Ten months later…

For those of us girls who have become used to getting out and about, being locked down brings challenges. There are no opportunities for social interactions in the UK at present. The best I seem to manage when I do get out is a visit to the supermarket, or a walk in a park.

I’m shocked that it is 10 months since I last posted! Friends will know that I have had some additional responsibilities at work for the last three years. These come to an end soon, and consequently, I hope that my life will become more normal again – at least as normal as is possible in the middle of a global pandemic. But perhaps the unreasonable workload I have shouldered over the last year has been a blessing in some respects. Immersed in my work, I have not been aware of weeks passing without my alter ego taking physical form.

To dress or not to dress? That is the question…supposing one has the space in which to ask it. Getting all dressed up to sit around at home feels strange – it’s not something I would normally do. I get dressed to go out and do something, but there is nothing to do; being dressed to stay in feels a bit like the closeted experience that defined what “trans” meant for me before I made the transition to being out and about in the wide world. It’s strange to find myself dressing with not much more to do than to take a walk.

It is easy to feel negative about this, and from what friends say, I’m not the only one struggling with the dilemma. And yet, for all that it feels like a step backwards to an earlier stage in my trans journey to dress at home, I have discovered that it is nevertheless important to me; because the other, unhealthy dimensions to my earlier closeted life – the repression and self-loathing – seem associated not with dressing at home, but with not dressing at all.

Having learned to accept myself as trans, and lost completely any remnant of the desire to “cure” myself, the enforced purge of lockdown and isolation at home is awakening the buried, internalised transphobia that all those years of struggling created. The cure, as ever, is to be who I am; to put aside the peculiarity of dressing just to stay at home, and to enjoy expressing my femininity, knowing that it is a part of me, something that I need to do, and not something that needs to follow any pre-defined model.

As it happens, on the day this photo was taken, my walk today took me to the Botanical Gardens, and on to the supermarket, with a taxi journey home at the end of the excursion – so not as closeted as all that! Besides affirming my femininity, it was wonderful to feel the sun on my face and to be reminded of the lesson I’ve learned over the last decade: it’s OK to be me!

Cross-dressing in the Time of the Virus

There was a time when I only ever “dressed’ in secret. As a small child, I dressed in my mother’s (hopelessly outsized!) clothes, played with my sister’s dolls and read girls books carelessly and unreflectively; they were simply the things I preferred to do, However, as my age approached double figures, I became increasingly aware that this sort of behaviour was not only unusual (specifically: engaged in by nobody else that I knew!) but even regarded as transgressive. In those days, people who did not conform to sex and gender norms were “perverts”. And so began a transition to “dressing” only when nobody else was there to see.

Sheffield_17_04_20As adolescence got under-way, I became adept at judging when I might be at home long enough to transform myself, and made sure that I took advantage of every viable opportunity. I developed finely-honed tradecraft, enabling myself to “borrow” items and return them without leaving a trace of evidence that they had recently been removed.

For all that my dressing was concealed from the rest of the world, this secrecy, with the concomitant suppression of deep-rooted and quite fundamental aspects of my personality, left scars on my psyche that have proved indelible. While much of what people percieve to be good in me can be associated with the feminine traits in my personality (the man who is empathetic, comfortable with feelings, kind and uncompetitive), in my inner life, I have struggled with a legacy of self-hatred that comes from decades of struggling to convince myself that I am not what I am, and to try to cure myself of being who I am. There are demons who haunt me still.

Emerging into the clear light of day in my forties, going shopping, drinking espresso in a coffee shop, being welcomed in my favourite local restaurant – even made a fuss of. It’s very hard to express what this means to somebody who has spent most of their life trying to cure themself of being who they are.

Many deal with their gender dysphoria by going “full-time”, by transitioning, but as I have written about elsewhere in these pages, that was not the path for me. The arrival of Covid-19 has presented challenges for all of us, and many people are finding that remaining in good physical health does not mean good mental well-being. For me the challenge is that I cannot express myself in the way that I would otherwise like.

My wife is profoundly uncomfortable with this aspect of myself; under normal circumstances, I lead two parallel lives, which is undoubtedly a compromise, but one that allows us to resolve the challenges in our relationship while facilitating some expression of my feminine self. It is a way of living that has given me substantially greater inner peace without destroying a relationship that is important to us both.

