Jess Phillips thinks that transwomen — like me — are not female, but we should be treated as women. She has probably succeeded in upsetting both sides of what has become a toxic debate. Politicians entering these shark-infested waters do so at their own peril. If, like Rosie Duffield or Joanna Cherry, they stand up for science and reason, they put their careers at risk. If they go with the programme that we all have a gender identity, and biological sex doesn’t matter, they end up looking ridiculous, like the ‘jiggle on the stairs’ crew.
Phillips worked for Women’s Aid before becoming a Labour MP. She knows about sex-based discrimination and male violence against women. When put on the spot, she did not shy away from the truth. ‘I think that biological sex exists,’ she said, ‘and we are discriminated against on the basis of our biological sex, without question.’
How that ever became a controversial statement is remarkable. Human beings have known this since the dawn of time. But over the past six years — since around the time Phillips entered parliament — the transgender lobby has changed the narrative. While self-identification of legal gender might be off the table at Westminster, language and policy has been quietly changed across society.
Phillips has noticed that as well. She called it the ‘de-womanising’ of language. Phillips drew attention to that as well, pointing out that the Domestic Abuse Bill avoided mention of women.
But from there Phillips tried to shuffle back to fence-sitting, claiming that trans people don’t eliminate the word ‘women’ and that the term could live happily alongside ‘people with cervixes’.
I would beg to differ. Some of us are quite happy to define the word woman as a human being whose reproductive development took the path that led to a cervix and not a prostate. Because what other definition has any real meaning at all?
While Phillips claims that transwomen are not female (correct, we are not), she then recalled meeting a transwoman who was ‘a woman to me’. So transwomen are women but not female? But that statement surely undermines the entire female sex, detaching them from the word they thought was their own. Because when everyone can be a woman, what does the word even mean?
Phillips herself points out the nonsense of what it means to live ‘in role’ as the opposite sex, something trans people need to do to qualify for a Gender Recognition Certificate. When she sat on the Women and Equalities Committee she asked how to live in the role of a man, asking ‘have I got to use a spanner?’ She knows that this is stereotyping. And stereotyping is demeaning to trans people and legitimises sexist gender-roles.
Politicians like Phillips need to come down off the fence. Yes, trans people exist, yes we can be included in society, but no, we are not the opposite sex. And that means that transwomen are not women. That is a scary thing to say, as Duffield and Cherry have discovered. Does Phillips have the strength of character to stand with them?
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.