GUEST POST: An open letter to JK Rowling’s blog post on Sex and Gender, by Sophie Grace Chappell

by Miriam Ronzoni on June 14, 2020

A guest post by Professor Sophie Grace Chappell (Philosophy, Open University)

As an open response to the following blog post by JK Rowling:

J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues

June 11 2020

Dear Ms Rowling,

I am as far as I know the only Professor of Philosophy in the UK who is also transgender. Because my own research is in ethics, because I have in the past been a Governor of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (though I’m not their spokeswoman here), and because obviously I am also personally involved, I have said a few things in public on transgender issues. So I hope I won’t offend you if I chip in with a few thoughts about the current furore over your recent remarks.

 

I have long been an avid reader of your books. My wife and I read the Harry Potter series to our four daughters when they were small, between 1998 and 2010, and there was much in them that resonated with me as an emerging trans woman. Perhaps particularly the Mirror Of Erised, which, especially before I transitioned (in stages between 2008 and 2014), struck me as a really heart-breaking image for my own condition. If I looked in the magical mirror, and saw myself exactly as I most long to be, what would I see? It was a key moment for me when I first read that passage in The Philosopher’s Stone, and realised more clearly than I ever had before that my own answer to that question was, unavoidably, “Myself as a woman, of course.” But your secret werewolf Remus Lupin resonated too: he tries to be a normal member of society, but there is something dark and terrible and hidden in his nature that, from time to time, he can’t help transforming into. “Remus,” I would think, in the days when I was still trying to hide my own true nature, “I know exactly how you feel.”

 

Once upon a time I thought my own nature as a trans woman was something dark and terrible about me. Your books, Ms Rowling, were one part of what helped me to come to terms with myself. Another and older help was Ursula Le Guin’s extraordinary depiction of Ged in The Wizard of Earthsea. The demon that Ged unleashes, the demon that chases him down until he turns and chases it down, the demon that he has to battle and come to terms with: it’s Ged’s own nature. A Jungian would say, his anima.

 

Here, in the depths of the psyche, there be monsters. Yet we cannot truly deal with the demons by, well, demonising them or extirpating them, as happens in another fantasy epic that you and I both love. In The Lord of the Rings Frodo successfully kills off his own obsessive, addictive, fetishistic lust for the Ring. Yet in the process, he also kills quite a lot of himself; he certainly and avowedly kills most of the ancient elvish world around him. I often wonder what Frodo teaches us about Tolkien… But anyway, the deep psychological truth is that we have to come to terms with our monsters, not just crush or incinerate them. And when we do it can turn out—as it does for Ged, and as it has, I’m happy to say, for me—that those monsters are not monsters at all. They’re just misunderstood and misdirected energies.

 

Perhaps you, Ms Rowling, think that there’s something dark and terrible—and monstrous?—about trans women. You certainly seem to frame us as a threat. You’ve faced appalling and inexcusable abuse and threats (misdirected energies for sure) from some trans women and other activists, especially online. And you’ve now had the courage—which I applaud—to speak out about the male violence that you’ve suffered in earlier parts of your life. So if you do see us as a threat, I can understand your feelings. If it’s worth anything to you, I am happy to renounce all such threatening and abusive behaviour: I don’t want even to seem to be that sort of monster. But I urge you to look a little more closely, and from a different angle, at some of the issues that you’re raising.

 

First, a quick harrumph of exasperation. You wrote on twitter that “If trans people were suffering discrimination on the basis of being trans then I would march with them”. To be honest, that tweet took my breath away. If we were suffering discrimination?? Trans people are one of the most discriminated-against groups in the world! What have you been reading for three years, if you haven’t noticed that?

 

But let’s let that pass; perhaps it was a Saturday-night lapse. Let’s move on to some points of simple and straightforward agreement. First, free speech matters, and must not be silenced by threats and intimidation. Yes, absolutely, and I’ve been in places where I was shouted down or otherwise silenced (e.g. by having speaker invitations withdrawn) both by socially conservative bigots and by trans-unsympathetic feminists. It isn’t always easy to speak out for transgender rights either. The climate of hatred does none of us any good. And it is particularly toxic for trans women who, like me, have grown up (at school and elsewhere) in an atmosphere of derision and rejection. I see from what you say that you understand how that kind of hatred can be internalised if you’re exposed to it long enough. When trans-unsympathetic feminists deliberately misgender trans women, or deride our appearance, or tell us “You’re men really”, or stigmatise us as perverts and predators, just the same thing is going on. It’s a raw nerve for us, and angry (and sometimes inexcusably violent) responses are evoked by that kind of hate-speech, because we ourselves have had to battle our way to self-acceptance, in the teeth of our own internalised transphobia.

 

Next, you raise some doubts in effect about whether everyone who transitions “really means it”, and whether some of the transitioning, particularly in the female-to-male direction, is perhaps really triggered by society’s misogyny, and/or by people misunderstanding their own natures, and wrongly thinking that they’re transgender when really they’re gay.

 

You don’t—I’m relieved to see—try to claim that all transitioning has these causes. I have heard eminent “gender critical” philosophers make exactly that claim, and frankly it horrifies me. It is patent “cisplaining” and gaslighting of trans people to say that. The claim is contrary to all the existing evidence, and it’s a clear instance of what Daniel Radcliffe, Eddie Redmayne, and Katie Leung (bless them) have all recently spoken out against in public—attempts to erase transgender identities altogether.

 

Since you only think that some gender transitioning is “not genuine” but has these other causes, we aren’t in deep disagreement here. Of course sometimes there might be those poor reasons for someone’s decision to transition. If so, two things follow. First, we need a society that clearly and unambiguously rejects misogyny and homophobia, to get rid of the false prompts that may have led some people in directions that don’t help their own self-understanding. Secondly, it’s an empirical matter, and a particular one, how to deal with individual people who are or may be in this plight. I’m sure we agree that they should be treated sensitively and caringly and discerningly; and that no pressure should be put on them to go in any particular direction—the counselling and help that they receive should be client- (or patient-) led. The results of any other policy for young people’s well-being can be and often are devastating. Parental or teacher-led gaslighting and “dissuasion” strategies can and often do lead vulnerable young people towards depression, self-harm, and even suicide. That remains the majority view at the Tavistock Centre, and it is certainly what’s suggested by my own biography, by my experience as a sometime BACP Governor, and by my own attempts to help other transgender people.

 

This brings us to safeguarding. I have recently read some outstandingly good online materials about how to safeguard all school students’ well-being, including transgender students; I’m thinking of Brighton & Hove City Council’s online “transgender toolkit”, which I recommend to your attention. What struck me about those materials was how sensible and tactful they were. And also, how client-led: these are clearly materials that have been developed in response to the lived reality of students in Brighton and Hove schools. That, I think, is the approach we should all be taking. Start where people actually are, not from some pre-existing ideology or from innately hostile assumptions; above all, don’t use young people as your mouthpieces for your own theoretical convictions. By and large, schools in the UK have been very good about this, I think—at least until recently.

 

At this point we come to the different debates about female-only spaces. These are different debates, and they have different outcomes (particularly in the case of women’s refuges), and I can’t discuss all of them here. So I’ll focus on the one that affects more people than any other, the toilets debate. A debate that is already deeply bogged-down (sorry), is full of utter crap (sorry again), and doesn’t, alas, seem likely to get unblocked any time soon (OK, I’ll stop now).

 

You write—with evident passion—that “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman… then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.” But with the greatest of respect: that isn’t true at all. Let me try and explain why not.

The first thing to say is that—like many others—you’re making a connection here between this debate about toilets and changing rooms and another bogged-down debate, the one about legal self-identification. But the two are completely unconnected. For one thing, it’s not currently an offence in UK law for a man to enter the Ladies’. (And there is some justification for this: the Ladies’ can be the best place for a father to take a 4-year-old daughter; it can also be the only place with nappy-changing facilities.) So no legal protection on ladies’ toilets is being removed by gender self-identification.

 

For another thing, have we really lost sight of the fact that, when anyone goes to the loo, they are not asked to present their papers first? So it is already possible, both in law and in practice, for “male sexual predators” to access women’s toilets for nefarious purposes. It always has been. And here’s a newsflash: they don’t have to disguise themselves as women to do so, either. A much simpler tactic, surely, would be for such a predator to disguise himself as a male toilet attendant. So where is the outrage and orchestrated suspicion about that category of natal males in women’s toilets?

 

It is extraordinary that people think that a change in the law about gender identity is what matters here, when what matters is patently not that law, but the policing of public safety in public spaces. Trans women, including me, have been routinely using the Ladies’ for decades now. The law on how officially to declare yourself a woman has simply nothing to do with this social fact. We’re here, have been for ages, and all we want to do is—well, use the loo. What else would we want, for heaven’s sake?

 

Women of every kind should be and feel safe in the public toilets. Of course they should; everybody should. But trans women are simply not a threat to women’s safety—not as such. As you say yourself, “the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection.” If we google hard enough, we can find bad anecdotes about trans women attacking other women in the toilets; the tabloids go to town on such anecdotes whenever possible, and so do some trans-unsympathetic feminists. But anecdotes aren’t data. And you can find bad anecdotes about natal women attacking other women in the toilets, too. All of that should stop, of course it should. But trans women are not the problem here. Violence is.

 

Those of us trans women who “pass” as natal females aren’t even a perceived problem. Those of us who don’t pass, like me I suppose, aren’t a problem even if we’re perceived as one. And we find it deeply offensive to be profiled as we are now sometimes being profiled, as threatening, creepy, deceptive, predatory—and as men. Violence against women (including trans women) is a blot on our society. But treating trans women, as such, as somehow uniquely culpable for that violence is a ridiculous slur, and a deeply discriminatory one—in just the same way as it would be a discriminatory slur to blame black people, as such, for it.

 

About the law, incidentally. The Scottish Government is as you say proceeding with a gender recognition bill. I welcome this, myself. Currently a formal change of gender is a humiliating, protracted, and medicalising process; you can be knocked back in the process and if you are you have no right of appeal, ever; what counts in the process is not who I know myself to be, but what a panel of doctors make of me. That does need changing, and I think the Scottish Government are right to seek to replicate in our law a change that has already happened in some countries—for example Ireland in 2015—with no bad or even dramatic effects at all. (Up to 2017, this is how many Irish transgender people had availed themselves of their new right to change their gender by self-identification: 230. Does that sound to you like a tidal wave of opportunistic predators?)

You describe the proposal as “a law that will in effect mean that all a man needs to ‘become a woman’ is to say he’s one.” But surely that’s not fair. To quote Shirley Anne Somerville, the Minister responsible: “The term ‘self-identification’ is routinely used but in my view this does not adequately reflects the seriousness, or the permanency, of the process envisaged… applicants will be required to make a solemn statutory declaration that they intend to live in their acquired gender permanently and that they have already been living in their acquired gender.” What the Scottish Government are talking about is a serious, legal, and irreversible step. To take it insincerely would be both to commit perjury, and also to leave yourself in a legal limbo, since you can’t change back. To think that this matter of law has anything at all to do with the danger of men impersonating women in order to access spaces where they can harm women—that just doesn’t seem like clear thinking at all.

Ms Rowling, it’s certainly not my intention, or the intention of any trans activists whom I personally know, to erode or erase the biological reality of (cis) women’s experience. Certainly not. Natal females start in a different place from trans women, and have a different journey and a different story, and undergo different things both good and bad. All these stories are worthwhile and valuable, and no one should be trying to prevent any of them from being told. Like the rest of the world, I look forward eagerly to seeing which of all these stories, in the future, you yourself choose to tell.

With all best wishes,

Professor Sophie Grace Chappell

Department of Philosophy, The Open University

England MK7 6AA

{ 93 comments }

1

Steve 06.14.20 at 3:24 pm

My sympathies went immediately to JK Rowling when she wrote her essay but Prof. Chappell’s essay has been the very best critical response I’ve seen. Bravo for a wonderfully written explainer to those of us who are maybe not as familiar with trans perspectives as we should be. I do think a lot of criticism of JKR on this subject has been way overboard, ascribing a viciousness and hatred to her that I just don’t see. This essay explains some things but doesn’t cast nasty stones. I wish more discourse was handled on this level.

2

MPAVictoria 06.14.20 at 3:29 pm

Powerful piece of writing. Thank you.

3

steven t johnson 06.14.20 at 3:31 pm

“In The Lord of the Rings Frodo successfully kills off his own obsessive, addictive, fetishistic lust for the Ring. Yet in the process, he also kills quite a lot of himself; he certainly and avowedly kills most of the ancient elvish world around him. I often wonder what Frodo teaches us about Tolkien… ”

What we learn about Tolkien first of all is, he feels there is no sorrow sweeter than the remembrance of the Good Old Days, when the world and he, or perhaps he and the world, were young. I think. Nor am I sure I’m holy enough to condemn him.

I might easily be horribly mistaken though, as I thought Frodo failed, completely, surrendered to the temptation of the Ring. If there is any sense in which he won, it would be I suppose his command to Smeagol/Gollum, to throw himself off a cliff or into the fire, for daring to take the Ring again. Giving commands by power of the Ring isn’t killing off the addiction to the Ring. (The movie omits this scene, which takes place at the Black Gate/Morannon in the novel, as I recall.)

Since Frodo did not destroy the Ring on purpose, I never understood Frodo destroyed the magic of the world. (I rather thought growing up did this?) But in the novel’s terms, I think the destruction of the Ring was the end of the wonders because the Ring was the greatest wonder of all, the one that ruled all the others. The hiding of the elvish rings was just a temporary, bittersweet victory that couldn’t last.

On a trivial note, defending the phrase “persons who menstruate” is embarrassing. I wasn’t offended enough to read more than few lines of Rowling’s comments on that. I can’t really imagine feeling like my genitals are a kind of deformity or the equivalent of a hideous mutilation and scarring. The oppression of such a feeling must be tormenting.

4

Michael C 06.14.20 at 4:45 pm

Thank you for this remarkably thoughtful, temperate, and generous response.

5

Thomas Beale 06.14.20 at 6:13 pm

There’s a lot to unpack here in a topic usually full of venom. Having a philosopher who is also trans weigh in is very welcome. I can clear up one area.

But treating trans women, as such, as somehow uniquely culpable for that violence is a ridiculous slur, and a deeply discriminatory one—in just the same way as it would be a discriminatory slur to blame black people, as such, for it.

I didn’t read JKR’s statements to mean the above, and a seriously doubt she meant that. I have close women friends who express the same fear. It’s not because they don’t believe there are perfectly normal trans people around, it’s that they’ve seen the vitriol and verbal violence of vocal trans-activists (as snapshotted on sites like Terf is a slur, which I have to admit took my own breath away when I was first shown it), and the idea of opening women’s-only toilets and changing spaces to a new category of phenotypic male individual evincing such deep misogyny scares the hell out of them – particularly those who have been raped. It doesn’t help that some of trans people are perfectly normal; the problem is there’s no way to tell the difference between the latter and trans-activists calling for ‘all terfs to be shot in the head’ etc (I don’t mean to say there is really no way; I’m just recounting the fear as it has been expressed to me).

I don’t really have a better answer to propose on toilets (the facts in law as you state them are correct to my knowledge), but I can tell you that the fear felt by female victims of sexual abuse when they perceive that they might be exposed to males (in the biological sense) who truly despise and hate women is not academic, it’s visceral. It stops (some of) them from being able to even use certain facilities.

There is a deeper definitional problem underlying all this, which is the meaning of the term ‘woman’. In the biomedical sciences and clinical medicine people and particularly information systems have to work with objectively true definitions that map properly to reality. ‘Woman’ was until recently an uncontroversial term (and a natural kind), and still is in these fields. The term ‘trans woman’ is ontologically problematic, since it’s a fiat category whose extension consists of individuals whose phenotype is male, with or without the various modifications that may be undertaken in a transition. It is therefore no surprise that the category ‘trans woman’ is not subsumed under the category ‘woman’, and that indeed if it were represented as if it were (i.e. phenotypic and/or genotypic males were recorded as females) in say large health record systems, CDC database, national statistics databases or clinical trial systems, all kinds of errors and confusion would ensue.

The public discourse on this topic largely proceeds without the benefit of any understanding of such things as ‘ontologies’ or ‘subsumption’, hence ontic realities are bypassed, and we see the radical left go straight to outrage (in defense of the formula ‘trans women are women, anyone who says otherwise … etc’) while old-school feminists are left marooned trying to salvage even the definition of the class they seek to advocate for, and everyone else is just confused (including the law; the Maya Forstater judgment being a failure that will shake the faith of many in the law being adequately connected to reality).

