The Miseducation and Misinformation of J.K. Rowling
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On June 10, 2020, J.K. Rowling, the literary genius behind the fantastical Harry Potter series, the Cormoran Strike crime fiction novels, and the soon-to-be-released fairytale The Ickabog, issued a statement befitting her wizardry with words, in order to clarify her recent controversial thoughts and tweets on social media about the experience and lives of trans-identifying people. In it, Ms. Rowling justified her opinions rooted in personal and professional concern. She levied various claims to bolster her arguments, which many of the screen actors who played the characters in her most famous books, including the lead, Daniel Radcliffe, have since lambasted or disavowed.
Yet, despite her craftsmanship of phrasing and her nuanced explanation about her distress, her many unsubstantiated and sometimes inaccurate claims geared to defend the safety and agency of women and children ultimately undermined those of transgender people. By centering herself in the debate over the definition of womanhood, she placed herself as a gatekeeper. Her desire to abate “this new” trans-activism to spare children who might be “mentally sexless” instead of being gender-dysphoric from irreversible physical interventionist therapies, puts into question the legitimate experience for those who are not.
There is rich irony in J.K. Rowling’s witting or unwitting effort to besmirch the trans community, having herself undergone a “literary transition” under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith in writing the Cormoran novels in search of unmitigated respect and authentic appreciation as a purported male author. In an interview on the U.S.’ National Public Radio she suggested why: “There was a phenomenal amount of pressure that went with being the writer of Harry Potter, and that aspect of publishing those books I do not particularly miss. So you can probably understand the appeal of going away and creating something very different, and just letting it stand or fall on its own merits” — a measure of respect her words don’t seem to accord to the trans community, who simply want to be appreciated on their own merit and who desire the mere right to exist.
Ms. Rowling chose the name Robert Galbraith, she says, because of an adoration of Robert Kennedy and “Ella Galbraith,” a made-up name from her youth. It would be speculative to suggest why she chose a male nom de plume instead of a female one, considering her strong feminist views. This tactic has historically been used by now-esteemed female authors of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the Brönte Sisters, Louisa May Alcott and Karen Blixen to publish without prejudice as a female author, gain anonymity or attract more male readership. In Rowling’s case, her gender and status have not been a deterrent to receiving reverence for her work across all gender identities, including queer ones. Upon disclosure of her identity, Galbraith’s books sales rose even further, showing Rowling’s truest self impacted their (Galbraith and Rowling) collective standing for the better, given Rowling’s rarified stature in book publishing. Her talent simply speaks for itself. But the act of existing in a different and contrived body, albeit figuratively, is one in which she sought some kind of refuge until she was found out. For many people who experience gender dysphoria and seek treatment, however, the peace that comes from an alignment of body and soul isn’t as artificial.
Surprisingly and perhaps coincidentally, in 2016, Mosaic magazine revealed that Robert Galbraith Heath was the father of the sadistic practice of using electro-shock therapy in the United States in the 1970s to try to convert gay men to be heterosexual, which to this day remains a vile and discredited custom. Mexico City just outlawed it over two weeks ago. We won’t make assertions about Ms. Rowling’s motivations since these novels aren’t about LGBTQ themes or characters. We make mention of it here because the coincidence of the name is uncanny, especially in light of her recent liking of a pro-conversion therapy tweet that opposed Canada’s Bill C-8 to ban conversion therapy in gender-dysphoric children, which she now suggests was a mistake. Surely, if she had chosen that pseudonym to reference Galbraith Heath, she would anticipate backlash from the LGBTQ community, if found out.
We believe Ms. Rowling is entitled to her opinion, however ill-informed, but think it unconscionable to let stand words—many of which have little basis in reality, are so hyperbolous and uncontextualized they could injure or kill if embodied and made perverse by someone with the wrong mentality. Like the storied and impressive realities of fantastical fiction she creates, her angst mostly amounts to prestidigitation, smoke and mirrors. Her thoughts, well-meaning as they try to be, add little to the discourse about trans lives and trans experiences. She offers nothing in the way of solution, only an unspoken sentiment that trans people should hold their place and space. She both expresses support for protecting trans people, especially trans women, harkening her own history of physical abuse in solidarity as sisters, yet, at the same time, relegating them to a different class of womanhood. She cajoles the fears of cisgender women who are concerned about erasure, as if, instead of it being viewed as a multiplication of spirit, it needs be a subtraction. Her worries of hypothetical bathroom rape of gender-certified-card-carrying female impostors defies the data and the need of it all.
