Recently, the National Post published a discussion that I engaged in with Jonathan Kay.
I participated in that because it was an opportunity to provide a counterpoint for readers who don’t often see one. It was a chance to challenge some of the distortions and misinformation that have been circulating about trans people and their legal protections. If you read predominantly far right media right now, you would believe that wealthy, well-funded and all-powerful “TRAs” (trans rights activists) somehow control the government (one popular conspiracy theory claims that it is a pharmaceutical company plot) and are forcing some completely unfounded ideology and social engineering on destitute and helpless schools, governments, churches, workplaces and Canadian society as a whole. So it’s worth it for those readers to encounter a discussion that is rational, measured, and provides a glimpse of the reality outside of their own tunnel vision. I doubt many minds were changed, but at least an effort was made for the sake readers who are either still open to considering information outside the range of their predisposed views, or don’t encounter any better information in their travels.
It was framed as a debate, and debates about trans human rights are always a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t proposition. If you participate in a debate, it gives the appearance of legitimacy to the idea that human rights should be debatable, and that opposition to them is an equally valid side. On the other hand, if you don’t, the debate still steamrolls on without you having any voice in it, and not only is your perspective unrepresented, it can even be characterized however your opponent chooses to portray it, without challenge.
It is worth mentioning, however, that the discussion that I had with Jonathan Kay is not “the debate” that gender critical figures are trying to have. I want to be clear that the discussion with Kay, via the Post was conducted in good faith — I don’t want to imply otherwise. The gender critical version of the debate gets framed a specific way, and it’s important to recognize this, and understand why the debate that gender critical speakers are pushing for is one that is inherently flawed and intended to be conducted in bad faith. And forgive me, because I have to generalize here: obviously, not everyone who takes issue with trans people thinks alike, but there are some general similarities, and the debate that most are trying to have has generally developed these relatively consistent rules.
From a gender critical perspective, the debate must be held within certain parameters. This is sometimes accomplished by defining terms at the beginning, but it can just as easily be accomplished by assuming those parameters at the beginning and very consistently and firmly policing anyone who deviates from them, as well as reframing anything that is said to the contrary so that it can be subsumed back into the original parameters.
“Sex ≠ Gender”
The first premise for the GC debate is that sex and gender are two different things. This statement is true, and any misinformed perspective usually begins with a kernel of truth. Sex and gender are two different things, and this is a point that trans folk have long made, when explaining why their anatomy does not define them. But for gender critical speakers, distinguishing sex from gender does the opposite, providing the opportunity to ignore both gender and gender identity, so that trans people can be once again defined according to their genital status (“sex”) at birth.
Gender critical speakers try to claim the moral authority on this point to assert that by extension. when it comes to human rights and accommodations in gendered spaces, physical sex is the only measure that matters. It’s sometimes phrased as though it’s a question of whether “sex is real,” but the intended undertone is that gender and gender identity are not, and are therefore not worthy of consideration. In reality, trans people don’t question whether sex is “real,” but whether one’s biology is their destiny, and whether one’s sex defines absolutely everything about them.
Making physical sex the sole benchmark is somewhat fallacious, given that (at least ideally) we don’t actually see the physical sex of the people we encounter, and instead assume their sex based on their gender presentation — but the folks making that argument are hoping that you don’t think too long on that. This foundation is used a bit duplicitously, though: when the subject of post-operative trans women comes up, the benchmark suddenly moves to chromosomes, socialization or reproductive capability, so that regardless of their apparently all-important anatomy, trans women can still be still essentialized as “males.” Likewise, the argument is made that segregation in gendered spaces is a matter of safety… but when the subject turns to accommodation in general (non-gendered) spaces and fears for safety can no longer be exploited, the imperative to verbally essentialize trans women as “males” (even to the point of harassment and abuse) and consider sex as the only worthy point of consideration is still viewed as being of paramount importance, and uncompromisable. Using “sex” as the one and only measure of value is actually a veiled proxy for considering cis (non-trans) status as the one and only measure of womanhood (it should be noted that gender critical people also abhor the term “cis,” because if the Latin oppositive “cis” is ever accepted as a corollary to “trans,” then it might legitimize the idea that trans people exist — so in gender critical thought, “cis” too must be considered a slur, and the words “normal,” “real,” “natal” or — most often — “biological” should be used instead).
The next extension of that initial premise is that there are only two sexes. This statement is true-ish in an overly general sense, but ignores the complexity of the science on the topic, and fails to consider intersex persons who have established medical conditions which cause developmental variances in their chromosomes, genitals or gonads. Any mention of intersex in the gender critical debate is usually met with a quick twist of pretzel logic to claim that these are merely exceptions that prove the rule, and then proceed once again under the premise that there are only two sexes — thus quickly evading the possibility that trans people (especially those who are compelled to transition between sexes, but not necessarily only them) vary in simply less visible ways than currently recognized intersex conditions, and deserve the same consideration.
