as a machine to destroy information, even at the price of making assertions in clear contradiction of the evidence.”
For a decade or so now Nicola Sturgeon has been hailed as the most talented and effective politician in Britain. She became Scotland’s First Minister in 2014 after routing both of the main unionist parties and establishing a seemingly impregnable Nationalist hegemony. Her popularity has proved resilient despite the decidedly mixed record of her administration. This has much to do with her communication skills. In interviews, and in debate, she is poised, fluent, direct, quick-witted and witty.
So it was quite something to see her come apart under questioning this week:
Note the question: “Are all trans women, women?” This ought to have been simple to answer. Sturgeon, who is a vigorous proponent of trans rights, has repeated the slogan hundreds of times. Trans women are women. Trans women are women. It is an applause line. It is an argument-ender. It is a bludgeon. If you don’t assent to it unequivocally, you are a bigot. This isn’t complicated.
But apparently it is, all of a sudden. As the interviewer coolly pursues his enquiry, Sturgeon splutters and dodges and blinks really hard and her voice cracks because she’s out of breath because her heart-rate is accelerating because, for once, she is lost for words. ‘Yes, but…’., she says, eventually.
Well. I did not think we were allowed ‘buts’.
A little background. Sturgeon recently introduced legislation to the Scottish parliament to expedite the process of changing gender in the eyes of the law. At present, in the UK as a whole, people who want to do so must apply to a gender recognition panel for a gender recognition certificate. They must be diagnosed by a specialist as gender dysphoric, and show that they have lived in their acquired gender for at least two years.
Trans activists argue that this process is unnecessarily cumbersome and difficult, and that it causes emotional distress. They advocate for self-ID: if I say I’m of the opposite gender, then the law should recognise that more or less without question. Sturgeon agrees with this proposal. Her legislation does away with the panel and the diagnosis, and cuts the period of “living in the acquired gender” to three months. It also lowers the minimum age by which someone can apply for a certificate of gender identity from 18 to 16.
Opponents of the reforms have argued that self-ID conflicts with the hard-won right of women to their own safe spaces - that the women in a refuge for victims of male violence, for example, are automatically justified in excluding male-born people, regardless of gender identity. The same applies to prisons. If anyone is allowed to self-identify, warned the opponents, then predatory men will seize that possibility in order to be housed with their prey.
Merely to raise such possibilities is to invite the charge of bigotry. Trans-rights supporters take it as read that if a person suggests that a man may self-identify as a woman in order to abuse women, then that person is implying that trans women are dangerous to women. This has never made sense to me. The point, surely, is that biological men - however they identify - are more likely than women to attack or abuse women. (That is hardly an irrational prejudice against men, either; it’s a conclusion based on all the data we have on violent crime plus a few hundred thousand years of human history. It's why we segregate male and female prisoners in the first place.)1
When opponents of the reforms warned that self-ID enables male rapists to go to women’s prisons, the bill’s supporters dismissed them as disgraceful scaremongers, spreading “moral panic”. That won’t happen! It never happens! Except of course, it does.
After Adam Graham was arrested and charged with rape, he decided that he was a woman. He gave himself a conventionally female name - Isla Bryson - and threw on a blonde wig and a pink coat. The Scottish prison service, following the Scottish government’s guide to best practice, took his word for it: if he said he was a woman, she must be one. Thus were the inmates of Scotland’s only all-women prison, the vast majority of whom have been abused by men, joined by a convicted double rapist.2
Only when news of this broke to general outrage did Sturgeon have Bryson transferred to an all-male unit. Then another story broke. Tiffany Scott - who as Andrew Burns stalked a 13-year-old girl, and who has been serially violent towards inmates, wardens and female nurses - was about to be transferred to a women’s jail. That has now been blocked, also following public anger.
It is crucial to bear in mind that these incidents aren’t anomalies or accidents. They are produced by the logic of a system which is guided by “trans women are women”. If a man can become a woman by doing little more than saying so, then of course some criminals will say so in order to be housed with women (some will do so with an eye for abuse, others because they believe the conditions are better or because they think parole boards will regard them more kindly). Insofar as problems like this can be averted, it’s only by breaking with the logic of gender ID.
To reiterate: opponents of Sturgeon’s policy on gender recognition are not arguing that trans women, specifically, should be kept apart from vulnerable women; they are opposed to any males, regardless how they identify, being allowed into female spaces, since excluding males is the safest policy in a world where almost all violence against women is committed by men. This is a simple point, but it rests on a distinction that “trans women are women” is designed to obliterate: the distinction between biological women (formerly known as ‘women’) and trans women.
Apparently, it is possible to pretend there is no such distinction, right up until the point that ‘Isla Bryson’ forces you to reconsider. In the clip above, we see how cognitive dissonance generates internal trauma; Sturgeon is choking because she finds herself trapped inside a slogan while being smoked out by reality. Eventually, she fumbles towards an exit. Trans women are women, but.
