Gender versus sex

The Overton Window is in different positions in different parts of the world. What seems obvious to many people is baffling to someone else. This is exacerbated by the different social media bubbles that we all inhabit. One example of this polarisation is the argument about trans rights. So here’s an attempt to explain it for people who are sitting on the fence, or not familiar with the arguments.

First, a bit of background and explanations of terminology.

Gender is your lived experience of whether you are male, female, or nonbinary (which can include genderfluid, genderqueer, or agender).

If your lived experience of gender matches your gender assigned at birth, you are cisgender. ‘Cis’ simply means “this side”, as in Cisalpine Gaul, in contrast to “trans”, meaning the other side, as in Transalpine Gaul.

Transgender means having a different gender than the one you were assigned at birth. This is sometimes seen as including nonbinary, and sometimes not.

We talk about gender assigned at birth because there are so many variations in the biology of sex that the concept of biological sex is itself a social construct:

Importantly, though, sex is not any of the physical things in a body (chromosomes, hormones, gonads, hair, muscle mass…), nor is it any of the social things in a life (outfits, jobs, interests, actions…). Sex is our name for the correlations among them. It’s a human idea. So “sex is a social construct” in the sense that sex is an idea people discussed together (social) and built up (constructed). Of course we constructed sex using observations of “real things” in the world, gonads and so on. Being socially constructed doesn’t deny that. So why emphasize that sex is a social construct at all? Why point out the gap between the “reality” of bodies and our human description of those bodies? Well, because our human description “sex” oversimplifies things, and sometimes those oversimplifications are wrong and/or harmful.

Jeffrey Lockhart

For more on this, check out this amazing video from a biologist explaining the complexities of chromosomes and sexual characteristics.

You don’t need to remember or even understand all the biology in the above video to realise that biological sex is very complicated indeed. And that many more people are intersex than we think.

Recently a group of feminists, variously known as trans-excluding radical feminists or “gender-critical” feminists have started criticising the whole concept of gender and arguing for “sex-based rights”, on the basis that they believe biology is more important than people’s lived sense of gender. There’s an excellent article by Laurie Penny explaining how that movement gained traction in the UK, and another by Hannah Ewens explaining how transphobia got such a foothold in UK media.

However, not only is there ample biological evidence that sex is a social construct, there is also a great deal of evidence that there is a genetic and biological basis of gender (both hormonal and chromosomal). That does not mean gender is not a social construct: it absolutely is. It is just that social constructs have a basis in observed characteristics – it is the meaning that we assign to those characteristics that is socially constructed.

With all of that background in mind, let’s look at the issues raised by gender-critical feminists.

One of the issues that is raised is single-sex spaces (these can include toilets, changing facilities for clothes shops and swimming pools), rape crisis centres, domestic violence shelters, and women’s prisons). Gender-critical feminists argue that these spaces need to be single-sex for reasons including biology (they frequently raise the possibility of washing menstrual blood out of one’s knickers in the sink of a shared washroom facility – something I have never done and would not do in front of any women, cisgender or otherwise), the possibility that they might see a penis, and the possibility of sexual assault.

It is a total myth that trans women assault cis women in women-only spaces. It is more likely that trans people will be assaulted in single-sex spaces, as happened with a trans man recently.

If people are really worried about sharing toilet facilities, the obvious solution is a series of single cubicles marked “for everyone”. No shared sinks, no urinals, just single cubicles.

Nearly 70% of transgender people, in particular trans women, have undergone verbal harassment in gender-segregated bathrooms while almost 10% have reported physical assault. 

Ankitha Gattupalli

Women’s shelters have been inclusive of trans and nonbinary people in Canada, Ireland, and Scotland for decades without incident. This discussion document from the USA addresses fears around being triggered by “masculine” features, and the fear of sexual assault. All shelters for victims of violence have excellent screening processes before admitting any person, so they would pick up on signs of fraudulent attempts to access the space.

The statistics on violence faced by trans and nonbinary people are frightening, and these statistics alone should be enough to confer access to anti-violence shelters.

The arguments for excluding trans people from women-only spaces do not address where trans and nonbinary people are supposed to go. If trans women or AMAB nonbinary people went into the men’s facilities, they would be very likely to be assaulted by cisgender men. And let’s face it, the fear of trans women is actually a displaced fear of cisgender men.

There’s also the fact that if a trans woman is on hormones but still has a penis, her penis is likely to be flaccid most of the time, or unable to sustain an erection, because female hormones cause physical changes. For a lot of trans women, their penis is a cause of gender dysphoria, so they are hardly likely to wave it around in women-only spaces.

Even though the UK’s requirements for transition include two years “living as a woman” prior to accessing gender confirmation surgery, people can access hormone therapy before that.

Another argument that is put forward is about excluding trans women from sport on the grounds that they have an “unfair advantage” due to their masculine physique. There are already rules about levels of testosterone in female athletes, which have often been used to exclude cisgender female Black athletes from competing in women’s sports. Taking female hormones reduces the amount of testosterone in the body and reduces muscle mass, removing that “unfair advantage”. There are also other variations of muscle and height within the broad range of AFAB (assigned female at birth) people which call into question the whole notion of an equal playing field. Check out this video on transgender athletes in women’s sports.

Another thing that invalidates the arguments of gender-critical feminists is who their fellow-travellers are. They have teamed up with both Christian fundamentalists and self-confessed fascists to try to exclude trans and nonbinary people from public spaces.

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