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By Jason Michael
YESTERDAY I RECEIVED A MESSAGE from an amazing women, ‘A.,’ who reached out to me, concerned that my recent battles on social media were maybe getting me down. She is perceptive. Yes, this past few weeks have taken their toll on me – and I can only imagine this comes as good news to those who made it their mission to make things tough for me. I have taken a position on the so-called gender debate many people really do not like. While I have my reservations about some of the content of gender theory, I am unwilling to stay quiet while perfectly innocent transgender people are subjected to the most appalling abuse from people who believe they are defending women’s rights. This entire experience has exhausted me and broken my heart. It has brought me to the threshold of deciding to walk away from the independence movement altogether. My conversation with A., herself someone quite sympathetic to the anti-gender movement, was refreshing. I have asked for and received her permission to publish her remarks and my reflections on them here.
I’m a little concerned for you. I read your posts this morning and they have made me feel very sad for you, for me and others who follow you. We cannot lose a worthy blogger such as you. I note you have become very involved in the women’s rights/trans debate. I sometimes wonder if this was wise? Sometimes things will just run their course. However, I do not judge your good intentions. Please know that I absolutely believe your intentions were and are honourable.
After weeks of near continual bitterness on social media I am genuinely touched and deeply moved to have someone reach out to me and express their concern. Given the nature of the now familiar online dog-pile (or pile-on), it is not easy to express the fact we are experiencing some level of emotional distress. On the one hand this is the point of the dog-pile; to isolate and punish the target. Then, on the other hand, our calls for help are silenced by those in the baying mob who tell us not to ‘play the victim card’ — an effective way of forcing people to shut up and take their beating.
It is not the case that I have become ‘very involved’ in the so-called gender debate. On a number of occasions I have made my position clear. This is not my concern. The reason I am on social media and the reason I write for iScot Magazine and publish my own blog is to promote Scottish independence. Yet, the gender debate has very much captured the attention of the independence movement. Stu Campbell at Wings Over Scotland did a great deal over a long period of time to bring people’s attention to what he believes is a hugely important issue. Now we have Graham Linehan and others ‘informing’ Scottish pro-independence activists about what they perceive to be the dangers of ‘trans ideology.’
Seeing this as at best a distraction from the campaign for independence, I ignored the discussion for as long as possible. The debate itself — insofar as it is an intellectual debate — doesn’t interest me in the least. Like a lot of people find, and as important as they are, feminist and radical feminist discourses are a foreign territory to me. As a man and especially as a religious Catholic, most of my experience of feminism has been being told to stay out of it, to ‘keep your rosaries out of our ovaries.’ This discussion, however, is quite different because — in the wider discussion — it is producing a great deal of bigotry against a tiny and vulnerable minority. It is wrong for anyone to suffer abuse, so when I began to see transgender women (most people simply ignore transgender men) being described as ‘men in dresses,’ as ‘paedophiles,’ ‘deviants,’ ‘perverts,’ and such like, and being framed as a particular threat to women and girls, my conscience would not permit me to stay quiet.
I support equal rights for all — if only it were that simple! I am concerned that a line is being crossed, and as with everything in life we have to have boundaries. I have no issue with any trans person or how they feel/need/have to lead their lives. I accept people for who they are, not what they are. Not being (or even knowing) a trans person I cannot fully understand it all, I simply try to accept there is room for us all in God’s earth.
We have so much in common here, friend. Like you, I support equality and believe firmly that equality is a human right. More than this, I do not think support is enough. We must be in solidarity with the oppressed — whoever they are. Having studied the history of the Holocaust in great depth, I am committed to the creed of active solidarity; that we must not merely align ourselves with with the oppressed and the marginalised, but be prepared to act with them and for them. The strength of our freedom in the open society is only ever as strong as its weakest members — be they the homeless, the poor, the vulnerable, the orphan, or the widow. In the Church, this is what we refer to as the Preferential Option for the Poor.
Also, like you, I find much of this discussion difficult to understand. Gender critical feminism presents a number of arguments which appear to be common sense; that a woman is an ‘adult human female,’ that transgender women have not been conditioned as women or shared their gender-based struggle, and that biology determines who is a man and who is a woman. Similarly, gender theory makes many cogent points about the nature of sex and gender; that sex and gender are distinct phenomena, that gender is a ‘performance,’ and that ideas such as man and woman — as opposed to male and female — are socially constructed habiti. One of the greatest problems here is that both sides of the argument are making sense. So yes, this is confusing. It’s not easy to understand.
