I am going to set out my current views about the transgender problem. It’s something that has caused a lot of discussion on twitter, much of it unpleasantly vituperative. When I refer to ‘problem’ I’m referring to the vituperation, not, of course, the existence of transgender people. Short posts on twitter don’t allow nuance, so I thought it might be helpful to lay out my views here in the (doubtless vain) hope of being able to move on to talk about other things. This will be my last word on it, because I feel that the time spent on this single problem has become counterproductive.
- The problem is very complicated and nobody knows the answers. Why, for example has the number of people referred to the Tavistock clinic increased 25-fold since 2009? Nobody knows. There has been a great deal of disagreement within the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) at the Tavistock about whether and when to refer children for treatment with puberty blockers or surgery. There was a good report by Deborah Cohen about this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTRnrp9pXHY
- There’s also a good report from BBC Newsnight about people who have chosen to detransition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDi-jFVBLA8. It shows how much is not known, even by experts.
- Anyone who pretends that it’s a simple problem that can be solved with slogans just isn’t listening. The long term effects of hormone treatments are simply not known.
- This poses a real problem for doctors who are asked for advice by people who feel that they were born in the wrong sex. There is an empathetic discussion from the front line in a recent paper
- I’m very conscious that trans people have often been subjected to discrimination and abuse. That’s totally unacceptable. It’s also unacceptable to vilify women whose views are a bit different.
- Most of the arguments have centred on the meanings of the words ‘woman’, ‘female’, ‘gender’ and ‘sex’. Many of the bitter rows about this topic might be avoided if people defined these words before using them.
- ‘Sex’ and ‘gender’ are relatively easy. When I was growing up, ‘gender’ was a grammatical term, unrelated to sex. Then it evolved to be used as a euphemism for ‘sex’ by those who were too squeamish to use the word ‘sex’. The current use of these words is quite different. It’s discussed at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gender#usage-1.
“Sex as the preferred term for biological forms, and gender limited to its meanings involving behavioral, cultural, and psychological traits.“.
This is a sensible distinction, I think. But beware that it’s by no means universally agreed. The meanings are changing all the time and you can get pilloried if you use the ‘wrong’ word.
- The words ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘women’ are much more contentious. Some people say that they refer to biology, having XX chromosomes. This is certainly the definition used in every dictionary I’ve seen. The vast majority of people are born male or female. Apart from the small number of people who are born with chromosomal abnormalities, it’s unambiguous and can’t change.
- But other people now insist, often stridently, the ‘woman’ now refers to gender rather than sex. It would certainly help to avoid misapprehensions if, when using slogans like “trans women are women”, they made clear that they are using this new and unconventional definition of ‘woman’.
- Someone on twitter said that someone had said “transwomen are not women. That is transphobic. If she’d said that transwomen are not female, she’d have just been correct.” I doubt that this distinction is widely accepted. Both statements seem to me to mean much the same thing, but again it’s a matter of definitions.
- If someone who is biologically male feels happier as a woman, that’s fine. They should be able to live as a woman safely, and without discrimination. They should be treated as though they were women. This I take to be the intention of the tweet from J.K. Rowling:
- It seems to me that there is a wafer-thin distinction between “trans women are women” and “trans women should be treated as though they were women”. Yet if you say the wrong one you can be pilloried.
- Many of my friends in what’s known loosely as the skeptical movement have been quite unreasonably exercised about this fine distinction. Many of today’s problems arise from the extreme polarisation of views (on almost everything). This seems to me to be deeply unhelpful.
- I was pilloried by some people when I posted this tweet: “I’ve just finished reading the whole of the post by @jk_rowling. It only increases my admiration for her -a deeply empathetic human. The attacks on her are utterly unjustified.” It’s true that I gained several hundred followers after posting it (though I suspect that not all of them were followers that I would wish to have).
- The problems arise when a small minority of people who have male genitalia (whether they are trans women or predatory males) have used their access to spaces that have been traditionally reserved for women as an opportunity of voyeurism or even rape. In such cases the law should take its course. The existence of a few such cases shouldn’t be used as an excuse to discriminate against all trans women.
- Another case that’s often cited is sports. Being biologically male gives advantages in many sports. Given the huge advances that women have made in sports since the 1960s, it would be very unfortunate if they were to be beaten regularly by people who were biologically male (this has actually happened in sprinting and in weightlifting). In contact sports it could be dangerous. The Rugby Football Union has a policy which will have the effect of stopping most trans women from joining their women’s teams. That seems fair to me. Sports themselves should make the rules to ensure fair play. Some of the rules are summarised in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender_people_in_sports.The problem is to weigh the discrimination against trans women against the discrimination against biological women. In this case, you can’t have both.
- The trans problem has been particularly virulent in the Green Party. I recently endorsed Dr Rosi Sexton for leadership of the Green Party, because she has committed to having better regard for evidence than the other candidates, and because she’s committed to inclusion of minority groups. They are both good things. She has also said “trans women are women”, and that led to prolonged harassment from some of my best skeptical friends. She’s undoubtedly aware of X and Y chromosomes so I take it that she’s using ‘woman’ in the sense of gender rather than sex. Although I’d prefer slightly different words, such as “trans women should be treated as though they were women”, the difference between these two forms of wording seems to be far too small to justify the heat, and even hate, generated on both sides of the argument. Neither form of wording is “transphobic”. To say that they are is, in my opinion, absurd.
- All that I ask is that there should be less stridency and a bit more tolerance of views that don’t differ as much as people seem to think. Of course, anyone who advocates violence should be condemned. Be clear about definitions and don’t try to get people fired because their definitions are different from yours. Be kind to people.
It seems to me to be totally unfair, and deeply misogynist, to pillory Rowling as a ‘transphobe’ on the basis of this (or anything else) she’s said. She’s had some pretty vile abuse. There’s already a problem of women getting abuse on social media, and that’s only added to by the way she’s been treated because of this tweet.
The fairness and safety of sports is very often raised in this context. The answer isn’t as obvious as I thought at first, This is a very thoughtful article on that topic: MMA pioneer Rosi Sexton once opposed Fallon Fox competing. Now she explains why she supports trans athletes. The following quotation from it seems totally sensible to me.
“The International Olympic Committee has had a trans-inclusive policy since 2003. In that time, there have been no publicly out trans Olympic athletes (though that will likely change in 2021).
The idea that trans women would make women’s sport meaningless by easily dominating the competition has not, so far, materialized at any level.
If trans women do have an unfair advantage over cis women, then it’s a hard one to spot.”