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By Jason Michael
FOLLOWING A SERIES of articles published on this website on the current shape of the so-called ‘gender debate,’ a number of people have attempted to situate my position in this discussion. In a private forum on social media, a forum I have consequently decided to leave, a friend and colleague (who, owing to the private nature of the discussion, will remain anonymous) passionately articulated a summation of this opinion:
Jason you are on the side of the far-right when you line up with the gender woo woo brigade. When you have Rosa Zambonini and Mhairi Hunter agreeing with YOUR hate speech it should be a tip for a clue! You are calling the women defending their hard earned rights ‘fascist,’ ‘alt-right,’ ‘far-right,’ [and] then you are bleating about hate speech??? Physician heal thyself!
This, of course, will require some degree of unpacking and will require some definitions, so please do bear with me. And I will do this without animus towards my interlocutors. What this discussion sorely needs, as was underlined by a recent Chris Cairns comic, is to have some of the heat drawn out of it. It is certainly not the intention of this piece to pour more fuel on the fire.
Clearly this is a subject the internet has opinions about. Since 25 October 2020, when I first engaged in this discussion, I have lost somewhere in the region of two thousand Twitter followers, been on the receiving end of a handful of stressful dog-piles, and have experienced a shunning (where online followers are either too nervous or too angry to like or retweet anything posted by the shunned) — all indications of the internet’s displeasure. Lots of people in every corner of this furious argument have suffered similar, and sometimes worse, experiences. These indications are shaped by the constitution of our social media audiences; an indication that we have failed to read the room — that perhaps we are in the wrong room — and operate to keep us in line.
So, and without prejudice, let us briefly look at the two contesting positions; that of the movement for gender recognition and transgender inclusivity, and that of trans-exclusionary gender critical feminism. The progressive tendency of the transgender rights campaign, which is present and widely supported in liberal democratic societies around the world, seeks for transgender persons the right to self-identify as the gender they believe themselves to be without legal or medical-therapeutic barriers. This would have transgender women recognised as women in law and transgender men likewise recognised as men. In the main, this proposal is supported by LGBTQ+ people and organisations and by mainstream and radical feminists. According to research published by the World Economic Forum, the states most resistant to the extension and protection of these rights are Russia, Hungary, South Korea, and Poland — countries noted for their right-leaning social conservatism.
Gender critical feminists adhere to a strict hermeneutic of biological essentialism — the belief that biological sex determines gender (qua the performance of socio-sexual characteristics and behaviours) and physical sexual difference — which dictates that sex is immutable. Consequently, it follows from this thesis that trans-women — ‘men in dresses’ — are not real women and so, given the threat they pose to women and girls, must be excluded from female-only safe spaces; public toilets, changing rooms, refuges, prisons, and such like. The ontology of this argument does follow a coherent logic insofar as one accepts the assumptions of essentialism and the categorical differences between women and men as defined by gender critical feminism. Concern over the vulnerability and safety of female-bodied people in such safe spaces is a detail readily accepted by Charlotte Jones and Jen Slater in their 2020 article in The Sociological Review Monographs:
…the security of women’s toilets is also recognised as precarious due to their potential misuse, wherein ‘people are undressed, vulnerable and engaged in a private act.’ Women’s toilets are therefore positioned as both especially safe and (potentially) especially dangerous.
Evidently, this is not an attempt to furnish the reader with a comprehensive definition of either position, and neither is it intended to be. The purpose, then, of these outlines is to demonstrate that these are two opposing, mutually exclusive, and irreconcilable philosophies. One simply cannot support both positions. Yet, it is important to state that while one cannot both support gender self-identification and be a gender critical feminist, neither is it the case one has to accept one or the other of these positions. It is entirely possible to hold a third position — not a neutral position or one ‘sitting on the fence,’ but a genuine and discrete third position. And this brings us to my positionality in this whole discussion.
