A march for transgender equality at Madrid Pride in 2010. Photo: Getty
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It’s time to end divisive rhetoric on sex and gender and create a trans-inclusive feminism

Sheila Jeffreys’s new book, Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, is a divisive and poorly-researched work. But it provides an opportunity to leave the divisive rhetoric behind, and create a truly trans-inclusive feminism.

Sheila Jeffreys, a long-time feminist activist and professor of social and political science, is part of a group of radical feminists that oppose allowing transgender women into feminist and other women’s communities. She has published a new book titled Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism. The book, written in part with Lorene Gottschalk and drawing heavily on the work of Janice Raymond, spells out exactly why she and other radical feminists are opposed to “transgenderism” and seek to prevent trans women from entering “women-only” spaces.

Jeffreys makes three main points. First, women are oppressed because of their sex, and the concepts of gender and gender identity are used to lock women into positions of subordination to men. Second, “transgenderism” is a condition created by a medical system that seeks to reinforce traditional gender roles and generate profit through required therapy, hormone replacement, and surgeries. Third, “transgenderism” allows “male-bodied transgenders” (ie trans women) to infiltrate, divide, and destroy feminist and feminist separatist spaces, and “female bodied transgenders” (ie trans men) to escape misogyny by masquerading as men. Jeffreys says we must fight the rise of “transgenderism” because it hurts transgender people, their families, and feminists.

The careful reader will see that this text does not satisfy even low standards for academic rigor, research, or argumentation. Throughout the book Jeffreys misrepresents other scholars’ research and opinions, engages in ad hominem attacks to discredit the work of those she disagrees with, and simply asserts controversial hypotheses without providing arguments, data, or other support to back them up. She relies on outdated research, claiming the evidence that would support her position has been silenced by the “transsexual empire”. This allows her to avoid confronting the wealth of research that discredits her arguments, all while casting herself as the victim of politically correct censorship.

I do not want to comment on Jeffreys personal convictions or motivations. Certainly one does not need to be a member of a group to question or critique that groups actions. After all, I’m a cisgender gay man writing about a debate between feminists and transgender people (the term cisgender is used to describe people who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth). But, if you are going to critique from the outside, I strongly believe that critique must come from a place of established respect. Her refusal to use transgender peoples’ preferred names and pronouns, in addition to her use of the term transgender as both a noun (“a transgender”) and process (“transgendering”), are hurtful and inflammatory. Calling someone “a transgender” objectifies them and ignores their individual humanity, and the term “transgendering” implies that each transgender person participates in the same process or ideology. The entire text is a striking example of how not to criticise a group of which you are not a member.

The book is poorly researched and argued, and is not a meaningful contribution to feminist theory. That being said, it does put into sharp relief what I think is at the heart of the disagreement between radical feminists and trans people; namely, two different and competing foundations that explain and support their political views.

Feminists like Jeffreys ground their politics in sex. Jeffreys is clear that only men and women exist and are defined by biological sex. Gender and gender identity, on the other hand, are expectations and stereotypes that oppress women. Trans women may identify as women, but they are not women because they do not have the lived history of having been born and raised as women. Identity cannot replace or change your history of living as one of two biological sexes. Feminists have good reason to be attached to this foundation. Women are violently persecuted because of their sex, and the methods of that persecution, methods like rape and forced reproduction, often involve female anatomy. Uniting in this shared history is an important foundation for feminist consciousness raising and solidarity.

Many trans people ground their politics in gender identity, describing how this identity is a persistent aspect of their experience. Cisgender people must realise that a trans woman did not become a woman after transitioning, she has always been a woman, and because she is a woman she deserves access to women-only spaces. Certainly not all trans people identify as having always been one gender, but focusing on gender identity over biological or assigned sex is an important way to ensure that trans identities are not discredited, ignored, or marginalised.

Both groups have good reasons to defend what they see as the foundational truths at the hearts of their politics, but what gets lost in this all-or-nothing fight is the fact that every person has a unique relationship to their body, and these experiences are all valid and worthy of understanding. Jeffreys’s focus on sex can suggest that all women have the same experience of what it’s like to be a woman, a view that fails to account for the impact of race, ethnicity, class, and ability on how we relate to our bodies. The trans insistence on gender identity may prevent us from recognising that cisgender people and transgender people do have different experiences of their bodies. We must recognise that a trans man and cisgender man are both men, but men who have different personal histories that inform their relationship to their bodies and the bodies of others. Describing this difference certainly can be a form of cissexism but it need not be.

We need a trans-inclusive feminism that recognises trans people as who they are, while also recognising that the experience of growing up cisgender can be discussed without disrespecting trans identities, and that it could at times be beneficial to have these discussions restricted to people that share this experience. When we abandon our attachment to either sex or gender identity we can more clearly see the experiences we share and let those experiences form the basis of a coalition.

Gender Hurts is an ugly and divisive book. Because it lacks compelling arguments and evidence, I feel comfortable ignoring it and denying Jeffreys the attention she desires. Let’s treat the publication of this text not as a time to double-down in our familiar positions, but rather an opportunity to put tired and divisive rhetoric to rest.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era