Dr Camilla Fitzsimons (Maynooth University)
So, I get it.
I get it that some people feel unsure about trans rights. I get it that when Sonia O’Sullivan pleads with us to ‘save women’s sports’, it can make people pause for thought. I get it that people have questions about reports claiming more children than before are opening up about feeling uncomfortable with their gender identity.
I get it because I used to feel some of these feelings too.
Mostly, I get it that not everyone thinks trans rights is any of their business. As a cis woman who lives a heteronormative life, this used to be part of my thinking. 'What has any of this got to do with me?' 'Can we not all just live and let live?' So I sat on the cis privileged side-lines and let others battle it out. But deep down I knew that to truly live a feminist life, I had to learn more. So I enrolled in a Masters in Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College, Dublin and with the help of my classmates and lecturers especially Clare Tebbutt, I found out that to be the feminist I want to be, I need to expose and oppose self-titled ‘gender critical’ arguments at every turn.
Before I share my reasons why, it helped me to have some sort of relatable origin for the ideas that are bandied about today. This search led me to book The Transsexual Empire... written by the US ‘feminist’ Janice Raymond. It was first published in 1979 then republished in 1994 with a revised introduction on “trans gender”. A core part of Raymond’s anti “transsexual” argument is that, contrary to much feminist thinking at the time, biology is central to determining womanhood. In other words, that women are in fact born and not made. She claimed men recognise “the power women have by virtue of biology” and accused trans women of being men trying to “wrest from women those powers inherent in female biology”. These ideas remain the backbone of much gender critical thinking today – that trans women will always be men mostly because, to again quote Raymond, “they have not had to live in a female body with all the history this entails and yes, history is based to a certain extent on female biology.” Instead, and because of patriarchy, they will always be oppressors of (cis) women. Meanwhile trans men and non-binary people, who get much less attention even to this day, are seen as little more than confused victims of patriarchy.
This isn’t the only root I investigated. Sonia Corrêa writes about the orchestrated campaign by right wing Christianity especially the Catholic Church (remember pro-life anyone??) which mostly started when the UN began including the word “gender” in their documents in the early 1990s. The genesis of the church’s argument is that gender diversity is ‘anti-family’ and ‘anti-woman’. This is typically the thinking behind a growing number of American laws that seek to outlaw gender-affirming healthcare across many states. These are on top of a growing number of so-called ‘bathroom bills’ largely introduced as a backlash to Cody Mathis winning the right to use a school bathroom of her choice against the wishes of the school district. These laws force people to only use bathrooms of the gender they were assigned at birth (more about ‘safe spaces’ later). You can read about the most recent Parental Rights in Education Bill (2022) nicknamed the ‘don’t say gay bill’ here. This seeks to prevent teachers from even talking about gender identity and sexual orientation.
Closer to home and probably most influential in Ireland are a small number of UK academics and journalists who have been given the title Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, (or TERFs) because they want to ‘exclude’ trans people from a range of social spaces. The flashpoint for their ideas getting noticed was through newspaper and online debates about reforming the 2004 Gender Recognition Act when they inserted the idea that de-medicalising this act would allow predatory ‘men’ to masquerade as ‘women’ and encroach women’s spaces for their own sinister benefit. At the moment, and unlike Ireland, a person must have a medical diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria’ before they can change their identity on certain legal documents (as an aside, Ireland’s law was introduced in the main because of the lengthy legal battle fought by Lydia Foy with the support of FLAC). Removing the need for a doctor’s note aligns UK law with WHO guidelines. Here’s a short video that explains why the WHO support de-medicalisation.
JK Rowling perhaps most notably entered the trans rights debate by retweeting and mocking an article on periods that used trans inclusive language. When she was criticised for this, she employed what I think is a common tactic of transphobes namely to feign support. She claimed to “know and love trans people” but insisted to erase the concept of sex as separate from gender “removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives”. Abbey Gardner wrote a helpful summary of the Rowling tweets here. Rowling's transphobic ideas go much deeper than this and if you have some time on your hands, I recommend Contrapoint's analysis of JK Rowling available on YouTube.
Some of you are probably still sceptical and might even still think Rowling has a point. Here’s why I disagree.
1. Because I don’t want to preserve the ‘traditional concept of womanhood’.
Earlier this year, Kathleen Stock (a leading gender critical writer) wrote “we live in a cultural moment where adjustments to the traditional understandings of womanhood, manhood, girlhood, and boyhood are being urged upon language users”, something she claims has “taken us far indeed from the traditional concept of womanhood” and “the traditional category of men”.
