This is the eighth part in my series of essays on sex, gender, and sexuality. It is dedicated to Keira Bell.
It’s been over a year since I last updated this blog. Longer still since I wrote specifically about the ongoing tensions surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality – otherwise known as the so-called TERF wars. I try not to use words like war to describe this situation, because the military implications of two ‘sides’ fighting ‘against’ each other are needlessly combative and this conversation is already explosive. In fact, I think there’s a reasonable amount of common ground between women and trans-identifying people, since we both exist as gendered subjects under patriarchy. But instead of pushing men to make public spaces more inclusive for all by stopping the violence that puts women and gender non-conforming people both at risk, too many people get caught up in scrapping over the crumbs from patriarchy’s table.
The reason it has taken me so long to publish as Sister Outrider once more is because I am tired. I’m exhausted by the sheer force of vitriol weaponised against women – in particular to lesbians and older women – in public conversations about gender. I’m shattered because I have fibromyalgia, meaning that my body has a proclivity for converting stress into a mixture of chronic fatigue and pain. I’m worn out because it keeps going on, the ugliness of gender discourse and the complexities of navigating this world as a Black, chronically ill lesbian.
To give an example of what I mean by the ugliness of gender discourse: I recently questioned why, tongue in cheek, on International Men’s Day we did not see more organisations posting about ‘mxn and non-binary people.’ This prospect so enraged one man that he told me he hoped I got cancer and died from it. He had Super Mario for an avatar. Another man told me to kill myself and fuck myself – which, if I could do it in that order, would be a miracle nothing short of a biblical. Another man called me a slag. And on it went. You get the idea.
Absorbing this vitriol, I couldn’t help but imagine what sort of conniptions would result if a feminist woman posted anything similarly vociferous about her concerns re: the shift towards ‘International Womxn’s Day’ on social media. When women suggest men take the lead on trans inclusivity, as men are the ones responsible for violence against transgender people, we get abuse. When women question why trans inclusivity continues to be framed as purely women’s work, like the majority of care and emotional labour around the world, we get more abuse. It’s a lose-lose situation. A vicious catch-22 defined, in a large part, by good old-fashioned misogyny. My point – largely wasted on twitter dot com – was that there is more than enough scope for us to acknowledge the specific needs of men, women, and people who identify as transgender or non-binary.
You see, in my opinion, it is necessary and valid that we as a society devote public attentions to men’s issues – like how many men die from suicide each year, or campaigns of public awareness around prostate cancer. And in my opinion it is even more urgent that we as a society devote public attention to the issues facing women. On top of mental and physical ailments, we keep on dying as a consequence male violence. The recent femicide census found that a woman is killed by a man every three days in Britain – usually by a current or ex-partner, often in the window of time after she has announced her intention to leave.
I also agree that it is important for our society to address the issues facing people who identify as trans and non-binary. In the last decade, Britain has seen a 4400% increase in the number of girls referred for transition treatments. That figure is astounding. We owe it to those girls, and future generations, to question why there has been such a colossal spike in referrals. We need to interrogate why so many of those girls are autistic or lesbian or suffering from poor mental health. Otherwise there will be more young women failed by the system – more young women left in the position of Keira Bell.
You may have heard Keira’s name in the news recently, or found her mentioned on social media. This is because she won a landmark victory in her court case against the Tavistock Clinic, which offers a “Gender Identity Development Service.” At 14 Keira started experiencing intense discomfort with her body. As a young person who did not feel an affinity with the feminine gender role and “hated the idea of growing into a woman”, Keira went to the doctor about her troubles. The NHS’s gender clinic for children didn’t consider Keira’s depression or low self-esteem, but rather put her on a medical pathway. After a meagre three appointments, each lasting no more than an hour, the gender clinic put Keira on puberty blockers. She started cross-sex hormones at 17 and went on to have a double mastectomy at 20.
Now, at 23 years old, Keira regrets her transition. She went to court as a claimant against the Tavistock Clinic, whom she argued ought to “have challenged her more over her decision to transition to a male as a teenager.” And Keira won.
The ruling said that “it is highly unlikely that a child aged 13 or under would be competent to give consent to the administration of puberty blockers. It is doubtful that a child aged 14 or 15 could understand and weigh the long-term risks and consequences of the administration of puberty blockers. In respect of young persons aged 16 and over, the legal position is that there is a presumption that they have the ability to consent to medical treatment.”
What makes this ruling so significant is the following recommendation, which challenges much of the orthodoxy behind young people accessing Gender Identity Development Services:
“Given the long-term consequences of the clinical interventions at issue in this case, and given that the treatment is as yet innovative and experimental, we recognise that clinicians may well regard these as cases where the authorisation of the court should be sought prior to commencing the clinical treatment.”