However, it is impossible to maintain this tenuous compromise under the conditions of a lockdown, in which we are both working from home. The lockdown follows hard on a lengthy period of convalescence at home for my wife following hip replacement surgery, which has further extended the duration of the period in which our usual compromise has been curtailed. I find myself strangely catapulted back into my own past: I must sieze opportunities to dress whenever they arise, but they are solitary experiences. I have become accustomed to dressing only when I have somewhere to go, or sombody to meet; but now I dress only for my own company!

At least my wife’s work does take her out of the house from time to time still, however. One such opportunity presented itself on Friday. I took my permitted daily exercise, walking and enjoying the views of distant hills. And for all that it may seem strange to say so for anybody who is not afflicted with gender dysphoria, it lifted my spirits to do so. It was as though a fresh breeze blew through a musty room. For a day I could be myself in whatever way seemed most fitting.

I cannot explain or rationalise properly why this should matter so much to me, but it does, and I was grateful for the opportunity presented to me. When the lockdown will end, it is very hard to say. While it continues, quite a lot of making do and putting up will have to be done. But when, eventually, it does end, there will be drinking and dining and dancing with friends…

Life in the Time of the Virus

There are those who like to doubt there is anything to be afraid of: climate change is a Chinese hoax; and Covid-19 is “little worse than the flu”. Such perspectives always lead to a call for inaction; the virtuous thing is to stand back and watch in amazement as well-intended fools rush round campaigning for “action”. The President of the United States began by dismissing Covid-19 as a hoax, then as a Chinese disease, before moving to reassuring promises that it would all blow over soon. Now the United States has about a quarter of global cases, and there is no evidence of any immediate relief from suffering. Our TV screens show emergency rooms overwhelmed by large numbers of critically sick patients, and doctors struggling to cope. Reality has intervened and asserted itself. For Covid-19, Reality’s decisive interventions have come comparatively quickly – within a few short weeks of the predictions of global pandemic. With climate change, it may be years before we reach the point at which even the staunchest doubters have no option but to come to terms with Reality – but by then there is a risk that we will have begun an irreversible slide towards a much greater catastrophe.

At least in relation to climate change, there is a global scientific consensus on the broad nature of the problem and the mitigation strategy that is required. The Covid-19 pandemic has exploded globally without clear consensus about the best way to mitigate its consequences. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is firmly of the view that the solution is to “test, test, test”: identification and isolation of infected individuals holds the key to slowing the spread of Covid-19. A study in a small Italian town, where the entire population was tested, found that tracing and isolating infected individuals – including those who were asymptomatic – enabled the infection to be controlled.

But small towns are poor models for nations of tens or hundreds of millions. Controlling and  monitoring who enters and leaves a small town is feasible, but achieving the same control for a city of 100,000 or a million inhabitants, with a multitude of routes leading in and out, is a challenge that is immensely more difficult.

Moreover, Covid-19 is a new disease. Yes, coronavidae is a class of many related virions, but Covid-19 presents a very important new challenge: infected individuals may be asymptomatic for as long as two weeks, and, indeed, may never develop symptoms. In ebola, infection leads rapidly to the onset of a severe illness and often to death; in contrast, Covid-19 leads to mild symptoms in the majority of cases, and no symptoms at all. In contrast to the WHO, many scientists are arguing that the genie is out of the bottle: Covid-19 infection is probably endemic and in dramatic contrast to ebola, its spread cannot any longer be prevented. The question is about how best to control the spread so that health systems are not overloaded.

In the UK a debate rages between on the one hand, the public health community, who favour the WHO’s approach; and on the other hand, epidemiologists who use powerful mathematical modelling tools to predict the development of infection. I have no specialist expertise, although the nub of the problem here is surprisingly close to many in my own academic discipline: the rate of growth of infected people will be the product of the rate of contact between people and the probability that contact leads to viral transfer. Biologists are only beginning to assemble the tools required to furnish a proper understanding of these fundamental parameters.

The final challenge in all of this is to understand the interface between epidemiology and public policy. There is a global shortage of Covid-19 test kits; there is no government on the planet that can test everybody who is suspected of infection and their immediate contacts. Moreover, the best test available, based on the detection of nucleic acids specific to Covid-19, only detects about two thirds of infections at the height of infection. There are no data on the efficacy of testing in the pre-symptomatic stage. On top of this, many tests being sold have been “falsified” by the WHO. And then there is the very difficult question of how Governments ensure the continued compliance with policy. For example, how dependent is the South Korean model, in which rigorous testing and contact tracing has apparently enabled the Government to control rates of infection and keep them low, while maintaining noral life, dependent upon a deeply-rooted national culture and a very specific relationship between the people and the Government?

