A selection of the curators at The Queerness discuss why they support self-identification of gender
We do not have a party line here at TQ, we believe genuinely that diversity is a strength to be celebrated. However, as a team we have watched the discussion about self-identification of gender with growing unease. From misrepresentation to scaremongering a simple change which would improve the lives of many is being resisted. So, we got together to discuss some of the objections, and issues being raised. Multiple voices, multiple views, but one underlying message.
A common objection to the self-identification of gender is that it overturns safe spaces policies and legislation. A selection of our curators discuss this:
Annette: I think that we need to look at ways of making spaces safe for everyone to use, instead of obsessing over whether one group is safe at the expense of another.
I actually saw someone on social media claim that trans women being raped was somehow different to that of a cis-woman , that it wasn’t ‘as bad’, because “cis women got raped just because they were women”. I think that’s an atrocious attitude to have. Also shows you why male rape is so often unreported. Rape is rape, and arguments abound about how there’s no legal distinction for women who rape other women, that’s a law that probably needs to change too, I’m sure there are plenty of women in same sex relationships who would benefit from having a stronger law to find recourse for that kind of assault by other women. Your XX chromosomes don’t give you a free pass to be an abuser.
Karen: The idea that spaces are kept safe by simply being one gender is of course one of the biggest lies going, as any survivor of boarding school abuse will tell you. It is a way of ignoring how we really keep spaces safer, accountability, safeguarding, training, structures which do not rely on one “magic wand” approach.
The term safer spaces is often used now, recognising I think that no magic wand exists. The argument that a space is safer because trans people are excluded from it holds no water, and is often actually saying, trans women are not their gender, but men trying to access single sex spaces. I notice that it is rarely argued that trans men are somehow trying to falsely access male only spaces, presumably because those who make such arguments think men have nothing to fear from women (which is how they see trans men)
As a therapist one of the arguments which disturbs me the most is that made by rape crisis and other counselling organisations, that the mere sight of a particular gender may be triggering.This is based partly on the projection of some that trans people are actually their assigned at birth gender, or to be blunt, that a survivor on seeing a trans woman will believe them to be a man and be triggered. Of course people may have a preference to work with someone who shares their identity, but the complexity of the process of recovery and healing is far more nuanced than is being presented.
Lou: I’m not sure I believe there’s such a thing as a truly ‘safe ‘space.’ I’ve been assured that certain spaces or situations are ‘safe’ because ‘everyone is really nice’. In fact, an environment where everyone is expected to be ‘nice’ to each other can often end up as pretty much the complete opposite of what I’d call a ‘safe space.’ I’ve lost count of the number of times people with ‘different opinions’ on sex work, including people who passionately support harsher policing and ‘crackdowns’ on sex workers, have been made totally welcome in supposedly ‘safe’ feminist spaces.
I’ve come to be as suspicious of any self-defined ‘safe spaces’ as I would be of a self-defined ‘tolerant person’ or ‘nice guy.’ What is important to me is that everyone in the space takes responsibility for the ways in which they may be, and probably are, making others feel less safe at times, and tries to work on being better. There is no scorecard that you can complete and be awarded official, indisputable ‘safe space’ status forevermore. The work is never done. There will always be new axes of oppression that work in ways that someone in your space has never considered before; there will always be people in your space who are oblivious about certain things until somebody impacted directly by it joins your space and raises it. There will always be more to learn, for everyone.
Yes, it’s helpful to say ‘we are trying to be a safe space,’ so people know that the work is being done. But to declare the work complete makes me feel there’s likely to be either a lack of diversity in the group, which means that certain things have just never come up, or a lack of curiosity about your own oppressive behaviours. And it betrays a casual disregard for people’s safety and mental wellbeing to tell them they can let down their guard because they’re in a ‘safe space’ when the truth is, you probably don’t know for sure that they are.
Ibtisam: Our university’s network for LGBTQ+ students uses a safe space policy that has some very specific and tangible rules, like not taking photographs without permission, not naming members outside of the space without their permission, and treating all information shared as confidential unless stated otherwise. It works simply because it is so prescriptive but I do not know how practical it would be to consider the idea of a “safe space” without some sort of system in place.
