Trans activism is reversing the gains of feminism

Helen Joyce's Trans provides a brilliant critique of transgenderism.

Jane O'Grady

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Topics Books Feminism Politics UK

‘What is a woman?’, asked Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, before adding that the counterpart question never needs to be asked. Man somehow transcends his biology. He is the default, the generic human being. Woman is the embodied Other, defined by her sex, which, rather than being merely biological, is assumed to entail the roles and characteristics that she has traditionally been expected to embody.

De Beauvoir wanted to prise apart this arbitrary characterisation of woman, and separate ‘gender’ from what is actually ineluctable — namely, sex. This, she hoped, would break the shackles in which women had been immemorially bound. So it was that The Second Sex launched the transformative wave of postwar feminism.

Now, 70-odd years later, the question that de Beauvoir hoped to make redundant is pertinent again, and the sex / gender distinction that she opened up is, as Helen Joyce laments in her new book Trans, turned on its head. It is now used to reconfirm the very stereotypes it was designed to subvert.

Joyce is an executive editor at The Economist, and although her book seems more of a series of articles than a coherent thesis, she is sharp, lucid and brilliant in analysing how the recent surge of sexual ‘transitioning’ and insistence on self-declared ‘gender identity’, has undermined feminism’s achievements.

Why should it matter (you might ask) if someone calls themselves a man or a woman? Why not reject outworn assumptions about sex? Our bodies are our own, to do with as we wish as long as that harms no one else. Who cares except religious fundamentalists? Yes, of course, but the trouble is that ‘trans activists’ are very similar to religious fundamentalists. As Joyce argues, they have rewritten biology, ontology, history and anthropology to square with a ‘truth’ that centralises and suits them. And the rewriting is not just for themselves – they also demand that it be generally accepted by everyone else, too, on pain of moral or even legal penalty.

Language, custom and morality are not usually revamped wholesale so that anomalies become the norm. As Joyce says, humans are held to be 10-fingered, two-legged and two-eyed whether or not some are born with extra fingers or toes, and lacking limbs or eyes. But people (mostly women) have been sacked from their jobs, taken to court, deplatformed and at the very least vilified, for saying that human sex is binary and immutable. After all, claim trans activists, clownfish can change sex, other species are hermaphroditic, and, for
humans, sex is along a continuum, or even just a matter of social construction or performativeness.

Equally, trans women / men (say trans activists) are just as female and male respectively as cis (natal) women / men. Everyone is assigned male or female at birth, but their true gender identity may conflict with the assignation made by the doctor or midwife, ‘who, in effect, guessed wrong’, as Joyce puts it. Consistency and truth, apparently, matter as little to trans activists as to Donald Trump. Whatever their differences, they share the common aim of establishing that gender is what is essential to a human being, and sex is immaterial (in both senses) – so much so that some trans activists deem transitioning through surgery and hormones transphobic.

In the trans (and increasingly the whole) world, a penis can now qualify as a female sex organ. This means that there are female rapists, and that the number of female paedophiles (once negligible) has significantly increased. So, oddly, has the rate at which women and girls are transitioning, and the numbers of children being given puberty blockers and placed on the pathway towards surgery.

But what more immediately threatens cis women are vociferous demands that trans women compete as sportswomen, are sent to women’s prisons, and use female-only spaces, including abuse and rape refuges. And yet, if, as the prevailing creed insists, they actually are women, why shouldn’t they?

‘Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Get over it’, goes the mantra. But this is not a balanced equation. Where the first trans-equivalence infringes the rights, achievements and safety of the original constituency of (cis) women, the second poses no threat to cis men, or indeed anyone. And it prompts puzzlement about the nature of women but not of men.

In fact, the trans mantra makes man even more the default human being than in de Beauvoir’s time. Cis women are ‘people who menstruate’, ‘non-prostate-owners’, ‘pregnant people’, ‘birthing parents’, ‘abortion seekers’. In other words, they are human beings with organs and functions additional to those of the standard human being – who is male! ‘The very people who berated opponents of gender-identity ideology for “reducing people to their genitals”’, writes Joyce, ‘insist that females are referred to as body parts and reproductive functions’.

