Every few weeks now it seems like the philosophy blogosphere has a big argument about trans rights. You are, perhaps, unsure what to think. You think of yourself, maybe, as a feminist, but both sides are calling themselves feminists: on the one side, the ‘gender-critical’ feminists, who say there are important conflicts of interest between trans and non-trans women; on the other side, a less cohesive but much larger group of feminists insisting that these conflicts are invented as a pretext for hate against trans people. Statistically, dear philosophers, there’s a good chance that you are, like me, a cis man, and not an expert on any of this. You’re wondering how to react.
Judging by my facebook feed, many of you are looking at the conflict and deciding that gender-critical feminism is a respectable view that is being unfairly vilified in an attempt to silence its proponents. You say things like the following (anonymous quotes from a few different people):
- “I’m NOT defending the Gender Critical view (or whatever one should call it). I’m defending discussion of it, and setting out why I think that certain considerations should be legitimate fodder for discussion, contrary to the way they have been – in some spheres at least – ruled out.”
- “[He] isn’t defending her position, he’s defending the concept of open discourse.”
- “I should also point out that I’m NOT arguing that the new gender legislation IS problematic. I’m defending the legitimacy of its being questioned. Which at least some people have denied.”
- “[all she said was] that hormones/surgery do not make an actual ‘woman’ by her definition. Ok, that’s an opinion, maybe some have a different one… Outrage is fine, but I should be able to identify the ‘outrageous’ in the rhetoric…”
- “let’s ALL join together and say that we reject the too-frequent threats of deplatforming that are circulating in the profession, and oppose the vilification of our colleagues over their philosophical views…”
- “Let’s stand together against attempts to deplatform and shout down and delegitimize opposing viewpoints… as ‘bigotry’ etc.”
- “We condemn the too frequently cruel and abusive rhetoric, including accusations of hatred or transphobia, directed at these philosophers in response to their arguments and advocacy.”
Dear philosophers, this post is my attempt to persuade you that actually, gender-critical feminism is not worth engaging with. It really is as valueless as people are telling you.
(That’s not an accusation of personal evil against you, dear philosophers, who are taken in by it, or against people who espouse it. I don’t know what personal motives and circumstances lead people to their views. Honestly, having-defended-a-view-in-public-and-now-feeling-defensive-when-it’s-criticised is a pretty potent motive just by itself, and so is other-defenders-of-this-view-supported-me-so-now-I-feel-defensive-of-them. I also am not speaking to what practical steps can or should be taken, where to draw the line between protest and harassment, or anything like that. I’m specifically talking about whether the view itself deserves intellectual respect.)
(I’m using the term ‘gender-critical’, and the abbreviations GC and GCRF (‘gender-critical radical feminists/ism’) because those are the terms they apply to themselves. Using this term here is not meant to imply a rejection or criticism of other more contested terms, it’s just an attempt to follow the saying “never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance.” I’ll call the other side ‘pro-trans’, for lack of a better term.)
Back to the difficult situation in which you find yourselves, dear philosophers. What’s hard for you, I suspect, is how extreme the claims of the pro-trans side’s seem. They’re not just saying that GCRF is false – that would be par for the course after all, most philosophical ideas turn out to be false. They’re not even just saying that GCRF is wrong in important ways that have negative practical consequences – you’re a philosopher, after all, so your general stance is that even importantly wrong and bad views should be openly debated and thereby shown to be wrong.
The pro-trans side seems to be claiming something very strong: that the GC side is, as I will put it, ‘bogus’: both intellectually valueless and hateful. They’re saying that rather than gaining something from engaging with it critically, we’ll actually lose something: debates about gender are made worse by having this perspective represented. That it obscures more than it illuminates and distorts more than it clarifies, because the intellectual arguments it brings forwards are not actually its driving force, but cloaks for the real driving force, which is antagonism towards trans people.
(Note: I’m here going to use the terms ‘hate’, ‘hateful’, and ‘transphobic’ in line with my discussion here. It’s not an emotion, it’s a failure to fully incorporate other people’s humanity into your view of the world.)
And maybe, dear philosophers, you just… you don’t see it. You’ve read those long comment threads on Daily Nous, you’ve read some duelling articles on Medium, you’ve looked at the things the GC side is saying and to you they all seem, if not true, at least reasonable enough to be within the arena of respectful debate. The denunciations from the pro-trans side seem so out of sync with the measured, careful, tone and modest, plausible-sounding claims of the GC side. It doesn’t feel like you’re reading the writings of a hate group. Indeed, it feels like you’re watching people being unfairly shouted down – and you’re used to identifying with whoever looks like they’re asking questions, and you can’t help but feel empathically defensive when it looks like the GC side are just asking questions and being attacked for it.
So what do you do, when you keep hearing that these ideas are bogus, but you can’t see the bogusness in what they’re saying yourself?
Dear philosophers, I was once in your position. I knew I wanted to support my trans friends and colleagues, and I saw little appeal in GC conclusions, but I’m a sucker for ‘just asking legitimate questions’. I wanted to be able to say something like ‘if we’re all feminists here, shouldn’t we at least try to find common ground, understand differences, meet in the middle somehow to work out the best synthesis of our different perspectives?’
But virtually everyone I regarded as an authority on feminism, from famous philosophers to well-informed friends, was saying the opposite: that GC feminism is not actually something worth seeking synthesis or common ground with.
I decided to believe what seemed like the consensus among feminists, that GCRF is bogus, even though I had trouble articulating why clearly to myself. I trusted the judgement that seemed to be held by the great majority of people I knew and respected for their views on this sort of topic.
I could have thought to myself ‘all these feminists whose opinions I normally respect are actually too zealous and dogmatic; but I, a middle-class white man, have a proper appreciation of the importance of open debate.’ Maybe that’s what you, dear philosophers, are inclined to do. Fortunately, I didn’t: instead I thought ‘there is probably a forest here I’m not seeing, despite my scrutiny of these trees.’
But I did want to understand better, so I tried to read and listen and reflect before taking a big public stance, and the more I did that, the more I came to see that forest, and came to think that ‘gender-critical’ feminism is, just like everyone was telling me, a net negative influence on the quality of debates about gender, and better understood as intellectual cover for antagonism to trans people than as a philosophical school of thought.