Signing off on his comment, my abovementioned friend wrote: ‘Physician heal thyself!,’ a nod to the Gospel and, I assume, to my Christian faith. The cura te ipsum — ‘heal thyself’ — is found in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke and marks the centre-point of a discourse Jesus has with the religious leaders at the synagogue at Capernaum. It follows Jesus’ reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah wherein good news is announced to the poor in the great proclamation:
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free…
And it precedes his observation that ‘no prophet is accepted in [his] home town,’ before he was driven out of the place by people who intended to kill him. The cura te ipsum, then, is not a comment on the accused but an indictment of the accuser. They have heard the divine intention to release the captive, to restore the sight of the blind, and to end the oppression of the oppressed, and they do not like it. The prophet heralds the end of their rule; their domination, their place of privilege, and so they demand cura te ipsum — ‘heal thyself’ — and drive him out. It is them who utter this who are rejecting the message and shooting the messenger.
My friend, along with other gender critical feminists and their allies, clearly does not accept the ‘gender ideology’ of those who want to extend and protect transgender rights, but it is equally clear my friend and others reject my position. But what is my position?
My habitus in this discussion, as I hope it is in all such discussions, begins and ends with the Great Commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).’ This dominical injunction speaks to a radical acceptance of the other; an indiscriminate love for and acceptance of the known other and the stranger alike — a position of unconditional positive regard. This applies to the ‘captive’ — the criminal, the prisoner — and to the innocent alike. Christian ethics rejects completely the idea that wrong has no rights. With regard to the present discussion, then, irrespective of my thoughts on the beliefs and opinions of another, I am duty bound to see in them the same humanity as my own; worthy of love, dignity, and respect.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
1 Corinthians 13:1
Looking at gender critical feminism and at the idea of gender self-identification I see two sets of ideas and philosophies with which I have reservations and disagreements. While I accept a priori the physical difference of sex, I neither subscribe to biological essentialism nor accept the notion that gender and biological sex are inseparably linked. The concept of essentialism originated with Plato (428-348 BCE). His argument was that the phenomena of the natural world were simply a reflection of a finite number of fixed and unchanging forms — which he called eide. In the medieval period the Thomists changed the name of these eide to essences, arguing that an essence is changeless and is categorically different from other essences. Hilariously enough, however, it was these same Thomists — or ‘Scholastics,’ the students of St Thomas Aquinas — who articulated the Catholic understanding of Transubstantiation; the belief — and later formal doctrine — that the species of the altar (bread and wine) are transformed in essence into the real body and blood, soul and divinity, of Christ.
In all its philosophical articulations and reformulations through history the idea of essentialism has been laden with exceptions and contradictions. Like almost everything in the marketplace of ideas, it has its uses and its limitations. In an outstanding article by John D. DeLamater and Janet Shibley Hyde on this subject, ‘Essentialism vs. Social Constructionism in the Study of Human Sexuality’ (1998), we discover what is perhaps the most devastating answer to those who make appeal to science and biology as the basis for their essentialism. The authors write:
Ironically for the purposes of the current discussion, Darwin was one of the first to reject essentialism, at least partially. His reward was rejection of his work by the philosophers of the time. His notion of change through evolution was fundamentally at odds with the notion of constancy in essentialism.
Karl Popper too, the philosopher who critiqued the use of essentialism by the fascist and totalitarian regimes of the early twentieth century and who gave us the paradox of tolerance — that we cannot tolerate the intolerant, rejected it on the basis that theories are never more than hypotheses. ‘They are conjecture rather than true knowledge.’ Essentialism, therefore, has to be taken as a type of scientific fundamentalism, which is a profound misunderstanding of the scientific or empirical method. In a word, biological essentialism is bad science. It is equally bad philosophy.
In a similar manner, one can be critical of gender theory — it too, following Popper’s analysis, is only a theory. One can fully appreciate the idea that gender is a performance and that it is shaped by the assumptions and expectations of the society in which we happen to live. There are different masculinities and different femininities; the macho masculinities of the football ground stand in stark contrast to the bookish masculinity of James Joyce, and the domestic femininities of 1950s housewives are entirely different from the bold new femininities of Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, and Angela Merkel. Again, it is for this reason we can reject the over-simplistic and reductionist ‘definition’ of ‘woman’ as an ‘adult human female.’ It may pass in a dictionary, but there are an almost infinite number of ways to be a woman. All of this might well support the theory of the malleability or ‘fluidity’ of gender, but it falls a long way short of supporting the idea that sex itself can be anything but a binary physiological reality — a philosopical necessity as opposed to a freedom.
