We hear a lot these days about ‘self-identification’ – the right to define yourself as whatever you feel you are and not be defined by society. Now, in theory I am all for this; but in practice none of us exists in isolation. We all have relationships, we all have contexts in which we exist. There are tensions between the individual and the family; between the individual and group; between the individual and the wider society in which we all exist.
The individual ought not to be completely defined by society. The society in which I grew up tried to define me in certain ways: that I should look a certain way (wear skirts and make-up), behave in a ‘ladylike’ manner (no swearing, no drinking pints) and aspire to a certain level (marriage and work as a teacher or nurse). The career options for most girls were office work, factory work or the two professions I have already mentioned. You were expected to work until marriage and if you worked after marriage, to do so part-time. You were not expected to aspire to anything higher.
But nor do I believe that the individual has an unfettered right to self-identification; to demand that society (which is after all, other people) accept whatever they say they are and adapt itself to their needs. And my fear is that the gender debate is heading in this direction; of saying that there are many genders and that a person should be accepted as whatever gender they say they are and called by whatever name and pronoun they wish.
Now, leaving aside the wider issues, which I’ll come to in a minute, this presupposes certain difficulties right away. It’s hard enough to remember names at the best of times: we live in a mobile society where most of us meet new people all the time; so that to remember a variety of names and pronouns which do not correspond to our previous experience of gender, can be confusing and difficult. To be berated if we fail adds insult to that injury: I once went to a ‘conference’ on gender where there were seven or eight of us, and to remember who wanted to be called ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they’ or – god help us – ‘ze’ was beyond me. I suspect the average person in the street wouldn’t even try.
To sum up so far: society has certain expectations, that a person will present as either male or female, and be addressed accordingly. Some people don’t fit into those categories – or don’t look the way you’d expect their gender to look. Some people demand the right to be treated as whatever gender (or non-gender) they say they are.
So much for the social difficulties. Now for the relational ones: as I’ve said before, if you are in a relationship and one partner decides to self-identify as a different gender, that has implications beyond their individual rights. It has profound implications for a marriage or long-term relationship because that relationship is effectively being expected to switch from straight to gay – or the other way round. It may be that some people’s sexuality is fluid, and that they can make those adjustments without too much hassle. Equally it may not.
As far as parents are concerned (I don’t speak from experience here, so feel free to argue the point) I suspect it’s less of an issue. The parent/child relationship doesn’t depend on gender the way that a sexual relationship often does, and although there may be profound adjustments to be made it doesn’t threaten the basic relationship.
So much for relational problems. Now to speak of wider society, and a number of issues which are emerging. Should transgender people be able to use the public loos of their choice? I guess where there are cubicles it might not be so important; but I can’t say I’m totally comfortable with someone who may still be physically male using a public toilet at the same time as I do.
But this is the tip of the iceberg. Should trans women be able to join women’s groups? Should they be able to sit in on sessions where women are discussing intimate issues such as abortion and abuse? Would you feel comfortable with that? I’m not sure I would.
Then there’s the thorny question of what you might call privileges gained as one gender being carried over into another (I realise I’m concentrating on M to F trans people here, but that’s where most of the problems are). Should athletes who still have a lot of masculine musculature be allowed to compete as women? Should men who gained certain positions at work be allowed to retain them as women?
And why is all this happening now? Is there an element of men wanting what women have, now that women have (supposedly) equal status? Is it womb envy? Or can you be born in the ‘wrong body’ and if so, how? We must be free to ask these questions, but there is a great deal of resistance to debate, particularly in what I’m going to call the trans lobby. There’s an orthodoxy emerging, that we must accept the new status quo without question. Well, sorry – but I never accept anything without question. Ever.
Which leads me to my tongue-in-cheek title. Because of course I don’t self-identify as a TERF: nobody self-identifies as a TERF because it’s like one of those irregular verbs:
‘I have doubts about the trans debate; you are prejudiced: she is Germaine Greer.’
TERF is a label used for others; hence no-one is likely to self-identify as one. But we need to debate these issues, and we need to do it respectfully.
And we need to do it now.