In this post I’m going to try to convey some of why I’ve come to think that – or rather, why I’ve come to feel like I can ‘see’ that directly, rather than taking it on trust. I’m going to try to do that by analysing what I think it’s fair to call three central themes of GCRF:
- that trans people reinforce gender stereotypes;
- that gender-nonconforming (‘GNC’) young people are being pressured or rushed into unwise transitions;
- that including trans women in women’s spaces like bathrooms and changing rooms exposes cis women to risk.
I’m going to try to show not just that these are wrong, but that they are baseless, rooted in some combination of conceptual confusion and factual error, and hold together as an ideology only because of the organising power of anxiety, confusion, or hostility to trans people.
Part 1: Do Trans People Reinforce Gender Stereotypes? (No)
The first two ideas I want to criticise are both nicely illustrated by this popular image, which is the header pic on the popular ‘gendercritical’ subreddit (hopefully getting it from this source serves to ensure that I’m not picking on isolated or unrepresentative examples):
(The image shows two figures, one a stylised male with a ‘feminine’ pink circle over their head, one a stylised female with a ‘masculine’ blue circle over their head, to represent a person who is AMAB (assigned male at birth, what would often be called ‘born biologically male’) but has ‘feminine’ interests, personality, or whatever, and a person who is AFAB (assigned female at birth, or ‘born biologically female’) but has ‘masculine’ style, or temperament, or whatever.)
The image suggests that sexist society and ‘trans identity politics’ are mirror images of each other: one tells people that they ‘must’ change their personality to match their sex, the other tells people that they ‘must’ change their sex to match their personality. Gender-critical feminism alone tells both these people that they are fine as they are.
This is a really neat and effective image, which brilliantly encapsulates the GCRF view of the debate. Unfortunately, it is completely wrong in its characterisation of the ‘trans identity politics’ position. Like, ‘wildly out of touch with reality’ wrong.
We can distinguish two concerns conveyed by the image: 1) that gender transitions, even when voluntary, serve to ‘reinforce gender stereotypes by making sure everyone with ‘feminine’ interests is a woman and making sure everyone with ‘masculine’ interests is a man, and 2) that GNC (gender-nonconforming) people are being ‘pushed’ into transitioning. I’ll discuss those in this and the next section, respectively.
The idea that people transition in order to better fit gender stereotypes is, as best I can tell, just false. It just isn’t what happens. Conformity to stereotypes and gender identity are two things, they can come apart, and trans people know this. Having gender-nonconforming tastes and interests is not a good reason to transition, and having gender-conforming tastes and interests (relative to one’s assigned gender) is not a good reason not to.
I mean, I can’t speak from personal experience here so it’s always possible that I’m wrong. But I have lost count of how many trans people I’ve read saying, from personal experience, ‘people are only diagnosed with gender dysphoria when they go to a clinic and say ‘I am/want to be a boy/girl’, whether or not they have gender nonconforming interests’. Indeed, it’s often listed in a ‘Trans 101’ or ‘cheat notes for cis people’ type list. And I have yet to see any trans people contradict this. And the current DSM diagnostic criteria fit with this claim.
And, from the little personal experience I have, most of the trans people I know have a lot of traits and interests that would be considered very very atypical for their gender. They are emphatically very much not all straight.
And I have yet to find a single trans person or pro-trans feminist suggesting that being a stereotypically feminine man or stereotypically masculine woman is necessary or sufficient for being a trans woman or trans man. (Probably someone out there has said this, but on the internet that’s true of any idea.) There are lots of trans men with feminine-coded interests and so many trans women with masculine-coded interests. If you want to make space for masculine women and feminine men, transfeminism is on your side.
Now, I don’t think that GCRFs made up this idea up all by themselves. My understanding is that the idea of gender transition as a way to ‘cure’ gender-nonconformity is out there, but it’s not trans advocates pushing it – it’s medical gatekeepers they’ve been campaigning against for decades.
That is, half the things trans people have said about being trans reflect what medical professionals have required them to say in order to begin medical transition. If the only way to access medical transition is to say ‘I’ve always known I was an A born in a B’s body, ever since my parents gave me dolls/trucks but I wanted to play with the trucks/dolls’, then people will say that. And, of course, sometimes trans people accentuate features that fit the stereotypes of their gender, because they want to pass and doing so helps with that. So do lots of cis people! We shouldn’t read an ideology into what people do to manage challenges in their lives.
GCRFs especially shouldn’t do that if they’re among the people also pointing out or mocking occasions when trans people fail to pass, or occasions in which trans people supposedly display traits associated with their birth-assigned gender. GCRFs, for example, sometimes accuse trans women of displaying ‘male energy’, and thereby making cis women uncomfortable when they enter women-only spaces. If you were worried that any masculine-seeming traits would be taken as evidence of your ‘male energy’, wouldn’t you try to act in a more stereotypically feminine way? Wouldn’t you then find it galling to be accused of reinforcing gender stereotypes? Wouldn’t that seem like a cruel way of putting you in a double-bind?
I feel like the simple falsity of the ‘reinforcing gender stereotypes’ claim needs to be emphasised, because I don’t think it’s absurd a priori. If I had never met any trans people, or read anything they wrote, I might have sort of expected that the people who transition would be those who most fit the stereotypes of their chosen gender and least fit the stereotypes of their assigned gender. That would fit with a fairly parsimonious theory of gender: there’s just sexed bodies and social stereotypes, and transition is happens when these clash sharply.
That parsimonious theory might have turned out to be true; but in fact it didn’t. Everything trans people say about their own lives and experiences shows this model to be false. Unless they are systematically lying or deluded about their own motivations, gender psychology is more complicated than that. An AMAB person can desire deeply to be a woman who violates multiple stereotypes about womanhood. An AFAB person can desire deeply to be a man who violates multiple stereotypes about manhood.
I don’t have a theory that explains this, but it’s the data we have to work with, and letting go of a bad explanatory theory which conflicts with that data is the first step towards explaining it better. Moreover, letting go of the stereotype-based model is the first step towards showing that you’re serious about understanding reality, and that you take what trans people say seriously.
