Three thoughts on the debate between gender critical feminists and the advocates of strong transgender rights

by Miriam Ronzoni on September 23, 2019

*I have done some edits on September 24th, thanks to some input by Tim Waligor and Brian carey, whom I thank.

There is no need to point out to the readers of this blog that the debate between gender critical feminists (henceforth GCFs) and the supporters of strong transgender rights* is both as lively and, unfortunately, as toxic as ever.

I have long been sitting on the fence with respect to this issue, for very obvious reasons of self-preservation – apart from organizing a small workshop on the topic last May, whose primary aim was to bring people together hoping that a genuine debate might ensue, rather than taking a stand.

I still have no plan to leave the fence properly (let alone for the fact that I am no expert to say the least!), but let’s say that this post is a timid attempt to take a peek at what happens beyond it, largely by very tentatively making three points which, to my knowledge, do not feature in the debate as it is currently unfolding (although they are actually all fairly long-standing insights both within the feminist literature, and within transgender literature and avocacy). And by the way: I am very happy to be corrected if this is not the case and these points are actually being amde in the current debate! So – bracing myself – here we go.

  1. GENDER DOGMATISM CUTS BOTH WAYS

All feminists are gender critical to some extent. With the exemption of some essentialising brands of feminism (but do these really exist anyway?), all feminists are invested in the project of showing how this or that aspect of everyday accounts (and therefore: patriarchal accounts) of gender identity are socially constructed, rather than natural – and that we should therefore abandon them, especially if they turn out to be oppressive and unjustifiably hierarchical. However, the leap from a careful analysis of this or that gender categorisation to the claim that gender identities tout court are always and entirely socially constructed is unjustified – we simply do not know enough, and a good dose of agnosticism is appropriate in these cases. This should cast some doubt over some claims made by some GCFs – for instance, that transgender people do not need to identify as non-binary or as individuals of the opposite gender as the one which was assigned to them at birth, because gender critical feminism has a better alternative: let’s just destroy gender, “destroy culture” (Sheila Jeffreys) and allow people to behave, dress, speak, act as they want without assigning a “gender” to them. Let us just talk about men and women in a purely sex-based meaning of those words, but let’s allow those men and women do whatever the hell they want with their behaviour and appearance. The claim that gender simpliciter is a thing which can be destroyed is, of course, a claim which only the most radical brand of gender critical feminism endorses, but such a radical version is far from marginal: this is a position which is routinely endorsed to cast doubt over the very idea of transitioning. If, however, claiming that all facets gender are socially constructed, harmful, oppressive and (most importantly) eliminable is just as dogmatic as the conservative gender essentialism to which feminisms is a (bloody well justified) reaction, then the claim “let’s just destroy and abolish gender” cannot be a good answer to transgender people and their demands. We simply do not know whether all such demands really are only a byproduct of an essentialising, patriarchal social construction, which can instead just be taken apart. More epistemic modesty is required.


  1. THE IMPORTANCE OF STANDPOINTS

Where does this leave us? If the position that we should adopt about gender in general (not about this or that specific claim about gender – for many of them, we do have convincing evidence that they are socially constructed, oppressive and eliminable) is one of agnosticism, this seems to foreclose one option, without however opening an alternative route. If we should be agnostic towards the most radical claims of GCFs, we should equally be agnostic about statements such as “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” – for the latter is grounded in the opposite and equally unwarranted premise that gender identity, as such, is something objective and immutable to which each of us has access. Right?

I aWell, not quite. First of all, whilst the idea that gender can be destroyed is an actually philosophical claim, which some GCFs endorse and defend literally, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” is a political slogan, which is meant to serve a difference purpose (of advocacy and emancipation). So yes, at a purely philosophical (indeed metaphisical) level, neither camp can have it its own way: we may not assume that gender is 100% socially constructed and an eliminable evil; but we cannot assume that people are born with a fixed gender identity, which may or may not coincide with the gender they are assigned at birth but still objectively exists, either. There are, however, other things we can do – and indeed, things which, as feminists and other emancipatory movements have taught us, are particularly appropriate when we do not have established standards and benchmarks to rely on. One of them is to take our cues from those who have a privileged standpoint due to their socially oppressed but epistemically privileged position. We can defer our judgment to them – at least partly and provisionally.


  1. PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS?

This, however, might get us to a further impasse. Of course, if standpoints matter, surely the standpoints of transgender people matter a great deal here, and GCFs cannot simply tell them that they are “mistaken” about their gender identity or about the existence of gender identity to begin with. However, and this is precisely the sticking point, biological women/ciswomen (is there a term that we can agree on here?) are an oppressed group too, and they might thus have their own epistemically privileged standpoint – about, for instance, the reasons why some (cis)female victims of male violence might sometimes want to be in safe spaces with people of their same sex only. In other words, both sides have some epistemic privilege, and therefore both sides should be epistemically modest towards one another – indeed, maybe only transmen and non-binary transgender people assigned female at birth might possess both standpoints, and it is indeed a big problem that both are not as listened to as they should, and are particularly absent in GCF arguments.

Does this mean that we are stuck? Well it might, at least in some cases. But it also means something else: it means re-orienting the debate from one which is grounded upon a premise of “you just don’t get it” to one based on the recognition that the other side might be able to see something which we cannot. This is completely missing at the moment. I do not know what concrete solutions this re-orientation might be able to produce – we might still get stuck on multiple occasions – but it is definitely, definitely worth trying.

Let me finish with one last, tentative but also more practical remark. Recognising that this is a conversation between two oppressed and therefore epistemically privileged groups – albeit differently so due to their different intersectional locations – might move us away from a logic of “winner takes it all” to one of mutual accommodation. We might, for instance, recognise both that transwomen have a strong claim to access gender segregated spaces and that some sex segregated spaces should remain for those who want them (because both transwomen and biological/ciswomen have a privileged standpoint due to the specific harms they have suffered, which the other party cannot simply dismiss). We can, for instance, decide that every x miles, where x is a sufficiently small number, there should be a women’s shelter only open to biological/ciswomen – rather than deciding that all women’s shelters should either be gender- or sex-segregated, period, with no third alternative. Or we can decide that saunas, spas and gyms which have gender-segregated days should also have sex-segregated events with sufficient frequency.

Now, whether this is the right solution is not something I am able to judge – it would, among other things, depend on the kind of incentives that these kinds of rules would tend to encourage. What is more, it is not clear that not all issues on the table within this debate can be solved by means of this accommodation-based logic. My suggestions is simply, quite modestly, that this is the kind of thinking we need if we recognize – as I think we should – that this is a debate between two groups both of which have a justified ground to claim some epistemic privilege for itself, but neither of which can claim to hold the incontrovertible truth on all matters of gender identity.

*It is not easy to find a functional equivalent of GCFs as a label to define the opposite side of the debate, both because there isn’t only one (this is not a debate between two voices only) and because many (if not all) GCFs would not self-describe as opposing transgender rights simpliciter, but only some of them – or better still, as having a better, more informed and more qualified of which rights transgender people should enjoy. The phrase “supporters of strong transgender rights” is far from perfect, but aims at capturing those who e a) advocate a rich set of rights for transgender people (including the right to change their legal gender, access to gender-segregated spaces and to affirmative action programs, etc.); b) hold that such rights can largely or entirely be assigned on the basis of self-identification on matters of gender.

{ 89 comments }

1

Sophia Androgyna 09.23.19 at 4:16 pm

In other words, both sides have some epistemic privilege, and therefore both sides should be epistemically modest towards one another.

This strikes me as rather unsatisfactory. Transgender people, both transwomen and transman have some epistemic privilege with respect to what it is like to be a transwoman or a transman and to suffer the oppressions and anxieties typical of those identities. Similarly women have epistemic privilege with respect to the oppression of women (thought saying “natal women” is already question-begging). “Gender-critical feminists”, however, have no particular epistemic privilege as a group. They claim to speak for women, rather in the manner that a Leninist sect might claim to speak for the working class, but they have no more authority to do so than the Leninists have. And women, even “natal woman”, do not speak with one voice on the subject of whether having Jan Morris or Caitlin Jenner enter the women’s bathroom threatens their essential interests, rather the contrary.

2

Tom Slee 09.23.19 at 5:39 pm

Thank you for this thoughtful contribution to an important debate.

Would your suggestion that we “recognise both that transwomen have a strong claim to access gender-segregated spaces and that some sex-segregated spaces should remain” be acceptable to “supporters of strong transgender rights”? I doubt it.

Personally I strongly believe that there is an important place for sex-segregated places for women, and so consider myself a male supporter (albeit a timid one) of gender-critical feminists.

The claims that (self-ID) “trans women are women” (full stop) and that there is no such thing as a sex binary seem central to the “strong transgender rights” outlook, and they leave little space for “trans exclusionary” spaces of any kind. Despite your even-handed presentation, I think it is the most vocal supporters of strong transgender rights who have left no room for compromise. Sadly, I think their position will damage the rights of transgender individuals in the long run.

3

oldster 09.23.19 at 5:45 pm

Isn’t the opposite side of the debate best described as “avowalism”?

This is the view that an avowal that one belongs to gender X is not only sufficient evidence that one belongs to gender X, but is also incapable of being defeated by any possible contrary evidence. I am a member of gender X because I avow that I am a member of gender X, and nothing about my history, anatomy, behavior, etc. can outweigh that avowal or call its truth into question.

This was the legal standard introduced in the UK, and it was this position — avowalism — that caused some GCFs to speak out against the change of legislation.

4

oldster 09.23.19 at 6:53 pm

The title of this post strikes me as unfortunate, in as much as it presupposes that the GCFs are on one side, and “advocates of strong transgender rights” are on a distinct and non-overlapping other side.

But some GCFs are also “advocates of strong transgender rights,” and all of them (that I’m aware of) are advocates of very sweeping and extensive transgender rights. All of them advocate for transgender rights that are far stronger than the rights that transgender people would be afforded in rightwing or religiously conservative countries, for instance.

All GCFs (to my knowledge) advocate for the right of transgender individuals to live without discrimination in the workplace and home; to be protected from violence and from persecution on the basis of their transgender.

There remains the question, “but are they women?” in the case of trans women, or “but are they men?” in the case of transmen, and here I take it is the real debate. The GCF view is that this question is not settled by the individual’s avowal; the avowalists say that it is.

The issue of transgender rights, thankfully, is one on which both sides agree for the most part.

Or at least this is how it seems to a distant observer, who follows these things rather indirectly.

5

Kenny Easwaran 09.23.19 at 8:10 pm

re: Oldster at #3

“This is the view that an avowal that one belongs to gender X is not only sufficient evidence that one belongs to gender X, but is also incapable of being defeated by any possible contrary evidence. I am a member of gender X because I avow that I am a member of gender X, and nothing about my history, anatomy, behavior, etc. can outweigh that avowal or call its truth into question.”

I’m not sure how many people actually endorse this view. This seems to be the caricature that some people have in mind, and people might say things that sound like it. But I think everyone accepts that it is possible for someone to lie about their gender, which this view seems to say is impossible.

It’s a bit confusing because one might want to require the law to treat people according to their avowals even if one believes that avowals *can* be incorrect, because it is often better for the law to use some defeasible evidence to set its behavior, because the sort of effort needed to validate or defeat such evidence would be extremely intrusive, and extremely unlikely to be necessary.

6

Chris Bertram 09.23.19 at 8:16 pm

I’m sure debate on this topic would be greatly improved by accuracy, and I’m afraid oldster’s interventions here fail in that respect. “Avowalism” has not been introduced in the UK. Rather, a proposal was made that the UK, which already has a Gender Recognition Act, should bring its legislation into line with other countries such as Ireland and Denmark. Currently, the UK requires people wishing to change the legal recognition of their gender to secure supporting medical testimony, proposed changes would remove that requirement and make it possible for them to change their legal gender by making a declaration of intent to live permanently with the gender of their choice. GCFs, as I understand it, deny that a person who changes their legal gender under the *existing* legislation thereby changes the characteristic that they think salient: “biological sex”. The legislative change has no impact on any question about the metaphysics of sex and gender but rather makes it easier, less bureaucratic, less humiliating, for trans people to change their legal gender. GCFs have made various claims about the dire consequences of this legal change, but those dire consequences are, as far as I can tell, absent in the jurisdictions that have already made it.