The debate about changing spaces is somewhat complicated. But the debate on women’s sports a lot less so: the analysis proceeds more or less on the same basis as it does of a patient in the clinic. Phenotype is the main thing that matters (discounting mental health issues obviously); some aspects of personal history come into play (hormone interventions and the like). The separation of the sexes in tennis, football, rugby and most other sports isn’t after all discriminatory in any value-laden way, it’s a straightforward outcome of biological reality. No-one seriously argues that Serena Williams really should be facing Novak Djokovic on the tennis court. The trans question is sport is a very real one for many girls and women who have spent much of their lives on their passion; today some are saying ‘why bother, we’re just going to be beaten by men’.

Thus, despite the lack of public knowledge on the philosophical distinctions in these issues, many people intuitively realise that there is a claim to force one category of thing under another, when it doesn’t go.

As a philosopher the OP will be unsurprised by any of the above (and I hope not offended by the articulation of it). I think much of the conflict could be solved by better terminology in the social realm that aligns with reality. That’s heresy of course, but the place we are now is not good, and poor adapted terminology seems to be part of the reason.

6

oldster 06.14.20 at 7:47 pm

Thanks for this, Professor Chappell.

7

Jean 06.14.20 at 8:06 pm

I am so exhausted by all this. I’m disappointed that you only engaged with one point of the 5 Rowling made, but OK, I’ll meet you on the ‘bathroom’ issue. It’s extraordinarily disingenuous for you and others to assume that the ‘bathroom’ issue is about ordinary women going about their days. It is not. It’s about trauma and whose rights matter more.

I live on the west coast of Canada, where Trans dreams have largely all come true. And here is what I know:
I used to volunteer extensively at a charity for vulnerable women – indigenous women, sex workers attempting to escape, domestic violence victims, rape victims. Women who are struggling to get survive. Two years ago our main funding body (initials UW) gained a new transwoman board member, and sweeping funding changes were implemented. We were told that unless we offered all our services to natal and transwomen equally, we would be immediately and irrevocably defunded. We pointed out that many of these women were terrified of male-bodied people, and had repeatedly been traumatized by male-bodied people, but there was no sympathy for such an argument. Apparently women who refuse to take part in therapy or other programs with transwomen were ‘transphobic’, and therefore undeserving of any charity or help. We suggested offering similar, parallel services, and were denied. So we acquiesced, and opened our programs to all who wanted them, even transwomen who made no attempt to pass. Our clients dropped out in droves, but not before one was assaulted by one of the new transwomen clients. The organization is now being sued, but I and others have since dropped away. The charity is now a shell of what it once was.

Similarly, the Vancouver Rape Relief shelter has been defunded completely, all for standing up for vulnerable, traumatized women, who would be re-traumatized by being forced to be around male-bodied people.

Is that winning? It sure didn’t feel like justice to me.

I have not doubt that you’ll call me a TERF, declare me transphobic if you respond at all. But I am still a woman, not a menstruator or whatever you want to call me. I am not going to go away or be silenced by anyone. Most women I know all believe the same, even if they are too scared to speak out publicly.

8

Mike Petrik 06.14.20 at 8:23 pm

I disagree with Professor Chappell’s reasoning, but very much applaud its seriousness and temperament.

9

Harrison Ainsworth 06.14.20 at 9:50 pm

A critical fundamental has been glossed over here: how do men qualify for the category of woman. Because that seems the only way to qualify for anything based on that category, any women’s spaces, resources, etc.

Citing some kind of oppression would not seem to work, since oppression gradients do not determine sex category. (Indeed, it is hard to see how feminism could exist except for the fact that the determination runs in the opposite direction.).

Without an answer, any of the other moral claims look like a struggle to justify.

10

J-D 06.14.20 at 11:34 pm

There is a deeper definitional problem underlying all this, which is the meaning of the term ‘woman’. In the biomedical sciences and clinical medicine people and particularly information systems have to work with objectively true definitions that map properly to reality. ‘Woman’ was until recently an uncontroversial term (and a natural kind), and still is in these fields.

Some people think that all human beings fall into just one of only two categories: those who are born with an XX karyotype, ovaries, a uterus, and a vulva; and those who are born with an XY karyotype, testicles, a prostate, and a penis.

The people who think that are mistaken. Nobody sufficiently well informed about the relevant findings of the biomedical sciences should think that.

11

J-D 06.15.20 at 12:33 am

But the debate on women’s sports a lot less so: the analysis proceeds more or less on the same basis as it does of a patient in the clinic. Phenotype is the main thing that matters (discounting mental health issues obviously); some aspects of personal history come into play (hormone interventions and the like). The separation of the sexes in tennis, football, rugby and most other sports isn’t after all discriminatory in any value-laden way, it’s a straightforward outcome of biological reality. No-one seriously argues that Serena Williams really should be facing Novak Djokovic on the tennis court. The trans question is sport is a very real one for many girls and women who have spent much of their lives on their passion; today some are saying ‘why bother, we’re just going to be beaten by men’.

Was this the attitude of Virginia Wade when she played (and beat) Renée Richards in the first round of the US Open, after Richards won a court case against an attempt to exclude her from the women’s competition? (Richards went on to play in the women’s singles four more time without getting past the third round.) It obviously wasn’t the attitude of Billie Jean King when she played Bobby Riggs in ‘The Battle Of The Sexes’, although I am well aware that’s a different case.

Since Richards won her court case, there is presumably no legal barrier to more trans women playing in the US Open Women’s Singles, and yet that competition continues much as before (as far as I know; I don’t pay much attention, and would be personally untroubled if all professional tennis ceased entirely).

12

Kiwanda 06.15.20 at 1:23 am

It’s a stretch maybe, but a charitable reading of JK Rowling’s tweet

I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.

is that it’s more along the lines of a personal promise to hypothetical individuals, not an implicit claim that discrimination doesn’t happen.

It could be Rowling agrees that “no pressure should be put on [those considering gender transition] to go in any particular direction—the counselling and help that they receive should be client- (or patient-) led”. But if, as she says, sixty to ninety percent of gender dysphoric teens grow out of their dysphoria, and the number of girls seeking transition has increased by a factor of four in recent years, there are a large number of young people, particularly girls, who may be making irreversible changes to their bodies that they will later regret. Such people are also at risk of suicide:

Yet in 2019, it was revealed that the GIDS program at Tavistock clinic had lowered the age at which it offers children puberty blockers on the basis of a study that – it later was revealed – concluded that “after a year of treatment, ‘a significant increase’ was found in patients who had been born female self-reporting to staff that they ‘deliberately try to hurt or kill myself.'” The fact that Tavistock officials ignored such evidence suggests they have bought into the idea that transition is a goal unto itself, separate from the wellbeing of individual children, who now are being used as pawns in an ideological campaign.

It may be that bathroom policy affects more people, but prison policy affects some women very seriously: there are some instances of sexual assaults by trans women in female prisons, and these assaults occur at a higher rate than by natal women (by a factor of five). One could say here too, that “trans women are not the problem here. Violence is,” and there is certainly some judgement exercised on this by the relevant authorities, but not enough, it seems. Maybe third spaces are an answer.

13

Anvil 06.15.20 at 4:34 am

And we find it deeply offensive to be profiled as we are now sometimes being profiled, as threatening, creepy, deceptive, predatory—and as men.

This is a problem–the idea that it’s offensive to “profile” trans women as men. I’ve known several trans women, and interacting with each of them was like interacting with a cis man, right down to the sexism. How can women call out this kind of behavior if we’re not allowed to identify its source?

14

Anonymous Statistician 06.15.20 at 4:54 am

@Thomas Beale:

“In the biomedical sciences and clinical medicine people and particularly information systems have to work with objectively true definitions that map properly to reality. ‘Woman’ was until recently an uncontroversial term (and a natural kind), and still is in these fields. ”

This is categorically wrong. As many biomedical scientists/geneticists/etc. would be happy to tell you, biological sex is vastly more complicated than a simple “male”/”female” binary, and improved access to genetic testing continues to expand our understanding of just how complex it can get. It’s better understood as a bimodal distribution: most people (…chickens, sheep, …) will be somewhere close to the typical male or typical female traits, but a substantial number are not.

“It is therefore no surprise that the category ‘trans woman’ is not subsumed under the category ‘woman’, and that indeed if it were represented as if it were (i.e. phenotypic and/or genotypic males were recorded as females) in say large health record systems, CDC database, national statistics databases or clinical trial systems, all kinds of errors and confusion would ensue.”

As it happens, I work in a national statistical organisation, so I can assure you that your worries on that front are unfounded. We have acknowledged these complexities for several years now; our data standards acknowledge “sex” and “gender” as distinct attributes, both of which can change during a person’s life, with guidance to collect gender data unless there is a strong reason to collect sex. The world hasn’t ended. Before we updated those standards, I’m sure some trans women reported as “female” and some trans men as “male”, and the world didn’t end then either.

As well as trans people, there are quite a few people in the world who are “genotypic males” who get recorded as “female” because they appear physically female and nobody has looked at their genes.

The “health record systems” argument is another non sequitur, because “were you born with a willy?” doesn’t come close to enough information for providing appropriate healthcare, especially for trans people. A transgender woman on HRT may not qualify as “genotypic and/or phenotypic female” but that HRT is still very important information for her care, because hormones affect all sorts of things – depending on the medical issue, “female” may well be a better categorisation than “male”. A sensible doctor won’t just depend on a binary checkbox.

15

J-D 06.15.20 at 8:18 am

This is a problem–the idea that it’s offensive to “profile” trans women as men. I’ve known several trans women, and interacting with each of them was like interacting with a cis man, right down to the sexism. How can women call out this kind of behavior if we’re not allowed to identify its source?

I don’t understand why it should be necessary to understand the source of sexist behaviour (if this were possible, which I’m not sure it is) in order to identify it as sexist behaviour and respond to it accordingly.

16

notGoodenough 06.15.20 at 9:38 am

First a general comment:

1) I condemn abuse towards people in general (such as death threats, violent language, etc.), and certainly don´t condone it in the case of JK Rowling (hereafter referred to as JKR for brevity) or anyone else.

2) Sexual abuse is a serious issue, and I have sympathy for anyone who has suffered it. I hope anyone who has is able to reach a good frame of mind, and gets whatever support they need.

It is, I hope, perfectly possible to criticise the views of JKR or anyone else without resorting to abusive language, as the OP has demonstrated.

There are some statements which have been made with which I do not fully agree, and some concepts I currently have which I believe are valid and have yet to have sufficient evidence to reconsider (this may change, of course, as I am always prepared to change my mind should the evidence warrant it). I will offer my thoughts for consideration, and – while others may have responded already to some things I cover – I hope this will prove fruitful.

17

notGoodenough 06.15.20 at 9:38 am

Thomas Beale @ 5

“In the biomedical sciences and clinical medicine people and particularly information systems have to work with objectively true definitions that map properly to reality.”

While I am not currently active in the fields of biomedical science and clinical medicine, I have been a scientist for a few decades now and I find this a rather odd framing (and I certainly have considerable issues with your use of the phrase “objectively true definitions”). Firstly, as the problem of hard solipsism has yet to be solved, I would argue “objectively true” is a rather misleading concept in and of itself. Secondly, science does not make proclamations of objective truth. We (in the best case) form tentative models which best explain all available evidence and are contradicted by none, the confidence in which is proportional to the evidence. These models are subject to revision should new evidence come to light, or should a re-evaluation of old evidence reveal hitherto unnoticed discrepancies. In short, while we try to seek the maximal “map to reality”, it is on the understanding that we are continually refining based on an evolving and improving understanding. And while previous models may sufficiently explain a majority of situations (otherwise they would not be adopted), ongoing research which brings in new models and overturn the old means that the previous models may be less accurate [1].

‘Woman’ was until recently an uncontroversial term (and a natural kind), and still is in these fields.

My biology classes actually avoided that term, and instead use ´male´ and ´female´ (as you do later, when discussing phenotypes). However, even these terms are very imprecise, and have changed over time. For example, for a long time the definition of female was “an individual of the sex that bears young” or “that produces ova or eggs”. However, as I am sure you will easily see, that would mean that a ´female´ who is or becomes incapable of bearing young or producing ova/eggs would no longer be ´female´. The definition has, therefore, evolved: for example, one more recent common way of identifying ´female´ is by chromosome complement (but even this is rather complex), while other definitions have included five factors present at birth (but this is complicated by many other factors such as intersex individuals) [2]. In short, it seems to be a fuzzy and changing area, so I am unconvinced that ´women´ has always been ´uncontroversial´ and ´natural´ any more than other similarly imprecise definitions which tend to be handwaved in a “you-know-what-I-mean” way.

If, however, you do believe that ´women´ is a natural and uncontroversial term, then you should surely have no problem clearly defining it?

“The term ‘trans woman’ is ontologically problematic, since it’s a fiat category whose extension consists of individuals whose phenotype is male, with or without the various modifications that may be undertaken in a transition.”

I take issue with this as (as previously mentioned) male / female phenotypes are by no means as binary as you appear to be implying. Moreover, you appear to be suggesting that it is impossible for someone who is assigned male at birth (AMAB) to ever take on the phenotypes associated with someone assigned female at birth (AFAB). If this is indeed what you mean, could you support that with some definitions of what you consider male/female phenotypes and evidence of why you believe that to be the case? If that is not what you mean, could you clarify a little – I certainly wish to avoid misunderstanding or mischaracterizing you.

”It is therefore no surprise that the category ‘trans woman’ is not subsumed under the category ‘woman’”

Firstly, what do you mean by the category “women” – without a more precise definition it is not only impossible for me to be surprised or not, but also impossible to tell whether or not “trans women” can/could be/is already subsumed in that. Given your stance regarding the importance of ontology, it is somewhat confusing you offer no clear definition as to what you mean – again this could lead to misunderstanding and miscommunication, something which (you rightly point out) is best avoided in these discussions.

I will also note that “radical left” and “old school feminists” are both descriptors you neglect to to define (which, given that people still argue over what is meant by these terms would seem to be a little confusing), and are also not direct contradictions (and given the importance of this to constructing reasonable syllogisms, I hope you will clarify what you mean by these as well).

“…everyone else is just confused (including the law; the Maya Forstater judgment being a failure that will shake the faith of many in the law being adequately connected to reality)”

In what way was the Maya Forstater judgement a failure? Please be specific, and refer to which parts of the ruling you take issue with as being a failure.

In what way do you think this will shake the faith of many in the law? Again, please elucidate.

[1] To give an example: Newtonian physics was at the time it was adopted the best possible model explaining the available evidence. However, ongoing research showed that there were cases which it could not adequately explain (which could then be explained using new and different models, such as quantum theory and relativity). This does not mean that Newtonian mechanics was wrong, per se, but rather that it only applied to certain situations. And while a grand unified theory has not yet been found, expanding our understanding has led to demonstrating that Newtonian physics is not sufficient for explaining all available cases.

[2] While this topic is far too complicated to give an appropriate nuanced discussion (and certainly there are many others far better qualified than myself to do so), my understanding is as follows:

Chromosomal definitions rely solely on the presence of XX (female) or XY (male) within the body, which is an oversimplification as not only are there more variations than that available but also because it is possible for XX to present ´male´ gonads and XY to present ´female´ gonads, due to the influence of other factors (such as SRY, DMRT1, and FOXL2). The “five factor” approach is slightly more nuanced as it is based on five factors at birth 1) presence/absence of SRY gene; 2) the type of gonads; 3) the sex hormones present; 4) internal reproductive anatomy (e.g. uterus); and 5) external genitalia. However, even this is far too simplistic as although brief and coordinated SRY-activation initiates the process of male-sex differentiation, genes like DMRT1 and FOXL2 maintain certain sexual characteristics during adulthood. If these genes stop functioning, gonads can change and exhibit characteristics of the opposite sex. Furthermore, SRY, DMRT1, and FOXL2 aren’t directly involved with other aspects of biological sex – e.g. secondary sex characteristics arise later from a wide range of factors, such as hormones, environment, experience, and genes interactions.

