From TERF to Temperate: Trying to carve out a centrist position in gender politics

I kept coming back to it. Something didn’t make sense. The internet told me trans women are women. I agreed, tepidly, not thinking too hard about it at first. Trans women are women adjacent. Trans women prefer to be thought of as women. Trans women are women. Women are…

The lead up to my interest in trans issues was unassuming. Reading a few comments on a few articles or message boards about not assuming all women had vaginas. Hearing a few jokes about lady penis. Noticing a few admonishments from trans advocates that women should be more careful when speaking about their bodies, so as not to imply that women had vaginas. Just a few drops of cognitive dissonance. A little confused inner resistance from my part.

I decided that any progressive-minded person in today’s world should understand more about trans people, so I looked it up. I think I probably just googled “trans women.” I found a bunch of milquetoast charities with preachy advice, as is typical for most charities. I read them, trying to find the answers to my questions, but found mostly grammar advice. I dug a little deeper. What did it mean to identify as a woman or a man? I found out about gender dysphoria, and read accounts of sufferers having panic attacks in the shower when confronted with their sexual organs.

Well, I thought, you have to be able to have a shower in peace. Whatever being trans is, you can’t live like that; transition is obviously necessary. I read theories of women’s brains in men’s bodies. I shrugged and put the subject away.

But I kept coming back to it. What was a woman’s brain? How was it connected to the love of traditionally feminine or masculine things? Was womanhood to be found in the brain or the body? Or, an idea abhorrent to me, in our behaviour?

I’m straight, but being gay has always been easy for me to understand. You can feel your own sexuality. You feel attracted to men or women (or both). You imagine that you had a different set of attractions. You imagined yourself face to face (maybe literally) with sex acts you didn’t want to perform, and understanding grew out of that. But I couldn’t feel my own gender identity. I assumed it was because my identity matched my body, but I couldn’t be sure.

I didn’t really find answers to the questions above. I did find a lot of people screaming at each other and calling simple questions transphobic. “Go do your own research” seemed to be the most popular refrain. Well, I was trying to do just that, and getting nowhere.

Enter gender critical feminists. Expressing the second wave, women’s lib sentiments that have always resonated with me more than murkier, tedious third wave feminism, they pointed out the misogyny inherent in the idea of women’s brains and men’s brains, or that feminine dress and mannerisms is what makes a woman. I was concerned about the idea of the left championing surgery and medication as a way of coping with gender roles. I grew up believing that people should act how they like and dress how they like and that eventually society would learn to deal with it. I slowly discovered I was living in a world where some people viewed their body as the problem, instead of society. I felt deeply uncomfortable with the left championing this.

What is a woman? The question lays heavily and annoyingly over so much of the conversation. Truth be told, I still don’t understand how trans activists define women. The most common answer I receive to the question is “a woman is someone who identifies as a woman.” Well, this doesn’t give any information, does it? If you ask me what a banana is, and I tell you it’s the thing we call a banana, that doesn’t help you. It’s easy to get stuck on this question. The certainty with which the mantra “trans women are women” is repeated is rarely backed up by a coherent explanation. Conversations attempting to understand each other’s definition often grow bitter and aggressive.

I discovered a world where women were being shouted at for discussing how trans rights interacts with their own rights. I saw horribly violent and abusive threats thrown at women whose position seemed tame and unremarkable. I saw FGM advocates targeted and racially abused for using the word female to refer to clitorises. How freaking entitled do you have to be to be jealous of little girls who have their genitals mutilated in order to control their sexuality? I saw a movement set on demonising sexual assault victims as though they, rather than predatory men, were the ones responsible for the majority of misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic violence in the world.

I wasn’t entirely sure where I stood on some issues. Did I care about bathrooms? Not very much, but the conversation kept returning to them again and again. What bothered me more than actual policy was the attitude of many trans activists that women were somehow bigoted for wanting our own spaces. That we hated men so much we couldn’t see straight. I saw signs posted in university washrooms telling young women never to question someone who was in there. This raised red flags for me. Should trans people be harassed in toilets? Of course not. Should young women be told to ignore their instincts for their own safety in favour of being polite? OF COURSE NOT.

Several years in, and I consider myself to be almost over-informed on trans rights and issues, and my mind has changed on certain things. I understand the condition of being trans much better than I did. The harsh reality of dysphoria and the helpfulness of transition for many sufferers is more clear to me. I would have called myself skeptical of the necessity of transition a few years ago, although I did not actively oppose it. I can see now that hormones and surgery can improve trans people’s lives in a way that nothing else can.