7

Stephen 09.23.19 at 8:36 pm

Coming to this from a position of peripheral concern. Would I be right in thinking that there are two respectable progressive points of view:

1) The brains and minds of men and women are in every significant respect the same.

2) Some people, through circumstances beyond their control, find themselves with a woman’s mind in a man’s body, or vice versa.

If I am right, believing both at once might be problematic.

8

Miriam Ronzoni 09.23.19 at 8:41 pm

Oldster: I have a footnote on what I mean by “strong transgender rights” and why it is an imperfect label but alas I needed one.

9

Miriam Ronzoni 09.23.19 at 8:46 pm

Sophia: I agree with you! I didn’t mean to imply that GCFs have an epistemically privileged standpoint (nor do I think that they think that, FWIW). I thought it was clear at that juncture in the post that I was talking about biologicaly women in general rather than GCFs in particular, but my bad if not.

Yup, “natal women” is yet another highly imperfect label, but I wanted to avoid the term “ciswomen”, not because I disapprove of it (on the contrary, I am more than happy to use it for myself), but because GCFs so strongly reject it on grounds of being GC (“I am a woman but I dont have a ‘gender identity#”). It’s just nearly impossible to use neutral language to talk about this issue, is it?

10

oldster 09.23.19 at 8:48 pm

Miriam @ 7 —

My apologies — I did not see your footnote, which would have addressed some of my concerns about framing.

11

Miriam Ronzoni 09.23.19 at 8:52 pm

Stephen, my point is that (1) is too abitious a claim, and that therefore it is not too helpful to speak in terms of (2), either.

12

christian h. 09.23.19 at 8:56 pm

I think the fact that is “nearly impossible to use neutral language to talk about this issue” tells us that we can’t be neutral about it. Because we should never be neutral in the face of oppression, even if it dresses up as academic debate. (I mean we as a collective, not a collection of individuals. Individuals can have good reason to want to avoid taking a side in a debate, at least publicly.)

13

JT 09.23.19 at 8:59 pm

If GCF folks are ‘strong supporters of trans rights’ simply because they think trans folk have rights against violence and persecution, then so are sincere libertarians insofar as they too would (or should, if they are consistent) object to violence and persecution against trans persons for being trans. That is not what’s at issue. The primary point of contention is that GCF folks deny that trans women’s claims to be women. Secondary political debates surround policies to do with this, such as access to women’s spaces, formal legal recognition of gender changes for those who have transitioned, and public funding for sex reassignment surgeries. To my mind, GCFs are the dinosaurs here, not unlike those early suffragettes who campaigned for giving (white) women the vote by vilifying black men, and dinosaurs will die.

14

christian h. 09.23.19 at 9:05 pm

I’d also want to argue that even if gender is completely socially constructed that doesn’t make it less real than so-called “biological sex”. Certainly not in the sense that gender is an individual choice.

15

Luke Roelofs 09.23.19 at 9:08 pm

Hi Miriam, I appreciate your attempt trying to be even-handed here, but let me try to say why I think it’s a misplaced sort of even-handedness.

I think your first point (‘gender dogmatism cuts both ways’) is a reasonable intervention into a debate which isn’t, it seems to me, the actual debate going on. You frame it as about “whether [the demands embodied in transitioning] really are only a byproduct of an essentialising, patriarchal social construction, which can instead just be taken apart”, and suggest that “We simply do not know… More epistemic modesty is required.”

I don’t think this is a good way of capturing what the debate is about. I think that for a few reasons. Firstly, because so many people on the other side could and do happily accept radical and thorough-going social constructionism. If trans people’s genders are ‘only a byproduct of an essentialising, patriarchal social construction’, then so are cis people’s genders, and both are equally valid (“trans women are women, to the extent that anyone is” – slightly less catchy slogan, admittedly). That’s a trans-inclusive position – and if we want to ‘destroy’ gender, there’s a good case to be made for ‘gender anarchy’, i.e. letting individuals choose how they are gendered, being a great way to advance that goal.

Secondly, because this call to ‘just destroy gender’ never seems to amount to any practical alternative in practice. What is involved in ‘just’ destroying gender? How does giving talks about how trans people are a threat to feminism, or scaremongering about trans kids, or campaigning for certain social institutions to be segregated by birth sex, contribute to ‘destroying gender’? On the contrary, most GCF activism seems more like to functions to reinforce the social significance of sex. It certainly doesn’t offer a practical alternative for trans people – telling them ‘don’t dress that way, don’t use that name, don’t go by those pronouns, don’t think of yourself in those terms, instead ‘just’ destroy gender’ doesn’t actually amount to anything different from ‘ignore your dysphoria and keep living in your assigned gender’. Which, you know, they have tried.

To me ‘gender is a social construction, just destroy gender’ looks like a smokescreen position, analogous to someone campaigning against gay marriage and loudly proclaiming ‘the state should not be legally regulating romantic relationships, get the state out of our bedrooms!’ That’s a fine position to hold, but if the people saying it are specifically campaigning against gay marriage, doing nothing to undermine or challenge straight marriage, and justifying this with bizarre claims that ‘proponents of gay marriage want the government to come into your home and dictate what kind of marriage you can have’, the reasonable conclusion is that they are not, in fact, campaigning against state regulation of relationships, but against gay people.

Maybe I’m wrong about this big-picture framing. But I think it’s really important to at least recognise this possibility, because the way you’re framing the debate in point 1 looks to me like it accepts the framing that GCFs want, and which their pro-trans opponents think gets the real structure of the debate completely wrong.

Also:
You worry about calling the anti-GCF side ‘pro-trans’ because “many (if not all) GCFs would not self-describe as opposing transgender rights simpliciter”. But their opponents wouldn’t self-describe as ‘gender uncritical’ either! ‘Gender critical’ is the term that side prefers for itself, despite it embodying a controversial (in my view highly misleading) picture of the debate. Why accept it, but then back off from calling the other side ‘supporters of transgender rights’, or more straightforwardly ‘pro-trans’ or ‘trans-inclusive’?

Also, as Sophia says, moving from ’cis women have privileged access to what it’s like to live as cis women’ to ‘both sides have some epistemic privilege’ strongly implies ‘ ‘GCFs have privileged access to what it’s like to live as a cis woman’. I get that you mean cis women in general, but they’re abundant on both sides. It feels like your framing here at least plays into the persistent GCF claim that they speak on behalf of cis women generally.

16

Alex Sharpe 09.23.19 at 9:35 pm

‪I agree with the author we should not insist GI is necessarily socially constructed. We are still learning about causality. I also agree we should be careful about arguments that seek to abolish gender, as though this were possible (the hubris).

I also agree with the author that we need to take seriously first person accounts. For me, being a woman is an existential matter, a profound personal experience dating to childhood. People can argue about definitions, but we must recognise trans people have always existed and we exist today in the UK in our hundreds of thousands. And while non-binary ID is on the increase, most trans people identify as men or women. The question, in practical terms, becomes what to do. In the absence of significant evidence of harm caused by trans women as a class, the answer is obvious. We should recognise those who identify as women as an ethical act.

The author concedes far too much to GCF, whose reason for being is opposition to trans. If they are feminist, they are largely a single issue feminism. It is naive to think GCFs seeks common ground. They will always insist on defining trans women out of the category woman. Remember also they speak for only a small minority of feminists.

The author’s suggestion that a separate set of women-only spaces be set up that would only be for ‘natal women’ is misguided. It is more apposite to think of this suggestion through the lens of secession. That is, we should have women only spaces that obvs accommodate trans women and separate GCF spaces for the tiny anti-trans minority.

The article also suffers from setting up a false antagonism, one between trans and non-trans women. This is par for the course in the media and more recently the discipline of philosophy. Yet, the real conflict is between the vast majority of (intersectional) feminists (trans and non-trans) and a tiny but vocal and media backed number of GCFs.

17

Neutral 09.23.19 at 10:03 pm

There was an interesting article from a GCF in the much-derided Quillette recently. The basic point was that the number of people claiming a non-binary, non-traditional gender/sex match has grown substantially, and hence has introduced problems that go way beyond “people’s self-stated gender identity must be respected”.

To take a simple example: We now have many examples of folks who grew up male winning high school, university, and international women’s sporting events. The numbers are now large enough that it is posing a serious problem to the idea of “women’s sports”. How ought we respond? The answer that “we take people at their word on their gender” seems unsatisfying and frankly unfair for women, even if no one is directly fraudulent, and even if all athletes really do feel in their hearts of hearts that their “real” gender is what they claim.

A second issue is that gender identity as an immutable characteristic versus gender identity as a political project are difficult to separate. There are a number of prominent non-binary public figures who are explicit that their non-binary position is in part a political project designed to break down the gender binary. The traditional feminist position is that women are valuable and should suffer barriers that men do not have, not that there are no non-socially constructed aspects of being a woman! We regularly make a distinction between immutable characteristics – one’s race, for instance – where unequal treatment is objectionable, and preferences – one’s political party of choice, for example – where no particular deference is needed. And to the extent that some aspects of non-traditional gender have an explicit political goal in opposition to the political goal of many feminists, it should be clear why this controversy has arisen.

18

Tom Slee 09.23.19 at 11:01 pm

christian h @14: You seem to be saying that GCFs, as they seem to be called in this thread, don’t believe in socially constructed gender? If GCFs have a problem with gender, it’s the change in meaning from something socially constructed as in “gender roles” to something innate as in “gender identity”. Of course we would also think that ‘so-called “biological sex”‘ as you call it has reality.

Luke Roelofs @15: Can you point to calls to “destroy gender”? I have not seen any. I’ve seen, and share, concerns that many gender roles are oppressive of course, and that breaking down gender roles is a Good Thing, but that’s quite different.

Sophia Androgyna @1: There are diverse views among transgender people as well. For myself, this speech by Kristina Jayne Harrison, a trans woman, was particularly important and moving: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sowoe71lB6A.

The OP writes that “some female victims of male violence might sometimes want to be in safe spaces with people of their same sex only”, and surely those first-person experiences need to be respected whether or not they represent any broader group.

19

MisterMr 09.24.19 at 6:23 am

A “social construction” is not the same thing as “a lie”.

For example, all languages are social constructions that follow arbitrary grammar rules, but we still need a language to communicate.

All culture is a social construction, and therefore all identities are, by definition, a social construction. But we cannot live in a society without an identity of some kind.

So even if GCFs want to smash genders, they still have to explain what different forms of identity they do propose.

This is a different question than whether genders are based or not on biological genders. For example since I was a kid I always liked martial arts, that jibe well with male gender stereotypes.
But gender identity refer to the fact that other people expect me to be somewhat aggressive or not, not whether I’m biologically more or less prone to aggressivity (that would be the sex based behavior).

So genders are still 100% social constructions, regardless of sex, but this doesn’t mean that we can cancel genders without substituting them with some equivalent construction because people with no social construction are only half people.

IMHO.

20

notGoodenough 09.24.19 at 7:56 am

As this is a sensitive topic, and one which I lack the experience or expertise to comment on, I will refrain from offering an opinion. I would merely wish to draw people´s attention to the following points:

1) Regarding the transwomen in sport question: I believe H J Hornbeck has some fairly detailed statistical analyses on their blog over at Freethoughts (Reprobate Spreadsheet). Of course, such things should not be accepted axiomatically, but I believe they do a good job of laying out their methodology, and they don´t appear to find statistically significant differences. I don´t point to this in order to offer evidence either way (I lack the skills to make good judgement), but merely to point to a potential resource which may be of interest to fellow travelers.

2) One potential issue with the framing “some female victims of male violence might sometimes want to be in safe spaces with people of their same sex only” followed by asserting that transwomen should therefore be excluded, is that that would seem to imply that transwomen are not female. That would seem, at least to me, to be something requiring a little more examination as it would then raise the question of what female is, which seems to frequently lead to some idiosyncratic definitions.

With that I will bow out, as I don´t believe I can offer too much productive discussion here.

21

Matt 09.24.19 at 8:19 am

I’ll admit that I’m not sure how useful putting these issues in terms of standpoint epistemology is, though I will admit that this doubt is in part because I’m skeptical about most claims (and certainly most strong claims) about standpoint epistemology, and also skeptical that people have special access to their own “true” self in any way. But, I think that some important issues can be put here without any appeals to standpoint epistemology.

