Isn’t it so disappointing when you realise just how problematic your favourite [celebrity/feminist/commentator/Lena Dunham] is? The most recent of these wake-up calls came when I read UK columnist Hadley Freeman’s appalling article in The Guardian, which focuses on changes to the Gender Recognition Act (2004) currently being debated in the UK. Freeman’s concern centres around “self-identification”, that is, the (apparently) radical idea that individuals can determine their own gender identity.
For a bit of background, the GRA allows persons to obtain a “Gender Recognition Certificate” needed in order to obtain a new birth certificate, but currently requires persons to have “lived in the acquired gender throughout the period of two years”. The current Act requires persons to “prove” their case to a Gender Recognition Panel at the end of the two year period. Changes to this process are currently being considered given that it is over-medicalised, bureaucratic and demeaning, and does not currently allow for recognition of non-binary people.
In her article, Freeman praises recent protests against the GRA changes, organised by Mumsnet (a mummy-blog-turned-radical-feminist group). As she outlines, Mumsnet activists have been flippantly identifying as men in order to access men’s-only swimming sessions, to “prove” how “ridiculous” self-identification is. The fear, according to Freeman, is that changes to the GRA will mean “predatory men could now come into female-only spaces unchallenged”. Freeman also laments trans critiques of reproductive-organ-centred feminism, but then takes a u-turn and suggests that the real problem is all of the “liberal men” she’s been fighting with lately who have been trying to defend trans women (Jeremy Corbyn to thank there in part, I imagine).
I was shocked that The Guardian would run this on Transgender Day of Visibility (or at all, and without any responses in the week following), but also at the huge amount of praise that Freeman seemed to receive online for “speaking out”. Though I am a cis woman and don’t speak here as a trans person, I feel obligated to challenge Freeman. The trans-exclusionary ideas bolstered by Freeman’s article should be extremely concerning to any feminists who would like to see a world where gender is liberated from violent rules and strict social expectations. Here’s why:
1. The pathologisation of gender isn’t good for anyone
Pathologisation means determining what is “normal”, and “treating” people to better align with the “normal”. Imagine. Being subjected to a bunch of medical practitioners and psychologists considered more of an “expert” on your identity than you are. Imagine having to “prove” that you have “lived in the acquired gender” for two years (never mind how weird the terminology of “acquired” is, as if gender identity is an effect of an injury or serious accident). This whole process risks reinforcing ideas about what “acting and looking like” a man or woman involves, that is, the gender role and presentation expectations that feminists have historically fought against.
Luckily, changes to the GRA would reduce the clinical barriers needed to have gender identity recognised, which would mean less stress and burden for trans people and would reduce some of the pathologising elements of the process. If gender was truly liberated, we wouldn’t need to diagnose what expressions of gender are “normal”, we would celebrate a diversity of expressions, embodiments and feelings.
2. Feminism should reject the idea that gender is solely about biology
At this point there might be some people reading this who are thinking “BUT THERE ARE LADY PARTS AND MAN PARTS AND THAT IS SCIENTIFIC FACT”. I’m not going to give you an introductory gender studies lecture here (though it might help to read some Fausto-Sterling). I will say that the point of feminism shouldn’t be to work out exactly how “gender” works on a biological “sex” level, but rather, to fight for gender emancipation beyond the narrow dictates of biology. In basic terms that means we should be fighting for people’s ability to live a happy and healthy life no matter what chromosomes and dangly fleshy bits they had at birth or not. Seems obvious eh.
As Simone de Beauvoir famously stated, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. Her main point was that the barriers women face are not naturally determined by “sex”, but rather, are the result of a sexist society where women are enculturated into the punishing rules of “womanhood”. Meanwhile, the Freemans of the world would prefer much stricter barriers about who counts as a “woman”, and thus sit in direct contradiction to de Beauvoir. When Freeman says, “there are significant physical differences between male-born bodies and female-born ones, and the latter have long been at a disadvantage” she strangely re-naturalises sexism as founded in biology. Ironically such an approach merely strengthens the rules of “womanhood”, rather than understanding that the issue definitely isn’t as simple as birth-biology (we are left wondering, for example, what about trans men in all of this?!).
