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by Mandy Rhodes
21 April 2019
Trans rights and the menopause

Image credit: David Anderson

Trans rights and the menopause

Last week the STUC passed a motion supporting the equal employment rights of both trans men and women. Good news. Right?

But along with it came a debate about the impact of the menopause in the workplace on the premise that “women and trans men now make up almost half the workforce” and with many of them over the age of 50.

The motion added that women and trans men who are experiencing the menopause should find no detriment in the workplace because of something that is “a natural stage of life” and it recognised that this was an issue that would only augment as women’s retirement age increases over the coming years.

And in a moment, my temperature rose and not just for my own lack of oestrogen. The struggle for women to get recognition of the often-debilitating effects of the menopause has long been ridiculed and just as it starts to be taken seriously, it appears to be subsumed into the current clamour to be all-inclusive, even at the apparent exclusion of how some women might feel.

Invisibility is a common curse for middle-aged, menopausal women, and after a lifetime of championing equalities, this stage of life can also feel like one of the most disempowering.

We are only just starting to talk about it, gradually letting our needs be known and, as is so often the case, women are having to consider the needs of others, even before we have coherently expressed our own.

Of course, trans men who still have ovaries and find themselves experiencing menopausal symptoms should have all necessary support but their issues, their needs, are not the same as mine. How can they be? Physically, they may well experience what is happening to me: the fuddled brain, the night sweats, the menstrual flooding, but they are also now living in a world as a man where our pressures and our privileges are clearly separated by our lived gender.

And where needs are different, so too should be the approach.

Yet, in this current clime, expressing this kind of idiosyncratic view of sex is close to heresy to the trans activists who proclaim, emphatically, that ‘a trans woman, is a woman’ and ‘a trans man is a man’. And to question that marks you as a bigot.

The prevailing trans debate is one of the most difficult I have ever engaged in. And I’m not alone. It’s not an easy time for middle-aged feminists who are labelled Terfs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), FARTs (Feminism Appropriating Reactionary Transphobes) and transphobes for simply asking questions about risk.

Doughty supporters of equality I’ve known for decades have found themselves self-censored or shut-down by a shouty debate that has become increasingly toxic. Journalists, academics and MSPs who campaigned for abortion against their faith, who sat in churches when priests named and shamed them for wanting to repeal Section 28, who tried and failed to establish trans groups in the early days of the Scottish Parliament, who vociferously fought for 50/50 representation within their own parties and who cried and cheered in equal measure when equal marriage became law. They are being written off as transphobes for daring to ask whether women’s rights are being encroached upon in a premature desire to satisfy the desires of another oppressed minority.

And in some ways, the issue around the menopause has helped coalesce my thinking, because it’s that reminder that biology cannot be changed. You can change your gender but you can’t change your sex.

And what the MSP, Joan McAlpine, has done during her investigations as chair of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee into the wording of the Census, is open up a debate to reveal that too many people, including those in government, conflate the two.

On the Scottish Government website there is currently a site under construction called the ‘Equality Evidence Finder’ and for a country that wants to be at the fore of all things progressive that seems laudable. It will allow you to look at various policy areas and check by equality characteristics how we are faring. You can search by age, disability, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and transgender but not by ‘sex’.

But sex is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act so if you simply airbrush it from the legislative agenda, where does that frame the Scottish Government’s approach to discrimination?

Sex and gender have gradually just become the same thing in terms of policy and practice and some of that has happened by stealth and without proper debate or scrutiny.

And with changes to the Gender Recognition Act in the ether, some have expressed, among other things, concerns, ill-founded or not, about the risks in male-bodied people accessing single sex spaces on the basis that they simply identify as a different gender.

Women have had to fight for everything in the pursuit of equality and along the way, have railed against all kinds of discrimination levelled at others because we know how it feels. Most of the women I know would call themselves trans allies but there are some things that still need interrogation.

And while some people are comparing this trans debate with the campaign for gay rights, it is not the same. What that proved, which is what the women’s movement has long known, is that equality doesn’t just happen by the back door. It needs sensible debate and the building of bridges.

Women fought for decades for the right to be heard and I, for one, don’t want to be silenced now on that equality journey, just at the point where my biology reminds me that as a woman, choice is not always in our hands.

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