Consequential to the Moore/Burchill debacle (referenced in this post), BBC Radio Four recently (on March 18th last) devoted an Analysis programme to a trans/gender discussion. In ‘Who decides if I'm a woman?’ (available as an mp3 download or PDF transcript), “Jo Fidgen explores the underlying ideas which cause so much tension between radical feminists and transgender campaigners, and discovers why recent changes in the law and advances in science are fuelling debate.”
The contributors were (using the BBC précis): James Barrett (consultant psychiatrist and lead clinician at the Charing Cross GIC), Julie Bindel (feminist and journalist), Lord Alex Carlile QC (Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords), Melissa Hines (professor of psychology at Cambridge University), Richard O'Brien (writer of The Rocky Horror Show), Ruth Pearce (postgraduate researcher in sociology at the University of Warwick), and Stephen Whittle OBE (professor of equalities law at Manchester Metropolitan University). Some spoke well, others less so, but it was a decent programme in the main and well worth listening to (or reading). For me the stand-out comment was:
Jo Fidgen (11:52): Can you tell me then, in pretty basic terms, how you would go about determining what sex somebody is?
Melissa Hines: I would ask them.
Damn right! And you can't get much more basic than that.
Radical feminist Julie Bindel was, as might be anticipated, on the “less so” side of things. JB has a dubious reputation in trans circles, mainly because of an obstreperous article she wrote in 2004 (which I'm not going to link). She's apologized for that more than once (her interview with Paris Lees, which is up on youtube, is worth seeing too), but she's still trotting out some tired old stuff. For instance (08:21): “What, ultimately, feminists want to do is to eradicate the straitjacket of gender. What transgender people want to do is defend gender and keep a very strong hold on it as integral to their identity. They rely on gender to showcase femininity and masculinity.”
JB sees gender (I'm assuming) as a social construct (of the patriarchy), which imposes oppressive gender roles on men and women, especially women. And to a large extent I think she'd be right there. Gender roles and "rules" can be very oppressive, and I'd agree that they need to be eradicated. Indeed, trans people are often on the very sharp end of such rules (for all sorts of reasons). So far so good; as trans/feminist activist Ruth Pearce replies (09:27): “a trans perspective and a feminist perspective aren't necessarily at odds.”
Where I think we differ is as follows: JB's particular brand of radical feminism believes that the gender system and gender are one in the same, that the gender system is gender, that it's intrinsically harmful and must be abolished. Whereas trans (and queer) feminists believe – okay, I'm really speaking for myself here – that gender is merely a human attribute, infinitely varied but intrinsically neutral; something each of us has (in some form) as individuals, but which is constrained, forced into a false and oppressive discrete binary, by the prevailing gender system (or culture). Rather than trying to abolish gender, it's the gender system that needs dismantling, thereby leaving us free to develop and express our individual genders in whatever way we need or desire. In other words, trans feminism wants “to eradicate the straitjacket of gender” and “keep a very strong hold on it as integral” to our identities. We want to have our cake and eat it too. Julie Bindel would probably say that isn't possible. I think she'd be wrong.
Fundamentally, this is an ideological difference (albeit grounded in our lives and experiences) as to what gender actually is, and we're unlikely to resolve it any time soon. Perhaps not until we step back and accept that applying our own (differing) perspectives indiscriminately on everyone else is neither possible nor sensible. In the meantime, what I'd like JB's radical feminists to bear in mind is this:
Trans people are not (necessarily) doing what you think we're doing just because your politics say we are.
Trans people do not (necessarily) believe that sex and gender correlate in an essentialist and biological binary, even when we might look as though we do.
Trans people do not (necessarily) perpetuate or support that oppressive binary, either by our existence or our choices.
Trans people do not (necessarily) think that women and men are inherently and discretely different, nor that these are the only two possibilities.
But most of all, when you're holding forth about trans issues and are about to say “they” — please just stop.