The Left Hand of Darkness

Since January of this year, the word ‘transphobia’ has been bantered about in mass media and social networking circles to such intensity that its definition has been expanded and in some instances grossly misrepresented.  ‘Transphobia’ has been used in recent months to indicate everything from the range of negative attitudes and actions towards transsexualism and transgender people to the overt censorship of any expression that takes issue with the theoretical and political expressions of the transgenderism or certain trans activists. Even to undertake a strictly political analysis of the trans community one risks being labeled ‘transphobic’ especially if one is a radical feminist.  As a result of this assault on dialogue, the true violence of transphobia (ie. assault, rape, murder and many other forms of discrimination) is cheapened and diluted in the larger space of discursive disagreements with feminists.  Conterminously, the mislabeling of dialogue under the guise of ‘transphobia’ masks another type of violence perpetuated towards radical feminists who speak about these discursive differences with trans activists.

Relative to this debate is that each group views the other as having ‘privilege’—the trans activists accuse the feminist of having ‘cis-privilege’. The term ‘cis,’ a prefix that trans activists often use to designate one who is born in the body of the gender the subject ‘identifies with’ (as if all people identify equally or in the same manner with their bodies). As a result the word ‘cis’ is often circulated to underscore the ‘natural state’ of privilege that many trans activists project onto women born women, for instance.  And the feminists accuse the trans women of having ‘male privilege’ since they claim that one cannot simply take hormones or undergo surgery and claim oppression.  While it is remarkable to note how impetuously this term ‘transphobia’ is thrown about in the attempt to silence one’s interlocutor, it is likewise deplorable that in recent months there has been an escalation in threats and attacks on these feminists with the sole desire to silence their voices.  This article attempts to examine the ways in which some feminists view discourses of transgenderism specific to trans women as problematic and harmful to women because transgenderism conflates sex and gender as a means to creating a superficial construction of woman by relying on gender stereotypes while erasing the very real violence and oppression that is part of the social reality of women. Conterminous to the erasure of real world women’s experiences, these feminists feel that transgenderism forces the subject into a prescribed way of perceiving trans women that works against logic (ie. what if the viewer simply does not see a woman?) and acts against the ultimate goal of these feminists which is the expunction of gender.

Samantha Berg, anti-prostitution activist and feminist, experienced harassment while putting together the Radfem Reboot Conference in Portland, Oregon in 2012.  There were threats of disruption and violence and a local group made bomb threats in the name of transactivism which materialised in a molotov cocktail being thrown into a local bank.  Lierre Keith of Deep Green Resistance has also been outspoken about her views as a feminist in radical opposition to the transgender movement criticising the collapse of sex (male/female) with gender: ‘They think that gender is somehow natural or biological and for feminists we are critiquing this, that gender is biological. When you look at what is ‘woman’, trauma is used to turn girls into women.  This is a corrupt and brutal political arrangement and we are now not allowed to say that. We cannot make a political movement if we cannot name the class conditions of what is happening to women because they are so attached to the idea that gender is innate.’  Keith, like other radical feminists, fervently opposes the trans community’s creation and reification of gender:  ‘To think that you can be a woman because you want to shave your legs and wear lipstick are daily insults to our physical integrity.  It hurts the entire class of women if you take the social construction out of the practices of torture that create women.’  Discussing the language of the trans movement which attempts to erase biological difference Keith tells me of a discussion she had recently which poignantly demonstrates the problem at hand:  ‘There is one guy who insists that not only does he have a vagina, but he has a cervix.  How could he have a cervix?  Yet he believes it and yet we are supposed to believe that he is not mentally ill?  If I was being asked to have compassion for someone who is mentally ill, I have no problem.  But I find it frightening that we cannot object to this.’ Because of her views and work in radical feminism, Keith has been threatened, labelled a transphobe, and has lost several speaking gigs over the past months.  Keith claims that those who do not speak out are ‘compliant victims’:  ‘We are not allowed to say it out loud and this is the new McCarthyism.  People need to be really frightened by this.’

