Shall we start with an easy question? As a general rule, would it be appropriate for a 15-year-old boy to enter athletic or sporting competitions restricted to children under the age of 12? I fancy that, like most people, you think the answer to this is ‘No’ – just as you accept that it would be wrong to match a heavyweight boxer with a welterweight. A mismatch is all but guaranteed. It is a question of fairness.
So let’s ask another, slightly more challenging, question. As a general rule, is it appropriate for people born male to enter women’s sporting competitions? Some people think so, even when those contests are in sports in which men, by virtue of their greater strength, enjoy a significant advantage. Thus under current regulations Laurel Hubbard, formerly known as Gavin, and in her youth a champion weightlifter in New Zealand before she changed gender around seven years ago, is eligible to compete in women’s competitions. She has since twice won her class in the Oceania weightlifting competition.
And good luck to her, you may feel like saying. Her testosterone levels are low enough to make her eligible to compete and that’s all that need be said on the subject. Except that, unfortunately, it is not. Some of Hubbard’s rivals object to competing against someone who has lived – and trained – as a man for most of their life.
Nor is Laurel Hubbard just a one-off. It may be rare for natal males to be competing in women’s sports, but it is becoming less and less rare. You may, again, feel this is only fair. Transgender athletes must be given the opportunity to compete. But then some of you may also feel that this is unfair. You may feel that, especially in sports that rely on strength and explosiveness, natal males have an unfair advantage over their female-born rivals. And you may feel that the unfairness of not allowing this small number of trans-athletes to compete is outweighed by the greater unfairness endured by women athletes if people such as Laurel Hubbard are permitted to compete in women’s sport.
The point is not so much that one side of this argument is correct and the other wrong. The point is that it illustrates what is to some an unwelcome, perhaps even an uncomfortable, reality. Despite what some people, including politicians who ought to know better, claim sometimes there really is a collision between women’s rights and the rights of transgender people.
Other examples of this are equally apparent. At present, some trans-women prisoners are accommodated in male prisons and others are incarcerated in female gaols. The rights of a prisoner to be housed in the estate of their preference is balanced against the right of other prisoners to be protected from some, albeit a small number, of their fellow inmates. Again, the collision is evident and the answer to the problem is neither easily found nor necessarily universally applicable.
Which brings me, as of course it must, to JK Rowling and the Terf Wars. I should acknowledge that Rowling is a friend, while insisting even if she were not, I would likely write all of this anyway. I rather admire her bravery in refusing to be silenced or bullied into submission on this subject. It would be much easier and certainly more comfortable for her to say nothing or, if asked for her opinion, to repeat the kind of self-serving platitudes favoured by, well, some of the actors whose careers she helped make.
I suspect Rowling does not object to being criticised by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Eddie Redmayne. She has a commitment to liberalism and free speech that is firm enough to withstand that. But the reaction to her recent comments is illustrative both of the fatally toxic nature of this debate and the manner in which it is frequently no kind of debate at all.
For we are asked to believe, and take seriously, the proposition that Rowling is the very worst kind of witch: a transphobic one. How this can be squared with her actual words remains a mystery. Last December, to take but one of many instances, Rowling tweeted: ‘Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?’ I know, the bigotry is overwhelming.
Rowling’s chief sin is her refusal to recant her views. She will not be shamed or bullied into withdrawing her remarks. Nor will she volunteer to spend the rest of her days in a re-education camp. A mere difference of opinion is impermissible these days; those who hold what is deemed the wrong views must be punished or cancelled or otherwise burnt at the metaphorical stake.
That most people actually agree with Rowling is neither here nor there. Or rather, it is precisely because most people actually agree with her that her views must be considered heretical. If they were not, some reality might have to be accepted and that, we are now discovering, would be a still graver problem.
In truth, I suspect we are often talking past one another in this debate. At the very least we are talking about two different groups of people. In the first, we find actual transgender people. Many have led difficult lives. They are much misunderstood and the world very often evinces little interest in understanding them better. They are often – though not always, for we should not assume trans-lives must be tragic – victims of bullying or abuse or other forms of discrimination and prejudice. They are a minority – and a small one at that – whose lives should wherever possible be made easier and gentler.
In my experience the so-called Terfs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists, if you’re only catching up now) have few issues with trans-men and trans-women of this kind. They are not actually hugely concerned by the idea that a tiny number of trans-women might use female bathrooms and changing rooms. After all, they have done so for years without, until recently, very much controversy. If that was all there was to this controversy it would not be much of a storm at all. In the case of trans-women this reflects itself in an acceptance that, sure, trans-women are women even if they are not, and cannot, quite be women or have the full experience of womanhood enjoyed – and sometimes endured – by people born as girls. Not all women are alike, you might say.
But there is another group, some of whom we might call ‘trans allies’ and others who might best be characterised as ‘part-time’ or ‘lifestyle’ trans-people, whose voices often seem to be heard more than those of, if you will, actual trans-people themselves. These men – for if it is not always men it usually seems to be men – frequently display an intolerance so extreme it is reminiscent of a mindset always evident in the early days of a movement seeking to establish a joyously authoritarian regime.
Some of the many, many, messages about and sent to JK Rowling demonstrate as much. Hence: ‘JK Rowling can suck my big transgender cock’. The abuse is mindless but what it reveals is interesting.
Sex is, except in a tiny number of cases, binary while gender is a spectrum. From which it follows that being trans seems to exist on a spectrum too. At one end lie those who have fully transitioned. They seem to me to inhabit a quite separate category from those who enjoy abusing anyone, but especially any woman, who dares disagree with them. Invitations to ‘suck my chick-dick’ do not, on the whole, do much to advance the proposition that ‘trans-women are women’.
But then a bloke with balls and a beard makes an unconvincing woman, no matter how you look at him. One may, as a matter of consideration, take him at his word and honour his own self-identification without, as a matter of reality, buying into it without reservation. For without that reservation we must believe that men who have no intention of actually transitioning are just as much a woman as all the natal women you have ever met in your life.
Even so, it is obvious there is a generational divide here. The young – which for these purposes I define as those under 30 – often take a markedly different view to their elders. There are, I think, some plausible reasons for that. As a political matter, the salience of class has declined and been replaced, in spades, by identity. Self-expression is the road to self-validation and you are who or what you say you are. There is much that is valuable about this, not least in the way it enables today’s youth to embrace a more diverse range of experience than was the case for their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. At its best, this leads to a kinder, more tolerant, accepting world.
Sometimes, however, it also leads to darker places. Even if the numbers are small, we should I think be concerned that children who have not yet been to primary school can be referred to gender identity services. We should be concerned by the spectacle of teenagers too young to vote taking life-changing hormonal treatments. We should be concerned by a culture that, in parts, decrees lesbians are bigots if they decline to date people with penises.
And we might, I think, be concerned by a culture which says the barrier to being a woman – or a man – is no greater than a reluctance to say ‘I am a woman’. For if anyone can be a woman and can become so merely by stating it, is there then anything particular or unique about being a woman? And if there is nothing particular or unique about womanhood, is there any need to protect woman as a distinct class of people or insist that, in some places and at some times, there is a need for women-only spaces?
At which point you begin to realise that, for some, this is not actually about cancelling JK Rowling so much as it is about cancelling womanhood itself. For it seems worth noting that women are expected to accept a vastly expanded definition of womanhood much more than men are required to endorse a comparably broadened measure of masculinity.
Trans rights are trans rights just as women’s rights are women’s rights. Sometimes – often we must hope – these will fit neatly together. But on occasion they may be in conflict with one another and it is not transphobic to say so any more than it is controversial to say that any other competing set of interests may from time to time collide.
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