“‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people.” With those words, JK Rowling threw herself into perhaps the most febrile debate in contemporary society. Even Covid-19 has not dampened the furore over transgender rights. As two world views collide, fundamental truths that previous generations thought were self-evident have been cast into doubt. What is a woman? what is a man? and how can we tell them apart?
On one side there is belief in gender identity, a feeling in our heads that drives our nature and defines our true gender: we are the gender we think we are. But the creator of Harry Potter took the opposing view. In Rowling’s mind, she is a woman not because of psychology but because of biology and her frustrations bubbled to the surface when her sex was reduced to “people who menstruate.”
A hundred years after women won the right to vote in many countries, Rowling has now engaged in a campaign the suffragettes could not have imagined – a battle to hold onto the word woman itself. The response was predictable and brutal. As the actors her books had made famous lined up to distance themselves from her, Rowling became the target of an emotional campaign that has the hallmarks of a modern-day witch hunt.
Women who have been forthright in their view that the word woman is theirs, and theirs alone, have faced noisy and sometimes violent opposition. The angry protests that faced Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy when she spoke at the Seattle public library on February 1st, followed noisy disruption outside a Woman’s Place UK meeting in Brighton last autumn. Women have been assaulted, and others have lost their livelihoods.
The fury is unleashed because when women are defined by their biology, trans women are excluded from womanhood. To trans women, desperate to be validated as actual women, this is an existential rebuff.
While it might be tempting to look the other way, for me this is personal. I am a trans woman, so it is my identity – supposedly – that is being denied. However, I am also a high school science teacher and I know magical thinking when I see it. Trans women are male – I certainly am as I fathered three children – while women are female. Male people are not female people and therefore trans women are not women. Whatever emotions might surround the debate, JK Rowling is correct.
When I transitioned eight years ago, Rowling’s views would not have been particularly controversial. Transsexuals – as we were then known – changed our bodies to resemble the opposite sex and re-integrated into society with as little fuss as possible. Even those of us with public roles found that it was not a deal breaker. Why should it be? Male and female teachers do the same job, and my transition made no difference to Newton’s laws of motion or any other topic I teach. But I did rely on the trust and confidence between me and others around me.
At the same time other males found comfort in presenting in a way more typical of women, but without changing their bodies. But nobody thought that transvestites – as these fully intact males were known – were women, including the transvestites themselves.
What changed? How did two groups – a tiny number of transsexuals and rather more transvestites – become the transgender movement now challenges the use of biological sex to divide society?
Between political leaders who were keen to be seen as progressive – or did not care – and a public kept largely in the dark, legislation has been enacted, and policy changed on the advice of the transgender activists who cared very much.
As gender has been conflated with sex, gender identity has quietly displaced sex in policies and laws. Effectively we have been able to choose not only our gender but our legal sex, with devastating consequences on women’s sex-based rights. As Kiri Tunks, a founder of Woman’s Place UK said, “If you can’t define what a woman is, how can you defend women’s rights?”
Women’s concerns are therefore real. Boundaries become meaningless if male people can choose to identify into women’s refuges, hospital wards, changing rooms, and even prisons. It would be very naïve to hope that men wouldn’t do that, would they? Most won’t, but those that will try are precisely the men that women worry about and the consequences are serious. In the UK, a rapist called Karen White was placed in a women’s prison and then committed further sexual assaults.
It is not just physical spaces at risk. Any scheme set up to promote women is vulnerable. For example, the FT List of Top 100 Women in Business included Pips Bunce, a male who sometimes wears a dress to work. While I applaud the courage that takes, I deplore the impact on the woman who missed out as a result.
In sport, trans women no longer need surgery to compete against women. Limits have been imposed on testosterone levels, but males still retain a competitive advantage because of bone density, heart capacity and muscle fibre. Like East Germany doped its female athletes in the 1970’s and 1980’s, modern day regimes who care more about medals that athletes will be tempted to intervene in the endocrinology of their emerging talent. Just this time, young men are at risk. The current world women’s 200 m record – set by Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988 – is beaten by 16 year old boys. Women’s sport hangs in the balance.
None of this helps me or other transgender people trying to get on with our lives. We need laws to protect us against harassment and discrimination; we also need prompt access to mental health services and – where appropriate – to specialist gender clinics.
But rather than focus on these rights, transgender rights activists demand to be accepted as the opposite sex, and for all purposes. With a bigger sense of entitlement than self-awareness, they have exasperated increasing numbers of women who see their own rights being compromised. Many women have decided that enough is enough, and I can’t say I blame them.
Putting aside the truth that we cannot actually change sex, acceptance can never be compelled; it is earned by the way we live our lives and relate to others. But these activists seem to be oblivious to reality. As they seek “validation” from others, they need society to not only chant the mantra, “trans women are women (and trans men are men)”; they need everyone to believe it as well. This has moved beyond the policing of speech and into the control of thoughts. When women object they are met with fury, as JK Rowling has experienced.
But that anger has achieved nothing. As tensions have increased confidence has evaporated, and this is disastrous for trans women. Without the trust and confidence of women, we are vulnerable. The threat to us does not come from women. When trans women – a small minority in society – are attacked, the perpetrators are almost always male.
As trans women, we have a lot of work to do to restore the equilibrium. Firstly, we need to be honest. We are male and therefore not the same as women. Secondly, while we do need to find validation, we need to look for it not so much in other people but in ourselves. If we do not accept ourselves, how can we possibly expect others to accept us? Then we can look outwards but in a different way and, with an emphasis on empathy rather than expectation, recognise that the word woman is already taken.
Debbie Hayton is a trans woman and high school teacher in the UK.