Over the last 18 months, a tense debate has emerged between feminists and trans activists. Gender-critical trans woman Miranda Yardley takes a look at some of these areas of discord and what may be done
“Sex” is defined by the biological and physiological characteristics that determine what we mean by men and women, while “gender” is defined by the socially constructed roles, behaviours and attributes society deems appropriate for men and women.
What is meant by sex does not generally differ between different societies, while characteristics of gender can vary greatly.
For the vast majority of us sex is determined at birth, either male (boy) or female (girl) based on physical appearances (phenotypes) that reveal our inner biology.
Sex has real-life consequences, for example, for women, menstruation and the risk of pregnancy. Being a social construct, gender is not something innate within us and has meaning only because society says so.
Feminists view gender as a system (patriarchy) that allows men to oppress women by limiting, for example, social statuses, roles and career choices, based solely upon designated birth sex. Gender determines whether the child has a male or a female socialisation.
Within the transgender movement, gender is often conflated with sex or even seen as something positive, and male socialisation is often denied.
Trans women are women
A trans woman is a biologically sexed male who transitions in order to socialise as female.
This itself, by definition, precludes trans women from being women on a biological level.
What is it that makes a trans woman? Is it a qualifying period of living and socialising as female, or medical treatment, or counselling?
Or is this a matter of identity, a simple declaration, like in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, of “from now on I want you all to call me Loretta”?
What immediate claim to womanhood does a middle-aged married man with grandchildren have once he decides to transition?
Earlier this year former boxing manager and promoter Kellie Maloney — formerly Frank — went public about being trans.
In the wake of the story, there was at least one headline proclaiming “Kellie Maloney has always been female.”
What does this mean? If trans women have always been female, what do we transition from? What is it that makes us female?
“Trans women are women” is a dogma that reduces what it means to be a woman to an identity and this erases women’s lived reality.
It makes women and trans women indistinguishable at an ideological level, so that trans women can enjoy whatever “perks” come with “being a woman” (my use of “perks” is wholly ironic).
These include claiming access to public facilities segregated according to sex, such as changing rooms, hospital wards and relief facilities for victims of male violence — facilities segregated for the physical safety and dignity of women.
If access to women’s spaces is demanded without trans women being held accountable for their claim to womanhood, and women are expected to silently accept this, how can we call this progressive?
“Cis,” is used as a prefix meaning someone whose sense of self-identity matches their designated sex and based on the use of “cis” and “trans” as opposites in biology, and so “cis woman” is differentiated from “trans woman.”
The problem with “cis” is that we already have a word for “cis woman” — and that is “woman.”
Why use “cis”? In reality, “cis” is used to impute women’s privilege over trans women, and support the ideology that trans women are oppressed by women, often on the grounds of access to women’s spaces and facilities.
“Terf” is at the heart of some of the most bitter controversy between trans activists and feminists.
This acronym means “trans exclusionary radical feminist.” It is used to stigmatise radical feminists based on the hypothesis that these feminists seek to exclude trans women.
And what does “trans exclusion” mean anyway? If women — who have been born and socialised as women — want to do their own thing, surely they should be allowed to?
Women having their own spaces is not about trans exclusion, rather allowing women with shared experiences space to gather, celebrate and heal. Feminists do not campaign to eliminate housing, healthcare, jobs or the existence of trans women.
Who is harmed by women setting their own boundaries?
The idea of exclusion is sometimes taken to an extreme, where lesbians are accused of being bigoted or transphobic on the grounds that they will not take a trans woman as a sexual partner. But this denies women the right to set the most intimate of boundaries.
“Terf” in reality means “someone who does not believe trans women are women.”
This again is an ideological position as being a woman is a reality, not an identity.
Trans women are not women — I know this, you know this, everybody knows this.
“Terf” is an insult used to abuse anyone who does not agree with a political statement that is itself empty rhetoric.
It is used almost indiscriminately, against not just women but also trans women and men.
That “Terf” is more focused on women makes it a misogynist device. If you don’t believe me, search Twitter.
Where do we go from here?
Trans women can position ourselves as allies to, not enemies of, women. Our starting point is a willingness to listen and being able to admit our differences from women:
Human beings are sexually dimorphic and trans women are biologically male
Sex-based socialisation is a reality and the lives of women and trans women are different
Women are entitled to their own spaces, groups and organisations, and no woman is compelled to accept a trans woman as a sexual partner
It is wrong for trans women to threaten or abuse women either in real life or on the internet.
My voice is not alone. The New Narratives conference in the US last May affirmed these values, and there are a growing number of “gender-critical” trans women who share many or all of these values.
I truly believe there is a better future to be shared between trans women and feminists, and the onus is on trans women to make this happen.