Indeed, it has long been known that there are DSDs and “intersex” individuals (people whose physical characteristics are not completely male or female). This includes genetic variations in the complement of sex chromosomes (for example, a mix of XX and XY sex chromosomes in the same body, or an extra or missing sex chromosomes) and variations in the development of the genitals or the gonads (individuals can be born with both testicular and ovarian gonadal tissue or with ambiguous genitalia). As recently as the 1980s and early 1990s, it was not uncommon to assign a sex at birth and to surgically alter the child to physically conform – and some estimates have put the number of intersex babies born at rates as potentially high as 2%, with corrective surgeries perhaps approaching 0.1 or 0.2% (source: M. Blackless et al, Am. J. Hum. Biol., 2000, 151-166).

Of course it is perhaps also worth considering that ´we´ (in the sense of our minds) are (as far as I can tell) more an emergent property of brain states than the factors previously mentioned. This complicates matters even further as, while the idea of “male” / “female” brains is both incredibly problematic and a vast oversimplification (differences are both far less and far more varied than you might imagine for a supposed binary), there is some tentative evidence from neuroimaging that brain states of trans individuals give credence to ideas surrounding gender. For example, some studies show that certain brain characteristics of trans individuals are between that of cisgender male and female before and after transitioning and that other brain areas are in fact closed to those of cisgender individuals with the same gender (source: B. P. C. Kreukels et al, Int. Rev. Psychiatry, 2016, 120-128; L. Simon et al, PLoS ONE, 2013, e83947), while other studies seem to show that trans individuals have unique structural differences in other areas (A. Guillamon, Arch. Sex. Behav., 2016, 1615-1648). This would seem to imply that trans individuals are not easily categorised by their brains (and surely if we are anything, it is our minds), lending further credence to the idea that transgender identity is indeed a scientifically valid concept.

In short, I think you will find this topic is a lot more complicated than you appear to suggest.

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Jonathan 06.15.20 at 10:14 am

Thank you, Sophie, for this brilliantly clear, reflective and serious piece. It is great in many ways.

If you have time, I would like to know what you think about the issue of women’s refuges. Speaking for myself, I did not take ‘gender critical’ views seriously until I read an article about women’s refuges – and then I thought, ah, this is more complicated than I realized. The author, who worked in a refuge, argued that some victims of male violence need a single-sex space in order to feel safe. A commenter on this thread (Jean, #7) has made a similar argument.

I’m not sure this issue can be fully disconnected from the issue of toilets. If toilets were just toilets, it would be simple. But one thing I had not realized at all until recently is that in some contexts, such as pubs and clubs, toilets double-up as de facto women’s refuges -they are places of escape. To the extent that this is true, the same arguments may apply. They also may not, but it does strike me as a complicated issue that calls for respectful dialogue.

I think it would be a wonderful thing if your article leads to a debate about these questions that maintains the same calm, respectful, charitable tone as the article itself.

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Thomas Beale 06.15.20 at 10:23 am

J-D @ 11

Was this the attitude of Virginia Wade when she played (and beat) Renée Richards in the first round of the US Open …

It doesn’t really matter what these specific people may think. What matters is the real (and realistic) fear of girls and women in sports generally. There’s no point beating about the bush here: real biological phenotype does matter in sport.

The other point about there being non XX / XY karyotypes, while true, isn’t of importance here, which is why I didn’t mention it. There are always grey areas. This one doesn’t change the main fact of the tension between the use of the word ‘women’ to include males and its biological meaning, which does not.

Anonymous Statistician @ 14

“In the biomedical sciences and clinical medicine people and particularly information systems have to work with objectively true definitions that map properly to reality. ‘Woman’ was until recently an uncontroversial term (and a natural kind), and still is in these fields. ”

This is categorically wrong. As many biomedical scientists/geneticists/etc. would be happy to tell you, biological sex is vastly more complicated than a simple “male”/”female” binary, and improved access to genetic testing continues to expand our understanding of just how complex it can get. It’s better understood as a bimodal distribution: most people (…chickens, sheep, …) will be somewhere close to the typical male or typical female traits, but a substantial number are not.

Biological sex is indeed somewhat more complicated for a small number of individuals. It doesn’t however change the understanding of what ‘female’ and ‘male’ mean in biology, and indeed, the latter definitions are required precisely in order to be able to determine what constitutes a naturally occurring genotypic or phenotypic deviation. Without them, we don’t know what we are talking about.

As it happens, I work in a national statistical organisation, so I can assure you that your worries on that front are unfounded. We have acknowledged these complexities for several years now; our data standards acknowledge “sex” and “gender” as distinct attributes, both of which can change during a person’s life, with guidance to collect gender data unless there is a strong reason to collect sex. The world hasn’t ended. Before we updated those standards, I’m sure some trans women reported as “female” and some trans men as “male”, and the world didn’t end then either.

Indeed they are not unfounded. What you are talking about is ‘administrative gender’ and ‘sex’ which is how these data fields are usually named in health IT systems. In clinical trials, medical research or just clinical point of care, the mis-recording of a phenotypic male as a phenotypic female (in the ‘sex’ field) would indeed create serious problems. If the data are recorded properly, there will be no problem.

However, some general practitioners already today are being pressured to bow to demands of (as they perceive it) political correctness, and record patients identifying as trans women as individuals with male sex.

As well as trans people, there are quite a few people in the world who are “genotypic males” who get recorded as “female” because they appear physically female and nobody has looked at their genes.

That does happen, and in the delivery of much of their healthcare, it won’t matter, i.e. these are not the cases that matter.

These issues are not insurmountable if the right thing is done; it’s just a question of doing the right thing. The main point is that data aggregation, reporting and analytics will fail if it is not.

None of the facts about sex variation changes the central issue for many, many women, which is what happens when the definition of ‘women’ is widened to include (biological) males who claim to be women (by whatever process – apparently in Canada, not much of one…), particularly (but not only) of the ‘kill all terfs’ variety. We have some further examples of why articulated above.

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notGoodenough 06.15.20 at 10:29 am

A general thought regarding concerns of safety and transgender individuals.

Firstly I should note I have no wish to dismiss anyone´s feelings or concerns as being invalid. What people feel is what they feel – and I for one have no wish to force people into situations they feel uncomfortable with.

That said, regarding the bathroom/changing room concerns:

I would hope that people who have these concerns can see that (while their feelings are certainly important to them) it would be dangerous to legislate based on people´s feelings rather than the evidence. After all, there are a not insignificant number of people who feel many things to be true which are not demonstrable, and it would be dangerous to legislate as if they were [1].

However, it is worth noting that (in the UK at least) the number of people comfortable with sharing a bathroom with a trans person of the same gender are a majority [2], with people “Very comfortable, Quite comfortable, and Neither comfortable nor uncomfortable” being 86% (asked only of women; sharing with trans women) and 84% (asked only of men; sharing with trans men) with the remaining respondents being “Quite uncomfortable” and “Very uncomfortable”. Indeed, not only were more women comfortable sharing with trans women, but also majority were in the “Very comfortable” category (47%) and “Quite comfortable category” (25%). It would seem, therefore, that the evidence would support this is not an issue for the majority of men and women. Not only that, but given that more Women are comfortable than Men, it seems odd that the topic always focuses on trans women rather than trans men – however, as that is the case that will also be my focus (I don´t wish to derail concerns by insisting on a more balanced view).

Nevertheless, as I´ve said before, it is important not to dismiss people merely because they are a minority. People who have genuine fear of sharing space with trans people should also be considered. While I am by no means an expert, my understanding is that most female bathrooms and changing rooms are typically defined by individual stalls of some kind. It would seem to me – and please do correct me if I am wrong – that it would be highly unlikely that any cis women would be aware of the presence of a trans women´s body under normal circumstances. That then means that only way a cis women who has these concerns would be afraid of someone is if they a) have conducted an exhaustive genetic and physiological examination or b) believe they can identify trans people by sight (which would seem very problematic given that I have yet to have a clear explanation as to how this would occur).

Of course, it is not just cisgendered people who suffer sexual abuse – for example, transgendered people may be suffering rates of sexual assault (often coupled with violence) of up to 65% [3]. While I am sympathetic that there may be cis women who require a space absence of trans women, it would seem that that would necessarily preclude offering that space to trans women. It would seem a little unreasonable that as a society we should be expected to fund a space for cis women who are uncomfortable while denying those resources to trans women who are suffering sexual assault. However, if someone as a private individual wished to set up a safe space for cis women only (and did so using private space), I see no reason to object to that (merely to requiring such a thing from society at large).

While it may be that there is no way to resolve this to everyone´s satisfaction, I´m afraid it is as of yet unclear to me why using the bathroom associated with your gender should be an issue.

[1] For example, there are people who feel that some races are inferior to others, or that women should not be held equal to men. Some people are irrationally afraid of certain different races, and would be afraid to be in contact with them. I should be clear I am not accusing those with concerns regarding transgender people of holding any of these views, but am giving those as examples of feelings which I would expect most commentators would recognise as not being something on which we should base our society.

[2] Source: British Social Attitudes 34, table 5.

[3] J. Xavier, J.A. Honnold, and J. Bradford, 2007, The Health, Health-Related Needs, and Lifecourse Experiences of Transgender Virginians, Richmond, VA: Community Health Research Initiative, Center for Public Policy, Virginia Commonwealth University, accessed Sept. 7, 2010; C. Reback, P. Simon, C. Bemis, and B. Gatson, 2001, The Los Angeles Transgender Health Study: Community Report, Los Angeles, CA: University of California at Los Angeles; J. Xavier, M. Bobbin, B. Singer, and E. Budd, 2005, “A Needs Assessment of Transgendered People of Color Living in Washington, DC,” International Journal of Transgenderism 8(2/3):31–47; C.K. McGowan, 1999, Transgender Needs Assessment, New York, NY: New York City Department of Health, HIV Prevention Planning Unit; E. Lombardi, R. Wilchins, D. Priesing, and D. Malouf, 2001, “Gender Violence: Transgender Experiences With Violence and Discrimination,” Journal of Homosexuality 42(1):89–101; K. Clements, M. Katz, and R. Marx, 1999, The Transgender Community Health Project: Descriptive Results, San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Department of Public Health.

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Collin Street 06.15.20 at 10:35 am

In the biomedical sciences and clinical medicine people and particularly information systems have to work with objectively true definitions that map properly to reality.

This is not even not even wrong. It’s just… wrong.

[to explain, although this should have been covered in high-school science classes or anything covering history or philosophy of science:
+ science ultimately deals in observations, which is to say qualia; not only is the raw material inherently subjective, even the notion of “reality” is no more than a hypothesis.
+ the process is inductive, and you can’t prove anything with induction [only raise possibilities]; even if there is a thing called “reality” that exists [a question that science cannot answer more than probabalistically!], the best that science can give you is some rough heuristics for navigating it rather than any sort of certainty.]

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notGoodenough 06.15.20 at 10:41 am

Anvil @ 13

This is a problem–the idea that it’s offensive to “profile” trans women as men. I’ve known several trans women, and interacting with each of them was like interacting with a cis man, right down to the sexism. How can women call out this kind of behavior if we’re not allowed to identify its source?

With respect, this comment seems a little odd to me. You are, of course, under no obligation, but if you wouldn´t mind clarifying I would certainly appreciate it (and, with sufficient supporting evidence, you could convince me of the soundness of your position – in which case I would defend it).

What categories do you use to identify a trans individual? It still isn´t clear to me how you would identify a trans person without either a) exhaustive medical examination or b) accepting you are going to have both false positives and false negatives. I would have thought you would have greater concern regarding excluding cis women from your sample set than you currently do – or you have a method so fool-proof you don´t believe that this will be an issue (in which case I would be very keen to hear what it is, as – very likely – would be the wider scientific and medical communities).

I am also unclear as to how a trans women being considered a women would prevent you from calling out sexism. If cis women are sexist, are you unable to draw attention to it? If so, why?

For example, to the best of my knowledge Phyllis Schlafly was a cis women and engaged in what may reasonably be called sexism. That does not appear to have prevented many feminists from pointing that out. Is this an unfair characterisation of the situation? If so, in what way?

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Harrison Ainsworth 06.15.20 at 12:19 pm

(J-D #10) Some people think that all human beings fall into just one of only two categories: … The people who think that are mistaken.

(Anonymous Statistician #14) This is categorically wrong. As many biomedical scientists/geneticists/etc. would be happy to tell you, biological sex is vastly more complicated than a simple “male”/”female” binary

Two things:

First, please give these other sexes – and note, not developmental conditions, sexes. (Hint: No-one can do this.)
Second, how would such other categories support the claim that people clearly in the male category are ‘really’ in the female? (Hint: No-one can answer this.)

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afeman 06.15.20 at 12:25 pm

The frequent invocation that men are men and women are women, because Science, reminds me of certain people’s enthusiasm for race having a biological basis: the claim is held with great confidence to be self-evident, but gets shot down in the first encounter with somebody with a relevant specialist background.

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Collin Street 06.15.20 at 1:06 pm

First, please give these other sexes – and note, not developmental conditions, sexes.

In the real world, the ways in which a binary dichotomy can be erroneous are not limited to “actually it’s a ternary division”. Things don’t always exist in neat discrete categories! A model that divides things into neat discrete categories can be wrong if it divides things into the wrong number of neat discrete categories, but it can also be wrong if the underlying phenomena isn’t actually neat and discrete at all.

[a person’s model can be wrong in ways they hadn’t realised the possibility of; recovering from these errors requires that you not force the phenomena into the categories you [currently] believe exist. “If you show X I will admit that I am wrong” only lets you recover from the mistakes you know you might make, not the ones you don’t realise the possibility of.]

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Sophie Jane 06.15.20 at 1:16 pm

Thank you for this, and/but I hope you won’t have to read the comments.

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notGoodenough 06.15.20 at 1:19 pm

Specific thoughts regarding concerns of safety and transgender individuals within specific situations.

As an addendum to my previous comments, I would like to offer a hypothetical regarding non-general spaces.

It has been raised that there may be concerns regarding very specific types of spaces and who may use them. I would, if I may, like to borrow the example of a centre dealing with victims of sexual assault (I will call it a SAVC, for short). Given the seriousness of the subject, I would like to reiterate my desire for correction should I be making errors (the last thing I would wish to do is promulgate harm to a vulnerable community).

It seems to me that there are concerns it is possible a victim of sexual assault may develop phobias of certain people. While I can’t find any data (and, for obvious reasons, I would consider an attempt to collect such data an ethical minefield) it is, prima face, plausible. It would also seem to me plausible that it would not be limited only to trans women and men– for example is it not possible that victims of abuse could develop phobias of other groups on the basis of their experiences? Given that it is imperative that people receive the support and care they need, this does indeed raise an issue (after all, surely none of us wish to exclude anyone, cis or trans, from support – particularly if phobias extend to non-trans individuals as well).

As an additional complexity, it would seem that if we let my hypothetical SAVC prevent trans women from receiving support based on the fact they are trans, it sets a dangerous precedent (after all, what would prevent this principle being extended by any centre – SAVC or otherwise – to any group based on similar reasoning).

My thought (and again, I emphasise this is a thought for feedback, not a proposal for action) is perhaps the best way to address this would be for the SAVC to have lists of preferences any victim may fill out in order to ensure they do not come into contact with someone who may inadvertently traumatise them (e.g. are you uncomfortable around [tick appropriate]…..). In this way, a well organised SAVC could ensure preventing further trauma regardless of what it is, while also continuing to offer services to everyone (i.e. person A is only put into contact with those they feel comfortable with, but it would not be necessary to prevent people who they are uncomfortable with, person B, from recieving the support they may need – person A and B may be isolated from each other, but not from the support of the centre as a whole).

The additional costs should then be shouldered by society (certainly I would be comfortable with additional funding going to such an important cause), all the while working on prevention through additional funding of social care, improving social norms, etc.

While this is, I am sure, far too broad and misses a good many things, it counts as a “gut feeling” approach, and (as I hope I have made clear) I would welcome feedback to help me refine my thoughts far better (and I will certainly not advocate positions on such sensitive matters without a good deal more consideration).

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Sophie Jane 06.15.20 at 1:23 pm

And also, I’d once again invite the moderators to consider that they’d ban white supremacy without a qualm, but the existence and humanity of trans people is apparently a fit subject for debate?

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Harrison Ainsworth 06.15.20 at 2:47 pm

re: notGoodenough #17

You give lots of serious sounding stuff on DSDs, but that whole argument falls completely flat in the face of one question: how does it support the idea that people clearly in one of the ordinary categories can claim to be ‘really’ in the opposite clear ordinary category?