Erasing Gender and Identity From Human Rights
The second major premise is that gender should be dismissed as being nothing more than a collection of outdated roles and stereotypes. This is incredibly reductive (deliberately so): gender can include them, but is not only them. Gender is the meaning that we find for ourselves inwardly and how we express it outwardly: this is usually based on our sex, but this meaning can also be chosen antithetically to what is expected based on sex — in short, it’s about who we are and how we decide to present that to the world, whether in accordance with stereotypes, despite them, or regardless of them.
As in the first point, there is a kernel of truth here too, namely, that gender roles and stereotypes are problematic. This is why “gender critical” became the new term preferred by trans-exclusionary feminists (who had previously self-identified as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” until they’d heard the acronym “TERF” in anger enough to decide that it should be considered a slur): certainly, there is a lot about gender roles and stereotypes to be critical of. On this point, gender critical thinkers and trans people should theoretically be in agreement, given that the latter challenge, question, traverse and defy those roles and stereotypes more than anyone. But there is duplicity in how gender critical people apply their argument here, too: whenever trans people happen to be in alignment with traditional stereotypes, they’re accused of reinforcing them; but when they challenge or deviate from those stereotypes, they’re mocked for being visibly trans, for how they look, and for visibly failing (by that person’s individual assessment) to meet those same expected stereotypes.
By extension of this second premise, then, gender identity is said to simply not exist, according to gender critical feminism. The collective weight of medical evidence in dealing with trans people says otherwise, but this is quickly dismissed as the medical establishment (at best) humouring trans people out of a misguided sense of sympathy, or (at worst) being in on the “gender ideology” conspiracy to reshape and destroy society. By defining gender identity as mental illness, a delusion, or even a destructive ideology, trans people then become entirely irrelevant to the debate that gender critical people want to have, and it becomes completely appropriate to dismiss them, their life experiences, and their needs from consideration. The gender critical debate, then, is entirely about us, but doesn’t involve us, as they assert that we can’t be trusted to have anything of value to contribute.
These are the starting points of the gender critical “debate,” and they are hallmarks of a debate in bad faith. From these parameters, trans women can only be considered to be “men,” and therefore everything that predatory men do can be ascribed to them, by default. From these parameters, allowing trans women into a gendered space is automatically phrased as though those spaces are being opened up to “men” — even though that is not what is actually happening. There is no argument that can be made within these parameters that will lead to any acknowledgement that trans people exist, let alone that they should have rights or be accommodated in society in any way. This is by design: the easiest way to win a debate is to control the framing of it, so that it becomes impossible to come to any other conclusion than the one that you had allowed at the outset.
Human rights should not be up for debate in the first place… but when the debate is framed so asymmetrically, it becomes absolutely toxic.
In the discussion that I had with Jonathan Kay, it was on the condition that legitimacy issues (who I am or whether trans women are women, for example) would not be the focus of that dialogue. It is telling that he considered that “not realistic,” because the debate as he’s been hearing it has been taking place within the constraints above, and his thinking remained clearly influenced by these premises.
Many of the apparent “problems” of trans inclusion have already been considered over the past decade or more, and have been in the process of being updated based on real life experience, medical evidence, legal practicalities, and the duty to accommodate in a balanced way that considers context. By changing the parameters of the so-called “debate,” opponents hope to reset this all back to zero in a way that centers fears about trans people, and dismisses the voices of trans folk, solutions that have already been arrived at, nuances that we as a society have already learned to deal with, the context of any given situation, and any evidence that supports inclusion. It is, in a way, a means to reverse everything that has happened in the past several years, simply by insisting that it should be so and denying the validity of anything or anyone that says otherwise. It also provides a reset on language so that those who refuse to accept the existence of trans people have a sometimes-stealth / sometimes-duplicitous language with which they can be hostile, without incurring the wrath of the public at large (although we see from the complaints about infringements on freedom of speech that this doesn’t always work).
The worst part of it all is that the entire bad faith gender critical “debate” threatens to divide feminism against itself at a time when Canadian religious conservatives are attempting to reboot abortion criminalization and American religious conservatives are eagerly awaiting the overturning of Roe v Wade. It allows traditionally misogynistic personalities and organizations — ranging from the Heritage Foundation to Tucker Carlson — to deflectively posture as feminists or allies at a time when the so-called “populist” nationalism they tout is threatening to erase feminist awareness from higher education and push women back toward those very same stifling gender roles and limitations that women are still struggling to break. In the UK, it has even been used to locate and recruit gay and lesbian transphobes in order to turn them against that nation’s primary LGBTQ+ rights advocacy organization, and undercut, defund or even destroy it. Beyond that, it has also managed to turn up some transphobic lesbian, gay and feminist personalities willing to validate religious conservative talking points about “gender ideology,” without realizing that “gender ideology” is veiled code that in many uses also encompasses LGBTQ+ rights, feminism and many other aspects of social justice.
There are so incredibly many things that trans feminism and general feminism can and should agree on, and yet gender critical efforts seem to discard all of that, in order to pretend that the single most important challenge facing women today is whether trans women should be accepted as women. This absolutist, sort-of-fundamentalist and all-consuming focus is as troubling as it is self-defeating.
(This commentary also appears at rabble.ca. Image: Adobe Stock)