The invisible woman: Gender identity in the age of neoliberalism

Image: Julian Vigo

Skimming over liberal media these past months, the assumption is that anyone who might have an issue with a transgender person in their washroom is necessarily a Bible-thumping bigot from the south. This perception is not only the result of vast oversimplifications, but is a conscious misrepresentation of the facts before us. As much as HB2 is a hateful, bigoted law which is serving as a smoke screen to erase other economic capabilities, the Department of Justice’s position is just as wrong. If we didn’t know that women were third-class citizens before, we should definitely know it now.

Until the end of his presidency, there was not a word from the Obama administration about the rolling back of abortion rights, state after state. Not a peep from Bruce Springsteen or PayPal about women’s rights. This is isn’t shocking… Not for women, at least. We are accustomed to our voices being virtually unheard, even on issues that affect us directly. It is more of the same brocialism as usual. That male violence is a reality and does not magically disappear through the kind of  identity politics that ask us to suspend our disbelief and embrace that “gender identity” trumps sex is par for the course. The problem with Obama’s Department of Justice narrative is that it suggests “gender identity” is sex, and that, while gender is whatever a person feels it to be, the acknowledgement of  biological sex is “transphobic.”

This narrative, wherein gender is medicalized in order to silence one half of the population and wherein biological differences (and the way those differences factor into the system of patriarchy) are now considered to be fictions, is an MRA’s dream. The result of efforts to “broaden the definition of woman” is that, now, anyone can be a woman, but actual women can no longer speak of their oppression or their bodies.

Identitarians (those who hinge their subjectivity to identity politics) have attempted to remedy their feeling “excluded” by subverting women’s political movements and the language through which women describe their realities. One of the recent attempts to redefine woman was the U.S. women’s strike platform, which prioritizes transgender women over women of colour in its statement of violence against women and promotes the reproductive rights “for all women, cis and trans.” Of course, transwomen are male so clearly have no concerns about reproductive rights. Prioritizing males over females in the name of women’s rights is anything but subversive. Rather, it’s age old misogyny.

Nobody knows this more steadfastly than BBC Radio 4 presenter, Jenni Murray, whose piece this past weekend in The Sunday Times, “Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman,’” sparked an uproar, resulting in Murray being disciplined by the BBC. Her “crime”? According to the BBC, Murray was not “impartial” on a “controversial subject.” Critiquing various misinterpretations within transgender discourse, Murray debunked the pseudoscience of “male” and “female” brains, touched upon the tumultuous political climate which prevents medical practitioners from speaking frankly on this subject, and described the gradual institutional erasure of the word “woman” from medical praxis.

Additionally, Murray addresses the phenomenally abusive misinterpretation of Simone de Beauvoir’s infamous quote from The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” In writing this, de Beauvoir did not mean that makeup and dresses could make a male into a woman, but rather that the imprinting of social, political, and economic expectations onto the female body and psyche throughout a lifetime are such that women are pressured into a preformed mould. In short, Murray’s “sin” was to show that transgender women are not female, but are males with a lifetime of privilege.

For the BBC to demand Murray not opine on a subject that directly affects her as a woman who suffered breast cancer, a mother who breastfed, and a journalist whose work is on a radio show called “Woman’s Hour,” considering that the broadcaster famously protected a rapist, would seem a disingenuous request. Clearly, a woman who hosts a show on this very subject would necessarily be bringing her subjective knowledge to the matter. What this recent “discipline” of Murray demonstrates is the demagoguery surrounding the subject of transgender identity for which women are expected to do as programmed: shut up and nurture.

Certainly anyone with a modicum of humanity would be compassionate towards the plight of transgender persons and their struggles with gender dysphoria. I cannot claim to understand what these individuals go through — I do not pretend to. Yet, the bathroom issue has brought up a pivotal issue about the vulnerability of two groups of people: transgender persons and females. Problematically, the discourse surrounding this matter today discards entirely the rights of females (despite paying constant lip service to women’s rights). From the right, explanations of the sacredness of the family persist, while from the left we are told that any woman who objects to males in women’s washrooms is some sort of paranoid prude (oddly, while producing videos that show how easy it is for men to urinate in a toilet with other males). Within all this, the media refuses to honestly address the issue, wholly ignoring what feminists are saying.

As Andrea Dworkin explains in her 1978 book, Right Wing Women, men on the right think women are private property, whereas men on the left assume women are public property. But this still leaves women in the awkward position of being owned and disenfranchised of their own thoughts and voice simply because taking a position on this thorny subject means the public castigation of those who dare to state the obvious. This punishment can range from ad hominem attacks to complete misrepresentations and hyperbole, to no-platforming, firing, and smearing, as we see time and time again.

In an article published at Counterpunch last year, Elizabeth West presents women’s fear of sexual assault as not only irrational, but completely baseless, and mistakenly claims that there is no evidence to support women’s concerns about male violence in their bathrooms and locker rooms.

