In the UK the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA) was a landmark in legal history. It provided a mechanism for a change of gender to be recognised in law, and to be reflected in key identity documents, such as birth certificates. To achieve this change, the individual had to submit to a detailed examination by a medical board. In 2004 this was recognised as a necessary and humane mechanism that enabled people with very severe gender dysphoria to live full-time as the gender opposite to that of their birth. Not only was this important for the mental well-being of these individuals but it additionally protected them from discrimination that might result from the apparent difference between their presentation and their documentation.
Recently, transgender activists have alleged that this process is not fit for purpose. They claim that it takes too long, and is too expensive, and that the requirement for examination by a board of clinicians is degrading. It would be much better if individuals could self-identify, they argue: simply sign a set of papers re-defining them in the gender of their choice. As the Prime Minister put it, “We have set out plans to…demedicalise the process for changing gender, because being trans is not an illness and shouldn’t be treated as such.”
Although the UK is not the first nation to have explored the idea of facilitating self-identification, it has experienced a remarkably intense and acrimonious dispute between on the one hand, transgender activists who argue for self-identification, and on the other, gender-critical feminists who argue that self-identification must be resisted because it threatens to erode hard-one protections for women.
A central bone of contention concerns the nature of female-only spaces. Should natal males, their genitalia intact, be permitted access to women’s toilets, changing rooms and other “protected” spaces simply by self-identifying as women? Trans activists argue that transwomen, with or without male genitalia, are not a danger to anybody: they are in fact women, they assert, and as such they have the right to access female-only spaces. However, gender-critical feminists contend that simply changing into female clothes does not make a man into a woman; allowing men to self-identify as women – without any medical intervention whatsoever – is declaring open season for perverts to self-identify as women in order to access protected spaces.
At the heart of the matter lies an argument about what it is to be a woman. For trans activists, one is a woman if one feels that one is a woman: self-identification as a woman is a public assertion of an internal feeling of femininity. However, for gender-critical feminists, to be woman is to be biologically female; sex is a biological reality but gender is a social construct imposed from without. As a class, they argue, women are oppressed by men, and gender roles limit the life choices of women. Critically, there is an asymmetry of sexual violence: predominantly, it is committed by men against women. This brutal reality demands the creation of “safe places”, including women-only toilets and changing areas. Men should be excluded from these spaces to protect women from sexual abuse. Transwomen who have intact male genitalia are biologically male, and as such, they present the same threat – no more, no less – than any other biologically male person, whatever their mode of dress.
Trans activists have reacted to this by dubbing gender-critical feminists “TERFS” – trans-exclusionary radical feminists. There has been a steady escalation in the heated exchange between the two groups, and sadly allegations that trans activists have threatened violence and occasionally committed acts of violence against feminists. Nothing seems less feminine, and more stereotypically masculine, than the resort to violence.
As a matter of fact, access for transwomen to such female-only spaces has been protected in law since the 2004 GRA; the most significant consequence of the proposed change in the law will be to facilitate the change of sex on a birth certificate. In some senses, the horse has already bolted in relation to many of the things to which feminists object; preventing the proposed amendment to the GRA will not change the situation.
However, there is a nettle to be grasped here. I have written elsewhere of my scepticism about the notion of a “female brain”: I believe that the intellectual potentialities of men and women are equal, although the development of a brain occurs in concert with endocrine system of the body to which it belongs and it seems plausible that this could (in principle) lead to differences. I am not at all convinced that gender dysphoria results from a female brain being trapped in a male body; to have a male body is to be biologically male. I am happy to admit that I’m “a bloke in a dress”. I’ve been told that I’m very feminine; if it is true, its not an act and its not something I practice. But nothing changes my biology – I have fathered two children. There are of course difficulties: I would not want to go into the gents for precisely the same reasons that a woman would not; moreover, in moments of desperation I have on occasions used the Ladies although I must say that I always feel slightly uncomfortable about doing so and mostly I can find a unisex toilet when I’m out anyway.
But when all is said and done, women are aware of the threat of sexual violence in a way that men are not. The concern of many women – and by that I do not just mean gender-critical feminists, but many ordinary women who might not even identify as feminists, my wife included – is that to redefine womanhood to include anybody who simply says they are a woman is to open a Pandora’s box of harassment. I am astonished at how lightly many trans activists treat sexual violence against women. I find that there is often a remarkable failure – for people who want to identify as women – to understand the devastating consequences for women not only of acts of sexual violence, but also of the fear of sexual violence. In the wake of the everyday sexism project we must surely be aware that sexual harassment is not rare, but is in fact endemic and a part of the life experience of most women at some time. That is not to say that all men are rapists, but simply that astonishingly large numbers of assaults are committed by men against women.
Identification as a woman, as the result of a change of gender, is not simply a fashion statement; it is an assertion of status that entails rights and obligations for others. The current arrangements for gender recognition in the UK have the important consequence that identification as a member of the opposite sex cannot be a matter of whim or artifice, but that it must be the consequence of a deep and genuine process of self-transformation. The rights conferred are hard won and must be respected. They bring protection for transwomen, who can be assured of their authentic status in society, and they do so without increasing the capacity of men to commit acts of sexual violence against women.