Last year’s Radfem conference in London was organised by Julia Long who views the attacks on the conference as part of a larger dynamic of patriarchy:  ‘The patriarchal structure works on a very individual level in terms of domestic violence—it could be physical and economic violence, or control of her movements.  A big part of this is his demand to have access to her as he see her in some way as his property and even as an extension of himself.  The attack on the conference, is very much in line with this demand of access:  ‘We demand that you recognise us as female and if you don’t you will be attacked.’  So even if someone uses an unacceptable pronoun, you are attacked.  I just think the whole thing is misogynist in its intent and its effect.  What they are doing is trying to stop us from forming a movement.  And if there were ever a moment for women’s movements, it is today.  What these trans activists are demanding is that we acknowledge that we have this ‘cis’ privilege.’  Long negates this notion of privilege as she maintains that women are simply not privileged in today’s world noting how the oppression of women is naturalised and ‘seen as inevitable’:  ‘it is only when you shift it to a different frame such as race or disability—where men are also discriminated—that it renders it intelligible to people, otherwise they don’t see it at all.  I think so much of it is about access because women are not allowed to set boundaries and men set boundaries all the time and they violate our boundaries.’

When I ask Long about why the conference is not open to trans women, she replies that there are symposiums that offer trans women’s inclusion, adding ‘Radfem is simply not one of them.’  Long expresses her dismay over the aggressive attempts to shut down this conference:  ‘Nobody is trying to stop them from having their movement in their own spaces which exclude others.  The whole premise of transgender politics and transgender movement is a view of gender is antithetical to radical feminists’ view of gender. As far as I am concerned,  gender is harmful to everybody because gender is the cultural wing of patriarchy.  It maintains all the codes of male supremacy and female subordination, so that’s what masculinity is and what femininity is. I think we have to get rid of it and the way to that is through radical feminist projects of ending patriarchy.  In fact, in that scenario transgender people would be equally protected.  I just feel it is so offensive to say to us, ‘We get beaten up and raped as well—worse than you’.’  Present in the online discussions are the comparative battles of oppression—who is more oppressed than the other.  This line of discussion is tiring for certain but it does point to some of the underlying issues of contention between these two groups that seems never to be resolved.  Long, like other feminists, does not deny that trans women suffer, she just distinguishes that the suffering of women is radically distinct from that of trans women and there should be allowed the choice for women to organise and meet separately to discuss the issues of oppression specific to them.

This year’s Radfem Conference is to take place this weekend in the Camden Centre after the Irish Centre was forced to cancel when three men’s men’s rights activists yelled at the staff, threatened them, and then published the Irish Centre staff’s personal information on their blog. The Irish Centre didn’t have the resources to deal with the intimidation but were helpful in getting Radfem 2013 established in its new location.  However, not everyone was welcoming the Radfem 2013 Conference at the Camden Centre. Nigel Harris, director, for the Camden LGBT Forum, is quite critical of the radical feminists who are due to hold their conference in the Camden Centre this weekend:  ‘The Radfems have stated that they don’t want trans women to attend their conference and Jeffreys has come out saying discriminating things against trans people.  She wants the NHS to ban any spending on gender dysphoria so that it becomes impossible for trans people to transition.’  When I ask Harris why he does not wish for the conference to be held at the Camden Centre he replies,  ‘The Camden Centre in the Town Hall has a sticker that says that this centre is safe for trans people.’  Harris claims he has no personal issue with the radical feminists but claims that his mandate is to protect equal access for trans people claiming that one of this year’s Radfem conference organisers has put up inflammatory comments online.  I have been unable to find any such comments made by the organisers of this year’s conference.  When I ask Harris if all events of the LGBT Forum are open to all people and that there are no workshops that would exclude certain groups, he tells me that there are meetings around the UK for trans women which would exclude any women born women.