In an interview with Raquel Rosario Sánchez, Keira says that “I look back with a lot of sadness. There was nothing wrong with my body, I was just lost and without proper support. Transition gave me the facility to hide from myself even more than before. It was a temporary fix, if that.”
When asked how society can address gender dysphoria in children and teenagers, Keira gave the following answer:
“Gender nonconformity needs to be accepted. Role models are really important. Young lesbians or bisexual women, especially those of us who are black or brown, don’t have many role models.”
Keira’s words about the importance of role models for young lesbians weighed on my mind. Especially when news of Keira’s court case was displaced later that day by an announcement: the actor formerly known as Ellen Page had come out as transgender. This story trended on Twitter and was covered by news outlets on an international scale. In this world, it’s inevitable that someone who is globally famous and white is deemed more newsworthy than someone who is neither of those things. But certain outlets who were quick to post celebratory articles about Page adopting the name Elliot, along with he/him pronouns, were reluctant to post content specific to Keira Bell – most notably, the Guardian. And this gulf in disparity of coverage created by the British media felt significant; ideologically driven.
Until recently, the Guardian was lucky enough to have Suzanne Moore on staff as a columnist. While we have had our share of differences in opinion, I have always been a great admirer of Suzanne’s work. She’s feminist, she’s funny, and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic there was something deeply moving about her reflections on life – especially those featuring her little grandson. But Suzanne was also guilty of connecting the misogyny women experience to our biological sex (as opposed to gender). She wrote a column saying that “female oppression is innately connected to our ability to reproduce. Women have made progress by talking about biology, menstruation, childbirth and menopause. We won’t now have our bodies or voices written out of the script.” Many of her colleagues, along with members of the public who ascribe to the theory of gender identity, were furious.
“…the abuse I got over the trans issue was different, and worse than anything that had come before. Social media was beginning to flex its muscles. It was a mindfuck. Twitter was full of people telling me how they were going to rape me, decapitate me, ejaculate inside my head, burn me. The worst threats were from people who knew where I lived and said that they would give my then 11-year-old a good fisting. The sewer was opening, a torrent of women-hatred was pouring out, no one seemed to be able to control it. (Was this helping trans people? Was it coming from them? Mostly I think not.)”– Suzanne Moore
An anonymous letter to the Guardian’s Editor, denouncing Moore as a bigot without any effort to substantiate the claim, was signed by 338 of her colleagues. Her position at the paper become unsustainable, and the Guardian is all the poorer for it. Amongst the reasons Moore left was that “..many of us knew all the stuff that emerged today in the Bell ruling. We got the receipts and we could not investigate it even as medical malpractice. This is unacceptable.” To her fellow journalists, Moore pleaded: “Let it change.”
And she’s right. There needs to be scope for us to ask the difficult questions; to prioritise truth over dogma. So, I shared my conflicted feelings about the news of Page’s transition over Twitter:
I find it depressing how many young lesbians now feel that, because they do not perform or feel invested in conventional femininity, they can no longer be women. And so they shift from identifying as lesbian women to straight men. Compulsory heterosexuality all over again. If coming out as transgender brings the actor formerly known as Ellen Page any measure of peace, then I am glad for them. But my heart also breaks as the lesbian community grows smaller. Again. And loses a role model. Again.
The backlash was swift. Amongst my most zealous detractors was the individual who attacked Julie Bindel after she spoke on male violence against women at a panel hosted by Edinburgh University last year. This did not particularly bother me, as I place no great value upon the good opinion of someone who weaponises violence in the hope of intimidating a woman into silence. That strain of controlling misogyny is as old as the hills. But the sheer volume of responses calling me a monster, a bitch, a cunt, a nazi, a hag, a piece of shit; they got under my skin.
Gender is an intensely personal and fiercely political subject. As such, a lot of people have very strong opinions and even stronger feelings about it. And these tensions are greatly exacerbated by platforms like Twitter, which are engineered towards conflict.
“Elliot’s identity,” one person told me, “whether or not it is the same as yours, is a win for anyone who’s against the rigid and oppressive standards of gender and sexuality.” But to my thinking there is no more “rigid or oppressive standard of gender and sexuality” than that which tells us women can’t love other women, wear suits, and reject femininity; that, if a woman is a butch of centre lesbian, then she must really be a man on the inside.
I’ve seen some argue that it shouldn’t matter to lesbians; that we shouldn’t be upset by news of what one individual chooses to do with their life, or how they identify. But by that logic we wouldn’t care when any women who are visible on our cultural landscape publicly come out as lesbian. Of course many of us take pride in lesbians who choose to be visible. They uplift us by expanding the space for lesbians to be out and proud in public life, and we uplift them in turn by celebrating these women – like Lena Waithe and Jodie Foster.