We do not know the answers to these complex questions. For now Governments have to act. The illness is real, and real accident and emergency units are overloaded with real people who are suffering and dying, causing real grief. I do not envy politicians at this time. The UK Government is leaning on science for guidance, as it should, while scientists are struggling to achieve a consensus about the nature of the problems and the impact of the different solutions. Somehow Governments must lead us through these uncharted and stormy waters. These are difficult times. For my part all I can do is to follow as carefully as possible the Government’s guidance, and feel profoundly grateful for the selfless commitment to duty of hundreds of thousands of workers in the National Health Service.

Legal Fictions

Recently the Guardian reported that “a researcher who lost her job at a thinktank after tweeting that transgender women cannot change their biological sex has lost a test case because her opinions were deemed to be ‘absolutist'”.

Mary Forstater was employed on a fixed term contract at the think-tank, and when this contract expired, her application for a renewal was declined on the grounds that she had used “offensive and exclusionary” language in a lengthy series of tweets. She sought reparation by bringing her case to an employment tribunal. Forstater believes that “sex is a material reality which should not be conflated with ‘gender’ or ‘gender identity’. Forstater also believes that “being female (or male) is an immutable biological fact, not a feeling or an identity”. She argued that belief is a protected characteristic in law, and that failure to renew her contract on the grounds of her belief violated her rights.

The employment tribunal found against Forstater. The case has received widespread attention; for example, author J. K. Rowling weighed in with support for Forstater:

“Dress however you please.
Call yourself whatever you like…
But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?

Is Biological Sex Real?

This question lies at the heart of the Forstater case. She agues that sex is not ‘assigned’ at birth, but is a biological ‘fact’. Surgery can render the external appearance of a man more feminine but it cannot replace XY chromosomes with a replacement XX set. Forstater sees this in terms of the reproductive capabilities of the sexes: men produce sperm and women provide ova. A man can take female sex hormones but he cannot acquire female gonads. The importance of reproductive biology to sexual identity is indeed recognised in law: a court recently ruled that Freddy McConnell, who has lived as a man for several years but retained his female reproductive system and gave birth in 2018, could not be registered as the child’s father. In the view of the judge, Sir Andrew McFarlane, the president of the high court’s family division, “being a ‘mother’ or a ‘father’ with respect to the conception, pregnancy and birth of a child is not necessarily gender specific,”

It is fashionable in certain circles to indicate one’s “preferred pronouns” in e-mail signatures. We should not make assumptions about gender, the argument goes, because the individual knows their real gender. In all my time mixing with other trans-women, I have rarely been uncertain whether they were really men or women; even after careful application of makeup, its comparatively easy to differentiate a natal female from a transwoman. One feels that biological sex is rather obvious – if we are required to ask about pronouns, it is because the preferred gender differs from the biological sex and not because there is in fact any ambiguity about biological sex.

Forstater, a gender-critical feminist, takes the view that if if we undermine the biological basis of womanhood, and make it merely a state of mind, it can impact the chances and protections offered to women. Forstater is irritated by the inclusion of Pips Bunce in the Financial Times & HERoes Champions of Women in Business list, for example. Bunce says he is “gender fluid”, but biologically he is male. Forstater thought it

“weird he felt entitled to accept the award, instead of saying ‘sorry there has been a mistake I am a man who challenges gender norms'”.

As a man Bunce has been given an award recognising him as a woman. Men have benefitted from significant advantages when compare to women; allowing men to benefit from advantages offered to women in recognition of their historical disadvantage merely deepens the disadvantage suffered by women.

Forstater expressed anger about the admission of men into female-only spaces. She contributed to a discussion on Twitter on the admission of transwomenmen to the Kenwood Ladies Pond, a women-only bathing pool at Hampstead Heath. She wrote:

“Some people believe that a person with a penis can be a woman, some (a majority) don’t. Neither group should be discriminated against in everyday life. But in situations involving taking your clothes off with strangers, integration of the two groups is not possible.”

To make the point more graphically she added a cartoon cartoon, showing a flasher, with the caption “its alright – its a woman’s penis”.

The Legal Fiction

Such a view of sex and gender would be shared by many gender-critical feminists and, indeed, by some members of the trans community. Personally, I have a great deal of sympathy with the line of argument to this point. Women-only spaces exist because women need protection from a minority of men while changing and using the toilet.

However, in the UK it is possible for an individual to apply for a gender recognition certificate (GRC) following a transition from one gender to another.  In law, such individuals are entitled to be treated as though they were born into the new gender. At the time the legislation was passed, this group were commonly referred to as “transsexuals”.

