I saw a Twitter post the other day asking why the recent Jon Stewart piece was doing everything with respect to women rather than men. It seemed like an odd question to me because while, yes, men are the privileged group and women the disadvantaged, the discussion always seems to be with respect to women. There are the misogynists, who deal with everything in terms of controlling women, and the gender critical crowd, who seem obsessed with a narrow definition of women. So… of course the piece was framed in terms of “what is a woman?”
By defining gender strictly according to sex, well, it defines gender strictly according to sex. “Woman” is a noun; “female” can be either a noun (denoting one with the sexual characteristics of one that can bear offspring) or an adjective that achieves the same effect. If “woman” is synonymous with “female,” then being a woman is nothing more than the ability to bear offspring.
Similarly, but in a wider respect, this is a self-servingly narrow definition. The idea of a definition is to capture the meaning of a term. We are not just talking about transwomen here – a definition of “woman” tied strictly to sex then jeopardises the identify of any person who would otherwise meet the definition, such as someone who had a hysterectomy. It may seem like a technicality, but if the definition is that a woman is an adult human with specific reproductive abilities and those conditions change, then the individual no longer meets the definition. While even the gender critical crowd may understand that “woman” includes this broader definition, misogynists make no such distinction.
The definition must go beyond “playing dress up” or conforming to traditional feminine roles. This is a matter of faulty syllogism. Assigning a gender to a piece of material, such as a dress, and then claiming that the act of wearing that dress makes the wearer also a woman, is false. Even in a world where we understand an article of clothing as designed for a particular gender, simply donning that article does not change the gender of the wearer.
It raises within my mind (and that of many others) the question of self-identification as it relates to sex- or gender-based crimes. The gender critical crowd tends to bring up this idea that a cisman could dress up or identify as a woman to gain access to women-only spaces. What would possess any person to add an unnecessary step to their process? What we already have documented are the common occurrences of men harming women both in public and in places meant for women only.
Essentially, in a world where little is done to prevent wolves from attacking sheep, why would a wolf bother disguising itself as a sheep?
Crime is crime, and harassment, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of criminal behaviour, is harassment. It doesn’t matter if a man does it to a woman in public or in a space reserved for women. It doesn’t matter if women do it to one another. We must be decrying those behaviours wherever and whenever they occur.
Now, a counterpoint to that is that certain types of crime have an aggravated level (i.e., hate crimes), and we should want to provide extra protection – namely in the form of increased punishment – if the crime occurs because of the sex or gender of the victim. To that point I again question the gender critical community – would we not want those protections in place for the trans community as well? I cannot reliably say whether it occurs more or less often among ciswomen than the trans community, but I can say with certainty that it occurs far too often in both communities.
Putting these points back together, the gender critical view of gender 1) defines women according to their reproductive ability and 2) does nothing to challenge the patriarchy. It narrows the definition of “woman” and then attempts to create ineffective protections against men, and in doing so it reinforces the idea of men as predatory and women as prey.
Those are all more philosophical matters. Then we have the practical. In this world of sex-based protections where “females are women and trans women are men,” how does one go about enforcement? What institution will provide the agents to check genitalia, check chromosomes, and/or check hormone levels to determine the immutable sex of one’s identity? Could anyone even trust that sort of systemic approach in a patriarchal world?
The point here is that “we can always tell” is not a method of approaching this situation. If what women have to fear is cismen cosplaying as women to gain access to women-only spaces, there must be acknowledgement of this “passing” phenomenon with which misogynists and gender criticals seem so preoccupied. Those who do not “pass” as women but are may face prejudice and discrimination for doing what they are supposed to do. Those who do “pass” may gain access despite not meeting the gender critical standard of admittance.
It’s the whole point of gender as a component of identity. Why should other people get to define your gender, and based on what? Gender critical women are getting together and determining whether or not someone is or is not a woman, which is precisely the sort of thing the ideology is against (in actuality – this is not meant as a dig). The process of “preventing the erasure of women by controlling the definition” is causing the erasure of some of the ciswomen it’s supposed to serve.
A final point that I must acknowledge is the presence of bad actors and extremists. The trans rights community undoubtedly contains problematic actors, as does the population of women, feminists, Oakland Athletics fans, and any other community. Their existence is not reason to vilify the entire group because no group is a monolith.
As problematic as the role of privilege is in any group (men when discussing gender, white people when discussing race, the wealthy when discussing class, etc.), there is also the presence of internalised prejudice. Trans people can be transphobic. Homosexuals can be homophobic. Black people can be racist – no, not against white people (that’s the role of privilege, it doesn’t flow the other direction), but against other Black people. Society impresses subconscious biases on everyone, and people have different degrees of competence (for one thing, I think some people are good faith actors who are simply terrible at expressing their ideas).
So, when the point arises that, “This TRA did x and y – how do you explain that?” my answer is, “Because they did wrong and need to be held accountable like anyone else.” It does not vilify the push for equal rights for trans people any more than a woman doing something horrible discredits efforts for gender equality.
Denying equal rights for the trans community (or any part of the LGBTQ+ community, or any community) is to deny equal rights for anyone who isn’t part of the privileged group. I agree with the gender critical crowd in their assessment of how society treats women, but I cannot stand alongside them as an ally if their actions are going to harm equal rights for another group in the process. Intersectionality matters, perhaps never more than when addressing the bad actors.