I don’t know about you, but I have spent the majority of my adult life trying to debunk traditional concepts of ‘womanhood’ especially the idea that cis women are somehow more fragile and in need of protection from (cis) men who are painted as naturally more powerful and more sexually charged. This doesn’t mean that I deny patriarchy, far from it. What I mean is that stereotyping binary genders in this way perpetuates the sort of toxic masculinity that upholds patriarchy. Claiming women should traditionally be one way, and men another, is the sort of thinking that locks us into the strict gendered roles that helped oppressed women for decades. Surely the way forward is to break out of these repressive moulds? As Lola Olufemi puts it in her book Interrupting Feminism, “men are not inherently bad and women are not inherently good but the idea that one cannot escape one’s own biology traps us all in the oppressor/oppressed binary with no hope of abolishing it”. I want to be part of a feminist movement that de-constructs traditional, essentialist ideas and that continues to interrupt a male-female binary that is bad for everyone.
2. Because I don’t want anything to do with biological essentialism.
At the heart of gender critical essentialism is the belief that science, especially biology, is on their side. But these are very problematic ideas. It is certainly true that some feminists including Simone De Beauvoir and Betty Friedan worked hard to decouple ‘sex’ from ‘gender’. Sex, they argued, was fixed at birth, and ‘gender’ was socially constructed. But it is important to contextualise these ideas which were very powerful in taking away from the then dominant logic of psychoanalysis which maintained that masculinity and femininity were immovable and universal. Judith Butler (and others) reunited these concepts arguing sex/gender in totality is a social construct. It is our repetitive behaviours, performed time and again that manufacture differences and artificially create the male-female binary. I get it that the idea that ‘sex’ is not fixed can be difficult to get your head around. But this is mostly because stratifying society along certain biological lines i.e., because of our genitals, chromosomes, and hormones - is hardwired into our thinking and it can be almost impossible to imagine any other way. But there is a myriad of ways we could do this; why not height or hair colour as the stratifier? What about the way we over-emphasise physical differences and ignore the many times when this theory doesn’t hold? In my own case I am taller and more heavy set than many men and I know there are lots of times when this is the case for physical differences across the sexes. Sexting the Body by Anne Fausto Sterling is a good read if you want more on just how unstable sex-biology differentiation is. We must also remember that not too long ago, biological essentialism was used to divide people based on skin pigmentation and was used to justify both the slave trade and eugenics.
These same biological arguments are used to ban trans athletes from sport despite the fact that loads of athletes have physical advantages. Is it not just as logical to argue that Usain Bolt’s height advantage gave him the edge? Erica Sullivan, who finished third to the US swimmer Lea Thomas in a recent NCCA race, describes her support for Lea's right to compete in this article published in Newsweek. She explains how there are many much more pressing issues affecting women’s sport. It is perhaps the impact on ordinary children that is especially worrying. To date, ten US states have banned children from participating in sports outside of the gender they were assigned at birth. Where exactly are these kids supposed to compete? And if banning trans athletes from sport is about competitive fairness, why have some US states banned trans men and boys from competing too?
3. ‘Because Sisterhood’ is a myth.
Gender critical thinkers like Raymond, Stock and others often lean on the idea of a shared sisterhood that delegitimises trans women (again with much less concern about trans men!). Intersectional feminists like Audre Lorde and bell hooks (to name just two from a very long list) put an end to that myth a long time ago. There is no universal sisterhood in fact the lives of women are often starkly different and a person’s social class or relationship with borders is a much stronger unifier. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most gender critical ideologists are white and middle-class (like me!) but are often the least likely to adopt the intersectional lens we need to challenge the capitalist structures that lock millions of women and girls in economic poverty. Instead they whip up hostility between trans and cis women creating negativity towards an already marginalised group who according to the UN “experience widespread discrimination and stigma in the health sector, schools, employment and housing, as well as in accessing bathrooms”. Trans women in particular are at significant risk of interpersonal and also structural violence where government, legal and/or social practices enable discrimination by failing to realise their rights.
