It’s been concerning for a while, just how much people who identify as a different gender are subjected to vilification and harassment. This often occurs simply because of their existence, and it comes from politicians, authors and commentators who are so remote from the issue that they might as well live in castles.
Is Britain Terf Island?
The radical feminist writer Andrea Dworkin, in her 1974 book Woman Hating, was empathetic towards transgender people. She said:
“One, every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means that every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition.
“Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing, and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised.”
But it seems that in recent years, rather than acceptance and empathy, the response to transgender people has become less tolerant. The debate between ‘radical feminists’ (Terfs) and ‘trans activists’ on social media is lively, vitriolic and combative. The issue has become part of a culture war with both sides taking extreme positions, while those in the ‘middle’ do their best to avoid any involvement.
Terfs stands for ‘trans exclusionary radical feminists’. It’s the name handed to those who are ‘critical’ of the current dialogue on gender. The term initially referred to feminists who specifically excluded trans women from being considered ‘women’. However, over the years it has come to encompass anyone who questions, challenges or disagrees with trans activists. And the term is often used in an abusive way, so it’s no surprise that people who fall into this category prefer the description ‘gender critical’.
A transgender culture war
More recently, public figures that include councillors and MPs have joined in the debate, increasingly in a way that appears to deliberately stoke the flames of this culture war. Statements expressing concern over the increasing rates of transgender children, often conflate issues of gender dysphoria with child abuse, coercion and mutilation.
And these public statements frequently start with affirming a belief as to what constitutes a boy or a girl, man or woman… confusing the issue of sex and gender from the outset. Earlier this year, Doncaster MP Nick Fletcher sent a private letter to schools, that was made public by the BBC. In this, he stated “I believe that quite simply boys are boys and girls are girls”.
The letter continued: “This is nothing new. What is new is the way it is now viewed. It appears from the media that it is now seen by our children and young people that they may be or are transgender when it comes to feelings of being a boy or a girl.”
Seemingly ‘common sense’ statements such as ‘boys are boys and girls are girls’ are used to dismiss any nuanced arguments put forth by trans people. It’s the type of proto-authoritarian statement that helps preserve tradition and purports to keep ‘perversion’ and ‘danger’ away from innocent normal people.
Gender critical misogyny
It is telling that a lot of the vitriol towards transgender people is aimed mostly at trans women, with trans men often treated more as victims, than outright monsters.
The concerns often raised about trans women are, most notably, male invasion of female spaces, sexual assault, and child abuse. In addition, gender critical feminists argue that trans women have been socialised as males, and therefore have not suffered the oppression of patriarchy, the catcalls as children, or the everyday sexism. The point being made is that trans women have benefited from male privilege prior to coming out as trans.
Although it is true that trans women have not experienced what it’s like to grow up as a girl in a patriarchal society, it’s not necessarily true that they’ve been socialised as male. Many trans women were feminine and queer from a young age, which tends to lead to bullying, as well as pressure to put on a gender performance. It’s not the same as growing up as a girl and experiencing everyday sexism, but neither is it the same as growing up with male privilege.
The arguments used to define what an adult human female is, often boil down to correct genitalia, natural breasts, and the suffering of patriarchy as a woman. These arguments overlook cis women (women whose gender is the same as the sex assigned to them at birth) who may not be able to give birth, who can’t menstruate, and who may have had mastectomies. They also ignore intersex people – whose external genitalia differ to their internal genitalia.
Using inclusive language doesn’t erase cis women, it simply allows for all women to be involved in discussions about their bodies. Regardless of whether they are trans or cis, non-binary or inter-sex.
Gender ideology in history
Although the linguistic term ‘transness’ is fairly new (and doesn’t necessarily apply to all gender non-conforming individuals), gender ideology itself isn’t a new fad. Humans have played with the concept of gender for thousands of years.
For example, Ancient Rome was a patriarchal society and for the most part, held a binary concept of gender. This was beneficial for males in the Roman Empire as it allowed them to exert more power over women and also underpinned the supremacism that fuelled Roman colonial expansion. Celtic women saw their political and societal power stripped away.
However, there are still records of a fluid approach to gender. Emperor Elagabalus expressed the desire to be a woman and even sought a more primitive form of gender re-assignment surgery. He wore make-up and wigs and preferred to be called a lady.
Similarly in England, in the 17th century, the term ‘female husbands’ was coined to describe people who were born female but lived as a male – and married women. The most famous of these is Charles Hamilton, who was the subject of the fictionalised tale, The Female Husband.
Transness in different cultures
In Islam, gender fluidity is a complex notion that can’t be fully summarised here. However, in early Islam, the mukhannath are mentioned in several Hadiths (collections of history from that time). This community were often described as effeminate men or those with ambiguous gender features. Often they dressed in female clothing and were, as some have speculated, transgender or non-binary people. They were often servants to women, accompanying them to bathhouses and dressing them.
The Prophet Muhammad PBUH never once punished them, nor did he seek to change them and allowed them to be as long as they didn’t commit immoral acts or break the law. In one Hadith, the Prophet was reputed to have saved the life of a mukhannath when others wanted to kill him.
In Hindu culture, the concept of gender has always had a fluid element to it. In Hinduism, gods and goddesses often assume many forms. The god Vishnu has a female form called Mohini who has a union with the god Shiva.
This fluidity of genders extends towards Vishnu’s avatar Krishna. There are stories of Krishna cross-dressing and even becoming the opposite gender. One such story told to me and summarised by Indian Scholar Devdutt, is as follows:
After a night with his lover Radha, they are lying in the forest when they hear footsteps. Considering they were unmarried, discovery would have brought them into disrepute. In some stories they change into each other’s clothes by accident, in others, Krishna purposefully asks to switch clothes with Radha to enter the village unnoticed. In doing so they head back to the village, where villagers remark on how manly and handsome Radha is and how feminine and beautiful Krishna is. There are several stories of the couple trading their clothes.
In the Mahabharata, the main character Arjuna is faced with a terrible decision. He has to sacrifice his son Aravan to the goddess Kali to ensure victory in the Kurukshetra War, but with the condition that Aravan must spend one night as a married man. Nobody in the country would marry a man sentenced to death, so Krishna took the form of Mohini and married Aravan. He chose to stay in this form so that Aravan could have a loving wife to mourn for him at his funeral.
The hijra community in South India (as the transgender community is known) hold this form of Krishna as a transexual deity and hold an 18-day festival to mourn the death of Aravan. Hijras go far back in South Asian history and are even mentioned in the Kama Sutra.
Some worshippers of Vishnu are encouraged to ‘become a woman’ and take on feminine qualities to bring balance to themselves and become closer to the Godhead who is seen as androgynous.
Trans is not a new ‘phenomenon’
As we can see, the so-called trans ‘phenomenon’ is not new, what is happening is similar to the left-handed effect. As the gender variances become less stigmatised, more people become comfortable in exploring their relationship to gender as civilisation has done for thousands of years.