This isn’t to minimize the seriousness of violence of any kind against women and children. The U.K.’s Home Office estimates that 20% of women have been victims of some kind of sexual assault and the National Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) says that 20% of children in the UK have experienced severe maltreatment, which includes sexual abuse. According to the non-profit group, Rape Crisis, 90% of rape victims above the age of 16 years old in the sovereign nation know their perpetrators prior to the incident. The NSPCC reports that children and young people are more likely to be abused or mistreated by someone they know than by a stranger, and of those strangers, they are more likely to be abused by another child or person under the age of 18 than an adult. It’s unlikely that trans crime-related stats are officially tracked, but a request to see if the data was available from the U.K.'s Office of National Statistics did not return a report in time for publication. The Crown Prosecution Service, the primary public agency for criminal prosecutions, said they did not keep this category of data. Although there are likely incidents, relative to the number of assaults by cisgender people, assaults by trans-identifying folks would be extremely low, given the trans population is estimated to be between 0.3% - 0.7% of the entire population of the United Kingdom. The same concern about safety in bathrooms created a huge uproar in the U.S. as well, but so far this notion has neither been supported in research nor in reality. To the contrary, forcing trans folks to use the bathroom of the gender they don’t identify with is more risky.
Many have labeled Ms. Rowling as transphobic, which is not a focus of our discussion here. Ours is to examine the merits of her preoccupation and to educate those of her 14 million Twitter followers who may accept her words as gospel without further research or information. Celebrity and stature are not authority. And tawdry opinion is not a good substitute for facts, expertise and academic scholarship. In a Tweet on July 25th, for example, she circulated a paper by psychoanalyst Marcus Evans expressing concern over the increase in diagnosis and treatment of gender dysphoria in the United Kingdom that included a number of inaccuracies and omissions that were addressed in a Psychology Today article by Jack Turban, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist. As Ms. Rowling herself has proclaimed, people who want to learn more about a subject matter should read widely and critically. After all groupthink is kryptonite to the bookish. But consuming incomplete or inaccurate information doesn’t make you more informed, but misinformed. Sharing them publicly when you have such a public and respected soapbox knowingly is irresponsible. We, like Ms. Rowling, are exercising our right to engage in public discourse. We don’t aim to silence her voice, but to correct her mischaracterizations and half-truths and educate the public.
We recognize that much of Ms. Rowling’s statements relate to issues that are localized in the U.K., but concede that they extend internationally, as trans rights are a hot button issue in countries where the topic is in the public discourse, and trans people are being victimized and killed violently and disproportionately in so many places. Not to mention Ms. Rowling’s platform is global, so she has invited this kind of scrutiny whether she intended to or not. We’ve solicited the thought leadership of a non-profit, an academic, a researcher and a psychiatrist from several prominent institutions to provide better context for Ms. Rowling's many unsubstantiated assertions and to clarify, with expertise, her misgivings on particular subject areas where she has none. This isn’t to say that some small portion of what Ms. Rowling has stated isn’t factually correct, but, without context, it is misleading or borders on the absurd. These specialists include the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in the United States; Eric Plemons, PhD, professor of anthropology focused on trans medicine and surgery at the University of Arizona; Jack Turban, MD MHS, fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine; and Reubs Walsh, PhD candidate in clinical, developmental neuro-psychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
The below italicized bullet points are Ms. Rowling’s own words and reasons for her concern. While they have been truncated to home into her specific grievances, they do not at all alter the context of her full statement.
I’ve got five reasons for being worried about the new trans activism, and deciding I need to speak up.
I have a charitable trust that focuses on alleviating social deprivation in Scotland, with a particular emphasis on women and children. My trust supports projects for female prisoners and for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. I also fund medical research into MS, a disease that behaves very differently in men and women. It’s been clear to me for a while that the new trans activism is having (or is likely to have, if all its demands are met) a significant impact on many of the causes I support, because it’s pushing to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender.
I’m an ex-teacher and the founder of a children’s charity, which gives me an interest in both education and safeguarding. I have deep concerns about the effect the trans rights movement is having on both.