Promoting the stereotype-based model, by contrast, is falsifying the data to save a theory. It amounts to disbelieving or ignoring people’s description of their own motivations for making major personal decisions, and instead advancing theories according to which they have some disreputable motivation that fits one’s own worldview more neatly. That’s why I’d call it ‘hateful’ and ‘transphobic’: it’s a particularly epistemic form of failing to properly respect trans people’s humanity, a refusal to listen or believe, a refusal to treat people as the best sources about their own feelings and experiences.
And that’s compatible with it being a banal, ‘understandable’ sort of hate, in the sense that it doesn’t require some rare and abnormal sort of personal evil, or even a powerful feeling of dislike. It just requires a very mundane sort of ‘stickiness’ in your opinions: you start trying to understand someone else, you generate an explanation which is intelligible to you, and then you sort of stick with it in spite of contradictory evidence. Maybe you don’t bother looking seriously at the contradictory evidence, maybe you look at it with a selectively skeptical eye. By whatever the mechanism, you stick with the explanation that resonates, that feels simple and logical, in spite of the evidence against it. This is on some level just intellectual laziness, but what makes it hateful is the selectivity of whose testimony you’re lazy about taking on.
Consider a tweet thread which I will quote anonymously:
“What makes me slightly uncomfortable about transgender culture, is the fact that I see a lot of transgender people reinforcing gender stereotypes… I am not a typically ‘feminine’ woman for a multitude of reasons I won’t get into… So when I see transgender women getting surgery to raise their voice I think ‘but it’s not supposed to be about that’… I see transgender women doing all these feminine things and I think – it’s not supposed to be about that. And yes cisgender women do it more. But when I see transgender women do it it feels like that are saying – this is how women should be. And it kinda hurts.”
This is a good example of what it feels like to not fully take on someone else’s humanity, without malice or active antipathy. To see someone making decisions about their own bodies and presentations which, as is admitted, lots of other people do, and feel as though they are making a general statement about all women, and be hurt by that. It’s reading someone else’s personal life in terms of how it might imply things about you, and how that makes you feel, rather than as something they do for themselves, likely with complex ideas and complicated motivations, based on the specifics of their life and situation.
It’s leaving no space in your worldview for someone to be bigger than how they make you feel, and doing so specifically because they are part of an unfamiliar minority. Although it’s ‘hate’ in the technical sense I’ve argued for, it’s not something that only bad people, or angry people, are prone to. It’s not even a positive something there, so much as it’s an absence – a failure to correct the natural human tendency to self-centredness, a failure to say ‘wait, this isn’t about me, I don’t know this person or their story, I shouldn’t assume they’re saying something that applies to me.’
To be clear – it is fine and normal to have complicated weird feelings about gender, and sometimes about how other people navigate it. (God knows I do.) Just don’t take them as a good guide to what other people mean or intend or want – in part because, you know, everyone else probably has their own weird complicated feelings about gender as well, which their actions come out of. Ascribing other people simple motivations while recognizing complexity and nuance only in your own is not respecting their humanity.
Dear philosophers, let me also suggest a couple of ways that the big lie about stereotypes can be expressed more subtly in philosophical contexts. One is by the framing of alternatives. Maybe you’ve seen GCRFs present talks and papers structured around a comparative evaluation of ‘two rival strategies’ to resist patriarchy: one in which individuals can transition from one gender to the other, one in which individuals of either gender embrace GNC traits. Maybe they note at the end, in passing, that there might perhaps be some way to combine the two. But framing these as alternatives in the first place is already flying in the face of the reality that trans and GNC cis people are natural allies and that respecting one goes hand-in-hand with respecting the other. The policy to follow is ‘respect people’s choices about how they navigate gender’, and that benefits both equally.
Another way that the big lie about stereotypes sneaks into philosophy is through the ambiguity of the question ‘what is a gender identity?’, or ‘what is gender?’ You may have noticed that GCRFs love posing these questions to their opponents, and criticising whatever answers are given. You might have thought, ‘well, that is a fair question – I’d like to know!’
And one of the things that struck me, the more I read trans people’s writing, is that they are also really interested in this question! Lots of them discuss it and express their puzzlement over it, but mostly far away from GCRFs. And lots of non-GCRF feminist philosophers are writing about this, having conferences on this, etc. Because this question can be asked in two very different ways.
One way to ask ‘what is gender identity’ is as a question about the nature of something whose existence is clear and uncontroversial. It says: ‘wow, a lot of people have strong preferences about how they present and how they are embodied and how they are gendered, often in defiance of gender stereotypes. Where’s that coming from? What are the psychological roots and structure of this fascinating phenomenon?’ It’s an investigative sort of question. If we can’t come up with a good answer, we just have to work harder.
There is, however, a different, transphobic, way of asking this question: as a challenge. It says: ‘well, trans people may claim that their preferences about presentation, embodiment, and gendering come from this mysterious inner thing called a ‘gender identity’. But what is that? I can’t work out what it’s meant to be, so probably they’re wrong.’
That is, the transphobic sense of the question poses it as a test: if a good definition of gender identity can’t be offered, then trans people’s self-descriptions of their motives and feelings shouldn’t be believed. Call this the skeptical version of the question.
This kind of ambiguity in questions is actually quite common in philosophy: a philosopher asking ‘but what are hylomorphic forms?’ implies the possibility that there is no such thing – and if the person they ask can’t give a good answer, that’s the natural conclusion. But a philosopher asking ‘what is cooperation?’ is asking a different sort of question, because they take for granted that there is such a thing as cooperation. If no good answer is given, then cooperation will remain mysterious but won’t be doubted to exist.
If someone asks ‘what is gender identity?’, that could sound more like ‘what are hylomorphic forms?’ or more like ‘what is cooperation?’ And asking it in the first way is powerful, since most cis people are all too ready to dismiss a motivation for transition that they can’t relate to, and substitute something more familiar or more satisfying (like ‘they want to conform to stereotypes’, or ‘they’re deluded’ or ‘it’s a sexual thing’ or something even worse). You don’t need to make explicit the idea that trans people are lying in order for readers to have that sense of distrust evoked in them. The skeptical style of questioning gender identity is an innocuous-seeming way of deploying the tools of philosophy to cast doubt on the testimony of a minority and make space for bigoted assumptions to fill that space. And it’s a way of using selective and carefully maintained skepticism to suppress truth and indirectly help falsehoods spread.