…from my limited knowledge I believe there is a difference between a fully transitioned male-to-female person and a still male-bodied person living as the woman as they feel they are. And again in my very limited understanding of it all this seems to be where the problem lies.
Again, this comes across to me as common sense. Being a mum and a grandmum, you are well used to dumping little bodies in the bathtub and telling the difference between the girls and the boys. This physical aspect of sexual difference is obvious to us. This is where we encounter biology — in the body. But we don’t encounter gender here, do we? Biology is something we are. Gender is something we do. We do gender in our body language, in our mannerisms, in what we say and how we say it, in what we wear, in how we wear our hair, and so on. This is what we mean by ‘gender performance,’ and no amount of staring at naked bodies will help us to distinguish between one gender and another.
Absolutely, there is a difference in appearance between a male and a female and between a transitioned and an untransitioned transgender person. These physical — biological — differences tell us nothing about gender differences. The surgical procedure of the sex change does not make a transgender woman a transgender women. She was transgender before the operation because her gender is a psycho-social and not a biological experience. In this regard, then, there is no gender difference between a transitioned and an untransitioned transgender woman. The difference is physical; one has a penis and one doesn’t.
There needs to be a line in the sand. I’m a mother and a grandmother and well on the way to my allotted three score years and ten. I have no desire to join the movement against either side of this debate, but I have to be honest and say I do lean much more towards the women’s movement. This is simply because I defend my right to be a woman, a mother, a grandmother, an adult human female as from birth.
The ‘line in the sand.’ My friend, this is an idiom I truly love. We use it to mean a point beyond which we will go no further and that a final decision has been made. Yet, we find this phrase in the Gospel where Jesus — as he often does — turns its meaning on its head. In John 8:6 we are introduced to the woman caught in adultery. The religious authorities want to put her to death in accordance with the Law of Moses. Here the law is the proverbial line in the sand; the decision has been reached and her life must be made forfeit to satisfy the demands of justice. But Jesus bent down and drew a line in the sand and said: ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ In this the Law was satisfied; anyone who did not himself deserve to be put to death could throw a stone.
This thinking reminds me also of the debate in the Church about the ordination of women. When Pope Francis was asked for his opinion on women’s ordination during a recent synod in Rome he said that the ‘door is tightly closed’ on the matter. Most listening to him reasonably assumed that that was that, that there would be no progress in the case of ordaining women during his papacy. But popes are canny creatures. Those who pay close attention to papal motu propios will be aware of what Pope John XXIII said during the opening of the Second Vatican Council: ‘When God closes a door the Holy Spirit opens a window.’ Francis is a man who has opened windows and in his time in office the discussion on the ordination of women — closed during the papacy of John Paul II — has continued.
What I read in the ‘line in the sand’ is the delightful truth that life is change. Everything is always in a constant state of change. Nothing remains the same — not forever. Naturally, this makes some feel uneasy. We like things to be recognisable and predictable. The familiar is comforting. But ‘to live is to change,’ wrote John Henry Newman, ‘and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ Of course you have a right to be a woman, a mother, and a grandmother. This is your identity and who you are, and you strike me as a good woman, a good mother, and a fabulous grandmother. Yet, you are these things in a way only you can be. Only you can be the woman you are, the mother you are, and the gran that you are. If a gran was just a gran and the same as any other gran, we could take them down the market and exchange them, no? But nothing could have prised my granny from me. She was my granny.
There are so many ways to be a woman (or a man) — to do womanhood. It is unique to each individual woman as a human person. And each unique woman is distinct from all other women. This is not and cannot be reduced to a crude definition — ‘adult human female.’ You are infinitely more than this definition. Or as Einstein put it, you are more than the sum of your parts. Adult and human and female are things that you are, where being a woman is something that you do. And there are millions of ways to do being a woman. The woman you are is a personality, it is a role that you play, and you write the script. Being an adult and human and female are things over which you have no control, they are impersonal. ‘Woman’ imbues you with your personhood — and yes, the woman you are has changed over time and will continue to change, and this is perfection.
The language being slowly introduced concerns me greatly also. ‘Cis,’ ‘chest feeder,’ ‘person with vagina,’ ‘birthing parent’ … the list goes on. Surely, Jason, this cannot be right?