One of this year’s Radfem organisers, Dani Tauni, tells me how many women’s events welcome trans women, yet at times there are specific panels which are closed to trans women due to the subject matter of that specific panel. For instance, the Women Up North Conference in 2012 was open to trans women with the exception of one workshop specific to survivors of sexual abuse.  In response to this one space devoted to women born women, there was an uproar. I spoke with several other women who acknowledge that while they are aware that trans women also experience rape, they are uncomfortable at conferences dealing with issues that trans women simply do not experience, certainly not in the same way as women born women, such as the sexual harassment and molestation of young girls through the patriarchal assumption over women’s bodies.  Most every feminist I speak with is politically active in fighting for trans rights, many have trans friends, but they deem it essential to note that these trans women are simply not women in the same lived experience as women born women.  Many women underscore the importance of realising these experiential differences between the two groups and noting that in crisis workshops on rape or sexual harassment women often share intimate details with each other that they would simply not feel comfortable to share in the presence of someone who transitioned in the middle of her adulthood.

Several feminists point to the case of Kimberly Nixon of Vancouver, a trans woman, who wanted to volunteer at a local rape shelter for women.  When Vancouver Rape Relief learned that Nixon was trans, they told her that she could not volunteer because her status rendered it impossible for her to understand the experience of their clients (female).  Nixon filed a human rights complaint in 1995 which threatened the financial ruin of this agency.  Michele Landsberg, a Toronto Star writer, observes, ‘What a twisted irony it is that the latest and perhaps fatal blow should be inflicted by someone who wants to be a woman — but doesn’t hesitate to inflict potential ruin on a women’s service that tried to say ‘no’ to her unwanted advances’ (23 December, 2000).  Eventually, Nixon lost the case, however many trans activists today view this case as a marked point of injustice in their struggle to be recognised as women.  This begs the question in certain cases of medical and personal privacy to what degree agencies and clients might be allowed to state their preference for a certain sexed individual—be it man, women or trans—to treat them in the context of psychological or medical practices.  Are these reasonable requests for personal intimacy or are these discriminatory gestures?

These cases reveal the heart of this issue whereby many feminists perceive that trans women want to take over ‘their spaces’ as has been observed in recent years with the increased visibility of trans women in the London and New York Dyke March and the fact that these marches are now being organised by bisexual and trans woman and not by lesbians.  Last year’s London Dyke March has been referred to as the ‘Dykeless Dyke March’ by many critics.  While there are certainly those lesbians who support trans women’s acceptance within the lesbian community, there are lesbians who feel that they are being pressured to give in to male-bodied individuals ‘masquerading as women’  as a means of identifying with the political and sexual oppression of women.  Many feminists take issue with this and maintain that nobody can simply join the oppressed by fiat.

Other feminists have joined the ranks of trans activism only to feel pressured into sexual relations with trans women pointing to the notion of the ‘cotton ceiling’ whereby lesbians who have been political allies of trans women are currently under attack and are being pressured into more intimate dealings with some trans women. Coined by porn star and trans activist Drew DeVeaux, the ‘cotton ceiling’ refers to the political inclusion that queer and trans women have with women’s communities indicating that this inclusion begins and ends with the political.  For those trans women who latch onto the discourse of the cotton ceiling, they stigmatise lesbians and other feminists as ‘transphobic’ specifically for not having sexual relations with them, especially with those trans women who have not undergone sex reassignment surgery.  This concept of the cotton ceiling has outraged many within and outside the radical feminist camp.  While many are sympathetic to the fact that trans women wish to be accepted within social circles as women, they find it preposterous that lesbians are now being asked to deny their sexuality as proof of their solidarity with trans women, least they be labelled a bigot. In 2012 there was a conference in Toronto entitled ‘Pleasure and Possibilities’ with a workshop on this very subject: ‘Overcoming the Cotton Ceiling: Breaking Down Sexual Barriers for Queer Trans Women.’  It should be noted that this panel was closed to women born women: ‘Open to all trans women and MAAB [male assigned at birth] genderqueer folks.’ Many of the feminists whom I have interviewed use the cotton ceiling as proof that trans women are revealing themselves to be entitled men who now wish to encroach upon their sexuality.  Others describe this social dynamic as ‘rapey.’