Part 2: Are People Being Pressured to Transition? (No)
Look back at this image.
Look at the form of the second statement, attributed to ‘trans identity politics’:
‘No! You must change your sex to match your personality!’
It’s an imperative (with an exclamation mark no less), saying what someone ‘must’ do. The clear implication is that people are being told to transition, pressured to transition, forced to transition even though they would rather not. This idea comes out most clearly in the recurrent panics about children and teenagers being ‘rushed into surgery’.
It also comes out nicely in these tweets, where Robert Webb, one of my previously-favourite comedians just went and ruined Peep Show for me:
“I was different, as was my wife. I was a ‘queer,’ she was a ‘tomboy.’ It turned out we were non-gender-conforming children. Many kids like us turn out to be gay. Others don’t. A tiny minority have dysphoria…
telling all kids like me & Abbie that we were born into the wrong body & therefore need a lifetime of medication… that’s just wrong.”
Yes, it would be wrong to tell a child, just because they’re GNC, that they need to transition. But nobody is doing that. It’s just a lie.
Maybe it’s possible that I could be wrong about what’s going on in various country’s health systems. But all the medical guidelines, diagnostic criteria, and first-person accounts I’ve read tell a consistent story: you can only be diagnosed with gender dysphasia if you actively seek out such a diagnosis. Nobody ‘tells you that you need a lifetime of medication’, they prescribe you medication you ask for. No health system currently is doing surgery on minors. In most systems, HRT requires going on a long waiting list, and often requires spending a certain amount of time living as your chosen gender first. A phrase used repeatedly is ‘consistent, insistent, persistent’: that’s what you have to be to get trans healthcare.
I do recognise that there are trade offs to make when providing treatment to young people. People can change their minds as they get older, and the younger someone is, the more we should prefer reversible measures (like social transition) over irreversible ones (like surgery). But both providing and withholding treatment can have irreversible long-term effects – in particular, providing HRT to give someone the puberty associated with their chosen gender is neither more or less invasive or irreversible than having them go through a standard puberty driven by their endogenous hormones. Puberty is a lifelong change to one’s body, and we shouldn’t treat someone enduring an unwanted ‘wrong-gender’ puberty as a ‘safe’ no-risk fallback option.
So the right policy has to be one which balances what a maturing person wants now with what they might want later, in light of how reversible or not a given treatment is, and which strives to help people make their own decisions and takes those decisions seriously when made.
I think most people are inclined to want a policy like that, right? And GCRFs exploit that desire by framing the issue as being between a mad, dogmatic, pill-happy, scalpel-waving pro-trans side, who want to transition all GNC children as early as possible, and a careful, sober, cautious GC side, who don’t want to rush children into things without sufficient consideration and time. So then even if an onlooker doesn’t agree with the GC position, their desire for a nuanced approach that balances conflicting considerations will dispose them to think the right answer must be somewhere in between the two sides, some kind of optimum synthesis.
The thing is, the careful, nuanced, balancing approach is what the pro-trans side is pushing and what we actually have in a lot of cases. It’s the thing being attacked. And it will be attacked however careful and nuanced it is, because some people see anyone transitioning as a bad outcome, and will always be able to find some pretext for saying that a system which allows and supports any transitions is irresponsible and dangerous.
Here’s some things you would want to do if you wanted to help young people make the best decisions for them. First off, you’d want them to have as much accurate medical information as possible about all the available options. I think you’d also want them to have the kind of ‘information’ that comes from seeing people living the kinds of lives they might be considering – trans peers, trans elders, trans role models in public life. Telling them that doctors are going to try to make them transition against their will does the opposite of that, and saying or insinuating that 12-year-olds are waltzing into a clinic one day and going under the knife the next does the opposite of that.
You’d also want them to have as many good options available as possible. In particular, this would mean de-coupling different options as much as possible: letting people transition socially but not medically, letting people transition medically but not socially, supporting people who want to change their pronouns but not go on HRT, or want to go on HRT but not get surgery, and so on. What you’d want to absolutely avoid is bundling all aspects of transition together and telling people that they’ll never count as a real man/woman until they’ve ‘Had The Surgery’. If you worry about people getting surgery they don’t really want, step 1 should be emphatically defending their ability to live the life they want socially without any surgery.
It seems to me that transfeminists do exactly the right thing here, and GCRFs do exactly the opposite. I can’t necessarily convict individual GCRF philosophers of all these things, but the movement is strongly associated with the idea that having a penis is a really big deal, and that people with penises being in women’s spaces is a big issue, and indeed with heckling trans woman speakers by yelling the word ‘penis’ from the audience. And the movement is also, I get the impression, somewhat associated with disdain and suspicion of non-binary identities, of ‘queer’ as an umbrella term, of ‘all these new gender categories’. Meaning that the underlying message is precisely: either you can live in your assigned gender, or you can get the whole package of HRT, surgery, social transition, and do you best to live as a binary person of your chosen gender. This reduces the options available to young people and pushes them towards getting surgery they might not otherwise want.
Finally, if I wanted to help young people make the best decisions for themselves, I would act like the difference between someone choosing to do something and something being forced on them by others is a really important one. Not always a simple distinction, to be sure, but an important one. And here again, it seems to me that GCRFs do the exact opposite: run together people choosing to seek something out because they want it with someone telling them they have to do it.
Indeed, Kathleen Stock has made a point of arguing that supporting someone’s transition is a form of ‘conversion therapy’, i.e. is in the same category as torture camps that homophobic parents send their gay children to in hopes of hurting the gayness out of them. That is precisely running together people’s free choice with coercion. Which, it is worth noting, is a fantastic way to then legitimise actual coercion. If the psychologists who your child keeps asking to see are actually ‘forcing’ something on them against their will, then protecting your child means doing whatever is necessary to keep those psychologists away from your child. Again, the GCRF position makes it systematically harder for young people to make choices for themselves.