3. Being trans-inclusionary doesn’t mean we have to stop talking about bodies
Taking on board the idea that “one is not born…a woman” doesn’t mean we should ignore the material body altogether, as if bodies aren’t at all relevant to identity or feelings or our experience of the world. Just because the rules of gender are “social” doesn’t mean that these rules are not deeply felt and embodied, or perhaps feel at odds with one’s bodily experience.
Freeman claims that there is a massive issue with trans feminists who critique the centring of reproductive systems. She states, “I’m trying to think of anything more patriarchal than telling women to stop fussing about vaginas at a Women’s March”. What Freeman misses is that the issue isn’t talking about bodies and the material experience of gender altogether, the problem is creating a reductive version of feminism where vagina = woman and where this is made into the central focus of collective action. This doesn’t mean we can’t talk about issues like abortion, pregnancy, or periods either (all issues which affect a range of gendered peoples), it just means that we shouldn’t make biology the basis for our collective resistance.
4. Lots of people experience violence because of gender and that could be the basis for solidarity
Making things harder for trans people won’t make cis women safe from gender based violence. Trans and gender non conforming people are subjected to staggering levels of violence on a daily basis, particularly in places like the UK where trans-exclusionary debates are rife, and where commentators like Freeman can get a platform with little rebuttal. It is a strange thing to claim that reducing the burdens on trans people via the GRA somehow endangers cis women, particularly when you don’t generally need whip out a birth certificate to access things like swimming pools or change rooms.
The claim that somehow “predatory men” will be emboldened to “come into female-only spaces unchallenged” is a transphobic furphy that’s been trotted out by right wing commentators for a long time now, and that has been extensively debunked. Instead of this smokescreen argument that merely acts to reinforce transphobic ideas, understanding the violence that trans and gender non conforming people also experience could be the basis for a shared movement against gender-related violence. The fact that gay men are also often the target of hate crime on the basis of homophobic ideas that gay men aren’t “manly” enough or are “too feminine” could also be something to keep in mind in terms of collective action here.
The fact that Freeman turns to “liberal men” as her problematic interlocutors in the trans feminism debate is absurd (hello, there are cis women who disagree with you too!) and it shows just how much she: a) doesn’t see solidarity beyond anti-trans cis feminists as an option; and b) sees “men” as the problem, rather than the (sexist, racist, homophobic) system. The ability to have a solid political response to issues around gender and transphobia isn’t determined by biology. That doesn’t mean cis men should be dominating panels on trans inclusion, but it does mean we shouldn’t see these men as the problem. The real problem is transphobia, let’s not get confused here.
If all of this seems pretty basic, it’s because it is. Fundamentally it doesn’t matter what the relationship between biology (“sex”) and identity (“gender”) is, what really matters is treating human beings with dignity and celebrating the possibilities of gender. Because loosening the rules of gender, understanding gender and sexism beyond biology, talking about body issues but not reducing people to bodies, and thinking about how to have solidarity around the lived experiences of gender, should be fundamental to feminism. The alternative – the world that Freeman seeks to enforce – is not only a trans-exclusionary, it works against what decades of feminists have been fighting for.
Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw
The Transgender Studies Reader edited by Stephen Whittle and Susan Stryker
This amazing Transgender Studies Syllabus from Amy Billingsley
The Keywords special issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly
This report on LGBT Hate Crime and Discrimination in Britain 2017
This great video from ABC Comedy, So You Think You Can Trans
Edit: An earlier version of this article stated that the Gender Recognition Certificate would be used in place of a birth certificate, but is in fact used to issue a new birth certificate. For more information see: https://www.gov.uk/apply-gender-recognition-certificate/what-happens-next