None of the policy disputes raised by trans rights can be solved, or even debated, without that ‘but’.
In one sense, the slogan ‘trans women are women’ (TWAW) has been remarkably successful. The trans rights cause has made much progress over the last twenty years, in the US and UK. TWAW has played an important role in establishing the ground rules for public discussion of gender identity. But it’s also true that the discussion has been virulent, cacophonous and confusing, and that this is in large part caused by TWAW, which is fatally ambiguous, both true and not true.
In late 2016, as the Prime Minister, Theresa May, struggled to corral her divided party and parliament into agreeing on an exit from the EU, she adopted the slogan, “Brexit means Brexit”. It was used as an argument-clincher, a question-swatter, a critic-scarer. It sounded firm, strong, bracingly clear. In a way, it was unarguable - what else could Brexit mean? But it was also an obfuscation which occluded the whole substance of the debate: which kind of Brexit the country should pursue. Of course, that was the point.
“Trans women are women” is true in the sense that trans women should be treated as we treat women wherever possible; in the sense that we should respect the sensitivities of anyone who identifies as such. But it passes over and obscures the question of what kind of woman is a trans woman - that’s to say, what are the meaningful differences between trans women and female-born women, and what do those differences imply for how we organise society. It suggests a perfect identity between two categories which only overlap.
Trans women are not women in the sense that biological women are, because trans women are not born with female anatomy, are not spared male pubescence, and consequently have significantly different physical and social capacities and formative experiences. These differences needn’t always be considered definitive or even important; in most contexts, trans women are women. But in others, the differences absolutely matter - as Nicola Sturgeon is discovering. On Thursday, she said in parliament that she didn’t have “enough information” to say if Adam Graham, who has raped two women with his penis, is a woman or a man. All she could manage is that “a rapist should be considered a rapist”. TWAW is an evasive tautology that breeds evasive tautologies.
Implement the principle of TWAW in areas where sex-based differences matter and you end up with male rapists in women’s prisons, and mediocre male-born athletes taking podium places from women. In sport, the debate is finally shifting, albeit slowly, in the direction of common sense, as more and more athletes declare that anyone who has gone through male pubescence3 should be excluded from female competition, for exactly the same reason that we have female-only competition in the first place. On Friday, UK Athletics finally announced some reality-based guidelines. The sway of TWAW over our public discourse means that those who have argued for this very position for years have been assailed and demonised. Understandably, this has generated a furious counter-reaction. And on we go.
To make any progress on these difficult issues, and for any intelligent discussion of them, it's crucial to reserve a conceptual distinction between trans women and female-born women; between a person's sex and their declared gender. TWAW conflates the two deliberately. It was designed to curtail debate. In practice it only pollutes it.4
People often complain about how toxic the gender discourse is, without thinking through why.5 The underlying reason is that trans activists still use TWAW as a battering ram long after doing so became counter-productive. TWAW was useful in what should have been Stage One of the activists’ campaign - in making society sit up and take notice of trans people; in getting institutions and politicians to reckon with a new social category; in letting the public know that trans people want to be addressed, on their terms, as the gender in which they have chosen to live.
But the debates over conflicts of rights have been rumbling on for a decade and they are clearly not going away. By now, the TR campaign should have evolved to address the real-world compromises required to accommodate trans people in society. Imagine an alternative universe in which Stonewall said (some version of), “TWAW was a political slogan, not a guide to policy. It is shorthand for the principle that people of one sex who choose to identify as the opposite sex should be treated as such, in cases where there is no clear conflict with the rights of any other group.” Or, if you prefer the language of gender identity:
Biological sex and gender identity are different but equally valid. Trans women are women but not the same as other women. They are different from biological women and that difference is legitimate and should be accepted.
That last is from the blog of the veteran LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell. I disagree with Tatchell about a lot but his position at least allows for some common ground with those, like the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichié, who have long argued that trans people deserve a category of their own rather than to be submerged into ‘men’ or ‘women’. (I’d have thought that anyone suspicious of binaries and essentialism ought to rebel against a slogan which solemnly insists you simply are one of the two boring old genders).
Trans rights groups continue to insist that there is no conflict between’s women’s rights and trans rights - and that even to propose such a conflict is transphobic. To be blunt, these are lies. Look, we can continue to pretend there are no such conflicts. We can, as the Labour front-bencher Lisa Nandy does (right after piously bemoaning the low quality of the debate) intone “TWAW” like a magical incantation that will make all the tough questions disappear. But we can’t tell reality to come back another day forever. That so many politicians, journalists and institutions have tried to do so should concern even those who take little interest in this issue. The deformation of reason, the abuse of language, the wilful stupidity, have been staggering.
The title of this post is a rather hopeful one. Obviously, TWAW lives on. But I hope that Sturgeon’s self-inflicted humiliation deals it a fatal blow. As long as it squats at the centre of the gender discourse, it’s impossible to have a reasoned debate. Worse, it’s impossible to have an honest debate.