I’m interested in freedom of speech and have publicly defended it, even unto Donald Trump.
I’m concerned about the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition and also about the increasing numbers who seem to be detransitioning (returning to their original sex).
I’m deeply concerned about the consequences of the current trans activism...I’ve been in the public eye now for over twenty years and have never talked publicly about being a domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor….Out of solidarity with the huge numbers of women who have histories like mine, who’ve been slurred as bigots for having concerns around single-sex spaces.
What follows is a listing of 14 specific claims excerpted from Ms. Rowling’s statement that she references or uses to justify her thinking with commentary by more experienced subject matter experts.
1. “I also fund medical research into MS, a disease that behaves very differently in men and women...It’s been clear to me for a while that the new trans activism is having a significant impact on many of the causes I support, because it’s pushing to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender.”
(The National MS Society): There are limited published data on how MS affects the transgender population. MS is three times more common in individuals assigned female at birth (AFAB) than in individuals assigned male at birth (AMAB), suggesting that hormones play a role in MS susceptibility. Despite being less likely to be diagnosed with MS, those AMAB tend to experience more significant disability from MS. In other words, those AFAB tend to have a relapsing course (flare up of symptoms with complete or partial recovery) while individuals AMAB tend to experience a steady progression of symptoms that worsens over time. Those AMAB also experience more difficulties with mobility and cognition than those AFAB. One published peer-reviewed study found a strong association between MS and individuals assigned male at birth who transition to female, suggesting a potential risk from altering hormones for this transition. It is very important to highlight that this is just one study and an association is not a causal relationship. There are many factors at play in the risk for developing MS.
MS isn’t necessarily treated differently based on sex but it is treated differently based on the type of MS one has. There are 4 types of MS and there are treatments approved for each type. Since individuals AMAB are more likely to have a progressive type of MS than individuals AFAB, their disease could be treated differently just because of the type of MS they have not because of their sex.
2. “I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.”
Reubs Walsh (Psychologist): Gender recognition certificates (GRC) are currently provided by submitting a complex application to a committee of cisgender “experts.” People who are well recognized as (trans) women by their communities are refused a GRC by this committee still, too often, and there is no appeals process unless the panel can be shown to have acted unlawfully. The fact that their decision was incorrect, or new evidence has been obtained, are not grounds for appeal. The application costs £140, and is non-refundable. A diagnosis of gender dysphoria is required, with two medical reports from a general practitioner and a gender identity specialist or from two gender identity specialists. There is a waiting list of several years before the application can even begin unless you’re able to use a private clinic, many of which also have very long waiting lists. You are also required to provide evidence that you have lived for the last two years in your “acquired” (affirmed/true) gender, which aside from a huge delay is a very high, and subjectively-defined burden of proof. For example, generally, if you want to get married in the U.K. and you’ve been married before, then you need your divorce certificate and that’s it. If you’ve been married more than once, then you just need the most recent one. If you’re getting a gender recognition certificate, you’re likely to need every marriage certificate, every divorce certificate, every birth certificate. Even then, the panel may decline your application. The bar is very, very high and it doesn’t need to be.
You also have to make a statutory declaration that you intend to remain in your “acquired” gender until death. Therefore a man with ill intent would be violating the law when he acquired a GRC in a female gender. He would also, obviously, be violating the law if he assaulted someone in a bathroom, regardless of whether his documentation aligned with the sign on the door. Assault is always a crime, and according to a 2010 report by the Scottish Transgender Alliance, 47% of trans people have been a victim of sexual assault, with the vast majority of the offenders being cisgender. Fewer than 5,000 people in the UK have been granted a GRC. That works out to less than 1% of trans people in the UK.
3. “The current explosion of trans activism is urging a removal of almost all the robust systems through which candidates for sex reassignment were once required to pass. A man who intends to have no surgery and take no hormones may now secure himself a Gender Recognition Certificate and be a woman in the sight of the law. Many people aren’t aware of this.”
Reubs Walsh (Psychologist): Theoretically true, but as stated above, assuming he is indeed a man, he would be breaking the law by accessing a GRC by making a false statutory declaration (equivalent to committing perjury).
