I was five when I grasped the difference between biological sex and gender. My best friend dumped me when we started primary school because he realised I was a girl. I was so hurt and confused: I was the same person, but because our relationship was now embedded in a larger, gender stratified community, I was now seen as something less. Someone less. Someone different. Someone he could no longer be best friends with.
What the experience told me was that my body had socially ascribed meanings that didn’t have anything to do with me, the person inhabiting the body. That I still liked climbing the same trees, riding the same bikes, playing in the same dirt, and with the same trains, was irrelevant. What mattered was that my body was different to his which now meant that there were different expectations on and of me, expectations I did not agree with nonetheless.
Many years later, I did a year of a Women’s Studies degree where we learned basic stuff around the difference between biological sex and gender. Basic facts it seems that most of society has not grasped, so let me have a go because it’s really quite simple. Biological sex is the facts of our bodies (female, male, intersex), and gender is the meanings ascribed to those bodies (women, men, non-binary).
It is abundantly clear that vast swathes of society do not grasp that sex and gender are not the same thing. I believe this lack of understanding is precisely what has led to the transgender wars. I also believe that hardline zealots on both sides are obscuring the debate, and creating more animosity and confusion.
I have always been a tomboy. I identify as a woman, I am very comfortable with my female body, but put me in a dress and I feel like I am in drag. I do not identify with a great swathe of the gendered attributes ascribed to female bodies. It is not for nothing that my full name and title, Dr Tank Green, is utterly gender neutral. If I were younger, I would likely identify as non-binary, I suppose. Instead, my approach has been to try to broaden out the meaning of woman to the point that it becomes meaningless. In my world, woman should and can mean anything.
My feminism has thus meant an opening up of gender with the eventual aim of abolishing it. I think gender is a cage and in my perfect world, gender does not exist. Just different types of bodies with whatever personality and personhood happens to inhabit them. In my perfect world, we all love the body we were born with because society is no longer ascribing external meanings upon it. In my perfect world, our body will be our own to define, describe, delineate. I wish for a world in which my female body will have no external meanings other than the basic biological facts of it. If anyone has read Marge Piercy’s Woman on the edge of time then you will know where I am coming from with this.
So these transgender wars are showing two things: 1) that a great many people don’t understand the difference between sex and gender; and 2) that transgender people are decoupling the traditional, conservative, and fundamentally oppressive association between sex and gender. In this way, whilst it doesn’t seem so at the moment, I have hope that transgender people will eventually liberate society from the oppressive cage of gender.
Ironically though, transpeople are also solidifying gender in the process. Why? Because part of the hardline stance they are forced to adopt in the face of ever-increasing bigotry means that the nuance and subtlety of the socially constructed performance of gender is being lost. The emphatic statement of “transwomen are women” both points to, and obscures, the greater and more important question of: what does it mean to be a woman (or a man)? The answer being: everything and nothing. What should have been play has become a dogmatic war.
Fundamentally, the concept of transgenderism relies on a Cartesian duality which says ‘we’ are not the same thing as ‘our body’. Personally, I reject this duality as I have spent a lifetime crawling out of the trap that is my mind and into my body. To me, mind is suffering and the only objectively real thing is the facts of our bodies, the earth, the waters, and the sky. In this way, I think transgender people have correctly identified the problem (the false cage of gender) but have provided the wrong answer.
The absurdities of transgender inclusion are also due to a total lack of understanding about the difference between sex and gender. Let’s take the Lia Thomas example, but rewind a bit and ask: why do women and men not compete against each other in sport? It’s not because women have long hair, wear dresses, make up and high heels, and like babies (allegedly), and which therefore means they’re no good at sport; it’s because, up until now, man has meant male bodied, and woman has meant female bodied. Generally speaking, male bodies have particular attributes (testosterone, size, muscle mass) which mean they perform better in sports than even the butchest and buffest female bodies out there. As such, it is patently absurd for a male-bodied person of whatever fucking gender to compete against female-bodied people.
As Lia has shown us, even mediocre male bodies can outcompete elite female bodies due to the innate advantages of going through male puberty in respect of athleticism. So whilst Lia is a woman, she is very much not a female, and allowing her to compete against females is straight up unfair to her fellow competitors. The fair option is that male-bodied people compete against other male bodies, and likewise for females, irrespective of the gender that each person identifies with.
And since we’re on the topic, let’s weigh in on everyone’s favourite hot topics: toilets and changing rooms. Here’s my simple solution: make all public/workplace toilets unisex by having floor to ceiling walls and doors on single toilet cubicles. Done. Simples. Next.
As for changing rooms, I think we need a two-stage process. Long-term, let’s move to a place where we have changing rooms which correspond to bodies, not gender. In the short-term, I think that if you’ve physically transitioned alongside your gender transition, then you can use the changing room of your new gender as you’ve amended your body and are clearly serious as fuck about this. Otherwise, if you are performing a new gender role but have left your body intact, then you can use the changing room of the gender you were assigned at birth. Personally, I do not want male bodies in my changing room because my experience of the people who have male bodies is that they are, by and large, predatory. However, if you were born with a male body but have had surgery to make your body seem more ‘female’, then you’ve taken a radical step. I salute you and welcome you, and your vulnerability, in.
Eventually, perhaps we will also have intersex changing rooms too. But it is my understanding, and I welcome the opportunity to be wrong on this, that most intersex people are operated on to force them into the female/male, woman/man binary. Once that practice ceases, perhaps we will need a changing room for you too.
I suppose the transgender wars are revealing precisely how invested in gender people are. My favourite movie is Harold and Maude, and one of her most perfect lines is ‘how the world dearly loves a cage’. The rise of the covidians showed us how true that is, but so too does all of this conflict about transgender people. Denying a transperson’s right to perform the gender of their choosing is as inherently oppressive and claustrophobic as insisting that there is an objectively real opposing gender for you to transition into.
The truth is that whether you are foot stamping that transwomen are women, or that they are not, you are each pushing up against the boundaries of woman from opposing sides and in doing so, solidifying it. (Same goes for transmen and men.) If only gender were a nice fresh egg and not a centuries old social institution.
Perhaps the answer is to love the body you have, and to behave in keeping with your internal (and yes, currently socially mediated through ‘race’, class, gender, religion, etc.) personality, rather than allow something as archaic, claustrophobic, and damaging as gender to determine a human being’s life course at all.