Show Hide image

The battle over gender: what makes you a man or a woman, anyway?

Adrian Dalton, Julie Bindel, Bethany Black and Gia Milinovich discuss the controversial issue.

What does it mean to be male or female, a man or a woman? The idea of gender has become a battleground, with scientists, philosophers, writers and activists clashing over its definition, and even its usefulness as a category at all. Where is the line where "man" becomes "woman", and vice versa - is it to do with having the "right" genitals, or a particular kind of brain? Are people who want to transition from one gender to another re-inforcing the idea that there are fundamental differences between the two? Are there fundamental differences between the two? 

On 24 September, the Soho Skeptics group (full disclosure: convened by NS blogger Martin Robbins) is hosting a debate on the subject, featuring trans activists Adrian Dalton and Bethany Black, feminist campaigner and writer Julie Bindel, and "science groupie and professional dork" Gia Milinovich. The event is controversial - Bindel recently withdrew from a university debate on prostitution after receiving threats related to her stance on transgender issues - but the question it is asking is vital to anyone with an interest in feminism or trans rights. What makes you a man or a woman, anyway?

I asked the four panellists for their response, along with a few other questions. 


Adrian Dalton

You were born female but are now male-bodied. How is it different when you perform as a drag queen now, to the experience of presenting as female before you transitioned?

In some respects there is very little difference. I did feel like I was in drag during my early twenties (pre-transition). In fact for a time I tried to pass as a drag queen by wearing really OTT wigs, outrageous clothes and loads of make-up. I suppose the key difference is that now I am in the body I feel at home in. Also, when I’m doing drag now people don’t generally perceive me as female. 

How do you feel about the phrase “born in the wrong body”?

In one sense I relate to it. But I have really enjoyed my life and the whole journey would have been different without the experience of being born in a female body and then transitioning. So I don’t regret having this experience.

Do you think there is such a thing as a “male brain” and “female brain”?

No idea! I’m a drag queen pole-dancer, not a scientist!

What does being a man mean to you?

Well, although my body is male there is very little else about me that is remotely masculine . . . so err, I’m just going to have to say being a man to me is simply having a male gender identity.  In my case I am also only comfortable in a male body.


Bethany Black

How differently are you treated now that you are a woman from when you were considered male?

Wow, there's a whole book in answer to this question,  I think the first thing that was noticeable was that overnight people stopped automatically assuming that I was right about stuff, my factual advice was treated as suspect, whereas emotional advice was taken more seriously. People also seemed to not be able to tell when I was joking as quickly, there was an expectation that I would be serious, that any sarcasm, or pretending not to get something for comic effect was me actually not getting things.

The pressures to behave were changed, before I transitioned I was very skinny and I remember my mum telling me that I needed to bulk up because "what if you were on a bus and a woman got on with a baby, you'd need to be able to help her with her pram, what sort of a man wouldn't be strong enough to do that?" as soon as I transitioned it was suddenly not an issue.  

Although I'm a lesbian when I first transitioned I thought I might be bisexual, so I did spend some time in heterosexual courting situations and I noticed that there was suddenly a pressure on me that even if I didn't feel attracted to a guy that the pressure was on me, that there was a level of expectation and entitlement from guys who wanted to sleep with me.

I also see it every day in conversations with people, guys will suddenly talk over me or interrupt in the middle of a story and think nothing of it and other people will automatically assume that they have more of a right to speak than I do.

I think the worst of this is having to deal with the "I'm a nice guy, but I think feminism's gone too far" guys who will totally disregard any experiences I have and accuse me of being paranoid, of over reacting or being too emotional in my responses to people's criticisms of me.

How do you feel about the phrase “born in the wrong body”?

I hate that phrase,  I wasn't born in the wrong body, I was born with the wrong genitals. That's all, my body is fine, though it could do with more exercise and a few less pies,  The way I see it I had a birth defect that I got sorted with surgery and medication. My partner, she was born in the wrong body, she was born into a body with auto immune diseases, and it's difficult to share a body with type one diabetes. People feel quite okay with saying that about trans people, but you'd never say that to someone who was disabled.