I’ve come to see that part of the disagreement is not in knowing what a woman is, but instead in understanding the difference between sex, gender, and gender identity. Gender critical people (at least in theory) believe that sex refers to your body, gender refers to oppressive gender roles applied to you unfairly because of your body. Gender identity, which is more controversial, refers to an innate sense of whether you are a man or a woman. I currently do not believe I have a gender identity, and I’ve heard a lot of others say the same. Maybe in the future we will find out everyone has one, but this is where I stand at the moment. That is not to say that I reject the idea that others do have a gender identity; other people have different experiences than my own. But I’ve noticed that a lot of trans activists, especially younger ones, confuse those last two items, believing that when we refer to gender in general it is something that one can choose, explore, or identify with. To many people, this sounds very offensive. Gender (not identity) is always oppressive.

It’s also my experience that many people seem to see gender presentation and identification as something that has to labelled (even if that label is genderfluid), and I struggle to understand the benefit of adding more labels, instead of working towards eliminating gender (or at least lessening its influence in our lives). Please note, eliminating gender means getting rid of the stereotypes, expectations, and assumptions associated with being a man or being a woman. It does not mean eliminating style or fashion or makeup or football, or any specific thing that we tend to connect with feminine or masculine. This to me is the core of the gender critical argument. I see a lot of people lately calling themselves gender critical, or brandishing I heart JKR flair in their bios, who don’t seem to understand that gender critical is not meant to be a synonym for anti-trans. You cannot be gender critical if you believe in gender roles. You cannot be gender critical if you believe gender and sex are synonymous.

When I first got involved in these issues, I was very concerned about how to continue to advocate for women’s rights when we didn’t have a coherent definition of woman. As I mentioned above, this anxiety was compounded by witnessing conversations where women were berated for referring to fertility issues or FGM as a woman’s issue. Thankfully, I’ve seen fewer of these conversations recently, but they are unacceptable. Women have been, for most of human history, shamed into not talking about their bodies (except to viciously criticise themselves). We cannot regress to a point where we are encouraged to self-censor so as to not hurt other people’s feelings. Trans people exist, and deserved rights and respect, but this does not change the fact that menstruation, childbirth, menopause, cervical cancer, etc are women’s issues.

This brings us to the debate over how to refer to women when discussing all things relevant to the female body. Much mockery has been made over terms like uterus-haver and menstruator. I do think a lot of people who use these terms are simply trying to be inclusive, and I support that instinct, but I think using these terms makes natal women feel excluded, dehumanised, or like the word woman is dirty or problematic in itself. I personally am not overly offended by these terms, but what I am offended by is the inequality in the pressure on women to change the way we refer to ourselves, where men seem to experience zero pressure to do the same. There are no health advice posters referring to men as prostate-havers or ejactulators. It reflects the pretty common phenomenon that women are expected to make way and be inclusive and men are expected to…??

The other issue with using these terms, even the less dehumanising ones like people who menstruate or people with cervixes, is that they are aimed at people with a high level of literacy. Women with a low level of English will not understand that these messages are aimed at them, whereas trans men and trans women are more likely to be acutely aware of what their own physiology is. So is the solution to say “women, trans men and others who menstruate?” It’s wordy, but it might be better. I’m open to suggestions.

From this I think we can migrate over to the very sticky, thorny, multi-headed issue of sex segregated spaces. This aspect is probably where I’ve gone on the longest rollercoaster of opinion, and also where much of the conversation tends to be focused. I started out not caring much about toilets, and I still don’t. I live in a busy city and I rarely, if ever, feel unsafe in a public toilet. Trans women have been using the ladies’ for many years, largely without issue. What I am more concerned about is the trend of gender neutral toilets. I believe these are less safe for both natal and trans women; moreover, it often seems as though the ladies’ toilets become gender neutral and the men’s stay segregated! Women already have greater need of more toilets. We have smaller bladders and periods, and are more likely to have small children with us. We are more prone to urinary tract infections. So making our toilets open for everyone is not only unsafe, it’s a further burden on already over-burdened facilities. I don’t really see the point of multiple user gender neutral toilets. I think we should be moving more towards single-occupancy gender neutral toilets or changing rooms, where practical and possible; a solution with no losers that I can see (other than predators). This shift will take time and money, sure, but I think that the binary facility situation we have is no longer suitable for our more complex society.

