Sweden’s proposed gender identity legislation leaves important questions about sex unanswered

If a new Swedish bill becomes law, individuals will be able to self-identify as the opposite sex without any surgical or hormonal interventions. But if that happens, what will become women?

In 2017, the British government submitted recommendations to the United Nations, suggesting the term “pregnant woman” be replaced with “pregnant person” on the basis that the term “woman” might offend and exclude pregnant men.

The word “woman” was removed, having been deemed too narrow and exclusionary, but those supporting this version of “inclusion” will soon find it also comes with a new definition of “sex.”

According to this definition — quickly gaining ground without having really been debated — a person’s sex is rooted not in their body, but in their mind. Several countries, including Norway and Greece, have already amended their laws so that people can self-define their sex with no requirement for surgical intervention. If a new Swedish bill (“Förslag till en modernare könstillhörighetslagstiftning”) becomes law, this policy will soon also apply here in Sweden. The International Olympic Committee has issued recommendations that allow athletes to compete as the sex he/she chooses, as long as the individual has lived as that sex for four years and meets the hormonal criteria. Further, the British Labour Party has published guidelines concerning its all-women shortlists, so that anyone who identifies as a woman can enter.

These changes are generally viewed as progressive. From now on, sex will no longer be reduced to biology and transgender people will finally be recognized by law! Positing the change as a question of identity, rather than one of ideology, has made debating difficult: How can you question somebody’s identity?

But this isn’t just about individuals’ “identities.” If society as a whole changes the meaning of “sex,” it affects all of us. What will happen to sex-specific statistics on violence and equal pay if we no longer can refer to biological sex? What will happen to the concept of homosexuality? What will happen to non-mixed spaces such as prisons, changing rooms, and women’s shelters? What exactly do we mean by the term “sex”?

The dictionary of the Swedish Academy defines “woman” as “an adult person of the female sex.” To find out what the female sex category is, Karolinska University Laboratory tells us that, with the exception of people who are born with chromosome abnormalities, “women normally have two X chromosomes to form the XX pair, while men possess one X and one Y chromosome, or the XY pair.” This definition comes close to the second wave feminist ideal: that sex should mean just this and nothing else. But according to patriarchy, sex means a lot more: being a man is associated with having certain names, hairstyles, occupations, behaviours, and rights. Same goes women, though those names, hairstyles, occupations, behaviours, and rights are different. It is these roles we refer to when we talk about “gender,” as opposed to biological sex.

The new definition being pushed via gender identity legislation turns everything around. Sex is no longer about reproductive function, but is an identity. This does not, however, mean that it is regarded as a free choice: according to certain physicians and trans activists, gender identity is an “essence” that exists separately from socialization processes and the body.

Trans activist and author Julia Serano believes that some aspects of femininity are “are natural and can both precede socialization and supersede biological sex.” This is an idealist definition, in the sense that that mind prevails over matter. The feeling decides, and the body will have to be transformed accordingly. Relatedly, people no longer use the term “sex change.” The correct term is now “gender reassignment surgery,” or, in Swedish, “gender confirmation surgery.” To speak of “changing sex” implies that the person getting the surgery previously was another sex, whereas today we are to believe that the person who “reassigns” or “confirms” their sex is simply adjusting the body to its correct state: the one of the mind.

What then determines what the actual sex of a person is? Often, the same gender roles feminists seek to dissolve are exactly the ones now “proving” that a person is in fact the opposite sex. In the medical journal, Läkartidningen, physicians Louise Frisén, Per-Anders Rydelius, and Arne Söder assert that sexual identity is innate and that “seven per cent of boys are considered extremely effeminate, while a smaller percentage of girls are perceived as extremely boyish.” One wonders how these doctors go about mapping children’s behaviour according to sex, but there is something very eerie about it.

The US group TransYouthProject asserts that a boy who loves princess dresses is “gender non-conforming” and should be identified at an early age. If he also wants to have long hair, prefers to play with girls, and loves Twinkle Toes — sparkly shoes that light up in pink — he “most probably is a girl.” If this is the case, he is eligible for Lupron Depot — an intramuscular puberty-blocker injection given every three months — or Histrelin, an implant inserted in the arm that releases testosterone inhibitors. Until now, there has been a minimum age limit for those allowed to begin these treatments, but increasing numbers of physicians are pushing to abolish those restrictions. For its part, the political party Feministiskt Initiativ is seeking to abolish the age limit for “bottom surgery” in so-called trans kids, and to institute “the will and welfare of the child, with parental consent of one parent” as sufficient authorization for such interventions.

Few of us would deny the existence of children who truly feel like they belong to the opposite sex, or the cruelty of growing up in a society where deviance from the gender norms can be severely punished. Reading the biographies of trans people like Mario Martino, published in the 1970s, or that of contemporary Skylar Kergil, will demonstrate that there are individuals who truly do feel this way.

