It HAS become an inevitability that any mention of trans people or their rights will be followed by attempts to challenge the entire concept of being ‘transgender’ and of accusations that accepting this is to forward an ideology harmful to our children and our society as a whole.
Often, such responses come from anti-LGBT groups on the religious right, such as the evangelical Christian Institute which has threatened Scottish local authorities with legal action for adopting guidance on ‘Supporting Transgender Young People’ drawn up by charities LGBT Youth Scotland and Scottish Trans Alliance.
However, what worries me more are the instances where feminism, which should be a force for good in challenging inequalities in our society, is pitted against the rights of trans people, as if the two were ideologically incompatible.
I am a feminist, I am a woman, and although I am not trans, it is my own life experience and my deeply held opposition to an unequal, patriarchal society which has led me to so strongly support the inclusion and acceptance of trans people.
You might not immediately guess it upon meeting me now – unless you catch me on a day where I’ve decided to take my fashion guidance from an episode of Queer Eye – but growing up, I was a “tom boy”.
As puberty approached and I developed my own sense of style, I initially sought to emulate who I saw as the “cool boys”, more than the other girls — wearing increasingly oversized skate or surf branded t-shirts before graduating to band hoodies, chains and countless iron-on patches. I thought I looked quite the part, but I was soon set right.
I can still remember the pang of humiliation when a group of boys shouted “gay boy” at me as I ran home through the park one day. They thought they were shaming a boy for being too feminine, but for me the embarrassment was that they didn’t know I was a girl.
Throughout my school years I was described as a “munter” and laughed at almost daily for my appearance, the way I spoke, my awkward demeanour. The prospect of anyone wanting to have physical contact with me was giggled over by the boys, using sarcastic comments about the notion to taunt one another.
One day, in my mid teens, I was subjected to a “makeover” by girls from my class who squealed over how pretty I was when they put me in their sparkly makeup and a tight little dress. Think Miss Congeniality without the gun. I’m certain they were clueless as to the hurtful message this sent to me: being myself wasn’t good enough – I needed to change.
By the time I came out as gay to my friends I had developed into your classic cardboard cut-out emo girl, and I found myself anxiously asking if I “looked like a lesbian” when I got a haircut or wore a particular outfit. Somewhere along the way I developed the sense that I, perhaps more than my peers, had to “look like a girl”, lest anyone view me as a stereotype.
The social approval I received for trying harder to do just that was undeniable, and there was a time when I took the degree of surprise expressed when someone learned that I was gay as a mark of success. And why wouldn’t I? Leaving an environment where I was made to feel continually bad about myself, only to be congratulated on entering university life as “the definition of a lipstick lesbian” felt like a major improvement.
And then there was the unsolicited ‘reassurance’ I received from more than one adult, telling me that it was just a good thing I wasn’t butch. So many moments, taken together, served to remind me that femininity – whatever that was – was a path best not strayed from.
Only as I’ve gotten older, now reaching my late twenties, have I started to regain my sense of defiance to such expectations. I’ve started to learn that being yourself is far more interesting. Of course, an important part of that journey has been learning from feminist thinkers and activists, past and present, who have picked apart from every angle the belief that there is any one way to be a woman or a man, that our anatomy need have any bearing on who we are or what we can do with our lives.
Today, one of the focal points of debate around gender and what it means is the question of transgender identity; of the idea that someone’s gender can be different to the sex they were seen as from birth, and that they should be given support to live in that gender and be accepted as such.
Some feminists regard this as a challenge to their worldview, as an assertion that gender, and the myriad complex implications attached to it, are innate. For me, I view it more as an acceptance that ‘sex’ and ‘identity’ need not be inextricable – surely an explicitly feminist idea.
More than this, though, when we consider that only a small minority of people actually identify as trans after facing a high level of intense distress, we need to understand that there are unique experiences associated with being trans. Asking people to support people through this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, being proposed as an alternative to breaking down the gender stereotypes and barriers which limit every single child and young person.
It is precisely because of my experiences as a woman and as a gay person that I feel I am able to empathise with the albeit quite different reality of being trans. The question is sometimes raised of why trans people are included under the same umbrella as LGB people – in fact, some suggest that they should be expelled from it entirely. After all, sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing.
But the two concepts are unavoidably linked when it comes to societal expectations and the way in which gender norms are socially policed. Homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and the social punishment of men who do not meet particular standards of masculinity all have at their root the same core idea: that other people’s beliefs about your gender ought to determine what you do, say, and even feel.
Recurring themes can even be seen in the backlash against attempts to advance equality in each of these areas. Threats to the natural order and to the sanctity of childhood are among the most common, all the while the proponents of these claims forget that children are the ones with most to lose from a society which tells them the way they are or want to be is simply wrong.
One of the concerns which continues to crop up around trans inclusion is that allowing trans women, or even girls, into the changing rooms or bathrooms they wish to use will pose a risk to others. This, too, is a familiar refrain. After a friend of mine came out as gay in our school, the other boys shoved him out of the changing room. When the PE teacher asked what was going on, the teacher agreed that their reaction was appropriate – he shouldn’t be in there.
“Homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and the social punishment of men who do not meet particular standards of masculinity all have at their root the same core idea: that other people’s beliefs about your gender ought to determine what you do, say, and even feel.”
By the time I came out to anyone at school, I didn’t have PE lessons anymore, so I don’t know whether I would have faced a similar response. But considering that one of my classmates told me she was “disgusted by the sound of me texting” my girlfriend, while another spread a false rumour that I tried to expose myself to her, I’m glad I never had to find out.
The implication that LGBT people are more predisposed to be sexual predators is as insidious and unoriginal as it gets, and I can’t accept that this viewpoint is somehow less offensive when applied to a trans person than a gay one.
It is of course, worth noting, that numerous leading feminist organisations in Scotland, including local domestic abuse and sexual violence services, have spoken out in support of including trans women in recent months, amid vociferous debate about proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with access to such services).
Opponents of this position would have it that these organisations have taken this view because they regard it as politically expedient and would rather not be out of a job. Personally, I have more respect for the women who have put years and decades into challenging inequality and violence against women to imagine that their ideals have become so quickly and cynically corrupted that they would turn a blind eye to a genuine risk to women.
“[This guidance] could be lifted directly from a feminist guide to instilling gender equality among children.”
The LGBT Youth Scotland and Scottish Trans guidance for schools explicitly states that the principles put forward can create “an environment in which all children can flourish”, particularly those who may experience bullying as a result of failing to conform to gender stereotypes – regardless of whether they are trans.
At a primary school level, it is suggested that this might entail providing gender neutral play options, ensuring that girls and boys are not praised for different things, using books which challenge gender stereotypes, and not separating the class by gender. Each of these could be lifted directly from a feminist guide to instilling gender equality among children.
This is no accident. Those who are working towards a world which is safer and more inclusive for trans people are seeking precisely the same goal as those who are pushing for a safer, more equal world for women. A small minority of people are trans, but 100 per cent of children, young people and adults will fare better in a world where our identities and lives are not restricted by our anatomies or by other people’s assumptions. That, to me, is exactly what feminism means.
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