What seems most important to me, and to be clearly the case, is that much (not all, but much) of the discrimination and disadvantage that women face is sex-based, and not gender based. This is discrimination and disadvantage based on the ability to get pregnant and give birth (and nurse children), because they menstruate, because of their particular vulnerability to rape, and so on. Because this discrimination and disadvantage is based on sex-based characteristics, it won’t be well addressed if we don’t talk about sex but talk about “gender”. It’s also discrimination and disadvantage that transwomen do not face. (It may sometimes be attributed to them, but, I think, fairly rarely.) The need to provide protections that are sex based, and therefore to make a distinction between females and transwomen, seems to me to be one of the important and clearly right issues put forward by gender-critical feminists. This seems to me to be completely independent of any standpoint issues. (It’s true that these sex based feature are mediated by gender in all societies. But, that doesn’t change the fact that these are sex based traits at the bottom.)

22

SusanC 09.24.19 at 9:00 am

I think this piece doesn’t correct.y represent tbe position of tbe feminists who call themselves “gender critical”.

It’s hard to be definitive about this, as there could be at least as many political positions as there are feminists.

A couple of observations: many of the feminists labelling themselves “gender critical” appear to have serious doubts about their own gender, to the extent that quite a few say they once wondered if they might themselves be trans. I am reminded of the situation with gay rights, where the people making the biggest noise against gay rights often turn out to be closet homosexuals.

23

Aubergine 09.24.19 at 11:24 am

Miriam: the way you describe the GC position in your post would, I think, be clearer if you replaced references to “gender” with something like “socially enforced sex roles”, which is closer to what most GCFs understand the term to mean (that is, it is what they are “critical” of). For example:

If, however, claiming that all facets of socially enforced sex roles are social constructed, harmful, oppressive and (most importantly) eliminable is just as dogmatic as the conservative sex role essentialism to which feminisms is a (bloody well justified) reaction, then the claim “let’s just destroy and abolish the social enforcement of sex roles” cannot be a good answer to transgender people and their demands.

Put it like that and it’s not such a bad answer, is it?

The rejoinder would be, I suppose, that this is a misunderstanding of gender – that gender identity is a component of one’s knowledge of onesself, and some degree of conformity to sex roles is an essential part of expressing this knowledge and/or convincing other people to accept it.

To which the GCF answers: it doesn’t matter. If female-bodied people need female-only spaces to be safe from male-bodied people (toilets, change rooms, contact sports, prisons, refugee camps, whatever), or lesbians who have no interest in male bodies want to be able to gather in same-sex communities without being called bigots, or natal women believe that they share class interests with other natal women because of the way society categorises them for their biology and their perceived reproductive role, and want to advocate for those interests in a way that doesn’t include males – then all of these needs will still exist regardless of whether some natal males identify as women.

GCFs also tend to be fairly sceptical of the assumption that predatory non-trans males will not take advantage of accommodations for people who claim to be trans women, and they may be unconvinced that trans women are actually much less dangerous in very vulnerable female-only spaces than natal males in general would be.

On the other hand, if a person of either sex wants to be a gender-non-conforming member of that sex – that’s fine!

For what it’s worth, I didn’t always agree with this way of thinking. I used to be all, like, “go trans people! smash the gender binary!” and so forth, back when gender activism seemed like a natural extension of the progress that had been made in the acceptance of LGB people. I only started to turn when I began to see the rise of a new gender essentialism as a deeply regressive reframing of old conservative sex-essentialist tropes, and after I watched people being excommunicated from progressive spaces for expressing the tiniest doubt – and when they were women, as they often were, in a viciously, violently misogynistic way that seemed to confirm what the radfems had been saying for years. I’m definitely not the only one to have gone down this path.

24

AnotherProf 09.24.19 at 11:46 am

Thank you for allowing comments.

Someone above suggests that we can’t cancel genders without substituting something else. But why? Why do we need genders at all?

I think of gender as the social rules which say ‘girls wear pink and play with dolls; women wear heals and make up and are emotional’, while ‘boys wear blue and play with trucks; men go out to work and don’t cry’. That is the extreme stereotype, but a lot of talk about gender does seem to be about measuring how much people conform to these stereotypes, or which stereotype they identify with.

I am a women (natal female) who has never conformed to the stereotype of girls. I don’t want to be put in a ‘pink box’ or a ‘blue box’ or asked to identify as a particular gender. There may be contexts (medical care, sport, sharing rooms) where the physical body and the sex of the physical body matters, but many contexts, these things are not relevant. And if we take the proposition that male brains and female brains are essentially the same, then what useful function can gender possibly serve?

25

Faustusnotes 09.24.19 at 12:00 pm

The issue of sex-segregated spaces needs to be revisited by GCFs. It is easy to show that their main consequence will be the harassment of natal women, and we now have strong evidence that this is happening, and primarily affecting non gender-conforming women, often from racial or sexual minorities.

26

Marc 09.24.19 at 2:10 pm

On the subject of athletic competitions, this article has some useful objective data:

https://law.duke.edu/sports/sex-sport/comparative-athletic-performance/

Basically, there are enormous differences between men and women in elite sporting contests, and there are thousands of men in any given year who would beat the women’s world record in a variety of events. If the standard for competing in women’s events is self-identification, the outcome is predictable: transwomen who went through male puberty and who are not undergoing hormone therapy will have a large competitive advantage over biological females. We’re seeing this right now in high school level competitions in the US (there is an ongoing Title IX lawsuit in Connecticut on this point.)

27

MisterMr 09.24.19 at 2:28 pm

@AnotherProf 24

“Someone above suggests that we can’t cancel genders without substituting something else. But why? Why do we need genders at all?”

Sorry, you are right. I explained myself very poorly.

My point is just that I think some GCFs are making a categorical error:

– on the one hand they correctly say that traditional gender roles are a social construction;

– on the other hand they imply that different forms of gender relation would be natural, as opposed to the traditional ones that are only a social construction.

But obviously all forms of identity are a social construction by definition, and “social construction” isn’t a bad word but just means “everything that is cultural”.

I suppose we could do away with genders, they would just be substituted by other forms of identity, not necessarily linked to biological sex.

When we speak of transgender people, for example, regardless of their sexual preferences the kind of gender identity that they want are totally a social construction, which doesn’t mean that their wish is somehow wrong or less important, because most things we want in our life are a social construction: e.g. marriage or voting rights are social constructions etc..

It’s just that the dichotomy between “social construction” and “natural identity” is a false one, because “natural identity” don’t exist as identities are by definition cultural.

28

WLGR 09.24.19 at 3:38 pm

I used to be all, like, “go trans people! smash the gender binary!” and so forth, back when gender activism seemed like a natural extension of the progress that had been made in the acceptance of LGB people. I only started to turn when I began to see the rise of a new gender essentialism as a deeply regressive reframing of old conservative sex-essentialist tropes

It’s not as if the mainstream turn of LGB activism since the ’90s hasn’t also been thoroughly implicated in a deeply regressive reframing of old conservative tropes, especially insofar as the demand for “marriage equality” can be reduced to an unimpeachably conservative bourgeois family values presentation like, to pick a not at all topical example, the Pete and Chasten Buttigieg household.

I’d even go so far as to say that unpacking the problems with that type of conservative gay-acceptance ethos might itself be a useful way of interpreting the problematic elements of the current mainstream “woke” approach to trans acceptance. Certainly some versions of the “woman in a man’s body” position can be uncomfortably similar to the “gay gene” argument that was widespread in the ’90s and 2000s, with its biological-essentialist implication that whether or not one is innately “born gay” would somehow determine whether the basic demands of gay movement are essential human rights, or frivolous affectations that can be safely disregarded. (One might also wonder whether it’s a coincidence that this was an era of mainstream US liberalism’s infatuation with the “innate genetic differences” school of race science bullshit, as elucidated in Henry Farrell’s perpetually relevant Vox piece on the centrist embrace of now-fringe “intellectual dark web” racist bullshit artists like Charles Murray.)

In so many words, much like the “marriage equality” turn can help reinforce the underlying conservative principle that the social and economic rights we associate with marriage should be conditional in some way on the social model of the monogamous bourgeois nuclear family, or the “born this way” turn can help reinforce the underlying conservative principle that human social inequality comes primarily from innate human genetic inequality, the “woman in a man’s body” turn can also help reinforce the underlying conservative principle that the roles and expectations we associate with masculinity/femininity (including domestic and caring labor etc.) should be conditional in some way on being a man/woman.

29

Kenny Easwaran 09.24.19 at 3:50 pm

> lesbians who have no interest in male bodies want to be able to gather in same-sex communities without being called bigots

A call to stop people from calling someone a bigot sounds like a *very* strong demand. If I have no interest in something, and someone wants to call me a bigot for having no interest in it, I don’t see that I have any standing to stop them. Some people have wanted to say that an orientation includes desires about the shape of the body of the people one is attracted to. Everyone certainly has preferences about the shape of the body. I don’t know what more is gained by calling some of these “orientations”. There really does seem to be a phenomenon somewhat related to sex or gender for which many people are robustly “oriented” and don’t just have a “preference”. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t have the borders of that interest occasionally called into question (even though it’s obviously not polite to call an individual out on it, even when their preference is on something obviously bigoted, like body fat or race or wealth).

30

Medium Dave 09.24.19 at 6:03 pm

In response to Stephen at #7: In particular, your first point…

“The cognitive abilities of men and women are equal in every significant respect” is a better summary of what progressives believe, and it is better supported by the available evidence.

31

engels 09.24.19 at 8:55 pm

I remember pointing out to sundry internet folk that these two agendas seemed to lead in contradictory directions several years ago, before this all became so obsessive and acrimonious, and the response was basically ‘it’s not a problem, stfu, you’re a man’. Let no-one say I didn’t try to help!

32

oldster 09.24.19 at 9:02 pm

Kenny E @ 29

Presumably the request from lesbians who do not want to have sex with penis-bearers is not, “I demand that no one should call me a bigot,” but rather, “I’d like there to be a general agreement that my declining to sleep with penis-bearers is not, in fact, an act of bigotry, and should not open me up to vilification on social media, being called a c**t, a transphobe, threats of rape, wishes for my death, and so on.”

I mean: on the small point, you are right: if someone wants to call me (or you or anyone) a bigot (or any other name, true or false) then we have no standing to stop them. You can call me a tunafish, if you like, and I have no standing to stop you.

But there is a general agreement that I am not, in fact, a tunafish, no matter what you call me, and that I should not be submerged in saltwater or sliced up for filets. That’s part of why I don’t care what you call me.

So set aside general rights to speech, and focus on the truth: do you think it is in fact *true* that a lesbian’s declining to have sex with penis-bearers is an act of bigotry or transphobia? I think it is false. And I think allegations of bigotry or transphobia on these grounds (although not susceptible of banning or policing, as you note) are both false and misogynistic.

33

Medium Dave 09.24.19 at 9:35 pm

I did have to make a formatting mistake in my first comment here! What I meant to say was that “The cognitive abilities of men and women are equal in every significant respect” is a better summary of what progressives believe, and it is better supported by the available evidence, than “The brains and minds of men and women are in every significant respect the same.”

34

Kiwanda 09.25.19 at 12:04 am

Sophia Androgyna:

“Gender-critical feminists”, however, have no particular epistemic privilege as a group. They claim to speak for women,…

A similar observation could be made regarding trans-rights activists, unless it is the case that most or all transgender people agree with them; is there evidence of such unity?

Chris Bertram:

Rather, a proposal was made that the UK, which already has a Gender Recognition Act, should bring its legislation into line with other countries such as Ireland and Denmark.

The modifications to the GRA in the UK seem more far-reaching than in Ireland, where apparently self-ID as transgender still needs to pass some administrative hurdles, and where a different treatment for the Irish-legal categories of “man, woman, transgender” are allowed, for a great variety of situations.

JT:

The primary point of contention is that GCF folks deny that trans women’s claims to be women.

I think the GCF position might be better stated as “Transwomen are not biologically female”

SusanC:

many of the feminists labelling themselves “gender critical” appear to have serious doubts about their own gender, to the extent that quite a few say they once wondered if they might themselves be trans.