Logically, it is possible that both positions can be — at least in part — wrong. They are only theories. So, this is where I am. Both are neither, as far as I am able to understand them, fish nor fowl. Now, naturally, I reserve the right to change my mind on this as I continue the process of reading and educating myself. Yet, whilst not subscribing wholly to either position, my criticism has been and remains that the entrenchment of these positions and the emotions and fears with which they have been infused has led to a climate of intolerance and violence. This is not to say that there have been many or any examples of physical violence (in Scotland), but abusing and dehumanising other people is a very real kind of violence — and one which all too easily results in physical violence. In fact, there is no hate crime which has not first been preceded by a process of demonising and scapegoating the other. It is this position — the rejection of hate — that first motivated For Women Scotland and certain gender critical activists on social media to brand me a ‘Be Kind misogynist.’
It has been put to me on a number of occasions lately that I have been partisan in my criticism of these two positions; calling out the abusive language, the transphobia, antisemitism, and Islamophobia of some gender critical activists while giving ‘TRAs’ — trans rights activists — a free pass, and that this has amounted to me engaging in ‘hate speech’ (inter alia the ‘Rosa Zambonini and Mhairi Hunter agreeing with YOUR hate speech’ of my aforementioned friend). It is not hate speech to call out hate speech. Let us be very clear about this. And neither is it fascistic of far-right behaviour to raise legitimate concerns about far-right influences in the discourse around us. What this is, is a clear example of the appropriation of the rhetoric of the left to silence criticism — itself a hallmark of extreme political ideologies.
A number of people have insisted that I also call out the bad behaviour of trans rights activists. The problem here, situated as I am in a particular social media echo chamber, is that I genuinely see very few examples of hate from trans people or their allies. This is not something I go out of my way to find either. But my timeline, given my current locus, is swamped in some pretty nasty examples of transphobia with the odd reminder that antisemitism and Islamophobia have not gone away. And yes, this is instructive about the company I have been keeping online (so much so in fact that I am listed on Shinigami Eyes, an extension for Google Chrome that highlights transphobic and anti-LGBTQ+ social media users, as a transphobe).
Still, one example of misogynistic hate speech by a trans person was brought to my attention, and I was asked to ‘condemn’ it. This was a young trans woman at a recent demonstration outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh aggressively shouting ‘Witch! Witch! Witch!’ into the face of a Women Won’t Wheesht gender critical demonstrator. In fairness, not much context was provided by the video and so it is difficult to assess what level of provocation had occurred. Regardless, yes, this is an example of someone taunting a woman with gender-based hate speech. This, along with the obvious degree of physical intimidation displayed by the individual, amounts to serious bad behaviour. It certainly didn’t help matters for the Scottish National Party that this transgenger woman was doxxed, revealing the fact she is — or was — an employee of the SNP.
This said, however, the story of this transgender woman has taken a sinister turn. Her image has been propagandised by gender critical activists online, the object of which is transparent: to generalise and demonise transgender people and so encourage others to see transgender people — transgender women in particular — as dangerous outsiders. This trans-woman has become a symbol of the threat — real or imagined — posed to women and girls by their existence and recognition. Propaganda works not in arguments but in symbols deployed to stimulate an emotional response — in this case fear — which causes ‘affective override;’ the moment when emotion shuts down critical thinking. In reality, this snapshot of someone’s bad behaviour in what is unarguably an emotionally charged situation — a political demonstration — says little about their everyday character. It says even less about the characters of other transgender people. We can say that it was wrong, but we have to acknowledge the limited nature of the context provided by the video. So yes, we can condemn this person’s behaviour so long as that condemnation is mitigated. We certainly cannot use this as any form of evidence supporting a case against transgender people.
