“The stronger person is not the one making the most noise but the one who can quietly direct the conversation toward defining and solving problems.”(~ Aaron T Beck)
In my early teens I used to read spin-off comics based on the Aliens films. The idea was that astronaut Ellen Ripley had to protect her friends and loved ones from screaming monsters whose sole obsession is the ability to procreate for their egg-laying queen. One particular book was titled The Female War, a title which immediately bubbled back to mind when I was mentally pre-writing this post.
This week the Scottish Parliament voted 86-39 to make it easier for trans folk to legally change their gender. People in Scotland have been able to do this since 2005, but the process is cumbersome and stressful and puts people off applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate. The simplified process – “Self-ID” – can be found around the world in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, Switzerland and Uruguay.
In the 2016 Scottish general election, the SNP, Greens, and Labour all had gender recognition reform in their manifestos; the Conservatives didn’t put it in their 2015 UK election manifesto, but the idea was uncontroversial enough for even Theresa May to support it. Naturally, by 2022 this obscure administrative procedure affecting a tiny minority of the population drew little media attention and was passed quietly.
Oh, who am I fucking kidding?
It took six years, but was still described in the press as “controversial”, “rushed” or “forced through”. When the vote passed, a screaming TERF stood up to flash her home-made merkin to everyone in the Scottish Parliament chamber; men, women and children. Yes, it’s a weird as it sounds. And “Screaming Terf Merkin” is going to be the name of my death metal band.
Now, as a crossdresser, this doesn’t affect me much. When it comes to the ‘trans debate‘, I have no dogs in this fight. I am merely a bystander, hoping it can help my trans friends, and glad in a general sense that my country is looking out for minority groups and making their lives even just a little bit easier. I’ve written in support of trans issues in the past, and I think it’s one of those things you have to reaffirm.
The one small way it does affect me is that crossdressers are dragged into the arguments by TERFs – essentially, saying that trans women are nothing more than a cosmetic expression (and ‘not really women’), and therefore no different to crossdressers; but worse – they crossdress for the express purpose of invading women’s spaces (toilets, changing rooms, sports events, refuges, prisons).
The argument goes along the lines that predatory men – sex pests and rapists – would be able to use Gender Recognition Certificates like Willy Wonka’s golden tickets and storm these places unopposed. As a consequence of this, women’s spaces have to be rigorously policed, lest a man dressed as a woman slip inside: woman and girls must be protected. If you disagree you want to “destroy women’s rights.”
On one side, women like Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, or other politicians like SNP MP Mhairi Black arguing in favour of the changes, pointing out that it’s predatory men, not trans women who are the threat; on the other side are the likes of JK Rowling, or Joanna Cherry QC (also a SNP MP). This is an argument over women, for women, by women.
Hence my opening reference to The Female War.
The obsession with reproduction shows itself in the TERFs’ supposed ‘gotcha!’ question of how one defines a woman (along the lines of the Polish enyclopaedia definition of a horse). Usually it comes down to genitals and babymaking (as long as you’re not referring to women who’ve had hysterectomies, or who are otherwise unable to conceive because that would make the definition argument a bit complicated). Another formulation goes along the lines of “can a woman have a penis?” (My answer: it depends on the woman.)
Anyone who’s subjected themselves to the sight of Sean Connery in a red nappy with a ponytail, pornstache and thigh-high fuck-me boots might remember the line from Zardoz: “THE PENIS IS EVIL!!!”
I have a lot of sympathy with that kind of instinctive revulsion. I went to a boys-only school, memories of which revolve around the years of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. I was surrounded by dicks in both literal and metaphorical senses. I fucking loathe the thought of communal, public nudity. The idea of being surrounded by naked cocks feels threatening and makes my skin crawl, and I’ve got one of the damn things. (NB: the shower area at Iceland’s Blue Lagoon resort was a bit of a trial; and I was 37 when I went there.)
But the argument about the potential horror of women or girls seeing a penis in the changing rooms is an argument against open-plan changing rooms, not trans women. (My preferred swimming pool is the Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh: private cubicles.)