It does not. So that argument is a dud, and pure smokescreen. Worse than that it is disrespectful of people who have DSDs, whose condition is nothing to do with being trans, but are being used for someone else’s rhetorical purposes.

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MPAVictoria 06.15.20 at 3:11 pm

The comments here are distressing. I have never once felt to need to assess the genitals of the people using the Washroom with me. Also please remember that Trans people are much more likely to be the VICTIMS of violence and not the perpetrators of it.

/The less said about the “MEN are MEN and WOMEN are WOMEN” internet “scientists” the better.

31

rjk 06.15.20 at 3:31 pm

afeman @ 24:

The frequent invocation that men are men and women are women, because Science, reminds me of certain people’s enthusiasm for race having a biological basis: the claim is held with great confidence to be self-evident, but gets shot down in the first encounter with somebody with a relevant specialist background.

Yep. Science really does not owe us clear-cut answers to anything. We can do our best to discover laws and patterns in reality and give them names, but there’s no guarantee that these will turn out to be simple, or convenient for our purposes.

I’d be very wary of trying to use science to work out how we ought to treat other people. I’ve even encountered well-meaning attempts to explain why being transgender is “valid” because “science” shows us that an innate sense of gender exists which is independent of apparent biological sex. This struck me as awfully dangerous, because it contains within it the notion that a person might be “invalid” if they didn’t have scientific support for their gender identity. To the extent that “science” (which, in this area, is mostly psychology and not biology) takes a position on the matter, it has changed its mind several times in the last few decades, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it did so again.

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Harrison Ainsworth 06.15.20 at 4:01 pm

re: notGoodenough #17

Some people conjure up a feeling that woman/man, male/female has become confused and complex, but I put it to you that you know very well what the words mean, and have a reliable practical definition of them. You learnt as child. You can pick out women and men in the street; you know who gets pregnant; you know which contraception might be needed for whom; when you use dating apps etc you know what you are looking for.

The real definitional problem here is for you. Try this: give your alternative definition of woman and man, but without anywhere referring back to the ordinary standard idea of adult human female and male.

You will not be able to. And then you are stuck: the only possible definitions will be dependent on the one that you do not want.

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Miriam Ronzoni 06.15.20 at 4:06 pm

Dear Sophie Jane,
Thanks, please can you let me know which of the posts that we ave allowed to go past moderation, in your view, are inappropriate and why? Genuine question. Thanks!

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notGoodenough 06.15.20 at 5:04 pm

Harrison Ainsworth @ 27
You give lots of serious sounding stuff on DSDs,

Along with citations of papers in peer reviewed journals in order to back that up. If you believe you know better than those working in the field, I invite you to cite your own peer reviewed papers supporting your position (that isn’t snark btw, I am interested in seeing the discussion).

but that whole argument falls completely flat in the face of one question: how does it support the idea that people clearly in one of the ordinary categories can claim to be ‘really’ in the opposite clear ordinary category?

The problem with this question is as follows – you haven’t defined any of your terms. Until you do, I can’t really engage with you now can I? So, before I can respond (otherwise I might mean something completely different to you), please define what you mean by:
Sex
Developmental condition
Male and Female
Male category and Female category

I have given quite in depth discussion about my usage, if you are an honest interlocutor I am sure you can do the same.

It does not. So that argument is a dud, and pure smokescreen. Worse than that it is disrespectful of people who have DSDs, whose condition is nothing to do with being trans, but are being used for someone else’s rhetorical purposes.

To make a vague response (and again, until you actually define your terminology it is impossible for me to engage with you), I would note the following
1) I do indeed mention DSDs, I also point to why biological categories are more complex than just saying “Male and Female” and insisting people know what that means (when actual experts in the field have a far more nuanced view), as well as point to neuroimaging and biological differences between transgender people and cisgender people (papers specifically studied differences and similarities between transgender people and cisgender people, not people with DSDs and cisgender people).

2) You make an incredibly serious accusation that I am using people with DSDs as a rhetorical device. Given that I have been fairly clear when talking about people who are intersex and people who are transgender that would seem to be an unfair and unfounded accusation.

3) I don’t particularly appreciate you accusing me of deliberate nefarious motivation – by all means demonstrate where I am wrong (with, you know, actual evidence and clearly defined terminology), but personal insults are hardly amenable to reasonable discussion. You will note I have not ascribed motivations to anyone I disagree with and have maintained a respectful tone – you are not.

Final note: I will respond to you once you have defined your terminology and made clear your position. Merely asserting I am wrong and malicious is not sufficient to demonstrate either.

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steven t johnson 06.15.20 at 5:11 pm

“‘In the biomedical sciences and clinical medicine people and particularly information systems have to work with objectively true definitions that map properly to reality.’

This is not even not even wrong. It’s just… wrong.

[to explain, although this should have been covered in high-school science classes or anything covering history or philosophy of science:
+ science ultimately deals in observations, which is to say qualia; not only is the raw material inherently subjective, even the notion of “reality” is no more than a hypothesis.
+ the process is inductive, and you can’t prove anything with induction [only raise possibilities]; even if there is a thing called “reality” that exists [a question that science cannot answer more than probabalistically!], the best that science can give you is some rough heuristics for navigating it rather than any sort of certainty.]”

Advocating for concepts that don’t correlate to measurables, or at least don’t correlate consistently is obscurantism. There are grave difficulties in advocating concepts (definitions) for general concepts about forces or structures, but removing any obligation to give an account at all of how these hypothetical entities lead to something approximating reality is worse, verging on the admission of the supernatural. Bishop Berekeley believed correctly the easiest “explanation” of something that doesn’t go away when you stop believing it, is God deceiving you. If there is no reality, the explanation of how this happens does indeed require a miracle.

In particular, “qualia” are not observations in any pertinent sense, but experiences. Color-blindness powerfully suggests that “qualia” are not sophisticated reasoning, but incoherence. For my part, I rather think my qualia of sweetness somehow depends on external conditions…but I suppose this is to be presumed a defect in me.

As for the claim induction can’t prove anything, that rather depends on not implicitly requiring “proof” to be a demonstration of a logically necessary a priori. This kind of axiomatization or foundationalism doesn’t work in the way required here even for pure mathematics, as best I can judge. (Painless introduction, Logicomix.) Karl Popper is not only dead, but it might better if he had never lived. The rough heuristics “science” provides, also known as scientific method, is multiple, changing and remarkably dependent on instruments. Lastly, it is preposterous to insist that someone must say, to be scientific, “There is only probably no magic!” This is the abuse of reason masquerading as philosophy. Or maybe it is genuine philosophy, in which case so much the worse for science. Even in math, there is negligible probability and trivial roots and such!

36

Kiwanda 06.15.20 at 5:18 pm

notGoodEnough:

The “five factor” approach is slightly more nuanced as it is based on five factors at birth 1) presence/absence of SRY gene; 2) the type of gonads; 3) the sex hormones present; 4) internal reproductive anatomy (e.g. uterus); and 5) external genitalia….

some estimates have put the number of intersex babies born at rates as potentially high as 2%

Fausto-Sperling gave an estimate of 1.7% for the number of people with what I’ll call ASD (atypical sexual development), in the sense of not matching typical dimorphic chromosomal, gonadal, genital, and hormonal development and function. However, Sax notes that most of these are people have “late-onset congenital adreneal hyperplasia”, a condition that occurs in adulthood, and not recognizable as an intersex state. Also, many atypical chromosomal complements (Klinefelter, Turner, others) may have clinical consequences (e.g. infertility, small testicles, short stature), but otherwise are not phenotypically unusual. Omitting these, the number of people with ASD is about 0.018%.

The upshot is that these various discussions of the spectrum of complexity of biological sex are accounting for 0.018% of the population: if the terms “male” and “female” were used to refer to people with typical sexual development, there would be a set of people (maybe 60K in the US) for whom the terms would be inappropriate, but the rest, it would cover just fine.

37

Gibbon-toes 06.15.20 at 5:33 pm

OMG OMG OMG. Thank you SO MUCH. I could kiss you! I’ve been trying to get my head around why what JK said could be so (sorry), ‘misconstrued’. I feel like I’ve been mired in this debate for a few days. I even hit rock bottom, tears pouring down my face at the hate and denouncements she’s been getting… I was thinking THE WORLD HAS GONE MAD. I started to get just as angry and feeling gaslighted as you. But, I’ll say it again: OMG, THIS has helped me see. You haven’t insulted us for being fearful at proposed law changes. You’ve calmly and intelligently explained it and REALLY allayed my fears and I’ve realised I’d been whipped into a frenzy. I’ve always considered myself supportive and empathetic of trans people so when I found myself agreeing with JK and then seeing the hatred being spewed towards her, it felt like a personal attack on ME. I suddenly, for the first time in my life, was being considered as a ‘bigot’. I’ve been searching for answers and I’ve read a LOT the past few days. Most of it poisoning my mind. Then I found this. Thank you, you bloody glorious human! There ARE normal people in the world! Big appreciation xx This is genuine, btw. You’ve pulled me out of my trench.

38

Harrison Ainsworth 06.15.20 at 5:56 pm

In response to Sophie Jane #28

Do you respect people’s right to decide how they identify?

I think I can safely assume a strong yes.

Well, women identify as different to transwomen.

Now what? Do you respect their identity, or are you going question it? Is it fine for you to question women’s identity, but not the other way around?

Yes, this is up for debate. You cannot make claims on others, by effectively changing the definition of the category ‘women’, and deny the right of the members of that category to question the bases of those claims, and to express their own opinions on the matter.

39

Thomas Beale 06.15.20 at 6:11 pm

notGoodenough @17
Thanks for the very thoughtful and informative post.

On definitions:
first the meta: for anyone who subscribes to a scientific realist view of the natural world, ‘objectively true’ always means ‘as close as we can get to actual reality’, which turns out to be pretty good, most of the time (we could say ‘True Enough’, the title of a book by Catherine Z Elgin, prof. Phil. of Ed at Harvard; MIT Press 2017). Working scientists, doctors and those in the related IT disciplines have no problem with this in my experience.

‘Woman’: I am using ‘woman’ to mean ‘adult human female’, so ‘woman’ is a mostly a proxy for ‘female’ in these discussions.

‘Female’ is defined as the sex in a species that produce the large gametes, i.e. ova; ‘male’ refers to the sex that produces the sperm. Female-ness and male-ness are characteristics of their respective sexes in the species (we could go higher, all the way to mammalia if we wanted, but species will do), which can be described easily enough by biologists.

For example, for a long time the definition of female was “an individual of the sex that bears young” or “that produces ova or eggs”. However, as I am sure you will easily see, that would mean that a ´female´ who is or becomes incapable of bearing young or producing ova/eggs would no longer be ´female´.

This is a common error in thinking. Individuals instantiate the universals describing their species (to use the language of ontology), which is to say, an individual of one or other sex. The vast majority of individuals correspond unambiguously to one of the two sexes (and to the numerous other non-sexually specific physiological traits of the species). Around 1 in 5,000 do not, i.e. intersex individuals. This fact doesn’t change the meaning of female and male. Nor does the fact that a woman is unable to produce ova at some time in her life (indeed, that is the case for all women who do produce ova, pre-menarche and post-menopause).

In the biological world, of course there are larger and smaller deviations from fully expressed and fully functioning sexual characteristics, as you point out including many chromosomal ones. These don’t change the meanings of female or male, nor the fact that the class female doesn’t encompass individuals who are unambiguously male. Real individuals instantiate the potentialities of their genes, plus or minus the effects of various kinds of genetic, in utero and other accidental events.

The world of medicine doesn’t seem to have any confusion about this reality. The medical specialties of gynaecology and obstetrics are clearly centred around the functioning of the female sexual organs and pregnancy and childbirth; similarly, other specialties are based around the male urogenital system. Other specialists work with intersex problems, genetically related issues and so on.

I don’t have anything to say about either neurological or mental states; that is indeed complicated.

On the Maya Forstater question – from the Guardian, 18 Dec 2019:

She was accused of using “offensive and exclusionary” language in tweets opposing government proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act to allow people to self-identify as the opposite sex.

The Central London employment tribunal convened a preliminary hearing over the issue of whether her tweets, such as “men cannot change into women”, should be protected under the 2010 Equality Act.

The issue is whether statements such as ‘men cannot change into women’ (it is clear that she meant ‘men’ and ‘women’ in the same biological sense as I have use them here, not some informal social sense) can be shown to be obviously untrue. If they can’t, and even if it is insensitive (I agree that it could be in many situations – mainly because the word ‘woman’ now has conflicting definitions in the social and biological realms – to wit, my main point), is it appropriate to dismiss people from their jobs for uttering true statements? It’s hard to tell if the truth of her statements were thought to count for much, and that the judgment was made purely on the basis of the level of offence she supposedly caused. It will clearly stop some people from saying things they believe to be true, just because they think the system considers them too offensive to be uttered. I can’t see the difference between that and the ‘legal’ approach of all of the famous totalitarian regimes.

40

Thomas Beale 06.15.20 at 6:25 pm

Collin Street @21

In the biomedical sciences and clinical medicine people and particularly information systems have to work with objectively true definitions that map properly to reality.

This is not even not even wrong. It’s just… wrong.

Incorrect. You missed the main point (or I did not make it sufficiently clear). The formal descriptions in use in biomedical ontologies, used to underpin medical textbook knowledge and biomedical information systems alike, need to represent as closely as possible what exists in reality. If they don’t, the data recorded in medicine (some qualia, mostly objective observations, opinions etc) which use these categories will not reflect the truth, and won’t compute properly in IT systems. The progress of the biomedical sciences is what enables us to refine those definitions over time such that their correspondence to reality is always improving.

I take it you are either an anti-realist, a nominalist, or both, if so, you will not be convinced!

The biomedical sciences in general proceed on a realist basis.

41

Cian 06.15.20 at 6:50 pm

It does not. So that argument is a dud, and pure smokescreen. Worse than that it is disrespectful of people who have DSDs, whose condition is nothing to do with being trans, but are being used for someone else’s rhetorical purposes.

I know a child with DSD and the anti-trans rhetoric has made her life extremely difficult. She is legally male (the state randomly assigned this category to her at birth and refuses to change it), but identifies as female. Many of the issues that trans-gender people face are also faced by people with DSD. Maybe you shouldn’t use them for your own rhetorical purposes.

42

Sophie Jane 06.15.20 at 7:03 pm

@Miriam Ronzoni

I’ll have a go, but please understand that wading through this stuff has a greater psychic cost for me than for someone it’s not aimed at.

It’s this basic imbalance that I really want to draw your attention to. I don’t contribute much to these threads because it’s exhausting and distressing, whereas for the transphobes it’s just another opportunity to bang their drum. The problem, as I’ve tried to say before, is that treating trans rights as a debate forces trans people to continuously justify their existence in the face of an endless supply of bad faith arguments from people who don’t have anything to lose.

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Thomas Beale 06.15.20 at 7:09 pm

MPAVictoria @30

The comments here are distressing. I have never once felt to need to assess the genitals of the people using the Washroom with me. Also please remember that Trans people are much more likely to be the VICTIMS of violence and not the perpetrators of it.

If any of my comments are distressing I am sorry for that. I have absolutely no interest in seeing trans individuals harmed or unable to realise the same dignity as any other person. I have trans friends too…

I realise that the dry discussion of biology may be uncomfortable to those not used to separating the realms of scientific discourse from the social, since some statements of straightforward fact can be read in a different way if the reader is thinking in a political / social mode, or seem to be ‘reducing’ complex social reality to mere biology. That is not the sense in which such statements are made, it’s just the way those domains work – they abstract away what is not immediately pertinent and don’t try to comment on it.

I originally responded, because the JKM letter corresponds almost exactly to the personal experience of women I know, and they do have the kinds of fears (terror …) she expresses. Some research shows that this experience is unfortunately far from rare. The fear is greatly exacerbated by the idea that reclassifying ‘women’ (for changing rooms etc) would include not just any trans people, but the most visibly misogynist trans activists (the ‘terf killers’), who may be found in some number behind most Twitter threads on these kinds of subjects. Verified reports of rape by such people in previously protected places (eve if very rare) do not make such women any less afraid.

Further there is a wider fear of biological women losing their sex-based status in sports, female beauty salons, and even women-only pre-selection lists such as in the UK Labour party (personally, I think such things are a terrible idea, but anyway…)

Unfortunately, the contested definition of the term ‘women’ (and ultimately, the underlying term ‘female’) is a key issue, and needs to be worked through.

