The downside of including “bisexual” in my dating profile was that I got a slew of invites to threesomes from fleshy suburban swingers. The upside was that I benefited from a bigger dating pool. Around six years ago, on the eve of my 29th birthday, I was reading through the dating profile of a handsome and well-educated man when I came across the word “trans.” At the time, I couldn’t figure out what it was that put me off, and I berated myself for my prejudice. In principle, being trans shouldn’t have bothered me. I reasoned that it was the potential of surgically constructed genitalia that made me clam-up.
I was reminded of this incident during Pride last year. I have always loved going to Pride — from the glittery drag queens to the freedom of knowing I can hold my same-sex partner’s hand without hostility — it has been a sanctuary for me. The experience of solidarity and acceptance, and the knowledge that for once I was not in a minority was life-affirming. Now in a long-term relationship with a wonderful woman, part of our getting to know one another was through participating in Pride events together. But we didn’t go this year; and I’m not sure we will ever attend again.
While the full humanity (and marketing potential) of LGBT people has at last been embraced by legislators and the mainstream media, the LGBT movement itself has become ever more constrained by regressive ideas about gender. It is widely understood that the majority of women who opt to become transmen were lesbian or bisexual prior to transition. In my own friendship circle I know lesbians who have decided to “live as men,” though none have been able to describe what “living as a man” actually means without relying on sexist stereotypes that should have died out in the 50s. What seems clear is that “living as a man” requires altering their female bodies.
While I respect their choice to live as they wish, I wince when I see my friends’ bound or mastectomy-scarred bodies — it seems to me the opposite of pride in who you are, and the antithesis of the “body positive” feminist message.
Search online and you will find a plethora of positive “trans coming out” stories showcasing young people whose self-hatred was supposedly cured through surgery and hormones. What’s more worrying than all the positive PR for these medical interventions, is the influence of advocacy and pressure groups who produce guidance for statutory bodies from schools to councils. Gendered Intelligence, for example, whose Trans Youth Sexual Health Guide defines gender as one’s “emotions and personality,” tells 16-24 year olds:
“Surgery will affect sex in many ways but the most noticeable effect is a boost in body confidence. You may enjoy sex more as you begin to feel better about expressing yourself.”
The number of children referred to the NHS as a result of confusion about their gender and “transgender feelings” has quadrupled in five years. Trans advocacy organizations are quick to claim that this rise in rates of “trans kids” is due to increased visibility and acceptance. But it’s important to acknowledge that even the most personal behaviour is impacted by that of our peers. When I was at a girls’ school in the 90s, there was an apparent epidemic of eating disorders and cutting. The increase in “trans kids” could equally be viewed as evidence of social contagion.
Binding breasts seems no more progressive than archaic, sexist practices like wearing a corset, breast-ironing, or foot-binding. But following an explosion of girls identifying as transboys, this practice has become so normalized across the UK that schools have been advised to modify physical education classes to accommodate girls who can’t breathe properly due to breast-binding.
The British Medical Association advise staff not to refer to “expectant mothers” in order to avoid excluding trans people. The preferred politically correct term is now “pregnant person,” which obscures the fact that it is only women who can give birth. Rather than making awkward linguistic accommodations to alter reality for a minority of people, or staying tight-lipped about dangerous and unhealthy practices, perhaps we should be encouraging everyone to love their bodies — in particular young lesbians.
We need to stop and to ask ourselves why girls are so frightened to grow up and become women who love women. Or to simply become “unfeminine” women. We need to spread the message that there is no essentially “male” or “female” way of being, and that bodies don’t need to change, sexist stereotypes do.
The misogyny of trans politics is not new to me, but I had a moment of sickening clarity at Pride last year. After a long day and night of festivities, my partner and I were leaning on a table in a bar. There was a young lad dancing alone; when I looked closer I could see the tightly bound chest and the beginnings of a beard. This was a kid of about 18, who had been told that altering her body in this extreme way would somehow resolve the discomfort and self-hatred she experienced under patriarchy. This image was a visceral reminder that lesbians, as they are — as women with diverse female bodies, who love other women with diverse female bodies — were no longer welcome at Pride.
The space for women like me at Pride has been squeezed by trans activists brandishing signs like, “Kids: Puberty is Optional.” The tyranny of queer politics has barred lesbians and feminists from even meeting without men; and leading organizations we might once have looked to for support (here’s looking at you, Stonewall) have opted for popularity points at the expense of lesbians. Sexuality has been re-branded as a costume that straight people can step into, and at Pride there is no room for those who question this. The mutilated and bound bodies of women do not represent a victory for tolerance, but evidence of young lesbians who have been let down by the movement that should have helped them understand and accept themselves.
I long for the day when my partner and I can return to Pride, and celebrate alongside lesbian and bisexual women who are proud of their bodies.
Jo Bartosch founded the feminist campaign group Chelt Fems, which she chaired for seven years. In March she stepped down to become a Director of Critical Sisters, an organization formed to promote women’s liberation and critical thinking across the left. Follow @CriticalSisters.