Here goes nothing
I don’t think trans women are the same as cis women. What follows from the existence of this difference is, however, difficult to disentangle.
The first point is that trans people are not monsters. They are human beings, with human rights and dignities, which extent beyond legal obligations and into those of courtesy and mutual respect. That they should not be raped, murdered, bullied or abused are all human rights, legally enforceable. Using their preferred pronouns and in general treating them as they would prefer is not a legal obligation, but a moral recognition of common humanity, which I accept and follow. It’s not an absolute right, though. If a woman who has been assaulted wants to speak of her attacker as a man, let her do so.
None the less, if the choice is a simple binary between those who assert that trans people are monsters, and freaks who should be defined out of existence and those who assert that they are in fact members of their chosen gender – then obviously it’s no choice. The important issue is the human rights, and indeed the humanity, of real people.
But that brutal binary – that trans people must either be monsters or else whoever they say they are - isn’t in fact the choice confronting anyone, except in the crazier corners of the internet. When anyone who hesitates over the blanket claim that “trans women are women”, is accused of being on the side of those who rape and murder transsexuals, accused of hatred, and called silly names like “terf” their accusers have passed outside reasoned discussion. The claim, which I have seen made explicitly on Twitter, that journalists on liberal papers are responsible for the murder of trans women seems to me deranged as well as offensive.
Until you know what the claim that “trans women are women” is supposed to mean it is impossible to agree or disagree with it except as a marker of tribal allegiance, which is a bad way to think. There are vile people on both sides of any sufficiently important argument and it is wrong to let yourself be diverted by the thought that some horrible people will agree (and others, equally vile, disagree) with what you say. That will be true whichever side you take. There is no stance of perfect moral purity.
Neither is it the case that to support or even to respect someone requires you to take them at their own valuation. This is especially not true for journalists and writers. Otherwise we’d just be in PR.
But if trans women are not cis women, what follows? Not much. Sex and gender involve both biological categories and social constructions. Biological categories are by their nature fuzzy. Social constructions can have much harder edges but they are fluid. Sex and gender are both biological and social. Some people have distinct, physical disorders of sexual development; others are completely convinced that they are trapped in a body of the wrong gender. These people are statistically abnormal but not morally wrong. We should not suppose that the biological norm is the moral ideal.
But think this through: if we’re going to treat sex and gender are fluid or fuzzy categories, then the assertion that “trans women are women” loses a great deal of force. This is where I feel that some trans rights advocates play a sort of three card trick: they use a fuzzy definition of woman in part of their argument and then go on to assume to it all the privileges consequent on a strict definition. Equally, the difference between pre- and post-op transsexuals is important: while I don’t think that operations and hormones actually make you indistinguishable from a member of the preferred sex, they certainly distance you from the rejected one.
If we don’t know what “woman” means – which is one consequence of rejecting biological essentialism – neither do we know what it means to assert that someone is a woman. We have to pick among the multiple possible meanings of “woman” that could be implied by any particular usage.
The question that guides us towards humane and sensible answers is surely this: Under what circumstances are which differences between cis and trans relevant? When is it reasonable, useful and humane to say that trans women are women?
To put the question another way, on which occasions are we forced in real life to divide people into two and only two classes - “men” or “women”, whose members are assumed to be like each other in all significant ways, so that trans people can be treated entirely as if they were cis one way or the other?
In most of life we’re not forced to do this, and when we’re not forced we should refuse to do so, and treat trans people as the gender they would prefer without holding a view on whether they have actually transsubstantiated. But in some cases the choice is unavoidable. A ragged list of them follows:
The simplest and clearest case is women’s sports. There is no possible justification for allowing anyone who has gone through puberty as a male to compete against women as if they were themselves one in the relevant aspects. In this context, trans women are not in fact women and shouldn’t gain advantages by pretending to be1.
Then there is the prison system, where at present offenders are judged on a case by case basis. I think that’s fair enough. Different trans people are more or less anatomically and perhaps psychologically matched with the gender they prefer. This ought to be relevant to their treatment in the prison system. This argument does cut both ways, of course. Some trans people will be far more at risk when treated as their denied sex in prison and should be protected accordingly. But the presumption should always be that m-to-f transsexuals are treated as men unless there are compelling reasons otherwise. Ideally, there would be by a system whereby transgender people had their own prison facilities, but that’s unrealistic in the present criminally overcrowded and neglected system. Men’s prisons are in Britain such hellholes that legal self-ID would certainly be abused by some prisoners to demand a transfer to a woman’s prison. But the answer is not the further punishment of women by confining them with heterosexual men – who will sometimes be sex offenders – claiming to have become women.