Those “robust systems” were and are abusive expressions of misogyny. Wearing trousers to an appointment was still a risky move when I was seeking access to hormones. Forcing trans women to live in a misogynistic 1950’s vision of acceptable womanhood will not advance women’s rights.
The tiny proportion of people able to access a GRC is a problem, but it shows that getting a GRC isn’t a trivial thing, and there’s no reason that a cis man would ever be bothered to do so. Nobody waves their GRC to get into a bathroom, you just walk in and hope nobody punches you. A man who wants to rape a woman doesn’t need to pretend to be a woman so he can enter a woman’s bathroom to rape, and men who have that kind of intention are not usually men who are comfortable wearing a skirt. Besides which, a man pretending to be a trans woman would be under much more suspicion than if he pretended instead to be a male cleaner. Despite the fact that mistrust of trans women is based on the hypothetical that they could be secretly men, trans women are obviously much more likely to be treated with suspicion than cis men.
4. “I read that the Scottish government is proceeding with its controversial gender recognition plans, which will in effect mean that all a man needs to ‘become a woman’ is to say he’s one.“
Reubs Walsh (Psychologist): Sure, but that would be a lie and therefore a crime. It will only make things simpler for trans people, who would not be lying. It’s not that the bar is totally low, it’s just that the responsibility for making that determination is on the individual themselves rather than on a medical professional, because being trans isn't a medical condition. It often comes with additional medical needs, but that is not the same thing as being a medical condition any more than pregnancy is a disease.
The only reliable way to measure gender identity is to ask someone. For all their medical degrees and so forth, that is all that is actually necessary for a gender specialist clinician to make a reliable “diagnosis” of dysphoria. The expertise is in working out how best to treat it.
5. “Most people probably aren’t aware – I certainly wasn’t, until I started researching this issue properly – that ten years ago, the majority of people wanting to transition to the opposite sex were male. That ratio has now reversed...American physician and researcher Lisa Littman set out to explore it...Littman mentioned Tumblr, Reddit, Instagram and YouTube as contributing factors to Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, where she believes that in the realm of transgender identification ‘youth have created particularly insular echo chambers.’”
Jack Turban (Fellow of Psychiatry): This term [ROGD] comes from a paper published in the journal PLoS One, in which the author anonymously surveyed parents recruited from websites that focus on the theory that trans youth identify as transgender due to "social contagion" and online influences. Unfortunately, the paper did not survey any of the youth themselves or their clinicians. The only thing the paper established is that some people online believe that youth rapidly become transgender as a result of watching trans-related content on Youtube and Reddit.
People should be aware that parents often think that transgender youth became transgender "all of a sudden," because youth were closeted prior to coming out, due to fear of family rejection. Presumably, youth with parents who believe being transgender is a disease would be likely to conceal their identity for prolonged periods of time. It would be important to interview the youth themselves to know if this were the case.
Despite the study's methodological limitations, the paper immediately garnered substantial media attention. Soon after, it came under critique by experts in the field. This led the journal to publish a correction on the paper in which the author explains that the study did not establish a new diagnostic entity. Below is the quote from the correction.
Rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD) is not a formal mental health diagnosis at this time. This report did not collect data from the adolescents and young adults (AYAs) or clinicians and therefore does not validate the phenomenon.
The paper that Rowling shared on Twitter goes on to claim that "a substantial proportion" of referrals to gender clinics are for youth with this "rapid onset gender dysphoria." It provides no citation for this claim. There are no data showing that this is true. (Excerpt, Psychology Today.)
6. “I know transition will be a solution for some gender dysphoric people, although I’m also aware through extensive research that studies have consistently shown that between 60-90% of gender dysphoric teens will grow out of their dysphoria.”
Reubs Walsh (Psychologist): This is untrue. The studies in question were profoundly flawed and have since been debunked, in particular by a study that won the GIRES Research Prize. These studies that Rowling references assumed, for example, that refusing to return to a clinic that discouraged them from socially transitioning was an indication that they had decided not to socially transition, rather than that they’d gone elsewhere for better care. They also assumed that transition is necessarily medical. The "Desistance Studies” also contained a large minority who did not meet the diagnostic criteria for the then-diagnostic label of “Gender Identity Disorder.”
Jack Turban et al (Fellow of Psychiatry): There is a paucity of published literature on patients who de-transition.
