This is a response to the essay published on Medium yesterday by Sophie Allen, Jane Clare Jones, Holly Lawford-Smith, Mary Leng, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, and Kathleen Stock.
I probably shouldn’t do this, but… The authors claim that they want to have a good faith conversation. And a number of people who I know, or know of, and who I respect or take seriously are linking to this and taking that claim at face value. For the sake of those people, and other people of good faith who don’t know what to make of the very loud and very sharp arguments about trans rights, I think it might be worth saying something.
I am not a woman. I am not trans. I am a feminist – my earliest conversion experience was reading Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. I love very dearly a little trans girl who I hope grows up in a world where she is safe and free, or at least has a righteous and fierce community of people fighting at her side for safety and freedom.
My response follows the authors’ essay point for point, for the most part, but it gets away from me a bit at the end. Anyway, I hope this is helpful for someone besides me.
Section one: fallacious arguments
1. ‘Your position has been historically associated with far right-wing thought, and hence fails’.
The authors write: “Associating our intellectual position with a far right-wing one, because some far right-wing thinkers would agree with us in some of our conclusions, and insinuating that our position is all the worse because of it, is an ad hominem. Ad hominems are widely recognised as inappropriate in philosophy.”
Political arguments are different from purely philosophical arguments. The fact that one group of political advocates makes the same, or similar, arguments as another – politically dangerous and loathsome – group is not irrelevant to the political assessment of those arguments. It is true that “the fact that person shares a conclusion with a far right-wing person could never show, on its own, that the conclusion was false.” However, when people claim “that women, by definition, are adult human females,” and conclude, on this basis, that “no trans woman is correctly categorised as a woman,” this is not like happening to agree with a far right wing person about what day of the week it is.
The “gender critical” position is a reactionary political position – in the sense that it is a “backlash” position, reacting to trans people’s progress towards social and political liberation – which politically aligns with the efforts of the far-right to naturalize social differences and make outcast groups more vulnerable to physical and economic harm. No doubt most, if not all, “gender critical feminists” regard themselves as being on the left, and find it disconcerting at the least to be accused of holding a reactionary position. But this has happened before. When radical feminists, in the ‘80s, made common cause with the Christian Right in the US to attack pornography and the sex trade, they were rightly criticized for taking a reactionary position, a position that hurt women – especially the most vulnerable women – more than it helped. The same goes for the current “gender critical” backlash against trans women: some left feminists are taking a bad position out of a misguided and mistaken belief that, in order to protect cis women from sexual violence, they have to police the bodies and movement of trans women.
2. ‘You are biological essentialists’
According to the authors, to call the “gender critical” view “‘biological essentialism’ is a misnomer. Moreover, it is a misnomer apparently rhetorically designed to draw some of the harsh criticism which appears in progressive circles about biological essentialism, in the true sense, onto the view that women, definitionally, are adult human females.”
Frankly, I don’t understand what this rejoinder is trying to accomplish. If the “gender critical” position is that all and only women are adult human females, and if “female” is supposed to denote a set (or cluster) of biological traits, then why doesn’t it follow that “womanhood” is “biologically produced”? The “gender critical” position is that to be a woman is to be a member of a biological sex category. To call this position “biologically essentialist” is not a “misnomer,” and it is certainly not a “fallacy.” Calling the position biologically essentialist does not mean it is wrong, of course! The critics of the “gender critical” position disagree that “womanhood” is a matter of biology alone, and calling the “gender critical” position biologically essentialist signals this disagreement, but is not yet an argument for the social (co-) determination of womanhood. The authors call their position “realism about biological sex categories”; the critics call it “biological essentialism.” The authors’ preferred term implies that social constructivism about womanhood is a form of anti-realism. This is no more or less a “fallacy” than calling their realism “essentialist.” These are disagreements, not fallacies!
3. ‘You want to reduce women to their genitalia, or to womb-possession’.
“None of us,” the authors maintain, “hold a view according to which either a woman or a female is defined as such by her current possession of a particular configuration of genitalia, womb, or any other single primary sex characteristic, for that matter. … In the light of this, the correct question should be, not ‘Do we ‘reduce’ women to their genitalia, or wombs?’ but ‘Do we ‘reduce’ women to a cluster of primary sex characteristics?’”
I disagree. The real question is actually this: how do we police women? When and how do we – in our social and political arrangements and institutions – stop people and ask them if they are “really” women or not? The authors are concerned to keep (some) people who claim to be women out of (some) “women only” spaces and institutions. In practice, that means looking in people’s underpants. It means empowering the police, social workers, volunteers, and people on the street to demand to know what is between other people’s legs. That is what the critics of the “gender critical” position are practically concerned about when they say that “gender critical” feminists “reduce women to their genitalia.” They are concerned that, to the extent that the “gender critical” feminists get their way, people who claim to be women will be asked – in order to access social services and facilities – to prove it by displaying their genitals to someone or another.