Lavatories are more complex. The obvious compromise is to extend gender-neutral facilities, but these can actually work more to the disadvantage of women ( who need more toilets, more often) than simply allowing anyone who looks like a woman to use a women’s loo would do. This is what you might call moderate self-ID. On this the TRAs are I think right. Rigorous policing of who uses which lavatories is just an example of obnoxious virtue signalling and persecution from the Right: these things are not a monopoly of the Left.
Note that rights-based law is no help here, at least in the UK: equalities law prevents discrimination both on the grounds of gender and of sex, but in the case of men with penises demanding the right to swim in Hampstead Ponds because they identify themselves as women, the two rights are clearly in conflict.
Changing rooms and swimming pools have their own problems. In part this is because of the TRA claim that genitals are an irrelevance to gender, so that rules are drawn up which don’t discriminate between supposed women who have penises and those who do not. That’s not how the rest of us see the penis. There are cultures and places in which strange naked men and women mingle freely – that’s still how I approach a sauna – but whether this is experienced as aggression by women is something they get to determine, not men. Women who don’t want a penis in their changing rooms or swimming ponds should not have to have them there unless they choose. I certainly think that it should be the women involved who make the choice.
Again, it’s quite important that such judgments be made on a case by case basis: this person in that space, but not, perhaps, that person in this space. It’s no part of the terf/gender crit argument that all trans women or even a sizeable minority are a threat: only that some might be, and that a badly drawn law would be an invitation to bad actors. See the Yaniv case for an illustration. I really cannot think of any justification for a man to shove his balls in the face of a woman and tell her that she must wax them however this violates her dignity and her religious beliefs; and then adding, in an assault on her sanity, that he can do this is because he is a woman. Cunt, possibly; woman, not.
But outside of such egregious cases I can’t think of a situation where it matters very much whether Trans Women are (really, substantially, truly) Women. They are undoubtedly people, with human rights and dignities and in the normal course of events should be treated as they’d prefer to be. There’s no reason why trans people should not serve in the army, the police, the clergy, as teachers, nurses or doctors. This position puts me rather to the Left of a lot of British opinion. Almost 60% of the participants in the most recent British Social Attitudes survey doubt that trans people should work in primary schools or the police. While I think that Mermaids should be kept out of schools – and indeed from all public life – there’s every reason to distinguish between a crazed ideology and the actual human beings that it’s apparently about.
This sketch started off as a modest and probably futile attempt to think through some of these problems while dialling down the noise. It was very much the way one tried to think as a leader writer, moving from practices (or evidence) to principles and thence to policy positions. It relies on distinctions between sex and gender – obviously – but also between social, legal, and psychological realities, all of which have different qualities and uses when we want to understand the world. It takes for granted the distinction between saying, eg, “This is a badly framed law, which will be used by bad actors”, which is true and intended; and “all the people affected by this law are themselves bad actors”, which is obviously false, and almost always unintended.
But in the course of writing it – and of course, everyone told me to avoid the subject for fear of being cancelled – I have shifted gradually to a much clearer position, mostly under the repellent influence of of some trans activists for whom these distinctions are treated as proof of moral and intellectual rottennness. This is most obvious on twitter and medium. Twitter is self-evident: to interact there on any subject that requires thought is actively to destroy trust and understanding; but Medium came as a surprise. For some reason algorithm keeps feeding me articles reinforcing the TRA position and the more I read them, the weaker the arguments seem, and the more they collapse into tribal solidarity and sloganeering. To quote the crucial sentences of one I was sent today: “There has been a rash of anti-transgender articles published in the UK press over the last couple of weeks (I have no desire to link to them, but you can read rebuttals here and here and here).”
There’s no doubt that some people stay away from these arguments out of fear of damaging their careers or their friendships. But there is the more subtle danger of being corrupted just by caring too much about what idiots say on twitter and elsewhere.
The people most engaged, on both sides, feel that they are defending powerless minorities from bullying and this emotional dynamic charges everything they do. This is an argument that recruits the highest motives to the lowest ends. The antidote to that is just friendships with real people who really disagree with you, something increasingly difficult in these plague times.
To get too hung up on the weaknesses of a case you disagree with is if course a recipe for madness, especially when examples multiply indefinitely, as on the internet they do. So I’ll stop now.
1 (There is a separate difficulty with biologically “intersex” women, as Caster Semyana appears to be. I think her case is tragic; it is certainly not the result of any of her deliberate choices or attempts to game the system. So she, and people like her, should be permitted to compete as women, which they have always, and with much justice, understood themselves to be. This is to accept a permanent, genetic, disadvantage for other competitors who are born as more normal females but so far as I can see sport will always entail such disadvantages.)