Maybe we’re returning to “normalcy”—Twitter is alight with arguments about transgender rights.
Harry Potter author JK Rowling put transgender issues front and center when she responded to a Devex.com article which states that, “An estimated 1.8 billion girls, women, and gender non-binary persons menstruate, and this has not stopped because of the pandemic.”
Rowling didn’t like that. “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
And it’s not just Rowling’s identity as a woman that concerns her. “If sex isn’t real,” she adds, “there’s no same-sex attraction.”
Rowling’s June 2020 tweets were a follow up to December 2019’s Twitter storm. Rowling had defended a woman who was fired for referring to transgender women as “male people.”
In that tweet, Rowling defended the right to live as you choose, but decried firing a woman “for stating that sex is real.”
Stoic philosopher Epictetus says we need to remember what is ours, and what is not ours. And that seems like a good description of healthy boundaries: don’t touch things that don’t belong to you, and defend what is yours. To which I’d add, not touching other people’s stuff isn’t just about not taking things. It’s also about refusing to accept things that others are trying to push on you.
A transgender person’s identity doesn’t belong to me, so it’s not my place to say what their identity is—though I can decide how to react to that. Rowling’s identity as a biological woman doesn’t belong to me either, so how she feels is up to her.
Caution: social construction ahead
Part of the issue concerns what sex is. Is sex a natural phenomenon? In other words, is sex biological? Or is sex a social construct? Is it simply a social convention to claim that you’re female if you have XX chromosomes, more estrogen than testosterone, and sex organs that are designed to gestate a fetus (even if not functioning)?
A social construct is something culture created. So, natural phenomena are not social constructs because they’d exist even if people weren’t around. But this doesn’t mean that social constructs aren’t “real.” Money is a social construct—it doesn’t grow on trees. But money is real.
Sex, however, is biological. It’s a natural phenomenon. But while sex is not a social construct, the way we think about sex, and the cultural norms we create around sex, are social constructs. In other words, gender.
So, gender is a social construct with significant biological influences. But gender can’t be anything you want it to be. Claims about “water gender,” for example, are incoherent. Biology creates limits.
Besides, if sex isn’t biological, and biology therefore doesn’t constrain gender, then there can be no biological reason that some people are transgender.
We may or may not be allies
Believing that transgender people are biologically one sex while their gender identity is different, and that one chooses to address people by their preferred names and pronouns, wasn’t considered bigotry until very recently. And most people today still don’t think this is bigotry.
I think statements like, “transgender women are really men” and, “transgender women are women,” are simplistic. Instead, while I don’t agree that transgender women are the same as cisgender women, I respect their identification as women.
I realize that this is not good enough for some transgender activists. But rejecting claims that I must be a transphobic bigot is an example of not touching something that’s not mine. In other words, the accusation isn’t mine and I don’t have to accept it.
Besides, there are important questions that simplistic slogans gloss over. Is a lesbian transphobic because she isn’t attracted to penises and so doesn’t want to date a transgender woman who hasn’t had surgery? Only the lesbian in question has the right to answer that question. And no one is entitled to a date, or to sex. Can a lesbian be taught to feel attracted to a “female penis”? Well, how is that any different from conversion therapy?
Women’s sports is another controversial topic. Should a cisgender female boxer have to fight a transgender woman whose upper body strength could be 75% greater? If we had gender neutral weight classes, then many transgender women would be paired with male boxers. It would be a much more even match, so how is that unfair?
This is why I don’t agree with the intersectional take on what it means to be an ally. Allies have each other’s backs. There’s reciprocity. I’m a cisgender, heterosexual, able bodied, white male, so no one needs to fight for my rights. But there’s no reciprocity in saying that I don’t get to disagree on some things. If it’s a one-way street, then I’m a useful idiot, not an ally.