4. ‘You think there is a “right way” to be, as a woman/ lesbian/ mother’ (etc.).
The authors think that this objection “trades on an ambiguity between two separate senses of the word ‘right’: normatively right versus descriptively right (i.e. descriptively correct). As such, it’s another rhetorical move. It can quickly and unfairly bring to the reader’s mind a metaphor of our gatekeeping for a special club — ‘you can come in, but not you!’.”
The “gender critical” feminists object, “To say that we think there is a definition of femaleness or womanhood is not to say that there is a ‘right way’ for females or women to be, in any normative sense.” Ah, but it is to say that there are people who shouldn’t call themselves women, and that the police should be able to check your papers (or your genitals) to see whether or not you are authorized to call yourself a woman. The “gender critical” definition of womanhood is normative in this sense: it is political and enforceable. It is, indeed, gatekeeping, and it does say, precisely, “you can come in, but not you!”
5. ‘You are transphobic’; or ‘You may not be transphobic but your views are’.
The authors want you to know that their views are not motivated by “an attitude of disgust, fear, or revulsion towards trans people because they are trans people,” and that their trans friends agree with them – and not “for self-hating reasons.” I’m happy to accept their report of their own – and their friends’ – introspection. I would ask, in return, that when someone tells them that they are a woman or a girl, the authors would accept this self-report and not call the police to check on the status of their genitalia.
6. ‘You think all or most trans women are violent against cis women’.
“This is a straw man,” the authors claim, “and none of us have ever said this, or think it’s true.” Rather, the authors are worried about what might happen, (1) “in a culture where it becomes increasingly widely known that sex-self-ID (with or without a Gender Recognition Certificate), rather than birth sex, is the determiner of entry/ lack of entry for biological males into woman-only spaces where females undress or sleep, and so are particularly vulnerable.” They are also worried about (2) “those who, we predict, would socially transition opportunistically for sinister motives, if the proposed changes to the UK Gender Recognition Act were to go ahead.”
This is the real nub of the issue, I think.
The authors – and I am willing to believe them on this – are not worried about trans women per se, but about opportunistic and predatory men. They are worried that opportunistic and predatory men will take advantage of a culture in which we believe people when they say they are women, and use that trust to harm and abuse women and children.
When stated this way, I think this concern is reasonable. All social institutions and norms are susceptible to opportunistic abuse, and it is worth our while to think about how any reconfiguration of social institutions and norms might be abused by the unscrupulous.
However, mutatis mutandis, the same scrutiny should be applied to our current social institutions and norms, the ones trans activists and organizers want to change. And this is where, I think, the limits of the “gender critical” position become stark. The authors simply show no awareness of how the current regime of gender policing harms trans and gender creative people, or how gender policing itself exposes women and children – including trans women and children – to predatory violence. And because they do not express any sympathy or understanding for what trans people are going through – the harassment, abuse, mockery, and violence they are trying to protect themselves from – the authors end up giving the impression – against their beliefs and intentions – that trans women are dangerous to cis women.
I accept that the authors do not think all or most trans women are violent towards cis women, but they manifestly do think that trans women are a vector for the endangerment of cis women. The authors think that if we start believing women when they say they are women – if we stop policing self-reported womanhood, stop asking for proof – then cis women will be at greater risk of sexual violence. The women who say “believe me when I say I am a woman” are dangerous to women: that is the “gender critical” position. And the authors have not at all grappled with – or even realized – the fact that this position is reasonably taken to be deeply offensive to trans people, and is a barrier to working with trans people on solving the common problem of how to make people safe and secure and free.
7. ‘No true trans woman is ever violent’ (See also: ‘No detransitioned person was ever really trans’)
I have never seen an example of this argument, so I am not sure what the authors are actually responding to.
8. ‘Women get attacked and aggressed in women-only spaces anyway’.
All people have an interest in being safe from physical and sexual assault. There are ways of making women-only spaces safe that do not rely upon policing people’s genitals. Moreover, an overall assessment of how safe women-only spaces are should include the safety of those excluded by a policing regime as well as those admitted.
9. ‘Why don’t you want to exclude lesbians from women-only spaces too?’
