How proposed changes to the census prompted a vicious row about what makes a woman

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 10 March 2019 in Comment

Trans women accessing female-only spaces isn’t new, it’s just that you weren’t aware because there hasn’t been an issue

Image credit: David Anderson

Who would have thought that proposed changes to something as dry as the Scottish census could become a lightning rod for a vicious row about what makes a woman?

But a report by the Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, published last month, which recommended that the sex question in the census retain the binary option of male and female rather than include a third non-binary option, has become a proxy for a wider debate about trans rights.

And it has revealed a nasty seam of intolerance, rooted in ignorance and fuelled by a media that is too quick to condemn the heinous actions of individuals as the collective responsibility of a group already so marginalised that they have little choice other than to retreat into despair.

But it has also spawned a shouty, polarised response from trans allies who have, inexplicably, picked their feminist sisters as the enemy in a philosophical debate about what it means to be a woman.

So first to address some myths.

The trans community represents about 0.6 per cent of the population. As a group they are tiny, infinitesimally small, and yet within that there will be a spectrum of behaviours, of sinners and saints, and everything in between.

But there is no evidence of large numbers of men transitioning to be women simply to gain access to vulnerable women in Rape Crisis centres, refuges or prisons. Yes, there are isolated cases and yes, they are horrendous, because they chip away at our fundamental trust in who we thought we were. But these are at the extremes.

And as ever in debates where evidence is lacking, arguments are being presented as ‘just common sense’, which isn’t the same as arguments rooted in fact.

I’ve never actually been in a communal changing room where people are hanging out their genitalia. I haven’t met a woman with a penis in a unisex loo waiting to harass me. But I suspect if I looked, I wouldn’t find them.

Trans women accessing female-only spaces isn’t new, it’s just that you weren’t aware because there hasn’t been an issue.

And while, of course, there are those predators that will go to any lengths to abuse, that’s not a trans problem, that’s an abuse problem. And to suggest that changing the law to make it easier for trans women to live a full life, as the person that they need to be, poses a greater threat to women than they already face now, is unsubstantiated nonsense.

Trans people tell me that there has been an escalation in transphobia in recent years, triggered, perhaps, by the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act proposing a statutory declaration process for changing the sex on their birth certificates rather than the intrusive procedure they currently undergo.

This, coupled with more cultural visibility of trans people as they, as a marginalised group, rightly become less inhibited about their own presence in society, and empowered, perhaps, by a general shift in equalities and the profile of the likes of Caitlyn Jenner and the rise in social media use, has compounded to give the impression that there are many more trans people than before. But the evidence does not support this.

Scotland, quite rightly, wants to be a beacon of progressive values. And speaking on gender equality in the UN, the First Minister said: “Scotland has plans to bring forward legislation to simplify the process around gender recognition. It doesn’t change the fundamentals. It simply makes that process easier. And, I hope, intends to put more dignity into that process for people who are going through the process of changing their gender.”

Isn’t that something all women can identify with? 

In the words of the great Tammy Wynette, sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. And it is our relationship with our biological self that is often at the root of that pain.

So much about my experience of being a woman, of being a feminist, has been bound up in my biology. It is the physical restrictions that have meant the threat of male violence has pushed us to the edge and over. It is our gynaecological makeup that means menstruation can be a sisterly affirming experience but also a disability, a restriction on our daily lives. And the fight for birth control was entirely about a woman being able to take control of her body and not have motherhood dictated to, or imposed upon her. Conversely, pro-choice has been an instrumental part of my feminist journey but has also not been without an internal struggle about balancing the rights of a child, butted right up against the rights of being a woman. That’s been a painful journey for many liberals but the rights of a woman to choose what happens with her body has, for me, superseded all other arguments grounded in religion, ethics or just plain misogyny.

In middle age, the menopause has been a reminder that my biology is part of what I am. But my gender is who I choose to be. 

Biological differences between the sexes have been used for so long as a stick to beat women with. We’re too small, too weak, too hormonal, too hysterical, too like a woman to take control. Isn’t it then ironic that we are not simply and collectively standing with our trans sisters in saying enough is enough, that we understand the limitations with biology?

And so, while I do choose to stand in solidarity with trans women whose struggles to be recognised I am moved by, it does not mean I accept that my experience of being a woman is the same as a woman whose biological sex at birth was male.

I agree with the First Minister that trans rights are not a threat to my rights as a woman or as a feminist. But, I also recognise that the conversation is more nuanced than some would have us believe.

There is a debate, for instance, to be had about sex and gender and ignoring the very real concerns of people by shouting at them in indignant righteousness does nothing to educate or help move people who have simply to catch up.

For me, the central issue is about recognising the human rights of a person and approaching individual cases with deep consideration of all the rights involved on all sides. For some time, and for some people, this will be hard. but that is what mature judgement is all about – making hard decisions in a truly fair way.

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