Language changes all the time, and, you are right, sometimes language is changed for sinister reasons. Looking over the past four decades we have seen the use of euphemisms to disguise all kinds of bad things. ‘Tightening our belts’ for savage public spending cuts, ‘streamlining’ for redundancies, and ‘Vote SNP’ for no progress on independence. Language changes and is changed for all sorts of reasons, this much is true. But then, our language has changed. There was certainly a time in your nearly seventy years of life you would not have dared use words like ‘penis’ and ‘vagina.’ But look at us now! Go us! What language we use, don’t use, and are not allowed to use very often speaks of the social controls over us, and it is the discovery of language — of a vocabulary — that takes back the power for us. We need the right words, the right vocabulary, to articulate our realities. Without this empowering vocabulary we are powerless and subject to the words — the definitions and categorisations — of others. So we have to look at this point quite closely.
Many of my friends are losing their minds over this word ‘cis,’ fearing it to be an ‘invented word’ being used by a shady and organised group of trans rights activists — a ‘cabal,’ as they call it — to destabilise the world and so create the conditions in which they might seize power (or something to this effect). This feeds into their paranoia about the ‘dictatorship of a tiny minority.’ But none of this is real. There is no secret conspiracy of trans rights activists. This is an old anti-Semitic trope about Jews that has just been pulled out, dusted down, and repackaged. It’s nonsense.
Trans rights activists, like all groups — including the independence movement in Scotland, develop their own in-speak, their own vernacular in order that they might describe an entirely new situation. Every human community does this.
‘Cis’ is not a neologism. It comes from Latin and is only the opposite of the prefix ‘trans—.’ We use ‘trans’ all the time and have done for centuries (transatlantic, transcontinental, transalpine etc.). Trans simply means ‘on the other side,’ and so ‘cis’ means ‘on the near side.’ A heterosexual person is ‘other’-sex attracted and a cisgender person’s gender conforms to the gender expectations of their biological sex. It is a technical term and should only be used when we are making a technical distinction between people’s genders. In everyday life people are still just men and women. So, I would imagine you rarely hear this in real life.
As for the other terms you mention, I would imagine there is a certain amount of unnecessary scaremongering going on. Let me explain. There are two possible ways of hearing these terms; positively or negatively. The negative hearing, the one I hear described by a lot of gender critical feminists, is that a phrase like ‘birthing parent’ is being deliberately deployed by health professionals to ‘erase women.’ Sure this is a possible reading, but it is a negative reading. But there is a positive reading, you know. Female bodied people can get pregnant (agreed?). But not all female bodied people consider themselves women. Some are transgender men, and a transgender man who can get pregnant doesn’t want to be called a woman. So, by using terms like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘birthing parent’ these professionals are simply removing gender from the description and recentering the language on biology — female bodied people can become pregnant people. Most of these are women and some of them are transgender men. Actually, when we think about it, this language is more scientifically correct than associating gender (as opposed to sex) with pregnancy.
Ultimately, I would suggest, this comes down to how we choose to read the language. And how we choose to read the language is most often a political choice.
I also think women should not have their spaces taken from them. We need privacy for things like menstruation for example. And having had shelter from Womens Aid, I cannot contemplate how sharing that space would be (with trans women who are still full bodied male).
Here is perhaps the most difficult question in the gender debate, the question of safe spaces. Firstly, however, you tell me that you had to take shelter at some point at a Women’s Aid shelter. Right. Let’s stop everything right here for a moment as I step down from this cyber podium and come over to you:
I am so sorry that you experienced this. I am so sorry you ever found yourself in a position where you had to flee. And I am so grateful that there was a shelter and a place of safety for you. You always deserved better than that, and I hope to God that in the time since then you have come to know your worth and have come to know that this was never your fault. My hope is that you have found peace, and joy, and love, and happiness in your life — and all of this in abundance. I want you to know that this makes my heart ache. You are a survivor and I want you to know I see that.