The authors get into trouble here for a couple reasons. First, they claim that “We aren’t arguing for the exclusion of lesbians from women-only spaces, because as far as we know, there is no documented statistical pattern of lesbian violence or aggression towards other females, whereas there is such a documented pattern of male violence.” This implies that there is “documented statistical pattern” of trans women violence or aggression towards other women. There is no such documented pattern, and asserting that there is would cause problems for the authors’ denial, above, that they think all or most trans women are violent against cis women. The authors could reply that statistically elevated risk does not imply that all or most trans women are violent. But it won’t do to justify a categorical regime of gender policing on the basis of a statistical risk – this is why racial profiling schemes are not only evil but also counterproductive. Sam Harris embarrassed himself repeatedly arguing for profiling observant Muslims after 9/11. Profiling doesn’t work.
Second, the authors also claim that “‘lesbian-free spaces’ would be impractical as an imposed social norm, since there’s no even roughly reliable way of visually identifying lesbians and differentiating them from non-lesbians. In contrast, we do have a rough-and-ready way of visually identifying males in women-only spaces. It isn’t perfect, and will regrettably cause misgendering in some cases; but no such system could be perfect, and we consider something as better than nothing.” This is simply begging the question. The critics of the “gender critical” position are arguing that the harm caused by not believing people when they say they are women is not merely regrettable but horrendous, and that letting people go to the bathroom or changing room where they are most comfortable would be significantly better than what we do now. That is, they are denying that the “something” we have is “better than nothing” – or, rather, they are denying that “nothing” is the relevant alternative.
10. ‘You need to understand why trans women are angry with you’.
I actually cannot bring myself to dignify this set of remarks – which are solipsistic and condescending in equal measure – with a response. Sorry.
11. ‘You are making violence to trans people more likely by your writing’.
12. ‘Trans rights are not like a pie; no-one gets less pie if trans people have rights’.
These points go together. The authors claim to “recognise two sets of rights and interests, those of trans women and women,” and to be “determined to foster a public conversation which takes both into account.” They treat these interests as if there were simply a zero-sum trade-off between them, however: “we do think that giving the social and/or legal capacity to male-bodied people to self-identify into woman-only spaces and resources, will take something substantial away from women, given a wider context of misogyny in society. That is precisely our point.” And they show no willingness to trade the interests of cis women for the interests of trans women: “We therefore request that society finds some other, better route to realising trans rights, compatible with realising the rights of women to lives free of harm.” I’m not sure, then, how this is supposed to foster a public conversation.
13. ‘Feminists have already had the discussion without you, and established that trans women are women’
The authors refuse to “defer to” recent feminist scholarship. That is their right. I think the objection, however, is that they do not try to engage with it or to understand what motivates it. More on this below.
Section two: bad analogies
1. ‘In the past, some people used to think black women weren’t real women. These days, some people now think that trans women aren’t real women. But black women are women, and so are trans women’.
2. ‘Excluding trans women from women-only spaces is like excluding black people from whites-only spaces’.
3. ‘Excluding trans women from women-only spaces is like excluding refugees or immigrants from the UK’.
4.‘ Trans women stand to women as adoptive parents stand to parents’.
5. ‘Arguing that you can’t be both a trans woman and a lesbian resembles the historical claim that you can’t be both a real woman and a lesbian’.
The arguments presented by the authors here cluster around three sets of claims. First, the authors claim that trans women’s full moral personhood is not denied them – either by society at large or, at least, by the “gender critical” position. Second, the authors deny that the position of trans women is one of special vulnerability (at least vis-à-vis cis women). Third, the authors reassert that theirs is not a normative definition of womanhood, but a purely descriptive definition. I will take these in turn.
(1) Moral personhood: One of the most persistent theoretical complaints I have seen about the “gender critical” position is that it operates with an incredibly simplistic and inadequate notion of oppression. This complaint seems to be substantiated by these sections of this essay. The reader is told that, during the era of New World slavery, black women were denied the status of “womanhood” insofar as “black women weren’t the sort of female white people should be interested in, or care about, or value. That is, it was a move which denied black women full moral personhood in the eyes of white people, and positioned them as undeserving of human rights.” After the end of slavery, “black people were historically subject to segregation because white people denied their full and equal humanity.”
But, the authors assure us, the “gender critical” position is not “that trans women don’t have full moral personhood. We emphatically and repeatedly assert that they do, emphasising their full human rights.” “The question is not whether they are human,” the authors continue, “but whether they are female, and on the basis of being female should be able to access spaces designed to protect the comparatively greater vulnerability of female people.” “No one thinks a man is denied his full and equal humanity merely because women-only spaces exist, and the same reasoning applies to trans women. Not giving people everything that they desire is not a denial of their humanity.”