Paradoxically, the idea of a rigid system is often the problem when trying to actually set up a safe space outside of formal institutions. While the university safe space policy has obvious ways of monitoring due to students having an official affiliation, there is very little to be done on a community organising level. Groups like QTIPOC (Queer, Trans, Intersex People of Colour) Notts have a self-identification policy that is based on trust, and that also largely works because it is a small, niche group, but trying to create a safe space at Pride was a difficult experience and one that failed in the end.
All of which is not to say that these discussions are pointless. Having the goal of a safe or safer space allows problematic behaviour to be challenged and changed. And it is definitely possible to create small safe spaces which, when working in tandem, can create a wonderfully supportive network for relevant people.
Sam: There is a reason why we do not legally register and then segregate POC, disabled people, and LGBT people in the way we do women, and yet we can still strive towards creating safer spaces for them. If the idea that a legally differentiated status is “protection” does not stand up for these groups, it should not stand up for women. Creating a separate legal and social class for women substantially harms them, and defending its continuance is unfeminist. The moves towards self-identification are a step towards breaking down this legal segregation and I hope this is just the start.
We also need to understand that turning someone’s difference into a legal status is not the only way to preserve, honour and respect their difference, as equality legislation and hate crime legislation demonstrates.
The trick played on women to preserve this segregation (which is ultimately in patriarchy’s interests) is that segregation is “for your own good”, i.e. you cannot be safe in mixed spaces. This simply is not good enough. Toilets/changing rooms and services are the two areas of contention by which gender segregation and trans exclusion are preserved. The issues are different for each of these, but the over-arching issue relates to fear of sexual assault, and echo the issues previously used to exclude LGB people.
Part of this is to do with the particular sexualisation of trans people, and their portrayal as predators. The fact that there are more registered female sex offenders in the UK than trans women but nobody is worried about where they pee is an interesting side-note. In fact, toilets are not and never have been unsafe spaces and there are other spaces where it is much easier for predators to attack, sadly. Simple security measures are far more effective than signs on doors that can ultimately be ignored by someone intending to break the law by assaulting someone.
But more to the point, when you look at who are the main victims of sexual assault, the groups that stand out are – LGBT children and adults, disabled people, particularly those with communication difficulties, and in general people who are vulnerable, marginalised and oppressed in society, by virtue of the fact they are more easily preyed upon.
Trans women are, for instance, more likely to have been sexually assaulted both as children and adults, than the average cis woman, but so are trans men. Precisely because they are easily isolated and preyed upon, especially as gender non-conforming kids. 80% of trans people experience domestic violence for the same reason.
But this is more far-reaching than just a trans issue – men who are learning disabled, men from the Roma community, men with dwarfism, to give just a few examples, may all have a much higher vulnerability to abuse than the average well attached, middle class, white, able cishet women, and yet there is little acknowledgement of their need for safe spaces and support. Why? When I did my MA on this subject, I found substantial evidence that regressive, conservative funders only want to fund abuse services that reinforce the narrative of man as predator, woman as victim.
Intersectional, anti-oppressive services and spaces for victims and vulnerable people are the way forward, ones which acknowledge the many power inequalities that exist. In the short term, women only services are valuable, but need to be far more accessible not just to trans women, but to lesbians, black women, working class women, women with mental health issues, autistic women, etc. Current services are very heteronormative and ill-equipped to deal with, just for instance, women abused by other women.
Ultimately, though, we need safe spaces for all victims and all marginalised and oppressed people. There is no scientific evidence of the benefit of gender segregated services, and I think precisely because they are built on a non-intersectional model that “no woman can be oppressive”, gender segregated services and spaces can be quite unsafe for many groups.
The final issue is the current exemption services have to be allowed to exclude trans women based on the potential reactions of other women. This is of course legislating for the acceptability of prejudice. The exemption will only hold out for as long as people are still prejudiced towards trans women. The way it centres cis women’s prejudice rather than trans women’s increased vulnerability and need of services is depressing.
There has been much discussion of how the current system puts unnecessary and sometimes harmful barriers in the way of trans people living their lives fully:
Karen: Reform to the current system is long overdue, I think many people are unaware of the flaws and limitations of both the gender recognition act and the Equality act. The process to get a Gender Recognition Certificate, for example, is not medical, or indeed based on evidence, and includes odd questions such as swearing to never change your gender identity again. In a world which is becoming far more aware of the fluidity of identity, it reads like something from the stone age. There are a number of other barriers and gatekeeping which need to be looked at, from GPs refusing to dispense hormones, to admission to rape crisis facilities, it will take time, and new structures, but that is no excuse not to begin.
