On Friday I heard the Canadian feminist, Meghan Murphy, speak at an event organised by the feminist group, forwomen.scot. Worried that Meghan's reputation as a hateful transphobe would prove well-founded, and having read 'Trans Britain', a series of moving transgender 'journeys' (edited by Christine Burns) of individuals belonging to this marginalised community, I felt uneasy.
Meghan confounded her critics as she told her story sensibly and eloquently to a hall packed with women from a range of backgrounds. The atmosphere was electric. She began with a clarification of terms and definitions. This is critically important, because if we are to find any common ground on which to resolve this conflict, we need to be clear what we are talking about. Meghan clarified definitions of 'male' and 'female', 'men' and 'women'. Crucially, a woman, according to Meghan, is an adult female. This unequivocally ties gender (man/woman) to sex (male/female) and seems to be in line with most people's intuitions. It is precisely here that the trans community disagrees: gender is not tied to sex they contend, meaning that one can be biologically male and still be a woman.
So far, clear enough. Unfortunately, things get convoluted when the term 'biological essentialism' gets thrown into the mix. In this context this phrase is usually used as a term of abuse, and the trans community often hurls this accusation at people like Meghan, ostensibly for tying gender to sex. This is unfortunate because the phrase 'biological essentialism' has other meanings drawn from biology and metaphysics that have nothing whatsoever to do with the trans debate. It would be a good idea to stop using the phrase in this context as it has misleading connotations.
The key questions are these: First, can a biological male be a woman? And second, what issue of justice hangs on the answer? Being female is a precondition of being a woman, but at the same time, everyone deserves the same set of rights and freedoms. What I'm querying is whether ensuring that trans rights and freedoms are respected, as they must be, requires the law to accept that a biological male can be a woman. I don't think this is necessary, but am willing to be corrected. Just as important, to claim that raising such questions is 'transphobic' is not only mistaken but often employed as a bullying tactic. A transphobe is someone who would deny trans people their rights and freedoms on the grounds that they are trans. Raising these questions doesn't come close to meeting the threshold of transphobia.
Much of the ire of transgender activists is directed at the much-hated white, middle-class feminist, which really doesn't help matters. Furthermore, it ignores the millions of females across the world oppressed as a result of their biological status. To redefine them to accommodate gender-identity ideology, and for politicians and legislators to enact legislation on that basis is – to put it mildly – concerning.
In many ways, this is a tragic conflict. Women will, in time, probably undo the fiercely individualistic consequences of gender-identity ideology. But the damage done in the meantime, particularly to trans people themselves, will be devastating unless a third way is found. Call me cynical, but the thought, effort and huge financial cost of finding a solution and making reasonable adjustments to protect this vulnerable group, was beyond the ken of politicians and legislators. It is easier, lazier and cheaper to redefine what it is to be a woman.
Despite mitigating claims that the EU election was fought on one issue only – Brexit – it was a disastrous result for the Tories and Labour. Not particularly interested in the former – they deserve all they get – I am concerned about the Labour party's results. And it is difficult not to agree that the Labour leadership deserve all they get too, for their deliberate obfuscation or 'constructive ambiguity' as they put it, on leaving the EU. Voters should not be treated as fools.
Two huge Labour heartlands, Glasgow (no longer a Labour heartland, it has to be said) and Lewisham (my second home) fell hugely to the SNP and the Liberal Democrats respectively. The results were extraordinary. It could be, as Labour spokesmen argue, that the results will be quite different in a general election, when fighting against austerity rather than the tedious Brexit. They had better hope so. If I were an activist, I wouldn't be complacent. In Lewisham, activists fought hard during this campaign and the results for London should focus minds. Perhaps Boris Johnson as PM will help Labour, but it is a sad reflection on our politicians and politics, that the imposition of this dreadful man on the rest of us is the price we need to pay, and a poor substitute, for good leadership. Like many others across the country, I despair.
Tears of Theresa
Reactions to the end of Theresa May's resignation statement to the nation from Downing Street, when she broke into tears, has divided people into two camps: those who felt humane pity for her as a person, and those with no sympathy at all. It is not contradictory to hold both views. On the other hand, she is inscrutable. There was no real sense of what was going on behind that austere public façade. Reports of her behaviour in private meetings do not shed any light on her internal life either. When she cried, I felt sorry for her as a person, felled from a great height in ignominy and shame.
And even as a politician I have a certain sympathy for her, in that she is deemed a failure for not having achieved the impossible. That's harsh. Not even God can do the impossible. Nonetheless she deserved to be felled for her unnecessarily harsh policies while in charge. But that was not why she was removed. More's the pity.
Photograph at top by the author