Wow. I don’t think the authors have thought through what having your full and equal humanity denied might actually look like. It doesn’t, generally, mean that people deny that you are actually human. That does happen, of course, especially in rhetorical or polemical forms. But slaveowners never doubted for a second that black women were human – otherwise they would not have raped them systematically in order to breed more slaves. Enslaved black women could very well be the daughters and granddaughters of their masters. Their masters knew well enough that they were dealing with human beings. Nonetheless, “black women weren’t the sort of female white people should be interested in, or care about, or value.” Their wants, their desires, their interests didn’t count for anything in white people’s eyes. And nor did they count for anything in the eyes of the law.
“Not giving people everything that they desire is not a denial of their humanity.” True. But not taking people’s desires seriously, discounting what they say they need, dismissing their self-reports about what is most important to them – that is exactly what denying people’s humanity has looked like historically.
(2) Social positioning: The authors have a fall-back position, though:
Second, racial segregation was an exercise of power by a culturally dominant group against a culturally subordinated group. The dominant used their power to keep the subordinate out. Women are not a culturally dominant group; rather, they are a culturally subordinated group. When they act to maintain women-only spaces, we judge that they act to maintain protections that are important in light of their status. At best, trans women are a distinct subordinated group; at worst, trans women are members of the dominant group. At best, exclusion is a lateral move; at worst, it is an ‘upwards’ move. In neither case is it a ‘downwards’ move, and so in neither case is it comparable to racial segregation.
The authors use the same sort of argument to dismiss the analogy between the exclusion of trans women and the exclusion of refugees and migrants. They shouldn’t, because it is a very bad argument. They are, of course, right that racial segregation – and the xenophobic exclusion of migrants – are exercises of power by a dominant group. But notice that some of the people doing the segregating and border-closing are women (members of a subordinate group) and some of the people being segregated and excluded are men (members of a dominant group). Notice, also, that some of the folks in Britain (and the US) most supportive of a harshly exclusive immigration regime are poor and working class folks, and that some of the most virulent and violent opposition to integration in the US came from poor and working class folks. Just because you are a member of a subordinated group doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to lose – or anything you think you might lose if you don’t jealously guard it against newcomers.
Anyone who doesn’t realize this, I submit, hasn’t thought very much about how systems of social power work, or about how they cut across and complicate one another. There is even a bog-standard keyword of recent feminist research that names this incredibly common phenomenon. You know the one.
Anyway, for our authors to deny that trans people – especially trans women, and especially poor trans women and trans women of color – are “desperately vulnerable, and seek to access better life chances,” for them to deny that many trans people are desperate to pass – and go to great lengths to “exaggerate” their femininity or masculinity in order to avoid being “clocked” as trans – in order to avoid street harassment, assault, and worse, for them to deny that having a bathroom or a locker-room where you “belong” and where you are safe from harassment is a valuable “privilege” – well, yeah, that looks pretty “callous.”
(3) Pure description: Finally, the authors are at pains to impress upon us that “Our claim is a descriptive claim about category membership. It isn’t the claim that trans women don’t match some stereotypical sociocultural norms of womanhood.” Hence, also, “our arguing that a person can’t be both a trans woman and a lesbian is not done on the basis of our covertly assenting to some norm or stereotype about womanhood. Rather, our argument that a person can’t be both a trans woman and a lesbian is grounded in a claim about descriptive conditions upon the category of lesbians.” They’re just describing the world, okay?
In response to the suggestion that “trans women stand to women as adoptive parents stand to parents,” the authors respond that this “begs the question against the gender critical position.”
Both adoptive parents and biological parents have in common that they actually have — or have had — children that they parent. To accept that trans women are to natal women as adoptive parents are to biological parents suggests then that there is something essential to womanhood that they both share. But this is precisely what is at issue between us and our critics, so that the analogy settles nothing on its own.
But I think we haves seen that there may be something “essential to womanhood” that both trans and cis women – even “gender critical” women – do share – and I think the authors have shown us this. It is the conjoint desire to belong to the category “woman” and to escape from the terrible burden of belonging to that name. This is what Marilyn Frye calls “the double bind.” I am not a woman. I am not trans. I am not speaking from any experience of my own. But I have studied and learned from and loved and listened to women and trans people, and I think I see a pattern. When a person calls herself a woman, and wants to be seen as a woman, and yet fears the social punishment that comes with being a woman, and rails against the limits imposed on women – I think that person is a woman. And I think we should both treat her as a woman and not treat her as a woman, because women aren’t treated well, and the only thing worse than being treated as a woman might be being treated as not quite a woman, or a failed woman. And if the authors can’t see that, well… I’m sorry, but I don’t think they are going to contribute to “more fruitful discussion from now on.”