Tauni also discusses how as an adolescent she had identified as transgender because there was social pressure to conform as well as to disassociate with feminist politics of the 70s and 80s.  Tauni observed first-hand the disintegration of the lesbian community in Australia and now questions if transgenderism is becoming a means of bypassing homosexuality because of the notion that gender requires norms and stereotypes:  ‘The ideologies were all transgender and queer was being pushed onto us. I never wanted to get married, I had very strong ideas about my role in society and didn’t like the way I saw women being treated. Now the vibrant lesbian community is all gone so we do understand what it is like to be trans, and we understand what it is like to be boxed into gender.  We just disagree that being transgender is the way to resolve this issue.’  Like every feminist I interviewed, Tauni echos that gender needs to be dismantled and that transgender individuals are perpetuating stereotypes that hurt women.  More worrying to Tauni, however, is how lesbians are being pressured to transition, often by their partners: ‘There is this particular aesthetic you have to be—it is the coolest thing to be trans. The hottest lesbian now is the trans man and so a lot of lesbians are going this way.  The other lesbians can pressure their partners to become trans.  They fetishise other trans men and then they pressure their partners through their sexuality.’  Noting some of the changes in Australian society Tauni adds:  ‘What I am really concerned about is that young girls are being channeled into sex reassignment rather than encouraged into thinking about lesbianism.  Children in Australia are exposed to transsexuality before being exposed to ideas of being lesbian and gay.  Children in Australia at the age of ten are put on hormone blockers and they don’t know at that age what their beliefs will be like as an adult.  It is a human rights violation that these drugs are being pushed onto children and vulnerable adults. Essentially they are treating a socially-created disorder—treating a social illness with drugs.’  Tauni maintains that gender stereotypes are being confirmed by the movement to transition and views this sort of coercion as dangerous to everyone, especially little boys and girls who ought to be free to experiment.

Baltimore-based lawyer, Cathy Brennan, is a much maligned figure by many trans activists because of a letter she and Elizabeth Hungerford drafted to the UN which proposed a tighter definition of gender identity in which certain spaces (ie. toilets, showers, locker rooms) would be accessible only to  trans women who had sought medical treatment for their gender identity issues. Brennan states that the gender identity laws advocated by gay groups in the United States ‘has no regard for women’s rights. The UN letter was an attempt to rebalance the scales.’  The specific language of this letter merits careful attention, notably footnote xxix:

We fully support anti-discrimination protections for transgender and transsexual people that do not run rough-shod over laws that protect females. We support the following definition of ‘gender identity’ – a person’s identification with the sex opposite her or his physiology or assigned sex at birth, which can be shown by providing evidence including, but not limited to, medical history, care or treatment of a transsexual medical condition, or related condition, as deemed medically necessary by the American Medical Association.’ Such a definition would protect the classification of sex, while simultaneously providing a cause of action for discriminatory practices on the basis of a persistent and documented “gender identity.” We welcome people who fit into this definition into space segregated by sex in recognition of their perceived need for access and in the fervent hope that we can achieve such protection for identifiably transgender or transsexual people without harming females.

As a result of this letter Brennan received pages of insults and death threats to herself and her family.  Brennan tells me that the danger of the trans movement is that ‘they want to replace sex with gender which would, if successful, pose the obliteration of women.’ Openly admitting that many people have it in for her, Brennan states: ‘The most supportive demographics of the work I do are married heterosexual women. These are women who know dick and they know trans women are men and they are not buying this queer bullshit which has affected the gay community. So many lesbians have adopted this masochistic notion that they are oppressing men because we are born with a vagina.’  Since the threats have increased, Brennan has changed how she deals with the trans community: ‘I used to say I accept trans women as women, as a sign of respect. Not any more.’

Equally concerned about the situation of women’s rights is Sheila Jeffreys, a historian and radical feminist, who is working on the politics of ‘de-gendering’ public toilets in the United Kingdom such as has occurred in Brighton and Hove.  While many women have no problem with unisex toilets, there are other women who do. As one woman explains, ‘I understand trans women want to feel comfortable in the toilet, but so do I. I don’t want to be dealing with my menstruation with someone who has no idea about this in the stall next to me.’  Others are fine with the idea of unisex toilets as long as small girls are not left in a toilet full of men.  Jeffreys is concerned that society does not recognise the potential of ‘male violence’ at all:  ‘Some of these men go in toilets in dresses and they videotape women under the stalls and put them on up-skirt websites.’ Jeffreys claims that transgender women pose a very problematic threat to safety in women’s toilets and that the transgender community does not take violence against women seriously if they insist on encroaching upon women’s private spaces.  Jeffreys notes that in the Victorian era women had to campaign for toilets because they could not be in public without access to a lavatory. As such the Ladies National Sanitary Reform Association ensured women’s access to public spaces by ensuring the creation and maintenance of women’s toilets. Ultimately this is a subject still up for debate even amongst those sympathetic to the plight of trans women. The real question remains if safety trumps tolerance and if so, who decides on the measure of this notion of a ‘safe space’ for women and trans women?