What does being a woman mean to you?

I have no idea.  I have nothing to compare it to. Growing up I felt I didn't relate to parts of my body so that's why from the age of 11 I didn't like to be naked at all even on my own I'd get changed under my bedclothes and have the quickest showers possible. So like the previous question I wouldn't say I was born in the wrong body, it's like the phrase "you were born a man".  I wasn't, I was born a baby, my parents were convinced that I'd be a boy, and it just took me 20 years to pluck up the courage to tell them. I think one of the biggest misnomers that's perpetuated by the press is the idea that for transsexuals we are transitioning into something. "You were a man and now you're a woman."  like this idea that "Little Johnny was bouncing along happy being a boy when he decided that he really wanted to be a girl so he started wearing dresses and make up and then he had surgery and became a woman." 

A simple turn around of language recently when Chelsea Manning came out would have helped - rather than "Manning wants to be a woman",  "Manning is actually a woman" would have been a lot more accurate. I was born female; it's just doctors judge you on your genitals when they're writing your birth certificate.

I am one version of being a woman out of three billion versions, and this version was born with a penis, and so far has ended up as a butch lesbian.

Do you think there is such a thing as a “male brain” and a “female brain”?

There are certainly physical differences in the brains of men and women, however I think a lot of it comes down to social pressures and I don't think that the stereotypical markers of gender behaviour are markers of being male or female, because there are as many ways of being male or female or both or neither as there are people.  Having said that, as a gay woman I often watch heterosexual people's interactions with each other and it's very confusing quite how strict the gender roles seem to be, even in the most progressive of them.  But I would assume that that would be down to social pressures to conform as opposed to any real differences in brain sex.


Julie Bindel

Do you think there is such a thing as a “male brain” and a “female brain”?

Although there are obvious physical and hormonal differences between men and women, biology is certainly not destiny. The risible notion that there is a "male" and "female" brain - not scientifically proven by any means - helps reinforce the notion that difference is innate and cannot be explained by sexism and social construction/the environment in which we live.

Behavioural differences can be explained by patriarchy and power differences. Girls are raised to adhere to strict codes of convention, and "femininity" can only exist in relation and opposition to "masculinity". Although both boys and girls are deeply affected by gender rules and stereotypes, they benefit males and harm females. Scientists looking for brain differences do so to back up the status quo. The likes of Cordelia Fine and other feminist scientists are beginning to offer a robust challenge to their nonsense. 

What does being a woman mean to you?

I have no idea what it feels like to be a woman. I don't do gender. It is harmful and a total social construct that serves to reinforce patriarchy and women's subordination to men.

I wish to eradicate gender - that is the feminist goal - but for now we need to keep the identity of "female" in order to track how our oppression is effecting us, for example, how many women are raped, underpaid, killed by violent partners etc


Gia Milinovich

What are the problems with scientific research into sex and gender?

One of the main issues with psychology research is that it often involves self-reported answers on questionnaires, that is when the respondent answers questions about thoughts, feeling, beliefs without any interferences from the researcher. The problem with this is, of course, that the respondent may exaggerate or minimise their behaviour, feelings or beliefs for a wide variety of reasons, even subconsciously, therefore the researcher isn't getting accurate information.

There is a lot of research showing that both males and females self-stereotype themselves when they know what is being researched. For example, when respondents know that they are answering questions to measure empathy (such as with Simon Baron Cohen's Empathy Quotient test) women's self-reported levels of empathy will be high because women are expected by society to be more empathic than men. Research by psychologists Nancy Eisenberg and Randy Lennon found that: "In general, sex differences in empathy were found to be a function of the methods used to assess empathy. There was a large sex difference favoring women when the measure of empathy was self-report scales; and no sex differences were evident when the measure of empathy was either physiological or unobtrusive observations of nonverbal reactions to another's emotional state." 

In other words, the differences between males and females found in a lot of psychology research may be more about how they would like to be seen by others rather than about any true, innate differences.

