..because as fast as I use them, people try and make them mean something else.
Humans can’t think, let alone talk to each other, without some kind of agreement as to what words mean – which is why I ran into trouble in two separate conversations the other day.
Sex – Surely by now we’ve got across that we people need to talk about ourselves as a sex class – and to do that, as Maya Forstater pointed out, we need words – and yet in social media conversations, neither “woman” nor “female” can be used to mean what I’m trying to mean without people cropping up to claim for other people each word I try to use to denote my half of the human race. What do we do, invent another, or give up words altogether? I really, really don’t go around trying to be awkward but forcing the prefix “cis” onto women is not acceptable – I do need to actually say somehow.
Just what are pronouns? The other day I was trying – importantly, I felt at the time – to talk about press freedom and, in fact, basic human freedom – in the context of Chelsea Manning – but I said “she”, so it became a debate about pronouns.
Both those incidents are life-wasting deflections from issues that seriously need discussion.
Political time, political energy
Each of us only has so much time for politics and it’s annoying when language failures blow us off course. It’s inevitable sometimes but on this particular topic, I see conscious sabotage going on. Let’s be honest, the business around sex-and-gender is not an unfortunate clash of language, it’s a deliberate obfustication and appropriation, imposed upon women as a part of the war on sex-based legal rights – but it also might just be one of those cases where to see the problem is to be halfway to a solution.
What the hell are pronouns, anyway?
A table is (usually) an inanimate object. Nevertheless, if you’re French you’ll be in the habit of giving it a feminine pronoun. This is not, and never was, anything to do with sex. The pronoun is feminine, not female.
Let’s nail this one shall we: sex is about biology. It’s about our most basic practical realities. Half of us are female, and our lives have one huge set of features in common. The other half are male, and they have a different set of biology-based issues to deal with. This is not true of tables (feminine) and cupboards (masculine).
Globally, historically, pronouns are almost always about gender rather than sex – masculinity and femininity, not male and female: invented descriptors for different kinds of grammar or appearances. By contrast, there’s nothing arcane or difficult to understand about being a feminine man or a masculine woman. It does not change your sex – but it could be said to change your gender.
I grew up in the ‘70s, a time when many people were exploring, breaking down boundaries, and one of the things we were trying to break down was gender stereotyping. We did that in a way that I don’t see people doing today. We didn’t go for fabricated conversions that were claimed to be “sex-changes”, well almost none of us did. We made our own rules, and called the result what we liked, or more often didn’t call it anything at all, we just wore it and performed it. As a teenager, I had male gay friends who liked calling each other “she” – not because they thought they were female, but because they liked marking out the feminine identity of those who were feminine gay men.
I think getting nationwide clarity on what is sex and what is gender is the way to solve at least the problem of pronouns, if not more, in discussions of sex-based rights. Why fight for words we don’t need? – I suggest pronouns are not intrinsic to being male or female. They’re just about gender.
And on the subject of battling for words
Perhaps those women who complained about that “womxn” business on International Women’s Day should re-think their stance. In the same way that we might let the feminine men have “she”, why not let the people who want to include everyone in their events say “womxn” (if they ever find out how to pronounce it).
Then we can keep “women”, “girls” and “female” for the people, and everyone will be able to talk about themselves again.
It’s the law, it really, really is
We could sort out all the practicalities – the very real problems that women, particularly lesbians, are having around the sex-and-gender goings on, as well as the ones trans people are having, each in their own categories. Here are the legal protected characteristics laid down by the 2010 Equalities Act…
marriage and civil partnership
pregnancy and maternity
religion or belief
I totally get that a few people are so debilitated by dysphoria they can’t see any solution short of surgical “transition”. I also get that trans people need change, and they want to reform the GRA – fine, other laws have changed since the GRA debate – eg, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal then, which made the legal fiction of a “sex-change” vital for some people. Now, same-sex couples can marry and live a full life, and we’ve all learned a lot since then. Is it possible that a lot of the hysteria around the #nodebate idea, and the hunt for the chimera of innate “gender identity”, stems from a realisation that there is not in fact much remaining justification for a legal “sex change”.
So what is the problem, and how do we sort it out? I suggest that, with an eye on those protected characteristics, we sort out ’s issues on the basis of sex (women have issues because of their biology, and society’s response to their reproductive role – nothing to do with gender); we sort out the problems lesbians are having on the basis of sexual orientation, (lesbians experience a same sex attraction – nothing to do with gender) and the problems trans people are having can be sorted out on the basis of gender.
Distinguish Sex and Gender
It’s all there for us, already written down. It just requires persistent clarity on what is sex (male and female) and what is gender (masculine and feminine). I have absolutely no problem with people being allowed to self-declare their gender. In fact, if we people re-affirm and apply our legal sex-based rights as they should be applied, it would then be safe to change the legal characteristic “gender re-assignment” to “gender non-conformity” – or just “gender” – because if we drop the idea of “sex change” and make gender-self-ID the norm, no-one needs to have anything “assigned” to them, and trans issues will be covered there, pronouns and all.
Obviously, that bit isn’t for me to decide. But I claim my sex-based rights according to sex. Let others use the categories that they need, then there’s no conflict. Everyone has a right to the respect, the protections and the services they need under the protected characteristics that apply to them.
If the protected characteristics and related exemptions are applied accurately, we can be happy to let people chose their own pronouns, clothes, names, etc and put our legal and political energies into sorting out the toilets and the specialised services and all the rest of it that each group needs, based on the real, workable Equalities Act categories and exemptions.
It’s likely that those 5000 or so people who already have GRCs (gender reassignment certificates) will need to keep them on the terms they were granted, because they have built their lives around that, in some cases irreversibly, but I believe it should end there. By applying the Equalities Act properly from now on, we should be acting against gender- and sex-based discrimination in both building design and behaviour. Once that’s in action, we can address the fact that to grant a “legal sex change” is to discriminate unfairly against both men’s and women’s sex-based rights.
Furthermore, many women have now been pushed further than they were ever willing to go. It has become clear now that most women only accepted the result of the original GRA act because they believed, firstly that it was catering for a very small number of severely debilitated people who couldn’t survive without a surgical sex change, and secondly that the male people who were welcomed among them as a result truly had somehow “changed their sex” – an impossible feat, and one that in practice wasn’t often even approximated by surgery. We know better now.
On top of that, many parents have now seen the danger to their children of schools trying to teach a gender ideology which mixes sex and gender, leading their children to believe that they need surgical attention to make their bodies match their chosen clothes or sports. Those parents, angry and frightened, want a return to science-based sex education. Gender belongs in sociology and fashion studies, and body-dysphoria in medical and psychology classes.
Let’s draw a line. Sex and gender – define them and separate them, then everything works.
Wherever women meet to seek a solution, a bunch of thugs will try to scare them off – when will they learn – they only annoy people, and women don’t stop just because they’re scared.
And when it is over – because it is a trend, and it will settle down, let us remember those who, faced with debilitating dysphoria, saw no other answer than to ‘transition’ and pray that they would “pass”. We used to accept them, we mostly got along okay. They, and the kids who’ve been led up the garden path over all this, are going to need a lot of support. Give them respect, give them the words they need and help them find a way forward in the endless battle for the spaces and services we all, each in our own ways, need.