It is possible that patients who are medically affirmed and then de-transition might experience worsening gender dysphoria related to body modifications, but this does not mean transition was not the best personal and clinical decision for them at the time. Puberty blockers can be stopped, and natal puberty will progress. Although gender-affirming hormones can cause some irreversible changes, such as body fat redistribution and vocal changes, these effects are primarily cosmetic.
The reasons for de-transition are complex. It can be driven by internal factors such as the healthy developmental trajectory. Other times, it can be the result of external factors, such as the unaccepting social environments experienced. It can be due to falling out of care for different reasons—lack of cultural humility from clinicians, financial difficulties, lack of insurance coverage, or incarceration, among others. We desperately need a framework and protocols for how to understand why these patients are de-transitioning and how we can best support them— medically, psychologically, socially, and legally—through this process.
With a 40% lifetime suicide attempt prevalence among transgender people, the risk of preventing social and/or medical transition for those with significant gender-related distress almost always outweighs the risk of regret in a small minority of patients who receive gender-affirming medical care. For some patients de-transition is simply a healthy developmental trajectory. If we have learned anything from treating gender-diverse patients, it is that the most important thing we can do is to let them express themselves freely, be open to change, and provide them acceptance and support, no matter how their identities evolve. (Excerpt, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.)
Reubs Walsh (Psychologist): Adult transition regret (i.e. people who transition as adults transitioning again, or wanting to) is exceptionally rare, and I suspect that the age of onset for that is from Tanner 3 onwards (the second stage of puberty that typically starts by age 13), in line with the Steensma paper. The largest such study estimated a rate of 0.5% (Wiepjes et al, 2018) regretting genital surgeries. Another study (Davies et al, 2019) found a similar estimate, 0.47%, but of these 16 (in a sample of 3398), only three were detransitioning permanently (0.09%). Others were temporarily detransitioning (10) or considering a detransition (3). One reported regret but no intention to detransition; this was also one of the cases who reported medical complications as a reason for regret. Contrasting this to other procedures; 7% regret their decision to undergo cosmetic surgeries (von Soest et al, 2011), and 12% regret robotic prostatectomy (Lavery et al, 2012). The figures from gender affirmation surgeries are therefore astonishingly low, even if we assume there was zero diagnostic uncertainty.
7. “The argument of many current trans activists is that if you don’t let a gender dysphoric teenager transition, they will kill themselves...Psychiatrist Marcus Evans stated that claims that children will kill themselves if not permitted to transition do not ‘align substantially with any robust data or studies in this area. Nor do they align with the cases I have encountered over decades as a psychotherapist.’”
Jack Turban (Fellow of Psychiatry): Suicide research is difficult to conduct. It is particularly difficult to study deaths from suicide among transgender people, as gender identity is not routinely marked on death certificates.
Reubs Walsh (Psychologist): Marcus Evans is a Freudian psychoanalyst, not a psychiatrist. Psychoanalysis is a very theory-driven, largely un-empirical branch of psychiatry that has largely fallen out of favour with other psychiatrists. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who then specialises in mental health. Psychoanalysis is not inherently “bad science”, because it isn’t usually trying to be a science, so much as an art or a humanity.
There are a lot of robust studies on suicidality in trans youth. One such study was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Also, the evidence that this problem is alleviated by social transition is robust:
8. ”‘TERF’ is an acronym coined by trans activists, which stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. In practice, a huge and diverse cross-section of women are currently being called TERFs and the vast majority have never been radical feminists. Examples of so-called TERFs range from the mother of a gay child who was afraid their child wanted to transition to escape homophobic bullying, to a hitherto totally unfeminist older lady who’s vowed never to visit Marks & Spencer again because they’re allowing any man who says they identify as a woman into the women’s changing rooms. Ironically, radical feminists aren’t even trans-exclusionary – they include trans men in their feminism, because they were born women.”
Eric Plemons (Professor of Anthropology): It was not trans people who came up with the term. It was radical feminists from a 2008 blog post who wanted to make a distinction between their politics and this other group of people who wanted to say “we are the kind of feminists who don’t think that trans women count as women.” From there it got taken up and spread all over.