There is also some question over what information can accurately be gleaned by neuroimaging. Most neuroimaging research has been done on adults and as we know the brain is shaped because of repeated actions or behaviours. An example of this is the research that came out of University College London a few years ago which had scanned trainee taxi drivers' brains before they started The Knowledge and again after. They found that the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in memory, had grown in the trainees that had passed the test, but not in those who failed. Now had they done MRIs only after they'd passed the test, researchers might have concluded that their hippocampus was naturally larger and therefore they had a genetic predisposition to having a good enough memory to pass the test. As it is, one can't tell anything about those who passed other than their brains grew.

The same could be the case with neuroimaging looking for differences between the sexes. As research shows, from immediately after birth male and female children are treated differently by not only their parents but by other children, teachers, strangers, everyone. A lifetime of this gendered treatment is bound to cause different behaviours and therefore differences in brain patterns.

Brain scans of newborns, however, have shown that there is very little difference between male and female brains at birth.

What does being a woman mean to you?

I've thought about this a lot recently specifically because of this panel discussion.

I don't feel I have ever conformed to the "feminine gender role". There has always been a disconnect between who I feel I am inside, which is simply "a person", and who the outside world expects me to be because of my female body. I have always fought against the roles that have been forced upon me, as have most of the women I know. And yet, I am still "a woman".

My biology is very important. My period, my menarche, the supposed shame of menstruating, hormonal fluctuations every month are important. My menopause will be equally as important. The spectre of pregnancy is important. Being pregnant and giving birth were important. My (dysfunctional) relationship with my body is important. Sexual harassment and assault and the constant risk assessment to avoid them are important. Not being successful at avoiding either of them is important. Male violence, control and power being used against me is important. Being treated as inferior by the vast majority of males I've come in contact with is important. Doing so much more work for so much less money is important...

For me, it seems to be a combination of my biology and the way I am treated by wider society that make me "a woman".

What is the fundamental question at the heart of this which arouses so much hostility?

I am an outsider to all of this I can only say what I think based on my observations of the "discussions" between trans* activists and radical feminists and my understanding of their respective positions.

The trans* community as a whole is a victim of high rates of violence, depression and suicide. Many of them, rightly, feel they are literally fighting for their lives. Recent years have seen laws enacted around the world giving transgender people more and more legal protections from the bigotry, hate and violence they face on a daily basis. In the UK, recent additions to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 have provided transgender people with protected class status and the Gender Recognition Act 2004 entitles them to the legal recognition of their gender identity without requiring any gender reassignment treatment, it only requires a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

For radical feminists, the concept of "gender identity" is nonsensical, as they believe gender- the roles, activities, behaviours and even clothing that are considered acceptable for males and females- is socially constructed. Subsequently, they question what it means for a person born male to "live as a woman". Does it mean having long hair  or wearing make-up and dresses? Does it mean wearing trousers and sensible shoes? Does it mean having a female name? Could you be called Jo, Alex, Kris, Jamie, Terry, Pat? Does it mean being bad at maths or great at computer coding? Does it mean being a good communicator or interested in DIY? Does it mean being good at sport or bad at sport? Does it mean being "a stereotype"? And if it doesn't require sex reassignment surgery to legally be recognised as a woman does that mean people with penises are women? And if so, why are females the only oppressed class who are legally unable to define themselves?

And this final point, I think, might be at the heart of it. On the one hand, radical feminists can come across as a bit like out-of-touch Middle Englanders who complain about immigrants coming in and changing what it means to be British. On the other hand, females are without a doubt an oppressed class and people perceived to be from a privileged class are "invading" and "colonising" and telling females that everything they know about being women is wrong. And when they are shouted at, threatened and told to shut up and accept it, it can cause a great amount of hostility.

I have seen both radical feminists and trans* activists behaving appallingly to each other. From what I have observed over the past 9 months, there is a lot more violent language coming from the trans* camp, and there is more taunting, name-calling and ridicule coming from the radical feminist camp.

Do you think there is such a thing as a “male brain” and a “female brain”?

I think there are innate differences between individuals, but no innate differences between the sexes. 

Soho Skeptics: The Battle over Gender is on 24 September. It is now sold out.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.