The trans debate was less toxic when it was a process, not an identity.
Transsexualism used to be a clinical issue. It was also something we did in response to psychological distress. Even the protected characteristic — gender reassignment — implies a process.
The Equality Act, which enshrined that protection in law, was passed as recently in 2010. But since then, the trans world has changed beyond recognition. Most fundamentally, the key verb was switched: to do was replaced with to be. Transgender is now an identity, something that we are and a class that we can identify into. By 2015, Stonewall UK — who only started campaigning on trans issues the year before — were calling for the protected characteristic to be changed to gender identity.
With that, Stonewall and others like them gestated what is arguably the most toxic debate in contemporary society. Identity politics — defined as politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group — has a poor track record of creating harmony. Positions can become extreme, and compromise difficult when politics divides on sectarian lines. We need look no further than Northern Ireland for evidence of that.
The trans debate follows the same pattern. Positions become entrenched and barriers are thrown up against outsiders. Transgender people have been corralled into a community, united only by their transgender identity and a shared belief system.
Like some quasi-religious movement, the transgender community is bound together by faith in gender identity — the idea that we all have a soul-like essence that determines whether we are men or women. Its doctrines — for example, Trans Women are Women — are held as tightly as a Christian might declare that Jesus Christ is the son of God made man. Apostates — whether they de-transition or merely become disillusioned — are treated with contempt.
But this community has claimed territory held by others — in this case women. Transwomen — biological males many of whom “identify as women” — have claimed the rights of women as their own. They demand access to spaces reserved for women, and not just physical spaces such as refuges, hospital wards and prisons. Protected positions such as all-women shortlists, reserved places on committees, and bursaries and scholarships designated for women have all fallen victim.
Earlier this week, New Zealand named Laurel Hubbard, a biological male aged 43, on their Olympic weightlifting women’s team. NZOC chief Kereyn Smith said it was an “historic moment in sport and for the New Zealand team”. But while Hubbard is lauded, a woman lost out: developmental biologist Emma Hilton identified the specific woman as Kuinini “Nini” Manumua who would have competed for Tonga. At 21 years old, it would have been her first Olympics — Hubbard is old enough to be her father.
No wonder women are furious. This is a territorial dispute, but the battle is not for neutral ground. At stake is land women had long held because of their biology. Like some colonising army, transwomen have muscled and set up camp, basing their claim on psychology — their gender identity.
In this battle there can be only one winner. The category of “woman” can be defined either by biology or psychology. Not both. One side will lose. Either women will be forced to accept into their spaces and places anybody who claims to feel like a woman, or transwomen will be sent packing back to the men’s. The stakes for both sides are enormous.
The old rules — where transsexual women were quietly included by women on the understanding that they had done something — are no longer tenable now that transgender women demand access on the basis of gender identity — who they are. When the term woman is reduced to anyone who identifies as a woman, and for whatever reason, boundaries become meaningless. When backs are against the wall, there is little space for nuanced debate. Extreme positions are taken with those seeking compromise coming under attack from both sides.
It is much easier to get into this mess than it is to extract ourselves from it. But we must if we are to restore peace. We will only do that by dismantling identity politics and refocussing the debate on taking action to improve people’s lives.
We can defend Hubbard’s right to lift weights; but rather than take a place from a woman, Hubbard should compete with men. Sport is segregated because of biology. Studies prove that men of Hubbard’s age are well past their sporting peaks. Either Hubbard is an outlier in more ways than one, or more likely the competition is much easier. That is no way to run sport.
Instead we should be campaigning to improved everyone’s lives. Transwomen like me may need to compete with men — at least if we are to maintain fair competition between males and females — but that does not mean we need to change with men, or shower with men. Nor does it mean that our records should be indistinguishable from men. A campaign to provide separate facilities for anyone who does not wish to share communal facilities with their own sex does not compromise the rights of women, nor does separate record keeping.
But this comes back to those two verbs. As long as the debate rests on who we are there will be trouble. Just like Brexit where Leavers and Remainers divided according to their feelings about identity (British or European?) identity politics divides rather than unifies. Shift the focus to what people can do, or maybe what we are prohibited from doing, and maybe we can begin to crawl out of the mess we are all in?
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.