Three Problems with the Trans Rights Debate

September 10, 2018 at 10:45 am (Politics) (, , , , , , )

I have been a regular Twitter user since around 2010, and joined the Green Party at roughly the same time. In that space of time I’ve seen a great deal said on Transgender issues. I’m a member of the LGBTIQA+ community and though I don’t identify as trans myself, I take a great interest in what is said on it, so that I might better understand it. Naturally, if you follow debates on trans subjects, you find people speaking both for and against that community. And what I often find is that people on both sides, however reasoned or logical they might be in other debates, suddenly start breaking all the tacit rules of debate that we hold dear. Straw men, ad hominem attacks and you’re-clearly-wrong-because-you-don’t-agree-with-me arguments find their way to the front on so many occasions.

Recent events surrounding Aimee Challenor have brought trans issues, and issues with debating trans subjects, into sharp focus. People on both sides of the debate have become far more vocal. But pro-trans as I might be, I cannot help but feel that there are three ways in which trans activists are doing their cause little favour at all – or are perhaps even regressive. I expect that some eyebrows will be raised at the points I’m about to make, but these are points that I feel would be relevant when debating any subject, and thus I feel that these are valid criticisms that trans activists need to at least take a step back and consider with an open mind – with all the current talk about TERFBlocker and allegations of silencing trans debate, it’s easy for people to get the idea that trans activists are only listening to people who agree with them.

So, firstly:

Point 1 – Who owns the definitions?

For as long as I can remember, I have had an interest in linguistics. Not one that has ever been pursued academically; just an amateur interest. I love how democratised words are – by and large, at least, they are not formed or meddled with by any government or official bureau. They are formed, changed, dissolved by public consent in an organic, if unwitting fashion, over course of time. Some words evolve from others, some change their meanings from one thing to another over time. Some die, some are ostracised from polite speech, some are stuck together to make glorious image-rich portmanteaux. Some derive second, third, fourth, nth meanings without changing the original. Some feel, in the latter case, that the original is no longer valid.

And if that happens, then who gets to decide what is the correct definition? My answer is everybody, yet nobody.

Everyone has the right, I feel, to choose how they wish to define a word for their purposes. However, I strongly believe that nobody has the right to tell another person what definition of a word they should use.

I have no doubt that many will see where this argument is leading, and who will disagree with me on this. But it’s a point that has neither pro- nor anti-trans agenda. It’s a simple question of our personal linguistic rights – we decide for ourselves which definition of a word we prefer to use. So, if it’s the case that a person wishes to define gender as something more emotional or psychological than a biological thing – we have to accept that. My copy of the Chambers Dictionary (2011) seems to be happy enough with that definition. But if another person’s definition of gender is the purely about the sex into which they were born, then we also have to accept that. As, also, does my copy of Chambers. Both interpretations of the word, it would seem, are common, and therefore are surely equally valid.

It is a controversial statement and one that I won’t, I imagine, be thanked for. And I make no pretence that it’ll solve any of the debates around trans inclusion. It won’t. If anything, it muddles them further. But my point here isn’t intended to win any argument for either side. It’s simply intended to show a fundamental principle of mine on the use of language – however inconvenient or unhelpful it may be to anyone. After all – it helps neither side.

It is dismaying that many people on both sides of trans debates forget this simple principle. They have their definitions to which they have their rights, yet are too stubborn to realise that the other side has exactly the same rights to their definitions. Does it really help anyone to argue over who has the correct definition, when both sides are using definitions that are in common, recorded usage? I think not, and to argue over it, I think, wastes much time that night be better spent making mare salient points for your arguments.

Point 2 – Difficult Conversations

Even if you don’t take a lot of notice of American sport, you’re probably aware of the “taking a knee” movement That sprang up in the NFL last season. A dignified protest over racial inequality in the USA, it sparked much heated debate both for and against the protests. Take a look at this clip of the BBC’s Mark Chapman discussing it with former NFL players Jason Bell and Osi Umenyiora:

The thing I want to concentrate on here is Jason Bell’s talk about having those “uncomfortable conversations” – and the possibility that change can result. Bell has no doubt suffered from racism in his time. He’ll know far batter than I do how it affects a person. It would be very easy for him to avoid those uncomfortable conversations. It’d be very easy for him to denounce racists as the racists they are and decline to talk about it further. It’d be very easy for him, knowing that he’s the one in the right, to simply ignore racism targeted at him and only talk about race topics with people who he knows agree with him.