At least for one woman, it’s more like: “I don’t experience my gender as an internal essence, a deep and unalterable facet of my identity.” That is, “….just like all other persons, a lot of the stuff I like to do and to wear is not stuff that is stereotypically feminine. A lot of the things I like and enjoy are things that are usually regarded as masculine. Just like everybody else, I’m not a one-dimensional gender stereotype…”

notGoodenough

Regarding athletics, where it seems compromise would be difficult, there is some evidence of substantial differences between male and female. For example, one website catalogs how thoroughly the best U.S. male high school athletes would beat the best female athletes in the world, in track & field, and in swimming. In several cases, the best female times would be too slow to qualify to compete in the male events.

35

faustusnotes 09.25.19 at 12:22 am

Aubergine raises the issue of

lesbians who have no interest in male bodies want to be able to gather in same-sex communities without being called bigots

It’s worth noting that one of the big proponents of this scare-theory is Julie Bindel, who is famous for advocating “Political lesbianism”, a practice in which heterosexual feminist women only take female partners.

It’s also worth observing that every heterosexual male is familiar with the homophobic and misogynist fear of men that they will pull a hot girl and when they get home discover she has a penis. It’s remarkable to me that some GCFs think they can reheat this misogynist and homophobic stereotype and call it feminism. I guess it’s cool as a plot twist in the “crying game” but up until the GCFs started making a name for themselves in phrenologist rags like Quillette this little paranoid fantasy was the exclusive preserve of middle-aged white sexpats in Pattaya. Well done to the GCFs for rebranding it!

As for athletic competitions … I have spent a lot of my life hanging around sportsmen and they aren’t generally the type of people who will completely rebrand their gender so that they can get an easy victory. Winning fair is kind of a thing for sportspeople. It’s also worth remembering that the GCFs took about 5 seconds to start accusing Caster Semenya of being male, even though she is by their own definition female. But she doesn’t look female so they decided to redefine sex to include not just the genitals but the hormones. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that this sudden redefinition of sex was undertaken in response to a poor black woman from a middle income country beating a white woman. Right?

The politics of GCFs is deeply hypocritical and contradictory, and offers a very poor model for handling our understanding of sex or trans issues. You don’t have to be a feminist or even left wing to recognize that their politics – and particularly their political program of excluding trans people from female only spaces – is going to be absolutely devastating for cis women. And remember, when a cis woman sees a non-white or non-gender conforming person in the bathroom and decides to act on GCF “theory”, she will do so by enlisting the power of the state or her violent boyfriend. And as I showed above, the chances are very high that the person her boyfriend beats up is a cis woman.

It’s as if a movement based on excluding people from public services is a bad idea!

36

Aubergine 09.25.19 at 2:01 am

We might, for instance, recognise both that transwomen have a strong claim to access gender segregated spaces and that some sex segregated spaces should remain for those who want them (because both transwomen and biological/ciswomen have a privileged standpoint due to the specific harms they have suffered, which the other party cannot simply dismiss).

Honestly, this reads to me as if you are already at least a little bit GC, you’re just not ready to accept the label – which is totally understandable considering what tends to happen to women who are less cautious. Because while there are plenty of GCFs who would happily agree with this as long as the gender-spaces didn’t substantially take away resources from the sex-segregated spaces, the suggestion that “sex” can ever be a useful way to distinguish between people is completely unacceptable to most of the “supporters of strong transgender rights” you’re talking about.

This is the kind of thinking that forbids referring to (for example) pregnant women as opposed to “pregnant people”. It can be permissible to refer to the sexual functions of bodies, but only if you do not suggest that these functions tend to be associated with particular general categories of people – and what you absolutely must not do is to identify a class of people corresponding to natal females who collectively share interests that cannot be shared by natal males. That is completely unacceptable. I wish I was joking!

This kind of thing confused me until I realised that, at its extremes, gender ideology can operate as a reactionary response to feminism. Then it all started to make sense.

37

Chris Bertram 09.25.19 at 8:16 am

Reading the parade of entirely predictable comments here, made as if nobody had ever made them before, makes me wonder how many of those making them have even met a trans person, let alone been friends with them or tried to see the world from their perspective. Most trans people want to get on with their lives, go to work, not be disrespected or misgendered or gaslit at work by bigots or people with ideological axes to grind, and when out and about be able to find somewhere to use a toilet without fear of harrassment or violence. Etc

Btw, I strongly recommend the piece by faustusnotes linked to above, it is excellent.

38

Sophie Jane 09.25.19 at 8:29 am

A few short comments from my perspective as a trans woman:

– I find it distressing to have my continued existence treated as a matter for debate.

– Terminology varies and is changing rapidly, but I prefer “trans women” to “transwomen”. Trans is an adjective and there are many kinds of trans people. Similarly, AFAB (for “assigned female at birth”) is a better term than “natal woman”.

– Trans men, non-binary trans people, and intersex people exist. Any call for sex-segregated spaces needs to recognise this.

– As a practical matter, sex-segregated spaces are hard to enforce without requiring medical certificates or genital inspections. Without those, they become just another way to enforce norms around femininity – “passing” trans women will be unchallenged while butch lesbians risk being excluded.

– It’s difficult to find common ground between transphobic feminists and trans people because the work is already happening elsewhere, in modern intersectional feminism. The arguments of “gender critical” feminists are best understood as ways to justify transphobia by hanging on to second wave gender essentialism.

39

Sophie Jane 09.25.19 at 8:32 am

(And thanks to faustusnotes for covering much of this already. I’m afraid I usually skim the comments under articles about trans issues, for obvious reasons.)

40

Dipper 09.25.19 at 9:13 am

@ Faustusnotes “It’s also worth observing that every heterosexual male is familiar with the homophobic and misogynist fear of men that they will pull a hot girl and when they get home discover she has a penis”

What??? No. Not every heterosexual man. Just you, faustunotes. Just you.

@ Chris Bertram “Most trans people want to get on with their lives”. We aren’t here because most trans people want to get on with their lives. We are here because biologically male sex offenders are using ‘trans rights’ to gain access to women in prisons, and because a biologically male person is using trans rights to force women to handle their testicles and penis or lose their careers. And I worked with a trans woman (ie biological male to female) and as far as I am aware it was fine no problem but to the best of my knowledge they weren’t demanding either of the above.

41

oldster 09.25.19 at 11:03 am

Faustusnotes @34 —

“As for athletic competitions … I have spent a lot of my life hanging around sportsmen and they aren’t generally the type of people who will completely rebrand their gender so that they can get an easy victory.”

Fair enough, but that’s not the concern that women express.

The concern is not “transgendered people are changing their gender just to win bike races”. Nope; everyone realizes that the original motivations lie elsewhere.

The concern is that having already changed their genders, for whatever other reasons, transgendered people will have an unfair advantage in certain sports because of the physiological differences that stem from having started with a male body earlier in life.

If you don’t think this is a real concern, then you have not read the exchanges between Rachel McKinnon and Martina Navratilova.

I liked your linked piece on Bayesian qualms about bathrooms, and it taught me some things. Thanks for that. So I am sorry to see you engaged in straw-manning the sporting question.

42

Miriam Ronzoni 09.25.19 at 12:32 pm

Can you post a link to that exchange, oldster?

43

Miriam Ronzoni 09.25.19 at 12:38 pm

Hi Sophie,
Thanks on the suggestions re: wordings. I do think this is a landmine and I am still learning a lot on this. I take your point about trans men, non-binary people and intersex people and I do think it is extremely relevant to the issue of epistemic modesty and standpoints, but not necessarily if one thinks taht we should have gender-segregated spaces and then only some sex-segregated ones. If the issue of *also* having sex-segrated ones for men comes up, I think we need a different conversation, and it is not one to which *I* can give an answer precisely because of what i think about standpoints.

44

Z 09.25.19 at 1:01 pm

@Miriam Ronzoni The phrase “supporters of strong transgender rights” […] aims at capturing those who a) advocate a rich set of rights for transgender people (including the right to change their legal gender, access to gender-segregated spaces and to affirmative action programs, etc.); b) hold that such rights can largely or entirely be assigned on the basis of self-identification on matters of gender.

I find this description very clear, and helpful.

It strikes me, though, that all the rights listed in the rich set above are not at all the same. Some of them are rights we (may) wish to attribute to all human beings based on underlying principles, the right of being referred to or not referred to in a specific way for instance or the right to have access to public toilets, while others seem to me closer to contingent imperfect corrective measures to repair past injustices and prevent new ones than to universal rights (the fact that women are much more frequently killed by a current or former partner than men could justify legal differences in these respective cases, for instance, ditto for salary differences), and others still pertain to biological characteristics; being entitled to free maternal care, for instance.

Items in the first list are by definition universally desirable, in particular desirable for transgender people. They can be discussed of course, but discussing them specifically for transgender people looks like a red herring to me. I don’t see how items in the third list have much to do with gender, so as in the first case, I don’t see that the discussion of them is changed in anyway by considering transgender people specifically. The fact that you may get a preferential seat in the train does not (or should not) depend on whether your gender is male, female, or something else, it should depend on whether you are pregnant or not (among many other things). The right to medical treatment for endometriosis or prostate cancer, likewise, does not depend on your gender, whatever that word may mean, but on whether you suffer from these afflictions.

Items in the second list, then, are the specific ones for which the discussion about transgender people is potentially different from the general one. Should transgender people benefit from the corrective measures that have been put in place as imperfect remedy to past injustices we believe are better understood in terms of gender? Arguments can be presented in both directions, depending on the specific corrective measure we are discussing, but as items in this list are imperfect, historically contingent would-be remedy against injustices, I find it logically incoherent to believe that people should be entitled to them solely on the basis of self-identification. Consequently, if point b) above describes accurately support for strong transgender rights even with respect to these items, then I believe that this position is incoherent.

45

oldster 09.25.19 at 1:14 pm

46

oldster 09.25.19 at 1:17 pm

And by the way, I have a comment around #32 or so that is still in moderation. It’s your choice whether to post it or not, of course, but perhaps it just escaped your notice.

47

faustusnotes 09.25.19 at 1:31 pm

Miriam, the exchange can be found in articles like this, where I think it’s safe to say oldster’s characterization of the concerns of GCFs is a little too charitable (Navratilova, btw, is not a GCF). It’s worth noting that the object of her criticism, Rachel Mckinnon, has not had a record of unparalleled achievement in cycling (as implied by someone above), and was in fact beaten most of the time she raced by the woman who complained about her male advantage. This is also not elite Olympic sport.

There are very few trans women in the world and even fewer going into elite sports. This is an example of beating up an issue because it’s convenient.

I also note, oldster, that you claim to have learnt from my analysis of what will happen to cis women if the GCFs get their way, yet you still insist on exclusion. That means you haven’t learnt anything. As I say in that post, you can’t escape from this problem. If you want to exclude a certain group, and that group is very rare, the majority of the people you exclude will not be from that group. It’s a fundamental fact and everyone who wants to exclude transgender people from spaces they want to be part of needs to deal with that fact.

48

Chris Bertram 09.25.19 at 1:47 pm

@Dipper We aren’t here because most trans people want to get on with their lives. We are here because

No, absolutely not. We are here because legal and social changes that aim to include trans people as equal members of society have run up against the weird and obsessive ideology of a relatively small cult many of whom hold, inter alia, that transwomen are “autogynephiles”, sexual perverts. In pursuit of their aim of excluding and marginalizing trans people they have sought to make alliances with others, including vehemently anti-gay and anti-feminist groups and extreme conservatives, and – as with any group trying to make propaganda – they want to brandish extreme cases and scenarios to energize the anti-trans mob. But the case they brandish are not the central reason why this conflict is happening.

49

Sophie Jane 09.25.19 at 1:48 pm

Hi Miriam,
I think the problem of trans men, non-binary people and intersex people is practical as well as epistemic, inasmuch as they raise questions about who is allowed in sex-segregated spaces and why. Unless I mean that the “epistemological” problem is also personal and political, inasmuch as sex-segregated spaces of the kind proposed by transphobic feminists contain the implication that trans men are not men, trans women are not women, non-binary people are “really” binary, and intersex people don’t exist?

The practical solution that’s already coming into use is to disconnect bodies from gender and speak of pregnant people, people with prostates, people who menstruate, and so on… but for all their talk of biology, that isn’t generally the kind of segregation transphobic feminists call for.