The GCRF position presents itself as a form of radical acceptance: as the image says, “you are both fine just the way you are.” But in practice it doesn’t want people to transition – or if they do, they should at least have the decency to have surgery, not just declare themselves a woman/man. There’s a sort of impossible dream here: to be radically accepting of however people want to be, but they always do what you want. One could only maintain this dream by finding an external source for every desire you disapprove of. That’s a bad but easy mode of thinking, and it’s something one could slip into without meaning to. All you have to do is make sure that for every desire you disagree with, your suspicion about its origins (a suspicion felt from the inside as just responsible vigilance about your child’s vulnerability, of course) is strong enough to find you something external to blame. If this succeeds, then the other person’s actual wishes and actual choices manage to vanish behind your ideas of what’s being forced on them… which is, again, a form of ‘hate’, a way of not recognising someone’s humanity by refusing to see their agency.
Part 3: Does Admitting Trans Women Make Women’s Spaces Less Safe? (No)
The third issue I want to talk about is bathrooms, changing rooms, locker rooms, and other spaces that are usually separated into ‘women’s’ and ‘men’s’. GCRFs often bring this up as an example of the ‘conflict of interests’ between trans and cis women, on the basis that:
- AFAB people face a systematic risk of harassment, voyeurism, or assault from AMAB people, which sex-segregated bathrooms (and locker rooms, etc.) serve to mitigate, and
- Having bathrooms separated based on self-identification is vulnerable to abuse by opportunistic cis men (who could cynically self-identify as women for as long as needed to get in), and so undo that mitigation of risk.
I’m making a point here of engaging with the most respectable-sounding version of this argument, the one that GCRFs in philosophy explicitly make – which is about opportunistic cis men claiming to be trans in order to enter the women’s bathrooms. Philosophy GCRFs emphasise that they are not claiming that trans women themselves are likely to assault or otherwise endanger cis women in bathrooms. That argument is more obviously transphobic, in that it positions a tiny minority of marginalised people as posing a major sexual threat to vulnerable women and children, validating the kind of mentality that gets trans women murdered.
And there are plenty of people out there making that crude and obviously transphobic argument! Which might by itself be enough to make us suspicious of this sanitised variant, on which we’re assured that the worry is only about whether some opportunistic predatory cis man might abuse the system. But let’s presume good faith, and evaluate the argument on its own merits, in isolation.
Focusing specifically on this worry about opportunistic cis men helpfully brings out that the real issue here isn’t actually the criterion of entry to women’s bathrooms, but how that criterion is enforced. Of course, the favoured criterion of the pro-trans side – that people use the bathrooms that matches how they see themselves – doesn’t really allow for enforcement.
(That doesn’t mean, as GCRFs claim, that it would make all bathrooms “effectively unisex”: most people want to follow the rules, and will use the bathroom matching their identification. And there is a sort of light social enforcement – if I’m with a group of friends and I use the women’s washroom, I have to explain to them that I identified as a woman for those five minutes, which maybe exposes me to whatever degree of incredulity, awkwardness, or shift in their view of me happens to result from this. It’s just that this isn’t likely to stop the imagined opportunistic predators who this argument revolves around.)
But the alternative criterion endlessly advocated by GCRFs, of separating bathrooms etc. by ‘biological sex’ (however they specify that – chromosomal, surgical, hormonal, assigned at birth, whatever) does not by itself specify an enforcement scheme. Which allows them to preserve a sort of beneficial ambiguity among three seriously different proposals, each of which is in a different way utterly incompatible with their stated commitments. Those three options are:
- sex-segregation with no enforcement,
- sex-segregation with official enforcement,
- sex-segregation with unofficial enforcement.
So firstly, there’s a version of sex-separation which is unenforceable, and which is actually more vulnerable to abuse that a self-identification-based criterion. After all, some ‘biologically female’ people (whether that’s AFAB people or whatever criterion anyone wants to use) look masculine, for whatever reasons – because of their clothes, because of their genes, because they’ve taken HRT, or for some other reason. By a strictly sex-based criterion, they should be using the women’s bathroom, but when they go in there’s a decent chance that one or more people there will think ‘hey, that looks like a man’, and ask politely (let’s be optimistic about politeness) ‘excuse me sir, are you aware this is the female bathroom?’ Already a bit awkward, but let’s suppose they take it in stride and say ‘yes, I’m aware of that, I am female.’ What happens next?
The no-enforcement option is that the asker accepts this, and says ‘oh I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t realise’ and everyone gets on with their lives. Great. But then by this policy, any cis man who wants to be be where women pee can do the same: stroll into the women’s bathroom and, if challenged, claim to be biologically female by whatever criterion is being used (claim to be AFAB, claim to be a trans man post-hormones but pre-surgery, whatever). And that claim has to be accepted, and this man’s nefarious antics can proceed.
The point I’m emphasising here is that just going from a self-identification criterion to a biological-sex criterion does absolutely nothing to obstruct the opportunistic predators GCRFs are supposedly so worried about. To stop those predators, there needs to be some sort of enforcement – some way that the cis man who responds to ‘hey! this is the female washroom!’ with ‘I know, I am female’ can be found out.
One option is what I’m calling ‘official enforcement’: absolutely everyone needs I.D. with them at all times to use the washroom, which displays their legal sex. Or, if you don’t have I.D., someone stands at the bathroom door and checks your anatomy, or your chromosomes, or whatever, before letting you in. But both of these are absurd, and constitute such obviously unacceptable reductions in overall liberty that nobody seriously does or could advocate for them. Show your name and age to every suspicious stranger who asks, every time you want to piss?
I’m not accusing GCRFs of advocating official enforcement. Rather, I’m saying that if they refuse to advocate that, and don’t want sex-separation to be more vulnerable to opportunistic abuse than self-identification, then what they are necessarily advocating is unofficial enforcement.
