GRA Reform

Society needs to dismantle sexism before revising legal definitions of sex

Behind this heated and polarised debate there are real people making their way in life and often under difficult circumstances.

I am grateful to both The Economist and my fellow contributors for shedding light on such a controversial debate. The apparent clash between trans rights and women’s rights has created a storm but, in this feature, calm voices on both sides of the discussion are working towards solutions where everyone can feel secure, valued and respected for who we are.

Others can find it difficult to understand what it means to be transgender. As Adam Smith said, “When gay activists made their arguments about whom they want to love, it became easier for others to understand. Transgender identity is about how the beholder feels on the inside—so it is harder to explain.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Vic Valentine that trans people’s identities are legitimate, and that we have the right to social acceptance and privacy about being trans, though I remain cautious about relying on our own assertions. If other people lack confidence in the law, legislation will never secure the acceptance we crave.

Kristina Harrison’s analogy with religious identities was interesting and thought-provoking. The oft-repeated statement that “trans women are women” is closer to an assertion of personal belief than a falsifiable scientific fact.  It is one thing for society to acknowledge our feelings of self, but quite another for them to share our beliefs.

I was struck by Kathleen Stock’s comments on “conceptual engineering”. Society can engineer the concept “woman” to include “trans woman”, and “trans woman” to include anyone who sincerely self-declares as a woman. At a stroke, “gender identity” then replaces biological sex as a way of dividing humanity. Unfortunately, in the real world, sexism cannot be engineered away so easily. Dr Stock highlighted the problem of male violence and she warned that, “if we lose a working concept of ‘female’ in the way indicated, self-declared trans women (males) may well eventually gain unrestricted access to protected spaces originally introduced to shield females from sexual violence from males.”

If male people can become female people just because they say so, what does it mean to be homosexual? Pippa Fleming worried about the impact on lesbians who are being dubbed as exclusionary or transphobic for saying No to trans women with a penis.

Moving from sex to gender throws up further contradictions. Sarah Ditum cited Pips Bunce, a director at Credit Suisse, who presents as Pippa on her “female” days and Philip on his “male” days. While we should celebrate the freedom of people to express their gender, dividing society on those grounds reduces manhood and womanhood to the clothes we choose to wear.

Sexism permeates the entire debate, and even affects the reporters themselves. James Kirkup’s analysis was telling. While female journalists like Ms Ditum have been denounced as “TERFs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) for taking a critical approach to transgender issues, he has largely escaped the vitriol, aggression and threats when he has said similar things.

Until society manages to dismantle sexism, therefore, we should be very careful when we revise legal structures that define people according to their sex. Although it is progressive to celebrate gender and encourage the freedom of gender, if we ignore sex then we ignore sexism. The proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act may have triggered the debate in Britain, but the issues run much wider.

Finally, I want to thank Emily Brothers and Charlie Kiss for their pieces. I find myself on the opposite side of the debate on self-identification, but I identify with their life stories. Like Ms Brothers, the feeling of dissonance with my biological sex ran deep and needed no articulation, and it took me to the edge. Mr Kiss recalled that he “could not have tried harder or longer to be a true lesbian”. I could not have tried harder to be a man. But eventually it became too much.

Behind this heated and polarised debate there are real people making their way in life and often under difficult circumstances. As Mr Kiss said: “Being trans is not easy, because of other people’s prejudice and hatred. But for me and for the vast majority of trans people, transitioning is infinitely preferable to remaining as we are.” On that point I am with him, 100%.

Debbie Hayton is a physics teacher at a school in the West Midlands, in Britain.

* This article was first published by The Economist on 11 July 2018: Society needs to dismantle sexism before revising legal definitions of sex. It was part of a two-week discussion on transgender issues, with ten contributors. The other contributions are available here.

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