As for toilets, I don’t know of anyone who goes marching or dashing into public toilets with everything hanging out on display (except, maybe, good ol’ Screamin’ Terf Merkin?). And if a predatory man wanted to burst into the ladies’ toilets for a wank, he wouldn’t need a Gender Recognition Certificate or even to crossdress – this guy didn’t, and this guy didn’t have anything at all.
In sports, any law or test created for gender, cisgender people will fail as well. Hormones? Some cis women have ‘male’ levels. Chromosomes? In the 1996 Olympics ten cis women had XY chromosomes with intersex conditions and were caught out. Genitals? Ambiguity does exist. The fear is that trans women will have some sort of innate advantage over other women and take all the medals. This hasn’t happened, and the very few who have won any medals have made the news precisely because they are so rare (and precisely because they can be used as examples for TERFs to claim their fears are valid).
Other concerns are already addressed within the legislation: more time for younger trans folk to think about it, cooling-off periods, the option to change back, and making it illegal to falsely claim a certificate. Regarding prisons, if a cis man falsely applied for a GRC he would end up with a conviction for fraudulent self-ID; the Scottish Prison Service would decide which prison he’d go to and his terms of imprisonment, based on their assessment of risk to this person and risk to other prisoners – having an amended birth certificate does nothing one way or another to help or hinder a sexual predator.
This isn’t to say that all the fears or criticisms are unreasonable; I think certain group counselling sessions should be carefully chosen – I can see how it would be inappropriate for a trans woman who still expresses herself in a ‘masculine’ way (for example, at the start of her transition) to attend a woman’s group with sensitive subject matter, such as survivors of trauma or abuse – counselling in these cases would have to be accommodated, and it’s surely not beyond the wit of organisers to figure out options. I think it’s worth asking waxing salons if they do penises and scrotums instead of simply expecting it. And that’s before getting into the minefield of dating and sex – one can never assume one’s genitals will be welcome and you can’t force people to look at them, let alone like them. Please take note, Screamin’ Terf Merkin.
The one group that loses out from the policing of women’s and girls’ spaces is… women and girls. If a girl is deemed too successful at sports, parents can accuse her of being trans. Most supporters of these draconian laws never think it’ll happen to them or their daughters – “I never thought leopards would eat MY face, sobs woman who voted for Leopards-Eating-People’s-Faces Party”.
JK Rowling claims she only wants to look out for the rights of women and girls. Her latest venture was to set up a trans-exclusionary service who provide “support and advocacy” for sexual assault victims. Board members include Rhona Hotchkiss, a prison governor whose prison was condemned by inspectors for the frequent abuse of women prisoners by her staff.
Not a great start, and there’s a whiff of authoritarianism there. Some mistake surely? But then there’s this:
“Nobody but the very naive can fail to be aware that predatory men are capable of going to great lengths to gain easy access to victims, and have often sought out professions or special status that offer camouflage for their activities. Sex offenders have historically been found among social workers, teachers, priests, doctors, babysitters, school caretakers, celebrities and charity fundraisers, yet no matter how often the scandals break, the lesson appears never to be learned: it is dangerous to assert that any category of people deserves a blanket presumption of innocence.~ JK Rowling, The Times, 16 October 2022
“… This shouldn’t need saying, but in the current climate, it does: literally no feminist I’ve ever met claims all trans women are predators, any more than we believe that all men are predators.”
So JKR isn’t into that whole “innocent until proven guilty” thing? And the backtracking at the end gives the quote the same energy as Donald Trump when he said of Mexicans, “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
But just because the children’s author (who wrote of a super-wealthy boy wizard at an exclusive private school with happy slaves and antisemitic stereotypes looking after his money) can be compared with far-right extremists doesn’t mean that all anti-trans people are like that, surely? I mean, yes, yes, the actual Nazis destroyed a centre dedicated to LGBT research, but what about the 21st century?
Eh, well… anti-trans group LGB Alliance shares its address (55 Tufton Street, London) with right-wing think tanks and pressure groups (like the one that persuaded Britain’s worst prime minister and chancellor to blow £30billion in seven weeks).