By unofficial enforcement I mean that nobody stands at the women’s bathroom door to check your I.D. (or whatever) as you go in, but if someone inside thinks you are really a man/male, they don’t just accept your claims about it. They say ‘prove it’, and demand that you show them something to satisfy their suspicions. And if you refuse to comply, either they assault you, or they corner you until you do, or they call security, and then security decides to either throw you out or not.
This is the enforcement mechanism in the status quo, after all. This is the thin line of defence which, according to GCRFs, currently protects women from male predators. And, let’s be clear, it’s the line of defence which is liable to become more active, more vigilant, more prone to seize upon some stray feature of someone’s body as revealing the secret maleness they’re trying to hide, the more widely accepted GCRF ideology becomes.
And this enforcement mechanism is terrible for gender-nonconforming women – for any women who might be judged ‘not sufficiently female-looking’ by one or more angry bigoted strangers in a bathroom. It incentivises any AFAB person who wants to use the women’s washroom to make sure they are presenting in a way that unambiguously displays their femaleness – that accentuates their female-typical features and plays down any ‘male-looking’ features. It very literally reinforces the gender binary, the thing which GCRFs claim to oppose ‘transgender identity politics’ for doing.
It’s also extremely open to abuse, if we think the key question about a policy is whether opportunistic predators can exploit it. Nothing stops someone with a complex, a fetish, or an axe to grind from just accusing people in the women’s room of being a trans woman who almost passes except that they’re given away by whatever ‘masculine’ feature is seized upon as a pretext.
GCRFs loudly tell us they are against gender roles and gender stereotypes. They want female people to have complete freedom to dress and act and inhabit their bodies however they want, without being pressured to accentuate their femaleness and make sure they look ‘enough like a woman’. So it doesn’t feel charitable to think that they want to support the intensification of practices and norms which do the opposite. But that really is, it seems to me, the only position we can attribute to them – since they are very clear that they want something enforceable, and since they also insist they don’t want the genital-checking police state.
This gets almost-addressed-but-not in a recent online essay entitled “Doing better in arguments about sex and gender”, written by six GCRF philosophers. The authors address what they claim is a fallacy, that:
“The only way to maintain a social norm of sex-separated spaces is via the checking of genitalia.”
(But as we’ve just seen, this is not a fallacy, just a dramatic way of pointing out that they cannot oppose self-ID policies for being unenforceable, unless they are willing to support some enforcement method, all of which amount to intrusive and burdensome policing of women’s gender expression.)
Here’s what the authors say:
“Human beings generally, including children, have the capacity to pick out the biological sex of others from visual appearances alone, most of the time. The capacity to correctly sex other people most of the time is grounded in a cognitive heuristic, and obviously not infallible. This heuristic fails in the case of “passing” trans people and cases of missexing, but overall, these cases are relatively rare…
Given the occasional fallibility of our capacity to sex others, arguing for same-sex spaces for females, such as bathrooms, dormitories, and changing rooms, means that sometimes, females in those spaces will be missexed; and sometimes, males in those spaces will not be perceived as such. We see the former as a regrettable cost that has to be balanced against, and is nonetheless smaller than, the greater harms to females, should women-only space effectively become unisex via a policy of self-ID. We see the latter as something that no open society can do anything about, and which it would be illiberal to try to prevent…”
Let me pull out the specific passage where, I think, the authors walk right up to the key issue and then stop:
“sometimes, females in those spaces will be missexed… [this is] a regrettable cost that has to be balanced against, and is nonetheless smaller than, the greater harms to females, should women-only space effectively become unisex via a policy of self-ID.”
Missexed… and then what? A masculine-presenting AFAB person goes to the women’s bathroom, gets challenged because they ‘look male’, respond that they are ‘biologically female’, and then…?
‘Missexed’ here is an innocuous word covering up a dilemma. It calls to mind cases of casual everyday misgendering, where a cashier calls you ‘sir’ instead of ‘ma’am’, or vice versa – cases which can be hurtful and distressing, but still remain on the level of a non-threatening person using the wrong polite language. And this would be a fair thing to have in mind, if the authors were advocating a no-enforcement version of sex-segregation, where the response to ‘but I am biologically female’ were simply ‘oh, I’m sorry, please continue.’
But to have any advantage over self-ID, the authors need to be advocating some sort of enforcement. Which means that the ‘regrettable cost’ is not just being missexed, it’s being missexed and then forced out of the bathroom, or arrested, or threatened, or sexually assaulted by someone determined to ‘unmask’ you by exposing your genitals, or whatever it is that is supposed to keep out the opportunistic cis men who are the focus of this discussion.
(I genuinely don’t know which of these two options – throwing cis women out of the bathroom, or accepting claims of femaleness at face value – GCRFs in general would endorse. I’ve seen them go both ways when pressed.)
Maybe there’s an intermediate option: cis people can look however they like in the bathroom, but trans people need to bring their paperwork. I think maybe this is what a lot of people assume to be the natural solution. I’ve seen someone say, for instance, “instead of self-ID, a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria can establish your legal sex. And then if you are legally a woman, you can use the women’s restroom.”
This solves nothing, because it doesn’t address the question of enforcement. If someone is in the women’s bathroom and I think they look suspiciously male, but they claim to be legally female, what do I do? Demand paperwork (in the UK, a GRC, gender-recognition certificate)? But then they can say ‘look, I’m not only legally female, I was born female, so obviously I never got a GRC, and I don’t carry my passport with me everywhere.’ If I accept this, then our imagined predatory cis man can sneak in without trouble, by claiming to be AFAB. If I don’t, then… what? Any woman who someone might deem suspiciously-male-looking needs to carry their passport at all times, and show it to any stranger who asks? Having different enforcement rules for trans and cis people only works if there’s an enforceable way to tell who’s trans and who’s cis in the first place.
Or what about third spaces – a women’s bathroom, a men’s bathroom, and a unisex bathroom, open to anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable in the other two? That just makes things worse, if there’s still policing of entry to the woman’s bathroom. If the third spaces are meant to be for GNC women and AFAB non-binary people (among others), who are precisely as vulnerable as any other AFAB people to male violence, then pushing them into a unisex bathroom exposes them to the serious danger that we are supposedly doing all this to protect AFAB people from. Moreover, the existence of a unisex bathroom will only encourage and strengthen the people in the women’s bathroom who want to police gender – now they don’t even have to say ‘I think you’re a man, go to the men’s bathroom’, because they can say ‘I think you’re ambiguous, you should go to the unisex washroom.’