In defense of this, West cites an outdated and badly executed report from Media Matters that claims to have “debunked the right wing myth that sexual predators will exploit transgender non-discrimination laws to sneak into women’s restrooms.” This report is flawed for a number of reasons. First, it assumes sexual assault is the most prevalent form of sexual violence committed against females. In truth, the more prevalent sexual crimes enacted towards women are voyeurism, masturbation, and exhibitionism — acts that happen with well-documented frequency everywhere from public toilets to public transport. Second, the states that have gender identity laws still maintain the same protections for sex-segregation specifically written into these statutes as other states without gender identity laws. It was only the 2016 DOJ interpretation of the law which conflated sex with gender. Sex-based protections would have been subordinated to gender identity under Obama’s proposed changes to Title IX, but this was not yet the case. So the fact that these states report no sexual assaults in bathrooms since the gender identity laws passed is not testament to the efficacy of these laws, as argued in the Media Matters report, but rather of the sex-segregation statutes.

Asking for these spaces to be safeguarded does not mean that there is an assumption that all those who identify as transwomen are predatorial. We also don’t assume all men are predators. But the fact remains that the violent crime rate of transwomen is not only many times higher than that of females, but is at the same rate as other males. Indeed, the documented reality of violence perpetrated against women in and out of bathrooms by men who identify as trans demonstrates this. Consider the cases of Kayleigh Woods, who brutally murdered Bethany Hill; serial rapist Lisa Hauxwell; and Davina Ayrton, who sexually assaulted a 15 year old girl. And there are many more such cases.

Although West talks the reader through some statistics about violence towards women, she she completely downplays the issue, writing: “[P]eople with otherwise good minds are letting go the tethers of their intelligence and plunging headlong into the arms of those who are intentionally whipping up this particular twister of fear.” In other words, we need not get caught up in paranoid and irrational fears based on, er, reality?

The sad reality of women throughout the world today is that we are vulnerable to violences of all sorts, overwhelmingly at the hands of males, exclusively because of our sex.

West further demonstrates her lack of credibility, as she is either genuinely ill-informed or simply chooses to misrepresent feminist analysis, by attempting to pass off gender criticism as inherent, not to feminist ideology, but to transgender ideology. She writes,  “Transgender people, by their very existence, must strike terror into the hearts of those whose identities are built on an external framework.” But the external framework which informs gender is exactly what feminists decry. It really doesn’t matter how we identify or how many times we click our ruby slippers together and utter magic identitarian mantras, nothing about the violence enacted towards us changes. But instead of taking violence towards women seriously, West urges us not to worry our little heads with these matters because ecological disaster looms.

Paradoxically, some of the same people who support the notion of “gender identity” are seeking to enforce sex-segregated spaces by refusing a third, gender-neutral space. (This is in spite of the fact that there have not been any incidences of transgender women being attacked in male toilets to date.) The only solution offered is the one wherein females are expected to be the sex that accommodates male violence. This is a political game of “hot potato,” wherein women have been thrown the potato, and are expected (as per usual) to nurture these transgender persons in search of a homeland.

The separation of space for intimate somatic practices is a long-standing tradition that is as rooted in the sensual as it is safety. Any woman who has lived in the Arab world has likely witnessed the scene where the mother of a young boy she has been bringing to the hammam is informed that this boy is now too old to enter in this woman’s space because of how he looks at women. There is a respect of women’s spaces in many cultures that is bizarrely being challenged in some Western societies despite the absence of critique towards the myriad all-male spaces.

Most troubling of all, I have seen zero discussion in mainstream media that addresses the actual problem: male violence. Why has no government committee or the DOJ mandated an investigatory panel to answer the simple question: why can’t men stop being violent towards gender non-conforming males and women?

West implores those who have rational disagreements about trans politics to “let go of being right;” the assumption being that this issue is decided a priori and that “debate” is only about stubborn individuals who just can’t “move on.” I suppose she believes we should all simply “move on” from the reality that women are attacked at far higher rates than the roughly 300,000 documented cases each year, since only 68 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police. In her response, West repeats what many media reports tell us: that women shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about males in their washrooms and changing spaces because 80 per cent of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victims. Such posturing is deeply troubling since the purpose of having separate washrooms and changing rooms is so that women can use these facilities without fear of the 20 per cent…  When you are raped, you really don’t give a shit about odds. And when you live in rape culture, these facts matter as much to any women as telling a black man in Ferguson, Missouri that Darren Wilson was only one police officer of many.

The reality of sexism, like racism, is that these structures are perpetrated and bolstered through seemingly “random” acts of violence which are in fact not random at all, but instead are completely woven into the fabric of who is seen and heard, and who isn’t. There is power in the hegemonic structures which inform oppressed individuals that it is all in their heads.

Like so many others, West relies on the playbook of made up facts which abound on transgender advocacy websites, consisting of largely fake statistics about everything from the 41 per cent attempted suicide rates which have been largely debunked, to the fiction that transgender women do not aggress females, to the very troubling statistics of the murder of transgender women which West neglects to clarify. For instance, the significant fact of these murders is not that these individuals were transgender, but that almost every single transwoman killed in 2015 in the USA was of colour and at least five were prostituted. Both of these demographic components (prostitutes and males of colour) suffer discrimination and violence at extraordinarily high rates, a fact that does not make the murder of these persons any less horrific or real. But it does put into perspective the arguments for transgender inclusion in women’s spaces given the media obfuscation of crimes against people of colour and prostitutes.