When we allow this generalisation of propagandistic symbols to inform what we ‘know’ of the other bad things happen. There is no shortage of examples of women and girls being policed, harassed, and ejected from bathrooms by ‘gatekeepers’ because they look too masculine. This happens to butch lesbians with terrifying regularity. It also leads to situations where everyone is left uncomfortable when a transgender man — and someone who ‘passes’ as a man — enters female public toilets in US states where this has been legally enforced.
It also facilitates the misidentification of men and women who do not fit the description imposed by gender-enforcing ideologies. This happened only yesterday when Krystal Jackson, a thirty-nine year old teacher in California, was arrested for the rape of a fourteen year old pupil. Assuming she was a he, Scottish gender critical activist ‘Meljomur’ took to Twitter to post: ‘Does this mean HE gets to be placed in women’s prison?? Yeah, but Self ID is SUCH a grand idea.’
Jennifer Rossotti cleared things up:
I’m just going to put this out there bc there seems to be A LOT of confusion. This is in fact a cis hetero woman. And I know this bc I know who this person is irl. We grew up in the same town.
The problem here is that self-declared gatekeepers are taking it upon themselves to decide, at a glance, who is and who is not a real woman. But what this amounts to is prejudice. Meljomur and tens of thousands of others deemed Jackson too manish — ugly(?) — to be a woman, and so manufactured yet another example of a transgender woman being a threat to children. But the reality is that without toilet inspectors invested with the power to ‘check folk’s junk’ there is no real way, in every situation, to distinguish between women and men. Once again we are brought back to these dated and useless Platonic essences, and they are being defined to conform to unrealistic Barbie Doll caricatures of real femininity. There is quite actually nothing more anti-feminist than this. It is a creeping totalitarianism, a proto-palingenetic ultranationalism — an absolute caste difference created by the gatekeepers to save perfect or pure womanhood from annihilation.
It is not siding with the far-right to point this out. This is an absurd accusation. And neither is it hate speech to point out antisemitism and Islamophobia coming from some gender critical activists. These bigotries, when spoken or published, are by definition hate speech. It simply does not follow that to acknowledge this and to call it out is hate speech. This is preposterous. Neither does it matter who else agrees with me on this. Rosa Zambonini and Mhairi Hunter are two people with whom I sometimes have political disagreements, but it is a nonsense to suggest that because we do not hold exactly the same opinions on the best way to achieve Scottish independence that they are incapable of recognising prejudice, bigotry, and hate speech when they see it. Just stop!
The thing about bigotry is that it is intersectional. It is rare indeed that someone who hates people of colour spends their time campaigning for the human rights of others. Like with conspiracy theories, people who hold bigoted opinions about one group of people tend to harbour other bigotries. And yes — absolutely — we are talking about gender critical bigotry here! We can acknowledge, as we have done here, that radical feminist gender critical theory, as a theory, has an internal logic. In and of itself it is not necessarily bigoted — so long as we accept its definitions. But all around it we see gender critical activists and their allies referring to transgender women as ‘men in frocks.’ We have countless examples of transgender women being degraded and dehumanised as ‘predators,’ ‘deviants,’ ‘perverts,’ and branded in toto a threat to women. While the theories of gender critical feminism may well not be bigoted, this language most definitely is. This is the kind of language which in every situation of violence leads up to and justifies acts of physical violence.
So, this is where I stand in this debate. I am neither one nor the other — exactly. I am a trans ally and a committed supporter of women’s rights. But I am not uncritical of gender theory or indeed the misguided theory of biological essentialism. Being a moral person, my position is on the side of people — no matter their gender, sex, or sexual orientation — and I will not be bullied into accepting false ideologies which function only to alienate other people and make scapegoats for the failures of a privileged dominant group (the one to which I belong as a cisgender heterosexual man). My only hope is that this helps to clear things up, but I am not overly optimistic — I have spent seven years of my life writing for people who struggle to read.
Endnote 2: White Fascism