(Another complication, of course, is that sex is also a social construct. There’s no single set of criteria for who counts as “female sex” that won’t either exclude some cis women or include some cis men. The best you can do is to make a kind of diagnostic checklist and set a threshold.)

50

Alato 09.25.19 at 1:59 pm

I’m a bit personally invested in this as a gender-queer person who has been on hormones for almost seven years now, but is not socially transitioning. I can say from personal experience that regardless of sex and self-identification, there is a very large difference between a brain in a testosterone-dominated hormone regime and one in an estrogen-dominated one. So I do regard differences between how men think and women think as real, but mutable and largely driven by things that are not inherent to being a man or a woman.

From personal experience, I tend to think about ‘gender’ in three categories: the way that bodies develop (sex), the way that brains develop (gender self-image), and the way that society expects you to interact with it (gender roles and their enforcement). We do have a lot of evidence that (although it falls on a spectrum and within-gender differences can be greater than between-gender differences) there are identifiable differences between make and female brains, although the degree to which that is mutable under hormone changes is still being determined. (Some things change a lot. Others don’t.) We also have some research that indicates pre-hormone therapy trans people do have some (but not all) neurological indicators of being their identified gender.

So there is something going on besides just choice, with gender identity. Usually self-identification is pretty reliable indicator because the amount of sh*t you get when you identify as a gender different from your apparent one makes it a very, very costly choice to fake. So a lot of this discussion feels like the philosophical issue is a refusal to allow neurobiology to be regarded separately than primary and secondary sexual characteristics, despite evidence they cue off of different developmental signals.

However, this gets very tangled with the sociological issues of gender segregation, which drives most of the drama: sex segregation and the way identification interacts with it. IE, when and how does neurological (identification) trump visible (assigned at birth)? How does the fact that these are both distributions rather than binaries interact? (Intersex people are real, and need to be part of this discussion!)

Underlying everything is the way that both cis and trans women suffer from violence at the hands of men. (I regard this as driven by testosterone. It’s a hell of a drug, and the way that a huge amount of background rage and aggression fell away with hormones was eye-opening.) So I don’t really begrudge people who want a space safe from those who *look like* the ones who traumatized them, but that’s not usually how it is phrased: it’s usually an attribution of identity (you are one of them!) that is both wrong and invalidating, but tricky to challenge because the people making it read disagreement as invalidating their trauma.

So, just thoughts, no answers.

51

Aubergine 09.25.19 at 2:25 pm

I’m afraid I don’t find faustusnotes’ Bayesian argument very convincing, for a couple of reasons.

First, you are way overstating the influence of gender-critical feminists who most people have never heard of. Woman are, in fact, quite capable of deciding that the presence of males in spaces that were previously understood to be female-only is unsafe and reacting accordingly; no need for a preceding philosophical justification. Or perhaps the incidents you refer to were inspired by anti-trans (and anti-feminist) conservatives. Or maybe they were inspired by trans-rights activists making it clear that all female toilets are now unisex, and that a lot more males are going to be using them from now on.

You understand, don’t you, that many natal women spend much of the time in public places with at least a sliver of attention keeping track of risks to their personal safety? And that part of this sliver’s role is to be constantly alert to a sense that something is wrong as a signal to get the hell out? And that a public toilet – usually a secluded place, with a single exit, where people are often partly undressed and extremely vulnerable – is exactly the kind of place where this sense is going to be set to maximum? It’s really not surprising that women are reacting to the breakdown of the general assumption that female toilets are not a place for male bodies by adjusting the specifity of this risk-sense (which is, of course, directed at males in general and not at trans women in particular), and I see no reason to pin the blame for the inevitable results of this on GCFs who point out the problem but who did not create it.

Second: all that said, there is a genuine problem here: how should a woman respond when someone pings her risk-sense, but she can’t tell whether they’re a harmless trans women, a harmless natal woman or a dangerous natal man pretending to be a trans woman? (or some other source of danger) There are no easy answers here! But why oh why does the first solution have to be “women should Just Get Over It” instead of “males should stop claiming the right to access to female-only spaces”? Why is it, once again, the woman’s role to accommodate, placate, validate…?

52

Sophie Jane 09.25.19 at 2:30 pm

@Alato

I tend not to put so much emphasis on testosterone, not least because trans men don’t spontaneously fall into toxic masculinity when they start HRT. But I do agree the way trans and GNC people relate to gender poses problems for both pure essentialism and pure social construction.

(My own position, for what it’s worth, is that nature vs nurture arguments are best understood as rhetorical strategies in the political conflict over gender, just as they were for sexuality in previous decades. I may be a trans woman because of my experiences, or my neurology, or my body’s response to hormones, or some combination, but the answers only matter insofar as they affect my ability to live my life.)

53

oldster 09.25.19 at 2:40 pm

Sophie Jane @ 48 —

“(Another complication, of course, is that sex is also a social construct. There’s no single set of criteria for who counts as “female sex” that won’t either exclude some cis women or include some cis men. The best you can do is to make a kind of diagnostic checklist and set a threshold.)”

Some kinds have simple membership conditions, and some kinds have complex conditions, and some of the complex conditions are in the form of family-resemblances (where there are no unique necessary and sufficient conditions, but the thing needs to have enough of the a good variety of them to count).

But there’s no general connection between “having simple conditions” and “being a natural kind,” or “having complex conditions” and “being a social construct.”

There are social constructs that have simple membership criteria, and natural kinds that have complex membership criteria. So the fact that “female sex” may have complex criteria does not guarantee that it is a social construct.

In addition, the fact that some simple criteria for “female sex” do not agree with classifications of cis women might show that female sex is a social construct, but it might instead show that “cis women” is a social construct.

54

EDguy 09.26.19 at 2:13 am

Even if an aspect of identity is socially constructed, or has socially constructed aspects, that does not imply that it is mutable or eliminable. The following is a thought experiment on this point from an unfinished essay of mine about kink identity, but it may also be applicable to this discussion:

My go-to example for this is language acquisition. I am a native speaker of English. This is clearly a historically contingent and socially constructed part of my identity. If I had been adopted at birth by Chinese parents who spoke Mandarin at home, I would have grown up as a native speaker of Mandarin rather than English. Yet I also hold that “native speaker of English” is now a permanent and pretty immutable part of my identity.

What would it take to make you “unlearn” your first language, to make your brain no longer light up with recognition at the sound of its phonemes, or the sight of its words on the printed page? For me, I do not think that anything short of major brain trauma would do it.

If I were to learn Italian, come to speak it fluently, dream and think in it, and move to a remote mountain village in Italy where nothing but Italian was spoken for years on end, I would still be a native speaker of English. I would simply be a native speaker of English who was not currently expressing that aspect of my identity in my daily life.

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Tom Slee 09.26.19 at 11:10 am

Faustusnotes @25: the Bayesian argument is nice but falls far short of justifying your conclusion. In addition to Aubergine’s points @51, most disputed spaces are just not like this. In prisons, crisis centres, sports, or school changing rooms the process of stranger-challenging-stranger is not what happens. Your post also ignores the question of whether the trans person in the space has transitioned or still has male genitals. Oh, and I’m absolutely with Dipper in their reaction to your bizarre claim that all men have worried about the “hot girl with a penis”.

Two examples from here in Canada where single sex spaces matter and your argument has nothing to say.

The outrageous case where at least one immigrant women has lost their salon business as a result of a human rights case brought by untransitioned trans woman Jessica Yaniv: that a dozen salon owners discriminated against Yaniv by refusing to wax her balls. GCFs publicising this case have been accused of “cherry picking”, but that’s not the point. Of course Yaniv does not represent most trans women, any more than rapists represent most men. It’s the behaviour allowed by the law that’s at question, and this is one case where “strong trans rights” campaigners, who may not represent all trans people, are damaging their own cause by refusing to accept that this case is a problem.

And then, down the street from there, we have the spectacle of Vancouver Rape Relief, Canada’s oldest rape crisis centre, being denied funding and then vandalized with “Kill Terfs” scrawled across its windows (yes, Terf is a slur). The OP argues for a mix of single-sex and single-gender-identity spaces, and there are several crisis centres in Vancouver that operate on the basis of gender identity. If the experience of Vancouver Rape Relief is anything to go by, then there is no appetite for the proposed middle ground from strong trans rights advocates.

Society needs to accommodate trans people, but I will not be that man who tells women, especially women in crisis, that they need to shut up and get over their concerns.

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Tom Slee 09.26.19 at 11:13 am

To go back to “Standpoints” from the OP, and responding to Alex Sharpe and Sophie Jane.

I have many religious friends who believe deeply that they have a soul, to the extent that their soul is central to their identity. I do not believe I have a soul. To be honest, I don’t actually believe they have a soul either.

Most of the time I don’t insist out loud that I don’t believe they have a soul, because it doesn’t come up and because I’d like to think I’m not that obnoxious. And most of the time they don’t insist that I really have a soul, despite what I may think.

But sometimes, if the subject of souls comes up and if I’m pushed, I will assert that it’s true, I don’t believe they have a soul. That doesn’t mean I’m denying their existence. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect them or their beliefs — yes, to use the unavoidable phrasing, some of the people closest to me in my life believe deeply that they (and I) have souls. I accept that I may even be wrong. But I don’t believe in the existence of a soul. And I don’t think it makes me religio-phobic.

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Tom Slee 09.26.19 at 11:31 am

Just to clarify my previous comment, in case it’s needed.

“soul” -> “innate gender identity”

Also, I do believe it is important that people who believe they have a soul should be treated with respect and live the way they want, I don’t think that’s patronizing to religious people, and I don’t think it contradicts disbelief in the soul.

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Stephen 09.26.19 at 12:18 pm

Medium Dave @33: “The cognitive abilities of men and women are equal in every significant respect”

Alato@50: “I can say from personal experience that regardless of sex and self-identification, there is a very large difference between a brain in a testosterone-dominated hormone regime and one in an estrogen-dominated one. So I do regard differences between how men think and women think as real.”

Are these two statements compatible?

59

Aubergine 09.26.19 at 12:29 pm

To get back to the original post (and I hope this doesn’t come across as piling-on; I think your “three thoughts” raise some good questions that deserve serious reponses)…

A minor detail:

First of all, whilst the idea that gender can be destroyed is an actually philosophical claim, which some GCFs endorse and defend literally, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” is a political slogan, which is meant to serve a difference purpose (of advocacy and emancipation).

I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” for years, and these days it seems to be regarded as potentially offensive (“man’s body” implies that a trans woman is, on some level, a man). What will be said is things like “I am a woman, so my body is a woman’s body”, or maybe “I am a woman, so my body is a female body”. These look more like philosophical claims, although they serve as political slogans just as well.

In other words, both sides have some epistemic privilege, and therefore both sides should be epistemically modest towards one another

I think there is room for this on the GC side. GC ideas don’t require the rejection of a transgender person having epistemic privilege with respect to being a person who sincerely believes that they have a transgender identity – that may not sound like much, but it generally means that GCFs have no problem agreeing that transgender people should be able to make their own spaces, should have full access to spaces for people of their own sex, should not suffer discrimination for being gender-non-conforming, etc. Some GCFs are willing to accept trans women in women-only spaces as long as this does not compromise natal women’s personal safety or other interests (although this view is certainly not universal).

For example, something like this:

Or we can decide that saunas, spas and gyms which have gender-segregated days should also have sex-segregated events with sufficient frequency.

should be fine.

The other side, though, will find any form of epistemic modesty a lot harder. It’s a basic tenet of gender ideology that there is no epistemic privilege that a natal woman can claim as a woman that cannot also be claimed by a trans woman (with trans women having the additional epistemic privilege of being trans). They are not going to budge on this, I’m afraid.

Think about the functional/anatomical language, already mentioned a few times above, that is becoming mandatory in some contexts: pregnant person, person with a uterus, person who menstruates, person who breastfeeds/chestfeeds, etc.. I believe that most of the time when people use these terms they do so out of goodwill, because they genuinely want to be inclusive. But what this language actually does in practice is to force women to abandon most of their epistemic position.

It says: you can claim privileged knowledge with respect to one or two of these particular functions at a time – but not too many, and don’t try to suggest that there is anything special about the kind of body that tends to combine these functions. And – most of all! – you definitely must not claim that there is any connection between any of these things and your identity as a woman.

GCFs will never accept this; most of the time, trans activists won’t even talk to anyone who refuses to do so. So we’re back at the impasse.