But does that help anyone? Does it further anything?

In the wake of events surrounding Aimee Challenor, a great deal has been made of people being “silenced”. I’m sure we’ve all seen conversations surrounding block lists, we’ve heard of people being dismissed as TERFs and bigots for having opinions. We’ve had senior party members talk about listening to people whose ideas we hold contemptible. We know we’re in the right, we know nobody’s going to change our minds – so why discuss things?

The simple reason is that even if we are in the right, and have rock solid arguments to prove our points, we only stand to benefit from discussion, and it’s only to our detriment if we don’t.

If we engage our detractors in debate, we may just get them around to our way of thinking (it is important to note that what we call transphobia isn’t always borne of hatred; it is often merely a lack of education, of understanding). We may not succeed in changing their mind – and if so, we’ve lost nothing. But if we do have a chance of changing at least one person’s mind, a person who might then go and do the same with other people – is that not a risk worth taking? As Jason Bell says, if we have these uncomfortable conversations, “things would happen, and there would be change”.
If we choose not to debate – if we no-platform, if we block, if we cry bigot and ignore, all that serves to do is to make us look bad, to make us look like we haven’t any good arguments to put forward.

There’s one final advantage to being open to debate. It’s always possible that you may find that your opponent’s arguments – even if they don’t change your mind – might just be informed by circumstances or experiences you hadn’t considered. And that might give you some valuable insight as to why any debate is even happening in the first place. An understanding of any type of prejudice is a key to defeating in in society as a whole. I’ll exemplify this in my third point.

Point 3 – The Horrible Irony

Death, taxes, and men complaining about women-only spaces. We hear it all the time. Women want a man-free zone at the party conference, and men who’re meant to be liberal and understanding are suddenly up in arms. “Why are you excluding us?” they cry. “Why are you victimising us? This isn’t equality!” – this often from men who don’t seem to have been so vocal about equality before.

Not ALL men, of course. I might as well get that in before someone else does.

The question that fails to occur to such chaps is that it might not be a problem with women’s prejudice, but with that of men. They fail to see that it might be the actions, behaviours or attitudes of other men – or, God forbid, their own selves – that warrants the call for a women-only space in the first place. And ironically, the ill-considered, knee-jerk reaction of such men pretty much vindicates that call. So I can see why women want that safe space, and I’ve no objection. Not that Womankind should need my approval, of course.

But where does that leave the question of whether or not trans women should be allowed into a women-only space? Fair question. And being neither a woman nor trans, I’m on the wrong side of two types of privilege to answer it. But I will happily offer a suggestion for a way of thinking about the problem.

And this is the horrible irony that gives this subsection its title. For so often, when the issue arises on social media (or anywhere else that gives everyone a free voice), when it’s suggested that trans women be excluded from women-only space, the reaction from trans-women can be depressingly similar, at least in tone or knee-jerkiness, to that from cis men.

Yes, yes, I know. Not ALL trans women.

One of the main arguments for exclusion of trans people in such spaces is the possibility, real or imagined, that trans women often live their formative years enjoying the privileges of and developing the attitudes and attributes of maleness and masculinity. As such, it is argued, they will conduct themselves in no better a manner than (some) cis men would. I can imagine that this will sometimes hold true for certain individuals, but I can also see (and do correct me if I’m wrong) that trans women might actually have lived their lives in a manner than tries to avoid being tainted by such toxic masculinity. However, this possibility is not likely to be immediately obvious to a woman who sees pretty much the same reaction from cis men and trans women for being excluded from a women-only space. And from that point it’s easy to form a correlation that may well be grossly unfair.

The solution to this? It’s an example of where we need one of those uncomfortable conversations. Even though you are sure that you’re on the right side of the argument, this is where you need to listen. And this is the example I said I’d give at the end of the last section. Discussing the inclusion issue might bring up a circumstance that you had not considered before. Just as men complaining about exclusion don’t often consider that it’s men who are the problem, you might find that it’s trans women – or some perception of them – that’s the problem.