Given the skewed media representations of violence towards transgender women, one could easily surmise that transgender women are murdered at a higher rate than men. But this could not be further from the truth. In the US, FBI statistics and TDOR show that in 2014 the murder rate for the general population was one in 26,658; for transgender persons one in 95,657, for women one in 60,418, and for men one in 16,967. This means that the rate of violence towards transgender persons is significantly lower than for all other groups — the general population, women, and men. These numbers are based on the more conservative figure from the Williams Institute (2011), which says trans people make up 0.3 per cent of the general population. If we were to use the 0.5 per cent figure embraced by many transgender organizations, (published in a 2012 statewide health survey conducted in Massachusetts), the murder rate of transgender persons would be one in 159,429, a figure emphatically lower than that of the general population as well as than the demographics of women and men. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that the percentage of those who declare themselves transgender and non-binary is higher than either 0.3 per cent or 0.5 per cent, as a recent estimate conducted by Lloyds Bank discovered that 1.0375 per cent of its UK staff “identify” as such. Similarly, the most recent Williams Institute report (2016) estimates that 0.6 per cent of American adults identify as transgender with geographical prevalence, such as the District of Columbia (2.8 per cent), and the age group of 18-24 year olds far more likely than older age groups to identify as transgender.

There are similar misrepresentations being made by some transgender advocates who prioritize the vulnerability of transgender persons over the rest of the population. Contrary to what so many claim, rates of transgender suicide do not significantly vary from other sectors of the general population and rates of transgender bullying are even lower than other more vulnerable populations. While there are some transgender advocates who are more honest about the lack of evidence for the alleged suicide attempt rate of 40 per cent which has been bandied about, to write that transgender persons who have been bullied face a higher risk of suicide than others is patently untrue when the rates of attempted suicide are extremely high among bullied teenagers, in general.

Not insignificant is the general distress among youth, which reveals an incredibly high rate of self-harm and eating disorders, with 47 per cent of young people in Britain wanting to radically change their appearance through various types of surgery. The current hyper-focus on transgender youth in the media teeters perilously at shifting the concern of self-harm and suicide to a certain small, highly politicized demographic when, in fact, there are many groups that experience very high levels of self-harm and suicide, such as 25 per cent of autistic children. In 2015, Girlguiding UK found that self-harming was one of the biggest health concerns for girls aged 11-21, followed by mental illness, cyber-bullying, and depression. This study also shows that 46 per cent of girls aged 17-21 have struggled with mental health issues. Considering that almost two-thirds of young lesbian, gay, and bisexual children have experienced homophobic bullying at school, one must wonder why media focuses almost exclusively on transgender youth. Statistics in Britain show that 45 per cent of young people (aged 13-25) experience bullying by the age of 18, with females being bullied at almost the same levels as transgender youth; gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth being bullied at a higher rate than transgender youth; and those living in poverty and the disabled bullied at higher rates compared to transgender youth. Additionally, UK’s Anti-Bullying Alliance shows that over 90 per cent of parents to children with Asperger Syndrome “reported that their child had been bullied in the previous 12 months” and “83 per cent of young people with learning difficulties have suffered bullying.”

I don’t cite these statistics to silence the important discussions about the bullying of transgender persons, but it is vital to show how the disproportionate amount of media attention to trans issues is drawn from the larger very real problem of the bullying of all teens in countries like the UK and the US. Cherry-picking mental health statistics in order to dismiss the voices of women who express legitimate concern for their safety, in an age when being transgender no longer involves medical transition, but simply a “feeling,” seems to be yet another way to ignore the reality of violence against women.

The current media and social hysteria surrounding transgender persons is functioning to create unnecessary bogeymen of transgender lives which are posited as more cherished than the lives and the rights of women and girls. One only need look in the comment sections of articles in the liberal press to see the monolithic levelling of female voices and the concerted ridicule of anyone who dares say that identity politics erasing the physical body poses a problem for the material reality of females.

The deeper question to ask here — and I sincerely wonder why West and other liberal writers, to include many on the far left, do not conjure this possibility — is this: why is the debate about transwomen’s access to bathrooms never about making men’s bathrooms safe for gender non-conforming men? Rather than foist males into female spaces, why not demand male spaces be made safe for other males? Now I know what you are going to say: “These transgender women are not men!” But isn’t the core argument about identity politics that identity is interior, not exterior? Yet, here we are again mired by conflicting arguments where this “inner sense” of gender identity must now be matched by an external, even sartorial, representation of the “real woman.” It is as if females are magically supposed to know if a male coming into their space is sincerely transgender or just a predatory male. And I do not mean that dress makes the woman (this is largely what transgender advocates are performing despite a discourse which attempts to say the inverse). But if the signs of being a woman are accorded only through coiffure and vestiture, women have no hope to understand their own vulnerability aside from the physical markers that an anatomically male face and body presents to the female subject.

A longer version of this article can be found at Medium.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, filmmaker, and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). Contact her via email: [email protected].

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