It can be encouraging, especially for those of us who have been taught from a young age that being lesbian or gay is something shameful. Section 28 – a pernicious piece of legislation preventing local councils and schools “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” – wasn’t abolished until midway through my childhood. And even after Section 28 was scrapped, homosexuality was still very much stigmatised in our Catholic community. So, like countless others, I made space in my heart for the women who used their platforms to challenge lesbophobia.
Ironically, nobody has expressed the sentiment of why role models matter better than Page. Speaking at a Human Rights Campaign event in 2014, Page said: “I’m here today because I’m gay, and because maybe I can make a difference. I feel a personal obligation and a social responsibility. I also do it selfishly, because I am tired of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission.”
Page went on to say that “there are pervasive stereotypes about masculinity and femininity that define how we are all supposed to act, dress and speak and they serve nobody. Anybody who defies these so-called norms becomes worthy of comment and scrutiny. The LGBT community knows this all too well.”
And so it feels heart-breaking that a young lesbian who wore dapper suits and rejected make-up, married her wife and said fuck you to heteropatriarchy, has now effectively transitioned into life as a straight man. That is a loss and I will mourn it, irrespective of how many men decide to send me online abuse as a consequence. All with the assumption that I have no skin in the supposed game.
But these questions of gender and sexuality are not abstract to me. From the time I hit puberty, I dreamed of having my breasts and ovaries removed. It was all I wanted. Over lunch, my grandfather mentioned in passing that one of the women in the organisation where he volunteered had a hysterectomy. It felt like a solution to all of my problems.
I dreamed of slicing off my breasts, hips, thighs, or ripping out my ovaries – in short, of desexing myself. I thought that if I made my body neutral (i.e. less female), it would closer reflect who I understood myself to be and then the people around me would treat me as I saw myself. No more unwanted touching in school corridors or discos, no more assumptions that I was destined for motherhood or to play a supporting role in a man’s life rather than greatness in my own. That denial of girls’ potential, something male teachers did so casually, it cut me deep. I resented my body for how people – mostly grown men – responded to it.
Throughout my teens, I was deadly serious about wanting rid of any and all manifestations of female sex characteristics. Every so often I asked my GP to note this desire for a mastectomy and hysterectomy on my medical file so that, in the future, doctors could not claim it was a spontaneous or passing fantasy in order to deny me.
If I bought into the idea that everyone has an innate gender, then I would probably have come out as non-binary. But that implies there are a whole class of binary people out there. Which I don’t believe. I see gender is a socially imposed hierarchy that subjugates women. If there are binary people, it means that a great many women are inherently suited to being burdened with the bulk of cleaning, cooking, and childcare. If there are binary people, it means that a great many men are entitled to dominate, control, and otherwise subjugate women. This biological essentialism has been positioned as the natural order by patriarchy, in order to normalise a system of rampant exploitation.
I am not without empathy for Page, or any other person who identifies out of womanhood. Where Page and I may differ, though, is that I understand the dysphoric feelings that have plagued me since the age of 12 as a product of internalised misogyny.
What does this society offer women? Especially the ones who don’t conform to femininity? In the UK three of us are killed by men every week. A quarter of us experiences male violence in her lifetime. The media teaches us to hate our bodies and buy endless products to “fix” them. Growing up, girls are taught that women are sexual objects to be used and discarded by men, or sources of domestic labour if we are kept; the ones who get stuck with the bulk of childcare, devoid of the rich inner-lives and freedoms that belong to men. These messages are so deeply ingrained in our society.
With the mainstreaming of violent pornography, with social media promoting less realistic and more restrictive beauty standards than ever before – in short, all the backlash to the gains in women’s rights of the last 40 years – no wonder so many girls find femaleness an unbearable state.
I don’t want to “fix” the bodies of gender non-conforming children or adults, because there is nothing whatsoever wrong with those bodies. But our society is deeply broken. It will only become healthy when we move beyond treating femininity as proof of womanhood, or masculinity as proof of manhood. This, unfortunately, is a contradiction of the ideals brought back into fashion by gender identity.
I am fully aware of how much more smoothly my life would run if I simply went along with this orthodoxy. There are countless members of my peer group – young, left-wing feminists – who would embrace me if I called myself queer and non-binary, agemates who shun me now as a lesbian and gender abolitionist. Queer creatives are also very marketable – it would have been easy to do as a number of prominent authors and artists of my generation did, and jettison the word lesbian in favour of a more ambiguous (and therefore palatable) alternative. But what is easy does not regularly coincide with what is right.
And I do not raise my voice in dissent because I relish being difficult – something for which women are routinely punished, in big ways and small. I do it because, unless we connect the dots between women’s experiences and scrutinise gender as a hierarchy, nothing will ever change for the better. This was the principle that guided the women’s liberation movement. And this is the principle that fuels a new generation of radical feminism half a century later.