However, and this is precisely the sticking point, biological women/ciswomen (is there a term that we can agree on here?)

If what you’re looking for is a gender-ideology-approved term corresponding to “adult human female”, you won’t find one. That’s the point.

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Jim Buck 09.26.19 at 1:29 pm

Having four sisters precede me in the womb, I have always felt womanly. As a teenager, I preferred pretty clothes to wearing all that smelly rocker stuff. I do have a penis, but am much better with my tongue than with that. Why (I ask myself ) would anyone get rid of a penis to gain access to women? (as is alleged). The vast majority of women prefer a man to have a penis, so why get rid? It makes no sense to me; but I am who I am, and it pleases me to have other people tell me who they are. If someone tells me they are a woman, and they act so, and look the part, then why would I contradict them? Even if they look more masculine than feminine, and behave so— yet tell me they are a woman, then that’s ok with me too. I know people who do not look like Jews are supposed to, and do not behave so— yet tell me they are. I do not ask to see their genitalia, to make sure they had the prescribed physical modification. And manliness, generally, has often been conditional on behaviours and performances beyond the mere possession of a penis. The Turks insisted that a man had to have a moustache too, and forbad their Greek vassals from growing one.

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Chris Bertram 09.26.19 at 2:35 pm

It is refreshing to see it basically confirmed, notwithstanding a lot of blather above about whether souls exist or whatever, that a lot of this noise is just about a concerted campaign aimed at keeping trans people out of toilets marked according to sex/gender.

Oddly, I’ve been thinking about access to toilets as a political issue a fair bit recently and am/was planning a post on it just as soon as I’ve read Lezlie Lowe’s No Place to Go. In one essay, Lowe writes:

“according to a 2013 UCLA study, 68 per cent of trans people have experienced verbal harassment in gendered bathrooms. Nine per cent reported physical violence.”

That seems pretty significant to me. Maybe some of the posters above think at least that such verbal harrassment is justified? Obviously, I do not.

Lowe’s book is reviewed by Owen Hatherley here:

https://www.lrb.co.uk/v41/n09/owen-hatherley/the-socialist-lavatory-league

Hatherley’s perpective is that of a sufferer from Crohn’s disease, but another useful account is that of Jeremy Waldron in his well-known essay “Homelessness and Freedom” who makes the argument that a lack of access to places to shit and piss is a significant restriction on the freedom of the homeless. Interestingly, work on the history of women’s public toilets reveals that they were developed not as protection against male stranger danger, but rather in order to give women access to the public sphere. Basically, you can’t function as an equal member of society unless there is somewhere for you to go.

See:

https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/History-of-Womens-Public-Toilets-in-Britain/

It is entirely forseeable that trans people, faced with campaigns to exclude them from the means to relieve themselves and faced with the threat of abuse or violence whichever toilets they happen to use will suffer avoidable anxiety and will often be reticent to play a full part in society. These are real and serious harms that are inflicted on a minority by those intolerant of them.

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Tom Slee 09.26.19 at 2:55 pm

Chris: “notwithstanding a lot of blather above about whether souls exist or whatever, that a lot of this noise is just about a concerted campaign aimed at keeping trans people out of toilets marked according to sex/gender”

I typed the “blather” and also typed that it is absolutely not about toilets, so I have no idea what you are talking about. If you’re going to insult, at least read.

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Lynne 09.26.19 at 3:00 pm

Chris Bertram, you come across to me as indifferent to women’s need for their own spaces. Why could washrooms not be designated differently? For men, for women, and several individual washrooms that would serve anyone, one at a time, or a parent with a child. Our local swimming pool already does this.

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Lynne 09.26.19 at 3:07 pm

Aubergine, thanks for your comments. I have not found a way to contribute to this thread beyond my exasperation above with Chris Bertram, but you articulated much that I was reaching for.

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William S Berry 09.26.19 at 6:09 pm

“notwithstanding a lot of blather above about whether souls exist or whatever”

Maybe I missed some “blather about souls” farther up in the thread, but Tom Slee (@56) presented a thoughtful analogy between the idea of belief in a “soul” (the concept of the soul being an essentialist concept if ever there was such a thing), and the belief in an essential gender identity, further analogizing his approaches to reaction to these concepts.

I don’t know if TS’s comment is what triggered your gratuitously insulting language (maybe there is some internecine academic squabble subtext!), but if it is you might consider whether you owe TS an apology!

That’s your call, of course (In the same way that it is your call as to whether you are pissed, indifferent, or something in between, to my own comment. I’ve seen a good deal of your snark at commenters here over the years; if it makes you feel any better, you’re pretty damned good at it!).

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engels 09.26.19 at 7:39 pm

Has anyone ever proposed making half of all toilets self-selecting & the other half legally reserved by biological sex? Or setting geographical quotas for each regime? Perhaps in conjunction with a law affirming that in an emergency anyone can use the nearest toilet regardless of sex, gender or whether they’re a customer (which would also benefit Crohns sufferers)?

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oldster 09.26.19 at 8:21 pm

Chris @ 61 —

I agree with you that access to safe toilets is a human rights issue, and that every person deserves access to safe toilets. I also agree that a society that denies trans people access to safe toilets is an unjust society. No one should be denied access to safe toilets. Physical violence and verbal harassment are never justified.

But agreement on that point does not settle what sort of provision of safe toilets a given society should make, or how access should be managed.

My personal inclination is to think that we should respond to the discovery of complexity by embracing complexity, not by retreating to false simplicity.

We used to think there were only two kinds of people, sc. men and women, and so we had only two kinds of toilets. It was simple.

But it was also predicated on a false belief: that there were only two kinds of people. It turns out that there are lots of kinds of people — men, women, transmen, transwomen, intersex people, and lots more varieties. That’s great — our understanding of humanity is enriched by finding out that there are many more ways to be human than we had thought.

Having discovered complexity, we should now respond by embracing complexity — more toilets is better. There should be toilets for men and toilets for women and toilets for transmen and toilets for transwomen, and toilets for every other human condition. More is better.

And in addition, our society should work to guarantee that the toilets provided for everyone are safe for everyone — which was never the case even in the simple old days, where we thought there were only two kinds of people. Society has a long way to go in providing safe access to toilets for *anyone*, much less transpeople.

When this blooming of a hundred loos is not practical, then we need to make various practical arrangements and compromises. We may need to treat some groups as though they were members of other groups, in order to make up for an inadequate provision.

And that’s fine with me, too. If a group of women wants to open their toilets to transwomen, and treat them as women for the purposes of bathroom access, then I have no objection to their doing so (and probably no standing to have an objection, or to have no objection, for that matter). I would be happy to share public toilets with transmen, and probably have done so already without knowing it — it does not matter to me, because I never interact with anyone in public toilets anyhow.

I would be content with lots of different arrangements for toilets, and this seems like a question that can be answered in many satisfactory ways. More options will probably have unexpected benefits for everyone. A parallel: in the States, the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated the provision of a new class of services and access for disabled people, and it has been a positive development not only for the disabled, but for lots of non-disabled people as well. Among other things, it created a new class of toilets for disabled people, which has been useful to everyone. So too, new provisions of toilets for new (or newly recognized) kinds of people would most likely benefit everyone.

Some people have proposed a different approach to the practical problem: preemptively declare that transwomen simply are, literally and in every other way, women.

This would have the good effect of solving the problem of access to bathrooms — transwomen would have access to bathrooms that were roughly as safe as women’s bathrooms have ever been (which is to say, nowhere near as safe as they should be in a just society), simply because transwomen, having been declared to be literally and in every other way women, would have access to whatever women have access to.

But it would have a different problem, namely that it would be predicated on a different false claim, that transwomen are women, when they are not. It would also have a different problem, in that it would be resisted by many women, most of whom have never heard of TERFs and GCFs and autogynophilia and the rest of this nonsense. The resistance to having transwomen in women’s toilets is far more widespread than the small corner of the internet in which people argue over acronyms.

Now, maybe that resistance should be overcome by arguing that there are good practical reasons, resulting from a conflict between human rights and limited resources, to allow transwomen to have access to women’s toilets. The argument that we should treat transwomen as women for the purposes of access to toilets might well win the day, and I would be happy with that solution. But if the campaign starts by declaring that transwomen are women, then it is not going to succeed at all. False claims are not tenable in the long run.

So I have no desire to keep trans people out of toilets, and to the contrary, I agree with you that they have a right to safe toilets. Please: if there is a fund to create safe toilets for transpeople, send me the coordinates and I will donate to it. But saying true things is something I care about. And allowing women to have control over their spaces is something I care about. Why, to repeat Aubergine’s point from above, why is it, “once again, the woman’s role to accommodate, placate, validate…?” Why is it not, instead, incumbent upon men to make toilets of any kind safe places for everyone?

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Kiwanda 09.26.19 at 8:36 pm

It is refreshing to see it basically confirmed, notwithstanding a lot of blather above about whether souls exist or whatever, that a lot of this noise is just about a concerted campaign aimed at keeping trans people out of toilets marked according to sex/gender.

By commenters here? I’m not seeing this. Are there any examples?

Some of the concerns expressed recently by e.g. Dani Ahrens include objections to: vilification and ostracism of those who dissent from gender identity ideology; regarding gender non-conformity only as other-gender identity, and encouraging over-use of irreversible medical treatments; refusal to preserve some sex-segregated groups, for example, rape survivor support groups.

Are you opposed to female-only rape support groups, by the way?

Maybe some of the posters above think at least that such verbal harrassment is justified?

I don’t see any evidence for that.

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Alato 09.26.19 at 10:01 pm

Stephen@50- Yes, they are. To use a trip analogy, one is an assertion that we can get to the same place in the same time, the other is an assertion that the routes will be different. They are compatible.

@61- This is kinda the core of it for me. Safety and access to public spheres. And in this case, trans women are a heck of a lot more threatened and excluded in almost all cases that come up. IE, the bathroom debates: there are a lot of instances of trans women getting assaulted in “Men’s” restrooms, but I’ve yet to see a single case of a trans woman assaulting someone in a “Women’s” restroom. So I’ve got the view that even flagging this as debatable is explicitly making people less safe. (I have also heard of a number of cis women getting harassed in women’s restrooms because other women thought they were trans.)

@59 – There’s an interesting angle to be had on that if you include trans men in that framing. As you said, “But what this language actually does in practice is to force women to abandon most of their epistemic position.” And I’d agree that is true, because the principal “there is no epistemic privilege that a natal woman can claim *as a woman* that cannot also be claimed by a trans woman” is the flip side of noting that those same epistemic claims can also be made by trans men. Who are not women and will definitely tell you so. So yeah- there are epistemically privileged claims that can be made from growing up a certain way or having a certain body configuration, but those are very much separate from epistemic claims made on the basis of gender. Epistemic modesty would limit claims to avoid conflation- ‘as someone who grew up presenting female’ is a totally acceptable platform to make a claim from, ‘as a woman’ needs to include all women and exclude all men if it is to be true.

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faustusnotes 09.26.19 at 11:00 pm

People! Please learn to read! I didn’t say that every man feels the misogynist fear of getting a girl home and finding she’s got a willy, but that every man is familiar with this fear. i.e. knows of. Using a deliberate misreading of a clear sentence to misunderstand the point of the sentence is called arguing in bad faith. I’m shocked, shocked! to see such a pattern of behavior in a comment thread about trans rights.

Tom Slee, my Bayesian argument does apply to most cases of “prisons, crisis centres, sports, or school changing rooms”. When I rock up to most of these places my gender is never checked, and my self identification is taken for granted. I don’t know what kind of schools you went to but no teacher ever felt my balls. Prisons might be an exception but in every other case current practice is to let you into whatever gender-segregated space fits your self identification, usually without even questioning it. At present this means that butch-presenting women use female sports changing rooms, hospital wards and school toilets. What the GCFs want is for those choices to be challenged. That means that someone – the reception staff at the gym, or the teacher, or the nurse on the ward – has to challenge your perceived gender. Which in practice will mean that the nurse, reception staff or teacher will have to tell a woman “you’re not really a woman.” And then the only way for that cis woman to confirm that she is a woman is by being effectively sexually assaulted by the nurse, teacher or reception staff.

