Insight: Arguments over gender definition deflect from real issue

The status of those born female and those who become a woman has divided the transgender community. Picture: contributed
The status of those born female and those who become a woman has divided the transgender community. Picture: contributed
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IT’S time to stop arguing about how we define being “a woman” and start thinking about ending discrimination against a community that deserves more understanding, writes Dani Garavelli

When playwright Jo Clifford got up to speak after being named one of the Saltire Society’s Outstanding Women of Scotland 2017, she was almost overwhelmed by emotion. Not only was the award a recognition of almost 30 years’ achievement – writing and performing in ground-breaking works including Losing Venice and The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven – it was also a powerful validation of her status as a “real woman”.

Jo Clifford, who was named one of the Saltire Society's Outstanding Women of Scotland 2017, in a performance of The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen Of Heaven.

Jo Clifford, who was named one of the Saltire Society's Outstanding Women of Scotland 2017, in a performance of The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen Of Heaven.

On another day, perhaps, that endorsement would not have carried so much political import. In Scotland, the “authenticity” of trans women is rarely challenged. Indeed, Clifford says, it didn’t seem to occur to anyone involved in bestowing the honour that the fact she had lived as a man until 2005, might be an issue.

But the ceremony in the Glasgow Women’s Library in Bridgeton came shortly after Woman’s Hour presenter Dame Jenni Murray criticised trans women for embracing outdated stereotypes of femininity and suggested years of benefiting from “male privilege” meant they couldn’t truly “lay claim to womanhood”.

Murray’s views are not new; they originated during Second Wave feminism in the 70s and have recently been expounded by activists such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, who are called TERFS (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) by their opponents and are regularly no-platformed for using “transphobic” language.

But the fact they were now being espoused by a mainstream commentator with national treasure status gave them a prominence and a weight they might not otherwise have had.

What matters is that we don’t let ourselves get distracted by trying to divide up who is real, and who is not

In the backlash that followed, insults were hurled. Soon, the BBC presenter was being ticked off for lack of impartiality – a move seen by some as her just deserts, and by others as an assault on freedom of speech and evidence of the power of the trans lobby.

That Murray’s article caused huge hurt to the trans community is beyond dispute. It also invoked fears of a resurgence of hate speech at a time when the rise of the alt-right is fuelling prejudice against all minorities.

In its wake, Clifford received several cruel Tweets. “If he [sic] had any decency, he would politely decline the award,” said one. Another challenged her right to call herself a “mother” and “grandmother”. (That she doesn’t actually call herself a mother is beside the point.)

For a brief period, Clifford worried the organisers would be convinced by Murray’s argument and rescind the honour. “I kept reproaching myself for it over the weekend, but I found myself repeating all the old lies I used to tell myself when I was younger: that I wasn’t real, that I could never be a proper woman, that I had no true right to exist,” she said in her acceptance speech. “I’m so grateful to you for so powerfully and simply and profoundly contradicting this stale nonsense.”

Dame Jenni Murray, who has been branded a "bigot" by transgender news journalist India Willoughby. Picture: PA

Dame Jenni Murray, who has been branded a "bigot" by transgender news journalist India Willoughby. Picture: PA

The latest controversy comes at a time when there are more trans women than ever in the public eye: journalist Paris Lees, activist Jack Monroe, Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox and, of course, former Olympic medal-winning decathlete Caitlyn Jenner, who last year won Glamour’s Woman of the Year Award.

Though their high profile suggests a growing public acceptance, it has also a strident counter-movement with Greer, Bindel and others denouncing trans women in intemperate terms.

Bindel for example, once argued that men who undergo gender reassignment should not be considered women, in the same way as “shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man”.

In the US, the biggest flashpoint has been around gender-neutral toilets, with Donald Trump revoking guidance brought in under Barack Obama that transgender students should be allowed to use whatever bathrooms they feel comfortable with.

But, in America and elsewhere there have also been tensions around trans women sex offenders, the treatment of children (and hormone blockers for those approaching puberty), the presence of trans women who still have penises in women’s refuges, and trans-inclusive language – such as “chest cancer” instead of breast cancer or “chest-feeding” instead of breast-feeding – which some feminists, including Murray, believe effectively erases women’s experiences.

The trans community, on the other hand, continues to suffer violent persecution, and sees its oppression as a next frontier in civil rights. Trans woman Dandara dos Santos – beaten to death outside her house – was the fifth transexual to be murdered in Brazil last month.

Many of Murray’s views stem from the idea that woman have worked hard to carve out safe spaces, and that transitioning from male to female is a form of cultural appropriation. Clifford recalls the profound distress she experienced when she first read them in Janice Raymond’s 1979 book The Transexual Empire at a time when she “was trying to understand and get to grips with being transgender and wondering how I could live.”

She didn’t transition until after the death of her partner, the writer and columnist for this newspaper, Sue Innes, who knew Clifford was transgender, but was heterosexual and loved her as “John”. However, her attempts to confine expressions of her female identity to androgynous clothing pushed her to the edge of a breakdown.

Having endured all this conflict and then abuse, she disputes Murray’s view that trans women have somehow lived free from the hardship that shapes the lives of non- trans women.

“There were several years of my life when every time I opened my front door and walked on to the street I could see someone laughing at me or shouting at me,” she says. “I also feel I was discriminated against as a playwright, but, you know, it’s not some sort of competition as to who has suffered the most discrimination.

