The Struggle for the Soul of Inclusive Feminism

15/4/2022

Feminism at its core is arguably not nuanced; it is the pursuit of equality and equity between men and women. Women have historically been mistreated in society by men who refuse to acknowledge the everyday brilliance of women, from barring the vote, to the ridiculous notion that one can and must only be a housewife or one is not a “good” woman. Many rights women in Western society possess today have been hard fought for with quite literal blood, sweat and tears. Women are regularly told to be quiet, to sit down, to behave and this polemic rhetoric has, understandably, driven the feminist movement to unparalleled heights. Sexism was, is and will unfortunately continue to be rife in society because men benefit from their imagined higher position than women and continue to walk that path, unaware of the crumbling of the rocks into the cavern of history below. One day, true equality between the sexes will bloom, but until then the battleground remains smoky with the bombs of male ignorance and women’s fortitude.

In the 70’s the advent of more nuanced discussion around gender and sex in public brought with it more struggle to understand the deeper points of women’s and men’s roles- not roles brought about by gametes, by sexual organs or by outward gender expression but by societal expectations of the essence of men or women. 

The LGBTQIA+ movement at the time was anathema to society and remains  so to this day - a subversion of many of the expected roles society unthinkingly casts us into. Society prefers a finger to the lips rather than the klaxon of hatred so employed previously, but tireless work by LGBTQIA+ activists forced the conversation forwards, made society at large begin to accept the possibility that maybe - just maybe - the community wasn’t for dilettantes and outcasts, that your boss, your friend… your child may be a part of the LGBTQIA+, and even if they are, it doesn’t mean they fit the well-worn pastiche of the camp or overly masculine - they are who they are.

As the discussion about gender conformity and the role of LGBTQIA+ people in society has rolled onwards, new voices of contention have begun to grow in the world, voices who have clutched with both hands onto the shield of feminism to obfuscate what can often be open hatred against factions of the community.

Gender critical feminism has been a burgeoning aspect of feminist discourse since the 80’s, featuring dissenting voices who refuse to accept the constraints of gender roles - originally the discontent focused around those who did not refuse gender roles; focusing more on the blind acceptance of such reductive societal expectations and people’s refusal to disassemble them. Now though, as we have seen an upswing in the number of transgender people in the world, gender critical feminism has pivoted to a refusal to accept that transgender people either are who they say they are, or pose an innate danger to non-trans, or cis society-mainly women.

As a cis man, my words on this topic are often immediately cast aside - this is, we’re often told, women’s concerns only and should be discussed only by women. As a man who has spent much of his life being a proud feminist, as a man who has railed against the inequalities women face, (and have faced) and as a man who speaks openly about the problematic behaviours of many a cis man, I feel that it’s important to understand that I don’t want to speak over or ignore concerns, only address them.

One of the main causes of concern which is often spoken about in gender critical circles is access to sex specific spaces: changing rooms, bathrooms, prisons etc.  critics speak about their worry that either lesbian, trans women or cis men pretending to be trans will invade these spaces. Let’s talk about that: because trans women can be straight or bisexual (bi). If the concern is about someone gaining satisfaction from observing people naked, what’s to stop lesbian or bi cis women from being barred? Or to stop gay, bi or cis men from being barred from changing rooms? Absolutely nothing.

If you want to make sure that you’re never observed by someone who may have nefarious reasons for being in the room with you, you’d have to discriminate against a vast swath of the population.  It’s taken (let’s be honest) on faith that if someone is using the changing rooms with you, they’re not looking and if they are - gender irrespective - that person is wrong and must be called out. It’s not a gender specific issue.

Other critics have referred to the idea that it’s wrong for a person with a penis to use women’s changing facilities - as though it’s all so common for a trans woman to display her genitals in a room with other women. Firstly, most trans people will plainly tell you that this would cause dysphoria or at least extreme discomfort or embarrassment. It would perhaps be a source of some disturbing pleasure for a cis man - but cis men are not trans women and should not be treated as such.