There are real issues here; the current social angst is evidence. I personally hope that the relatively informed and civil discussion that may occur in a place like this might elucidate the issues better and possibly even come up with a positive idea or two. I hope that is acceptable.

44

David Mathers 06.15.20 at 7:27 pm

‘I’m not sure this issue can be fully disconnected from the issue of toilets. If toilets were just toilets, it would be simple. But one thing I had not realized at all until recently is that in some contexts, such as pubs and clubs, toilets double-up as de facto women’s refuges -they are places of escape. To the extent that this is true, the same arguments may apply’

I think the original pieces had already dealt with this fairly well. On the one hand, the objective risk to women in toilets is likely not increasing, since nothing about the current set-up keeps predatory men out. On the other hand, the presence of trans women who look like men in women’s toilets might be upsetting to some cis women. But, as Sophie-Grace says, trans women have been using women’s toilets since forever. So it’s not clear how much difference any changes will make from the status quo. Unless your calling for the status quo to be changed in the other direction, so that we do more than we currently do to keep trans women out of women’s bathrooms?

45

Sophie Jane 06.15.20 at 7:29 pm

In terms of specific comments, (13) was the one that leaped out at me. I really don’t think it needs much explanation?

Otherwise, I’d draw your attention to insinuation or outright statements that trans women are men ( 5, 7, 9, 19), attempts – with various degrees of subtlety – to imply that we’re abnormal, violent, and/or deranged (5, 7, 12, 18), a classic attempt to reverse the victims and the offenders at (7), and the implication that trans people are predatory recruiters and a danger to children – a line that will be familiar to anyone who remembers old-style homophobia – at (12), along with the peddling of unsourced statistics.

46

Miriam Ronzoni 06.15.20 at 9:29 pm

I think you are right, that comment is problematic – apologies, we are moderating from different time zones, and with little time on our hands (many of us are in lockdown, working at home with children, etc.). The idea was to enable as open a debate as possible whilst avoiding abuse, I apologise if we are not always making the right call. I am not going to act retrospectively, though, because many interesting comments have been made in reply, including calling it out.

47

Sophie Jane 06.15.20 at 9:46 pm

@Miriam Ronzoni

My point, once again, is that my rights should not be a matter for “open debate” at all, and that giving a platform to opponents of trans rights merely widens the harm they do. If you want to help and support trans people then this is not the way to do it. If you don’t want to help or support trans people then you need to be honest with yourself about that.

48

RobinM 06.16.20 at 12:42 am

Sophie Jane @ 42: I looked again at 5, 7, 18, and 19 and what I read are serious efforts to come to grips with what has become a quite fundamental clash of rights and deep seated anxieties. Maybe you’re right to detect more in them than that, but I don’t see it. Are all of us who are struggling to understand this complex situation simply to be excluded, moderated into silence, from the conversations by which we collectively seek to develop our understanding of how society will deal with these quite fundamental conflicts unless and until we expressly adhere to some particular line? Surely Miriam Ronzoni, @ 43, is right to try to encourage as open, non-abusive a debate as possible?

49

J-D 06.16.20 at 1:22 am

I do wonder whether it would have been better to publish this post closed to comments, but it seems there’s now no way of getting that genie back into the bottle.

Women are women
Regardless of sex
And men are men
In the same respects.

You can be both
Or a mix of the two
Or you can be neither
If that’s what suits you.

But people are people
Whatever their parts
Because what really matters
Is inside of our hearts.

I would like to credit the creators of this poem, and the original accompanying artwork. Alas! I distinctly recall reading an account of that origin online some years ago, but I can’t find it now, although I can find the poem both with and without artwork on several sites (but nowhere I can find with credits).

50

J-D 06.16.20 at 1:42 am

It doesn’t really matter what these specific people may think. What matters is the real (and realistic) fear of girls and women in sports generally.

It has been five decades since a US court decided (in the case brought by Renée Richards) that a trans woman could not legally be excluded from a women’s tennis competition. In the five decades since, no general transformation of women’s tennis in the US has resulted. If the effect has not manifested in five decades, that strongly suggests that it isn’t going to at all and that fear of it, however real, is not realistic. (There is nothing unusual about fears which are real but unrealistic. People aren’t rational all the time. Real fears which are unrealistic are still real and should be taken into consideration accordingly, but the appropriate responses to unrealistic fears are different from the appropriate responses to realistic fears.)

51

Paul Davis 06.16.20 at 1:58 am

Sophie Jane @ 42: “Otherwise, I’d draw your attention to insinuation or outright statements that trans women are men ( 5, 7, 9, 19)”

While I’m sympathetic to your position here, isn’t the point that there is some debate by people of a variety of different sexes and genders about whether it is appropriate to use the term “woman” to describe trans-women?

Whether or not you agree that this debate should even exist (it appears that you do not), the debate does exist. In some cases, it is even a debate in good faith (though the cases where this is true don’t often seem to be mutually recognizable).

It doesn’t seem appropriate to simply say “you cannot say that trans-women are men” in the context of a debate about this, unless you really want to go a bit further and hold the position that “this debate cannot take place”.

The Guardian had an article last week which although somewhat simplistic managed to capture what feels to me is at the heart of the debate here (and it is a debate, whether you think it’s existence is legitimate or not):

“But beyond this there is huge disagreement about how different positions – whether those of transgender activists or gender-critical feminists – express that commitment in practice, and indeed what the nuances of those different positions are.

Gender critical feminists disagree with the trans rights activists’ view that gender identity is separate from one’s biological sex, and that it should be given priority in terms of law-making and policy. They fear that sex is being argued into non-existence and that this will erode rights hard-won by women in the face of historical biological discrimination.

Others regard the focus on biological sex as transphobic. They argue that while they do not deny the reality of biological sex there must be a recognition of complexities beyond binary definition, and that people should have the right to privacy around their sex characteristics at birth”

52

Alan White 06.16.20 at 3:05 am

A vestige of hope that Gorsuch and Roberts sided with sanity against discrimination against LGBTQ in the US SCOTUS decision. That a Trump appointee writing for the majority went for law against Agent Orange hatred is just astounding.

53

J-D 06.16.20 at 3:37 am

(J-D #10) Some people think that all human beings fall into just one of only two categories: … The people who think that are mistaken.

(Anonymous Statistician #14) This is categorically wrong. As many biomedical scientists/geneticists/etc. would be happy to tell you, biological sex is vastly more complicated than a simple “male”/”female” binary

Two things:

First, please give these other sexes – and note, not developmental conditions, sexes. (Hint: No-one can do this.)
Second, how would such other categories support the claim that people clearly in the male category are ‘really’ in the female? (Hint: No-one can answer this.)

You challenge me to defend assertions that I did not make, while not responding to the assertion I actually did make.

I would be interested in explanations of why you behaved in that way.

54

Aubergine 06.16.20 at 5:44 am

A lot is being made in this thread of the fact that “biological sex” isn’t a strict binary, and of course that’s true as far as it goes. But the obvious next question is: why have different spaces and places for men and women at all? Why don’t we just mix everyone together everywhere – toilets, sports, prisons, scholarships, dating apps, the military, shelters for victims of domestic or sexual violence, etc etc?

There are all kinds of reasons why these things have been segregated by some concept of “sex”. Many of those reasons are bad, or purely historical – these days plenty of people serve in the military without much regard to sex, for example. Other reasons are not so obviously wrong: yes, female prisoners do sexually assault each other sometimes, but the consequences of sexual assault by a male (or, since we’re talking about JK Rowling’s objection to “people who menstruate” here, perhaps we should say “a person who ejaculates”) are potentially much more serious.

If trans activists were engaged in looking seriously at these various situations and building arguments for breaking down unnecessary or obsolete distinctions of gender while retaining sex-based segregation where it is pragmatic to do so (using a pragmatic understanding of “sex”, which may need to be different depending on whether the context is, say, chess, boxing, jail or blood transfusion) that would be one thing. I’m sure some of them are! But the overwhelming bulk of their message – and this has come through very strongly in the response to JKR – has been to demand that distinctions of sex remain in effect but now on the basis of “gender”, a concept certainly no less contested than “sex”, and if you ask why, or try to explore the consequences – especially if you are one of those cis women – you are a hateful bigot who needs to be silenced, deplatformed, shunned.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that not everyone agrees with this.

As for the moderation here – you seem to be doing a good job in an area where there are strong feelings on both sides, and I really appreciate that this is a place where we don’t need to speak in some kind of contorted code or march in ideological lockstep as the price of admission.

55

Trent 06.16.20 at 6:50 am

I have been a reader of Crooked Timber for a few years now, and have usually found the comment section to be a decent source of context and entertainment. Our recent accumulation of crises, however, has laid bare a rift in…I don’t know how best to describe it, maybe just care? that is expressed by participants here and seemingly every other corner of the internet predicated on thought and discussion. I’m fairly certain that I’m younger than the average reader here, so my position on the aims and efficacy of debate may deviate from the norm due to that fact alone. Still, I feel the need to say that the issues addressed in the letter don’t need to be followed by Q.E.D. and a tidy summary. Nor would such deliberations mean anything.

What the author is too kind to point out is that this isn’t the first, second, or third attempt by Rowling to dehumanize trans people, a project taken on too willingly by many of the voices above. No amount of (justifiably) angry tweets can balance the scale against the platform of one of the most famous writers alive, a writer whose reach doesn’t end at millennial readers. As the recipient of just about every form of privilege out there, I don’t have the right to be exhausted by all of this. Even so, I am disappointed to find it here.

56

Chetan Murthy 06.16.20 at 7:22 am

[I’m not going to comment further after this, for the obvious reason]
I kind of wish this thread would consist only of females and transwomen discussing this issue. B/c (notwithstanding that notGoodEnough’s comments are very measured and informative) they’re the ones who are actually affected. The rest of us can look, listen, and learn. But maybe (just maybe) it’d be better if we kept our opinions to ourselves, just this once.

57

notGoodenough 06.16.20 at 8:51 am

Kiwanda @ 36

With respect, I struggle to follow the relevance of your point (the fault is no doubt mine, so I appreciate your patience).

You appear to be taking issue with one minor sentence in a footnote in my longer post responding to Thomas Beale @ 5 – and while I certainly appreciate your noting that there is considerable discussion regarding the rate of occurrence of DSDs within people, I thought I already had covered that by saying “some estimates have put the number of intersex babies born at rates as potentially as high as 2%”. Is the issue that you feel I was not emphatic enough in my caveats?

As I noted in that footnote in my post (along with my caveat regarding the lack of nuance), I was pointing out that the definitions of “male” and “female” have evolved over time and are, to a certain extent, somewhat fuzzy. Given that it was a response to the statement that
“‘Woman’ was until recently an uncontroversial term (and a natural kind), and still is in these [biomedical sciences and clinical medicine]” fields.
I thought it was useful to note that that would appear to be not necessarily true – and that within these fields people typically use “female” instead of “woman” and that there are and have been multiple models which are, to the best of my understanding, mostly approximations (and with “male” and “female” being, to a large extent, a multimodal distribution). I could, of course, have been wrong in how useful this was.

So while your numbers may indeed be the currently most accurate representation of the statistical distribution of people with DSDs “if the terms “male” and “female” were used to refer to people with typical sexual development”, the “if” is doing a little heavy lifting there (as my point was that there seems to be some discussion in biomedical sciences regarding precisely that sort of assumption). Moreover, and again you have my apologies, but I struggle to see the relevance of your final remark “there would be a set of people (maybe 60K in the US) for whom the terms would be inappropriate, but the rest, it would cover just fine” given that. After all, physicists didn´t say “well, Newtonian mechanics covers most stuff most people deal with – let´s stop there” (well, possibly some did, but in general the field continued to develop).

This is, perhaps, something of a slight detour from the discussion of transgender individuals, but I thought it worth noting in a by-the-by sense – after all, it is difficult to have a discussion regarding “trans women” if the concepts of both “trans” and “women” are more nuanced than people are typically given to portray. I´m afraid, therefore, I am not entirely sure why you deem this comment-worthy (unless you are merely concerned I am not being clear enough, in which case I appreciate your adding clarity to my brief sidenote – after all, as I said at the time, “this topic is far too complicated to give an appropriate nuanced discussion (and certainly there are many others far better qualified than myself to do so)”).

However, as I later note, “we” seem to be – if anything – our consciousness which (as far as I can tell) is largely an emergent property of brain states (and I hope you would agree that very few of us derive our minds from our gonads). Any discussion of gender which does not take that into account (even if it may not be a key descriptor for most people) will surely be a little bit of an oversimplification.

In short, gender is probably a lot more complicated than most people assert, and discussions should likely be a bit more tentative and nuanced than everyone would be comfortable with.

58

Anonymous 06.16.20 at 9:51 am

I am a cis woman. I was involved in a project to provide services to street-working sex workers. One part of the project was a day time arts and crafts session. People did crochet and paintings. It was quite popular.

A person – either a trans woman or a cis man posing as a trans woman – started coming to this session. They did not behave in any way like the other women. They monopolised the space, and wanted to discuss sex. A lot. Specifically S&M activities and child abuse.

The other women asked them to stop. Then they asked us to bar this person. It was decided not to do this (because they were a women). So the entire session ceased to be. Eventually the person lost interest in the project and went elsewhere.

I think this person was a disturbed and misogynist cis man, acting out hostility to sex workers. I think there are a small but quite destructive minority of men who genuinely hate women, and will use the trans issue to gain access to women’s spaces and act up.

I have heard people say this does not happpen. You may not believe my particular anecdote. But I don’t think anyone can state categorically this does not and will never happen, that no cis men are like this, that we can utterly remove all protections.

59

Gareth Wilson 06.16.20 at 10:17 am

Yes, only females should comment on the thread about the definition of females.

60

lurker 06.16.20 at 10:43 am

@Kiwanda, 36
Half the people with late-onset congenital adrenal hyperplasia are men, and an extra dose of male hormones does not make you less manly, rather on the contrary. Shows how much thought went into the work.
Fausto-Sterling used to give a figure as high as 4%, citing John Money as her source, until Money objected and demanded she show where he had ever said any such thing. I’ve seen that figure quoted, too. Activists like big figures and everybody suffers from confirmation bias.

61

Jonathan 06.16.20 at 1:24 pm

There was nothing in my comment (18) that was intended to imply that any trans person is “abnormal, violent and/or deranged”. I’m very sorry that you took it that way, Sophie Jane. If there was something I could have said differently to avoid giving that impression, I’d like to know what it is. All I wanted to do was ask Sophie Grace Chappell what she thinks about the issue of women’s refuges. This was prompted by Sophie Grace’s comment that “these are different debates, and they have different outcomes (particularly in the case of women’s refuges), and I can’t discuss all of them here.” I don’t understand the issue particularly well, and don’t understand Sophie Grace’s remark, and would like to hear more about it.

62

sophie grace chappell 06.16.20 at 1:24 pm

I want to respond specifically to just one comment in this discussion–Jean’s, from West Coast Canada.
Jean, first thing: I think it’s a painful sign of how toxic this debate has got that you take it for granted that I’ll “call you a TERF, declare you transphobic if I respond at all”, and/or deny that you’re a woman.
Well, I am responding right now. I don’t want to call you a TERF or a transphobe, and why on earth would I deny that you’re a woman?
I hear your concerns, and they bother me too. I’d like to discuss them further, because it does seem to me that trans women have been too fixated on their own rights to see the problem that you’re pointing to.
The way I think of it is this: If someone is afraid of something, and I think their fear is unreasonable, what should I do? Should I tell them not to be so stupid, shout them down for their prejudice? Of course not. I should forget about whether the fear’s reasonable or not, and address the fear directly and compassionately.
I think this point is being missed in the debate. And I think that’s a huge problem.
Jean, may I invite you to email me? I’ve already noted what you say–I am building a file of concerns like yours because I want to think about them more–but I would be delighted to be in touch with you directly. My email isn’t hard to find online, but if it eludes you, Miriam Ronzoni knows it.
Best wishes
Sophie Grace xx

63

Sophie Jane 06.16.20 at 1:27 pm

@Chetan Murthy

“Females and trans women” is redundant – we’re all female. And trans men, non-binary, and intersex people are all also affected by and at risk from transphobia. (Not to mention butch lesbians, who also suffer from the self-anointed bathroom police.)