“Of course, Jenni is right. We have different memories, and her memories of growing up as a girl, and my memories of growing up and finding I was supposed to be a boy, but actually I wasn’t, are different; but it doesn’t mean that my memories or my identification of myself are somehow inauthentic.”

Innes – the mother of Clifford’s two daughters – was herself a prominent Second Wave feminist with a shelf in Glasgow Women’s Library dedicated to her memory. But she believed in the possibility of different relationships between men and women, and different identities. “TERFS misunderstand the nature of feminism,” Clifford says.

James Morton, manager of the Scottish Trans Alliance says the conversation around transgender issues is much less divisive in Scotland and that the country long ago moved beyond a debate on whether trans women are “real” women.

He puts that down to the Scottish Government supporting equality work through the Scottish Trans Alliance, Engender and Scottish Women’s Aid, and to the willingness of those groups, and the people who lead them, to sit down and talk in a respectful and constructive manner.

But that doesn’t make Murray’s comments – or the controversy they stoked – any less hurtful. “Though she was trying to be gentler in her tone, using the word ‘real’ is inherently offensive,” Morton says. “If you think about the debate in the 80s about who was a ‘real’ feminist – you couldn’t be a ‘real’ feminist if you had a husband or still associated with men – that was offensive to people who were feminist, but practising their feminism in a slightly different way.

“If you look at the debate around equal marriage – most people would recognise that if you started talking about ‘real’ marriage and gay marriage you would be placing one higher than the other and saying gay marriage was less. It’s the same here. Just because there may be differences, doesn’t mean that one is invalid, or false or fake.”

When Morton was in his teens grappling with his own identity he wanted gender not to matter so he didn’t have to make any changes. “But then I realised, while I would love it to be the case, that’s not where society is,” he says. “Gender matters to pretty much everyone so I needed to make a decision about my transition, not based on an idealised view of the world, but based on: ‘How can I survive? How can I make this bearable for me?’”

Like Clifford, Morton dismisses the idea that true womanhood can only be gained by suffering gender discrimination. “I think it’s important we recognise different generations of women have different experiences of misogyny,” he says. “If you take Murray’s argument to its fullest extent then you have to ask: ‘If we managed to achieve gender equality – if women were no longer experiencing discrimination – would they be less real than the ones from previous generations who endured greater hardships?’”

One common complaint about trans women is that they embrace an outdated notion of what it means to be female. Critics point to Jenner’s fixation with fashion, and to presenter India Willoughby’s suggestion that women should shave their legs, as evidence they are perpetuating stereotypes feminists have fought so hard to escape.

But Morton points out the stupidity of seeing trans people as a homogenous group. “Holding up Caitlyn Jenner as representative of ordinary trans women is like holding up Kim Kardashian as representative of ordinary cis women,” he says.

Though some trans women embrace high heels and nail varnish and express non-feminist views, so too do many non-trans women. “Whether you are cis or trans, you still get bombarded with those messages by society.”

Where trans women do obsess about make-up or dresses, especially in the early stages of their transitioning, it is often because they have to prove themselves to the gender identity clinic or because they are trying to get other people to see them as they see themselves.

“I think what we are seeing a lot of is trans women going through their transitions in the public eye and being expected to know all about gender theory when they are still working out how to live their lives,” Morton says.

Growing up as a “boy” in India, Mridul Wadwha didn’t face the same restrictions as her female peers, when it came to going out at night. Yet, thinking of herself as a girl, she internalised those restrictions, rejected the “privilege” and stayed in, because going out felt unsafe. “And it was unsafe because I was trans and I was being targeted by the same people who were attacking women and more so because there was a greater social licence to their violence,” she says.

Wadwha is proof the debate on “real” women and safe spaces is less relevant here; she works for Rape Crisis Scotland and Shakti Women’s Aid and has done since 2005. In 2015, she won an the Outstanding Campaigner of the Year at the inaugural LGBTI Awards. “I’ve had no problems with the women’s organisations,” she says. “The debate has never been about whether or not trans women could work for us, it’s been about how to develop the services to be more inclusive for trans people.”

Back at Scottish Trans Alliance, Morton believes everyone should stop arguing about how you define being “a woman” and start thinking about the fresh insight trans people can bring to discussions on gender. Having lived as, or been perceived as, both men and women, they are in an ideal position to notice and record the differences in the way the genders are treated.

“The only people who win from us fighting about who gets to use the word ‘woman’ are non-trans men who really hold the power and that’s probably why Rupert Murdoch is quite happy to have this debate roll on,” he says.

“What matters is that we don’t let ourselves get distracted by trying to divide up who is real, and who is not, and instead we look at how can we all work together and make sure gender equality is reduced and hopefully eliminated. “

Days after the ceremony at Glasgow Women’s Library, Clifford travelled to London to perform The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven which contains these pertinent lines: “Bless those who persecute you too. For hatred is the only thing they have. And it doesn’t amount to much. And they will lose it in the end. “

Though the hostile tweets she received opened a door to “a really unpleasant world”, she is now comfortable in her own skin and wasn’t hugely distressed by them. “The award, and the support I have had, also on social media, is so wonderful, and so profoundly moving. It is an extraordinary thing,” she says.