For example, the woman trying to exclude you may had very negative experiences with trans women in the past. That doesn’t necessarily change your argument, and it would seem like she’s tarring all with the same brush – but it gives you an insight into why there may be opposition to your exclusion that’s not as black or white as simple hatred of trans people. And that insight is something that you might be able to address to help the cause of trans rights. Are there perhaps more who share such views, whether based on experiences they’ve had or simple misconceptions? Having that information to hand means that we may make major strides in overcoming bigotry – and the fact that you’ve taken the time to have the uncomfortable conversation helps to dispel notions of trans women being no better than an arrogant, ignorant alpha male.

Conclusion

There’s a good chance that I’ll make no friends with what I’ve said here (or that I’ll make the wrong ones). There’s a good chance that I’m talking from the overhanging cliff of privilege and if I am, by all means, educate me. I basically feel strongly about these points, I feel that they are worth applying to debate on any subject, and feel that they’ll help to make the LGBTIQA+ and trans communities appear more open and less hostile than, I’m afraid to say, they have appeared in recent days. Comments are open, no-one is silenced, say what you feel in response.

And if I don’t immediately respond to something, I’m probably taking that step back, as I would always suggest, to think about it. I’ll get back to you when I have a response, or more likely, when I can be arsed.

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4 Comments

  1. Mike Shone said,

    The idea that words can just mean anything anybody wants them to mean and that should be respected is highly problematic

    .Language is itself a social or cultural phenomenon. It is therefore not a matter of individual ownership. Language is shared by a language community. Of, course, it is subject to change overtime but the suppression or factionalising of words can do massive harm to social awareness and reasoned debate. For example, the suppression of the concept and its word “exploitation” by capitalist power renders people more vulnerable to capitalist power.

    So some of us think that the process of distorting the meaning of sexual identity which is biologically based to include gender which is based on the assignment of social characteristics to males and females has caused considerable muddle in making sense of the trans issues.

    It seems clear to some of us that a man can have feminine cultural characteristics and can be a transwoman and should be respected as such.

    But some of us think that it is equally clear that nobody can transcend their biology to become the opposite sex. We are stuck for life with our XX or XY (or intersex chromosomes).

    • Rod Webb said,

      As I read the first part of the article, I was already trying to formulate my objection to the argument. Thanks for doing it for me.

  2. greenhamwoman said,

    John, thank you for this thoughtful piece.
    You have articulated the issues very clearly and helped me want to come back to the place where conversations can happen.

    I had a few (very few) positive interactions on this subject at GP Conference last weekend, and several less positive ones that included words like “terrified” “intimidated” .

    I had set up a stall to gather email addresses from “Green Feminists”

    On one occasion, I overheard a young woman on the phone mention that people were frightened to leave City Hall because of fear of being intimidated. I apologised for interrupting her phone call and asked if she would come with me to meet the “intimidators”, she agreed, and once outside, met and spoke with two or three women who had been handing out leaflets. She appeared relaxed and I am hopeful that she was able to subsequently reassure her friends.

    On another occasion, I was approached by staff who had been instructed to close the stall down because (apparently) it was so upsetting to some LGBTQA+ members they were in tears. I offered to meet with them and talk it through, but the opportunity didn’t arise. I’m sorry that they were unable to talk to me in person: I am simply a woman in my 60’s, a grandmother, used to talking to people, unused to being called “frightening”.

    I remain open to talk, to find common ground ( surely there is plenty of that??) and to be open hearted and compassionate.
    But, can it be the case that some GP members may be simply too fragile or timid to enjoy Conference in which a healthy and robust exchange of ideas is the point?

  3. Rod Webb said,

    I realize that my response to Mike Shone doesn’t take into account the article as a whole and might be seen as simply taking sides. But his comment did encapsulate my view of the linguistic argument proposed.
    As for the article as a whole, it does raise important issues, The second part talks about uncomfortable conversations. What has struck me about the transgender ‘debate’ is the almost total lack of any conversation – because it has been blocked through fear and intimidation. I have spoken to many ordinary people about the issue and 95% no nothing about it. What kind of conversation is that? The fear and intimidation comes from people who purport to represent the trans community. It is understandable then that for many, the whole group is tarred with the same brush. It is good to hear these ideas articulated, even if in a tentative way.

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