A postscript. Last year, the popular blogger Scott Alexander ran a book review contest. Participants wrote an essay about a book of their choice, Alexander published them (anonymously), and readers voted. At the end of the contest he also published a longer list of entries he commended. Among them is a review of Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, by the gender-critical writer Helen Joyce. The review makes for a really interesting read. It doesn’t go where you think it’s going.
The author, a trans woman, offers a sharply critical review of the book. It argues that Trans is regressive and one-sided. I agreed with some of the reviewer’s points, disagreed with others, but the piece is thoughtful and well-written throughout. In the review’s final section, the author recounts her personal experience of being trans:
From my earliest memories, I have always had a strong desire to be female. When I felt male, I felt bad. When I felt female, I felt good. I don’t know why these things caused me to feel good or bad. That’s just how I am built.
As these feelings kept recurring, in her late 20s, she considered transitioning, but worried that she wouldn’t ‘pass’ as a woman. Eventually she did, and it went well. People she knew, including her partner, were supportive. Then things got a bit weird. Her dysphoria got worse. She became self-obsessed, and thought about little else but her status as a trans woman. She had never considered pro-nouns to be important; suddenly she attached huge importance to being addressed as a woman. When she was out and about and people addressed her, innocently enough, as a man, she felt wrecked for days. Then came a turning point:
One time, I was talking with a bunch of family members, including one of my uncles. Him and I have always connected through logical and frank discussion. When the conversation turned to my transition, he said “it’s hard for me to remember to use female pronouns, because I don’t see you as a woman. You just don’t seem like a woman to me. You seem more like a man.” In front of everyone, I broke down, loudly sobbing.
“That’s not true! I see you as a woman”, my mom said…
I knew who was telling the truth. I realized how weak I had become. I had given the whole world so much power over me. Anyone could destroy me with a word. I had also ceased being an interesting person to talk to. All I ever thought about was trans-stuff. All in the name of trying to achieve something that just wasn’t possible for me.
After this realisation, she began to worry less about passing as a woman. She wore jeans and tee-shirts, and stopped caring about what the waiter might say.
Moving to this approach changed my life. For me, the recipe for being trans and being happy, was to accept certain hard truths. I’m never going to be a woman, like my sisters are women. Some people are always going to see a male when they look at me. Those are the facts of my life. It’s still a good life.
Here is her conclusion:
As much as I genuinely hated the experience of reading Joyce’s book, my personal experience leads much of her central message to resonate with me. From my perspective, being trans is…not a deep self-knowledge of some secret non-physical element of reality. It is just a base desire to be like the opposite sex. It’s not even much of an identity. It’s more like a body image problem.
Second, when trans people condition their happiness on becoming a true member of their target sex, they are setting themselves up for a lot of emotional torture. The reality is that us trans folk will, at least in some important ways, always be different than natal members of our target sex. I really wish that wasn’t true, but that’s life. We don’t always get what we want.
This is, obviously, just one person’s experience of being trans, but I include it here precisely to remind people on both sides of this debate that trans people are individuals. People like me would do well to read or hear more of the personal experiences of trans people, in order to more fully grasp what’s at stake in these debates. It’s also important for everyone to remember that trans people do not all subscribe to the same beliefs; that within this minority, as within all minorities, there is diversity of experience and opinion not always reflected by those who claim to represent it. Humans cannot be reduced to slogans. All attempts to do so destroy information and generate lies, and lies are perishable goods. In the end, as our anonymous narrator reminds us, the only policy we can count on is honesty.
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This is the key point. Testosterone levels in adulthood make much less difference to athletic performance than the differences in physical capacity which get baked in during adolescence. Everything else is virtually irrelevant.
Even those who deploy the TWAW slogan don’t actually follow its logic all the way down. Nobody can. It’s like an Escher sentence - it makes sense only until you think about it. If you can’t say what the thing is that trans people ‘are’ then what are you saying? Trans [indefinable, socially constructed, porous category of humans] are part of [indefinable, socially constructed, porous category of humans]? That’s to say, without a stable definition of ‘woman’ or ‘man’, we lack one for ‘trans’. I’m reminded of a despairing line from Sally Rooney’s last novel: “Everyone is at once hysterically attached to particular identity categories and completely unwilling to articulate what these categories consist of, how they came about, and what purposes they serve.”
If the topic seems repellent to productive disagreement that’s also because so many mainstream commentators opt out of it. Columnists and tweeters with views on everything - who issue communiqués on every passing news story like government press offices - keep their counsel on this. If they do deign to comment, they congratulate themselves on “wading in” - RIP my mentions, and so hilariously on. Or they affect a deep weariness, like parents forced to pull squabbling children apart, without apparently bothering to give the matter any actual thought. Others pass on the basis of having no personal experience of being trans or female. But none of the policy areas raised by gender identity theory should be impossible to discuss sincerely and seriously, and since a radical redefinition of sex and gender affects all of us, all of us ought to feel free to discuss it.