[Deep breath] It of course has to be acknowledged that the toilet, for example, is at once a place of safety and a place of vulnerability, and to not take seriously the concerns of women on this point is foolish. This is where, as we have said, the gender critical argument comes to us as common sense. Here I would point you — if you want to read more on it — to an excellent 2020 article by Charlotte Jones and Jen Slater, The Toilet Debate: Stalling Trans Possibilities and Defending ‘Women’s Protected Spaces.’1 Also, Judith Butler made an insightful remark on this in an interview with Owen Jones. She points to the assumptions behind this fear of having male bodied people in women’s safe spaces. What are these assumptions? Well, this is where it comes down to biology — the assumption is that men are dangerous and that the penis itself is a threat.2
Now, absolutely, this fear is legitimate. It comes from the experience of ‘male violence.’ It comes from the very real experiences of women who have been raped and sexually assaulted by men. Any attempt to deny this is both foolish and insensitive. Yet, equally so, it is foolish and insensitive to suggest that because of these experiences we must conclude that all men are a threat to women and, by extension (no pun intended), that the penis itself incites to deeds of violence. Butler observes at this point, with reference to J.K. Rowling’s account of surviving a sexual assault, that this trauma is in a sense being capitalised on so as to inject trauma into the discussion. This is unjust, as Butler argues, because on the one hand it imposes the threat of this horrible violence on all women and, on the other, imparts guilt on all men. The consequence of this democratised trauma is the collective punishment of all male bodied people. Still, the recognition that ‘not all men’ are guilty does not in itself resolve the argument. And here I don’t have an answer.
In the final analysis, all that I can say here is that society has to make an honest assessment of the potential risks to female bodied women and girls and the benefits to transgender people who also experience considerable prejudice, discrimination, and social rejection. Again, I will say that I don’t have the answer to this and neither is it my place to give an answer. As the rabbis would say, ‘both Hillel and Shammai are correct’ (there are valid arguments on both sides).
Science dictates that only women (born with wombs and ovaries) can give birth to children. You are a believing and religious man. Did God not create us in his own image? Male and female (Genesis 1:27)?
Even the devil doth quote scripture — lol. Science (particularly Biology) is always brought into this discussion, and, I’m going to hazard a guess, by people who know as much about science as I do — nothing (well, I discovered it’s not a great idea to light a fag with a Bunsen burner). Science is not exactly an exact science. This from Wikipedia:
The scientific method is an empirical method of acquiring knowledge that has characterized the development of science since at least the 17th century. It involves careful observation, applying rigorous scepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation.
When gender critical people employ ‘science’ or ‘biology’ in their arguments they are appealing to biological essentialism rather than the modern scientific study of life. But essentialism is a philosophical position and not grounded in epistemic empiricism (qua the scientific method). Like all philosophies, essentialism has its uses. But it has its limitations too. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato, the father of essentialism, argued that perfect forms — ‘essences’ — were absolute and unchanging representations of natural phenomena (things) and that one essence could not become another. But it may come as a surprise to know that, of all people, Charles Darwin rejected essentialism in biology because it was inconsistent with his theory of natural selection and evolution. Again, things change over time.
In this, then, the gender critical argument relies not on science as such, but on scientific fundamentalism — which is in itself profoundly unscientific. Real science is sceptical and is always prepared to question its own findings. And this brings me to your question about my religious faith nicely. I am not a religious fundamentalist. Yes, credo in unum Deum — I believe in God — but I am also a man of Reason. The stories of creation in the Hebrew Bible are mythic explanations of the wonderful mystery of human existence. As Galileo said: ‘the Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.’
Genesis 1:27 is well worth quoting in full: ‘So God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ Isn’t this a curious linguistic construction? It seems unnatural, almost nonsensical. It begins with the creation of ‘man,’ which from the Hebrew אָדָם can mean both ‘a man’ or ‘humanity.’ Then this is clarified in the following clause where we are told God created ‘him’ (אֹת֑וֹ). God created a man, a single man. And then we are told that this one man was made male and female and that in him was them (אֹתָֽם). We can only conclude this odd construction of language was deliberate on the part of the authors because ha-adam — the man — contains all humanity. This exceptional Hebrew sentence is a beautiful expression of an origins myth precisely because it describes something so essentially human, that we are complex creatures — that we can look into a little boy’s eyes and see his mother.
In the word ‘man’ here we find every woman who was ever born. This biblical account quite deliberately refuses to attribute gender to ‘man’ because he and them are male and female and wrought in the perfect image and likeness of their creator — who herself then must be male and female because her image is incomplete without both aspects.
I suppose the surprise here is that the Bible rarely says quite what people think it says. The purpose of this text was not to reinforce sexual difference, but to explain the radical equality of men and women in the ongoing work of creation. And it does this only after hammering home the point that in each man and woman resides all humanity — male and female, for ‘to save one life is to save the world entire.’ But I find this truth most poetically and most romantically put in the next chapter: ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). The Bible recognises real differences, of course it does, but it impresses on us in the mystical reading that these differences are not nearly as essential as we think they are.