Indeed, in trans thinking, women ‘do not even constitute a group that merits a name’. For what, stripped of the supposedly adjectival ‘cis’ and ‘trans’, is ‘a woman’? And if, says Joyce, to be a woman merely involves asserting that you ‘identify as a woman’, try replacing ‘woman’ with ‘squawm’. You will then see how uninformative – divested of past associations – that assertion is.

Trans activists claim the new insistence on gender frees women and men alike from their biology. According to Joyce, however, the opposite is the case. For how is gender identity to be discerned? To describe, as some trans women do, always having had an innately ‘female mind’, or of coming to realise that they loved pink and using cosmetics, involves a sort of ‘baked-in sexism’, says Joyce.

For example, the Danish Girl of the eponymous film, Einar Wegener, who transitioned in 1930, described his male self as ‘ingenious, sagacious and interested in everything – a reflective and thoughtful man’, but his female persona, Lili, as ‘thoughtless, flighty, very superficially minded,… fond of dress… carefree, illogical …’. And the American trans woman Andrea Long Chu insists that ‘femaleness is a universal sex defined by self-negation… [The] barest essentials [of femaleness] are an open mouth, an expectant asshole, blank, blank eyes’.

Yes, this is anecdotal, but it’s also indicative. For what it ‘feels like to be a woman’ is, perhaps even for cis females, largely something absorbed from the outside in, inevitably derived from a child’s observation of adult women. And all too often ‘being a woman’ is construed along gender-stereotype lines. In de Beauvoir’s distinction, as Joyce nicely summarises, ‘sex is a biological category, and gender a historical category; sex is why women are oppressed, and gender is how women are oppressed’. If the arbitrariness of gender is flouted, ‘the two elements of a binary’, writes Joyce, ‘can continue to describe the same distinct groups as they always did, while being stripped of the associations and interpretations that situate one group as dominant and the other as subordinate’. But now that gender is exalted, womanhood is defined via ‘stereotypes enacted by people of different body types; rather than [being merely] a body type that need not in any way limit the behaviour of the people who possess it’. The whole point of de Beauvoir’s original sex / gender distinction is destroyed.

I have left out the non-binary and genderfluid here, and also trans men (who always are left out). They too, however, often fixate on stereotypes, assuming that because, as cis women, they disdained the frilly, silly aspects too often considered essential to womanhood, they must ‘really’ be men. When some, like Keira Bell, detransition (a process that incurs hatred from the trans community and that cannot restore breasts or fertility), they wish they had simply been satisfied to be ‘gender-nonconforming’ and / or lesbian.

Trans activists have also rewritten history and anthropology. Women who cross-dressed in the past are dogmatically declared trans men, rather than pioneering women. In the 18th century, Margaret Bulkley was able, in the persona of ‘James Barry’, to go through medical school and become an army surgeon, and have a secret affair with the Cape colony’s governor. Two years ago trans activists tried to stop the publication of a novel about her, accusing the author, EJ Levy, of ‘disrespecting him [Bulkley/Barry] by using the pronoun “she”’, and of ‘erasing and harming the trans community’. Still delayed after two years, the novel was condemned as ‘transphobic trash’.

Similarly, the notion of binary sex is pronounced an artefact of Western colonialism that has been superfluously imposed on colonised societies. Much cited by trans activists are departures from gender binariness – Samoa’s fa’afafine, the muxes of Oaxaca, India’s hijra, and ‘two-spirit’ Native Americans. But, says Joyce, far from proving that indigenous peoples transcend sexual division, surely these customs are ‘testimony to the rigidity of their sex roles: a way to prevent effeminate, same-sex-attracted males from sullying the class of men’.

What is a woman? How sad that, despite the travails of feminism, women like me now feel obliged to insist on our vaginas and breasts, on menstruating or having menstruated, on being, or having been, candidates for motherhood. Yet that knot of visceral things – not a range of absurdly superfluous, constricting stereotypes – are, Joyce wonderfully argues, intrinsically necessary to being a woman. What we do and are in addition is infinite.

Jane O’Grady is one of the founders of the London School of Philosophy.

Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, by Helen Joyce, is published by Oneworld Publications. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty.

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