Do you have a daughter? Would you be happy if she were forced to regularly show her genitals to school teachers, gym reception staff, pool attendants and nurses because she doesn’t present as sufficiently girlish? Is that the world you want the girls of today to inherit?

I should also point out that even if the Bayesian argument didn’t apply to these cases (though it clearly does), we still have a problem because toilets are the central plank of the GCF argument – they aren’t going to compromise on just prisons. So if you agree with the GCF demand to do genital checks on all schoolgirls, women going to rape crisis centres and hospitals, you will also have to accept stranger-on-stranger confrontations at toilets. Where, as I say, the boyfriends and/or armed police will be involved.

A good way to think of it is to consider the age identification laws for alcohol and tobacco. We’re all familiar with[1] the person who regularly gets carded for alcohol because they don’t look old enough. That person is almost always a) short b) female and c) feminine presenting. It becomes a running joke among friends doesn’t it? Don’t send alice to get the booze, she’ll get carded and we’ll end up only getting jasmine tea. Send bob, he looks about 50. That’s mildly annoying for Alice, who is actually 30 years old with two kids, but she deals with it. Now imagine that instead of having to show her driver’s license she has to flash her genitals.

That’s what you’re asking for. So either admit that it’s a price you think worth paying to harass the tiny proportion of people who are trans or non-binary, or change your politics. But don’t pretend you’re presenting a reasonable “solution” to the problem you created, because I have shown – without any doubt, argument or possible contradiction – exactly what you will achieve if you get your way on this issue: the constant, continuous harassment of cis women, usually women who don’t present as feminine, likely lesbian or non-white. That’s the consequence of GCF politics, and there is no escaping that consequence.


fn1: Note how this clearly means “know something about” not “have experienced personally”, you deliberately ignorant people.

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Chris Bertram 09.27.19 at 6:48 am

My opening para about in the comment above was meant to encompass a whole range of anti-trans reaction here and not just Tom Slee. But let me focus on Slee anyway. Slee writes:

“soul” -> “innate gender identity”

The problem here is that Slee, breezing past the thoughts in the OP about epistemic humility and standpoints, has decided to interpret what trans people say about themselves in the most reductive fashion possible, to posit some “entity” analogous to having a soul and then to dismiss the interpretation he has helped himself to as nonsense that he isn’t bound to take seriously. This sort of move is pretty common on the “GC” side of things and various philosophers have made it.

A better way of proceeding would be to listen, charitably and being open to learning something, to what trans people say when they are trying to make sense of their own experiences, and not to subject what they say to the immediate “gotcha!” of the academic seminar.

(Frankly, Slee’s way of proceeding reminds me strongly of the episode in Hard Times when Gradgrind asks a little girl to define a horse.)

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Dipper 09.27.19 at 8:20 am

@ Bertram

“Frankly, Slee’s way of proceeding reminds me strongly of the episode in Hard Times when Gradgrind asks a little girl to define a horse”

Being able to define something or someone is pretty central to most areas of human political thought. If a group are being discriminated against, then we need to be able to measure that discrimination, and if we are to measure the discrimination that group is experiencing then we need to be able to define who is in that group and who isn’t.

The ‘left’ are obviously wise to this, and given modern ‘left’ politics is about a collection of identity-based groups persecuting groups that have a different identity, then the first step in persecuting these groups is to remove their ability to define themselves so that the persecution can be carried out without quantification. In this case, if we have no functioning definition of ‘woman’ then it isn’t possible to measure what is happening to ‘women’, hence harassment and persecution of women as a group can be conducted without objection.

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Z 09.27.19 at 8:40 am

@Chris Bertram A better way of proceeding would be to listen, charitably and being open to learning something, to what trans people say when they are trying to make sense of their own experiences, and not to subject what they say to the immediate “gotcha!” of the academic seminar.

I say it depends. If the discussion takes place in an academic seminar, then the usual norms of academic seminar should apply, and I have no problem declaring in that context that a unified concept of gender makes little analytical sense to me (the fact that the word does not quite exist in my native language does not help) or that the strong transgender right position as described above by Miriam Ronzoni appears to me to be logically incoherent.

If we are discussing the political question of how people should get on with their lives, then the precise analytical meaning we attribute to gender does not seem very relevant – philosophical questions rarely are in such political conversations -, but this also means that practical questions remain as open as ever. Is it legitimate for a rape relief center to ban everyone except biological women to enter the premise? Should a trans man who transitioned at 30 lose his driving license for having failed to have accomplished his military obligations at 18? Should a female victim of rape be able to request psychological, medical and social support provided only by biological women if she wishes to?

Taking only the last example, Tom Slee indicated in his first and latter comments that he thought it was an acceptable request to him but anticipated advocate of strong transgender rights would disagree and deem it unacceptably hateful. Dismissing his comparison of gender identity with soul does not help deciding one way or the other.

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engels 09.27.19 at 11:05 am

I’ve never been a fan of standpoint epistemology so apologies if this had an obvious answer but the thing I’ve never understood is how it deals with substantive disagreements about who is oppressed. Eg in modern America ‘mens rights activists’, white Christian conservatives & right-wing academics all claim varying degrees of subjugation and victimhood. Are we obliged to practice ‘epistemic humility’ towards claims about vaccines, climate change or the Rapture? Closer to the matter at hand, at least if my Twitter feed is any guide, some gender critical feminists and trans rights activists appear to be each claiming they are more oppressed than the other and in some cases that the other is in fact an oppressor. None of which is to downplay the seriousness of these issues, just to express some doubt about how standpoint epistemology is going to provide a way out.

My previous comment disappeared but I also wanted to ask why an issue like entry rules for public toilets has to be all or nothing. Couldn’t half follow transfeminist prescriptions and the other half GCF? At least until the debate becomes less polarised.

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engels 09.27.19 at 11:39 am

Last thought: in my backpacking days a lot of hostels used to have two types of dorm, mixed and female only. What would be the pros and cons of that as toilet policy? It seems it would solve most the practical problems (plus hitherto unmentioned unfairness of women queuing more on average than men) although it would still be open to the charge that the existence of the (biological) female-only toilets was a kind of state-approved discrimination/transmisogyny. And men would have to give up their urinals.

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engels 09.27.19 at 1:02 pm

Ah I see the point about the toilet issue not being all-or-nothing was made towards the end of the OP (sorry, I didn’t read all the way to the end).

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Aubergine 09.27.19 at 1:53 pm

@59: So yeah- there are epistemically privileged claims that can be made from growing up a certain way or having a certain body configuration, but those are very much separate from epistemic claims made on the basis of gender. Epistemic modesty would limit claims to avoid conflation- ‘as someone who grew up presenting female’ is a totally acceptable platform to make a claim from, ‘as a woman’ needs to include all women and exclude all men if it is to be true.

This is the sticking point, really. GCFs believe that society and its patriarchal institutions designate natal women for oppressive treatment on the basis of the physical characteristics and reproductive role that, as a class, they tend to share (or are perceived to share), and that it is useful, even necessary, to be able to acknowledge this when analysing and opposing this oppression. Trans activists disagree. Either way, GCFs are never going to accept that their own identities can only be expressed in terms of sex-role stereotypes (or a “gender identity” that they have never felt any personal connection to) plus a set of sexed bodily functions that they are supposed to pretend have no relation to each other, and there are a lot of trans activists – not all, but a lot – who are never going to accept anything less, so too bad for the epistemic accommodation proposal, I guess.

There’s another issue here that hasn’t been discussed very much in this thread – “as someone who grew up presenting female”.

There are, of course, many trans women who present in virtually all respects as if they were men, but identify as women. I know that the legitimacy of this kind of identity is an open issue in the transgender community, but GCFs have to address that community as it is and not as parts of it would prefer it to be, and from the GC point of view a masculine-presenting trans woman is very hard to tell apart from any other masculine-presenting natal male (and a masculine-presenting lesbian trans woman is very hard to tell apart from, well, an ordinary heterosexual man).

(Meanwhile, a masculine-presenting GC woman would be very unimpressed with any suggestion that she is somehow less of a woman, or that she has any less access to the epistemic position of being subject to the oppression that is applied to all natal women, because of her non-conforming presentation.)

This is one reason why it’s misleading to frame the practical issues that GCFs raise about accommodation as being concerned only with trans women in spaces for women: because if gender identity can be a purely subjective thing, spaces for women effectively cease to exist. There are only unisex spaces that men are supposed to refrain from entering, but if they do enter then nobody is allowed to question their right to do so. And if anyone genuinely does not understand why not all natal women are A-okay with this, may I suggest that you stop demanding over and over again that they shut up and listen and start doing some listening of your own.

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Sophie Jane 09.27.19 at 3:45 pm

I might note that the jump from “sex segregation to prevent further trauma for victims of sexual assault“ to “keep trans women out of the toilets” is a classic example of what one of the Crooked Timber regulars (I think it was Henry?) called “the two-step of terrific triviality”.

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Sophie Jane 09.27.19 at 4:11 pm

As for souls, I don’t have one – and I don’t feel like a “woman trapped in a man’s body” either. There have always been things about my body that I didn’t like but it’s definitely my body, and now I understand what’s going on and can start to correct the effects of going through the wrong puberty I’m becoming steadily happier with the way I am.

I would like to be recognised as a woman, though(*). This seems an easy thing to me, but apparently it makes me a proponent of “strong transgender rights” and thus controversial. The alternative seems to be “weak transgender rights” by which I might eventually hope to be recognised as something other than a woman, providing I’m willing to put in years of effort and don’t do anything that makes cis people uncomfortable?

(*) Or more specifically, as a kind of woman. There are many kinds of women – trans women, cis women, working class and bourgeois women, women with or without various disabilities, white women and women of colour, and they all have different experiences of privilege and oppression that sometimes overlap and sometimes don’t. Hence intersectional feminism.

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Tom Slee 09.27.19 at 5:57 pm

In the spirit of the OP perhaps we should the temperature a bit. I’ll respond to Faustusnotes and Chris Bertram because they addressed me directly, but any new people here would do better to read Alato and Aubergine’s excellent contributions than to read my comments.

@Faustusnotes: I genuinely thought you meant your phrase the way I read it. I see you didn’t, and I apologize.

On the safe spaces though. For new prisoners, or for staff and clients of crisis centres, there would be an intake interview process. As for school changing rooms, it was a long time ago but showers in my 1970s UK comprehensive were compulsory, naked, and embarrassing. Plus, there were no strangers as we were all in the same class, for better or worse. I really don’t see how the stranger-challenging-stranger scenario applies in any of these cases, at least with a little thought on the part of the institutions involved.

The crisis centre case is particularly important because it is not a public space, it is a safe space for women, and yes my actual women friends who have been mistaken for men agree. If I speak up, which I should do more, it would be on cases like this. I find it heartbreaking that this precarious and essential space, created by feminist activists, is now threatened through its finance, by dead rats nailed to its doors, and by “Kill Terfs” scrawled on its windows. I wish those who see themselves as on the left (including many on this blog I would guess) would address this case with the vehemence they address others.

@Chris Bertram, who writes “Slee, breezing past the thoughts in the OP about epistemic humility and standpoints, has decided to interpret what trans people say about themselves in the most reductive fashion possible, to posit some “entity” analogous to having a soul and then to dismiss the interpretation he has helped himself to as nonsense that he isn’t bound to take seriously.”

I tried to address the “epistemic humility” points in the OP in the spirit they were intended: by seeking a parallel in another sphere, to explore the difference between personal experience, agreement with another’s experience, respect about another’s experience, and conversation about each others’ experience. It didn’t work for you, and maybe others – so it goes. Delete it if you want. Reading the various innuendoes you sprinkle through your comment #64 it is clear that you know my real intents better than I know them myself. Your advice that a “better way of proceeding would be to listen, charitably and being open to learning something” is good for the goose and for the gander.

I’ve enjoyed learning a lot from CT over the years, but I will not be commenting here again.

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Stephen 09.27.19 at 6:05 pm

Alato@62: “To use a trip analogy, one is an assertion that we can get to the same place in the same time, the other is an assertion that the routes will be different. They are compatible.”

Many thanks, that is a most thought-provoking analogy.

The problem that occurs to me, with some experience of map-reading, is that starting from the same place at the same time, and setting out by different routes to the same destination, it may well happen that we both arrive there together. Or maybe not. Or by some alternative routes, one may arrive there and the other become hopelessly lost.