Trans men, as is often the case, especially in politics and representation, are rarely the topic of interests of anybody. What’s “controversial”? Trans women are controversial. So, I don’t know that TERFs particularly talk that much about trans men other than to say, probably, that we’re really women, and there’s a pretty long line of critique that’s basically “the trans man is the failed butch who couldn’t quite make it as a butch lesbian and so capitulated to the pressures of society to become a man and take on the trappings of dominance etc.” So, I think that there is that line of discourse, but overwhelmingly the focus is on trans women and whether and how they count as women and the effect of that.
9. “The supreme irony is that the attempt to silence women with the word ‘TERF’ may have pushed more young women towards radical feminism than the movement’s seen in decades.”
Eric Plemons (Professor of Anthropology): I think that would be really difficult to say because the word TERF is very new. The fact that people assign it all over the place could give you the impression that that’s because the instances are multiplying, but it's also because it’s a new word. And I think in general, as the visibility of trans folks increases there are more and more ways that people push back against the idea of trans folks having rights. Some of those are done in the name of certain types of feminism and others are done for other reasons all together. But the problem is often they look the same. So, the guy who wants to kick you out of the bathroom might say he’s doing it for the exact same reason as the feminist who doesn’t want you in some organization or to have rights. They could say they’re doing it for the same reason, but the bathroom guy who’s probably never heard of feminism would never think himself to be a feminist and would completely reject that, but the actual logics that are being espoused are often very similar. I would say that the visibility and instances of anti-trans politics has been proportionate to the visibility of trans folks, but only some of that is in the name of feminism.
10. “Femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don’t have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic and regressive.”
Eric Plemons (Professor of Anthropology): Debates over the definition and location of "femaleness" differ on fundamental understandings of the term and on the primacy or weight given to a number of different variables. I don't think that holding either position is more or less progressive; it’s just different ways of looking at the world and what is in it. While "woman" as a group is certainly a meaningful category, it is not and has never been a monolithic one. There is nothing that we could say 100% of all women experience. Part of the productivity of "trans" as a concept and analytic is the way that it makes the instability of such categories evident.
What comes to count as the criterion for assigning a person to a sex category is historical because what we know about bodies and how we organize that knowledge changes across time and place. What biological property should be used to determine which sex a person is? Chromosomes? Gonads? Hormone levels? External genital morphology? Germ cell production? Secondary sex characteristics? Social role? Since none of these commonly used categories yields binary results, and since the availability of studying any of these has changed over time and place, the weight put on them as deciding factors cannot be attributed to biology alone. Humans make categories, they are not given in the body.
My whole book on facial surgery (The Look of a Woman) is about this question: where does womanhood reside? The guy that invented facial feminization surgery went to a bank of skulls that were collected by dentists, about which very little was known, and while we could have a way of analyzing the DNA of those skulls presumably and finding a definitive sex marker to the extent that they exist in those skulls, he didn’t need to do that. All he needed to do was to look at them and say which ones he thought were female. The fact of their femaleness was produced because they looked feminine to him. Not because there’s anything about the biology of the skull that makes it female. So that’s a really clear example of how your gendered expectations of a body are then used to make these authoritative claims about the nature of that body.
So, when we try to say what sex difference is, we’re trying to tell a story that we have an investment in the answer. That has to do with aligning what our expectations already are. When we ask where is femaleness? One of the claims I make in my book is femaleness is in what people say to you. Your identity does not have to do with your body. It has to do with what I say to you, how I treat you, what I let you do, what I don’t let you do that constitutes you as a woman or a man in the world. From that perspective, femaleness is not a bodily characteristic. It’s made in interactions.
11. “Women must accept and admit that there is no material difference between trans women and themselves.”
Eric Plemons (Professor of Anthropology): We know that there are sexually different bodies because we are not snails; we are a species that requires two types of material to reproduce. The example of germ cells is important because sometimes people understand trans advocacy as claiming that there is no sexual difference. Some bodies make one kind of cell, some the other, and some none at all. There are differences between bodies, that is clear and obvious.
What I always say to my class is, the norm in biology is there is variation. In the same way that everybody’s got a different nose, and everyone’s got a different eyebrow, everyone’s got different genitals, everyone’s got all kinds of different things, so the assumption that we have these two discreet kinds, that’s an artifact of human deciding, that’s not because our bodies are determined that way.
