Monday, 9 November 2015

Freedom of speech? Women’s rights and trans rights…

I’m writing this because the recent discussion about Tara Hudson, the pre-op transgender MTW inmate who has been moved to a woman’s prison has made me think about how I view transgender issues and my views about feminism. The discussion on whether a transwoman should be put in a woman’s prison worries me on two points: Firstly and most importantly I’m worried that trans rights are in danger of eroding women's rights and secondly, I’m worried that even talking about this seems to imply transphobia and this is something we should be able to talk about.
I want to start this by saying I cannot begin to imagine the issues transgender people must face on a daily basis. The problems and discrimination they face are ones most of us will never be able to conceptualise and I worry, of course that my views may make me sound transphobic, something that I absolutely do not think I am. I am though, a feminist and believe that women still need to fight for much in a patriarchal world.

Of course the standard liberal perspective is that trans people suffer enormously and that we should consider their needs much more just as we are beginning to do with the LGB community and to do otherwise is discrimination but we should also consider women’s rights. I don't wish for Tara or any other trans person to suffer violence or assault whilst she serves her prison sentence and I don’t think there is any easy answer to this - she certainly would be at risk in a male prison - but there is a very good reason why prisons, toilets and changing rooms are primarily single sex - it is to protect women. In the instance of prisons very many of the inmates will have suffered domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, coerced prostitution and other abuse at the hands of men. To put a pre-op transgender MTW into their environment seems to be putting the rights/needs of the trans person above the rights/needs of the female inmates. I am concerned that Nicky Morgan is discussing allowing people to 'self-identify' and there doesn’t seem to be anything that will protect biological women and girls from the implications of this legislation. What then prevents any incarcerated biological male who declares he is a woman (and has undergone some medical treatment) from being transferred to a female prison - who will then protect those female inmates from potential assault?

The argument against this is that by declaring himself to be a woman, a transgender person identifies as a woman and has indeed taken major steps to become one but this can a person ever truly ‘become’ the opposite sex? I think to analyse this we need to consider the fundamental difference between sex and gender. I called Tara a pre-op MTW (man to woman) rather than MTF (male to female) because MTF is an actual scientific impossibility as "male" and "female" are about sex, not gender. Whilst it is possible to change gender, your biological sex is something you are born with and cannot change. Sex is the biological physiology of your body, determined mostly by the sex-related chromosomes – a woman has XX chromosomes whereas a man has XY chromosomes. This does of course not take into account those who are born “Intersex” where a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male or may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of their cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY. However, I understand intersex people to be relatively rare and mostly we are either born male or female. Gender however is a social construct, the social construction of identity according to ideas about "masculinity" and "femininity" and a much more fluid concept. So, in biological terms at the moment a man with XY chromosomes cannot ever become a woman and visa versa. It is not just the presence of a uterus, periods or the menopause - it is XX chromosomes. For example, when Tara is older she will never experience ovarian cancer.

Whilst I do not for one minute believe that trans women are fighting to erode our boundaries, Tara’s experiences, difficult though they may well be, are not the same as women’s experiences. In the same way that a white man is never able to imagine life as a black man, trans MTW weren't raised as girls which makes a difference to the messages they've received from birth.  Although a man who changes his gender would no doubt suffer a great deal of discrimination she can never experience the same psychological impact of the 5000 years of patriarchal society. Women, from a very young age, have been conditioned to be accommodating and to think of others first. In groups you do not see this behaviour often with men and in every group in society that I have been in men have always taken centre stage. Women are conditioned into receiving bad treatment and I think that when a man transitions MTW, they may be shocked by how much as women they are not listened to. They may attribute this to being trans but some of it is about being a woman and having previously been male they aren't used to being treated like this so can react very strongly. In fact, the male privilege absorbed by trans-women who have been socialised as men from an early age may be a factor in the public vocality and activism of transwomen.

But as I said in the beginning, why can’t we talk about this? An online petition was launched seeking to prevent Germaine Greer who stated that she didn’t ‘… think surgery will turn a man into a woman’ from giving a lecture at Cardiff University, claiming her views were “problematic” for transgender people. Surely, Germaine is correct in raising this issue and the view that the conflation of trans equality and women's equality actively disadvantages women by skewing the inequality that currently exists for women. In a world where it is difficult for women to achieve the same as men, where there is simply not an equal footing, should we not at least be able to discuss whether the achievements of transwomen should be celebrated as women's achievements? I believe that universities are the place for debate and discussion, however uncomfortable the topic and that trying to smother discussion will not make the issue go away.


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