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Miriam Ronzoni 06.16.20 at 2:53 pm

Dear Sophie,
My role in this thread is to moderate the debate, and I am trying to do my best to do that and only that. I am sure I have done this in a highly imperfect way (I am not being rhetorical, I rally am sure of it), but the rationale I have been using is not which comment supports which side (regardless of whether I consider it the right side or not) – what I have tried to focus on is to be as allowing as possible of all positions, whilst screening out obvious trolling and abuse. Again, I am 100% positive that I have failed even by that standard, but that was the standard.

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steven t johnson 06.16.20 at 3:22 pm

It seems to me that abusing individuals for being afraid is treating people badly, and doing so while claiming moral superiority is obtuse, to say the least. Yet at the same time I am convinced there is no way to placate irrational fears, and it is an imposition to require people to do the impossible. Evidently, my opinion is of no use at all.

What I know of science in general and the history of medicine makes me cautious about forcefully advocating HRT for treatment even of menopause. And I’m not even convinced botox is safely used.

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JanieM 06.16.20 at 3:25 pm

This is mostly just a note of appreciation to Sophie Grace Chappell and Miriam Ronzoni for posting this. To bring “grace” (pun intended, and apt, and appreciated) into a discussion of this topic, as the OP did, is a gift I didn’t think I’d see.

I don’t think I can condense my thoughts and questions into the space of a blog comment, but for the record, I’m speaking as a 70-year-old lifelong “tomboy” (and gay person) who found a haven in the third category of my all-time favorite book title, “Gender Outlaw: Men, Women, and the Rest of Us” (if only it were that simple), then lost track of the whole topic (busy raising kids, working on gay rights and land trust issues, etc. etc. etc.), until one day I woke up to find that I might as well have come back from a thousand-year-sleep, so little did I recognize the topic as one that I could join in discussing.

Sophie Grace — if I can find the time and get my act together, may I also seek out your email address and write to you?

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JanieM 06.16.20 at 3:36 pm

my rights should not be a matter for “open debate” at all

“Rights” don’t have clear edges, and sometimes one person’s “rights” clash with another’s. To me, “open debate” seems prefererable to some other possible ways of establishing where the boundaries are going to lie.

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Jonathan 06.16.20 at 4:51 pm

Thanks to Sophie Grace Chappell for an excellent article and an excellent comment (62), and thanks for Miriam Ronzoni for moderating – a tedious task, I’m sure, but very appreciated.

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Thomas Beale 06.16.20 at 5:30 pm

NotGoodEnough @ 57

After all, physicists didn´t say “well, Newtonian mechanics covers most stuff most people deal with – let´s stop there” (well, possibly some did, but in general the field continued to develop).

Just for fun, I have to pick on this. As you know very well, only cosmologists and particle physicists insert the relativistic factor into the Newtonian equations of motion. The originals work perfectly well for everything else. They haven’t become any less valid, it’s just that we know more about their applicability than we did before.

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Chip Daniels 06.16.20 at 9:40 pm

@58
Re: the disturbed individual abusing entrance to female spaces to inflict injury on other women.
I think every sensible person is appalled at this sort of behavior. It is important to note how our universal distaste for boorish behavior is precisely why respect and kindness towards trans people should also be universal.

If I as a cis man were to gain entry to a gathering of trans women and act boorishly, I would like to think that the same principles of etiquette would apply.

Because this is where the conversation should lead; It isn’t a sterile academic debate about biology, it is about setting norms of how we behave towards each other.

I have no idea whether Science tells us there are two genders or five. But I do know that the trans people I personally know should be welcomed as they are on their own terms and that doing so doesn’t place any burden on me.

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Sophie Jane 06.16.20 at 9:48 pm

@JanieM

It’s nice, to paraphrase a friend of mine on social media yesterday, to be allowed to live. But it’s even better just to be able to live and not have to be allowed.

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J-D 06.16.20 at 11:18 pm

<

blockquote>In response to Sophie Jane #28

Do you respect people’s right to decide how they identify?

I think I can safely assume a strong yes.

Well, women identify as different to transwomen.

Now what? Do you respect their identity, or are you going question it? Is it fine for you to question women’s identity, but not the other way around?

Yes, this is up for debate. You cannot make claims on others, by effectively changing the definition of the category ‘women’, and deny the right of the members of that category to question the bases of those claims, and to express their own opinions on the matter.

<

blockquote>You challenge Sophie Jane to defend assertions that she did not make, while not responding to the assertion she actually did make.

I would be interested in explanations of why you behaved in that way.

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Kiwanda 06.16.20 at 11:22 pm

notGoodenough: Thank you for responding. In responding to you, I was also thinking of Anonymous Statistician, J-D, Afeman, and Collin Street, all of whom, in one way or another, observed that human sexual development can be complicated.

I thought I already had covered that by saying “some estimates have put the number of intersex babies born at rates as potentially as high as 2%”. Is the issue that you feel I was not emphatic enough in my caveats?

This rebuttal is too strong: it could also be a response if “2%” was instead “200%”; after all, somebody could have given such an estimate, and your caveats would still keep you strictly correct in your claim.

…the definitions of “male” and “female” have evolved over time and are, to a certain extent, somewhat fuzzy….“male” and “female” being, to a large extent, a multimodal distribution…

If indeed all but 0.018% of people fall into two distinct categories of sexual development, the extents of that fuzziness and multimodality seem quite small.

…”if the terms “male” and “female” were used to refer to people with typical sexual development”, the “if” is doing a little heavy lifting there

I’m not following you here. Are you suggesting that people with: at least one Y chromosome; penis, testes (only); small mobile gametes; significant levels of testosterone in the first two trimesters of development, the first six months after birth, and a 10 to 20-fold increase during puberty and persisting after…are not male? And that people with: no Y chromosome; vagina, uterus (only); large immobile gametes; appropriate sex hormones (seems to be discussed carefully here)…are not female? As far as I can tell, all but 0.018% of people fall into one of these categories, absent medical intervention. (If this claim needs further qualification, I would welcome further discussion.)

The upshot is that “male” and “female”, considered as biological categories, hold pretty strictly, and if people used the terms as descriptors for people they know, the vast majority of the described would satisfy the above properties, absent medical intervention: in your analogy, the describers are living in a “Newtonian” world. The rigor of definition of these terms that is demanded in this one case is surprising: do you refuse to call anything “red”, because, after all, colors are a (literal) spectrum? Do you refrain from referring to anyone as “tall” or “skinny” for similar reasons?

Of course, none of this matters very much, as regards gender dysphoria and issues related to transgender people, nor does it mean that those 60K intersex people in the US who are not in one of those two categories should be disregarded. (Actually, I think it’s preferable to refer to their sexual development as “Atypical” rather than “Disordered”, but I take it you prefer the latter, more common, term.) I don’t really understand the insistence on denial here.

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Collin Street 06.16.20 at 11:23 pm

If someone has an unreasonable fear that is adversely affecting their life, they can be offered mental-health help. If someone has an unreasonable fear that is adversely affecting the life of others, they can be offered mental-health help and possibly be subject to legal restrictions if the situation (risk of significant negative outcomes to others) warrants it. There’s nothing special about “trans people” that makes this general rule inapplicable. I’m not sure why people regard this as difficult, apart from the social stigma attached to mental health.

Bigotry is a medical problem, not a political one.

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Aubergine 06.16.20 at 11:25 pm

You know, if I were moderating this thread I’d also be looking askance at things like: the claim that drawing attention to the conflicts of rights and interests here is somehow questioning the right of trans people to “exist”, the odious comparison to white supremacists, unsupported accusations of bad faith, the frankly unpleasant psychologising involved in ascribing any disagreement to “transphobia”, attempts to force the use of specific language which make one side of the argument awkward or impossible to even express, and the endless distortions of gender-critical positions into ridiculous, straw-person caricatures.

I’ve seen these kinds of silencing tactics used again and again, and they form an important part of the context in which JK Rowling decided to speak out. But I still wouldn’t delete them.

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Anna 06.17.20 at 12:37 am

Thank you very much to Prof Chappell for writing this, particularly in light of their personal reasons for not wanting to weigh into the public debate. The bathrooms debate is a particularly noxious one; and while I don’t think Rowling’s position is justifying hatred, it is important to acknowledge that trans people experience hatred, and unfair distrust, and that makes it harder to have the necessary conceptual conversations about what sex and gender can and should mean. I appreciate the courage that takes.
Given the rarity of having a philosophy professor who is transgender writing on this, I would really like to ask Prof Chappell what “woman” means to them. What did you see when you saw yourself “as a woman”? As someone born female, who has spent a lifetime dissecting this with other women, I struggle with what “woman” means that is not either a biological categorisation or a complex set of societal expectations and constraints bound to a specific time and place.
I can live with (or say, “identify with”) the former, taking it as a “thin” concept that does not determine how I should act, dress, feel, what I desire or how I engage with others. The latter is something that, frankly, I don’t identify with and I don’t want other people in female bodies to be constrained by. How do you understand what the category “woman” means, when you take the biology out?

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Anonymous Statistician 06.17.20 at 1:15 am

@Thomas Beale: “Biological sex is indeed somewhat more complicated for a small number of individuals. It doesn’t however change the understanding of what ‘female’ and ‘male’ mean in biology, and indeed, the latter definitions are required precisely in order to be able to determine what constitutes a naturally occurring genotypic or phenotypic deviation. Without them, we don’t know what we are talking about.”

Circular logic here. The very concept of “deviation” is rooted in the idea that there is some sort of god-given pattern to life, and that living organisms can be divided into those that follow the book and those that don’t. You are, in essence, using the assumption of binary sex to prove that people outside these categories are “deviations” and then using the existence of “deviations” to prove that such divinely ordained patterns exist. You may not recognise that as a religious position, but it very much is.

It’s something akin to the concept of “species” in biology – it’s very often a convenient simplification that approximately describes how things work, much of the time, but the closer one looks the more inconvenient exceptions we find to remind us that “species” is just a simplified model of something vastly more complex.

@Harrison Ainsworth: “First, please give these other sexes – and note, not developmental conditions, sexes. (Hint: No-one can do this.)”

Consider the following argument: You say that human personality can’t accurately be described by allocating each person to one of twelve star signs? Well then, please tell me what the other star signs are. (Hint: No-one can do this.)

“Some people conjure up a feeling that woman/man, male/female has become confused and complex, but I put it to you that you know very well what the words mean, and have a reliable practical definition of them. You learnt as child. You can pick out women and men in the street; you know who gets pregnant; you know which contraception might be needed for whom; when you use dating apps etc you know what you are looking for.”

Ah, the argument to intuition fallacy…

Many of the things we learn as children turn out to be simplifications of a much more complicated reality, or sometimes just plain wrong. (I’m looking at YOU, brontosaurus.)

Most people are not particularly good at picking between born-with-a-willy and not-born-with-a-willy just by eyeballing somebody with their clothes on. I routinely encounter people who don’t know whether to “sir” or “ma’am” me, even though I have the same genitals I was born with and dress as is usual for people with that configuration. Plenty of other people have similar experiences.

Plenty of cis women don’t/can’t get pregnant, so again this obviously isn’t a defining characteristic. (cue hand-waving about “well they’re IN THE CATEGORY THAT GETS PREGNANT so that makes them female even though they don’t get pregnant”.)

As for dating… I look for somebody who’s kind, who enjoys word-play and perhaps board games, who is interested in science and shares my feelings about personal space. If you want to select your partners first and foremost by their genitals or by their presumed chromosomes, that’s your prerogative, but please don’t project it on the rest of us.

@Anonymous: it’s depressing and revealing how many people working in DV/shelter/etc. contexts have a story that boils down to “I met one trans woman and they were bad”. Considering how much violence, assault, and economic disadvantage trans women experience, and how highly they are represented in sex work – if your impression of trans women depends on one encounter, that says far more about the inclusivity of the service you worked for than it does about trans women.

@Aubergine: “But the obvious next question is: why have different spaces and places for men and women at all? Why don’t we just mix everyone together everywhere – toilets, sports, prisons, scholarships, dating apps, the military, shelters for victims of domestic or sexual violence, etc etc?”

When we unpack those individual questions, the answer usually turns out to be that trans people aren’t actually the problem, they’re just a corner case that highlights a much bigger problem that we’re used to ignoring.

For instance: as a society, we accept a high level of violence and neglect in prisons (for US readers, I’m using “prison” and “jail” interchangeably here). In some cases it’s even socially encouraged (cf. the inevitable prison rape jokes any time somebody unpleasant goes to jail). Prisoners do atrocious things to one another in men’s prisons and in women’s prisons, and guards also do atrocious things. Right now, COVID-19 is tearing through prisons and many folk are happy to shrug their shoulders or rationalise why some kid awaiting trial for shoplifting should be exposed to a lethal pathogen.

This is all deeply dysfunctional, but it’s a dysfunction that we’ve come to ignore and to rationalise, so we just accept it as the way things are. However, the “trans woman assaults another inmate in a woman’s prison” scenario is one that most of us haven’t worked so hard on ignoring, so folk who are blasé about cis women beating one another or being assaulted by guards suddenly realise that something’s wrong here. I would suggest that the productive response here is not “trans woman bad” but rather “let’s stop accepting that people just have to be brutalised in prison”.

For instance: instead of asking “is it fair that a trans girl wins an athletic scholarship that might otherwise have gone to a cis girl?”, we ought to be asking why so much of any child’s future happiness has been made dependent on their athletic prowess. Genetic advantages are very important in pro sport; a five-foot-two man is never going to be an Olympic basketballer, no matter how hard he works. Again, we’re comfortable with ignoring the genetic-lottery part of pro sports, until it comes up in the context of a trans woman.

Each of the other examples you suggest invites the same kind of unpacking: trans people aren’t the problem, they’re just a reminder of the much bigger systemic problems that we’ve learned to ignore.

“I kind of wish this thread would consist only of females and transwomen discussing this issue. B/c (notwithstanding that notGoodEnough’s comments are very measured and informative) they’re the ones who are actually affected.”

@Chetan Murthy – A reminder that this particular ruckus kicked off when JKR criticised a health organisation for attempting to be inclusive of trans men and nonbinary people. I know it’s pretty much mandatory for such discussions to be derailed into Trans Women In The Bathrooms O Noe, but no, it’s not just about women.

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J-D 06.17.20 at 3:54 am

If any of my comments are distressing I am sorry for that. I have absolutely no interest in seeing trans individuals harmed or unable to realise the same dignity as any other person. I have trans friends too…

I don’t want to distress people either, and speaking from that position it’s important to understand that people who tell you when your comments are distressing are not attacking you but helping you. I am grateful to people who inform me when a comment I have made causes distress, because the information is useful to me.

I’m going to use a specific named individual as an example because I hope that will aid clarity in making my point, and because I’ve mentioned Renée Richards as an example previously I’m going to use her name again. My point, however, does not depend on any facts specific to her case; it’s a general one.

If you say that Renée Richards is a man, you will be saying something that will be distressing to many trans people, in many cases extremely distressing and hurtful. Don’t do that. I don’t presume to tell other individuals what they should or should not feel distressed about, so I don’t make a universal assertion about all trans people, and I can’t be sure about the personal feelings of Renée Richards specifically, but it’s abundantly clear how many trans people do in fact feel about this point. I don’t know whether a trans woman you count among your friends would personally feel distressed at being told she was a man, or a trans man you count among your friends at being told that he was a woman, but even if there are no such examples among your friends, there certainly are many such examples.

If you acknowledge the fact that Renée Richards is a woman, where does that leave your position? I imagine the possibility from your previous comments that you might want to say that Renée Richards is a woman socially and a man biologically, but that kind of statement has exactly the same problem of causing distress. Don’t do that either.

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notGoodenough 06.17.20 at 8:10 am

Thomas Beale @ 39 (part 1 of 3)

Thank you for your response, and for taking the time to reflect on these topics. I am splitting up my response a little as my natural tendency to ramble makes for large text blocks. My apologies go to everyone who may wade through this all.

First the meta: as someone who is a methodological naturalist, and who has been a scientist for more than a decade (I am reluctant these days to say how much more!), I believe I have some reasonable understanding of the scientific method (I hope). I also believe, given my description and yours, we are broadly speaking in agreement – merely using different descriptions. I am, however, always a little wary of the phrase “objective truth” as I think it is very misleading (after all, if you have to qualify the term “objective” why not include the caveat to start with?), and that my description is a little less likely to draw ire from philosophers (more seriously, drawing upon a Hume-style model is, as far as I can tell, a bit more useful in an epistemic sense). However, I have no wish to split hairs over descriptions – we should not, after all, confuse the map for the place as it were (despite what may appear to be the case in this thread, personally I am less interested in the label than the actual case).