I think the GCRF side reaps an advantage here from their small-c-conservative posture of ‘this is just the status quo, we’re just worried about this huge looming change.’ I’ve had people say to me in discussion that “the status quo… seems to work out well enough much of the time… [the enforcement issue] has to be worked out in some way, but we seem to manage it”.
This lets the GCRF side paint the pro-trans side as pushing a new, radical, change, which should therefore be carefully scrutinised for any possible unforeseen risks. And it lets them bask in the unscrutinised fuzziness of wanting to just keep things as they are.
But trans people have been using their preferred bathrooms for years, in many countries (including the UK) with legal backing for doing so. If ‘the status quo seems to work out well enough’, then we should drop this entire discussion and treat the bathroom argument as scare-mongering.
Or maybe what people mean by ‘the status quo’ is not any specific present legal set-up, but the vague, 50-or-more-years-old, set of assumptions that they’ve sort of absorbed, and assume has been in place everywhere. But this status quo isn’t a trans-exclusive policy, it’s a fuzzy and unsystematic mix of policies, because it relies on the relative invisibility – not absence, invisibility – of trans people. The status quo is largely a matter of cis people who’ve never really thought about trans issues, and when they see someone in the bathroom who looks strange to them, they work out what to do on the fly.
This status quo is bad in a lot of ways: it’s unpredictable, it’s confusing, it makes going to the bathroom as a trans person into a sort of nerve-wracking gamble. But what GCRFs are calling for, when they say that bathrooms should be separated strictly by birth sex, is not simply a continuation of the status quo. It’s one way of developing the status quo in response to the newfound visibility of trans people.
The status quo says ‘the women’s bathroom is for women’, and it knows that this includes cis women and excludes cis men, but it hasn’t really thought about trans women or trans men. The pro-trans proposal is that this should definitely include trans women (and unenforceably exclude trans men, I think?), while the GCRF proposal is that it should definitely and explicitly exclude them. Both of these are proposals for new directions.
Let me also note a couple of things about numbers and frequency. The authors of the piece quoted above suggest that harassment of GNC cis women isn’t a big issue because people are missexed very rarely. But how often people get missexed isn’t a fixed natural fact, it’s a product of how people present themselves, which in turn is a product of how much social stigma and policing people can expect from presenting in a non-standard way.
It looks like people are going to become, in the future, more likely to present in non-standard ways. I hope so! And GCRFs claim to want to dismantle gender, so I take it they also want this to become more common. But then it’s completely bizarre to say ‘oh, people who get mis-sexed are few in number, so legitimising and intensifying their harassment is an acceptable cost’. If we succeed in our supposedly shared aim of freeing people from gender, that number will rise; if we subject anyone who presents ambiguously to bathroom harassment, we’ll dissuade people from taking that risk.
Moreover, how often people are missexed is also a product of how eager the sex-ers are to ‘sniff out’ hidden impostors. If everyone is on the lookout for these sneaky trans women (or, in the sanitised version of the argument, cis men pretending to be trans women) sneaking into women’s bathrooms, that will affect their perceptions, make them more likely to missex someone AFAB and challenge them. Since GCRF rhetoric constructs trans people and ‘trans ideology’ as important threats to women and children, it seems inevitable that the more people accept it, the more often anyone remotely ambiguous-looking will be missexed.
GCRFs are always saying they just want us to recognise the ‘conflict of interests’ between cis and trans women. But even if we thought women’s interest in ‘making it hard for opportunistic cis men to sneak into their bathroom’ was really so compelling and vital, the conflict is in practice between women-who-might-be-mistaken-for-men and more unambiguously feminine-looking looking women. And GCRF says the former should be penalised to protect the latter. The principle of supporting people whatever their gender presentation, of ‘you are both fine just the way you are’, which was previously used to criticize trans women, is now sacrificed to exclude them. Note the common factor.
I apologize to readers for the length of this post. There are two things it would have been easy to do in a much shorter space, which I didn’t want to do. One would be to engage in some respectful constructive debate according to the usual norms of academic philosophy, addressing some specific claim, considering some specific objection, and so on. But my aim isn’t to argue that GCRF is mistaken, it’s to help people see the bogus forest and get why the individual trees aren’t worth engaging with. And the other thing I didn’t want to do was to convey that message concisely through the more conventional genre of emotive denunciation and expletive-ridden castigation. That wouldn’t be as convincing to you, dear philosophers, who are generally reluctant to form opinions based on simply being told something is really really bad. And it’s not something I’m very good at, or comfortable doing. That’s not meant as a criticism of others doing so – I’m not the tone police. But I wanted to convey the big-picture ‘this whole thing is bogus’ message in the sort of careful way that philosophers like. And so here we are, 10,000 words later.
Obviously I still haven’t addressed all of the topics I could, but I hope the three I have discussed are representative. I’ve tried to select issues of practical substance, since so much of the discussion involves wrangling over definitions and labels, on which I think it’s easier to create a false appearance of comparative seriousness. I wanted to push past the smokescreen of tricky questions like ‘what is gender?’ and ‘how do you stop sexual predators from lying about their identity?’, and dog-whistle truisms like ‘humans are sexually dimorphic’ (my current count of times I’ve seen GCRFs assert this vs. times I’ve seen their opponents deny it stands at ‘umpteen vs. zero’). Because when you push past that and ask what GCRF actually amounts to, I think it becomes clear that it’s an edifice of factual untruths and ideological contradictions.
In a sense, a lot of GCRF positions don’t actually exist. The GCRF position on bathrooms can’t really be located in logical space, because it’s the combination of two incompatible positions: a socially-conservative one (anyone who doesn’t look unambiguously female is at risk of exclusion) and a radical-feminist one (women’s bathrooms are open to anyone born female, however they look). The socially-conservative one has enforceable anti-male mechanisms to keep at least most cis men out of women’s bathrooms, but does so at the expense of GNC cis women, and thereby makes bathrooms part of the reinforcement of gender roles. The radical-feminist one allows a space where all AFAB people can feel secure and accepted, without the enforcement of patriarchal norms, but doesn’t have a mechanism to exclude men/AMAB people who are willing to lie, and so has no safety advantage over a self-identification policy.