You wrote earlier that ” there is a very large difference between a brain in a testosterone-dominated hormone regime and one in an estrogen-dominated one. So I do regard differences between how men think and women think as real.”

Could you, from your very valuable transgender perspective, let us know what those differences are?

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faustusnotes 09.28.19 at 12:31 am

Again Tom, you’re failing to understand the processes you describe. Let’s consider rape crisis centres, where you write

for staff and clients of crisis centres, there would be an intake interview process

So let’s consider this. A woman who has been sexually assaulted turns up to a crisis centre and is given an interview. During this interview she is asked if she is actually a woman and she says yes. But the staff thinks she looks like a man and doesn’t believe her, and the woman ran away from home without ID. What do you think happens next? Without ID they’re at an impasse (though many forms of ID don’t state the person’s sex). Eventually this woman who has been sexually assaulted is going to have to be sexually assaulted by the crisis centre staff (let’s be clear here: showing someone your genitals to prove you’re a woman when you don’t want to is assault).

Your image of the entrance interview assumes that the staff already can know with 100% certainty the gender of the person presenting. But they don’t and they are highly likely to make the mistake of thinking a non-feminine presenting woman is actually trans. This is because we base our visual judgments of who is a woman on gender-conforming cues.

You also should try thinking a little more carefully about your school changing rooms example. You seem to think that forced shared showers that make people uncomfortable are okay but if a single person with different genitals is in that shower setting it’s a huge problem. Why do you think that it’s okay to force groups of teenagers to look at each other’s bodies when they’re the same sex even though it makes them uncomfortable, but one person of the opposite sex is beyond the pale? Why do you accept this structure of humiliation and public shaming for children? Is the problem here the trans girl or the system that refused to provide adequate bathing infrastructure for children? Why should any of these children have to see each others’ genitals at all?

One of the tricks the GCFs have pulled off is to make us accept that our limited public hygiene infrastructure is a fact of life, and to pit the most vulnerable users of that infrastructure – abused women and trans women, children in state schools, butch-presenting lesbian women and trans women – against each other rather than arguing for an expansion of this infrastructure, an improvement in its quality and a commitment to its value.

Why, for example, is the issue of sexual assault in prison being dealt with by forcing trans women to be assaulted by men rather than changing prison systems to eliminate sexual abuse altogether? It’s as if rich white tenured professor Kathleen Stock doesn’t really care about the rights of poor non-white male criminals at all, and is quite unconcerned about whether they rape each other.

A lot of this comes down to the fact that many people don’t believe anything trans women say (and of course completely ignore trans men). They also don’t give non-feminine lesbians much credit either. I presented examples in my blog post of what happens to non gender-conforming cis women under a regime of bathroom terror but the proponents of bathroom terror regimes ignore them because (just as with the many SWERFs who have infiltated the TERF scene) the testimony of actual women doesn’t matter to them. Similarly nothing that trans women says matters. If you work with, are friends with or lovers with trans people you will know the level of homophobic and misogynist violence they are constantly subjected to and will take it seriously and accept it. But many of these GCFs refuse to believe that trans women experience any violence at all, or they just see it as the normal low level violence men direct at each other, so they don’t understand at all how dangerous and scary it is for trans women to be in male only spaces. Or they don’t care at all. We see in many comments above that people simply refuse to accept either that trans women are women or that they experience a unique level of violence – even as the commenters advocate for a policy that has been shown definitively to lead to large levels of violence (some misdirected against cis women). The only reason for this is that they refuse to listen to these women. That’s prejudice, plain and simple.

There is a problem in modern feminism – epitomized by GCFs, SWERFs, the nordic model and the scare stories around human trafficking that fail to ever be confirmed by careful research – in which a certain type of rich, white feminist refuses to listen to the real life experiences of women who are different to herself: migrant labourers, sex workers, athletes, non-binary people, trans women, poor women and injecting drug users. They consider these people to be beneath them and are only interested in the experiences of gender-conforming middle class educated women such as themselves. Don’t be like those women!

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oldster 09.28.19 at 10:35 am

Faustusnotes @ —

“We see in many comments above that people simply refuse to accept either that trans women are women or that they experience a unique level of violence….”

What a bizarre statement. These two issues are totally different from each other.

No one on this thread has denied that transpeople suffer a disproportionate level of attacks and persecution. The data on that are quite clear. And if someone were to persistently deny what the data say about the rates of assaults, harassment, murders, and so on, then they would indeed open themselves up to charges of being bigoted, uncaring, and generally horrible people.

Denying that transwomen are women is nothing like that, at all. It is not bigoted, uncaring, or transphobic. It is simply a matter of trying to call things by their correct names, of not lumping together unlike things. Of being pretty sure that the correct theory of what makes people women, however that will turn out, will not simply be that it’s a matter of someone’s avowal (even sincere avowal). And of respecting the autonomy and dignity of women, most of whom themselves deny that transwomen are women.

By running these two issues together, you seem to be trying to use a reasonable and important point (transwomen suffer disproportionate levels of violence) in order to gain an unreasonable political victory over people who resist being forced to chant the Orwellian slogan that transwomen are women.

“One of the tricks the GCFs have pulled off is to make us accept that our limited public hygiene infrastructure is a fact of life….”

This also strikes me as bizarre on a thread in which many, many people have advocated for changing the provision of toilets to address the existence of people other than men and women.

Are there GCFs out there who are resolutely opposed to the provision of more kinds of bathrooms? Maybe so — I don’t know much about what GCFs say, other than a few things I have read which made no such arguments whatsoever.

But even if there is *some* GCF out there who both points out that transwomen are not women and also insists that we must have no more than two kinds of bathrooms (and what a weird insistence that would be), it is clearly not the view of anyone on this thread. And it is clearly possible to take the common-sense view that transwomen are not women, while also advocating for fundamental changes to our infrastructure. I do it above, at tedious length.

Probably the upshot of this is that taking the common-sense view that transwomen are not women does not make one a GCF, and that GCFs are just one subgroup in the much larger group of people who don’t think transwomen are women. Certainly if being a GCF requires one to think that all transpeople are motvated by “autogynophilia”, then there will not be many GCFs. (Why would anyone want to have any unified theory about why people want to transition? Surely lots of different people do it for lots of different reasons?)

So there may be some terrible people out there who are GCFs and have weird views about toilets and “autogynophilia”. But you are not talking to them on this thread.

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TM 09.28.19 at 10:45 am

engels 75: I think you make a good point (hasn’t happened in a while that I write something like this) but there is no good reason to give up the urinals. To the contrary, providing urinals separately from sit-down-toilets is an efficient way to organize toilet space and as a result, there are more sit-down-toilets available for those who actually need them. It always strikes me as deeply unfair whe I see women in long queues before ladies rooms while men’s toilets are empty (often the women then start using the men’s toilets).

Btw there are female urinals. Why on earth do we still rely on (I guess) Victorian toilet arrangements?

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Sophie Jane 09.28.19 at 11:59 am

I’ve not personally noticed a big difference between my brain on testosterone and my brain on estrogen, but it’s only been six months since I started HRT. I do feel calmer, happier, and more centred than I used to but I think that’s because the process of getting HRT (not to mention coming out as trans) is protracted and stressful, especially in the UK, and it’s a big relief to be through it.

I certainly know a number of trans women who put a strong emphasis on testosterone and its effects but I don’t know any trans men who do, which I think may be significant. At the very least, it’s obvious that the ways gender is expected to be expressed (and indeed the number of genders available) vary from culture to culture in ways that make it hard to reduce to simple biology.

I am, by the way, happy to answer reasonable questions about my experience as a trans woman. Though it’s not actually been very difficult or dramatic – the world, it turns out, is much less transphobic than the internet.

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EB 09.28.19 at 3:57 pm

@79:
This makes sense. Being a transgender woman is not the same as being a natal woman. Just as being an old woman is not the same as being a young woman, and old women who try to pretend otherwise are not dealing well with reality. My trangender nephew always refers to himself as a transgender man, not just a man. It shows his respect for himself, I think.

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Kiwanda 09.28.19 at 9:28 pm

Why, for example, is the issue of sexual assault in prison being dealt with by forcing trans women to be assaulted by men rather than changing prison systems to eliminate sexual abuse altogether? It’s as if rich white tenured professor Kathleen Stock doesn’t really care about the rights of poor non-white male criminals at all,

Not just rich and white, but *tenured*! (And for all I know, one of those “heteronormalized”, “not-gay-enough” people, like Pete Buttigieg.) Well, what does she actually say?

Kathleen Stock:

For instance, crime figures, both in the UK and US, suggest that transpeople are no more at risk of homicide or violent attack than the average person, and may in fact face a lower risk. But even if we take the comparisons at face value, it’s possible to also fund dedicated spaces and resources, specially for transwomen. There’s no reason why females should – as a sexist society regularly expects them to – be the only group to sacrifice their interests in favour of others.

So: reference to evidence regarding dangers to transwomen, and to solutions *other than* forcing imprisoned transwomen into general populations. It’s not hard to find out what her priorities, claims, and arguments are. Why not address those?

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Sumana Harihareswara 09.28.19 at 9:56 pm

There are several folks in this thread trying to talk respectfully and compassionately and thoughtfully about complicated things and I appreciate that. Thank you.

Tom Slee, I disagree with you about a lot of things involved with this subject (as you know) but I do of course think it’s really bad for a rape crisis centre to be vandalized as you described. I learned of your work via Crooked Timber years ago so I thank you for your years of contribution and I look forward to keeping in touch outside the site.

On the topic of this thread: I am a cis woman — once in a while I get mistaken for a man, probably because of my short hair and some aspects of my clothes — and I was for a time a co-organizer of a feminist meetup group, and I’ve advised or been a part of various other feminist projects. This post I made a while back may be useful to some folks thinking about how to be inclusive in what we have often called women’s spaces.

I have several trans friends. I’m fine with trans women and nonbinary people using the same multi-stall toilets/restrooms I use, and I’m happy about the increase in single-stall toilets in public spaces. I recognize that we’re all working with a lot of existing physical and social infrastructure (such as already-built public buildings & the restrooms within them, shelters, and so on); I haven’t been convinced that the risk of cis men misusing access to gender-separated spaces/resources is worth the policy-making, policy enforcement, and dignity cost of trying to exclude trans women from gender-separated spaces/resources.

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Foster Boondoggle 09.28.19 at 11:41 pm

Though I obviously can’t really respond for him, since TS has said he’s done I’ll take up a response to Prof. Bertram and to faustus.

I’m struck in reading these replies at the lack of engagement from the “radical trans” side (or whatever the correct term is) with the issue of conflicting rights raised by the OP and then lots of other commenters. I guess the perspective is that once you declare “trans women are women” to be a fact not subject to debate, there can’t possibly be any true conflict of rights, since there’s just one homogeneous group of women under discussion.

At any rate, I can’t help but notice that neither CB nor faustus responded to TS’s raising the case of Jessica Yaniv, the trans woman who demanded of multiple Vancouver area salons (run mostly by poor immigrant women) that they wax her genitalia, which happen to be male. There seems to be an unarguable clash of at least asserted rights here. One could, I suppose, respond that this is no different from the anti-gay baker refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, but that seems a stretch. Demanding that a woman wax your balls seems a bit more personal. (It’s also hard not to think that Yaniv’s actions – forcing the salons into bias hearings at a provincial tribunal – look an awful lot like stereotypically aggressive male tribal behavior. Provoking the “enemy” so your mates can witness your bravery.)

Faustus wants to argue from a position of harm minimization. That seems like a fair general position to take, but you’re still stuck with the problem that there are conflicting individual rights in play here. You can’t simply compare A’s asserted harm with B’s asserted benefit, decide B’s is larger and declare them the winner. There needs to be some work toward finding a mutually satisfactory accommodation, unless you’re willing to just deny the legitimacy of A’s claim. Whether the GCFs are overstating their case, it seems pretty clear – certainly to many people, if not all – that some, perhaps many natal women will find genuine harm in being forced to share spaces like rape crisis centers or even just locker rooms with people with male bodies and brains formed under the influence of male hormones. The radical trans position seems to be to simply dismiss this harm and call it bigotry. I frankly don’t see how this is going to work as a strategy, though if it does it certainly won’t be the first time that natal males use their power to impose their wishes on unwilling women.

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