Why is this series taking place now? The main focus was the issue of legal gender recognition. Sex change surgery has been available in the UK since the 1960s when a groundbreaking clinic opened at Charing Cross Hospital.
But in 1970 a lawsuit annulling the marriage of a trans woman, April Ashley, made it impossible for people in England and Wales to change their legal gender unless they were biologically intersex, which in practice meant theirs Partners usually could not marry or adopt.
A successful challenge to the European Court of Human Rights in 2002 – and MPs’ recognition that the law in force was repressive – led to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which allows people to change their legal gender under fairly strict conditions. A consultation launched in 2018 to ease these conditions brought the current disputes to a boil.
What were the objections?
Theresa May’s government proposed allowing trans people to “identify themselves” and drop the requirement for a medical diagnosis of “gender dysphoria”. Trans activists complain that this requirement amounts to mental illness and want a simpler explanation instead.
But critics view tinkering with the process as a slippery descent to a gender free for all. Some of their objections are practical: Concerns about predatory men declaring themselves female in order to gain access to female-only rooms, such as: B. Shelters; about trans women who dominate women’s sports; or about young people who are gay or confused who are put on the path to transition by overzealous therapists.
Other objections are more philosophical: that such steps obliterate the biological reality of femininity. Efforts to make the language trans-inclusive – replacing the word “women” with expressions such as “men who menstruate” – have been a particular point of contention.
What is the philosophical argument?
Feminists have long distinguished between gender (a biological trait) and gender (a culturally constructed identity). But recent biological research has also made the idea of binary sex discrimination more difficult: some people push the boundaries.
Postmodern gender theorists synthesized these ideas and concluded that sex is also artificially and culturally constructed. It all depends on gender: A trans woman is a woman, even without retraining.
In contrast, “gender-critical” feminists like the philosopher Kathleen Stock oppose that sex is largely binary; that it has a lasting impact on the experience and is central to women’s rights. For Stock, the idea that trans women are women is a “fiction” that one could accept out of politeness, but no longer. However, LGBTQ + groups like Stonewall view this as transphobic as it denies people’s chosen gender identity.
Why is that important?
Transactivists often see gender-critical views as a form of hate speech that raises significant problems of freedom of expression. The case of Maya Forstater, who lost her job after writing on Twitter that people cannot change their biological gender, was known. Before a labor court, the judge found that her convictions “do not deserve respect in a democratic society” because they clashed with the fundamental rights of trans people.
However, on Forstater’s appeal, a Supreme Court judge stated that her views were indeed protected by the Equal Opportunities Act because they were widespread and “do not seek to destroy the rights of trans people”.
What about the practical questions?
The gender critics are not lacking examples of what they see as the rampage of trans-ideology. The NHS Gender Identity Development Service has been overwhelmed by recommendations, particularly from teenage girls. There have also been a couple of cases of trans women abusing other women in all-female rooms: Karen White, a convicted pedophile and rapist housed in HMP New Hall, a women’s prison despite being legally a male, abused two inmates in 2017 sexually.
Stonewall has been accused of providing false pro-trans legal advice to employers and advising them not to use the word “mother”. The toxic atmosphere surrounding the issue, many say, created a climate of fear and self-censorship in universities and other liberal institutions: Stock quit her job at Sussex University after campaigning against her.
The demo today at Sussex Uni was amazing. Transphobia will never be welcome in Brighton as long as the queer network and community here have something to say about it ✊🏳️⚧️
– Reclaim Pride Brighton (@reclaimpridebtn) October 16, 2021
What do trans rights activists say about it?
Trans activists argue that gender-critical rhetoric and newspaper headlines persistently associate trans women with sexual violence, which is deeply unfair and fuels anti-trans sentiments. The trans * community is small and very vulnerable (an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 in the UK, although there are no reliable numbers). Trans people are much more likely to be victims of violent crimes than they are.
Activists also argue that there is no real evidence that self-identification would have a negative impact on women’s-only spaces or women’s rights. Ireland made the switch in 2015 with no negative impact on such a system. Also, they suggest, the issue of legal recognition in relation to safety is a red herring. You don’t need any papers to enter a women’s room. When it comes to housing trans women, prison authorities have considerable legal leeway: in Karen White’s case, it was not ideology but rather poor risk assessment to blame.
Is it possible to compromise?
In their most extreme form, trans rights and positions critical of gender are incompatible. But there is more in common than you might think based on the media controversy. It probably doesn’t help that much of these debates took place on Twitter, a medium that tends to exaggerate mutual hostility and generational misunderstandings.
In fact, most gender-critical feminists largely support transgender rights; and most transsexuals are painfully aware of the existence of biological sex. It’s possible many of them aren’t even on Twitter.