On biological definitions:

‘Female’ is defined as the sex in a species that produce the large gametes

With respect, as I pointed out in my post, that is only one particular definition of female – there are others which are accepted in biology (to lesser or greater extents). Indeed, the chromosomal or “five factor” definitions are, on occasion, used to define the terms “male and female”. While you are at liberty to use that particular definition, biologists may use that one or others (such as those based on using a range of descriptors, using chromosomes available at birth, etc.). I would assume you would not assert that biologists would be wrong to use the definitions most useful to them?

…individuals instantiate the universals describing their species (to use the language of ontology), which is to say, an individual of one or other sex.

Actually, my point was not that individuals necessarily instantiate universals – my point was that the people who work in the field seem to view this approach as being somewhat insufficient these days (similar, to extend my metaphor, to Newtonian physics – i.e. functional for many situations, but not necessarily the current most accurate model). For example, you may wish to examine this helpful article in Scientific American (1). So while it may be the case that the gamate-based definition is not “wrong”, it may be “incomplete”. I could be mistaken, of course, and I certainly am not in any way an arbiter of biological terminology – but I would assume you do not object to those working in the field updating their definitions if it will prove more accurate?

In short, as I mentioned in my post, as far as I can tell the definitions of “male” and “female” appear to be evolving as the science is advancing – which is, I hope you would agree, the way it should work (2).

But what does that mean? Well, possibly very little at the end of the day.

Firstly, science tends to move very cautiously, and any revisions may take a long time to percolate (and even then will be along the lines of “it would appear to be the majority view that, in general, under most circumstances, it would likely be potentially more useful to consider some revisions….”) (3). For example, the Transyouth project, while by-no-means definitive, is a study into gender and sex which will not be completed until 2033 (and I don’t cite this to say “we will have a definitive answer”, but rather to make the point that studies into this subject take a long time and are relatively nascent).

Secondly, I am not sure how relevant it will be to society as a whole – biology may have strong implications, but at the end of the day what may be scientifically accurate may mean very little in a sociological sense. It may, just for the sake of making an example (and I am in no way suggesting this will in fact be the case), happen that biology will define male and female using a range of key descriptors – but I doubt anyone would be happy to use “sperm producing testicle possessor with the following hormones…” as a descriptor rather than “male”. On the other hand, it may also be important in the sense that the nuance biology will point to indicates that “male” and “female” are by no means simple concepts – and that is key given that sometimes people point to biology (or medical forms, or the OED, or whatever) as not only the arbiter of what “male” and “female” are, but also what that should mean. To give an example, if it does indeed turn out that trans people are more neurological similar to their gender than not, does that change people’s perspectives? I would think that very few would argue for MRI machines to be installed outside every convenience, so what would the practicalities look like?

I don’t know, nor would I say that the science is the final word on the subject – I feel science should inform but not necessarily lead society. This is, perhaps, rather a lot of words to say “I don’t know, but I think it is more complicated than most people think”, but I suppose that is my TL;DR.

On the neuroscience:

Just quickly, I should note my caveat that this is all quite tentative at the moment. Human biology is a bit of a fuzzy subject in general (we’re pretty complex), neuroscience is a relatively young field, and research in this area will necessarily be quite cautious (lack of large enough sample sizes may well cause issues, for example). I would be hesitant to draw firm conclusions from this, but again it would seem that there is some evidence which suggests that cis and trans is a little more complicated than most may think.

I would also note that this is, of course, hardly the final word on the topic – I am merely trying to point out that some nuance is required as a response to those who appear to believe it is not.

(1) Note I am not asserting this as a peer reviewed paper which demonstrates anything, in this case merely as a helpful visual guide to the complexity: 10.1038/scientificamerican0917-50

(2) Some individuals I have been in contact with (to be clear I am not accusing you or anyone in this thread of this) insist that fields are not allowed to change their definitions, and that what is written in their preferred book (e.g. OED, Webster, EB, etc.) is the final referee. My response is generally speaking that they are welcome to take that position, but it is something they will have to take up with the experts in the field (in general I have not found such conversations to be particularly fruitful).

(3) You may notice I tend to caveat and qualify myself, even though this is a situation where this is not necessarily required. This is because of a desire to be accurate, and I doubt any significant proposals made in a scientific field would be different.

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notGoodenough 06.17.20 at 8:11 am

Thomas Beale @ 39 (part 2 of 3)

On the Maya Forstater question:

With respect, there appear to be some inaccuracies in what you posted. These may, or may not, be important, but I would like to offer some thoughts for your consideration (with the caveat that I have no legal expertise):

Firstly, we should probably look a little more closely at the actual decision (4). To make a quick summary:

Forstater has claimed direct discrimination for having a protected belief (her “gender critical” views) under section 10 of the Equality Act 2010. In a preliminary decision, the employment tribunal considered whether the claimant’s belief was indeed protected. The judge identified the claimant’s foundation being the belief to be that sex is biologically immutable and, in no circumstances, is a trans woman ‘a woman’ or a trans man ‘a man’, even when the person in question has a Gender Recognition Certificate under the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (paragraph [77]). Due to the belief’s ‘no circumstances’ aspect, the judge labelled it ‘absolutist’ ([84]).

The judge decided that the belief did indeed satisfy the first four limbs of the Grainger v Nicholson (2009) test about what amounts to ‘a philosophical belief’ (though expressed doubt about its ‘cogency and coherence’) ([83]). However, the claimant failed at the fifth limb, namely whether or not a belief is worthy of respect in a democratic society. The judge concluded that the claimant’s belief was incompatible with others’ dignity and fundamental rights ([90]). The Equality Act, then, did not protect it.

[if Forstater’s statements were correct] ”is it appropriate to dismiss people from their jobs for uttering true statements?”

Well, Forstater was not dismissed from her job at all – she was a contract worker whose contract was not renewed. This is an incredibly important thing to note, as it makes for a legal and linguistic distinction – in short the decision tells us little about what would happen if employees were dismissed for expressing a belief like Forstaters. Indeed, were the case about dismissal the analysis would change considerably. If Forstater were an employee, she could argue that her dismissal was unfair under s98 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. Moreover, following X v Y (2004), the Act’s test of fairness must be interpreted compatibly with her right to freedom of expression under the ECHR, article 10 (though a court would have to address competing rights of trans people). This would be true, whether or not her statements were “true”.

“ It’s hard to tell if the truth of her statements were thought to count for much, and that the judgment was made purely on the basis of the level of offence she supposedly caused.”

It may, at this point, be worth looking at the judge’s ruling in light of the actual decision – it is more limited than some would seem to assume. It allows people to acknowledge different types of gender-related discrimination due to appearance, body type and genitals. It also does not stop people discussing GRA reform or advocating for certain spaces to exclude trans people. Moreover, I think the assertion it was about the level of offense is incorrect – it was more to do with the absolutist nature of those views. Indeed, it was emphasised that it is possible to do these things without having the ‘absolutist’ belief ([86]).

The judge specifically noted that “the Claimant is absolutist in her view of sex and it is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.” [90], and that “The Claimant could generally avoid the huge offense caused by calling a trans woman a man without having to refer to her as a woman, as it is often not necessary to refer to a person sex at all. However, where it is, I consider requiring the Claimant to refer to a trans woman as a woman is justified to avoid harassment of that person. Similarly, I do not accept that there is a failure to engage with the importance of the Claimant’s qualified right to freedom of expression, as it is legitimate to exclude a belief that necessarily harms the rights of others through refusal to accept the full effect of a Gender Recognition Certificate or causing harassment to trans women by insisting they are men and trans men by insisting they are women. The human rights balancing exercise goes against the Claimant because of the absolutist approach she adopts.[91].

The judge also notes “It is also a slight of hand to suggest that the Claimant merely does not hold the belief that transwomen are women. She positively believes that they are men; and will say so whenever she wishes. Put either as a belief or lack of belief, the view held by the Claimant fails the Grainger criteria and so she does not have the protected characteristic of philosophical belief.”[93] The reference to the Grainger criteria would seem to be an important point and, while I am hardly an expert, I think the subtlety of interpretation of the Equality Act encouraged by this undermines one of Forstater’s key claims (5).

In short, as far as I can tell it is not that the level of offense matters, but that Forstater claimed the right to cause offense as a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act (an interpretation the Judge disagreed with).

” It will clearly stop some people from saying things they believe to be true, just because they think the system considers them too offensive to be uttered. I can’t see the difference between that and the ‘legal’ approach of all of the famous totalitarian regimes.”

I think this statement is something of an overreach. The ruling essentially says that contract workers whose contract has ended are not protected under the Equality Act to say whatever they wish regardless of violating dignity and/or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. To equate that rather limited ruing to a totalitarian regime seems, to me, to be somewhat of an overreaction – though if you truly believe that this ruling is equivalent to Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, I would strongly encourage you to make that case.

It would also be worth considering the implications should Forstater’s case had been successful. For example, it would seem to me that if that had happened, it would be eminently plausible for any belief (so long as it was sincere) to be protected for contract workers under the Equality Act. I do not think the Equality Act was created with such a broad mandate (indeed, as previously noted there are specific situations treated asymmetrically), and would be very concerned about the repercussions if it were ruled that that was the case.

Summary:

With respect, I believe your analysis misses key points and contains some rather important inaccuracies. While I certainly wouldn’t hold my analysis to be definitive, I would strongly encourage you to read further on this – particularly the ruling in its entirety, as well as the legal opinions. I think you will find that it is by no means as drastic as you seem to believe, but would encourage everyone to read further into this regardless.

(4)https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5e15e7f8e5274a06b555b8b0/Maya_Forstater__vs_CGD_Europe__Centre_for_Global_Development_and_Masood_Ahmed_-_Judgment.pdf

(5) It is important to note that the decision was based on the asymmetrical harm regarding the situation. Consider the following argument, which Forstater had put forward “if believing in trans people’s gender is a protected belief, then the opposite of that belief should be protected too”. The Equality Act’s framework is, generally speaking, symmetrical (6), and it might be attractive to believe that the Act should protect both sides of the argument.
However, that would be incorrect as the argument ignores the nuances of symmetrical protection. While some sections protect people who are disadvantaged by a particular type of discrimination alongside those who are advantaged by it, some sections do not (7). Additionally, Grainger encourages a more sophisticated analysis about beliefs being worthy of respect in a democratic society ([92]-[93]), where judges can draw on considerations such as dignity and discrimination law’s role. This means one could refer to Tarunabh Khaitan’s work on redressing ‘abiding, pervasive and substantial disadvantage’. In a democratic society committed to equality (even if only superficially), Forstater’s belief necessarily entrenches disadvantages to trans people.

(6) For instance, section 12 on ‘sexual orientation’ covers both straight and gay people—despite straight people not suffering homophobia as gay people do.

(7) For example, section 6 on ‘disability’ is asymmetrical: it only protects people who are disabled under its definition.

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notGoodenough 06.17.20 at 8:11 am

Thomas Beale @ 39 (part 3 of 3)

On a more general note:

It is important to consider the broader picture. A survey within the UK (the land in which Rowling lives and has spent most of her life) shows that the majority of women and men surveyed would be comfortable or indifferent to the presence of trans individuals in their bathrooms (8).

It would, of course, be tempting at this point to dismiss the minority, and to propose they should be ignored (after all, why should this minority get to overrule the majority?). This would, of course, be entirely wrong. It would also be tempting to start rushing to grab data and surveys in order to say “well these fears are not accurate, so they should stop having them”. That would also be equally wrong.

The fact of the matter is that there are bad actors in the world. And while it is by no means clear that trans- people contain a higher percentage than any other group, it is likely that they will contain at least a non-zero number (as other commentators have pointed out). This is also true of many other groups, including LGB and cis- individuals (though, again to be clear, I am in no-way trying to advance arguments regarding limiting LGB and cis- individuals’ rights).

On the other hand, I think the OP makes a very valid point – why would you pretend to be trans- to go into a female bathroom if you could just put on a janitorial outfit? In the UK, to be considered to be trans you must obtain a Gender Recognition certificate, the qualification for which (9) is in my opinion non-trivial (regardless of whether you think it is/isn’t a reasonable approach), while a janitorial outfit is likely less difficult to obtain. This is especially true as some societies (though not the UK) do have mostly unisex bathrooms (which, to be clear, also have their own drawbacks). And, of course, criminal offences are not typically voided by ones gender – someone who commits a crime should still be prosecuted as they are a criminal regardless of gender and sex.

On the other, other hand we should not invalidate people’s experiences or (particularly if they are in a vulnerable position) their fears. However, surely that should not be limited merely to fears of trans- individuals, but instead a more general principle? If, for example, a victim of assault by X population group develops a fear of X people, that surely must be considered regardless of what group X belongs to? Otherwise, it would seem to me not only are trans- people are being singled out, but also that vulnerable people who have different phobias are being ignored.

On the other, other, other hand, trans- people surely should be able to pursue being members of society as much as anyone else, and treating them as though they are criminals or restricting their rights does not seem particularly conducive to a fair or equitable society. Moreover, we must recognise that having your identity questioned (however much in good faith and with a desire for truth it may be done) does indeed carry a mental toll. Trans people are often subjected to vitriol and hatred as well, and often carry the fear of being physically or verbally assaulted. If we recognise the legitimacy of the fears of vulnerable people who are afraid of trans-people, surely we must also recognise the fears of trans-people too?

I don’t have an answer to this, and I suspect that any real answer would have to be incredibly well thought out and mind bogglingly nuanced – and carefully crafted by a wide range of experts in a wide range of fields.

If you forced me to formulate an approach (and I do mean forced), I would tentatively propose what I mentioned in my comment @ 20 and 27. In a reductively short way, trans people receive the same rights as everyone else, and to formulate (and fund) specific spaces (such as centres dealing with crisis victims) in such a way that anyone (male, female, cis, trans, etc.) with specific phobias (of male, female, cis, trans, etc.) is not forced into proximity with their phobia (regardless of whether or not such a phobia is justified). If such spaces do not have the funds to cater for all victims (whatever they may be), maybe the solution should be to fund such things better in our society? This is just my gut reaction – and I certainly welcome refinement and disagreement, particularly from anyone who has insights into the actual situation.

Of course, welcoming disagreement is something I am in the privileged position of being able to do – for various reasons I am unlikely to be affected by the decisions most countries will make regarding these sort of matters. And while the majority of cis men and women seem welcoming of the impact of trans people on society, as I previously noted that is important but not necessarily defining.

Realistically, far more important is the thoughts of those who are affected and do have strong relevant expertise. I am not such a person, and I would think that any thoughts I do have are not too helpful – one reason a try to avoid responding to this point is because I don’t want to be talking over those who can offer a better perspective. To that end, I am tempted to stop posting now – I am not convinced I will be able to add much more to the discussion, and worry I may be drowning out those who could.

(8) British Social Attitudes 34, table 5.

(9) Typically, you must be 18 or older, have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, have lived as your acquired gender for 2 years, and intend to live as your acquired gender for the rest of your life. I would posit that it is a bit more complicated than merely identifying as trans-, and thus carries additional burdens. As always, I encourage people to read for themselves: https://www.gov.uk/apply-gender-recognition-certificate

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notGoodenough 06.17.20 at 10:12 am

Thomas Beale @ 69

“Just for fun, I have to pick on this. As you know very well, only cosmologists and particle physicists insert the relativistic factor into the Newtonian equations of motion. The originals work perfectly well for everything else. They haven’t become any less valid, it’s just that we know more about their applicability than we did before.”

I am a little puzzled by why you think my comment was in contradiction to this? To reiterate:

notGoodenough @17

“while previous models may sufficiently explain a majority of situations (otherwise they would not be adopted), ongoing research which brings in new models and overturn the old means that the previous models may be less accurate [1].

And

“To give an example: Newtonian physics was at the time it was adopted the best possible model explaining the available evidence. However, ongoing research showed that there were cases which it could not adequately explain (which could then be explained using new and different models, such as quantum theory and relativity). This does not mean that Newtonian mechanics was wrong, per se, but rather that it only applied to certain situations. And while a grand unified theory has not yet been found, expanding our understanding has led to demonstrating that Newtonian physics is not sufficient for explaining all available cases.”

