— Eleanor Hill (@artefactoid) August 4, 2018
I’ve resisted writing this a long time. Hell, I pitched this article to Meghan Murphy over a month ago and have started and stopped writing half-a-dozen times because I couldn’t figure out how to say what I want to say without hurting a lot of feelings. The truth is, though, that I simply can’t say what I want to say without hurting feelings. And in the end, that’s okay. Because, while it shouldn’t be controversial in leftist — and certainly feminist — circles, what I’m about to say is indeed controversial. And women are brave enough to say this every day; so me — with my male privilege — ought to, well, man up.
Gender is a social construct. Its purpose, under patriarchy, is to oppress women, in order to control their reproductive capacity, and to reinforce men’s position as the dominant sex class. Gender is, to be blunt, bullshit.
The first transwoman I met was a 68-year-old named Leanne. Leanne was married to a woman, had fathered several kids (and even had grandkids), and was a decorated veteran of the US military (at a time when women were denied most roles in the armed forces). Leanne transitioned late in life, wore simple skirts and blouses (“befitting a woman of my age”), and identified as a woman.
It was 2004. I was 18. And I thought Leanne was fabulous. I also thought Leanne was male. Crucially, so did Leanne.
Ten years ago, none of this was controversial in ostensibly “feminist” or LGBT circles. It was accepted that physiological sex and socially constructed gender were not the same thing. But over the past 10 years, the doctrine of “gender identity” has gained traction.
In some ways, I sympathize with trans activists who embrace a “born this way” belief with regard to “gender identity.” It makes sense to me that they would feel so. After all, gender is such a pernicious part of our world that it often goes unnoticed by anyone who doesn’t have a solid grounding in feminist theory or sociology. We take for granted that women like pink (which wasn’t associated with women until the 20th century) or that men don’t wear high heels (which they used to in the West — look at portraits of Charles II). We assume these things are innate, and in a world that polices gender as rigidly as ours, it’s easy to see why.
That’s why, for a long time, I was able to square this circle. “Of course a male can be a woman,” I said, “because ‘woman’ is a social construct.” This made sense to me. Transwomen are sometimes read as women and typically present as women. Just because they didn’t technically have female bodies, I reasoned, didn’t mean they weren’t subjected to the same misogyny and sexism women face every day, regardless of any biological or physiological differences. I applied the same logic to transwomen as I applied to, say, women who have had hysterectomies.
Of course, this is a pedestrian argument. It ignores the years of socialization we all receive. Transwomen are still socialized as male, and transmen are still socialised as women, no matter how they may choose to “identify” later in life. My initial analysis didn’t grapple with those facts. That’s a recent revelation, and if the narrative really ended at “transwomen are women and transmen are men,” I wouldn’t be writing this piece.
But something has happened over the past few years that has drastically changed my perspective. Lately, some trans activists, such as Avery Edison — a comedian and trans-identified male — have been trying to convince us that “gender identity” trumps sex. “Genitals aren’t very important [in sexual relationships],” Edison tweeted last month. “If you’re currently in love with someone, ask yourself, ‘would I stop loving them if they suddenly had different genitals.’ I hope the answer is ‘no.’ If it isn’t, your love is apparently extremely conditional!”
Leaving aside the fact that all sexual and romantic love is “extremely conditional” (after all, we don’t just fall in love with anyone we meet) when it comes to sexual attraction — emphasis on sex… Sex, in terms of sexual orientation, doesn’t just refer to doing the dirty — it means sex as a reproductive category.
I am a gay man, which means I am attracted to other men, meaning adult human males. This precludes women and females who identify as men.
And you know what? That’s okay. I’ve fought since I was 15-years-old — when I first came out — to live this truth. My existence as a gay man matters. Lesbians’ existence matters. And this notion that we can overcome “genital preferences” is homophobic and erases our identities, as homosexual people. It doesn’t just echo the far-right conversion therapies so many of us have fought decades to end, it actively embraces these beliefs, as it implies we could become heterosexual if we just opened our minds and overcame our “preferences” for members of the same sex.
The only way the argument that sex doesn’t matter makes any sense is if you think you can change sex but that gender identity — something intangible, and entirely in one’s head — is an immutable trait. But sex cannot be changed. It is a physical reality. Humans are a sexually dimorphic species, and there’s no getting around that.
Edison is far from the first person to put forth this argument. The “cotton ceiling” — a term full of rapey connotations, coined by Drew DeVeaux, a Canadian pornographic performer and transgender activist — offers up a similar analysis. The “cotton ceiling” (to allude to women’s underwear) refers to the idea that lesbians’ attraction exclusively to females is something to be overcome, and that, because lesbians are not attracted to males, somehow their sexuality is oppressive as it “excludes” transwomen and transmen, respectively.
Since then, the notion that this form of “exclusion” is bigoted or “hateful” has become accepted within the trans activist movement, (though it has been and continues to be subjected to critique and opposition by lesbians and feminists in particular). From Cathy Brennan to Meghan Murphy to Claire Heuchan to Julie Bindel to Magdalen Berns, women have been speaking out about the consequences of “gender identity” on women, their hard-won rights, and discourse more broadly for years, often at great detriment to their own wellbeing and careers. Men, on the other hand, have largely been silent.
But there is good reason to speak out, despite the consequences. If you portend to support feminism, you ought to care about women. Gender identity legislation is being pushed through very quickly, around the globe, without much — if any — debate or consideration of the consequences. Lesbians are being bullied and pushed out of the Dyke March. Women in shelters* are being forced to room with male-bodied people, and told they are in violation of the law when they protest. Rape crisis centres are being pressured to let males have access to their facilities and services. It’s perfectly understandable that a woman wouldn’t want someone with a penis sharing a bed next to her after she’s been raped. This should not be a controversial statement. A decade ago it wasn’t — not even in the transgender community. Yet somehow, defending women’s spaces and rights is now said to “dehumanize” transwomen or even constitute “violence” against them.
No feminist believes that transwomen should be attacked or injured. No feminist believes they should be sacked for being trans or be refused housing or health care. What feminists believe is that women — adult human females — have a right to sex-segregated spaces as sanctuaries against male violence, and that women should have particular rights as a result of having been born female under patriarchy. What feminists believe is that gender is an oppressive social construct used to subjugate the female sex class. None of this should be controversial, but it is.
Which is why it’s time men — especially men who support a radical feminist analysis of gender — speak up. I’ve been afraid to express my views for years now. Afraid of upsetting friends, of pissing off powerful media types who follow and commission me, afraid of the inevitable backlash I know is coming my way. But cowardice is no excuse. Women have been doing this for years — being no-platformed and losing their livelihoods because they dare speak up for themselves. But they can’t be left to do this alone any longer.
Boys, it’s time we get some skin in this game too.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer living on the coast of North Carolina. His work has appeared at the Independent, HuffPost UK, INTO, the Daily Dot, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan.
*Editor’s note, 08/24/2018: Previously this read “rape crisis centres,” but the centre referenced is not, in fact, a rape crisis centre, but an addiction recovery facility for women.