I think this point bears repeating: trans women have been using women’s public facilities on a self-ID basis for decades, and we have not noticed. I do not take any issue with them continuing to do so. However, there is a change in sentiment that I do object to, which is signs like this one in university toilets:

Again, I think this sign is well-intentioned. I want trans people to feel they can use the bathroom in peace too. But I think this sign, and similar calls to avoid questioning anyone in the toilets, are incredibly dangerous if they are presented without any nuance. Women are already encouraged to ignore their own safety in favour of being polite and kind. I am a woman in my late 30s who still gets in dangerous situations with men for this very reason, and university-aged women tend to be less confident in asserting their own boundaries and standing up for themselves. There is a difference between encouraging people to be inclusive to trans women and androgynous women, and discouraging women to trust their instincts. It is sometimes completely appropriate to challenge a man in the toilet or changing room. Women and girls should feel free to stand up for themselves or other women without fear of being called bigots. Does this mean that trans women who are very early in their transition might have to use the men’s? It might. This is a messy situation with no easy solutions. This is partly why I think single-occupancy toilets are a good idea. I previously believed that changing rooms were a separate issue, and a more dangerous place for self-ID policies to be in place; however, on reflection that trans women have also been using changing rooms for many years with few issues, I believe that they should continue to do so if they wish.

The more serious issues regarding segregated spaces revolve around women’s shelters and prisons. Again, I’ve come to a more nuanced view from where I started. I started watching the defunding and abuse of Vancouver Rape Relief, a women’s shelter in Canada that does not accept trans women as service users or volunteers. I read about a case in a Toronto shelter where a woman objected to a pre-op trans woman as a roommate and was warned she could be committing a hate crime. I think most people instinctively understand and empathise with an abuse victim/survivor not wanting to share a room at a shelter with a male-bodied person, and few would label her a bigot.

But then again, many shelters say they have been accepting trans women for many years and that they rarely have a problem. They have risks assessments in place. Furthermore, of course trans women need access to shelters, and at the moment, they do not have any dedicated to them. So where I stand right now is that trans women should continue to use the shelters they have access to, but I think shelters like VRR should also be able decide they are female only, especially in the case of their volunteers. I do not see this decision as being against trans people, rather than in support of the natal women whose trauma may be worsened by being around male bodies or voices. And women who are particularly uncomfortable sharing a room with someone with male genitalia should be accommodated. Being in a shelter is not subject to normal social rules. Survivors are usually in a heightened place of fear and trauma. I believe the majority of trans women have sympathy to this fear and would not want to be the person who made another survivor deeply uncomfortable.

Prisons are equally thorny. Trans women are often in danger in a men’s prison, this is true. It’s also true that allowing trans women into women’s prisons has not been seemless. Rapes, reports of sexual harassment, and even pregnancies have occurred. Female inmates are some of societies’ most vulnerable people, and they deserve protection. I think a case-by-case approach needs to be continued, considering different aspects such as the nature of the crime (violent or not) and how far the trans woman is in her transition. Should a sexual offender who came out as trans a week before incarciration be placed with female inmates? I don’t believe so. Should a non-violent offender who has had GRS and been on hormones for years be placed with male inmates? I don’t believe so. Of course, our society continually fails to protect the rights of inmates, and I don’t think we are likely to see a coherent, well-thought out solution any time soon.

A few extra notes on segregated spaces:

What about the trans menz? It’s true that neither side talks about trans men much. My answer for which spaces they should use is whichever ones they want. Maybe a less-passing trans man would be unsafe in a men’s space. Maybe a well-passing trans man would make some women feel uncomfortable. But mostly I think it is up to them to make that judgement call. If anything, trans men are a further argument for single-occupancy facilities.

Why are you all so obsessed with penises? There’s an infamous question being asked on Twitter regarding the right of trans women with penises to change in communal changing rooms with teenage girls present. This question, among other talking points, has caused the perception that GCs are obsessed with penises. The truth is, most women, in my experience, are very opposed to seeing male genitalia they haven’t specifically chosen to see. You can say that this is irrational or prudish, and to be honest, I can’t fully articulate the reasons behind it, but it’s simply reality as it stands that women and girls have strong objections to having to see a stranger’s penis. I do think most trans women are aware of this and by no means eager to upset people in changing rooms, but I see a fair amount of cis men trans activists showing insensitivity around this subject.

What about the gunz? Don’t send men with guns in to police your daughter’s school toilets. Don’t joke about sending men with guns in to police your daughter’s school toilets. That is idiotic and evil.

There’s much more to talk about: shortlists, data collection, dysphoria treatment for minors, sports, sexuality…but in the interest of not making this too long, I’ll finish here.

I will admit that I had my ears closed for a few years. It took awhile for me to realise that my conceptions of what being trans meant had changed. It took awhile for me to hear certain salient TRA arguments. When I talk to trans activists, I often (not always) feel they are similarly closed to what I’m saying. But I’d like to say that I think a way forward is possible and that our beliefs are not so very far apart. Neither TRAs nor GCs believe that your birth sex should determine your personality, your skills, your opportunities or your presentation. I don’t think that your beliefs on gender identity necessarily determine your policy views. I think we can find ways to make both natal women and trans women feel and be safe and accepted. But you have to want to prioritise that goal over winning an online argument.