J.K. Rowling has gone where it would have been wiser not to go last night when she leapt into the whole trans debate on Twitter. It’s not that she shouldn’t have a voice or that these issues aren’t important to discuss but… on Twitter? Really? There are people on there still discussing the flatness of the Earth.
So many of the insults directed towards her appear unthinking. People have picked their position, which they’ll defend with insults rather than arguments. That’s much easier than addressing the logical contradiction that their position involves. It’s a contradiction that I’ve never seen resolved satisfactorily. How do you afford one person a right when it involves removing the same right from another? If some bright philosophical type could come along and explain that, we might get closer to answering the perennial question: should a trans-woman have the same rights as a woman? It’s easy (and extremely common, as well as reasonable) to say “yes” and that’s what so much of Twitter does without ever exploring the deeper weeds where they’d begin to lose their footing.
The most obvious example might be the easiest to solve. What if being born a man gives trans-women advantages in sport? It’s a subject that Martina Navratilova explored in an excellent BBC documentary recently. The answer might well be in the kinds of things that can be measured scientifically. Beyond that, however, we get into those tricky areas where it’s harder to find satisfactory answers. To be crude about this: are women wrong to be offended should they see a penis in women-only changing rooms? More problematically: what rights do women have around those spaces? It’s right for them to say that men (me included) shouldn’t have any input in the debate? If so, what about trans-women? Should they have a say?
There are, for the moment, no clear answers because culturally we’re trapped between two entirely reasonable positions. Many accept the right of people to self-determine their gender but there are also others worried about protecting those places and powers that women have finally recovered from a deeply patriarchal society. Doesn’t it just feel wrong, they say, that people born male now assume the right to take those places and powers back from women; that they are now telling women how they get to define feminism?
At some point, the argument descends into the sex vs gender debate which most people argue is simple (penises vs vaginas) but some experts can dismiss that by describing how the science is more complicated. These exceptions are then used to argue that sex can be as indeterminate as gender and therefore there are no absolutes. Then we’re back to square one.
Myself: I suspect there will never be an answer beyond whatever pragmatic solution society produces. Unless science intercedes, we’re not going to get rid of sexual differences, yet there’s no reason why we can’t become less hung up on gender. We’re already doing it in noticeable ways. It wasn’t so long ago that every young boy was given a plastic gun to play with and every girl was dressed in pink. These days we hardly see that, whilst the jobs market has become degendered. Multisex bathrooms are becoming more normal.
What we need, however, is more sensitivity around the issue, especially on social media where largely ignorant people scream at each other because they cannot see a different point of view. Sadly (and perhaps unsurprisingly), most of that invective is directed towards successful women, like Rowling, who express concern about the weakening of women’s rights. It feels like we’ve been here before. It resembles so much of the bullying I remember from the early days of feminism when jokes would be made about women “wearing the trousers” or “belonging in the kitchen”. If worries me because I sometimes fear that’s exactly what it is. We’re back to a world of “silly” women with their “irrational” fears and jokes about it being the wrong time of the month. That language goes back centuries but we were meant to have left it behind us. At a time when we’re all discussing systemic racism, perhaps it’s also time to remember that “systemic sexism” has never left us. It feels like another front has been opened up in the gender wars before the last battle was properly won. No wonder the crossfire is so intense.