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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.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.