4. Because gender critical thinking is the real enemy of safety.
One of the most distasteful arguments put forward is to suggest that this is all about keeping women and girls safe and that we must safeguard women-only ‘safe spaces’ at all costs. Proponents uphold this point of view by weaponising fear when they shine a light on rare and terrible crimes by a minority of people. They then use this to imply all trans women are a threat to cis women and children. At the same time they ignore the fact that trans and non binary people (especially trans women) are much more likely to be the victims of violent crime including murder. The UN cite more than 2,000 murders in 66 countries between 2008 and 2016, equivalent to a killing every two days. Transphobia is on the rise. Here’s the link to TENI’s most recent STAD report and an account of a fourfold increase in transphobic hate crime reports in the UK.
The 'safe spaces for women' debate also injects a ‘stranger-danger’ fear into people’s lives which many feminists have fought to combat. It is true that people are sometimes assaulted by strangers and that these are terrible crimes. But most gendered violence happens within the same heteronormative intimate partnerships that uphold the traditional roles of ‘womanhood’ and ‘manhood’ I talked about earlier.
I’ve even read recent suggestions that Ireland should keep its segregated school system to ensure ‘safe spaces for women and girls’. As a past pupil of an all-girls school and the mother of two daughters with the same experience I see nothing worthy about the isolation these environments create and how it negatively shapes a person’s capacity to interact comfortably across genders. And that’s before we even contemplate the challenges created for trans and non-binary children. It also helps nobody to imply that teenage boys on mass (including my son!) are predatory and dangerous. Surely the answer is to radically reform the school system not just in terms of relationships and sexuality education (RSE) but across the whole curriculum? Imagine suggesting a return to segregated schooling along ethnic lines to protect against racism?
Another safety claim, made without a shred of evidence, is that trans children are somehow forced to transition. There are a number of problems with this claim. First of all it relies on a simplistic, medical ‘wrong body model’ that centralises a misalignment with a person’s felt identity and the gender they were assigned at birth with stories of a shift from one largely unproblematic binary to another. Check out this article by Talia Mae Bettcher for more on the limits to this line of thought. Secondly it implies that when people opt for medical intervention, that this is readily available. This is not true in fact trans related medical care is often absent or, when it does exist, falls below international standards of best practice. Ireland is one of many countries that has failed to depathologise healthcare. Instead people wait years for an initial appointment during which they are asked a series of invasive, deeply personal questions by a panel of usually cis gendered medial gatekeepers who decide a person’s suitability for services. Trans children are disproportionately burdened by poor mental health owing to decreased social support and increased stigma and discrimination. It is access to healthcare that keeps children safe.
5. Because trans and queer bodies exist – deal with it.
Perhaps the biggest weakness in gender critical ideology is the simple fact that queer bodies exist. The language might have changed but there is historical evidence as far back as we can find that some people have always expressed themselves outside of the binary they were assigned at birth. I welcome the fact that people feel more able to live in a way that allows them to flourish. To deny this is nothing more than an exercise in cisprivilege; in other words, the privilege someone like me enjoys because the gender I am comfortable with matches that which I was assigned as a baby and that which also fits today’s common sense logic. Cisprivilege is structural and the actions of the gender critical movement, with significant assistance from the political right-wing, further marginalises a minority group.
If you would like to talk to someone in confidence about any of the issues raised in this blog get in touch with the LGBT Ireland helpline 1800 292 539 or you can find a list of support services at this link on the Trans Equality Ireland Network (TENI) website.
Raymond, J. G. (1994). The Transsexual Empire: The making of a She-male. New York: Teachers College Press. p. 28.  Stock, K. (2022). The Importance of Referring to Human Sex in Language. Law & Contemporary Problems, 85(1), 25-45. pp. 24-25. The sentence continued “related points can also be made about relatively recent attempts to forge a new category of trans people - non-binary people”  Olufemi, L. (2020). Feminism, Interrupted. London: Pluto Press. p. 60  Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge. Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that Matter, on the discursive limits of sex. New York and London: Routledge.  Coffey, C., Espinoza Revello, P., Harvey, R., Lawson, M., Parvez Butt, A., Piaget, K., . . . Thukkdan, J. (2020). Time to Care, unpaid and underpaid care work and the global inequality crisis. Oxford: Oxfam.  Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the Body. New York: Basic Books (2000, p. 111) historicises as far back as court documents from the 1620s (as with much historical accounts, their trans identities was an incidental feature and not part of the original court proceedings). Gill-Peterson (2018, p. 59). Histories of the transgender child. University of Minnesota Press tracks medical interventions to the 1920s.