Yesterday being International Women’s Day, I went to a women’s event at Loughborough University. It was quite a feat getting there as there was no signage at all: fortunately a couple of security guards who (though very politely) nearly ran me over, pointed me in the right direction. The event was called ‘From Sex to Gender: a Biological and Cultural Journey’ and as usual with these things I was seeking some kind of enlightenment. Or explanation. Or whatever.
Did I get it? Well, yes and no. Any discussion, however waffly or fruitless, can move your thought-processes along if you let it – and this was unwaffly and sort of fruitful, if you think a tomato is a fruit. OK I’m being abstruse. Let’s get to it: there was a talk by a Professor (male), suggesting that gender is a spectrum and quoting a book called ‘The Five Sexes’ by Anne Fausto-Sterling:
The five are, apparently, ‘perfect’ male, ‘perfect’ female, ‘masculine female’ (me, probably) ‘feminine’ male (OH, in my view) and intersex. Fine: I don’t have a problem with the idea that most people don’t fit entirely into neat boxes labelled ‘male’ and ‘female’.
So I don’t disagree that gender – ie what you are expected to be and do as a man or woman – is socially constructed. So far so good. But the second half of the event was a video by a trans woman claiming that sex is also socially constructed; in other words, that we can throw out biology – chromosomes, sexual organs, hormones, etc – as a determiner of sex. Hmm. She claims that transgender women are not biologically male; but I’m sceptical: in trans women (including her, incidentally) you can often see features which often occur only in males, such as a pronounced jawline or a tendency to put on weight round the middle rather than around the hips. And that’s not even to touch on ethical issues such as trans women using the strength or power they had as a male to their advantage – retaining positions of power, winning cycle races – which is what Jenni Murray was getting at in her recent remarks:
While the video was long on what gender isn’t, it was very short on what gender actually is. The idea seemed to be that you are what you say you are, or what you feel you are – and the rest can go hang.
I don’t buy it – and neither did some other people there – but when I tried to raise the issue of what gender actually is, it wasn’t dealt with. And the problem I’m finding is not that some people have certain ideas, but that disagreement is difficult. There’s an orthodoxy emerging: the facilitator of the discussion, though perfectly pleasant, was not open-minded; she had a view and seemed to be trying to convey that view as correct. The idea seems to be that the rest of us should just accept unquestioningly what trans people say; and as a sceptic I’m not prepared to accept anything without question, no matter where it comes from or who says it.
The video was called ‘No, Transgender Women are not Biologically Male’ and you can find it here:
(unfortunately it’s one of those where all the pauses have been edited out, which I find makes it almost impossible to take in.)
In short, just because you can’t be precise about sex doesn’t mean we should just throw the whole thing out. And debate ought never to be off the table. We must have debate.