GC feminism waves a feminist figleaf in front of social conservatism. It pretends that there can be a policy which extends feminist solidarity to all AFAB people regardless of appearance, while enforceably excluding all AMAB people. There might be such a policy if all AFAB people looked unmistakably female, and all AMAB people looked unmistakably male, but they don’t.
I’m slightly embarrassed that I didn’t grasp quite how thoroughly not-there the GCRF position is. I heard people say things like ‘policing gender in bathrooms will hurt GNC women’, and I thought ‘well, my GCRF colleagues are obviously against gender roles, so presumably they’re against that kind of policing of gender’. I heard people say things like ‘what, you want someone at the bathroom door who checks your genitals before letting you in?’ and I thought ‘well, that’s clearly a straw-man, my GCRF colleagues are smart philosophers and must have a more nuanced policy in mind.’ And it was only fairly recently that I realised there wasn’t a more nuanced policy, there wasn’t a way to enforce anti-male rules without penalising GNC women, the charity I had been extending to my philosopher colleagues had been covering up the simple blunt absence of the view they were supposedly defending.
Part of what stopped me seeing this clearly was that it’s easy to not scrutinise the status quo. ‘Only female-born people in the women’s bathroom’ seems so boring and obvious hat it’s easy not to realise that there are two very different versions of it – one that punishes AFAB people who don’t fit society’s expectations of how they should look, and one that is all radical-feminist and opposed to that, but consequently can’t enforce its norm of keeping out AMAB people.
That’s also why I can’t say that I know GCRFs are being knowingly insincere in pushing this argument about the dangers of letting trans women in the women’s bathroom. It’s quite possible they haven’t noticed the sharp opposition between two versions of how ‘single-sex spaces’ works. It’s also possible they have, as we might say, ‘managed to avoid noticing it’, in an effort of what might be called self-deception or might just be called ‘it’s easy to slide one’s mind quickly past uncomfortable ideas’.
But why would you find these particular ideas uncomfortable enough to slide your mind quickly past them? What’s the motivation for this sort of motivated failing-to-notice? Well, one key thing that the two versions of sex-separation have in common is excluding trans women. The socially-conservative one says that’s because trans women are men, and should buck up, stop acting like women, and conform to the masculine gender role more fully. The radical-feminist one says that’s because trans women are biologically male, and shouldn’t worry about gender roles at all. But if what really matters to you is excluding trans women, those differences might be something you can glance past.
More charitably, maybe what started you thinking about the topic was some feeling of confusion or anxiety about trans women – you don’t like how they look, you don’t like how they make you feel, you find them unattractive or maybe too attractive, they unsettle the way you think about women’s oppression and male privilege, or whatever. That’s fine, you’re allowed to have feelings. But you have to own those feelings, recognise them as your own rather than trans women’s responsibility. Otherwise those feelings will make any idea that validates them (like the idea that letting trans women into the women’s bathroom is dangerous to cis women) feel so right that you accept it enthusiastically, look past its problems, and devote all your ingenuity to rebutting people arguing against it.
But if GCRFs have ‘managed not to notice’ that defending sex-separated spaces can mean either anti-male enforcement or radical feminist solidarity but not both, that still makes their position ‘hateful’ in the relevant explanatory sense. It means that neither enforceable exclusion of males, nor stereotype-free sisterhood for all AFAB people, was an important enough principle to actually dictate what views they defend and which they oppose. What did the driving, organising, work was anxiety (or some other feeling) about trans women in the bathroom. If the primary explanation for why you endorse a position is that it validates your anxiety about trans people, the position is transphobic, whatever the further details of your emotional and intellectual life.
The same goes for the idea that GCRF is ‘gender-critical’, ‘gender abolitionist’, seeking to somehow dismantle the gender system. This ought to mean supporting people of whatever sex in living however they want, regardless of what gender roles and stereotypes say. But then supporting trans people should be a central plank – they are, after all, living lives which by definition violate pretty basic rules of the gender system.
But then in practice GCRF talking points systematically accomplish the opposite. By painting trans women as created by stereotypes, ‘parodies of womanhood’, they provide a rationale for mocking and disdaining any feminine presentation by AMAB people. Conversely, by worrying about trans women invading or infiltrating women’s spaces, they provide a rationale for suspicion of any male-like presentation by AFAB people. By emphasizing the inherent threat posed by anyone with a penis, they reinforce the social significance of anatomy. And so on.
So in practice, ‘gender-critical’ doctrines just provide rationales for policing gender nonconformity. And the big lie at the heart of it, that people are seeking transition to better fit gender stereotypes, justifies this by painting the nonconforming people being policed as the real gender police.
Just like with bathrooms, the whole GC discourse about gender roles ultimately functions to obscure the real stakes and the real options. You can police people’s gender expression, or you can dismantle the prison of gender, but you can’t do both. GCRF is a feminist fig leaf waved in front of social conservatism. The more of it we hear, the less clearly we’ll understand things.
(And I think most people intuitively get this: feminists and LGBT people are natural allies on one side, and defenders of ‘traditional family values’ are on the other. And the GCRF message, that actually some sorts of LGBT people are a major threat to feminist aims, is intuitively recognized by most feminist and LGBT organizations as a destructive, obfuscatory, lie.)
If all the above is right, then hopefully it’s clear why GCRF is, as I’ve been putting it, bogus. Engaging with it, spreading it, discussing it, is likely to make people’s ideas on the topic more confused, and less well-grounded, than before. It’s likely to give people a worse understanding of the actual stakes and the actual options. It’s perfectly designed, in fact, to make it seem like social conservative goals and radical feminist goals align, like the way to be really feminist is to defend the status quo, while obscuring the fact that trans people and GNC cis people have the same interest in fighting gender-policing, not opposed interests.
In sum: gender-critical radical feminism is transphobic and intellectually valueless, i.e. bogus.