It is necessary to go through a rigorous clinical process to obtain a GRC. This process is designed to confer on individuals who transition from one gender to another a legal protection from discimination. It enables them to change their name, and also to change their name on the kind of legal documents that are typically required as evidence of identity (eg. birth certificate), thus enabling them to open a bank account, purchase a house, etc. These are important protections for a vulnerable group of people.

In the case of a male-to-female transexual, this means that in law the individual is a woman. The law does not mandate the biology underpinning this state of affairs: it requires only that the individual be treated as a woman, not that people believe they really are a woman. IHowever, because the protection is established in law, it must be respected. We may campaign to change the law, but we cannot live as though inconvenient laws did not exist.

The problem for Forstater was not that she adhered to a politically incorrect view of biology (as many of her supporters are complaining), but that she asserted the right to treat transgendered individuals as though the law protecting their rights did not exist. In his Judgement, Judge Tayler states (paragraph 84, p. 24):

“…a person who has transitioned should not be forced to identify their gender assigned at birth. Such a person should be entitled to live as a person of the sex to which they have transitioned. That was recognised in the Gender Recognition Act which states that the change of sex applies for “all purposes”. Therefore, if a person has transitioned from male to female and has a Gender Recognition Certificate that person is legally a woman. That is not something that the Claimant is entitled to ignore. “

Forstater could not ignore the law’s position on this matter any more than a homophobic hotel owner could deny a room to a gay couple, or than a racist employer could deny employment to somebody because they were black: the protection is defined by law.

Biological Sex is Complicated

In describing Forstater’s views on sex as ‘absolutist’, Judge Tayler was not referring to her understanding of biology, but to the way in which her beliefs led her to interact with groups of individuals. On her understanding of biology, he took a relaxed view, determining that while not consistent with the latest science, it was at least “coherent” – the minimal requirement for a belief to be protectable, in principle, under law.

However, as a professional scientist I felt that the evidence raised noteworthy biological aspects of sex. In particular, evidence was introduced to the tribunal on intersex conditions. While people with intersex conditions have been poorly served by medical practitioners in the past, and while they certainly do not represent a class of transgender individual, the existence of intersex conditions, and the development of humane and dignified approaches to supporting them, does require reconsideration of our biological understanding of sex.

Forstater’s view of the biological basis of sex is summarised by Judge Tayler as follows (p. 22, paragraph 77):

“Males are people with the type of body which, if all things are working, are able to produce male gametes (sperm). Females have the type of body which, if all things are working, is able to produce female gametes (ova), and gestate a pregnancy. It is sex that is fundamentally important, rather than ‘gender’, ‘gender identity’ or ‘gender expression’.”

However, in evidence presented to the tribunal, six different intersex conditions are described, including Complete Androgen Insensitivity (CAI), Klinefelter Syndrome, Turner Syndrome, Turner Mosaic Syndrome, Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), and 5-alpha reductase deficiency. For example, individuals with CAI have XY chromosomes (typically male) but lack tissue receptors that respond to androgens such as testosterone so that they do not develop male external genitalia. In contrast, individuals with CAH have XX chromosomes (typically female) but express additional androgens, including high levels of testosterone. In some cases, the clitoris becomes so large that it is capable of penetrative intercourse.

Thus, while it may be the case that at birth most human beings are capable of being identified as male or female, there exists an important minority of individuals for whom the normal definitions are rather weak. For these people, sex has often been ‘assigned’, with the consequence that reconstructive surgery has been carried out at an age so young that consent by the affected individual is impossible. Practices of this sort have been widely opposed by groups representing the interests of individuals with intersex conditions. Dealing fairly and respectfully with individuals whose biology does not fit the binary norms upon which much of society is founded creates challenges. A very good example of this is presented by the runner Caster Semenya, thought to have CAI.

Summary

Even for those with intersex conditions, biology has a determinative impact upon their life-choices. For those with conventional sexual differentiation, this is also the case. However, for people with gender dysphoria who transition to the opposite gender to that which they had at birth, the obtaining of a gender recognition certificate provides legal safeguards to protect them from discrimination. If this law is to have any meaning, it cannot be a matter of choice for individuals whether or not they obey it. In the attempt to create a more tolerant, inclusive and accepting society, it has been felt necessary to protect these rights in law. If the law is wrong it can be changed, but until then it must surely be obeyed by all, irrespective of their private beliefs about the biology of sex.