Jeffreys also takes issue with the ‘transgendering’ of children that is currently taking place in the UK and other countries:  ‘I have written that the transgendering of children is a modern form of eugenics.  What happened, of course, after the end of the Second World War was that certain forms of eugenics were enormously common in the United States, Sweden and so forth.  There took place the sterilising of those who were seen as ‘unfit’—the vast majority in Sweden were women. Also, of course, was the sterilising and lobotomising of homosexuals and so on. After the Second World War some of that came into disrepute and it was considered not reasonable to do that.  It still goes on:  in Australia there is still the sterilising of girls who are seen as intellectually disabled and there are big campaigns to stop that, but it is still going on.  What I am arguing is that the transgendering of children now is simply a modern form of eugenics which is not being recognised as eugenics.  There are children who are seen as ‘not fitting’ into the correct gender and the correct sexuality who are being subjected to sterilisation and other terrible forms of physical treatment and surgery.’  Jeffreys discusses the contemporary treatments of gender-blocking hormones with children in Australia such as the case of a boy who was diagnosed as ‘transgendered’ at seven years of age because he wanted to wear a dress to Phantom of the Opera.  There is great concern expressed by many feminists to include Jeffreys that this kind of forced transitioning of children is meant to conspire with parents’ inability to deal with the reality of the sex of their child (ie. that some parents really wanted to have a girl rather than a boy) or, in other cases, to collude with parents who are unable to cope with the reality that gender binaries are not neatly divisible in packages of blue/pink or truck/barbie.  Also of great weight is the fact that many feminists and gay rights activists worry that parents are being offered the choice of transgendering their child because of their fear that their child might be homosexual.

Similarly, some trans people have opted for a trans identity over a homosexual identity because of their own issues of coming out to their families. I have spoken with several transgendered people who have decided to de-transition back and while these individuals certainly do not represent the majority of trans experiences, they feel their voices are being obfuscated by the ‘official’ trans narrative.  Heath Atom Russell tells me that when she was sixteen living in Orange County, California, she came out as trans rather than as a lesbian due to social and familial circumstances:  ‘After spending time online and not having many real life friends, I ended up going to the local bookstore with my mom. I met a person who identified as a male with long hair and facial hair. My mom turned to me and asked if that was what I wanted to be.  I felt this experience mirrored with many people.  It was easier for me to come out as a guy than to come out as lesbian. ’  Russell continues, ‘I can safely say that I didn’t feel direct pressure, but you do hear ‘that is such a dude way to act.’  As a young child before the age of kindergarden, I remember one of my mom’s friends saying that I walked like my dad.  As I grew older I still walked like my father and my mother taught me to walk like her, moving my butt and hips.  In school I was physically assaulted because I had a ‘boy’s haircut.’  My high school had a conservative religious edge to it and so I came out as wanting to transition.  I felt like I had more acceptance for transitioning as a man than for coming out as a lesbian.’  Dani Tauni contextualises this experience: ‘Women are always taught to hate their bodies from day one.  Especially girls who are victims of childhood sexual abuse.  They are trying to cut their femaleness off because they view it as a vulnerability.  It is a body dysmorphia because they hate their bodies and they do this through transitioning.  For women and lesbians it is hatred and mutilation of the body.  Lesbians who are in the contemporary queer scene wish to conform to a specific aesthetics and if you are trans, you have more value as a person.  Many lesbians feel that transsexuality is the way to go—the boy-girl.  The uniform of this group is the way of transitioning—a lot of young women who hate their bodies go on the scene to internalise the hatred of their bodies.  It is coming from a space of transitioning from oppression to maleness.’