I also have grave concerns about how we are educating our children (or how the SNP seems to want to educate our children on these issues). I believe children go through phases and very few of these phases lead to identity crisis/gender change. A very long time ago I lost my beautiful baby girl. She was 6 weeks old. My husband and I were eaten up with grief. My 5 year old went through a phase some 6 months after her death where he wanted to be my little girl. He actually told me he would become a girl to ‘make me all better.’ [But] he grew up with confidence, with no identity crisis. He’s a fine young man … fully confident in his masculinity and is hetrosexual. The childhood phase passed. Why then should we start teaching precious little souls about such things at a tender age? I’d have to say teaching a 4 year old such things suggests to me a form of grooming.
I have not been blessed with children and so I cannot speak to the lived experience of women and men tasked with the greatest vocation in the world — parenthood. Yet, having been an intimate other at the time of the loss of a precious child I have observed and shared the pain of this loss. And yes, I can fully understand how the empathy of a child and indeed its feeling that its parents’ grief indicates a greater love for the lost sibling would move him or her to play the part of the lost child. There is quite actually nothing more human than this in a child.
This said, I am not sure we can boil gender questions in the young and very young down to ‘phases.’ In some, sure. But we are complex. There is certainly more to gender identity than this, but I am no expert. As is the case in many things, I am an outsider looking in.
Neither can I say much about the education of children. My experience of the last days of ‘Catholic Ireland’ taught me that it is vitally important children receive sex education, but the appropriateness of this is not for me to determine. I’m not a parent and I’m not a child psychologist or an education specialist. These are things professionals and wider society have to negotiate. But what I can say is that before we criticise it we have to have the facts at our disposal. What we must know is that there are right-wing religious fundamentalists and other religious conservatives working in the background, sowing a great deal of misinformation. We must have the facts.
I worry, however, about the language of ‘grooming.’ Again, this comes from the extreme prejudice against transgender people and feeds back into that prejudice — producing fear and hatred in the false assumption that these people are sexual predators and a danger to children. This, frankly, is unjust. It is crucial that children are protected. No one is disputing this. But we both remember the tabloid sensationalism in the 1980s and 90s that viciously framed gay men in the same way. Sometimes I think that transgender women have become ‘the last acceptable bigotry,’ and so people who are vexxed that their homophobia has been checked have simply shifted their gaze. This is not to say everyone with concerns is transphobic, no. But we do know that it exists, and so we — you and I — must be very careful not to feed it.
I hope this makes sense. I wanted to ‘chat’ with you as I feel a sort of ‘bond’ with you from the few times we exchanged messages.
Thank you, and trust me — the feeling is mutual. This has been a very difficult time for me and there are other things going on. Only last night I had a man called David come online to sum me up:
I’d submit that Jeggit is simply dull. That’s just my take. I did try and make it through his position on the gender wars. He just sounded weak. A lot of long words where intelligence would suffice. Plus he’s religious. Never good.
Earlier in the day a woman told me I was a ‘dipshit’ because she assumed I had once hated transgender people and had had a change of heart. The truth A., is that I am thoroughly exhausted and I have seen something in the underbelly of the Scottish independence movement that has chilled me to the core. I have seen white supremacism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism (thankfully these are fringe) coming from a number of Scots gender critical activists and I have seen their hatred ignored and defended by my friends. I live in fear that this hatred is indicative of a collection of hates — because hatred is intersectional. In my darker moments, which I have more frequently these days, I fear the movement for independence has been frustrated and has slipped in sections into some very chthonic and dangerous territory. It feels as though I am shouting into the void.
Perhaps it is time to shake the dust from my feet and move on to the next town. But from the bottom of my heart, thank you for the conversation. And thanks too to the movement. It has given me meaning in a way I never thought possible. Scotland will be free. But not yet.
1. Jones, C. and Slater, J., “The Toilet Debate: Stalling Trans Possibilities and Defending ‘Women’s Protected Spaces,’” Sociological Review, 4, 68 (2020): 834-851. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026120934697
2. Owen Jones, YouTube (1 January 2021), ‘Feminist icon Judith Butler on JK Rowling, trans rights, feminism and intersectionality.’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXJb2eLNJZE&ab_channel=OwenJones