Jennifer Duncan writes:
The concept of gender identity is being enshrined into law in several countries now, giving new legal protections to transgender people on the basis of their identities.
In the United States, the Obama administration recently signed a declaration that all public schools in the country must recognise the gender identity of their students. Canada has recently announced new legal protections for transgender people.
In Britain, there is interest growing in allowing people to legally define their own gender.
As a person on the political left and as a member of the LGBT community, I am expected to applaud these changes to legislation, but instead I am critical.
This is because the concept of gender identity is poorly defined, and the politics of transgenderism is harmful to women and girls and rooted in individualism rather than collective action.
The NHS defines gender identity in the following way: “Biological sex is assigned at birth, depending on the appearance of the genitals. Gender identity is the gender that a person ‘identifies’ with or feels themselves to be.
“While biological sex and gender identity are the same for most people, this isn’t the case for everyone. For example, some people may have the anatomy of a man, but identify themselves as a woman, while others may not feel they’re definitively either male or female.”
This is typical of definitions of gender identity offered by other organisations.
The concept of gender is not precisely defined, but we are to understand that gender identity is the individual’s feeling of being either a man, a woman, or neither of these.
The problem with this is that male and female aren’t feelings — these words refer to the two reproductive functions of mammalian species: those who produce sperm which can fertilise ova, and those who produce ova and can bear young.
When someone has a gender identity, that means they believe their sex to be the opposite of what their physical anatomy is, or that they are neither sex.
The belief that one is the opposite sex is often called gender dysphoria, which is a discomfort and anxiety directed toward the body and its sexed characteristics.
Some people with gender dysphoria wish to alter their bodies to reflect the appearance of the sexed body they feel they should have.
There is no conclusive research on why some people are deeply unhappy with their bodies, but self-reporting, such as videos and articles created by people who are transitioning, gives us clues as to where their unhappiness is coming from.
When transgender people talk about how they knew they were trans, they often report identifying with the stereotypical behaviour and appearance of the opposite sex, such as boys who wanted to play with dolls and wear dresses, and girls who wanted to wear baggy clothes and cut their hair short.
The strong identification with characteristics they are taught don’t belong to them leads them to conclude they must have a “boy’s brain in a girl’s body” or vice versa.
Transition seems like a way to reconcile their personal characteristics with what they have been taught about what men and women are, to avoid the feelings of discomfort and the negative treatment that come from being different.
Feminists have given the name “gender roles” to the collection of traits and behaviours that are assigned to men and women based on our reproductive role.
The feminine gender role is to be kind and nurturing — the personality of one who is meant to stay at home and raise children.
The masculine gender role is to be aggressive and independent — traits that are good for people whose role is to work outside the home and be the head of the family.
These gender roles are a part of the system of patriarchy which separates the two sex classes, male and female, and gives men the upper hand in the sex hierarchy.
Some people are deeply uncomfortable with the role they are given, and there are two major ways of dealing with this discomfort — one way is collectively working to change society so that these roles will be abolished, and the other way is changing the self in order to better survive the system that is in place.
If it were simply a matter of a few rare individuals having sex-reassignment surgery to deal with overwhelming feelings of dysphoria, this wouldn’t likely have any effect on society.
But the politics of transgenderism that are sweeping North America right now are bringing along with them a multitude of problems for women and girls.
One of the issues for women is the loss of sex-segregated spaces, such as public bathrooms and changing rooms.
When bathroom use is based only on a subjective belief that one is a woman, this effectively allows men to claim a gender identity and enter women’s spaces any time they want to.
There are already many North American schools and recreation centres allowing males to enter female spaces because of their “gender identity,” and this is causing distress for women, who do not feel safe undressing in front of strange men.
In transgender politics, the physical anatomy of the body can be reinterpreted based on the subjective identity that one has — for example, a male body can be referred to as a female body if the man has a gender identity as a woman, and vice versa.
This is a problem for women and girls because our female biology makes us vulnerable to men, regardless of how we identify.
The fact that we are generally smaller, have less upper-body strength, and can become pregnant make us physically vulnerable, and we are also vulnerable socially due to widespread sexual abuse of women by men that is based on our female anatomy.
Seeing a man in a private, female-only space such as a locker room is uncomfortable for women, regardless of how strongly he feels about his gender identity.
In the United States, “bathroom bills” are causing major clashes between those who want to protect the identity of transgender people and those who want to protect the privacy of women in female-only spaces.
The other problem for women caused by the concept of gender identity is that it becomes difficult or impossible to name biological sex as an axis of oppression when people can supposedly choose to be any sex they want to be.
Women are not oppressed based on our identities, we are oppressed on the basis of our female biology; for example, in situations where our fertility is controlled by men (in forced marriage, laws against abortion [feminism will largely have come round on that in 20 years], etc) and in situations where we are sexually exploited (in human trafficking, rape and incest, etc).
These human rights abuses do not occur because of our “identity” as women, but because men know that we are female and they have the power to use our female reproductive systems for their sexual pleasure and to create their offspring.
If people can simply decide to be the opposite sex, then a material analysis of women’s oppression cannot be done.
Men who commit violent crimes against women can be recorded legally as women due to gender identity laws, which obscures the statistics on which sex is really committing those crimes, and violent males who are imprisoned can be imprisoned with other women, making incarcerated women vulnerable, because transwomen cannot be named as males.
Without being able to name humans as male or female, women have no hope of being able to protect ourselves from the crimes men commit against us.
It is important to stay away from individualism and remain focused on class analysis, especially for those of us on the left.
In the United States, communism was all but eliminated decades ago, and the notions of individualism and consumer culture have taken over the political landscape.
This means that we see people as being free agents making their own choices rather than classes of people with collective interests.
Just as the working class is oppressed based on its position in the economic class system, women are oppressed based on our position in the sex class system.
Gender roles, which serve to reinforce the sex hierarchy, make people uncomfortable on both sides because they limit how we can behave and express ourselves.
Eliminating oppression based on gender roles will not be achieved by a few individuals changing themselves to fit into a different role — collective action is needed to dismantle the gender system.