Russell explains how she was accepted by the trans community when she had transitioned but after de-transitioning she was essentially told that her experiences do not count:  ‘I haven’t had anyone outright tell me I was wrong for de-transitioning but I have been told that my experiences do not speak for trans people.’  Critical of the trans community’s censorship of the various non-success stories, Russell confirms that there is a specific agenda to wipe out certain types of trans narratives that she feels should not be excluded: ‘While the trans community likes to say that we are special and unique snowflakes, they don’t take into account that we have different experiences, if you stray from the trans narrative, you are condemned.  I have had people tell me that I was never ‘really’ a trans person because I de-transitioned.  If I were to use my binder and go back on hormones, I would be told, ‘You go, bro!’ ’

Adrian, a man who has somewhat de-transitioned, has not been able to completely transition back due to the fact that he had gone through sex reassignment surgery leaving him without a penis. Adrian tells me of his conservative upbringing and how his family reacted to what is now labelled by some as ‘gender non-conformity’:  ‘I got berated a lot as a child playing with my sister’s toys and they would spank me with a wooden paddle or a belt telling me to go outside and mow the lawn or play with my brothers.  It was a form of telling me how to be ‘this way’.’  Transitioning with sex reassignment surgery in 2004 Adrian never really felt comfortable living as a woman or with the trans women culture:  ‘I don’t get involved in that community any more—it is so hyper feminized that it is almost disgusting in a sense. It is always about appearance since that is what they talk about.  I laugh when I hear trans people say that gender is in the head, the majority of them are hyper-feminized and I am proof of this because I did it.  When I was starting to live full time, I brought all my clothes to Good Will.  I had to do my hair, my nails and this is not destroying gender because you were born xy.  I was hyper-woman, or rather I thought I was being.  Trans women are looking exactly how society says a woman should look.  So they have it right but they still confuse their sex with gender…because you are still supporting a role.’  Finding the reality of being a trans woman not quite what he had imagined it to be, Adrian de-transitioned. ‘I don’t think I have any regrets, I don’t. I can be who I want to be but I still have to respect other people.  People look at me and I don’t wear makeup or dresses, I still have breasts and no facial hair.  I get ‘sirred’ more than ‘maamed’ and I don’t ask for people to correct this.  It is so trivial.  The gender queers have it right, but they still confuse sex with gender.  Wear what you want to wear but don’t erase the fact that female and male exist.’  When I asked about his disappointment in transitioning, Adrian says: ‘I didn’t want to make my life being trans, I wanted to make my life life.’

Much of what Adrian, Tauni and Russell tell me has been echoed by radical feminists and by many others in and out of the queer community.  The problems with the erasure of somatic sex, the focus on ‘brain sex’ theory, and the emphasis on gender as innate—even a choice—is that this is at odds with the reality of non-trans people who experience gender as a form of play, destabilising gender through ever-shifting performances.  Brain sex theory  lies at the centre of this discussion.  In the 1990’s, the brain sex theory took off when Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen argued that ‘the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems’ (The Essential Difference, 2004).  Trans people clung to this theory as proof that there was, in fact, a science to buttress transgenderism.  However, Cordelia Fine, a cognitive neuroscientist, explodes all the extremely problematic gender stereotypes that Baron-Cohen attempts to evidence as Fine admits that despite there being slight physical differences in the brain of men and women, that all that is really verifiable is that the ‘the circuits of your brain are a product of your physical, social and cultural environment, your behaviour and your thoughts.  Gender as a social phenomenon is part of our neural circuitry.’  Fine analyses the latest research in neuroscience and psychology demonstrating that Baron-Cohen and other scientists essentially cherry-pick studies to prove a conclusion they preordained to confirm. For instance, in one of Baron-Cohen’s laboratory experiments,  his graduate student, Jennifer Connellan, did not use a double-blind approach in studying the effects of infant gazes upon faces and mobile. Fine rightly contends that this is a grave methodological error which would have given tainted the results of Connellan’s study. Also referenced in Baron-Cohen’s work is the single fMRI study of language processing in men and women which became part of the ‘evidence’ for the theory of the lateralised brain (ie. the notion that in men’s brains there is less communication between the hemispheres and a propensity for certain functions in women’s brains).  In the study, ‘Sex Differences in the Functional Organization of the Brain for Language’ published in Nature (Shaywitz et al, 1995), the brains of 19 men and 19 women are examined while they performed three different language tasks.   Two of the experiments showed no evidence of lateralisation while the third task (rhyming) showed a that the brain activity was concentrated on the left side in men whereas the brain activity in women was more evenly distributed between the two hemispheres.  However further analyses negates the findings of this experiment confirming statistical irrelevance.  Despite this flawed study, Fine demonstrates how this Yale study has been cited 600 times in scientific literature and continues to be cited as evidence of the difference in girls’ and boys’ despite there being no scientific basis for such an argument. The fiction continues to trump the truth in this matter. Fine concludes that  ‘the sheer complexity of the brain lends itself beautifully to overinterpretation and precipitous conclusions. It’s a compelling story that offers a neat, satisfying explanation, and justification, of the status quo’ (The Guardian, 10 September, 2010).

