As activists campaign to cancel Britain’s best-loved children’s author for saying that biological sex exists, transgender rights has become one of today’s most toxic cultural flashpoints. Even most cautious approach to the topic feels like walking on eggshells.
My own journey on this fraught topic has taken me some distance from a social life in the 2000s that for a while revolved around the (then embryonic) London female-to-male trans ‘scene’. There, I explored my own gender identity and presentation, while evangelising queer theory to all and sundry.
But as time went on I felt a growing disquiet at the direction the movement was taking.
Back then, transgender identities felt like a progressive challenge to restrictive sex roles. But as such identities have become more mainstream, and normative sex roles ever less relevant to how we work and live our lives in the modern world, it has increasingly felt to me like the cutting edge of the movement is morphing into something more hubristic than liberatory: a radical assertion of the primacy of mind over matter.
Humans are a sexually dimorphic species. Sex roles (commonly referred to as ‘gender’) can’t be wholly separated from biological sex. In asserting that sex roles have no relationship to sex, but are in fact free-floating identities, the trans movement in effect declares that sex is unimportant. Some even question its objective existence. Thus severed from any material grounding, the social roles ‘man’ or ‘woman’ become costumes or attitudes, no more objectively definable than (say) ‘goth’.
This can feel liberating to those who find the social norms associated with the sexes uncomfortable. But for us females in particular, biological sex is far from a trivial detail.
I still remember the first time my brother defeated me in an arm wrestle, when I was ten years old and he was twelve. I was furious that something as unasked-for as a biological difference between us had now permanently rendered us unequal in a playfight, where previously we’d been evenly matched.
On a more serious note, crime and violence are sexed: in the United States males commit 96 per cent of all murders, 99 per cent of sex crimes and 100 per cent of rapes (because you need a penis to rape). Meanwhile females are less physically strong, and our anatomy and reproductive capacity makes us vulnerable to assault, rape and the many risks associated with pregnancy.
Inner identity does nothing to mitigate the threats women face due to being female. It’s physiological femaleness that marks girls out for genital mutilation (FGM); physiological femaleness that gets women kidnapped for bride trafficking into China; physiological femaleness that got 14-year-old Rose Kalemba raped at knifepoint to create a porn video monetised by PornHub for years while she was still at school.
Even if we pretend it isn’t there, or is subordinate to our identities, the sexed nature of our bodies continues to exist and shape women’s lives. So a movement that asserts the absolute primacy of mind over matter, identity over biological sex, is bound to feel jarring to women – because experience tells us it’s not true. And claiming it is disadvantages us at a fundamental level. After all, if we’re all just free-floating minds, then women no longer have any basis for talking about the ways our bodies make us vulnerable.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we’re nothing but the sum of our biology. Humans are thinking, feeling, social and visionary creatures as much as we are evolved animals. All these aspects of us exist in tension.
Acknowledging the role of our bodies in shaping who and what we are as humans isn’t to reduce humans to the status of mere flesh. Nor is it a claim, as some activists suggest, that male and female humans alike should stuff our personalities into narrow masculine or feminine boxes to match our physiology.
Rather, it’s a recognition that the human condition is a mess of competing urges, aims and longings, and sometimes we can’t have what we want. Sometimes the world outside us refuses to be reshaped according to our innermost desires. That this is true is more distressing for some than others, but it’s still true.
For that subset of people who feel their identity to be at odds with their physiology, that tension between inner and embodied reality is painfully acute. We should meet this obvious distress with compassion and courtesy, not stigma or discrimination.
We should shield transgender people from unjust treatment.
But that doesn’t mean we must accept the idea that bodies don’t matter.