But only if you decide that reproductive cells are the decider of sex does that become the decider of sex. There’re all kinds of different ways to decide. One could easily imagine a social system of organization by which germ cells determine sex. If you make sperm you are male, ova you are female, neither something else. But we could just as easily imagine a system in which sex is determined by social role, or avocation, or something else entirely, and that germ cells are important for organizing reproduction but not sorting all people into two groups.
12. “I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it.”
Eric Plemons (Professor of Anthropology): The premise assumes that there was a biological definition of woman that everyone agreed on. And it assumes that there was a legal definition of woman that everyone agreed on, which is not the case. I think one of the things that trans does, as a concept, is it asks people to look carefully at the definitions that exist. It's not obliterating the definition. It’s making visible that there never really was one. And that I think is a lot of the political threat that people feel.
Most people date the emergence of trans politics and transgender concept of identity to the early 1990s. So, are you telling me that in 1987 everyone knew and agreed what a woman was? All you have to do is read history books to know that’s not true. It’s not been true around questions of class. It’s not been true around questions of race. It’s not been true around questions of intersexed bodies. It’s not been true around the question of who can marry whom. There’re all kinds of historical examples of someone who’s ostensibly the member of one sex who acted as, lived as, married as, worked as, parented as the member of another one. Elizabeth Reis has a great book on this called “Bodies in Doubt.”
Reubs Walsh (Psychologist): As discussed above, there is zero justification for the claim that trans rights enable male violence against women. Assuming you include trans women in the category “women”, trans rights are women’s rights, and help to protect trans people of all genders from the domestic and sexual violence with which we are disproportionately victimised. Where is the “demonstrable harm”? Nowhere, because the proposed erosion of ‘woman’ as a biopolitical category is not happening. We are merely broadening the definition of acceptable womanhood – a goal in which every feminist must surely be invested? Whether it’s our weight, our professions, our family lives, or our appearance, women are constantly told by patriarchy that we’re failing to meet its definition of what a woman should be. Let’s not do that to one-another.
13. “It’s been clear to me for a while that the new trans activism is having a significant impact on many of the causes I support, because it’s pushing to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender.”
Eric Plemons (Professor of Anthropology): That assumes there was a legal definition of sex. That’s actually just not true. There’s not a consistent legal definition of sex. The international Olympics committee can’t come up with a single test that can put someone in a binary sex category. Chromosomes don’t work; there’s always exceptions. Gonads don’t work; there’s always exceptions. Hormone levels don’t work; there’s always exceptions. There’s no single bulletproof, reliable anything. And you saw that with the Trump administration’s attempt to disallow change of sex in legal documents. They say, “We’ll either go by this one or this one,” “these are going to be the two possible ways we’re going to find this out.” Any lawyer will tell you, you can’t make a single rule that has two possible ways of determining what it is. That’s the problem. The existence of trans folks shines a spotlight on what people thought was a certain thing when it has never been a certain thing.
Ultimately, I think what trans studies does as a field, is also what a lot of these radical feminists who are not exclusionary feminists are talking about, which is to say: these dominant systems of gender, these coercive systems of gender are bad for everyone. And so, it’s anti-feminist to do the work of drawing lines of who can be counted among valued and who should not be valued. Instead, what we’re saying is, coercive models of gender are bad for everyone whether you are in the dominant group or whether you are in a subjected group. Instead of trying to figure out who can be counted as what, if we were all critical instead of the limitations put on us, then we would not be threatened by the existence of trans people. What threat is there?
14. “I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.”
Reubs Walsh (Psychologist): This is true, although the statistical risk to trans people (especially women and femmes of colour) is greater than that faced by (white) cisgender women. It’s almost as if the material reality of misogyny doesn’t care about chromosomes, hormones or anatomy in selecting who to victimise.
We agree with Ms. Rowling when she said “trans people need and deserve protection,” even from actors of questionable intent that can cause more unintended harm than good in promoting poorly supported ideas or those that lack scientific rigor. Such efforts not only have the potential to deny trans people ownership of personhood and acceptance, but they may also inspire those with animus against the trans community to inflict further damage. The many injured, dead and dismembered trans bodies the world over require this kind of correction against unchecked and uncorroborated claims that have the potential to beget more trans injury and death, even at their own hands.
Written and edited by Wesley Wade, Freshfruit CEO with contributions from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Eric Plemons, Jack Turban, and Reubs Walsh.
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