Then in 2005 Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, who famously defended then Harvard President Lawrence Summer for suggesting that women’s lagging progress in the sciences might be due to the innate difference between the sexes, went on to debate Elizabeth Spelke, also a professor of psychology at Harvard.  In this debate Spelke debunked Pinker’s notion of sexual difference delineating her and her colleagues’ research of quantitative, spatial and numerical abilities of children from 5 months through 7 years in age: ‘In that age span, you see a considerable number of the pieces of our mature capacities for spatial and numerical reasoning coming together.  But while we always test for gender differences in our studies, we never find them’ (The New York Times, 24 January, 2005).  In this debate Spelke goes on to give concrete examples of what really gives gender imbalance on the faculties of math and science citing study after study which demonstrates that from birth parents’ perceptions of their children end up reinforcing certain qualities in boys differently from girls.   Just after birth parents of boys describe these children ‘as stronger, heartier, and bigger than parents of girls’ despite the fact that there were no differences in weight, strength or coordination in these newborns.  Spelke goes on to give myriad other examples to include one which involved psychologists like herself and Pinker which demonstrates a marked preference in the hiring and tenure of male professors over female professors, stating:  ‘From the moment of birth to the moment of tenure, throughout this great developmental progression, there are unintentional but pervasive and important differences in the ways that males and females are perceived and evaluated.’

So much of what is gender dysphoria (formerly called ‘gender identity disorder’ in the DSM-IV, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) necessitates a rethinking of our societal and cultural attitudes towards sex and gender and towards medical science which seems quite unable to prove any link between the brain and gender.  As many lesbian and gay rights advocates fear the erase of the effeminate man and the butch woman through a perceived increase in pressure to identify as trans, there are also young children and adolescents who are seeking approval within their families and societies.  Conforming to what is perceived as a ‘norm’ is, for better or for worse, a quite common trait among humans. We have an urge to belong and to be accepted. The lengths we go to this ‘belonging to’ takes many shapes and personal realisations and transitions that often continue throughout our lives.  Might there be a reason for pause as many of the radical feminists decry what is for them an objectification of sex roles where women dress like this and men like that; where women are naturally more included to a and men to b?   Might it be that if societal attitudes towards gender non-conformity changed, that gender dysphoria might become gender euphoria?

I spoke to Linda at Mermaids, a support group in London formed in 1995 by parents of transgendered children.  She told me that this group supports parents who have children who do not ‘fit in’ with ‘gender roles.’  I ask what she meant exactly by ‘fitting in’ and Linda explains, ‘If you are a little girl who behaves like a boy, you will want to have your hair short, to play with the boys.  Even at play group they will be different…they will be picked on and those are the problems.’  I tell Linda that many little girls will have short hair and play with boys—I was one of those little girls.  She says, ‘I have known a lot of girls in my time and they don’t like rough and tumble..they don’t like playing with boys.  They like to play with dolls, dressing up, playing in the Wendy House, to grow their hair…’  Linda emphasises that it is important that these children ‘fit in,’ a phrase she often repeats in our discussion.  Is this what transitioning for some trans adults is about?  Is this the ‘support’ that parents are receiving in order to understand ‘gender roles’?