But our modern response to children stepping outside of gender roles raises several questions. Is it ethical to surgically modify children’s bodies when they are not old enough to understand the lifelong consequences? If seven per cent of boys now are “naturally effeminate,” is this then not a natural part of what it means to be a male? Why the rush to remove them from malehood, if this is the case? And does this ultra-progressive attitude not entrench a very conservative idea of sex?

While, in the past, we removed dresses from children with penises, we now remove the penis from children with dresses. The bottom line remains the same: children with penises must not wear dresses. This is not a liberation from biologism, but rather the opposite.

Gender self-identification also has some unforeseen consequences. For example, rapists can now end up in women’s prisons, as was the case in England, where Martin Ponting, convicted of raping two women, ended up in a women’s prison after undergoing sex reassignment. In Sweden, Kristoffer Johansson, who murdered and dismembered his girlfriend, now identifies as a woman and has demanded to be transferred to a women’s prison. But above all, gender self-identification has shaken up the world of female sports. In American boxing rings, the Italian volleyball league, and Canadian cycling competitions, male-born athletes now compete in women’s events.

In 2017, first place in the Australian weightlifting championship went to Laurel Hubbard, who, 10 years earlier, was a man who competed under the name of Gavin Hubbard. As a man, Hubbard was not overly successful. This all changed when Hubbard entered female weightlifting and lifted 19 kilos more than the second-place contestant. In 2015, Caitlyn Jenner was named Woman of the Year, even though the athlete and reality TV star had been a man barely a year before. The highest-paid female CEO in the United States in 2013 was Martine Rothblatt, who was born male, but began identifying as a transwoman in 1994. Interestingly enough, the reverse situation is much harder to find. Few female-born athletes or celebrities succeed in the world of men. Of all articles published on the topic of transmen, the most common theme is pregnancy.

The message to women is that to become Woman of the Year, or the highest paid executive of the year, we must have been born male. These types of injustices are precisely what women have always denounced, but now we have been relegated to second place even in our own group. We are the second sex of the second sex. But while we have been debating our secondary status in society for centuries, debating this new downgrading is almost impossible. To even speak of the differences between people who are born male and people who are born female — the basis of feminist thinking — is now by definition considered transphobic.

Feminists accused of transphobia are targets of death or rape threats, boycotts, and no-platforming. Lesbians who don’t want to have sex with people with penises are labelled “transphobic” online, since a penis can now be considered a “ladystick” or a “female penis,” and should be allowed in women’s spaces. Female athletes who object to unfair conditions are told to shut up because they benefit from “cis privilege,” as if the fact of being born female all of a sudden is an advantage.

These attacks are frequently excused by the fact that transgender people are said to be vulnerable to violence and hate crimes, and have a high suicide rate. But we are confronted with a strange phenomenon: while men are responsible for almost all the violent and hate crimes committed against transgender people, women are blamed, simply for daring to write or think about the concept of gender identity. The bottom line here is that if you don’t agree with sex being a state of mind, you are infringing on people’s right to exist. This makes no sense. It goes without saying that transgender people deserve respect, human rights, and an end to violence and discrimination. But this does not mean that being born female and feeling like a woman as an adult is the same thing.

At the end of the day, if bodies don’t matter and if upbringing doesn’t matter, why does sex matter? As a Marxist feminist, I have a dialectical understanding of sex as both material reality and social construct. Biology is not destiny, but biology exists. Our bodies produce spermatozoa and ovules regardless of how we label them. This is what distinguishes sex ontologically from race or class — concepts which have no function outside of systems of domination. It is entirely possible to imagine a society where the concepts of race or class do not exist, just as there are societies that have hundreds of intricate categories of ethnicities and social castes. Yet, ethnicity is treated as a concrete and unshakeable characteristic in contemporary Western discourse. Just consider what happened when the parents of NAACP chapter president Rachel Dolezal revealed that she was white. Although she had “lived as” a black woman for many years and conducted research and created work about black people, the general opinion was unanimous on one point: she was not black. If you were not born, you cannot become.

Suppose we let people choose their sex but not their ethnic background. We could then ask our children how they feel and make sure that they end up in the right category, and even, if necessary, create more categories. Perhaps all of us would enjoy greater freedom. But one question remains: What do we call the half of humankind who is born with a pair of X chromosomes? Those who have so many things in common: breasts, vagina, menstruation and — in most cases — the possibility of getting pregnant? What do we call this group of people who run a higher risk of being aborted before birth due to their sex, having their genitals mutilated, being denied an education, being raped, being beaten or abused in their own homes, paid less, and being victims of sexual harassment and discrimination in the labour market? What are we supposed to call these people? Do they not deserve a name of their own?

Kajsa Ekis Ekman is a Swedish journalist, writer, and activist. She is the author of Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self and The Eurocrisis Seen From Athens, among others. Watch her TEDx talk, “Everybody talks about capitalism — but what is it?” here.

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