Lou: To police who can and can’t be a woman, especially based on fantasies you have about their genitals, is peculiar and creepy. Why is it widely accepted as a reasonable thing to do in so many areas of academic and journalism?
The most common argument seems to be to tell the story of a hypothetical trans woman who comes out when she is middle-aged or older, as an example of how a trans woman isn’t ‘really a woman’ because she was treated (incorrectly) as a man for most of her life. I keep seeing otherwise compassionate, reasonable people nod their heads at this and say things like: ‘ah yes, that’s a good point.’
It is not a good point. It is essentially saying that if a woman doesn’t have the same experience of womanhood as you, then she isn’t a woman. That echoes the long history of gatekeeping womanhood and excluding millions of women, including cisgender women, on grounds of race, sexuality, body type, disability and countless other arbitrary lines. It is an argument that says women need to be a certain type of woman in order to be considered women at all. And if that doesn’t alarm you, the next step on from denying somebody their womanhood or manhood is to deny their humanity full stop.
The other big argument which seems to be given credence is that denying trans people’s rights is motivated not by a peculiar and irrational fixation with trans people, but rather by a desire to erase gender altogether, because the gender binary is inherently oppressive to women. It’s a belief that is held genuinely by some, and thrown out as disingenuous misdirection to try and cover up transphobia by others, but either way, it only makes sense if you completely erase trans and non-binary people’s own words about their own lives. If you can only imagine a world without misogyny by creating a world without gender, you are deeply unimaginative. You are also accepting the sexist premise that there is something inevitable about womanhood that equates to oppression. Most of all, though, the amount of time and energy that gets invested into arbitrating who can and cannot be a woman is huge. And it begs the question, unless you’re transphobic… why? Why are you so obsessed with the academic distinction between ‘woman as a gender’ and ‘biologically male’?
If you have a theory about the world, be it scientific, sociological, economic or political, and actual people exist in real life who do not fit into your theory, that’s a reason to adapt the theory. It is not a reason to demand that those people stop existing.
Ibtisam: There is a massive and toxic misconception that challenging the idea of a binary and terminology like “cisgender” are purely academic and intellectual exercises. Toxic not only because of the inherent classism in saying something is purely academic (and therefore unapplicable to people without a minimum level of education) but also because it erases identities and reduces debates that have actual effects on people’s lives to a theoretical difference of opinion.
There needs to be much better and universal access to information for everyone involved. There also needs to be a serious discussion around decolonisation and decentring a monolothic “Western” ideal of the LGBTQ+ experience. Many cultures around the world have, or at least had, their own ways of conceptualising gender and sexuality. Growing up in Bangladesh, I knew about the third-gender Hijra community long before I even engaged with ideas of queerness or difference. Yet, many of these groups and identities are left out of the discussion. Worse still, there is a constant notion that the Global South, by virtue of being economically less developed, needs “educating” on the appropriate ways to approach queerness. Never mind the fact that both the economic and social stagnation were results of Western imperialism. It is vital that an intellectual neo-imperialism does not take hold of contemporary debates and the agency of all parts of the queer spectrum is fully recognised.
Sam: It’s important to understand that assigning sex as a legal and social status is a gendering process, it is not simply biological, and intersex infants often are surgically maimed to preserve binary gendering. Feminists who wish to “abolish gender but maintain sex assignment” are contradictory, because they are in fact wishing to preserve gender’s most substantial foundation. Trans people seek gender liberation to avoid erasure of the diversity of gendered experiences, including oppressed and colonised identities like Indigenous American Two-spirit people, Indian Hijra, and others. So a person may describe their identity as best they can and use words that are meaningful to them, rather than have those words, and any stereotypes or expectations that go with them, legally or socially imposed upon them.
Allowing self-identification is just one step in this process, which ultimately need to examine the implications of gender markers on legal documents in their entirety. It is unclear as to whether non-binary identification, or removal of gender markers, is on the table, but it should be, and hopefully will be in the near future. The fantasy is that somehow changing gender marker would “allow access” to people for nefarious reasons, and yet nefarious people already have sufficient access to commit abuse, and it seems unlikely that any legal procedure, however easy, would be a tempting route.