Could you please point out what I said that gave you the view my comment conflicts with your statement @ 69? I don’t say this flippantly – I genuinely care about communication, and if I am phrasing things in a way which gives a different impression to that I wish to convey, I would appreciate it being pointed out so that I may avoid similar pitfalls in future.

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Chris Bertram 06.17.20 at 10:46 am

I’m struck by how many commenters have focused on the science of biological sex and whether it shows that sex in humans is basically binary or more of a continuum etc etc. This issue isn’t addressed in the OP, so might reasonably be thought off-topic, and it strikes me as basically irrelevant to the matters under dispute. I can’t imagine any scientific discovery concerning the biology of sex that would settle the question of whether trans-men or trans-women should be included or excluded from particular social spaces. That’s a matter in the domain of morality, politics, law, culture etc. (As Sophie Grace Chappell has argued elsewhere we know of other cases where social kinds can come apart from the biological kinds they are paradigmatically associated with, “parent” being a good example and that seems to me to be a good starting point in thinking about the ontological questions.)

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rjk 06.17.20 at 11:54 am

Chris @82

I’m struck by how many commenters have focused on the science of biological sex

I think the science is only important insofar as you need to have a clear definition of terms in order to have a meaningful discussion of morality, politics, law, culture etc.

Are we in a world where sex differences are large, meaningful, and consistent, sufficient that knowing a person’s sex tells us something useful about that person? If so, might sex be a better way of distinguishing groups from each other than gender? This appears to be what JK Rowling thinks, and her views are the subject of the OP, so it’s hardly off-topic.

In order to rebut this, one might want to argue that sex differences are not so large, meaningful, or consistent as some (such as Rowling) might think. One might also argue that a person’s gender identity is a better predictor of their behaviour than their biology, which goes directly to the question of whether it’s appropriate to include them in a certain space. But you can hardly argue that gender predominates over sex if you haven’t defined what sex is. Given that different definitions of sex would produce different answers to the pertinent questions, I can’t see how it is “basically irrelevant”, although I agree that it takes up more space in the discussion than it probably ought to.

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LizardBreath 06.17.20 at 12:32 pm

Chris Bertram — There do seem to me to be areas where biological categorizations about sex are relevant to to social categorizations. The obvious one is sports, where gender segregated sports are a social fact — there could be no such thing as organized sports, there could be no segregation — but the reasons for the gender segregation are closely tied to biological differences between the sexes. This is very very hard to talk about politely in the context of trans politics: I certainly don’t know how to do so.

Similarly, in terms of social spaces that are gender segregated in order for women to feel safe from violence. At least a part of the reason for that segregation is that people who are AMAB are on average significantly larger than, and size-for-size also significantly stronger than people who are AFAB. While I have personally led an almost entirely violence-free life, interacting with people who are AFAB, I feel physically safe because I would have a decent chance of defending myself physically if violence occurred, whereas interacting with people who are AMAB, I am relying on their good faith and the fact that violence is generally pretty unlikely, which is a lower level of security. I also don’t know how to talk about this politely in terms of trans politics, but it doesn’t seem to me to be absolutely irrelevant to the social issues.

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Aubergine 06.17.20 at 12:49 pm

J-D @ 78:

If you say that Renée Richards is a man, you will be saying something that will be distressing to many trans people, in many cases extremely distressing and hurtful. Don’t do that.

This should cut both ways, of course, but trans activists insist (not universally, perhaps, but overwhelmingly) on describing other people using language that they have been asked, again and again, not to use. From JK Rowling’s post:

Moreover, the ‘inclusive’ language that calls female people ‘menstruators’ and ‘people with vulvas’ strikes many women as dehumanising and demeaning. I understand why trans activists consider this language to be appropriate and kind, but for those of us who’ve had degrading slurs spat at us by violent men, it’s not neutral, it’s hostile and alienating.

Many people also object to the term “cis” (I note that a word-search in Rowling’s post doesn’t find it; she does however use the imperfect, but preferable, term “natal”) because it implies that a person who is “cis” has a positive sense of gender identity which is consistent with both their sex and the social roles that are stereotypically associated with that sex. This is certainly not the case for all non-trans people! Some of whom do, in fact, regard this kind of language as harmful, and have said so.

Trans activists often insist that “cis” doesn’t mean this, it just means “not trans”, but it’s used often enough with the first sense strongly implied, and even the second sense carries an implication that “gender identity” provides a meaningful basis for grouping or dividing people. And good luck trying to get the people who use it to stop.

Anonymous Statistician @ 77:

@Aubergine: “But the obvious next question is: why have different spaces and places for men and women at all? Why don’t we just mix everyone together everywhere – toilets, sports, prisons, scholarships, dating apps, the military, shelters for victims of domestic or sexual violence, etc etc?”

When we unpack those individual questions, the answer usually turns out to be that trans people aren’t actually the problem, they’re just a corner case that highlights a much bigger problem that we’re used to ignoring.

For instance: as a society, we accept a high level of violence and neglect in prisons (for US readers, I’m using “prison” and “jail” interchangeably here). In some cases it’s even socially encouraged (cf. the inevitable prison rape jokes any time somebody unpleasant goes to jail). Prisoners do atrocious things to one another in men’s prisons and in women’s prisons, and guards also do atrocious things. Right now, COVID-19 is tearing through prisons and many folk are happy to shrug their shoulders or rationalise why some kid awaiting trial for shoplifting should be exposed to a lethal pathogen.

Oh, I certainly agree that there are much bigger problems, and it would be great if they could be addressed! But we live in an imperfect world, and the fact that there are bigger problems doesn’t mean that we should let the smaller problems get worse.

So, why are there female-only prisons? Well, one reason is no doubt a historical sense that it is somehow wrong, undignified, “scandalous” etc. to house the sexes together. This is the kind of reasoning that needs to be critically examined and, perhaps, discarded.

But another reason is that there is a categorical difference between female-on-female violence and male-on-female violence: only the latter can result in forced pregnancy.

Yes, this can happen already (male prison workers, etc.). Yes, not everyone can become pregnant/cause pregnancy. But for this reason, and for a whole lot of other reasons, mixed-sex prisons just make an already complicated, difficult situation more complicated and difficult. Fortunately, there is an obvious alternative: third spaces. Not necessarily trivial to implement, but much more likely to actually happen than the whole system being fixed from the ground up.

What I’m saying is that if trans women are to be imprisoned alongside female prisoners, and on the same basis, it should be because the problem we are trying to fix has been clearly identified, the consequences have been seriously considered, and there are good reasons for preferring this solution to other solutions. And maybe only after the people directly affected – all of them! – have been asked what they think. It should not be because “trans women are women, end of story”.

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Sophie Jane 06.17.20 at 12:53 pm

@Chris Bertram

That, I would say, is because the real subject of the debate is whether trans people should be allowed to exist. Hence the attempts to prove we’re not “real” in one sense or another. The question of what rights we should be allowed is just… not a proxy exactly, but part of a process of making our humanity conditional .

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notGoodenough 06.17.20 at 1:05 pm

Kiwanda @ 73

Thank you for your comments and response – I appreciate the opportunity as a learning experience. However, this discussion is a bit of a side-track, and I want to avoid derailing the thread.

First, some “housekeeping”: ” (Actually, I think it’s preferable to refer to their sexual development as “Atypical” rather than “Disordered”, but I take it you prefer the latter, more common, term.)”

When I used the abbreviation DSDs, I actually meant “diverse sex development” (absent the word disorder). I certainly don’t prefer the term “disorder” as it is potentially a little offensive. However, given that there is a lack of clarity of my meaning (I didn’t properly define my abbreviation), I appreciate the opportunity to clarify, and will use the (hopefully clearer) ASD instead.

This rebuttal is too strong: it could also be a response if “2%” was instead “200%”; after all, somebody could have given such an estimate, and your caveats would still keep you strictly correct in your claim.

I take this point, and acknowledge the validity of the complaint. I will endeavour to be more careful in future regarding my phrasing – I’m afraid I was, perhaps, a little negligent in this case as it was a somewhat minor note in a broader point (which was that biological definitions are not necessarily absolute, perfect for all cases, and invariable). Though, in my defense, I will note that I am citing peer reviewed research articles – not just “someone” – and giving the reference so that anyone can look it up for themselves. Nevertheless, I will try to be more careful in future.

“I’m not following you here. Are you suggesting…..?

No. I am suggesting that people who focus on only one of those characteristics, do not acknowledge that any other characteristics associated with “male” exist, and insist that their definition is correct regardless of what people studying the topic may say are being a little idiosyncratic in their approach. As I am not the person who decides what is and isn’t “male” and “female” in a biological sense, I leave the ultimate word to m’ colleagues. And, as far as I can tell, their answer is “it’s complicated, we have a working definition for now but we are still understanding it” (I generalise, of course). It would also seem that the definition also allows for a bit of a distribution (but this is yet another sidetrack, so let’s ignore it).

My position might essentially be characterised as “it looks like human biology is a little more complicated than one may be predisposed to imagine”. I don’t deny (as you seem to imply) that there are characteristics associated with “male” and “female”, I am just not convinced that it is a clear matter to say “well, this person had surgery to remove their uterus – they aren’t female anymore.”

As others have pointed out, biology and medicine indeed cope well with using working definitions – but, as far as I can tell, while a great deal of that may be due to scarcity of cases, a non-zero amount is from not insisting on adhering to a rigid definition as an absolute arbritator and instead exercising a certain degree of common sense[1].

“do you refuse to call anything “red”, because, after all, colors are a (literal) spectrum?”

My interest in definitional rigour generally increases when more importance is being placed on it. As it happens, in spectroscopy (where the colour spectrum is more important) people generally are a bit more careful in defining things than just saying “this is red” – they often use measurements to produce a pattern of the wavelength(s) to avoid confusion. As I am not currently active in this field, I am more comfortable with being colloquial in my language (and would say “red”[2]) – but if a physicist corrected me, I would accept that while my usage isn’t necessarily wrong it likely is somewhat incomplete with respect to what a more nuanced understanding would imply[3].

Some (not all) people make appeals to biological definitions of “male” and “female” to arbitrate the rights of others – thus my interest in the rigour of those definitions is increased [4]. If civil rights were afforded to people depending on what part of the spectrum they occupy, I would likely be more careful in my terminology even when speaking colloqually (and especially when discussing relevant topics).

To hammer the point home a bit, would you be similarly lackadaisical about notions of “fat” and “thin” if that were a factor in discussions about who is allowed to enter public spaces – and if people defined “fat” by BMI, insisted bodybuilders were “fat”, and should be denied use of restaurants on that basis? OK, this is becoming overwrought (and very reductive, and likely offensive to all those on this thread affected by these issues regardless of position), but hopefully you take the general point:

I am generally more interested in precision when it is important, and less so when it is not.

”I don’t really understand the insistence on denial here.”

What do you think I am denying?

I do not deny that biologists have biological definitions of “male” and “female” which include some well-defined characteristics. What I would deny is that these definitions are so well understood and applied that there is no possibility for confusion, that there are no people who can have both “male” and “female” characteristics (even if it is not common, and that this is not always immediately obvious), and that these definitions must be held as inviolable and never-changing.

As far as I can tell, these definitions have been refined in the past (as I noted in the post, there are some definitions previously commonly used which are far more simplistic and reductive than those at the moment). I would not express total certainty that they are now perfect and should never change in the future (regardless of potential advances[5]).

To be clear, I personally would not change them (I am nowhere near sufficiently versed or respected in the field!) – but if new evidence comes to light which would suggest they should change, I would not dogmatically oppose it.

Final remarks

As previously noted by both of us, this discussion is not particularly relevant to the topic of this thread. Moreover, discussions of biological sex are – though non-trivial – not key to the broader discussion as a whole (which must also include a broad swathe of other fields).

Thus, while I offer this response to hopefully clarify some points as you requested, I have no wish to continue this for fear of obscuring the discussion – I hope you will understand and are similarly inclined to pause our discussion here out of respect to everyone else.

[1] Or, to put it somewhat humorously, as a chemistry lecturer once said “yes, HF is a ‘weak acid’, but I wouldn’t drink it.”

[2] Well, depending on circumstance. Describing a car I once saw rather than the paint I wish for my bedroom might change this – I might describe something as merely “red” or, if more precision is required, maybe start using “vermillion” or “crimson”. After all, even school-level flame tests frequently qualify by saying “brick red”. This is, perhaps a bit of a detour, but hopefully it emphasises that the vocabularly may well change the degree of detail I would use with respect to the required precision.

[3] And, to try to make the point a little clearer, if someone were to point out I was insufficiently lax in my definition of “red” based on actual physics, I think my response would not be to argue they are wrong, insist everyone knows what “red” is, and accuse them of trying to deny reality (as some people, not you, have done on this very thread).

[4] On this thread alone we have had a commentator insisting that there is a definition of “male” and “female” which is so simple a child can learn it. This commentator appears to also have strong opinions on how society should treat people based on this simple definition. Perhaps they know some precocious children, but I am not sure I would a good understanding of gametes and chromosomes at a young age – from this I would tentatively infer (but by no means assert) that they are not attributing the same complexity to the categories you are. More importantly, politicians regularly make appeals to biology and definitions during discussions regarding trans rights. It would be a pity, I hope you would agree, if it was decided that – for example – cis women who no longer have a uterus are not allowed to use female bathrooms or female-only spaces.

[5] For example, if it were discovered that there is a neurological marker, should the definition not be updated to include that? I do not assert that this will be (or even is likely to be) the case – I only mention this as an example as there appears to be research being conducted into this, and am merely constructing a hypothetical to lend clarity to the point.

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Sophie Jane 06.17.20 at 1:06 pm

@Harrison Ainsworth

Trans women don’t identify as women; we are women. Most apparent difficulties vanish when we recognise this simple fact. Similarly, trans men are men and non-binary people are neither men nor women. Our concern is the right to exist, not the right to identify.

(This incidentally, is why I prefer “trans women” and “cis women” to all the clumsier constructions I see used here. “Trans” and “cis” are adjectives; not hyphens or portmanteaus needed.)

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Richard melvin 06.17.20 at 1:10 pm

I can’t imagine any scientific discovery concerning the biology of sex that would settle the question of whether trans-men or trans-women should be included or excluded from particular social spaces.

Challenge accepted: I can imagine it being medically proven that urinals turn out to be a fundamentally bad idea that no tweak to the design could fix. That would greatly change the incentives for who wants to pee where, perhaps enough to make unisex toilets the only economically viable option. This would render the question at least moot, if not exactly settled.

The thing is, the word ‘discovery’ is doing a lot of work here, in that it limits biological effects to those contemporary science could plausibly be unaware of. Biologically, it could be true that no men had penises; plenty of species do things differently. It’s just that even Aristotle would have noticed – the idea that the clitoris was only discovered in 1545 turns out to be a myth.

In any case, the real driver of the issue is not the scientific understanding of the issue, but the popular one. There are plenty of false biological statements that are plausibly held as true by modern individuals. Many of these could, if true, reasonably justify many policies that are clearly wrong when those beliefs are false.

If 5G masts did cause coronavirus, then you probably should tear them down.

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JanieM 06.17.20 at 1:17 pm

@Sophie Jane

It’s nice, to paraphrase a friend of mine on social media yesterday, to be allowed to live. But it’s even better just to be able to live and not have to be allowed.

As a person who’s gay and doesn’t fit into the binary categories very well (or even if I were to just say I’m female), I’m well aware of that. I’m also well aware that this is Planet Earth. If you find a planet where not having to be allowed is possible without a lot of struggle and effort, I hope you’ll report back.

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Sophie Jane 06.17.20 at 1:59 pm

I would add as a general point that most of the transphobic attitudes I see here start with the idea that trans women are men who suddenly and wilfully decide they want to be women. (And I once again note that trans men – who even Rowling briefly acknowledges – and non-binary people keep vanishing from this discussion, even though their rights are at stake here too.) That’s not really the case.

I spent many years living as a man, but was never comfortable even when I believed that was what I was. Coming out, for me, was a matter of self-knowledge: not a sudden desire, but an understanding that I was a trans woman and always had been. And the decision to transition – the part that might seem sudden to an outside observer – was merely a consequence of that understanding.

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Miriam Ronzoni 06.17.20 at 3:59 pm

Sophie Grace’s piece on transwomen and adoptive parents can be found here:

https://blog.apaonline.org/2018/07/20/trans-women-men-and-adoptive-parents-an-analogy/

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