Bill Bukowski, a psychologist and researcher at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, together with two other colleagues, Nancy H. Bartlett and Paul L. Vasey, wrote a paper on gender dysphoria of children, ‘Is Gender Identity Disorder in Children a Mental Disorder?’  Bukowski explains the study which examined the literature of GID and children over the past twenty years concluded that the diagnostic category of GID in children should not appear in future editions of the DSM:  ‘There is one criteria these studies didn’t meet—one of the criteria for a mental disorder is that the distress does not come for social responses. For instance, ‘I am black and people treat me badly because I am black.’  This is distress—it does not derive from blackness but derives from the social response to blackness.’  The study notes the conflict of individual gender performances and societal expectations and pressures regarding gender: ‘Taken together, the cross cultural and historical data strongly suggest that the failure of a biological male or female to conform to some  socially prescribed gender role represents nothing more than a conflict between the  individual and a society that seeks to police the particular gender boundaries it  legitimizes’ (16).  As a result this study concludes that GID in children is not a mental disorder and more interestingly it asks a very poignant question that underscores this discursive problem for understanding the relationship between sex and gender:  ‘To what extent do other “disorders” represent conditions that simply violate societal norms?’ (19)

I spoke with Az Hakeem, Consultant Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist, who works with transgender patients in London.  We discuss a conference on transgenderism he was to attend in London in 2011 entitled ‘Transgender: time to change’ that was cancelled due in part to the accusation that Hakeem ‘pathologizes’ trans people.  I ask Hakeem about the current politicisation of gender by some trans activists and he says, ‘Much of the politicisation in the trans community is run by a minority—it is partly based on this adversarial ‘for or against’ business.  Recently, in Australia I was invited to speak and there was such fuss about my coming, as happened two years ago in London. But I was allowed to present my work and in the end it didn’t match up to their expectations.  When someone bothers to talk to me they realise I am not what they expected.’  I ask Dr. Hakeem about why this politicisation today is taking aim at feminists and doctors who do not go along with what seems to be the more popular narrative today which links trans victimhood to a questioning of gender constructions and which labels anyone questioning the collapse of sex with gender as a ‘transphobe.’  How can society resolve issues of gender when a growing section of the populace is perceived as objectifying gender roles while another portion of society wishes to erase gender?  Hakeem notes,  ‘The aim of my therapy is to make my patients’ aims more realistic.  It is more accurate for them to be trans men or women, rather than to be men or women.’  The problem arises, according to Hakeem, when the subject says ‘I want to be a woman, not a trans woman.’  This is where the problem for society can occur whereby what people see is not what the subject perceives in herself: ‘We can be nice to everyone—it is not like sexual discrimination and racism.  The problem I perceive people having is that you cannot tell me how I can experience you.  It is like me telling you that this cold water is warm.  You can’t legislate that, you can’t control that.  But if in my mind I don’t experience you as a woman you can’t tell me to. I can go along with something but you can’t change my internal thinking on this matter.’ How then can we experience each other in society trans and non-trans alike if, for some people, the pronouns and references of gender identity is paramount and for others it is negligible?

This discursive conflict between trans activists and feminists is not likely to dissipate any time soon. While one side of this argument sees the objectification of gender and the return to ‘girlie girl’ tropes of identity as harmful to women, the other side of this equation views the critique of gender stereotypes as yet another attempt to delegitimate the way they perceive and identify with gender.  If gender is inherently detrimental as the radical feminists maintain and if trans identification occurs in part because gender is rigidly interpreted and represented through normative modalities of behaving, then there will be unceasing dissonance between these two groups.  It is clear to me that gender as a construct and gender as endemic to the stereotypes that are necessarily spun from the sexed bodies of male and female are largely problematic.  Analogue to this is the labelling of gender non-conformity in the attempt to wipe out behaviour that does not ‘fit in’ to the social which risks the disappearance, or at the very least the elision, of effeminate men and butch women from the social.  Included in this province of those who are ‘left out’ is a friend’s daughter who just a few weeks ago at the age of eight, after waiting and watching daily for two and a half years at the side of the football pitch at public school, was finally allowed to join the boys.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. She can be reached at:



Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: