The Difficulty of Gender Issues

It should go without saying that an important part of the approach to this debate should be not to hate anybody, on any side of the argument. Looking through the comments below I am very surprised that several people seem unable to do this.

I write as somebody who has spent virtually his whole life doing things other than think deeply about the rights of transgender people. The subject has however inserted itself centrally into Scottish political debate and particularly preoccupies sections of the leadership of the Independence movement. With the banning of the twitter account of Wings Over Scotland for what are judged by Twitter to be “transphobic” tweets, and the same day publication of the new Gender Recognition Reform Bill by the Scottish Government – and the coincidence of those two happenings worries me – I need to set down rather more coherent thoughts on the subject than I have previously.

To start from first principles, I believe that people should be treated as they wish to be treated. If somebody wishes to be treated as female I will treat them as female. That seems to me good manners. It seems the height of bad manners to do otherwise. If I meet someone who tells me they are a woman, I would not dream of querying them or demanding evidence. I would treat them as female. In my life so far, that is how I have always in practice dealt with people I have met whom I suspected might be transgender or what we used to call transvestite. I treat them as the gender they present themselves as. (I do not care in the slightest for the latest fashion in politically correct jargon for these things). The same also obviously applies to people who wish to be treated as male.

I therefore support the principle of self-declaration that appears to be the basis of the Scottish government’s new bill. People should be what they wish to be, not what a doctor or psychiatrist tells them they are. Please note possession of genitalia does not factor in my thinking at all, in normal social situations.

We then come to the difficult bits. It appears to me plainly daft for a man simply to be able to declare themselves a woman and then to compete in elite sport in women only events. Men have natural competitive advantages from the effects on physique of testosterone. That is simply true, although I do find it rather ironic that feminists are now so insistent upon the fact, as it is precisely to adopt the arguments of Bobby Riggs against those of Billie Jean King. In non-elite, mixed ability sport – which is 99% of all sport that actually happens – I can see no reason why people cannot participate as the gender of their choice, and indeed I do not know why non-elite sport is gender specific at all. I am yet to play the woman who cannot beat me at squash. I suspect our cat could beat me at squash.

The attitudes towards these things change over time. When I went to primary school we had a segregated playground. There are still plenty of old Victorian schools around Edinburgh where the marking for boys’ and girls’ entrances survive in the brickwork. Though while talking of schools, I would add that I think gender re- assignment of children under 16 should almost never be allowed, as they are over-susceptible to adult influence.

Having lived so much of my life abroad, I have never quite understood the British obsession with gender segregated toilets anyway.

When it comes to prison, I have no doubt that Chelsea Manning should be in a female prison and treated as a female. Equally, there was a case highlighted on Wings over Scotland some months ago of a man convicted of sexual offences who had obtained admittance to a women’s prison after claiming female gender, who proceeded to carry out sexual assaults there. Plainly a convicted male sexual assailant ought not to be put in a women’s prison, even if they now claim gender re-identity.

So I quite accept that the right of self-declaration cannot be absolute and there are situations – highly unusual situations like prisons for violent offenders – where authorities should decide on its applicability in gender segregated areas. There are two things to say here. The first is that the entire debate so far elevates dogma on both sides above commonsense. The second is that to make law from extreme examples is foolish. We don’t make building codes for the general population on the basis of specifying the banning of the methods of Fred and Rosemary West.

Personally, I quite accept the view that a woman who arrives at a beauty salon ought to be able to refuse to have her intimate parts waxed by somebody she does not feel comfortable is the same sex as her, without being accused of “hate crime”. Others might not object at all and trans people ought not to be banned from working in beauty salons. These problems seem to me best solved by societal interaction and minimal intrusion of the state.

I realise that both sides of a currently heated debate will find my folksy take on this, based on empathy and tolerance not on rigid application of first principles, to be entirely wrong. Some will object to my lack of the latest PC jargon. One side will insist that being male or female is a simple physical thing and choice does not come into it. Some argue that men are violent, dangerous creatures from whom women need loads of safe spaces into which they can securely retreat, without fear of infiltration by “pretend women”. Others argue that identity is an entirely personal matter that nobody else can decide, and that the law should compel society to accept self-declared identity in every circumstance, and to do otherwise is a hate crime.

My own view is that, irrespective of whether gender is a binary divide, the question of how we treat trans people ought not to be a binary divide. It is a question of complex social interactions at a time of changing mores, and different factors are crucial in different situations. The safety of women is a crucial factor in the case of the male sex offender declaring themselves into a women’s prison. But the safety of women is not in imminent danger in the large majority of social interactions. The large majority of people, including the large majority of trans people, are decent and kind. Let us order relations on that basis, with safeguards in place for the unusual.

For what it is worth, in general the Scottish Government’s proposals do not seem to me a bad stab at these difficult questions. Self declaration should be the basic rule, and then there should be specified rules to cover unusual situations where problems might arise from aberrant behaviour, which may be exhibited by either party.

Finally, less than one per cent of the population have prosthetic limbs. If I were writing about the subject I would not feel the need to refer to everyone who does not have a prosthetic limb as “organics” or some such antonym. The idea we have to refer to everyone who is not trans as cis deserves to be ridiculed. The truly pathetic intellectual level of what passes for academic or expert led debate on these questions is a matter of some concern. I blame deconstructionism as the root of much trivial thought.

This whole issue is one of those subjects where I am aware that I need to duck for cover after writing.


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