“But how can we tell!” I hear the replies - you can’t. Such is the nature of our society, but a cis man posing as a woman for sexual thrills is not a trans person and punishing trans people for the crimes (imagined ones thus far I may add) of a cis man, is madness. Like punishing a gay woman for the crimes of a straight man: it makes no sense.

When it comes to prisons, we regularly hear critics angrily pull out examples of trans prisoners like Karen White, a horrific rapist who has been housed in women’s prisons. A question: why are rapists of any kind kept in general population? If someone has proven themselves incapable of respecting bodily autonomy that person should and must be kept in solitary. Rape is a horrific crime, and those who commit it must be blocked, barred, prevented from accessing anyone who they may take advantage of:. Again, genitals irrespective - rape is rape and sexual assault is disgusting and must be punished by the firmest of recompense - including, in my eyes, complete seclusion from others. This is all well-worn paths that critics and those who defend trans people tread back and forth on the internet every day - the dialogue is stuck here.

But the letter of the law is this simple: trans women have a legal right to use the same spaces as cis women. If a trans women committed transgressions, one would expect that the entire community would disavow that person - because secondary to punishing trans women for cis men’s actions, is punishing an entire community for an outlier’s transgressions. This is the same with cis women who predate on others - all women cannot and should not be punished for the transgressions of one.

The regular and overarching concern of anyone involved in debates around gender and intersectional feminism is that trans and cis women’s rights are inextricably linked: should you restrict someone’s right to transition using legal means, the likelihood that legislation could be broadened to affect reproductive rights is high. Should you restrict rights based on genital signs, you’d be ostracising another group – (intersex people who are often involved in this debate are used as fodder for both trans and cis people to discuss outliers). But the mere existence of intersex people, along with the steady flow of openly trans individuals, belies the fiction that gender is in any way a binary. Ultimately, there will always exist cis women who feel uncomfortable around trans women, and there will always be trans women who may be bad people. But there will also be straight people who feel uncomfortable around gay people and so on and so on - people’s discomfort is not license to discriminate.

When it comes to the latest hot topic of discussion, like the GRA (Gender Reform Act) in Scotland, trans exclusionary figures like Joanne Rowling, have been spreading social fear that this act will effectively eliminate women’s spaces. The GRA is essentially a reform to how quickly you can apply for paperwork stating your legal gender. That is simply it: instead of waiting years for a certificate, it’s months. The main cause of concern goes back to common spaces: will women suddenly be subjected to men in their spaces? My question there would be: what’s stopping men now?

Men can, if they so wish, dress up as a woman and use women’s spaces. If they were called out on it, they could easily cause ruction by claiming to be trans. But if they hadn’t made a single move to declare themselves trans, if they hadn’t followed any guidance they would be punished (one expects severely) by the law. Men don’t do this because they simply don’t. The Gender Reform won’t change a thing for cis people. It’s about making trans people’s lives easier.

The horrifying truth is that cis men who are known to women are the most likely demographic to offend and commit horrible transgressions. Trans people are simply people who are working to become comfortable with their gender and to do so publicly in a world so bent on scorning you seems, to me, a brave move. Imagine what the strength of people united behind the cause of protecting women could achieve, were this societal panic redirected at cisgender men and finding the causal link in society where so many men lose sight of the respect of women’s autonomy.  The world we could build if the anti-trans panic were allayed would truly be a world women could grow in - if only people could accept the simple truth that regardless of how you feel about trans women, to compare a trans woman and a cis man is, at best, naive.

Ultimately, this article will never change the minds of critics because there seems to have been a deep mindset taken on by the collective that trans people must be demonised and ostracised wherever possible. But perhaps trans people are just people, and the fervour which has led to this debate can be allayed when you realise that trans people have been using these spaces for longer than I, at 34, have been alive and a small handful of incidents does not negate the fact that trans people deserve their dignity in the face of the uncomfortableness of a handful of people who cannot accept divergence from sex or gender.  Rather than demonise trans people and add to the stigma they face, perhaps imagine how you would feel in the body of a trans person, already fighting your battles with yourself to be happy - how would you feel with today’s anti trans moral panic foisted upon you too?

Trans people are just people - they are not a perfect demographic. But they deserve their dignity just as much as you or I - and that is an incontrovertible fact.

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