Ireland has self-declaration and other countries do. The system has not been abused because using self-declaration for nefarious purposes would constitute fraud and be illegal. In addition, self-declaring as a trans person makes a person exceptionally vulnerable, marginalised and likely to be preyed upon, rather than the fantasy that it will give them some sort of power. The idea that a perpetrator with harm in mind is going to say to themself “damn, I cannot legally change my gender marker and thus there is no way for me to commit harm to another person, I am thwarted!” is simply ludicrous.
The belief that all identites deserve respect is one which underpins the support for self-identification:
Annette: Some people have a very fixed view on women’s rights which sees gender as something others can define on behalf of the individual.
The strength of being able to self-identify is that it frees people from a medicalised system. Society can really only grow when people are able to be themselves, and not what others tell them they are.
Karen: We all fundamentally benefit from having our sense of who we are respected by the state, society, and community. No one should be deemed lesser or have fewer rights because of their gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, or any other aspect of their identity.
Ibtisam: There seems to be an ongoing habit of groups being spoken for. As a cisgender man, I know I feed into that system as well with my privilege. Acknowledging and dismantling that privilege involves a move away from speaking for other identities. Speaking with them is a better move, but the best is really to amplify their voices and pass the mic. Many of us have had our turn – and await our turns in some arenas – so it is only fair that we give up platforms which we no longer really need. This also needs to expand and include the question of decolonisation I raised earlier.
Sam: Someone said to me the other day, “why do we have to have all these labels?” I replied, somewhat sarcastically, “you’re right, why call the thing I am sitting on a chair, when we can just call it furniture, or simply a thing . . . damn people trying to describe things accurately and convey meaning!”
The simple fact is language evolves quickly to describe human experience, and words can often have flexible or multiple meanings. We strive to tell our stories as best we can and be understood. Often, when someone says they “dislike labels”, they are really resistant to the information the “label” is conveying. Two years ago nobody had heard the word “Brexit”, yet now most of us use it frequently. It’s a label for an idea that we found useful as circumstance changed. This is a pretty normal example of language evolving according to use and knowledge.
What is unhelpful is when other people feel they can more accurately describe our experience than we can ourselves – they often do this based on very superficial appraisals, such as how we look, as opposed to our long and intimate life experience of ourselves.
Does the queer community have a duty to speak up on this issue?
Ibtisam: Speaking from a cisgender perspective, this is a massive responsibility that the non-trans intersections of the queer community try to avoid taking ownership of. Many so-called queer spaces are really just cisgender gay male (and in some cases female) spaces. I have had way too many experiences of queer clubs being transphobic and refusing to acknowledge problems like policing gender based on appearance. We need to play a part in breaking down these behaviours. From formal things like boycotting discriminatory venues and people, to more personal interactions like calling out friends and family, and, most importantly, being self-reflective of our own behaviour is key to undermining the systemic issue of transphobia. On a personal note, reaching out to any trans friends who are struggling, offering to meet for a meal or just spending some time with them can be a simple and intimate way of tackling prejudice. The greatest myth ever sold is that individuals cannot make a difference. We can, as long as we channel our energies in the right direction and listen to the right voices.
Sam: As a trans awareness trainer, my key task is to bring trans people, if only for a while, into the centre of people’s frame. We are often the difficult outsiders, banging on the door noisily, being disruptive and inconvenient. Pan the camera outside, and you will see the reason we are hollering is that we are suffering – really badly! It’s cold and dangerous out here, and we just want to be let in, i.e. accepted, included and accommodated in society.
The ability to stand in our shoes, to empathise, comes from hearing and understanding our stories, I think, from realising we have a point of view that’s worthwhile and takes a bit of effort to step into. I feel honoured that through writing and training I have made a few jaws fall and pennies drop. Folks begin to realise that trans people are systematically bullied, excluded, sexualised and scapegoated and that this alone, as a recent Lancet study attests, is the reason we suffer from a high degree of minority stress and subsequent depression and trauma. And all this suffering is caused so that cis people, somewhat oblivious to our need, can stay in their comfort zone.
Karen: Rights are not rationed, if one section of society is better treated, it does not mean that another section loses out. I wonder if a lot of the reactions we are seeing are based on the idea that rights are a finite resources. If we are to have a fair, just and equitable society, then it must be fair just and equitable for all its members.
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