Jane Carnall summarises the development like this (essentially, the roots can be found in the USA exporting its social and cultural neuroses):
“Strictly in a local phenomenon, there have always been a subgroup of radical feminists – by no means all radical feminists – who believe very strongly that women are oppressed because of our biology, and men have male privilege because of *their* biology, and therefore trans women have male privilege and can’t experience oppression as women. These TERFs – Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists – have never been a large or a very influential group. They would doubtless have protested the Gender Recognition Reform legislation, but it’s hard to see how far they could have got if they were just the likes of Julie Bindel, who also protested largely against civil partnership (and then registered a civil partnership herself, because, she said insouciently, her girlfriend wanted it).
“What happened in October 2017 was a summit meeting of the Christian Right in the US after they had just lost the marriage-equality decision at the Supreme Court. They mooted the idea that they could “separate the T from LGB” – and attack trans rights by affecting to pretend they cared about the rights of women. Does anyone believe the Christian Right/the Republican Party care about women’s rights? It is to laugh.
“But in the UK, it happened that this Christian Right funded campaign met and melded with a handful of women already inclined to oppose GRR. Magically, when these women published articles claiming GRR was dangerous, they found armies of twitterbots RTing their articles: if they decided to set up an organisation and crowdfund, they found money pouring in to their online fundraising accounts. Lots of money.
“We’ve seen this happen before. Abortion rights activists know that quite small and apparently quite ineffective “prolife” groups can nonetheless raise tons of money to pay for billboards, placards, posters, t-shirts – can provide resources for people to go talk to politicians: can fund the costs for “prolife” interns to work for a MP or MSP for free. Where does this money come from? Well, we see it flowing out from US far-right organisations, and we see money flowing into UK organisations that support those US far-right goals, and – it’s surprisingly hard to definitely prove there’s a direct link. All we have is a lot of smoking guns.
“And it’s exactly the same with the anti-trans movement. They claim to be “grassroots funded”, and there may well be some of the money going in that’s genuinely local: but much of it almost certainly isn’t.
“What we’ve seen in the UK since 2018 has been a dangerous rise of a loud far right campaign, targeting trans people, claiming their justification is “sex-based women’s rights”. This as a legal concept of including cis women & trans men, and excluding cis men and trans women, doesn’t exist in the UK. Cis and trans women have been protected against discrimination *as women* since the 1990s by the Sex Discrimination Act which was rolled into the 2010 Equality Act: trans people, women and men, are protected against transphobic discrimination by the 2010 Equality Act – as are lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people protected against homophobic discrimination, whether we are cis or trans.
“Trans rights and women’s rights are no more in conflict than women’s rights and lesbian rights, and for the same reason. Christians have argued that *their* religious rights need to be protected against LGBT rights, but by that in general they mean that they want a secular right to discriminate against LGBT people respected in law, not that they cannot worship God in their own way unless they are allowed to promote hate against LGBT people as part of that worship.”Jane Carnall, Facebook post, 22 December
Just because a fascist fuckwit makes a particular point, I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand straight away – is there any nugget of wisdom or an improvement or safeguard that can be gleaned? (For another nerd reference, I’m thinking of a line in a relevant episode of The Orville where Captain Mercer talks about policing himself.) As I said earlier, I’m pretty much a bystander in this. I can afford to take these little intellectual double-takes without feeling like I’m attacking the core of my being. The closest I got, as I wrote above, was a vague sympathy for the emotional disgust of penises. But when I considered the cases, I found there were alternate solutions, either accounted for already, or which could potentially be brought in if required.
It’s vitally important for trans folk to be recognised and accepted for who they are, legally and by society. I would not want it any other way. Ideally, society should be managed in a way that a minority group won’t have to be treated like they were a minority group. Sadly, we are far from living in that ideal society.
I think it’s also important to recognise their opponents for who they are too.
And when your opponents’ poster girl is Screamin’ Terf Merkin, you know you’re doing something right.