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Can we celebrate all who identify as women on International Women’s Day?

Between 0.1 and 5 per cent of the world's population are trans, genderqueer or intersex. Is International Women's Day for us too?

On International Women’s Day we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. But can we celebrate all who identify as women on 8 March?

Between 0.1 and 5 per cent of the world's population are trans, genderqueer or intersex. Is International Women's Day for us too?

I say “us” because, despite the fact that I was born female, I don’t always find it easy to identify as a woman. With my short, grey hair and female partner, I am often identified as “sir” and feel an affinity with persons for whom the categories of biological sex and gender don’t easily align.

AH Devor, the world’s first endowed chair in trans studies, finds that the way we make sense of human beings when we encounter them in the world is very different from the way we have been taught to think about sex and gender.

As Devor notes, we have been taught to think about sex and gender in the following ways:

1) Sex is an intrinsic biological characteristic. There are two, and only two, sexes: male and female.

2) All persons are either one sex or the other. No person can be neither. Normally, no person can be both. No person can change sex without major medical intervention.

3) Genders are the social manifestation of sex. There are two, and only two, genders: men and women, (boys and girls). All males are either boys or men. All females are either girls or women.

But what actually happens when we encounter new human beings in the world?

Very few of us meet each other naked or study each other’s DNA. Upon meeting other humans for the first time, we can, therefore, say very little about their biological sexes.

Devor finds that we make assumptions about a person’s gender based on whether they present as masculine or feminine.

If they present as feminine, we see them as women. If they present as masculine, we see them as men. We assume therefore that they are biologically male or female.

Earlier this year, I saw a photograph at the London opening of Annie Leibovitz’s Women: New Portraits exhibition which helped me to understand how this works.

An extension of her project begun in 1999 with her late partner, Susan Sontag, Liebovitz’s new exhibition includes startling photographic portraits of Lena Dunham, Jane Goodall, Sheryl Sandberg, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gloria Steinem, Amy Winehouse, and dozens of other women.

I want to focus on the portrait of performance artist Jennifer Miller:


Jennifer Miller, by Annie Leibovitz. Photo: Women: New Portraits exhibition

Is Jennifer Miller a woman?

If, as Devor argues, in order to be seen to be a woman, one must be seen to be feminine, Miller is not a woman.  She has a beard. Were Miller clothed, we might be tempted to assume that she is a man.

By photographing Miller in the nude, Leibovitz asks us to question how we make sense of the world in terms of sex and gender.

We can see that Miller does not appear to have a penis. We can see that she has breasts. We can see that this person is probably biologically female (see this fascinating blog on the six most common biological sexes).

But Miller does not follow femininity’s rules. She has not waxed her facial hair.

What we learn from the photograph of Jennifer Miller is not that she is a woman. What we learn is that human beings are infinitely complex creatures.

We also learn that, as a society, we have been willing to place limitations on human potential by requiring that persons be seen as either women or men, masculine or feminine. Not both. Not sometimes one, sometimes the other. Not something else entirely.

The reality of Jennifer Miller’s existence in the world as a woman with masculine characteristics will make many viewers uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable. I could feel the synapses in my brain firing in unexpected ways.

Thinking about the matter of the beard got me thinking about what else those of us who want to be seen as women and yet have masculine characteristics must eliminate from our presentations of self. This thought reminded me of other photographs in the exhibition.

Many of Liebovitz’s women are leaders in their fields. She took photograph after photograph of artists and activists, scientists and politicians, feminists and business leaders.

At the Rhodes Project we curate a profile series that also celebrates many versions of what women can be, by featuring a similarly high-achieving demographic. Rhodes women are leaders in academia, business, law, science and government.

Thinking about the outstanding accomplishments of Leibovitz’s women and the Rhodes women in the masculine sphere of public space, I wondered again why the gender gap in leadership persists. This led me to grasping something new about women and masculinity.

We know that in most cultures masculinity and leadership are closely linked, as stated in this Harvard Business Review article entitled “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers”:

“The ideal leader, like the ideal man, is decisive, assertive, and independent. In contrast, women are expected to be nice, caretaking, and unselfish. The mismatch between conventionally feminine qualities and the qualities thought necessary for leadership puts female leaders in a double bind.”

What trans, genderqueer and intersex people remind us is that becoming a woman or man in our society requires not only that bodies conform to particular biological sexes, but – even more fundamentally – that the rules of femininity and masculinity be rigorously followed.

Like Jennifer Miller, trans people who identify as women are diverse in terms of biological sex characteristics, yes, but they are also diverse in terms of their ability to adhere to the rules of femininity. The cost of not being able to adhere to the rules is, in the case of trans women, exceptionally high.

Devor’s research demonstrates that, for our understanding of gender and sex, we ignore the “profound importance of biodiversity” at our peril.

But, as one of my favourite feminist poets, Nicole Brossard, wrote: “If patriarchy can take what exists and make it not, surely we can take what exists and make it be.”

“What exists” in all who identify as women are diverse and exceptional bodies, abilities and capacities. Taking this lesson seriously is what we can do for ourselves when we celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March.

Susan Rudy is executive director of the Rhodes Project, a London-based charity and research centre that collects data about women who have held Rhodes Scholarships. She is also a Visiting Scholar at Said Business School, University of Oxford.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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